On my way to work this morning I listened to a rant by Cenk Uygur about Sam Harris, which you can find here. I don’t have much to say right now about most of what goes on in that clip but there is one phenomenon that I’ve now observed for the second time that I would very much like for someone to explain to me.
Uygur, for reasons know but to himself, utters the following abomination of an intellectual point as an ofshoot comment in his list of complaints against Harris (offenses against grammar are his, not mine):
“By the way, they also have trouble with probability theory. Sam Harris, the ‘great atheist’ is like, ‘It’s of course more likely that Jesus will return to Jerusalem than he will return to Missouri’. I got bad news for you, he’s not returning anywhere. The chances are zero percent return to Jerusalem, zero percent return to Missouri. If you’re a real atheist, you’ll understand that.”
Now just why the fuck would Uygur do something like this? His other disagreements with Harris are open to debate and my readers, to the extent that I have any, may agree or disagree with him for a variety of reasons, but the above quoted text is objective nonsense. What Uygur is doing here is referencing the interview he made with Sam Harris about a year ago, where Harris claimed that Mormonism was less believable than generic Christianity. Harris’ point then wasn’t that it was more probable that Jesus would return to Jerusalem than to Missouri but that it was more probable that he would just return somewhere than that he would return to a specific location.
The mathematics behind this are obvious, all imaginable cases where Jesus comes back to Missouri are a subset of all possible cases where Jesus comes back at all. Thus assuming that we cannot rule out anything to exactly 0% probability, the greater set containing the subset will have a higher probability than just the subset. Think of it as rolling five billion dice, rolling all sixes or all fives is so unprobable as to be considered impossible, but it is twice as probable to roll either all fives or all sixes than to roll all sixes. I cannot imagine that Uygur doesn’t understand this, so why is he acting like a clown?
Likewise with the talk about how “If you’re a real atheist, you’ll understand that”. That makes as much sense as saying that if you’re a real vegetarian, you’ll understand evolutionary biology. Just like vegetarianism simply means that you don’t eat meat, so atheism means that you don’t believe in any theistic religion. It doesn’t explain why you don’t believe, you may still be either as intelligent as professor Dawkins or dumb as soup. Uygur’s talk about how a “real” atheist criticizes all religion equally is misuse of the English language, he needs some other words for what he is trying to say, like equal opportunity anti-theist or something like that.
Once again, why is Cenk Uygur acting like this? I don’t mean disagreeing with Harris, he has made that part clear. What I mean is, why did he spend any effort into interrupting the point he was making to blurt out the segment I have quoted above? Why did he think it was a good idea to bring up that embarrassing take on probability theory again? I repeat, bring it up AGAIN, out of nowhere, a year after Harris said what he said about Mormonism. It’s like he is going out of his way to be simplistic, and it bothers me because I’d like to remember that Cenk Uygur wasn’t like that before this feud with Harris started a year ago.