Tuesday, 9 May 2017


They became upright and taught themselves the use of tools, domesticated other animals, plants and fire, and devised language. The ash of stellar alchemy was now emerging into consciousness. At an ever-accelerating pace, it invented writing, cities, art and science, and sent spaceships to the planets and the stars. These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do, given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution. - Carl Sagan

What is the origin of walking? How did we get from non-walking to walking?

Today, I want to talk about one of the most pernicious fallacies encountered in dealing with apologetics. It's a topic we've touched on before in several threads, but here I want to look more closely at it, and especially in a very specific context, because it's the source of a great deal of confusion: The category error.

A category error, or category mistake, is committed when one thing is treated as another. It's a pretty broad fallacy and, because of some of the subtle ways it can be committed, it can be difficult to spot, especially in some circumstances in which the way we think about certain things is ingrained. I have planned an offering in the very near future on smuggled fallacies, because these are another instance of something that can be difficult to spot, as they can be smuggled in several levels below the argument that's being made. Begging the question, or petitio principii, is a very common example of a smuggled fallacy. This topic is going to deal with one of the more common and easy-to-spot iterations of a smuggled fallacy.

Let's unpack the fallacy first, so that we can see how it's committed.

As I said above, a category error is committed when, during the course of an argument, one thing is treated as another. It's closely related to the fallacy of equivocation, among others, in which a term is treated first as meaning one thing and then as meaning another in the course of the same argument, and where the argument hinges on them being the same thing when they aren't. In this instance, though, there isn't actually equivocation, just an erroneous treatment of one thing as another.

This can be quite difficult to pick up on, most often when either the error is smuggled into the characteristics of the phenomenon or thing under consideration or when we simply gloss over the mistake. Let's look at the former of these first. 

One of the most common commissions of this form of the fallacy has been made pretty ubiquitous by a Youtuber known as 'Shock of God', who ventured a question around the well-known sceptics' sources some years ago, including a phone-in to the The Atheist Experience as well as several videos on his own channel and appearances on the channels of others. The question took the form 'what proof and evidence do you have that atheism is accurate and correct?'

Of course, the category error isn't the only fallacy this question has lurking within it, but it's the focus of today's missive, so we'll stick to focussing on that. We've talked before about how I, and most of the world's professed atheists, define atheism. There are many formulations, but most of them boil down to something like my own, namely the non-acceptance of a particular class of truth-claim with regard to the existence of a specific class of entity - a lack of belief*. Thus, being the state of not accepting a claim, atheism isn't a truth claim, and is not truth-apt, so there's no circumstance in which 'proof and evidence that atheism is accurate and correct' can be given. In other words, the apologist is looking here for something that cannot exist based on characteristics that the thing under question cannot have. This is the category error in its smuggled.

There are two areas in which this particular fallacy is most commonly manifest, though these areas also tend to be laden with a litany of other fallacies, the argumentum ad ignorantiam, or appeal to ignorance, looming large among them. We treated that particular fallacy in fairly comprehensive detail in Mind The Gap! among other places, so we won't revisit it here. These two areas are the go-to gaps in our knowledge seized upon gleefully by apologists as somehow requiring the intervention of intelligence; life and consciousness.

These are both phenomena that have foxed philosophers for millennia. They certainly seem to require some explanation, and no complete explanation has been forthcoming. Some might see this as a problem, as they're often seen as being the greatest voids in our knowledge, but much of this perception is rooted in the aforementioned fallacy in both cases. This is not to say, of course, that I have all the answers, but the central answer is one that I do possess, and it gives perspective to the other answers and reduces the problem to one of mechanics. It is this:

These things are not properties. Nor are they things. They're behaviours!

Previously, we've looked at the whole history of the universe in a nutshell, culminating in living things, and driven by a single process, the single process that underlies all the operations in the universe; entropy. Life is nothing more than a way for differentials in energy gradients to partially equalise pending further differentials becoming available. We explored this in some depth in Entropy and Evolution Revisited, where we saw that life is a way for matter, via chemical reactions, to locally increase entropy in the universe by tying energy up in a higher entropy state than the background energy. This is a purely mechanical process and, while it's certainly surprising that this can lead to such behaviour, it isn't the sort of mystery that remotely requires magic for its resolution, let alone when the magic itself is a bigger mystery. 

We explain things in terms of other things that we understand, so appealing to a bigger mystery for an explanation entirely fails to fulfil the remit of anything that could reasonably be described as an explanation. There's a famous film of physicist Richard Feynman talking about photons to a journalist, who gets quite frustrated that Feynman says he can't really tell him how magnetism works, because he can't cast it in terms of things the journalist would understand. Feynman was expressing exactly this principle. Appealing to something we have no understanding of as an explanation of something we have no understanding of fails to explain anything, and leaves us no better than when we started. Indeed, this is no better than presuppositionalism, which we explored in The Executioner's Argument, as the explanation is merely asserted, and cannot be demonstrated.

So what about consciousness?

Well, just as life is a way for energy to find higher entropy states, so consciousness is a way for life to do the same. Entropy builds our bodies, including our brains, and mind, or consciousness, is a behaviour of brains. To be aware is simply to have sensory input plus sufficient neurons and synaptic connections to be able to process that input.

Often, this error is glossed over, largely because of the mythology that's been constructed around life and consciousness that's become part of the lens through which we view them, resulting in us committing the self-same fallacy ourselves, and thinking of life and consciousness as somehow special beyond the mere fact that we have it. As such, it can be quite difficult to pick up on the fallacy, because the fallacy is itself ingrained in us, and subject to cognitive inertia in the same way that all our ideas are. Once we begin to think carefully about these notions, though, the fallacy should be clear. The only special thing about our perception of the world is that it's our perception. Were our perception different, that would be the special perception.

The real mystery here is why so much wibble is wibbled about life and consciousness, when the only purpose of such wibble is to obscure the right kinds of question.

So, when you come across somebody treating life or consciousness as a property, or as a thing that must be bestowed, smack it down, and tell them to behave, because that's what they're doing by living and being conscious.

[Rant mode off]

*There are those who will say that this is a dishonest attempt to avoid having any burden of proof, but this doesn't stack up. The burden is always on the affirmative claim, for what should be fairly obvious reasons, not least of which is that the negating claim is incoherent absent the affirmative claim. Suppose I were to say that furgleburglemanurgleburgle doesn't exist; what should be your response? Apart from backing slowly away and keeping a close eye on me for sudden movements, the proper response is to dismiss the claim until some definition and supporting evidence is provided. In the case of deities, neither of these burdens has been met, thus there can be no intervening burden on the negating claim. We adopt the position we do because we're aware of the limits of epistemology and are wary of erecting absolute and unsupportable statements, not because the onus probandi passes to us. See Are Babies Atheist?