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How to bullshit: The way of questions

More advice for aspiring cultists.

Oh dear, someone has just made a very telling objection to one of your cult's core beliefs. How do you respond? Why not use that time-honoured bullshitter’s technique: the way of questions. First, suggest your critic is being crude and unsubtle in his or her thinking. Then ask them a rather vague question that is only tenuously related to their objection (but make sure it contains some of the same key words as the objection, so it seems like it could be relevant).

For example, if they point out there’s way too much evil in the world for it to be the creation of your all-good–and-powerful God (key word: "evil"), ask them, in a serious tone: “But how do we deal with evil, then?” Notice that because you are asking a question, you do not commit yourself to anything at all.

Your opponent is now stuck having to answer your vague and thorny question (which is of course pretty much irrelevant to the issue at hand), a question they’ll probably struggle with. So, if they try to answer it, they look weak. If they refuse to answer it, they look evasive. And your suggestion that their position is not as “nuanced” as yours will further suggest to your audience that you were aware of these difficulties, whereas your opponent seems not even to have considered them.

Your opponent will also be baffled as to where you're going with this question, and how exactly you think it relevant, and their hesitation and puzzled look will help further to create in the minds of your devotees the impression that your opponent is the one in trouble in the debate, not you.

Even if your opponent manages to deal successfully with your question, you can just ask another, and another, tying them up in knots, leaving your audience with the impression that you have won.

The truth, of course, is that YOU never dealt with THEIR devastating objection. But the chances are, no one will notice this, or even remember what your opponent's objection was, after a few minutes of “the way of questions”!


Toby said…
Sounds like excellent advice for writing a Thought for The Day on Radio 4. Whenever the speaker is forced to touch on something like the Problem of Evil, they make a move like the above. It makes them seem like reasonable people who consider all sides when really they are just glossing over objections.

Another approach is to go on the attack - I can't answer your objection, but you can't either - therefore our beliefs are equal.

Or ignore it totally, and talk about something else. This morning Rabbi Lionel Blue followed a news item about the Isreeli elections by not mentioning the situation at all, but waffled on about how he beleives in God because of the silence he gets back when he speaks to him. No doubt very "subtle" and "nuanced".
FrodoSaves said…

This is a lifeline to my budding religion. May I suggest by way of addition that it's also useful to strategically fill the audience with like minded individuals and increase the shrillness, pitch and volume of your voice as you respond to the persecution. Finally, it also helps if you have prominent jowls you can wave about in your victimhood.

As always, Frodo be with you.
Brian said…
I remember a while ago on this blog a poster did that with knowledge when I said that he had no knowledge of God. I think that lead to something about Plantinga's sensus divinatus. Anyway, it's arguing in bad faith as far as I can see. They're not out to find answers, only to muddy the waters and make their opponent look ignorant and weak.
Kyle said…
I remember a while ago on this blog a poster did that with knowledge when I said that he had no knowledge of God. I think that lead to something about Plantinga's sensus divinatus. Anyway, it's arguing in bad faith as far as I can see. They're not out to find answers, only to muddy the waters and make their opponent look ignorant and weak.

I think that might be me you're talking about.

If you start making claims about knowledge, then talking about theories of knowledge seems to me to be very on topic. Especially as I have very specific disagreements with you on epistemological issues.
Martin said…
Whilst reading Stephen's post I was suddenly struck with the desire to ask a tenuously related question, so forgive me if the following is just a bit off-topic.

Is "How to bullshit: The way of questions" pure conjecture, or is it based upon known techniques from real life cultists? I'd love to know if Shining Path, the Pol Pot regime, and dare I say the Scientologists use the way of questions as a core strategy, or whether they found other methods more suitable. Could Stephen perhaps clarify if the way of questions has been distilled from studying the tactics of known cults, or whether it is being postulated that this is how they behave? Sorry to ask so many questions of my own (and so loosely related to the topic in hand) but I am one of those annoying evidence junkies you stumble across from time to time. You know the type, never satisfied until they can see all the workings to a theory, not just the end result.
Brian said…
Especially as I have very specific disagreements with you on epistemological issues. Well, unless you can show there is a God then claiming that God has guaranteed knowledge is begging the question. The other day Sye was going about what his God could do. Who cares? Unicorns can do wonderful things with their horns I'm sure, if they existed. To propound God does this, or guarantees that regarding knowledge means you can't use any knowledge you claim God has guaranteed as evidence of God without begging the question. Can you show that a god exists? That it is your God (has properties that you claim it does)?
John Pieret said…
But how do we deal with bullshit, then?
Kyle said…

This is an issue about sources of knowledge. You point out that theistic sources of knowledge (whether it is the Bible, or God speaking to you, or something else like that) depend on God existing.

This is very true. The Bible does not tell us anything reliably about God if he does not exist. However, notice that it is only required that it is true that God exists, not that it is known. (There are other requirements of course, like it must be the case that God superintended the Bible, and that we are capable of understanding it, but that is not relevant to the current discussion.)

Here is an example, imagine you found a book called 'My Life by Socrates'. You have no reason to believe that it really is by Socrates. There are two questions here: is it a reliable guide to the life of Socrates, and, is it reasonable to take it as a reliable guide to the life of Socrates.

The answer to the first is: yes, if it really is written by Socrates. The answer to the second is: no.

It is important not to mix these two questions up.

So, it is possible that the Bible is a reliable source of knowledge. That is, it is a reliable source of knowledge if God exists and he intended it to be. Even if there is no evidence for it.

Now the second question: Is it reasonable to take the Bible (or some other theistic source of knowledge) as a reliable source of knowledge.

You may say that it is unacceptable unless you can prove that God exists. But it is not obvious that that is a reasonable request.

After all it is not how we always judge sources of knowledge.

Take for example our senses. If you don't really have sense organs then sense experience is not a reliable source of knowledge.

Therefore you need to first prove that you have sense organs. And you can't use sense experience as evidence because that is clearly circular.

My point is: maybe we need to think about other ways of judging potential sources of knowledge.
Brian said…
Kyle, we all experience sensation. You can be the ultimate skeptic and deny it is real. That would be unreasonable. Why? Because all our interactions with the world are via sense experience. If you deny this leads to knowledge of an external world, you are declaring yourself a solipsist - all your ideas of others, even god, are only ideas and there's nothing to distinguish an idea you imagined from an idea planted by god - and my only remaining question to you is why are you imagining there's a thing such as the internet where figments of your imagination like me disagree with you?

But you accept sensory evidence every day and don't doubt it for a second. So you don't believe your objection. You can use this sense experience and the accounts of others who you believe exist to determine its validity. However, we don't all imagine their is a god, we certainly don't all sense that there is a god and we have no known sense of god that we can corroborate with others. Certainly we can all live fine without recourse to a god or book that purports to be about god (even your God). So you only are left with a false equivalence which even you hold to be false in action, if not word.
Kyle said…
I often hear people make this sort of response, but I find it very strange. Apparently one is not allowed to raise doubts in philosophy unless one actually believes them. If this is the case then a lot of philosophy would be pointless.

Doubting things that we would not doubt ordinarily doubt, or raising hypotheticals is a very important method in philosophy.

The reason I am doing this is to asses the doubts that you are raising about theism. It is of course important to doubt our doubting.

You raise a doubt, so I want to consider where that sort of reasoning would lead us if we applied the same doubt to our senses. The conclusion is it leads us to claim ridiculous things, which in turn should make us suspicious of the original doubt.

The only other way i can see to interpret what you have said is that our senses are the exception because everyone accepts sense experience as a source of knowledge.

The are two problems with that sort of argument. The first is that it is rather hard to believe that it is likely that something is true just because everyone believes it, or that we should start to doubt things if other people start to. How many people would it take to make you doubt your senses? If 100 people said they disregarded sense experience would you doubt it? 1000? 1000000?

The second problem is that it is still circular. How do you know that everyone trusts sense experience without the aid of your senses?
Brian said…
Kyle, it is not only because everyone believes, but that everyone is compelled by human nature. We cannot but believe in sensory experience. This is the point. I am all for philosophic doubt as a way of assessing what we claim to be true. With sensory experience we do not claim it infallible or claim it necessarily true. It's a working theory and it might be wrong. However, we necessarily use it, because that is our evolved nature, or at least that is the best explanation at this point in time. Logic, experience, are accepted as being correct because it is the best theory we have and they work. But whether we had a theory or not would not stop us using sensory evidence and using logic. You admit that you accept sensory evidence as being real and logic as being valid so we have no disagreement and premises derived from these can be acceptable to both of us.

Your claim that there are other forms of knowledge is not the same. Knowledge that you are not just suggesting but are claiming as real. It is not part of our nature to necessarily feel your God (why not another god or gods or none as billions do?), to believe in the things you believe and it is possible to doubt it and go on living as normal.

There is a huge difference. I do not exit the 10th floor of a building via a window, though I might doubt my senses philosophically, I use the stairs or lift as you do and it is unreasonable to suggest that philosophical doubt trumps the evidence. I have no trouble saying there is no god and just getting on with life. It is both philosophically fine to say it, and there's no evidence to suggest I've gotten it wrong. Which is why I ask you to present evidence that there is a god.
Unknown said…
I prefer G. E. Moore's response to the skeptic. Which is that all the skeptic's premises are less certain and less plausible than the premises which support the claim that "this pencil exists". And the justifications for the skeptic's premises are even LESS certain or non-existent. While at least in the conclusion "this pencil exists", we have what seems a more plausible and certain statement than the skeptic's own conclusion. And the premises which support the existence of the pencil are more intuitively convincing. It would seem in this particular case, that the burden of proof is on the skeptic, because we have more reason to believe in our conclusion than in his.
I can't think who you have in mind!
Stephen Law said…
Sam - you know what? I actually wrote this just BEFORE I read your post where you asked me a load of questions!

However, yes you were one of those I was thinking about (not that I'm saying you are deliberate bullshitter, but you do seem to me often to drift into this kind of response - I guess because it is, in certain theological circles - completely habitual and ingrained in people's thinking).
Stephen Law said…

"The way of questions" is something I have come across a great deal in discussions with religious folk. It's used a lot by both serious academics, and nutters (e.g. Sye, Young Earth Creationists). I can't say I've interviewed many scientologists etc. so I don't know if they use it much.

As to who is a "cultist" - I consider mainstream religions to be cults that became highly successful. They operate in much the same way...
Martin said…
So any belief system you disagree with is "cultist" and any questions you find too difficult to answer are "bullshit".

You could call your own way the ultimate fortress of the cynic. It has very high walls to protect its own purity from questioning, and lobs barbs in the form of insults at its critics.
Stephen Law said…
"So any belief system you disagree with is "cultist" and any questions you find too difficult to answer are "bullshit"."

No, not any belief system I disagree with. I disagree with plenty, but most of them aren't largely propped up by bullshit.

Those that use fallacies, evasions and psychological manipulation to induce and defend belief are the bullshitters.

In short: this is the "strawman" fallacy - you are misrepresenting me.

"You could call your own way the ultimate fortress of the cynic. It has very high walls to protect its own purity from questioning, and lobs barbs in the form of insults at its critics."

But I am not bullshitting. Or if I am, please explain where.

Insulting? I am only, implicitly, insulting those who bullshit.

If you don't bullshit, well, why would you take offence?
Kyle said…
Brian, now we're getting somewhere.

You have given two reasons for accepting our sense experience as a source of knowledge:

1. That you are compelled to accept the testimony of your senses

2. It is part of human nature to regard sense experience as a source of knowledge

I actually agree with you that these are very good reasons. However, they do not meet your own standards. How can you prove them, what is the evidence?

perhaps 1 is trivial, but I don't see how you could establish 2 without the use of your senses in the first place.

The reason I agree with you is that this is exactly the same reason I give for accepting theistic sources of knowledge.

We were designed by God to know him, however, at some point this was undone (that is what the story of the fall is about).

Now we can only know God if he enables us to, if he restores the cognitive faculty that has been corrupted. But in that case it will:

1. compel me to believe
2. Be part of my nature to believe in that way
Kyle said…

Some might say you are framing this discussion in a rather unfair way.

I see nothing about your description of the WoQ that leads me to believe that only 'cultists' would or could employ it.

It seems to me that anyone could employ it to defend whatever belief system they wanted to.

Perhaps it is that you have only ever heard 'cultists' using this method. In which case I would like to inform you that there are plenty of atheists and others out there using similar tactics.

Perhaps it is that it only annoys you when 'cultists' do it. But surely you are not supporting shameful tactics if they are used by those who you agree with.

Perhaps you think that 'cultists' always use this method and never debate honestly. In that case I think you need to look a little bit harder.
Stephen Law said…
I did not suggest all religious folk use such tactics. Of course, some don't. But this tactic is particularly popular with the religious in my experience.

We could go through comments on this blog and find numerous examples. I'd bet good money that the vast majority of examples would be from religious folk.

Of course atheists *can* use them.

My view is that there is a family of such tactics which tend often to be found in religious belief systems, with religious folk making very liberal, habitual use of them to immunize their belief against rational criticism. Where that is the case, you are dealing, in effect, with an intellectual black hole.

I do think religion produces by far the most powerful, and dangerous, intellectual blackholes.
Anonymous said…
One of the tactics that religious people like to employ is to ask atheists to prove or account for things that cannot be proven or accounted for. Then when the atheist says, "I don't know," the theist immediately provides their answer: God.

For example, Sye, the biggest nutjob on the planet, and the person I immediately thought of when I read this post, insists that there must be a God because without him there would be no such thing as logic or rationality or whatever. "The proof that God exists is that without him, you can't prove anything." Oh really Sye? That sounds to me more like an opinion than an actual proof based on logic. Unfortunately, many people will fall into that trap, and go round and round in circles arguing with Sye. I refuse to do it.

I would prefer to admit that there are some things I don't know, and seek real answers for those things, than to use God as a copout so that I don't have to look any further. Just because there are questions that can't be answered and things that can't be accounted for, doesn't mean that it is proof that God exists.

These techniques employed by religious nut jobs doesn't do them any good in proving that what they believe is in fact true - and that's exactly what they want.

Thanks for this post Stephen.
Anonymous said…
Kyle - The WoQ is not only employed by cultists - just listen to preofessional politicians.

Anyhow going back to your example of the Bible vs Socrates Biography.

You admitted it is not reasonable (at fist glance) to believe the Socrates book is what it claims to be, even though in fact it might be genuine. So you must admit that it is not reasonable to believe the authenticity of the Bible. Evan though it might be reliable. It certainly isn't reasonable to go around trying to convince others of it's veracity. At best this is trying to sell a pig in a poke and claiming a sort of honesty by not having looked into the bag oneself!

Now that's before we add in any other evidence. In the case of the Bible we have all sorts of evidence that it is a hodgepodge of other works, has been edited to pieces, translated and mangled by all sorts of people with particular axes to grind. Internally it's shot through with contradictions and implausible claims.

Now that means you can be sure the bag contains pretty much anything but a genuine pig.
Anonymous said…
Hey Stephen! I just wanted to point you in the direction of my blog because there is a lady I have been conversing with who uses these EXACT SAME EVASIVE techniques. Her name is Lily and you can read her responses to the post entitled "Why won't God heal amputees?" (My own free promo for the website of the same name.)

When I told her I don't believe in religion because it is unsupported by science, she responded by saying science itself is unreliable. When I made my argument in favor of science, she responded that horrible things have been done in the name of science. I think you will find her debate tactics rather amusing.

Also, if you have time (and if I don't appear too narcissistic for making this request), I hope you will read and respond to my proof debunking Sye's argument that logic cannot be accounted for outside of God, by proving that God's very nature is illogical. Enjoy.
Hambydammit said…
Theist: "So how do you deal with evil?"

Atheist: "I tell you what. I'll make a deal with you. You answer my question first, and then I'll answer yours. That way, you won't get to evade my question by turning it back around on me, and you'll still get the answer.
anticant said…
Eren - I hope you pointed out to Lily that some pretty horrible things have been done in the name of God.
Anonymous said…

Strangely enough, Lily herself admitted that horrible things have been done in the name of religion, which is part of the reason I find her evasive tactics so amusing. This is how it went:

I wrote a blog to promote the "Why won't God heal amputees?" site, summarizing its point and focusing on the fact that the Bible was written by man, because a loving God would not have supported all the slavery, misogyny and baby killing that went on in the Bible.

Lily responded by saying that WWGHA was "pathetic" because the Bible was written during a time of brutal war, and that it was written "in context." Slavery was accepted as normal, so the Bible's authors (who were inspired by God) accepted it as normal. I pointed out that context was irrelevant, that it was ridiculous for God, the big boss, the almighty himself, to conform his wishes to our customs. Either he was okay with slavery, or he chose to ignore it so that he wouldn't offend us. Both notions are absurd.

She had no answer for that, but chose to attack my stated belief in science by saying "science is an argument from ignorance." She used Pluto as an example: Pluto was once thought to be a planet, but just recently scientists decided that it wasn't. She says science accepts that the universe "began as a singularity, a point of zero volume and infinite density...scientists accept lots of things that nobody can really understand." I responded by telling her that science is not unreliable, but man's unsubstantiated assumptions regarding science are. Pluto's discovery was scientific. Assuming that it was in the same class of objects as planets was not. That does not negate the discovery of Pluto. I told her the Big Bang Theory did not originate from imagination, but evidence of a gigantic cosmic explosion.

Again she had no direct response to my comments, and said "I am not arguing that [science] is unreliable" (actually you just did), "only that the knowledge you can gain from it is usually provisional...Now that is fine and good...But the application may not be. As many, if not more, horrors have been committed in the name of science than in the name of religion." I found it necessary to point out to her that we were not justifying the applications of our beliefs, but rather why we chose to accept those beliefs and reject the worldviews of others. I wrote "I do not reject religion only because of the atrocities committed in its name; if I were to do that, there would not be a single thing I could believe in, including science. I rejected religion because I find it contradictory, reliant on supernatural explanations, and unsupported by science." I then made this argument in favor of science: "When applied and understood correctly, science explains the world in which we live without contradicting itself."

Still haven't gotten a response from her, but I'll be betting that when I do, it won't be related to the conversation at hand. The thing I find the most amusing is that I gave her plenty of opportunities to bow out of the discussion gracefully, by writing "closing statements" to justify both of our beliefs. But she just had to get the last word. Every time she responded with evasiveness, her dignity dropped just a little bit more. LOL
Anonymous said…
One more thing. Just wanted to point out that even though Lily tried to use evasive tactics on me, I still beat her in every argument simply by applying logic. This is proved by the fact that every time she was unable to come up with a good response to my answers, she changed the subject.
Martin said…
"But I am not bullshitting. Or if I am, please explain where."

The BS starts with the use of the label "aspiring cultists", and it is BS because none of the people you label with it would use it for themselves.

Consider: "As to who is a "cultist" - I consider mainstream religions to be cults that became highly successful. They operate in much the same way..."

Here you retain the right to label someone as a "cultist", it is not referenced as something that anyone would use to self describe. The label is in effect your marker for someone you will later describe as a "bullshitter".

Show me anyone who labels themselves as an "aspiring cultist" and who employs the way of questions, and I will withdraw the claim that this post itself is bullshit.
Stephen Law said…
Martin. This is advice to aspiring cultists.

If you are not one, fine. That doesn't mean that, if you use this technique, you are not a bullshitter - you are.

Also, I don't say it's use is restricted to aspiring cultists. Obviously it isn't.

I don't even say that many aspiring cultists currently use it. I simply say - they'll find it very handy!

Of course, *no one* describes themselves as an aspiring cultist! That doesn't mean I can't use the expression.

As a matter of fact, I do consider religions cults (just really big ones). But nothing in this post hangs on that.
Martin said…
Touché! Or maybe, touchy? Shurely parody trumps satire every time ... (cf: my very 1st comment in this thread asking in anticipation for forgiveness)

My cult of one seems to have upset the apple-cart. At least you have now got conclusive proof that the way of questions is bloody annoying! I think you should be careful not to discourage people who follow your own good advice, though.

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