Carrier’s contradiction in terms

I am finishing up reading the debate between Richard Carrier and Jennifer Roth on the issue of abortion (HT: dangerous idea). It is a remarkable debate because it is between two atheists on an issue that is generally divided by religious lines, and it was hosted by the Internet Infidels as well. The two both have very interesting arguments for their respective sides.

However strong his case may be for secularists elsewhere, Carrier stumbles on a point that bothered me from the very first reading. In noting that Roth appeals to the size of the pro-life movement during his closing statement, he says:

The pro-life movement is largely comprised of people who hold the view they do, unlike Ms. Roth, because of their belief in untrue facts, namely the belief that God infuses a soul at conception. Some even think it is wrong to kill an ensouled body only because God said so—hence the existence of a belief in these people that atheists must be immoral. So it is very much an open question whether they, once accepting the true facts, would remain on Roth’s side. [emphasis mine]

The first problem I have is that Carrier apparently conflates a lack of positive proof for the soul for negative proof of it: that is, that the absence of evidence for the soul proves its non-existence. This is clearly not a logical inference (“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”), and so Carrier is not justified in saying that the soul’s non-existence is factual, only that the assertion of the soul’s existence is not justified. I would venture to guess that this also applies to God’s existence, but the existence of the soul is the more proximal issue here.

The second problem is semantic: As I note in the title of this entry, Carrier provides a contradiction in terms in the phrase (bolded above) “belief in untrue facts.” The phrase “untrue facts” is itself oxymoronic, since factuality is roughly equivalent to veracity or actuality. Carrier would probably agree with the statement “It is a fact that the soul does not exist,” but what is being expressed by this proposition is “It is true that the soul does not exist.” Statements of factuality are, in modern usage, substitutions for truth claims, and so the idea of an “untrue fact” is incoherent since it essentially means “untrue truth.” What Carrier is trying to say is that the religious hold a belief that he doesn’t think is justified, and so the religious just need to “come around” to the truth of the matter, which is that souls don’t exist (or to be more charitable, we have no reason to believe that they do). As it stands, he seriously botched up the whole statement, including his poor portrayal of religious beliefs (the religious think atheists are immoral because they kill ensouled bodies, and that’s because of their religion? hasn’t Carrier ever noticed how prevalent the Golden Rule is even in non-religious ideologies?).

This is of course a minor point in the debate, and it need not undercut Carrier’s overall position (although I think Roth did a masterful job at framing a secular pro-life position), but it shows sloppiness in usage, and that must always be criticized for the sake of clarity in meaning.


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