Disproving a Belief System

I recently came across an argument on Talking Philosophy against one of the arguments Dawkin’s made in his book “The God Delusion”

This is a repost of my reply:


Belief systems are more or less sophisticated (which is independent of whether or not they are right or wrong). The more sophisticated, the harder to show how they are wrong, the more you’ve got to know.

In a world where people have believed in fairies for more than two thousand years, where fairies have inspired many of the great achievements of human civilization, where some of the outstanding minds in human history have believed in fairies, have debated their existence and nature in some of the major works of literature and philosophy, where there are “proofs” of fairies that many (some?) people take to be valid, where there exists a huge variation in what people take fairies to be when they say that they believe in them… when all this, and more, is true

This is a good summary the main point you have tried to make over and over (and have concluded that you are correct about). In the form of a syllogism:

Premise 1: Belief systems are more or less sophisticated.
Premise 2: Sophistication of a belief system is independent of it’s correctness.
(Adapted from the second Quote)
Premise 3: Belief systems have existed for a long time.
Premise 4: Belief systems inspire great human achievements.
Premise 5: Great people in history have endorsed belief systems.
Premise 6: Many people believe there is proof for belief systems.
Premise 7: More knowledge makes for better criticism.

Through these premises you have induced:

Conclusion: The more sophisticated a belief system is the harder it is to disprove and to disprove a belief system it you must have an intimate knowledge of it.

Fallacy 1: The first part of your conclusion directly violates your second premise. Sophistication can not increase legitimacy, as you state and I agree with, if it is to be taken as independent of the belief system.

Fallacy 2: The only premise you actually provide for your second claim is that more knowledge makes for better criticism. Premise 3-6 are mostly irrelevant filler (IMHO). It appears that you are inducing the second claim on the basis of a personal value for knowledge. From this premise I could make the following claim:

I have studied fairies my whole life and know more about them than anyone on the planet. I am the highest of fairy experts. I say fairies are real and no one can dispute that because no one has more knowledge than I do about the subject of fairies.

This imagined person has to provide no evidence for his claim and based on your claim no one can criticize him because no one has more knowledge on the subject then he.

I believe part of the allure of this argument is that it appears that you are trying to avoid a hasty conclusion. I do not think this is the case.

You have said:

So spare me all this “begging the question” stuff.

I will not spare you, you are begging the question when you say:

it is necessary to know a fair bit about fairy-ology to show that belief in fairies is irrational.

Your assumption that if we increase the complexity and sophistication of a belief system it makes it more correct is a poor conclusion to come to. It seems like your trying to apply the argument of irreducible complexity to theology… the more complex the more it proves god exists… Have you not heard of Occam’s razor?

Paul hit the nail on the head:

“Give it up guys. Some theology is more sophisticated than other kinds. It’s all wrong, of course – but some stuff is wrong is more complicated ways than other stuff.” This only seems plausible. I say fairies exist but i know nothing else about them . I am simply wrong. You say fairies exist and have various properties. You are wrong in a more complicated way. But you are also more wrong that I am because you made the same error as I did – that fairies exist – and then went on to add more errors.

At the end of the day I would agree with your conclusion if it were modified as such:

It is easier to disprove a belief system it you have an intimate knowledge of it.

While less absolute than your conclusion it’s far easier to defend.

It is not necessary to know a fair bit about X to show that belief in X is irrational. Where X can equal any of the following: fairies, magic, ghosts, gods, trolls, elves, the force, vampires, Godzilla, Cthulhu, wizards, Optimus Prime, Chewbacca, Big Foot, Spock, Frankenstein, Samus Aran, (and the list could go on forever)… It is irrational to assume that fiction and reality can be the same, that things exist with out evidence of their existence.

Posted in Critiques

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