The Moment of Truth — March 29, 2008

Comedy Envy is No Joke

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

Logic is a funny thing. Twisted logic can be quite funny. Untwisted logic can also be funny. Shorn, shaven and waxed logic: also possibly funny. Fancy-dressed logic has definite funniness potential. Extreme logic is totally dope. Tortured logic has proven to be good for a classic chortle or two.

Logic is in fact hilarious—but I can’t prove it. It’s kind of a priori, whatever that means. Here comes some logic right now: All trout live in trees. Bethesda, Maryland is a trout. Ergo, Bethesda, Maryland lives in a tree.

Is that nutty or what? See that? See what just happened? I just proved an entire town on the eastern seaboard is a trout that lives in a tree! And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it! Well, you can say I’ve committed a categorical syllogism. But so what? That has no bearing on whether or not my argument is true. It certainly sounds true. Anyway, most people don’t know what a syllogism is. I’ve got the world by the short-and-curlies, it would seem. Or at least it would be funny if I thought so.

All right, there are funnier ways of using logic. Sketch comedy shows do it all the time. They’ll start with a proposition, such as “Barack Obama isn’t black,” and then, by exploring that proposition theatrically, prove through logic that someone very very white, like John McCain or Stephen Colbert, is actually African American. I’ve seen it done. And it is a total sidesplitter.

Maybe that’s not the best example either. But I feel strongly we can come to some consensus on one point: abused logic, and logic based on irrational or otherwise ridiculous postulates, can be really funny, especially when used to humiliate the abusers.

Clearly logic has its limits, even as a humorous device. But when truth is unavailable, there are some who will, simply as a reflex, resort to logic as the next best thing.

I believe Christian Fundamentalists, or Evangelical Christians, or whatever biblical literalists like to be called these days, have been resorting to comedic logic lately because they’ve seen how well it works for secularism on the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. Unfortunately, these biblical literalists don’t have as sophisticated a sense of humor as your average secularist, so they don’t really know what they’re doing. They laugh at that Cable Guy, Zeke or Chester or whatever his name is. That’s the kind of comedy they naturally gravitate to. That guy who says, “Get’r Done.” He is funny. But not because of logic. He’s funny cuz he’s gay.

I have no idea why I wrote that last sentence. Just to get a laugh, I guess.

But yes, indeed, I do believe certain issues that the hyper-religious consider to be of the “hot-button” variety, the Intelligent Design rhubarb especially, can be traced to their adherents’ envy of liberal comedy shows. They have comedy envy. And it is a fact that such TV programs have done remarkably well defending the national sanity against the onslaught of irrational uber-patriotism that came in the wake of 9-11. Let’s face it, if the Democrats don’t win the White House in November, it will be because liberal comedy shows weren’t funny enough.

And it’s no secret that the most adamant opponents of the theory of evolution have been trying their damnedest to “debunk” it with logic. “Have you ever seen a building that had no builder?” they ask. “No, I suppose not,” is the inevitable answer. You can see where they’re going with this: A building is a structure. The universe is also a structure. Ergo, the universe had a builder.

They go further: If we agree to that conclusion, then if you claim the world had no creator, you are either a fool, or dishonestly peddling an atheist agenda. Those are your choices. Pick one! Hurry! Or we’ll pick for you.

Speaking of picking, have you ever heard this superb conundrum an evangelist will sometimes confront an unbeliever with? I have no idea why they’re taught to say this to people, but I’ve had it pulled on me several times by noisy street-preachers. Check it out: “Jesus was either a liar, or crazy, or he was the son of God.” How is that supposed to convince me of anything? Gee, that’s a poser, all right. I’ll pick… he was crazy. Did I guess right?

As if buildings and crazy Jesus weren’t enough trouble, did you know that a banana is an atheist’s nightmare? No? Yes! A banana! There’s a logical reason for this: a Coca-Cola can had a manufacturer—it contains sweet nectar, has an easy-open tab, and fits nicely into the human hand, almost as if it had been designed that way! Likewise, the banana contains delicious fruit, has an easy-open tab, and seems made to fit the human grip. Ergo, a banana was manufactured. No, not by the Coca-Cola Company, silly! By God! Duh!

God did it. God got’r done. That’s the alternative to evolutionary theory. And you’ll have to admit that the logic used to defend it is pretty damn funny, in a sad-clown way. Why, just the logic of equating atheism and evolutionary theory can tickle a vulnerable chucklebone if it’s caught unawares.

What’s a little depressing is the satisfaction so many people seem to get from such tenuous reasoning. “Atheists (meaning anyone who believes in evolution) are so dumb, aren’t they? A simple nightmarish banana foils their plot to bring the teachings of Satan and Osama bin Laden into our megachurches. Who would want to be an atheist except the foolish and the evil? No wonder everyone hates atheists. Atheists, how do they live with themselves? A banana and a building. I mean, really. If Jesus wasn’t so crazy he’d strike them dead.”

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the banana is an atheist’s nightmare. All right. Here’s some logic for you: It was Donald Trump’s dream to erect in Manhattan a huge phallic monument to his …whatever. Now, if you go to Manhattan, you will see that there is such a huge monument erected. Donald Trump, whose dream it was to erect it, is responsible for the existence of that tower. (If you contend God made it then it won’t be available for use in an analogy about buildings and universes. Don’t waste it, save it for an emergency!)

See if you can follow me: a nightmare is a type of a dream. A banana is an atheist’s nightmare. Bananas exist. Ergo, an atheist, not God, created the banana.

Now you see why someone might want to be an atheist. Atheists’ dreams give us the banana. That’s beautiful! Atheists are so wonderful. Every time someone enjoys a refreshing banana split sundae, he or she has an atheist to thank. Suddenly everyone loves atheists! Are you kidding me? Bananas are the greatest! Ah, life.

What a nightmare!

These are not made-up examples. These are actual arguments biblical literalists use to try to persuade people that evolution is a trick played on humanity by lying, foolish atheists who hate God. The arguments appear, among other places, in a pamphlet called “The Atheist Test.” It’s not a test at all, by the way, so don’t challenge a fellow atheist to see which one of you is atheister than the other. It’s not like a Cosmo quiz written for atheists instead of for women at the hair salon. No. It’s nothing more than a little comic book written to make superstitious people feel superior to those scientists who are always pushing them around. If you don’t come away from reading it crowing, “Those damn scientists aren’t gonna push me around anymore!” you’re an atheist. Apparently. I guess that’s the test. Huh. It was a test after all. My bad.

Why do scientists always push people around, anyway? Who do they think they are? You can’t go anywhere these days without running into some bossy scientist, drunk with power, telling you to move it along, sonny.

I wonder if there are atheists who believe the world was made in seven days, six thousand years ago, by no one. If not, there should be. They could call their cosmology Non-Creational Young Earthism and demand it be preached in megachurches alongside the competing Young Earth theory of biblical literalism. That would be fittingly stupid and annoying. They’d have a case, wouldn’t they? The church is supposed to welcome everyone, after all. At least until they wear out their welcome. You know, everyone has annoying habits that eventually get on the church’s nerves, like snoring, not believing in God, sodomy, being a Muslim, drinking milk right out of the carton. But still, you’ve got to give the Young Earth atheists a chance, megachurch. It’s only fair you be harassed by Young Earth crazies, too.

There’s a famous scientist who worked on the Human Genome Project. His name is Francis Collins, and in addition to being a geneticist, he’s also an Evangelical Christian. So apparently there is more than one kind of Evangelical Christian, just as there may be more than one kind of believer in evolution. Or more than one kind of atheist, for that matter.

Francis wrote a book about being both a believer in evolution and a Christian. In it he says how well-accepted the theory of evolution is, and how difficult it would be to do any kind of advanced biological research without it.

If you visit the Amazon website and peruse the user comments on the page where his book is being sold, you will discover that, in said book, Francis Collins waxes illogical to a degree that would give Mr. Spock the hives. It is just full of logical gaffs. One of them is this: “No serious scientist today doubts the theory of evolution…”

Did you know such a statement is a logical fallacy, and that fallacy is called “poisoning the well,” and what it does is smear anyone who disagrees with the speaker as, by definition, incompetent to make a valid counter-argument?

You didn’t know that? Well, that’s because it’s not and it doesn’t. “Poisoning the well” is not a logical fallacy in the formal sense of the term—it’s a rhetorical device used to draw a reader or listener to false preconceptions concerning a particular argument that may follow. It may be a suspect or unfair or infuriating rhetorical device, especially when used in a formal debate. As a statement outside the context of a formal argument, though, “No serious scientist today doubts the theory of evolution” is just an assertion, however prejudicial.

Francis Collins is not a demagogue or zealot, and he supports his overly broad statement with evidence; he doesn’t rely on it, nor does he intend it to smear anyone. The thing is, whether or not the statement does “poison the well,” it happens to be, for all practical purposes, true. Evolutionary theory is entangled in all the other sciences, as those other sciences are themselves entangled with each other. Geology, chemistry, physics, genetics—they’re interdependent, interlocked, and the theory of evolution has firm roots in all of them.

Hence the problem with trying to use a logical critique to “debunk” science. If your premises are wrong, it doesn’t matter how logically you present them. You’re still wrong. Bethesda, Maryland is not a trout that lives in a tree (you knew that, right?). Science doesn’t rely on logic to prove its statements true; it relies on empirical tests to support its conclusions and suppositions. It seeks evidence, not to prove the truth of a statement, but to support a given investigative route, a hypothesis, or a method of pursuing an explanation. Evidence is not proof. Evidence is what you collect and analyze in order to make the most fruitful guess you can about a subject in order to continue exploring it fruitfully. Science is an ecology of inquiry, observation, experiment and discovery and doesn’t mind being wrong as long as it can learn from its mistakes.

Don’t tell the Fundamentalist Christians, but I hold the secret key they lack. There is a simple way to dislodge evolution from its exalted position in the world of science: come up with an explanation for why chimps and humans have more DNA similarities than chimps and carrots have—an alternative, that is, to the explanation that it’s because chimps and humans evolved from a more recent common ancestor than chimps and carrots. Then allow evidence for that alternative explanation to accumulate over the next century or so. Do that, and all the logic in the world won’t save evolution. Assuming you’re right. Logic cannot disprove or even cast doubt on a scientific theory that is based on evidence. Only other evidence can do that. All logic will do for Christian anti-evolutionists is continue to make it amusing to mock them.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!