A common non sequitur

Recently I found an interesting non sequitur posed to an “atheist and freethinkers” Facebook group I belong to. Interesting because it’s an argument I’ve seen before. I commented that it was a non sequitur, and the OP didn’t know what that is. (Neither did I until recently, but Google is my friend.)

So what is a non sequitur? It’s Latin for “does not follow”. Very simply, it’s a bad logical argument where a conclusion is drawn that is not derived from the arguments presented. There are many different kinds of logical fallacies that result in non sequitur statements, but they do seem to follow a basic pattern, which is that some inference happens between the arguments and the conclusion; there’s a disconnect and some sort of implicit assumption going on, which is unstated.

For example: The sky is blue. My pen is blue. Conclusion: Who wrote the sky?

See what I did there? If I’d written, “The sky is blue. My pen is blue. Therefore the sky is written”, that would have been an example of a questionable cause fallacy. (Specifically, it’s one where correlation incorrectly implies causationcum hoc, ergo propter hoc in Latin.) To create the non sequitur, I assumed that the correlation implied causation, and then went on to make a conclusion about the written sky. So there’s a gap between the conclusion I leapt to and the arguments I presented.

I chose my contrived and obviously logically broken example, for a reason. Besides being really clearly wrong, it’s also very similar to the actual argument I read recently. (This is not the only kind of non sequitur. Sometimes the conclusion may be completely unrelated to the argument or previous statement.)

His argument, which I must confess I did not read properly because I saw the non sequitur straight away, went something like this: DNA is a language. Then several lengthy and verbose paragraphs about the structure of DNA and how it couldn’t have evolved, including some gross misunderstanding of what evolution actually is, with some scientific jargon thrown in for good measure red herring value. Conclusion: Intelligent design.

Can you see how this illogical argument is similar to my example? Firstly, it starts with a metaphor. I’m not a geneticist, but I know that DNA is not a language. Whether you use a metaphor or a simile, what you have there is a comparison. So the argument goes off the rails from the start. DNA, when modelled by us and when explained or framed a certain way, has some characteristics of language. But it also doesn’t. You can arrange letters in virtually any order, while the parts involved in DNA only go together a certain way. So the language comparison imposes grammar rules on DNA, comparing the rigidity of its structure with the way we define rules and form words out of letters. One could also say that DNA has some characteristics of Lego blocks, and this would in some ways be superior to the language comparison. But regardless, the comparison is not with actual DNA, it is with the way we model it. His argument then makes a logical leap that is completely unstated: Man designed language. DNA is like language. Conclusion: Who designed DNA?

To conclude, the common argument that there must be an intelligent designer because DNA is a language is a really poor one. It creates a statement that is a non sequitur. Simply put the idea that there is a god because everything is so complicated does not follow.

3 thoughts on “A common non sequitur

  1. When I first started exploring atheist groups and forums online, I felt rather dim-witted wit all dem funny wurds flyin’ round. I assumed they were a bunch of pompous dicks using big words to confound their theistic opponents into a state of submission. But I Googled a few anyway & that’s when I realised they were specific to the context of debate and argument. Sorry, atheists.

    I found a colourful alternative to “straw man” recently & I think it would make my life if atheists started using it instead. The phrase sounds silly and bucolic, and will be in perfect comical contrast to the usual scepticspeak. The idiom is ‘Tilting at windmills’ which basically means attacking imaginary enemies. Isn’t it delightfully whimsical? 😀

    I’m also considering relabelling myself as a “nullifidian” (a person having no faith or religious belief), because it sounds equally quirky and snooty. 😛


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry… I edited this comment a couple of times and now it’s very long. It has the makings of a blog post all by itself…

      I’d never heard of the phrase “tilting at windmills” but it is quite clever. I have this picture in my mind now, of Don Quixote tearing the poor windmills to pieces, as he imagines he is defeating a band of evil giants. You’re right that this is a good alternative to a straw man… windmills don’t fight back just like straw men are easy to burn, and oversimplified caricatures of arguments that don’t represent the true position, are easy to scoff at and defeat.

      I couldn’t agree more about the terms seeming aloof. But I have been fascinated with skepticism (I prefer the American spelling for no particular reason) for a couple of years now. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, because I’m not, but I have learned a great deal about logical fallacies and bad arguments in the last two years. I didn’t do Latin in my school days, but there are some fallacies that are only described using their Latin names, and I’ve only recently started getting my head around those. But what it comes down to is that I didn’t join any skeptical or atheist groups until recently, having read about it for around two years. That’s why I’m generally quite comfortable with the terms used. (Too bad my old blog is down. My motto used to be “think for yourself” and my writing about it was quite different three or four years ago. Actually my writing about everything was different a few years ago because I was writing while I was high, which sometimes meant I’d skip from subject to subject, flitting between them like a stone skimming over a surface of a river at which it was thrown and then sinking at some random point without ever reaching its intended destination – as if there was one, but nevertheless I could still write, and some of my writing was pretty good, in my arrogant opinion.)

      Also, I love the term “straw man”. I think of it as setting up a caricature of an opponent, and then literally burning the straw man. The comparison works well for me, and that’s how I remembered it. I mean, it’s so much easier to burn a straw man than than a real person. Also straw burns really easily, so it creates a memorable image in my mind, of someone setting fire to a highly combustible effigy of their enemy rather than the enemy himself. Likewise it’s easier to attack an oversimplified pretense of somebody’s argument than it is to argue against their true position. The straw man argument works because most people on the same side as the one using it, for example creationists and other science deniers, do not have any understanding of the counter argument. Nor do they ever want to understand it. Instead they treat the straw man as if it’s the real argument – maybe sometimes they just don’t know any better. For example, those who argue that evolution isn’t real because monkeys still exist, or look at the complexity of, say the eye, or the process of photosynthesis, and say that it “couldn’t have evolved”. Clearly they have not even the most basic understanding of evolution. They only know the straw man argument, which they repeat and rehash and respond to when it’s in the form of a meme on social media. It’s ironic that Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” and its even more ironic that a meme itself demonstrates the principles of evolution as it evolves via slight modifications, then spreads further virally on social media.

      But I find the debating groups on FB very frustrating. The theists just rehash straw man arguments and make nonsensical statements, such as the bible being proof of god because it says so. Or they indulge in circular reasoning without realizing it. And if you confront a theist about their circular reasoning, the most likely result is one of, being accused of disrespecting their belief (that old chestnut), an ad hominem attack, or an accusation that atheism is also a belief system (Just another straw man), without addressing their own failed logic. They also do it so verbosely (Gish gallup) that, even if one responds to every fallacious argument, when they read it they will never connect the dots and thus never return to their own original broken circular logic. That frustrates me about online debates. The believer looks at every argument in isolation in such a case, when one has responded to their circular logic. It seems like a choice to remain willfully ignorant. They don’t debate anything at all and I’m wondering if the whole thing is a waste of effort. People LIKE my comments, but only people who already agree with me anyway.

      It appears that in the minds of theists, the onus must be on us (atheists) to prove that god does not exist. It’s backwards, the burden of proof should lie with them, since it’s impossible to prove a negative. Also, there is no argument that will ever convince anybody who believes in what Steve Novella calls an “unfalsifiable belief”. A god that exists outside the bounds of physical reality, that can’t be detected by science, and that some people will not stop believing in no matter the evidence that everything in the physical world can be explained by the physical world alone. Even though there is no evidence that any such thing as a soul exists, people will “find evidence” that backs up their preconceptions, and no arguments will ever convince them otherwise. (Confirmation bias. See, there I go again with another link… I can’t discuss this without referencing the known and documented logic and psychological aspects of it. But believers do not seem interested in understanding this. I believe that it’s very important to understand these things, so that we can recognize our own bad logic. Confirmation bias is something that we all do; in my understanding it is part of how we have evolved to find patterns to be able to survive. Not acknowledging this, as theists so often do not, means that arguing with them can never get anywhere. They’re not in it to learn, only to confirm what they already believe and to “win” the argument.)

      I’m not always certain of what my objective is, when writing about atheism and skepticism. I’m passionate about it, of course, and it is therapeutic to express that passion. But I don’t always know who I’m trying to convince, if anybody, though some of it is simply meant to connect with like-minded thinkers. Also there’s my son. He’s seven, and still in foster care until the end of the year, being raised by a theist who plays incredibly annoying DVD’s like Psalty Psalms, and has him say grace before dinner etc. He knows that I don’t believe in God, and he has twice recently expressed his doubt to me. “I’m not sure if God is real. I’ve never seen him. He never answers my prayers.” And he hates church. So part of my reason for writing about it is to leave a legacy of my words behind for him to read one day. I never had that with my father. I was never able to connect with him on any kind of intellectual level. I hope to get the chance to have that kind of relationship with my son, and if not, I hope that one day when I’m dead, what I’ve written will resonate with him and give him an understanding of me and my thinking, one that I can’t get through to him now while he is so young.


  2. Reblogged this on Mass Delusions a.k.a. Magical & Religious Woo-Bullshit Thinking and commented:
    A blog post containing good examples of illogical conclusions so easily drawn by woos and others using the magical & religious thought processing system in our brains (a.k.a. IPS #1, the Information Processing System #1; for details, see https://bbnewsblog.wordpress.com/2015/07/02/the-two-information-processing-systems-ipss-in-your-brain-one-is-woo-ish-the-other-is-rational/ .


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