This is how my drummer drums.
kitten   March 29, 2004

John Kerry's stop in Atlanta was held the day before Super Tuesday, and I was dragged to the rally by the woman I am involved with, who is something of a political conspiracy theorist and loans her time and effort to the Kerry campaign, more in an effort to do whatever she can to oust Bush than any significant support of Kerry in particular, although since he was the forerunner on the Democratic side, it made sense to lend support to him.

The avenue chosen for this was, curiously enough, the Tabernacle. I find this somewhat incongruous with the rock shows and other music events typically held at this establishment, especially given the Tabernacle's lack of seating on the main floor. However, no one asks my opinion on these matters, and so to the Tabernacle we drove.

I had previously agreed to volunteer in whatever way necessary for this particular stop on the campaign trail. Unfortunately, my credentials were lacking, inasmuch as I had not signed up prior to actual arrival, instead expecting that I would be able to sign up right then and there. The upshot of this is that my companion went off to do whatever it is she does at these things - handing out fliers, attempting to peddle various wares, and so forth - and I was left to wait in line with the commoners for almost an hour while the Secret Service swept the building, a task which they had been undertaking since three in the afternoon.

I wish to note that this line was enormous, wrapping around the block, and populated by a wide-ranging demographic from high school students to elderly citizens of all races and, I presume, religions. I spent my time in this queue turning down offers of stickers and making fun of the various security and police officers who were riding on Segways, which have been a target of my derision since before they were released on the market, but which I had never actually observed in person. They look even more ridiculous in real life than they appear in the various videos and commercials, which says quite a lot, and frankly I think it is something of a detriment to the Atlanta police force's image of professionalism to ride these contraptions. Once again, though, no one asks my opinion on these matters, so I contented myself with making snide remarks about them.

I waited in this line for about half an hour, during which time various media groups set up their broadcast equipment and police officers patrolled the area keeping a stern eye on the goings-on. Quite unexpectedly, a friend of mine walked past the Tabernacle on his way home from class at GSU. Like me, he is of the same mentality when it comes to matters political: It is our version of spectator sports, which makes the November election our Superbowl and World Series rolled into one. However, we also maintain a sense of detached amusement and psuedointellectual humor regarding these sorts of things, and so, I reached out from the line and dragged him in, whereupon we now both slowly advanced towards the front entrance.

Security, as can be expected, was handled almost entirely by the Secret Service, with an array of metal detectors, firearms, and very slim wristwatches. Surprisingly, they were not quite as thorough as I expected them to be, although admittedly this may be because they are trained to know what they're doing and I am not. The contents of my friend's bag were given a cursory examination, and I was not physically searched after my combat boots set off the metal detectors. They took my word for it that the steel in the boots were at fault and let me go on my way, which seems to me a mistake, for I could easily have had a knife or small gun concealed there. During the rally itself I also noted a man with an exceptionally large camera with an enormous lens apparatus, inside of which could have been contained, by a sufficiently motivated person, a crude but effective gun. I did not feel it was my place to question the Secret Service's competency, however, and so I kept my silence while my friend and I made our way to the main floor, approximately five minutes before the festivities were to begin.

A word about the Secret Service: Having never seen them in person or interacted with them in any way, which I do not consider a bad thing, it was my impression that every stereotype about them is absolutely true. One agent in particular was standing about ten feet away from me for the entire rally, and I watched him carefully. The man's expression did not change once in three hours: not a yawn, not a cough, not an idle scratching of the nose, and I could not testify under oath that he even blinked. Whatever his personal opinion of Kerry may have been, he was clearly there to do his job and utterly segregate his personal convictions from his professional charge. Without speaking to him or knowing any more about him than the manner with which he carried himself, I got the distinct impression that he probably knew seventeen ways to incapacitate a man with a rolled-up newspaper and could kill me six ways before I hit the ground if I made the slightest wrong move.

At this point, various high-ranking officials and backers of the Kerry campaign began to shuffle in and fill the seats on the stage. I thought that Kerry would follow soon after, welcome the high-rollers and deliver his speech.

How wrong I was.

Instead, we were subjected to about twenty minutes of a three-piece band playing Muzak versions of popular songs. This is the sort of band you imagine playing at the fiftieth wedding anniversary of your aunt and uncle. In and of itself this was tolerable, despite the odd mannerisms of the trombone player, and provided a decent enough ambient background sound while we waited. Once the band finished, however, the true atrocity was inflicted upon us, as a church choir was introduced and their conductor took the stage.

We stood there and listened to deafening Gospel music for a half hour.

It was at this point that I decided, half-seriously, that my vote would be for Ralph Nader. Ralph Nader didn't make me sit through thirty minutes of Gospel music. I did, however, find this particular musical choice interesting, for Kerry has, throughout most of his political career, been largely silent when it comes to religious issues, but is now being somewhat derided for boasting of his Christian leanings, perhaps in an effort to gain support among the moderates who might otherwise lean towards Bush.

I am a man of extreme outward patience and calm, but even I have my limit on how much Gospel music I will listen to before going mad, and so I stepped outside for a quick cigarette. Outside, I approached two or three gentlemen who were standing around being glared at by a cop, and asked them for a lighter. I was initially denied this request, for as it turns out, these men were Bush supporters, and under some strange and misguided principle of conduct, were reluctant to grant favors such as this to a Kerry backer. I finally talked them into it, and during the course of the discussion, I was given to understand that they were standing on the street because they had been thrown out by the Secret Service. Apparently they had walked in and before they even went through the security pillbox, had loudly announced to the agents that they supported Bush and despised Kerry. Sensing that these men were only present to cause problems, the Secret Service discharged them from the premises and told them that they could not set foot on the sidewalk of the Tabernacle, though they were free to remain standing on the street - which they did, until the end of the rally. Had they merely been present to observe, I would have had a major problem with their banishment, but considering that they went out of their way to act like jackasses, I feel the Secret Service took the appropriate precautions. Even if they were not actually planning to do anything, which they probably weren't, I feel they should have been rebuked on grounds of general idiocy. Strolling up to a Secret Service agent and getting in his face about political issues is not a wise thing to do.

Back inside, the choir was wrapping it up. The head of the student association for Kerry in GSU presented some of the more prominent persons in attendance. I regret that I cannot recall most of them, but mayor Franklin was among the supporters and delivered a brief speech. She was shadowed, however, by the ace in the sleeve of the Democrat party, Senator Max Cleland, who spoke for about ten minutes in praise of John Kerry.

I truly wish that I could relate some of the things Cleland spoke of during his oration, but I must confess that I found it difficult to pay attention. This is not because he was boring or because I found the material uninteresting. No, my attention was lacking because seated stage right was the head of the church whose choir had sung, and I swear this man forget to take his Zoloft that afternoon. Every fifth or sixth word uttered by Cleland was punctuated by this lunatic with a loud "Amen!", "Preach it!", "That's right! Say it loud!", and a string of other vapid platitudes. These utterances were usually accompanied by a wild gesticulation in the form of spastic hand-waving, as one would expect from a televangelist; several times, he felt that his mere vocal support wasn't enough, and brought out a tambourine with a picture of Jesus on it, which he would shake recklessly.

When Cleland had concluded, Kerry finally walked out, greeted by almost a full minute of thunderous applause and cheering (and tambourine waving, courtesy of the overcaffienated preacher). The crowd finally settled down and Kerry, after profusely thanking his supporters, particularly Cleland, delivered his speech. He far surpassed anything I have ever seen by Bush in the public-oration department, speaking not only with force and authority, but with a touch of good humor. He genuinely knew how to work the crowd, in his own style, and appeared to be enjoying himself a great deal, but sombering when the material called for it.

As expected, his speech was largely just political noise, and not much was introduced that followers of the presidential race haven't already heard ad nauseum. It was gratifying, however, to be able to hear him say it in person. He did not speak much about national security, a topic which the conservatives feel is of utmost importance. Instead, he focused his attention on the other issues on the table, with the US economy being featured heavily. He expressed contempt for the manner in which the Bush administration dealt with education, for example, and complained that in that area, the Bush battle cry of "Mission Accomplished" should be modified to "Mission Not Even Attempted", a sentiment which elicited roaring cheers from the audience. He noted that the current education budget on the federal level was less than half of what was currently being spent on the Iraq war effort, and further condemned Bush for fiscal irresponsibility in other areas. He also touched on unemployment issues and gave extremely brief outlines - notes and ideas, really - on how he felt such things should be handled.

His speech centered mostly on criticism of the Bush administration and an enumeration of grievances against Bush and his policies, which is a valid methodology, but I personally would have preferred to hear more about how he would deal with such things, rather than just pointing out what Bush had done wrong. As noted before, his complaints were loud but his speech was mostly noise, though this is to be expected from a professional politician.

Overall this was an experience which I shall not soon forget - not just the rally proper but the general atmosphere surrounding it. I cannot say I was particularly swayed by anything that occurred there, but this is only because I supported Kerry already, though I must admit this is not because of anything particular to Kerry, but because I would vote for a silverback gorilla if he ran against Bush.

Although I am still considering throwing my vote away on Nader. Maybe next time Kerry will reconsider forcing Gospel choirs on his supporters.

kitten   March 23, 2004

< kitten> Shit keeps acting up.
< bda> Reinstall.
< kitten> The system is down, the mouse is acting funny, dhcp doesn't work, print spooler is fucked beyond comprehension.
< bda> Actually.
< bda> Install Linux on it. Samba/CUPS.
< bda> :D
< kitten> Pass.
< kitten> I love using Linux on the laptop.
< kitten> But I don't want it for my main machine.
< bda> shrug.
< kitten> There will be no white flag above my door.
< kitten> I won't put my hands up and surrender.

I'm too sexy for my textbook.

Our school maintains, for at least some classes, a policy which dictates that students must not miss more than four full classes, with late arrivals acting as a fraction of an absence, and if this policy is violated, the student is summarily dismissed from the class and given an F in the course.

It is with some irony that today we embarked on that age-old staple of all composition classes, the argumentative or persuasive essay. I note the irony because it was directly after today's class that I was informed that I was in danger of being withdrawn from the course due to violation of the attendence policy. I asked to see the professor's attendence list and, as it happens, there are several errors on it which I shall rectify, removing myself from immediate danger, but it was at that point that I seriously considered making my thesis for the position that attendence policies on the collegiate level are absurd and should be done away with.

All actions have natural consequences, and in general terms, these natural consequences are sufficient to keep detrimental behavior in check while rewarding behavior that confers some benefit. In the academic world of college classes, the consequence of poor attendence will be a poor grade - the student will lag behind, be unaware of important information disseminated during class, miss valuable instruction time, and so forth.

It is my belief that this is a choice to be made by each student - if they wish to succeed in class, presumably they should show up as often as possible. If, however, they wish to be slackers, that is their perogative, and they will suffer the natural consequence soon enough, in the form of a low grade.

It is also worth nothing that if the student's mindset is already such that he or she refuses to do what is necessary to obtain a respectable grade, then no amount of forced marching will set him straight. We have all seen the students who show up for class each and every day, and promptly fall asleep, play Gameboy, read magazines, talk to neighbors, text-message their friends with cellphones, and otherwise find ways to avoid paying attention. The question virtually asks itself: How is this behavior any different, in practice, than the student who isn't even in the classroom? For all practical purposes there is no discernable difference, yet the absent student is penalized while the student who is there in body - but not in mind - is rewarded for keeping in step with the attendence policy.

The governing body responsible for mandating such policies as this wishes to divorce causes from effects, choosing instead to impose artificial consequences upon actions which already have natural repercussions. As though the threat of doing poorly in a class and earning a low grade were not enough, this policy creates a situation in which the cause - poor attendence - results in a completely unrelated and totally artificial effect.

The effect of poor attendence is not always a poor grade, however. There are many students who are perfectly capable of obtaining a high mark in the course without necessarily being present in class each day. I myself have an outstanding grade in my composition course, despite having missed several days. As the professor noted, these missed classes have not negatively impacted my ability to compose a well-crafted essay, and that is ostensibly the goal of the course itself.

If the goal of a college course is to dispel information to a student, and the measurement for how well the student has assimilated this information is his grade, then why should the student's actual grade not be the final determination of his performance and his understanding of the material covered in the course? In other words, if a student is able to prove his understanding of the course by doing well on tests, without having to attend each class, why is this deemed insufficient? He has, after all, demonstrated his knowledge of the material as competently as anyone else, and that knowledge of the material is, in the final analysis, what college is meant to convey - not his ability to idly sit in a chair if he does not actually need to be there to increase his knowledge.

Unlike high school, college is not mandatory education. We, the students, are in college of our own volition. We are expected to balance our course load with other demands on our time such as work, to secure reliable transportation to and from class each day, and so forth. In short, we are there because we wish to be, not because we are forced to be, and we take great pains in order to attend, at considerable expense of time and money to ourselves. If we wish to use our time and money wisely, so much the better - but if we wish to attend class only when we determine it to be necessary, it is only logical to let the natural consequences of that choice unfold, whatever those consequences may be. There is no need to artificially heighten the effects of the action, yet that is exactly what the policy does.

The bottom line is simple enough for anyone to comprehend: If a student wishes to do well in class, he will attend as often as he feels is necessary to acheive this goal. If he is able to perform well on exams and other graded material without having to attend every class, I fail to see why he should be punished. The attendence policy truly defies all logic and acts counter to any situation found outside the academic world, which is little more than an artificial construct in and of itself, which most students realize as soon as they are graduated and enter the real world.

Mein Gott!
kitten   March 14, 2004

On my way out today I discovered a large magnetic whiteboard attached to the front door bearing the following inscription:


Dunno who did it, but I have my suspicions. Whoever it was: Considering that everyone else also leaves trash by their door to pick up on their way out, not to mention the various empty boxes, clutter, and other assorted bric-a-brac on every other doorstep around here, maybe it's time you pick your battles with more attention to priority.

Also, thanks for the free magnetic sign.

I'm a disciple of science.
kitten   March 12, 2004

Recently I was asked to partake in a very informal debate regarding the question which I have expounded upon in detail numerous times; namely, does God exist?

The debate, as you can guess, quickly degenerated into chaos, and I think we can all learn some valuable lessons about valid arguments, debate tactics, and theology in general from this experience.

Many of you, atheist and theist alike, have no doubt had similar experiences. The theist presents the usual arguments in favor of God, the atheist responds with the usual counterarguments. The theist responds with a flurry of denials and the atheist retaliates.

More often than not, though, the discussion gets bogged down in irrelevent asides, tangental discussions, and the primary question never gets addressed.

When I entered this debate I had some ground rules laid out. Those of you who have listened to or read my thoughts on this subject can probably guess them, but I'll ennumerate them here anyway.

First, it is my conviction that the burden of proof lies solely on the theist. He is the one making the positive claim and subscribing to a positive belief; it is now his duty to back up his claim. If he cannot, the question defaults to the atheist position: There is no reason to suppose a god exists. Atheism is not a belief in and of itself, but the lack of a belief, and the atheist need no more "prove" his side than a defendant in court must prove his innocence - he must merely show that the claimaint has failed to prove his side.

Second, in this sort of discussion, I expect the theist to have a clear-cut definition of what is meant by "god". The word means many things to many people and it is not valid to assume that everyone understands this word. The fact is that philosphers and theologians have, for centuries, grappled with this very concept, and have made very little progress. For a more detailed (yet totally incomplete) explanation of the problem, refer to the link referenced above. I do not expect the theist to be able to tell me as much about God as they could about, say, a man, but they must have some information; it is critical that the theist establish what he is claiming existence for, before he can say that God does this or that.

Third, and as should be obvious, I do not allow scripture to be used. One must already believe that God exists in order to believe that the scriptures derive their authority from him, and we must first independently establish whether God exists before we can argue about whether or not he wrote this book (or caused it to be written, or inspired it, or whatever). But even more importantly, I prefer to argue on broader grounds - not focusing on just the Judeo-Christian version of God, but on whether any god can exist at all.

The person I debated with took an unusual first step. She began with the argument of ethics and morality, asserting that there is a universal morality among humans, which can be found in all cultures. She then asserted that there exists no natural explanation for this, and went on to claim that the morality must therefore be of supernatural origin. That origin must be God.

I find this tactic to be unusual because it is extremely weak. It is one that has been used many times before but fails to hold any weight, and the problems start with the very first assertion. I should like to discuss this briefly here, for in my above-referenced essay I barely covered the ethics issue since I find it exceedingly boring, and furthermore, the issue I addressed is not quite the same as this assertion.

First, the idea that morality is universal among humans is demonstrably false. I am not going to waste time expounding on this at length; a brief look in any anthropology textbook should convince you that through the ages, cultures have had very different senses of right and wrong. Some view cannibalism as acceptable while others find it abhorrant. Some accept animal sacrifice or even human sacrifice, while others do not. And so on.

Now, it is true that in most cultures, you will find that there are certain points of morality that seem to be universal - the idea that one should not kill another human, for example. Even this, though, is not quite as universal as it seems. Duels to the death have been used in many societies as a valid means of settling disputes. Human sacrifices, as noted above, have been condoned in many cultures through history. Vigilante killings have been acceptable in some societies, or the killing of a certain subset of people based on race, religion, class, or other criteria. I am not arguing that these things are necessarily right or wrong, but merely pointing out that "murder is bad" is not a universally accepted concept across the board.

Please note, we are interested in why morals developed in the first place, so looking at today's societies is not quite fair. Today, morals are steeped in law, society, and culture, and are for the most part accepted. What we are asking is, why did X become accepted as "good" while Y is termed "bad" in the first place?

However, even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that morality is universal among human cultures, she was making a mistake in assuming that there is no natural explanation for this. The explanation is quite simple: Societies function the same way as anything else - either it works, or it doesn't, and if a society engages in behavior that is detrimental, natural consequences arise and eliminate that society. Imagine, for example, a society in which murder was acceptable. I expect that such a society would quickly kill itself off. We see today few societies where murder is acceptable, because those that allowed it, no longer exist. We see, in other words, the successful societies, and none of the failed ones, so it should come as no surprise that most societies have points of similarity when it comes to codes of behavior and accepted standards of conduct, for those that engaged in behavior detrimental to the continued existence of the society didn't last long enough to spread.

This is the main quibble with an argument such as hers: The theist wishes to divorce actions from natural consequences, and instead invoke an exterior and supernatural explanation. I find this to be absurd - all actions have consequences, and those consequences are adequate to keep detrimental behaviors in check. Murder was merely an example - the idea is valid across the board of most of what we consider to be morally righteous. Natural causality and consequences are a fact of existence, and there is no need to suppose that what society considers morally upright is a result of anything other than "what works, and what doesn't work".

Furthermore, even if we assume that natural cause-and-effect relationships are not adequate, and the "supernatural" must be involved (this is also assuming that the supernatural exists, something that the theist has to prove first before they can posit it as an explanation, but I digress), it does not follow that this force is God. The theist has no way of knowing whether God defined those morals, or whether the morals exist apart from God. In other words: Is a thing good because God said so, or did God say so because it was good?

This is important, for even if we accept all of the above propositions (morality is universal, the source is supernatural), the theist must be able to show that God defines those morals, and that they do not exist apart from God; otherwise, we could derive our morals directly from this supernatural "source" without the need for God acting as a middleman. Yet the theist, already relying on demonstrably false assertions, is also unable to demonstrate one or the other, and so fails to prove that "universal morality", if it exists, necessarily requires a God.

I realize that this is all pretty dry stuff - at least, it is to me, for I find quibbling about ethics and morality to be very boring. But since it was brought up, I felt that a brief discussion was in order, because many theists seem to feel that this is a valid argument, as as we can see, it fails on many levels.

That having been said, the person with whom I was debating fell into many of the usual pitfalls of any debate. This discussion went on for almost four full hours, and during that time I observed a number of problems with her methodology - by no means limited to her, for these failings are quite common, and I think it is time to discuss a few basics of informal debate.

First and most importantly: Stick to the main topic. This should seem like an obvious one, and one that most everyone will agree with, yet few are able to actually do. The topic should be a clearly phrased question, preferably with a yes-or-no answer. In this particular case, the topic was: Does God exist?

We ran into a problem almost immediately, though I did not learn of it until much later. Specifically, the other person wished to have a Socratic sort of dialogue concerning the nature of ethics and morality, and had little, if any, interest in discussing God's alleged existence. At the beginning of this debate, I clearly phrased the question to be debated, but she - like many others - had her own agenda. All parties involved with a debate should understand what the topic is and should not deviate from it significantly; if they do not wish to discuss this topic, they should save themselves and everyone else the time, and say so.

In any debate, one should ensure that their position on the matter is clearly defined as well. In this particular case, it took me four hours to drag out of her an actual position, which was (essentially) that God is that which defines morality. Had I not continually dragged her back on topic and demanded statements, it is doubtful she would have even gotten that far, being perfectly happy instead to continue discussing whatever topic happened to float across the table without ever reaching any sort of conclusion.

As noted before, debates of this sort often get bogged down in irrelevencies and tangents. This brings us to the second rule, which is related to the first: Always ensure that whatever you are talking about connects back to the main question, and be sure to actually connect it. During this specific debate, the discussion meandered off into whether or not Pharoah had STDs (I'll spare you the explanation as to how we got to talking about that). After ten minutes of bickering about this, I announced that we were doing nothing more than quibbling over minutae and it was time to get back to the main road. I will often say this during a debate when I feel the discussion has veered too far off-course. It is not necessarily a concession of the point; rather, I say it for one of several reasons:

  • We've spent enough time on this point and have reached an impasse.
  • The point being discussed is only marginally related to the main topic, if at all.
  • The point being quibbled doesn't seem to connect back to the main topic and I'd like the other person to either get to the point, or move on.
  • Some combination of the above.

Nor was this the only time she fell into this trap. At one point she brought up Plato's "forms" (which, incidentially, I find to be bullshit, but that's an aside). She spent nearly fifteen minutes expounding on what they were, and trying to convince me to accept them as valid.

The exact point here - Plato's forms - are not my concern. Rather, I wish to point out that this is a common thing to do during a debate: One of the debators spends far too long talking about a very narrow and very specific thing, but completely loses track of what the main topic is supposed to be. Eventually I told her that, for the moment, I will accept Plato's idea, and invited her to make the connection between this and the question of God's existence, something she was unable to do.

I interuppted her quite frequently during her diatribe about Plato, because we had spent enough time on the topic and I wanted to see how (and if) she could connect it back to the main topic. There was no reason for her to continue trying to convince me that Plato was valid once I stated that I accepted his ideas - it was then time for her to show that the conclusion drawn from his ideas somehow relates to the issue at hand.

It is a frequent sight and one that we should all be careful of: Keep your discussion on the main road and always come back to it. If I wish to convince you of X, by using concept Y, I may first explain what Y is, but after that, I am obligated to show how Y supports X - that is to say, what conclusion can be drawn from acceptance of Y which will lead back to X? If I am unable to do this, then the time I spent discussing Y was completely wasted and did nothing but confuse the issue.

Appeals to authority are a very common tactic, but we must all understand what an authority is and when it may be invoked. For example, I may be justified in citing the works of Dr Stephen Hawking to support a point about cosmology, even though I myself do not fully understand the mathematics behind his theories. I am here using Hawking as an authority, and I am able to do so for several reasons:

  • First, the authority being appealed to could demonstrate the assertion, if asked to do so. If he cannot, he is not much of an authority on the topic.
  • Second, his authority derives from knowledge that is accessible to everyone, at least in principle. Anyone could, in principle, take the required math courses and earn a doctorate in whatever field, or obtain the necessarily equipment to perform the tests himself, or whatever. Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to pursue these, so we rely on the people who have - but any one of us could do what the authority does, in principle. For a more concrete example, consider that I have little knowledge of, say, encryption, but I trust the authority of someone who has studied it and says that 128-bit encryption is more secure than 64-bit. In principle I could research this and find out for myself.
  • Third, I am appealing to his authority in his own field of expertise. Asking Dr Hawking about matters of biology would be silly, but relying on his testimony for cosmological or astronomical matters is valid.
  • Fourth, there is a general acceptance of his ideas by other experts in the same field. (One physicist who says that relativity is bogus does not make a valid authority, since there is almost no acceptance of that proposition among other physicists.)
  • Fifth, I have identified the authority by name and his credentials can be verified. (e.g., there was no "I talked to a guy with lots of degrees, and he said...", which is, incidentially, precisely what my debate partner tried to do.)

An appeal to Dr Hawking, therefore, would be valid, if the appeal was made in regards to his field of expertise. However, most appeals to authority are flawed, and we see examples of this in virtually every debate that occurs, especially on this topic. For example, when the other person asserted that she spoke with "a guy with lots of degrees", this unidentified individual is meant to be an authority whose testimony she can use to demonstrate a point. Yet we do not know who this man is, what his degrees are in, what his field of expertise involves, or (frankly) even if he exists at all.

When appealing to authority during a debate, always remember to do so with caution and with regards to the basic rules of what constitutes an authority for a particular topic.

Finally, be wary of the distinction between fact and speculation. As an example, I asserted that humans, being finite and natural entities, could not experience nor have any knowledge of the supernatural, by definition. She immediately objected, saying that the human brain "could have supernatural aspects to it", on the basis that the workings of the mind were not fully understood. Citing numerous unnamed and unidentified authorities performing dubious and improbable experiments to show that the physical mechaniations of the gray matter were insufficient to allow conciousness, she concluded that the brain could operate, at least in part, in some supernatural realm, and thus have access to another supernatural entity, such as God. I dismissed this as nothing more than idle speculation (ignoring the lame "experiments" and "researchers" she never identified), for while it is true that we are nowhere close to understanding the workings of the brain, it is ridiculous to suppose that it must therefore be supernatural, and doing so is nothing more than speculation with no basis in fact. One could just as productively argue that there are tiny elves that run around inside the brain telling us what to do, but why bother? It would be nothing more than speculation and would not really move us one step closer to understanding, and further discussion of it only takes us further away from the main topic, which is something we are trying to avoid.

These guidelines are by no means complete, but may serve as a general index of some of the more common failings involved in debate. Keep them in mind and learn how to identify these traps and you may find that your discussions, not just on this topic but in any debate, will be more productive for everyone concerned.