Second Guessing Richard Carrier, Part II

In my previous article, I talked about Carrier’s strange objection to Plantinga’s tiger and how he seemingly attacked an argument without telling his readers what that argument was in the first place. He never cited anything from Plantinga in that section of his article, and failed to quote him at all.

In this article, I will try to clarify the argument from Plantinga which Carrier references. In light of Plantinga’s argument clarified, we will evaluate additional claims made by Carrier in hopes of showing his followers that he’s not only sloppy, but also unreliable as a source of philosophical education.

Plantinga’s Argument Rightly Stated

We have said what Plantinga’s argument is attempting to do, that is, demonstrate the irrationality of belief in natural selection and show the inconsistency between it and its own schema, naturalism. But what is his argument? Rather than give you the manuscript in detail, I will draw out the highlights from his Veritas presentation. The argument flows as thus:

  • The probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given naturalistic evolution, is low. (Conditional probability) If evolution and naturalism were true together, then our cognitive faculties would probably not be reliable.
  • If a person sees that the first premise is true, and believes that naturalism and evolution are true, then that person has encountered a defeater for the belief that his or her faculties are indeed reliable. If there is a defeater here, there is also a defeater for any belief formed on the basis of a person’s cognitive faculties, which are all beliefs. This renders naturalism and evolution, taken together, self-defeating and thus irrational.

    (A defeater is a reason to relinquish a particular belief. In simple terms, a defeater is a belief a person comes to have which makes a previous belief irrational. If I believe A but come to believe B, and B falsifies A, then A is no longer rationally acceptable, and ought to be relinquished.)

In defense of the first premise, Plantinga goes on to discuss the makeup of belief if naturalism were taken as true. Beliefs, according to naturalism, would have two distinct properties. The first would be the parts of the event of coming to a belief. These are called neurophysiological properties. An example would be the rate of fire of neurons, whether or not there is neurological re-uptake, etc. These variables, and other similar variables, are figured into the first property of neurophysiological beliefs. The second property is belief content. A proposition, for example, would serve as content.

The trouble, here, is the prospect of what exactly causes a particular action to take place. According to naturalism, says Plantinga, an action would take place on the basis of the neurophysiological property alone, not at all with respects to belief content. This would mean that naturalism, taken with natural selection, is not aimed at the discovery of truth, but at neurophysiological behavioral modification which may or may not increase the chances of survival or prolonged life. Propositions are then 50/50 true or false. There is no real reason to suggest a person should be able to apprehend truth, consciously, given naturalism and natural selection.

Carrier’s Characterization of Plantinga’s Argument

Now that we have covered the very basic roots of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN), we can more thoroughly evaluate whether or not Carrier is really off his rocker. Dr. Carrier ends his discussion about Plantinga’s tiger like this, “So as an argument, Plantinga’s tiger is fantastically stupid.” But remember, Carrier never really told us what Plantinga’s tiger was all about in any meaningful sense. He never included direct quotes, citations, etc. Either this means Carrier is being disingenuous, or he’s extremely sloppy. I tend to think it may be a mixture of both. No matter his dishonesty or sloppiness, let’s see if Carrier has a point.

He goes on from the tiger situation to four characteristics of the EAAN. I am going to respond to each one without quoting them at length. If you want to read them in their entirety, you can click here.

His first point against EAAN is that Plantinga supposedly ignores the distinction between “biology and technology of reason.” He then says, “The former is what our brain does; the latter is all the tools we developed to improve on what the brain does, such as mathematics, logic, and science. Those things have to be installed culturally. Because they aren’t in us biologically. They were not selected by evolution. They were selected by the rudimentary human intelligence that evolution gave us.”

I want to point out two red flags. First, did Carrier really just imply that evolution is internalistic notwithstanding environmental factors? I know this is a whole different argument, but this is just absurd. The task of the secular evolutionary anthropologist is to study the relationship between natural selection and human development (cf. ‘A theory of human life history evolution: Diet, intelligence, and longevity’). Second, is Carrier suggesting the laws of logic are human conventions? If so, this has been answered in many places. One example is Greg Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein.

Second, Plantinga is not confusing biology with technology whatsoever. As you can see above, Plantinga is evaluating the probability of reliable cognitive faculties. Cognitive faculties are not tools invented by humans in order to make life better. They are psycho-neurological capacities which enable a person to form beliefs based on various types of experiences. Thus, for the naturalistic evolutionist, cognitive faculties would not be human conventions, but evolutionary developments.

Carrier continues to miss the point.

In his second point he says, “Plantinga conflates different kinds of faculties. My eyesight and visual processing is one faculty (e.g. my ability to see you and gauge your distance and size).” No, Dr. Carrier, that is a subset of the faculty of sense perception. He goes on, “my ability to process diverse information and thereby conclude that you cannot hide inside a lunch box is another faculty altogether.” That would be man’s faculties of reason. Plantinga makes distinctions between all of these in Warranted Christian Belief and Warrant and Proper Function. In fact, he specifically breaks down different ways of coming to particular beliefs depending on certain faculties to the exclusion of others (i.e. memory beliefs, sense perception beliefs; cf. the brain lesion or rock climber illustrations in Warranted Christian Belief). Carrier goes on, “Plantinga makes no distinction, and thus is incapable of ever having a scientifically credible account of our cognitive faculties.” Really? Ok, even if Plantinga fails to draw a distinction (which he demonstrably doesn’t do), then it wouldn’t follow that he’s necessarily incapable. If anything, statements like this ought to cause Carrier’s followers to question his credibility. Unfortunately, he keeps going, “Which is why he has never published a single paper on the evolution of cognition in any science journal dedicated to actually scientifically studying the evolution of cognition.”

Really, Carrier? Did you ask him? Did you ever think that, perhaps he’s never tried? I mean, he’s a distinguished philosopher in the eyes of Ivy League academia (Notre Dame). Do you really think that a person can’t speak on anything unless they’ve published an article in a specific type of journal? What if I said all writings on Jesus are trash unless they are published in an orthodox Christian theological journal? Is the fact that they haven’t been published in a specific journal reason enough to write all of them off? Not in the least.

Try again, Carrier.

His third claim is odd, namely because Carrier has done PhD work. This point is pretty off-base for even entry level philosophy students. He accuses Plantinga of leaning “his entire argument on a single bifurcation fallacy.” Remember, from above, when Plantinga gave a 50/50 chance for the apprehension of truth if naturalism and natural selection were true? That seems to be what Carrier is referring to here. However, the bifurcation fallacy, or fallacy of a false dilemma, only applies to bifurcations that are false in that there are more than just two options. But Carrier has never demonstrated the falsehood of Plantinga’s bifurcation, or shown there to be another option.

Moreover, Plantinga is discussing probabilities, not actual choice (a dilemma implies a choice). Plantinga is not saying that a person has to believe it’s either 50% A or 50% B. Rather, he’s arguing that there is a low probability of true beliefs if naturalistic evolution were true, and illustrates this as a 50/50 split. In other words, there’s no reason one should believe naturalism to be true given natural selection because if natural selection were true, there would be no way of warranting belief concerning whether or not any belief, P, is true. He’s merely stating this as a probabilistic catch 22.

There is no fallacy of false dilemma here.

Carrier’s fourth and last reason is not a surprise. He says, “Plantinga also conflates different kinds of knowledge.” Well, ok, but he never once shows why he thinks this is true. He just claims it and runs through different scenarios where a person apprehends knowledge in different ways. He never once shows why, or how, Plantinga is conflating various types of knowledge.

Conclusion

There is more to Carrier’s article, if you care to read it. From where we leave off, Carrier pulls a classic by quoting himself at length (he does this a lot). The beginning of the article is largely about Tim Keller and why Carrier didn’t like his book Reasons for God.

Overall, when a little light is thrown on Plantinga’s actual argumentation, it can be seen that Carrier, a supposed PhD in Ancient History, is badly misrepresenting an argument, not truly interacting with Plantinga’s subject matter. This is not only bad scholarly etiquette, but it also shows Carrier’s inability to respond to his opponents. It appears as if Carrier has a difficult time either in reading comprehension or worse, the virtue of honesty.

My hope in responding to Carrier is that his followers are enabled to think critically about the content he pumps out so liberally. His writing, in my experience, is generally bad. There is little to no credibility in what he says, not because his writing is terrible, but because he just doesn’t really tell the truth. He may as well start talking about UFOs and tin-foil hats; it would be just as well. Perhaps he would even reach another demographic!

11 Comments

  1. Hey Josh, I recently stumbled on this post and thought it might be interesting to have a conversation. I’m a firm atheist, though I try to be respectful of people who disagree! There’s a lot to discuss in your post, but I’ll try to keep it to just a single point for the sake of brevity. Also, I’m not really interested in defending Carrier (nor attacking Plantinga), as I think both are fully capable of arguing for themselves. I’m just interested in engaging your points rather than theirs, except insofar as theirs provide a starting point for discussion.

    This also responds to your “No God = No Truth” post, so I may eventually cite from both.

    “The probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given naturalistic evolution, is low.”

    As someone who believes in naturalistic materialism, I would tend to agree with this statement, though I think we need to be careful in defining “reliability,” here. You and I may not be defining it exactly the same. To me, unreliable doesn’t necessarily entail false – it’s possible for “reliability” to exist on a spectrum. To borrow a term from statistics, what I’m getting at is somewhat like the “p-value” of human cognition. If human cognition evolved naturalistically, would it be straight unreliable — a p-value of exactly 1, indicating, as I think you’re arguing, that we would have zero chance of having rational thought (that is, our “beliefs” would be formed at random)?

    If so, I disagree, as even in a naturalistic universe in which cognitive faculties are selected for, you should neither expect perfect cognition (a p-value of 0), nor perfect incompetence (a p-value of 1). Instead, we’d expect human naturalistic evolution to land us somewhere on the spectrum, and therefore have some ability to decipher truth, but imperfectly. I also think you would agree that’s a fair depiction of how humans actually are.

    Even from a Christian perspective, humans aren’t perfect, and if some imperfect ability to decipher truth is allowed in a godless universe, then ultimately your conclusion that there’s a conflict between naturalism and truth is defeated. We *can* know truth, but we can also be wrong.

    I’ll also add, briefly, that if we can supplement our imperfect cognitive ability with cultural constructs (e.g., science) that can improve our ability to reason, then in theory we can similarly improve our chances at honing in on “Truth.” I, too, would have caveats about how well we’re able to do that in reality (due to our imperfection), but I’ll leave that here for now. Either way, truth and naturalism are preserved — somewhat.

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    1. Hi CanadianSkeptic!

      First, I want to thank you for your comment and the level of politeness you’ve approached me with.

      In my understanding, Plantinga is not arguing for zero chance of having rational thought should naturalism and natural selection be taken together as true. Rather, he’s arguing for the low probability of true belief in reliable cognitive faculties. I didn’t draw this out too much in my article because there just wasn’t space, but Plantinga actually addresses this in both ‘Warranted Christian Belief’ and ‘Warrant and Proper Function’.

      For instance, in his speech at the Veritas Forum, as well as in ‘Warrant and Proper Function’ he discusses two types of properties, both of which I do touch on lightly in my article. These properties are neurophysiological and belief content. The question, therefore, becomes what really causes an action. Plantinga’s point is that, according to naturalistic Darwinism, belief content is not considered by natural selection, in the neurophysiological property (i.e. biological functions). Thus, while naturalistic evolution may have an apparatus to account for specie survival, it does not account for true belief.

      In other words, according to naturalistic evolution, there is a low probability that our cognitive faculties are aimed at truth rather than just sheer survival.

      I hope this helps! I would just recommend the two volumes I just mentioned for further reading. He also has a more recent book titled ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’ which you may find helpful.

      Blessings!

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      1. Thank you, Josh.

        “Thus, while naturalistic evolution may have an apparatus to account for specie survival, it does not account for true belief.”

        I’m not certain this is wholly true — there’s definitely strong reason to assume “true belief” has survival value. Consider a similar example as in your “No God = No Truth” post — if Bob believes there’s a lion in the bushes (a lion gets at my point better than a sidewalk, at least insofar as sidewalks tend to less murderous intent), but Betty thinks the lion is just Bob’s imagination, then Bob will have substantially better survival prospects than Betty.

        Through evolution, life has developed more complex and effective survival mechanisms, and one of those is the ability to construct (accurate) mental models of the world around us — that is, belief.

        That said, I’m still trying to resolve whether your argument is that cognitive abilities capable of “true belief” are A) unlikely to evolve at all, or B) even if cognitive abilities did evolve, without an objective philosophical underpinning, all beliefs would have essentially the same merits as any other (and therefore no merit at all).

        I’ll try to quickly address both:

        A) If your argument is that the *ability* to form true beliefs is unlikely, I would agree with you. But we live in a system so vast that even extremely unlikely events regularly happen. By analogy, the chances of winning the lottery are, let’s say, something like 1 in 14 million. That’s rare! And yet, people win lotteries all of the time. Evolving intelligence may be vastly more unlikely than that, but the universe is likewise vastly larger than a lottery pool, and because being able to form accurate mental models of the world around us provides a distinct survival advantage, it should come as no surprise that it evolved.

        B) If your argument is that, in a naturalistic universe, all beliefs would have essentially the same “value” – that is, there would be no solid philosophical underpinning on which to ground belief, and thus “Bob” and “Betty” have exactly equal claim to believe/disbelieve in the existence of the lion, then I’d say: yes and no.

        Yes, because philosophy exists within the minds of humans and it therefore follows that the universe itself doesn’t have a “philosophy” in the way that it has, say, the strong nuclear force. The universe won’t tell us whether Bob or Betty are “thinking well,” it can only tell us if there is, in fact, a lion in the bushes. But also no, because there are philosophical methods devised by humans that have had greater, and lesser, success at determining whether or not there is, in fact, a lion in the bushes (among other things).

        If I think there’s a lion in the bushes, I could be wrong — Betty could be right! — but if we really want to find out, we can actually look in the bushes. If we’re being really smart about it, we can throw a rock from a distance or check it out with our tribe (armed with spears). But the point is, we can find out — in this case, essentially by using the empirical method (of course, there are other methods).

        Further, say you take 50 Bobs and 50 Bettys (I’ll call them the B&B tribe) and get them together to check the bushes. 99 members of the B&B tribe conclude that there’s a lion, so they kill, skin and prepare it (or perhaps let it go — maybe they’re a vegan tribe?). 1 tribe member who stayed home says there was no lion at all — it was a false flag attack used to distract from the REAL problems facing their tribe!

        Who do you believe?

        I think we can fairly safely say that the 99 who saw the lion have a more reliable method (they found, caught and dealt with the lion) for establishing truth. And if that method works not only that time, but in the vast majority of other similar situations, then we can start to say that it’s a reliable method for establishing truth.

        Therefore Betty and Bob do not have equal claim to the truth. Rather, the strength of either one’s claim is predicated on the tools they employed to arrive at it — tools they themselves created. Furthermore, God is not required to create such a tool — whether philosophy or a spear.

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      2. Plantinga isn’t arguing that true belief doesn’t have survival value at all. Rather, that survival value and true belief are not always mutually inclusive of one another. For example, for survival’s sake, it may be in our best interest to kill another human being. But just because that increases chances of survival of, perhaps a group of people, does not mean it’s an ethical decision. It may be ethically true that it’s objectively wrong to kill another human being, say, for food, all the time–yet it would technically increase the chances of prolonged survival in many cases. So, in this scenario, as in others, true belief is not being considered, only the prolonged survival of one group of people. It says nothing about belief content, but everything about neurophysiological processes.

        The argument, briefly stated, is that true belief in the reliability of human cognitive faculties is low given naturalistic evolution. The argument is not with respect to merit of belief, but whether or not beliefs are actually aimed at discovering that which comports with reality.

        The problem I see with your response to (A) is that things like a-biogenesis and natural selection are not predicated upon one singular event. You’re talking many, many events which would have had to culminate in life with the proper amino acids capable of cell reproduction. One must not only take into consideration the biology itself, but the surrounding environment, time, etc. Regardless, I do not see your response to (A) as especially helpful since we must take into account things like mathematical probabilities in research. We can’t just blow it off and say, “Well, it just happened!”

        //Further, say you take 50 Bobs and 50 Bettys (I’ll call them the B&B tribe) and get them together to check the bushes. 99 members of the B&B tribe conclude that there’s a lion, so they kill, skin and prepare it (or perhaps let it go — maybe they’re a vegan tribe?). 1 tribe member who stayed home says there was no lion at all — it was a false flag attack used to distract from the REAL problems facing their tribe!//

        I’m not sure (B) is relevant at all. I tend to think it’s not, granted the fact the context (looking at B&B tribe) is a survival one. And the argument can’t hinge on one particular instance, because Plantinga is not claiming that every decision in favor of survival is not true belief. Rather, true belief, insofar as content is concerned, is not seen by naturalistic evolution granted what motivates our actions, according to it, is neurophysiological in nature.

        //Furthermore, God is not required to create such a tool — whether philosophy or a spear.//

        I’m not exactly sure what you mean here. Could you elaborate?

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  2. “Plantinga isn’t arguing that true belief doesn’t have survival value at all. Rather, that survival value and true belief are not always mutually inclusive of one another.”

    So, given Plantinga’s argument (and yours?), survival may at times require both true and false beliefs. Don’t we essentially live in a world swimming in both true and false beliefs? It seems this argument, which appears designed to criticize the naturalistic worldview, actually describes the world fairly well. I don’t see any conflict between “survival value and true belief are not always mutually inclusive” and the world as it actually is. I actually do think survival has demanded, at times, that people adopt false beliefs on occasion — incidentally, and I mean no offence by this, but religion may be one such example.

    “It may be ethically true that it’s objectively wrong to kill another human being, say, for food, all the time–yet it would technically increase the chances of prolonged survival in many cases.”

    I’m not sure you really meant to tread this path, but there’s *lots* of reasons killing other humans for food would not confer survival advantages to us. That said, I’m not sure what role ethics plays in this conversation. Can you clarify? Naturalism doesn’t assume the universe is ethical.

    “Regardless, I do not see your response to (A) as especially helpful since we must take into account things like mathematical probabilities in research. We can’t just blow it off and say, “Well, it just happened!””

    For what it’s worth, theories of evolution *do* take into account things like mathematical probabilities, not to mention biology, the events needed to result in self-replicating amino acids, the surrounding environment, time, etc. So they’re not, as you suggest, reducible to “Well, it just happened!” (and anyway, isn’t that the presuppositionalist’s position? ;))

    “I’m not sure (B) is relevant at all….Rather, true belief, insofar as content is concerned, is not seen by naturalistic evolution granted what motivates our actions, according to it, is neurophysiological in nature.”

    As above, I don’t see this argument as actually challenging my worldview, at least if I’m interpreting you properly. I don’t think evolution does care about truth, unless that truth confers a survival advantage. At times truth is advantageous, at times truth is disadvantageous. If I see a lion in the bushes, it’s advantageous that my eyes aren’t… lion to me (sorry, couldn’t resist). Yet, if I’m part of a group, it’s likewise advantageous that we share similar social, cultural and religious values — for group harmony — regardless of whether those beliefs are true or not. Evolution is capable of selecting for both, and I believe it has.

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    1. Canadianskeptic,

      Not exactly. I’m probably not doing a very good job explaining this. I’ve had rather limited time this week so far, so I apologize for any confusion.

      I think your best bet for clarification would be Plantinga’s talk at the Veritas Forum here:

      And his book, ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies,’ here:

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      1. Thanks Josh. Should you get time to more properly flesh out your thoughts, feel free! And if not, I understand, as well — no judgement here. Sadly, I too lead an exceptionally busy life (full-time work, completing a masters on the side (in religious studies, perhaps ironically), and I’m also doing major rennovations), so it’s unlikely I’ll get a chance to read that book (maybe the debate, but probably not for some time). That’s also part of why I opened by stating I was more interested in your opinions than Plantinga’s — I knew I wouldn’t have capacity to dive into all of Plantinga’s nuances for our purposes here, but a conversation with you is something I could budget for.

        Anyway, I’ll leave that here — should you have more to add, I’ll be around 🙂

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    2. //So, given Plantinga’s argument (and yours?), survival may at times require both true and false beliefs. Don’t we essentially live in a world swimming in both true and false beliefs? It seems this argument, which appears designed to criticize the naturalistic worldview, actually describes the world fairly well. I don’t see any conflict between “survival value and true belief are not always mutually inclusive” and the world as it actually is. I actually do think survival has demanded, at times, that people adopt false beliefs on occasion — incidentally, and I mean no offence by this, but religion may be one such example.//

      I think I would like to go ahead and clarify. The argument stated is this: P(R | N&E) (The probability that cognitive faculties are reliable, given evolutionary naturalism, is low.)

      Plantinga suggests, in his argument, two properties: neurophysiological processes and belief content. Either of these two properties can motivate/cause human actions. However, according to naturalism, if taken with natural selection (let’s call this N&E), neurophysiological processes motivate and cause our actions, not belief content. Neurophysiological processes is concerned with survival, not with true belief.

      This is why it is improbable that our cognitive faculties are reliable insofar as the formulation of true belief is concerned. Belief content, if N&E be true, is profitable only for survival, not for truth. Thus, it is irrational to affirm N&E. Now, according to the argument, N&E may be true, but it’s not rational to affirm it.

      FYI, I used the cannibalistic example to show that there are indeed factors that could benefit a persons’s survival, yet be at odds with truth (i.e. ethical propositional truths for example).

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      1. “However, according to naturalism, if taken with natural selection (let’s call this N&E), neurophysiological processes motivate and cause our actions, not belief content.”

        You may need to further clarify. According to naturalism, neurophysiological processes *are* belief content, or at the very least belief content is a subset under the larger neurophysiological umbrella.

        Basically, there’s no way to separate those two in the way you and Plantinga appear to be doing — to separate “belief” from “neurophysiological,” you need to appeal to some external agency: a soul, spirit, homunculus, etc. Naturalism doesn’t allow for an external agency as such, and therefore “belief” and “neurophysiological” cannot be fully separated. I am my brain.

        Feel free to clarify what you mean, however.

        “Neurophysiological processes is concerned with survival, not with true belief.”

        I still have the same concerns over this statement as before; namely, that even neurophysiological processes (which, for all intents and purposes, include beliefs) are concerned with true belief, to the extent that true beliefs can aid survival. I have no qualification to make on my prior statements, as I believe they’re still valid.

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      2. //Basically, there’s no way to separate those two in the way you and Plantinga appear to be doing — to separate “belief” from “neurophysiological,” you need to appeal to some external agency: a soul, spirit, homunculus, etc. Naturalism doesn’t allow for an external agency as such, and therefore “belief” and “neurophysiological” cannot be fully separated. I am my brain.//

        Actually, that’s the point of Plantinga’s argument. In his talk, he mentions how naturalistic evolution can’t recognize belief content. What we call “beliefs” are just the result of neurophysiological processes aimed at survival, not truth.

        As I mentioned earlier, survival and truth are not mutually inclusive, and Plantinga gives specific examples of how truth and decisions for survival are not one in the same. The very fact that our cognitive faculties are aimed at survival and not truth produces low probability of true belief given the truth of N&E. In other words, if N&E is true it’s irrational to affirm it’s true.

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  3. “As I mentioned earlier, survival and truth are not mutually inclusive, and Plantinga gives specific examples of how truth and decisions for survival are not one in the same.”

    Absolutely, but nor are they mutually exclusive (and I have certainly never argued that they were mutually inclusive — in fact, I’ve been extremely explicit and thorough in agreeing that they are not.

    “What we call “beliefs” are just the result of neurophysiological processes aimed at survival, not truth.”

    And again, although survival and truth are not mutually inclusive, nor are they mutually exclusive. Survival doesn’t have to aim at truth for it to get at truth. Again, I don’t think your argument actually demonstrates that N&E is irrational, nor does it actually refute my arguments.

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