Why Vox Day fails

I know it’s not TIA Tuesday, but this popped up recently on Vox Popoli, and it’s a really clear example of why Vox’s attempts at debunking fail so badly. He’d like to prove that he has the inside scoop, the intelligence, and the objectivity to see what other people miss, but what he really ends up showing is that he has failed to understand the material.

As I have mentioned before, anyone who repeats the common atheist talking point that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is demonstrating one of two things. The first option is that they haven’t actually thought about it; they’re simply echoing what they’ve heard before. The second is that they aren’t very intelligent.

There’s also a third option: they’ve realized that truth is consistent with itself, and therefore when you claim that extraordinary things are part of the real world, then we ought to be able to find these extraordinary things in the real world. That, however, does not seem to be an option Vox is willing to consider.

Vox’s post is prompted by the remarks of one Ninja Rabbit on the nature of evidence needed for extraordinary claims.

If your neighbor told you that he watered his plants yesterday, it would be a reasonable claim to believe. But if he told you he fed his pet three headed 50 foot alien, it would probably not be reasonable to believe at this particular point. Your neighbor would have to elaborate and give you evidence that this 50 foot three headed alien exists and is his pet.

Vox’s “rebuttal” tries to escape from the dilemma by changing the scenario so that it supplies exactly what Ninja Rabbit said would be needed:

The reason the analogy is poor is obvious if we consider a more equitable version of it. Ninja Rabbit lives next door so he can see the plants. He knows they exist and are in decent health, so he concludes someone must be watering them. His neighbor claims to be doing so, so he accepts the claim. Now, if he also saw the three-headed 50-foot alien next door on as regular a basis and it appeared to be in good health, his neighbor’s claim to own it and feed it would be no more remarkable than his claim to have watered his plants.

Notice, Vox seems completely oblivious to the fact that it would be highly unusual (aka “extraordinary”) for someone to possess a 50-foot three-headed alien in the first place. If people commonly possessed such pets, or if the neighbor was already known to possess such a pet, then granted, there would be nothing extraordinary about displaying the pet as evidence of the claim. But in that situation, the claim would no longer be extraordinary either. All that proves is that ordinary claims (i.e. claims consistent with what we ordinarily experience) do not require extraordinary evidence (i.e. evidence above and beyond what we ordinarily experience).

What Vox has done, indirectly, is to support the conclusion that extraordinary claims do require extraordinary proof. Ninja Rabbit said the claim would require evidence that the neighbor had an alien pet, and that’s exactly what Vox had to add to the story to make it come out the way he wanted. Vox seems to be a little confused about the results, though: he seems to think that by demonstrating Ninja Rabbit was right, he somehow proved he was wrong. But Vox’s confusion runs even deeper: he seems to feel that “extraordinary evidence” means evidence that is itself supernatural or atypical in some way:

It’s quite amusing to hear self-proclaimed “rationalists” attempt to make use of this quote, since the claim that “extraordinary evidence” is required is fundamentally illogical. Because that which is supernatural must interact with the natural in order to be perceived, most supernatural activity will leave natural footprints which are capable of being evaluated by fully natural means. A poltergeist is supernatural, while a vase smashed by a poltergeist, a video of a vase being smashed by an invisible force, and an audio recording of an observing scientist watching a vase being smashed by an invisible force are all natural things that could be provided as evidence for the supernatural.

A proper scientific study of the supernatural, as proposed by the likes of Daniel Dennett, will look no different and provide evidence that is no more extraordinary than the evidence that is provided for any natural claim. Whether one is studying the utility of prayer, Vitamin C, or surgery in curing cancer, the means and the evidence produced will be the same.

Quite so, and the absence of such evidence is precisely why scientists fail to conclude that poltergeists exist. “Extraordinary evidence” does not mean that we need a fundamentally different type of evidence, it means natural evidence which is consistent with the extraordinary claims being made, such as observable and verifiable smashing of vases without the involvement of any natural agents or forces. Evidence of poltergeists, or levitation, or telepathy or other such things would not be “extraordinary evidence” in the sense of being something other than measurement, observation, correlation, and so on. It would simply be natural evidence consistent with the extraordinary phenomena of poltergeists, levitation, telepathy, and so on.

The relationship of the evidence to the conclusion is, or should be, that that truth is consistent with itself, and therefore before we decide that a particular conclusion is true, we ought to expect (and receive) real-world evidence which is consistent with that conclusion. Where the claim is already consistent with common, ordinary experience, the evidence (which Vox calls “tangential knowledge”) is already supplied, and thus the conclusion is justified without requiring further proof. Where the claim is of something unusual, or even contrary to common experience (such as the resurrection of the dead), the evidence consistent with this claim is lacking, and therefore we need to seek it somewhere else.

This is all fairly simple and straightforward stuff, and really, it’s rather peculiar that Vox would even try to make an issue of it. I suppose it’s because he’s embarrassed about the notable lack of extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claims of the Gospel.

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Posted in Science. 17 Comments »

17 Responses to “Why Vox Day fails”

  1. Jody Says:

    it’s rather peculiar that Vox would even try to make an issue of it. I suppose it’s because he’s embarrassed about the notable lack of extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claims of the Gospel.

    Actually, from reading his site, I think it’s because he believes that the world is full of evidence for the supernatural, or full of evidence for the effects and the perception of the supernatural.

    It isn’t — the examples he tends to site, from first hand testimony to the existence of the gospels, fall apart with just a little digging. But that doesn’t stop him from stating, and believing, otherwise.

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    That could well be, although I suspect that Vox may be astute enough to realize at some level that superstition and hearsay aren’t really adequate as “evidence,” which is why he tends to lash out at people who challenge him on it.

  3. Jody Says:

    You are giving him more credit than I.

    Vox is a smart guy, which I think is part of his problem. We all hold a lot of wrong ideas for good reasons. From what I can tell from his writing, Vox holds his wrong ideas for “smart” reasons.

    Case in point, the book you are reviewing….


  4. B8ovin Says:

    The problem I tend to see with people who argue the extraordinary claims/ evidence argument is that they fail to appreciate the inferred corollary: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; and a lack of alternative mundane evidence. A claim for a poltergeist based on the unexplained breaking of a vase is very poor indeed, not just for the lack of extraordinary evidence, but for the abundance of mundane explanations, to borrow an example.

    What makes the neighbor’s pet alien story extraordinary is not necessarily the lack of extraordinary evidence, but the abundance of evidence that people lie, fantasize or hallucinate. In short, alternative explanations abound, and Vox simply seems unreasonable about accepting this as the reason for evidence that surpasses the mundane.

    I know it is glaringly obvious, but it is consistently overlooked by those who want something to be true.

  5. Ninja Rabbit Says:

    Hello, this is the one “Ninja Rabbit” whom Vox’s blog was orginally addressed. After I offered another rebuttal to Vox’s post, he finally conceded that there was no argument to be made if I meant “scientific evidence” when I said “extraordinary evidence,” which I understood to be the context all along. It’s beyond me why he chose to make such a big deal out of a mostly trivial issue. Nonetheless, I hope he no longer uses those (rather silly) arguments.

  6. Jody Says:

    I’m willing to drop the “extraordinary” part, if Vox et.al would just provide evidence that supports their claims…


  7. Tom Foss Says:

    I think part of where people get confused is what, exactly, “extraordinary” means in that context. In fact, it seems to me that the meaning is different for each of the two uses in the common phrase. The phrase, at its heart, is simply saying that different claims require different amounts of justification. We accept the neighbor’s claim of watering his plants based on his say-so, because we know that plants exist and that people often water them, and he would not have much reason to lie about that.

    If he said, “I’m going to go polish my new Porsche,” we might not take that just on his say-so, like we would the plants. While owning a Porsche doesn’t contradict anything in our experience, it is quite rare, and someone might have something to gain by lying about owning such a prestigious car. So we ask to see it, and accept it when he opens the garage door.

    If he says “I’m going to feed my 50-foot alien pet,” we would probably be inclined to go a step farther. Owning an alien pet would be not merely uncommon, but utterly unique in our experience. We wouldn’t take his word for it, and we probably wouldn’t settle for just seeing it in the backyard. We’d probably want to walk around it, poke it, maybe even run some tests, because such a thing could be faked, or our neighbor could be insane. We set the evidence bar higher for this claim, owing to its extraordinariness.

    And then, if our neighbor said that he could fly to Alpha Centauri and back in under a second, we’d probably require greater evidence still, because such a claim would be not merely unique, but contradictory to what we know about the universe. We have ample evidence that people cannot fly under their own power, and further ample evidence that travel over the speed of light is an impossibility. In order to believe that extraordinary claim, we’d have to have evidence that was either extraordinarily reliable or extraordinarily abundant, because it would have to be significant enough to justify the claim and overturn our prior evidence to the contrary.

    And obviously, if we lived in a universe where people flew at translight speeds to work each morning, we might just accept our neighbor’s Alpha Centauri claim on his word alone. If we lived on Io, we might require significant evidence to believe his claim of watering his plants. “Ordinary” is a variable description, based on current commonalities.

    Claims require evidence, and the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary (in quality or quantity) the evidence must be to justify it. The reason this comes up so very often in discussions of religion is precisely the same as the Alpha Centauri example: global flooding, mind/body dualism, creation ex nihilo, bodily resurrection, and so on and so forth, are not only claims of existence or occurrence, but claims which flatly contradict the available evidence. In order to justify them, we need evidence that would overturn the current models, and such evidence would have to be either incredibly large in number or scale, or absolutely unimpeachable.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  8. Jody Says:

    >In order to justify them, we need evidence that would overturn the current models, and such evidence would have to be either incredibly large in number or scale, or absolutely unimpeachable.

    And, as NinjaRabbit pointed out, Vox spent a great deal of time obfuscating that rather salient point.

    To prove that you are feeding a pet 50 foot alien would require a very, vary large amount of “simple” evidence. One might be tempted to say the sum total of evidences presented was quite extraordinary.

  9. Emanuel Goldstein Says:

    The mainstream view of science is that all existence has been explained by mindless processess…the universe itself, life, mind, and objective reason.

    This is an extraodinary claim.

    It has not been demonstrated.

    It is claimed that …someday…science may be able to do so, but the more we learn the more we realize we don’t know. Its not just that their are gaps, but they keep increasing.

    But keep the faith!

  10. Emanuel Goldstein Says:

    Ah, I see you have comment moderations.

    Thus, the comments that appear may not be an actual reflection of the trend of the responses.


  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Emanuel, I don’t believe you’ll find many informed people who believe that science has already explained everything. Perhaps you are alluding to the fact that all the phenomena that we have understood has proven to be consistent with natural laws?

  12. jim Says:

    Now see, I think Emanuel has demonstrated the difference between the ‘faith’ which science requires, i.e. believing in the consistency of natural laws as a means of interpreting observed phenomena (at least, until some new evidence comes along), and believing, by faith, in ancient stories containing elements which supposedly contradict those laws. Of course, V.D. and others lump these two kinds of ‘faith’ together, and ignore the fact that in matters other than religion, they will always lean on the first kind, and never on the second.

    All topped off with the snarky intimation that moderation will be used to skew the comment distribution. The only gap that seems to be increasing is the theistic credibility one. Let’s go ahead and make the ultimate break with reason via faith, shall we? ‘For God so loved the world, that He did everything in His power to make it seem as if He didn’t exist, in order that His faithful live by faith alone.’ How’s that?

  13. Crafty Witch Says:

    “Because that which is supernatural must interact with the natural in order to be perceived, most supernatural activity will leave natural footprints which are capable of being evaluated by fully natural means.”

    Isn’t that the point of The God Delusion in the first place? I’ve only read four chapters, but it seems pretty clear to me. Dawkins readily acknowledges that there is no way to disprove the existence of a Deist style god who sets up the rules and doesn’t intervene. The problem is, that’s not the kind of god described in the Bible or whatever scripture you care to use. Nice of Vox to admit it.

  14. Tony Says:

    The problem with the entirety of the argument is the use of the word “extraordinary”. The claim that deities exist is not extraordinary, it is rather common. The claim that no deity exists is rather unusual, which actually makes the phrase more appropriate for questioning the atheist position.

    One thing quite vital to rationality is to understand language and to use it well. The use of such a borrowed phrase is to imply that one cannot come up with an original thought, nor find the inherent flaw in the phrase used. Hence that person is not rational, or is only superficially rational. It is certain that such a person has accepted inaccurate language as valid, and we can then suppose that any conclusions they have reached on any number of topics can be equally accurate and valid.

    Myself, having been privy to arguments made by theists and atheists alike, I can say confidently that both react with dogma. For instance, ask any atheist to prove there is no god, and they will with few exceptions say that one cannot prove a negative. That’s dogma. Any position can be postulated as a positive or a negative, if one has the brain to do it. If one cannot do so, one should question how much of their rationality comes from their own thoughts (reason) and how much is appropriated from others simply to help solidify their own predisposed beliefs (dogma).

    Have fun!

  15. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Hi Tony, thanks for stopping by. The term “extraordinary” in “extraordinary claims” does not refer to the frequency with which the claims are made, but rather, the character of the thing being claimed. The ordinary and normal state is that we do not see any gods in real life; claims that gods exist—and can be perceived by ordinary people—are therefore “extraordinary claims,” because they’re claims about things we don’t ordinarily see. In fact, we never see them, so claims about God are very extraordinary indeed.

    Merely stating that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, however, does not prevent anyone from coming up with original thoughts. It just reminds us of our obligation to reality: before you can claim that such-and-such is part of the real world, you have to be able to show other people how they can find it too. Otherwise, your claim is indistinguishable from a fantasy. Albert Einstein had some very original thoughts about relativity, and today, GPS receivers have to be corrected to account for the effects of relativity across the distances between GPS satellites and receivers—an extraordinary proof of an extraordinary (and counterintuitive) claim.

    And by the way, if you try to prove there is no Santa Claus, I think you might find the problems with trying to prove a negative. Myself, I don’t have any problem with proving that there is no god, because there is one: Alethea. But proving the non-existence of the traditionally-defined God is not too difficult, because God, as traditionally defined, is by definition known and knowable by men. Any god that existed somewhere “out there” where no one can perceive Him would be a different God than the one defined by Christians, and therefore irrelevant. The Christian God, meanwhile, is demonstrably a fraud, due to the numerous inconsistencies and self-contradictions present in what Christians try to tell us about Him. A God who loves us enough to die for us, while simultaneously being unwilling and unable to even show up in His own church on Sunday mornings, is simply an appeal to gullibility. True love demonstrates itself, not by dying and abandoning you, but by showing up to spend time with you, in person, in visible, tangible, 2-way interaction. God is unwilling and/or unable to do that, and therefore the loving God of the Gospel is a myth.

  16. Tony Says:

    I understand the context. However, if the word is used in a specialized way, and the context is a catch-phrase of any kind, it further damages the use of the language. as the meanings of words change, confusion arises. If a phrase resembles idiom, (in that the words are used repetitiously in a way that can be misunderstood, but is generally not because cultural contextual understanding) then the phrase is useless in logic since it has no absolute meaning and therefor conveys no concreteness in its own right. It becomes dogma since it has a flaw that can be pointed out, but the flaw is so minor to those who would defend it that it is dismissed as irrelevant.

    Anyway, I broke up my thoughts as best I could to separate different topics, but the words kept coming, so bear with me.

    So, on to answer the specific inconsistency of not appearing to every one. There really isn’t an inconsistency, merely a failure to find an explanation. The explanation comes from the old Testament. When Moses is on Sanai, he asks to see God. God tells him that he cannot show him his face since to do so would kill Moses, and of course, God still had use for him alive. So as a compromise, Moses is allowed to see the back of God. The result, as the story goes, is that Moses’s face shines so brightly afterward that the people cannot look on him and he must wear a veil. So, if God showed up in church on Sunday, believers would have to wear veils or die and become useless to God. Jesus also, in appearing to two individuals after ascension, glows brightly, blinding one of them. Again, not something everyone wants to have happen every Sunday.

    The other question is whether or not this is part of God’s ineffable plan. Chances are the answer is no, or it would be done. It is entirely consistent for God to not show up physically to almost everyone. However, he does speak to those who he feels need to hear from him directly. Just as we do not always answer demands according to our own choices, so does God. If you haven’t heard him, he doesn’t think you need to. You feelings that you deserve this to happen to you is consistent with hubris. His failure to listen or obey is entirely consistent. The first King of Israel, Saul, tried to force God to speak to, and favor him and he failed to make that happen. Just like the government has no obligation to change laws to suit you exactly, God has no need to inconsistently show up simply for your personal gratification.

    As far as God being entirely about love and forgiveness, this would be inconsistent. Man is said to be made in the likeness of God. Like God, Man is subject to different moods and reactions according to situation. Jesus lost his temper on several occasions. God declares that he is the source of all that is good and all that is evil. It is stated that he forgives, but how can that be unless he can be transgressed against, offended, and even affronted. To follow logic is to see what is there, not to assume what is not. When Jonah preaches to Nineveh, and that city repents, the Bible states that God repents of the evil he intended to that city. Which shows that God is capable of mistakes, evil, and regret. Does he have rules that he sets for himself, just like any of us do? Yes. Can he break them? Yes. So could any of us. It is his choice to do so, just as it is ours.

    Those Christians who only see the kind hand of God, or the fiery hand of his judgment are denying that the other side exists. Indeed they deny that this can be a being that is capable of a full range of emotions and reactions. To do so is to make God less capable than Man.

    We use language and words that fit situations. None of us can claim that everything we say can be moved around randomly to every situation and fit. But the scriptures must? When God speaks to Joshua, it means those same words can also be spoken to Paris Hilton on some red carpet and they will fit, while also applying to me at random times? It would be a true master of language that could accomplish that. Yet, for any situation we can find words in the scriptures that are appropriate. They do not always bring comfort, but they do fit. Got a horrible calamity, go to Job. A celebration? Look in Psalms. Guidance? Find a story in the Bible that resembles your situation and the words will be there. Hell, if you need inspiration for a love letter, even a racy one, Song of Solomon has you covered.

    Anyway, the question of inconsistency is in assuming it exists. For the real challenge, one must first delve deeper into the question. To try to resolve the illogical, and having failed to do so, ask others to assist. Einstein’s first proposition on Relativity contained a mathematical flaw that he spent years solving, knowing that the theory would be thrown out if he couldn’t do so. He also required the help of others to verify his theory and he had help with the math as well. Imagine if one of the greatest minds of our time had died a patent officer for failing to re-explore his greatest triumph or ask for help. May each of us be lucky enough to discover our own flaws in time to correct them.

    To truly prove or disprove something, one must collaborate with others not with the intention to do one thing or the other, but to explore the possibility without end. This is the passion of research and it applies to all human endeavors. String theorists spent years failing to prove the theory, denying one extra dimension until one final desperate person tried it out and thus was M Theory begun and still continues. To deny something and declare it to be unworthy of pursuit or concluded is at the very heart of counter-productivity.

    As far as Santa Clause is concerned, he exists in every mall during December. His picture is everywhere. And children receive gifts on Christmas. What other proof do you need? Reindeer with actual glowing noses? Santa Clause is made up and all adults know this. We know when he first appeared, and how the stories were written, and who wrote them. He, as a concept, and as a figurehead of Christmas is well known and he is as real to me as the Horse head Nebula, about which I have less information. Yet I know his reality to be a fiction because I know how he was created and why. We have proof he is fictional. Fiction, being something that is made up, is a negative. By proving fictional origins, we prove negativity and non-existence. Furthermore, “There is no God” is a conclusive statement. It presents itself as incontestable and confident in its conclusion. Therefore it is a positive statement and it must be backed up with proof of why it is a valid statement.

    Look at the Jews for proof of God. They are 2% of the human population and yet they repeatedly are the focus of the world. Most of us know terms like Bar Mitzvah. There are religions and cultures that outnumber this small group many times over and I know less of the terms of those people than I know of the Jews. I’m willing to bet many of us are the same in this.

    Why? Because of Christianity? Christianity spend 2000 years condemning the Jews. They have been the focus of numerous persecutions and attempted genocides. Other cultures have risen and fallen. Races and tribes have left the earth, never to return. Yet they remain, and the only thing that defines them is their belief in this one God and their role as his chosen people, his promise to them that he would never fully abandon them.

    He promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and the entire world watches as his descendants fight over that very land to this day. He did not promise that land to the Jews, but to the descendants of Abraham, and they still have it. By whatever race they describe themselves as, his descendants live in and own the entirety of that land.

    Isn’t that interesting? A fantastic claim is made from an ancient book, and the proof of that claim is there for anyone to see. How did it come about? We can name some of the reasons for the present state of that land, we can speculate on why it happened. Yet it is still true that Abraham’s descendants still occupy that same land promised to them 3000 years ago. Twist it all you want, it still comes back to that.

  17. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Thanks for replying. You’ve taken the time to write a longish reply, and I don’t want to be unfair to you, so I’ve posted a detailed response here.