Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When Atheists Try to Be Clever...

...they shoot themselves in the foot. This image has been making the rounds on various atheist blogs, with the caption "When a theist starts a debate with an atheist...":

(from here). Now, setting aside the obvious fact that

(1) the joke depends on an entirely arbitrary assignment of labels to each position;

it nonetheless ends up backfiring because

(2) it is logically and mathematically impossible, given any standard rules of chess, for either side to win this game. The rules of chess require an automatic draw if there is an impossibility of checkmate -- once it is established that no legal series of moves can reach checkmate, the game is over and both sides tie. A game with no kings has no possible checkmate, and so is an immediate draw. In trying to depict with a chessboard how much better their arguments are, a task in which they had perfect freedom to choose any possible chess set-up, they still managed to give themselves an unwinnable board. In other words, the atheist player doesn't know what he's getting into: the board is rigged so that the theist, with nothing but pawns, can guarantee a draw no matter how many queens the atheist has. Diabolically clever theist, getting atheist hopes up while making it impossible for them to win! That's on standard rules. And, of course, if the rules are supposed to be nonstandard, it is impossible to know what this board even means.

The jokes write themselves.


  1. Michael Sullivan9:38 PM

    It means that the athiest can take away all the theist's pieces. Which is to say, after every move the theist makes the athiest can say "nuh-uh".

  2. Jarrett Cooper12:53 AM

    Well... this piece is obviously postmodern absurdism artistry. Note the black and white color scheme. Very typical of the neo-postmodernist art movement. Also the two chess pieces: the pawns and queens--both symbolizations, which are common in postmodern artistry.  But the coup de grace being the fact there is no king to be found on the board. This is the dead give away for absurdism artistry.

    In all, the piece is genius!

  3. Brendan Hodge11:02 AM

    What makes this so fun is that the combination of picture and caption are so full of self regard -- it makes the absurdity that much more fun when it's pointed out.

    I'm reminded of the t-shirt that said: "Y_U  AR_  AN  ID_OT  Would you like to buy a vowel?"

    Except, clearly O and I have already been picked...

  4. To be quite fair, the title does specify which side is which: since white always moves first, it's the player who's starting it.

  5. branemrys2:34 PM

    It's the old show business maxim: slipping on a banana peel isn't funny, but a pompous person slipping on a banana peel is.

    The t-shirt example is funny. That does seem analogous.

  6. branemrys2:40 PM

    Of course, you must be right: it's a depiction of existentialist angst over the fact that we are thrown into an absurd world in which, there being no God to underwrite transcendent truth, all debate is a Sisyphean task in which no possible arguments can break the perpetual tie.

  7. branemrys2:41 PM

    It really does raise the question of what the moves would actually be given that the pieces are supposed to be the arguments.

  8. Dave M5:00 PM

    Actually what occurred to me is that while the queens are already as powerful as they will ever be, the pawns live in hope of reaching the other side of the board, where, they are told (yet no one seems to know for sure, as it has never happened in their lifetime) they will undergo a miraculous transformation.

  9. branemrys10:26 PM

    That's an interesting interpretation that I confess hadn't occurred to me.

    There's apparently a lot one could say about the hermeneutics of a chessboard.

  10. Vronvron8:56 AM

    Why would an RC philosopher choose to name his blog after a Mesopotamian goddess?  Doesn't he know he is breaking the third commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods [or goddesses] before me.

  11. branemrys9:50 AM

    (1) Naming something after a god doesn't break the second commandment (sometimes it's treated as part of the first; but the third commandment is, depending on which tradition you consult, either the one about taking the Lord's name in vain or the sabbath one).

    (2) It's not named after a Mesopotamian goddess, but is a word borrowed from George Berkeley, who wrote a book called Siris; it was his anglicization of the Greek word for 'chain'.

  12. branemrys10:25 AM

    John Wilkins has a twist on it from an agnostic perspective in Agnostic versus atheist chess. I don't think I've ever found an exclamation point so funny. I actually think it makes a very good point in the midst of making the joke, namely, that atheists (and theists) typically think that they know what the game is, what the rules are, what kinds of pieces are allowed on the board, what the goals of the game are, and their arguments with agnostics are often shaped by this assumption -- but agnostics are often putting that very assumption into question.

  13. John S. Wilkins8:01 PM

    He gets it...

  14. Rodney Breen5:13 AM

    I'm having difficulty with this one. What is it trying to say? Please let's not be too pedantic about the rules of chess - that's overthinking.

    If it's saying, atheists represent the black pieces and will always win because we've got the better arguments, then that's silly. You could use the exact same picture to represent any of a million arguments between people and amounts simply to saying "I am right because my case is better than yours". Which may be true, but just saying so proves nothing - it's simply an argument by assertion.

    Besides, in any argument about religion, it's not about the pieces - let's face it, we all start with the same ones - it's about the rules. For atheists, the problem is not that we have different pieces but that we have different rules. Faith allows you to have your own rule book. Point out that something cannot possibly be true and the answer is, in essence, "It's okay, because God says so".

    The reason the board is unwinnable is because people who use Faith are playing a different game entirely.

  15. branemrys10:05 AM

    I'm not really sure one can get around being pedantic about the rules of chess here -- as you really go on to point out, the rules are very much the whole point of what this could possibly mean: change the rules, and who knows what the picture means?And the joke here is really people thinking themselves clever and getting tripped up because they haven't thought through their own symbolism.

    But you are quite right both about the fact assigning black and white can't be purely arbitrary, and about the point that we can't merely assume that both sides are in agreement about the precise nature of the game; to a person who thinks he's playing standard chess, a person who thinks he's playing pole chess will have an incomprehensible style of play, etc.


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