Parrots Can Talk, And Other Manatan Observations
Religious Apologetics is the art of projecting the weaknesses of religion onto its detractors. Common claims are, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” “Without religion, one cannot be moral,” and “Without religion, one cannot know anything to be true.” This spirit is embraced by our good friend Paul Manata, who goes to great lengths to project his repressed anxieties about his Christian faith onto others. Although he has granted me that honor many times in the past, I was beginning to think that he had forgotten about me. It’s with great joy that I find myself targeted by his apologetic once again, and I’m only too happy to respond.
As a good apologist, Paul is concerned primarily with the weaknesses of his belief system, and focuses most of his efforts attempting to plug his thumb in the apparent holes. Almost immediately following his debate with Dan Barker, Paul’s thumbs were fully extended, and were being thrust into many different holes. The primary issues were his reification of logic and his justification for the existence of talking animals. The latter was, in my opinion, his most glaring goof of the debate, and consisted of him accepting the Bible’s claim of the existence of a talking serpent in Genesis 3, but rejecting Dan’s claim of the existence of a talking cat in present day. In a comment to an earlier post on the subject, I gave this opinion and exchanged some comments with Paul about it.
Now, others beside myself have brought up Paul’s inductive gaffe, and so I can appreciate that he probably feels somewhat sensitive about it. I certainly didn’t feel the need to press the matter further, but Paul thought that it warranted further discussion, although his motivations seem rather odd:
Sometimes we do things that we shouldn't, just because we shouldn't. It's known as the "forbidden fruit syndrome." Augustine reports about how he stole pears, and how this caused him great turmoil. He says that what was so bad was not that he took some pears, but that he did it just because he knew he shouldn't. Well, I'm in a somewhat similar situation with Dr. Zachary Moore; or rather, his arguments. I know that I shouldn't pick on the guy's arguments (just like a college wrestler shouldn't pick on an elementary school wrestler) but sometimes I just can't help it. Like Augustine's pear, his arguments are plump for the pickings and all I need to do to get one is reach over and grab one. I know I shouldn't pick on arguments like this, but sometimes we do those things we shouldn't, just because we shouldn't.
Why would Paul unapologetically do something that he shouldn’t? He makes a comparison to a large man beating up a small child- I wonder, would he do that as unapologetically as he engages me? What we’re seeing here is the unfortunate moral bankruptcy of a man trapped in the Christian faith- why should he have any qualms about engaging in sin when he holds the belief that he has been unconditionally elected? But readers of this blog surely don’t need such things pointed out to them by now.
Paul then engages in an extended series of projections. This is typical- he makes assumptions about the psychological motives of others fairly frequently. Since he can’t know the motivations of another, he subconsciously projects his own psychology instead. Thus, we learn that it’s Paul who is:
like a man who has a run down beater of a car. Every one tells him to get rid of it. But he won't because no matter how much of a piece of trash the car is, it's still *his* car. He has invested so much talk and money in to it that to let it go would be to admit that he was wrong to buy it in the first place. Every one told him that the car was trash, but his eyes were too big for his stomach. His imagination ran wild but he couldn't do with the car what he had intended, and so now he just keeps it out of stubborn pride. He'll continue to sink hundreds of dollars into the car, but it will never run long enough to get him where he wants to go. It may occasionally start up and put down the street, but that's it. Since it's his baby, he beams with pride and so the 10 feet look like 10 miles to him.
But Paul does eventually make some counter claims of his own. So I’ll try to address those here:
1) Can Dr. Moore show how "it follows" from induction that if one talking animal is possible, then other talking animals are possible?
Looking at the Genesis account from our modern world, the existence of the talking serpent does seem strange. That is, out of all of the snake species in existence today, neither the sounds necessary for human speech, nor the capacity for syntactical communication can be shown. Thus, the inductive conclusion of, “snakes cannot talk,” seems very reasonable to me. But let’s say that a snake is found, somewhere, sunning itself on a rock, happy to speak at length about the minutiae of German politics. That would shatter the above inductive conclusion, and scientists all over the world would be fascinated to discover how a snake can carry on a conversation with neither the necessary vocal nor cerebral equipment. Well, Paul makes the claim that such a snake did in fact exist. Or rather, he accepts the claim that the Genesis account was literal and historical. Thus, from Paul’s worldview, the existence of such a snake is just like the discovery of the verbose serpent I’ve mentioned above. Both provide clear counterexamples to the inductive conclusion, “snakes cannot talk.”
As Paul mentions, I am a scientist, and so the existence of a talking snake would be absolutely fascinating to myself and others. Paramount in my mind would be discovering how such a snake would be able to communicate, and what details the Genesis account gives us in regards to that mechanism. Interesingly, the Bible does not regard this talking animal as a miraculous exception to the rule- Eve doesn’t bat an eye when the serpent engages her in conversation. However, Paul offers three explanations for the talking snake:
1) This is an account of what happened pre-fall. All his samples are post-fall samples.
2) Satan used the snake, Barker has only sampled "non-possessed" snakes.
3) What was called a serpent before the fall became the creature that we call a "snake" today.
Each of these are obviously special pleading, not to mention contradicted by the Bible. In regards to his first point, the other notable talking animal in the Bible, Balaam’s ass, opened its big mouth long after the Fall. In regards to his second point, the “demonic possession” of the serpent is not stated or suggested anywhere in the Bible. And in regards to his third point, the word used for “serpent” in Genesis 3 is “nachash,” which is the same word used for serpent thirty other times in the Bible, most of which occur after the Fall. If the serpent did change into something else, the Bible either doesn’t know it, or it doesn’t tell us about it for some strange reason. Either way, Paul can’t make such a claim and be biblically consistent.
So what we’re faced with is Paul’s claim that the Bible account represents a real counter-example of the rational generalization that “animals cannot talk.” And without a coherent explanation for how this is possible, it certainly seems to be the case that, in the Christian worldview, any animal can talk- remember Balaam’s ass? What is different about a snake and a donkey that makes it rational for them to talk, and not for any other animal? You see, by submitting Biblical authority as a counterexample for inductive reasoning, Paul has opened himself to the full ramifications of the “Cartoon Universe,” as coined by Dawson Bethrick. In a world where God can do anything, anything is possible, and where God has already done so in the past, the impossible is actually very probable!
2) Notice the shifting of the goal posts. He originally tried to argue that I *must* accept Dan's talking cat but now he claims that I must accept the *possibility* of Dan's talking cat. Well, I do accept the "possibility" of the talking cat. That's not because of induction, though. Just because it's possible that monkey's might fly out of Dr. Moore's head, does not mean that I think it will happen or that it did happen.
Actually, I never argued that he “must” accept anything- what I said was that, “If you accept the existence of talking animals in your worldview, that's fine, and I won't even begrudge your Biblical epistemic foundations, but… if you're going to make those kinds of presuppositions, you at least have to be consistent.” That is, as long as Paul claims that the Bible is admissible as an inductive counterexample to natural observations, he forces himself to accept the existence of a talking cat as consistent with his inductive principle. Although he was not willing to do so before, here he affirms that possibility, but strangely enough, not through induction. I wonder what epistemic principles he espouses that allow him to accept without rational justification the existence of things that are physically impossible? Oh right, Christianity.
3) Let's now apply Moore's inductive argument to other areas. Moore thinks that humans are talking animals, therefore "if one talking animal is possible, then other talking animals are possible." If so, what's the problem with the talking serpent!?
The problem, as I mentioned before, is that human speech and communication can be explained by examination of our vocal chords, as well as our brains. The specialized anatomy of both are responsible for the ability of humans to communicate, and without them we are as mute and uncommunicative as, well, a snake. But I’m basing my inductive conclusions about human speech on a naturalistic explanation- given this, it follows that any animal which lacks vocal chords and a specialized brain cannot speak. Given Paul’s belief system, natural limitations don’t exist, and so he doesn’t face the same restrictions. This may be why, in a rebuttal to this criticism on his blog, he argued that “Parrots talk.” Surely someone as educated as Paul knows full-well that parrots do not actually talk, they mimic. As a survival strategy, parrots will mimic the sounds in their environment, including human speech. But parrots, despite their representation in cartoons, do not actually communicate using syntax. I suppose that in the Christian worldview, this wouldn’t be a problem, and perhaps this is just another illustration of the faulty reasoning that comes from the close association with the Christian worldview and cartoons.
a) "If one flying animal is possible, then other flying animals are possible." Therefore, flying elephants are possible in Dr. Moore's worldview. If he says that it does not imply that *all* animals can fly, just another one (say, bats and birds) then the what of my original point? Just because what the Bible calls a serpent talked does not mean that I must accept *all* reports of other talking animals. If I do, then Moore has the flying elephants to deal with.
Again, Paul is ignoring the necessary mechanistic explanations which I mentioned above. As we can see that talking requires specific anatomy, flying does as well. From a naturalistic investigation of this inductive conclusion, we discover that wings are necessary (but not sufficient!) for an animal’s ability to fly. Thus, we can make statements confidently about any individual animal’s propensity for flight. Since no corresponding naturalistic explanation is given for the ability of an animal to talk, we can’t be as confident in our discrimination. If, however, the ability of flight was not related to the presence of wings, but was, instead, some magical ability (as is seen in fables and myths similar to those in the Bible), then we would be in the situation which Paul imagines for us. If flight was as supernatural as Paul believes the ability to speak is, then we couldn’t in all honesty discount the ability of an elephant to fly any more than Paul can discount the ability of a cat to talk!
4) We've now seen that even the atheist should not have a problem with the possibility of talking snakes. Afterall, "if one talking animal is possible, then other talking animals are possible," and humans are talking animals. Therefore he can't dismiss the biblical account as false because it mentions a talking animal since this can't be a priori ruled out in his worldview. Thus we see that the mere mention of a talking snake is not enough to show the Bible is irrational, even according to Moore. What must be done is that the Bible must be shown to be false. The problem is that Barker did not do this. Barker *assumed* it was false because it mentioned a talking snake and we just know that's impossible! Folks, this is not rational reasoning, this is called begging the question.
Actually, we’ve seen that an atheist, by accepting naturalism and induction, can easily discredit the idea of talking snakes. But that was never the point- what Barker, and now I have done is point out that it is the Christian epistemology that is without rationality. It would behoove Paul to admit this graciously and retreat into faith- only by doing so can he remain consistent.