Guest Post: Goldenmane's Third

Well this is a treat and no mistake.

I have a friend with whom I've been interacting for about a decade. We first encountered each other on the now-defunct Richard Dawkins forum, and it  quickly became clear that we shared many interests, not least of which is the subject of today's guest post. 

We've long talked about doing something public and significant with our interests, and we've finally decided to pull our respective fingers out and get on with it. As a result, my friend, Geoff 'Goldenmane' Rogers has kindly rewritten this as an introduction to our upcoming project, details of which are to follow.

There are some fundamental underpinnings to the way a sceptic approaches ideas, voiced by many over the years, not least the inestimable Calilasseia, who we met in Radionuclide Dating is Rigorous. It has evolved, but began with the simplest of principles: Ideas are disposable entities. This carries a corollary principle, namely that bad ideas exist only to be disposed of.

What follows began as a joke of sorts, but quickly took on a life of its own, and has been cited in blogs and rationalist forums the world over in the intervening time. It deals with a particularly bad idea but, in the interest of not waffling on and giving away the plot, I'll shut up now and cede the floor to my inestimable colleague.


It's a kind of magic.

We are in the business of ideas. Having them, receiving them, inspecting, investigating, evaluating and dissecting them. 

It's a business that gets pretty goddamned meta, as the kids are wont to say, because it involves examining and dissecting the hows and whys of ideas about ideas, if you catch my drift. It's the sort of thing that can keep you going all day, and for some of us, fucking decades. 

Now, one or two of you might have noticed a rather... informal cast to the above paragraph. It's not because I'm being lazy (although I am, as the unattended breakfast dishes will attest) but that I want to introduce to you an idea about ideas: Goldenmane's Third Rule of Public Discourse – Swear a lot. 

See, some people get upset when you say words like cunt, fuck, piss and shit, and Rule Fucking 3 (as it has become known) serves as a way of distinguishing between those capable of addressing arguments rationally and those mired in intellectual vacuity. It serves as a remarkably accurate litmus test, because the very notion of swearing is rooted in magical thinking. See? Ideas about ideas. Let's elucidate. 

Think for a moment about the words used to refer to swearing (including swearing). Almost the entirety of the vocabulary devoted to it draws from religious/magical patterns of thought. '
Cursing'. 'Profanity'. A curse is a magic spell, and you cannot have the profane without the notion of the sacred. To swear draws from the notion of the oath, calling upon the supernatural to bind one to an outcome. 

What renders the whole notion of bad language truly ludicrous is that words are just effectively arbitrary collections of sounds (or letters, if written down). Start with 'c'. Add a 't': 'ct'. Add a 'u': 'cut'. Wow, we now have a word that we recognise. There's nothing bad about the word, just as there's nothing bad about the letters it is made from. Now add an 'n': cnut. 

That should, properly, be rendered Cnut, it being a proper noun. Chap is famous for arguing with the sea, or something. The sea, of course, ignored him, because words aren't actually magical. Changing Cnut around a little makes him a cunt. Where's the fucking magic? 

The fact is, words aren't magical. The power they have is the power of communication, not the power of sorcery or the spiritual. Those things don't fucking exist. You cannot combine phonemes and force the Universe to change course to suit your will. Whilst a cunt is a magical and wondrous thing, and the word cunt is viscerally satisfying to utter, there is no thaumaturgy involved. 

It has often been thought that words and sounds have magical power. A short wander through various sorcerous traditions reveals that this seems almost to be a default expectation of the human system. Chant the right mantra, recite the incantation, find someone's true name, learn neuro-linguistic programming; the list is fucking endless, really. And Rule Fucking Three exists to highlight this.

See, those who give credence to the ludicrous notion that certain sounds are bad or evil or grotesque almost certainly are steeped in other ludicrous notions that don't stand the light of scrutiny. Hell, we all are, really, because monkeys in shoes have puny organic brains with all the limitations that entails, but that's no reason not to pursue something more akin to a legitimate understanding of what we will, for the purpose of brevity, call reality. Goldenmane's Third was conceived and born in the process of combating the intellectual vacuity of religion. Those who cannot sustain rational discourse frequently seize upon the purported profanity as an excuse to avoid addressing the charge that their regurgitation of the Kalam Cosmological argument is bullshit because they cannot provide a valid example of something beginning to fucking exist. 

What is truly, astonishingly, outright fucking hilarious about Rule Three is that the very explanation of it contains the prediction so often borne out about what happens next. You swear a lot whilst dismantling bollocks ideas, proponent of said bollocks objects to you saying naughty words, you point them to an explanation of Rule Three (which includes not only an explanation of why their objection is fucking idiotic but also the prediction that they will still use it as an excuse to leave the discussion in high dudgeon) and they fucking leave the discussion in high motherfucking dudgeon. 

It's like it was scripted, every bloody time. 

Now, there exists a Corollary to Rule Three, and it is this: to really apply Rule Three, you have to avoid personal attacks and focus exclusively and explicitly on the ideas you are vivisecting. The notion that some cockwomble named Yeshua was the avatar of the creator of the Universe and chose to appear in a benighted backwater province of ancient Palestine and signally failed to explain the existence of fucking bacteria is, truly, perversely fucking stupid, and if you point it out like that your interlocutor will almost certainly take tremendous offense and storm off, denouncing you in some extremely personal and vindictive fashion. But Rule Three only works if you refrain from calling them a cockwomble and reserve that epithet for their pathetic Lord. (That, of course, is not a personal attack because Jesus doesn't fucking exist.) 

The upshot of all this is simply the following: if someone is capable of grasping that the word fuck is not a magic spell or personal attack, there's a good chance that they've the flexibility of mind to grasp other ideas that are new to them as well. Which is to say that if you understand Goldenmane's Third, then you're probably not a complete cockwomble. 

Rule Three does not, of course, exist in a vacuum. Few things do (or, given certain interpretations of some rather abstruse areas of physics, all things do. Or could do. Or probably will do. Please forgive me, I've been reading stuff about Hawking singularities). 

The point is, we all have cognitive biases of various kinds, because of the kind of animal we are. We're an evolved social ape. As a species, our specialisation is culture. We incline toward hierarchies and are prone to authoritarian behavioural patterns. We believe what our parents tell us, because the monkeys that didn't listen when mum told them about the tigers got eaten. We believe whatever fits with what we already think we know, because evolution didn't predict robust education systems and information and medical technologies, and the fact that we can collate, store, transmit and absorb enormous amounts of knowledge whilst not dying in infancy is an ecological spandrel that we're not really collectively wired to take full advantage of. 

But we can become aware of these biases, these cognitive misinclinations, and in becoming aware of them we gain some degree of capacity to compensate for them. Rule Fucking Three isn't magic. It is a reminder, though, that magic is always hovering at the outskirts of thought, ready to be inserted into our ideas. Insidious bugger.

Oh, yeah, Rules 1 and 2? Stick around. You'll find them eventually.


And with that, I'm pleased to announce an upcoming project, a decade in the making; our new podcast 'Third Rule', which you can expect the first episode of in the coming weeks as we hammer out the final details.

If you want to keep abreast of news of this, please follow @ThirdRulePod.

Also, follow @Goldenmane3.

To find a rendition of the original version of this, originally posted at the forum of RDFRS, please visit the AFA Forum.

Didn't See That Coming!

We should keep in mind that it is easy to concoct stories explaining the past or to become confident about dubious scenarios of the future. We should view both explanations and prophecies with skepticism. - Leonard Mlodinow

If there's one thing that can really make naked ground apes sit up and pay attention, it's predictions of the future. This is not unreasonable, of course, because any genuine knowledge of the future can pay dividends. Who among us hasn't dreamed of finding out the upcoming lottery numbers prior to purchasing a ticket, or fantasised about a sports almanac finding its way back from the future laden with already settled results? In Paradox! A Game for all the Family! we explored some of the latter and its consequences in terms of the so-called Grandfather Paradox, as well as some possible resolutions.

Here, I want to look at the former. Specifically, I want to look at the difference between different kinds of prediction about the future that some primates have been very impressed by in the past and, in some cases, continue to be so.

Many of the world's religions are founded or sustained on prophecy in one way or another. One often comes across the claim that something that science has discovered was mentioned in the Qu'ran. 

One such example is that the Qu'ran detailed what later became known as the big bang in Surah 51:47. According to one Quranic apologetics website, it reads: 
“And the heaven We created with might, and indeed We are (its) expander.”
An obvious issue with this would lie in the way it's translated. A quick look at the Skeptic's Annotated Qu'ran gives a slightly different translation of this as:
"We have built the heaven with might, and We it is Who make the vast extent (thereof)."
Of course, the believer will tell you that there can be no good translation, as the text can only be properly understood in the original Arabic. I've never been entirely clear on why this should be, although some attempts at explanation have been offered. The most common is that no language is sufficiently sophisticated to capture the nuance of the original, but this claim doesn't stack up in reality. English, for example, is not only a vastly larger language, it also has built-in the ability to construct just about any concept, and to absorb words from other languages.

In any event, regardless of this alleged issue, the passage is pretty vague, and certainly doesn't give us the wonders of modern cosmology. More importantly, as we've seen in several previous outings, modern cosmology has no robust theory dealing with any beginnings. See links at bottom for more on this. 

Ultimately, all of the alleged predictions in the Qu'ran fail on the same grounds, being so vague that they could really be talking about anything. They all commit a fallacy that's come to be known as the 'Texas Sharpshooter' fallacy, because what they're actually doing is taking bullet-holes produced by science and then coming along and painting the targets on afterwards. 

Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, this is the underlying fallacy being committed by all apologetics surrounding statements that can allegedly be taken as predictions in agreement with science. It's an extremely common fallacy, and can be dismissed with one simple question, namely 'how are we to tell that that's what it's talking about?'

There's one prophecy in the Judeo-Christian canon that actually is quite specific, and is taken to be a fulfilled prophecy by many, even to the point that some point to this as their best supporting evidence for their belief in Yahweh. It comes from  Isiah 66:8.
"Who hath heard such a thing? who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children."
It seems pretty unequivocal, doesn't it? Many have taken this to refer to the formation of the modern state of Israel, which of course occurred in 1948 in a single day. Now, it would be easy to simply point out that the process involved in the formation of the state of Israel took considerably more than a single day*, but there's a better way of dealing with this alleged prophecy.

In treating this properly, we need to deal with just what constitutes a reasonable prophecy. For example, if I say that I'm going to have pizza for my dinner tomorrow, and then it transpires that I do indeed have pizza, does this count as a prophecy? I don't think any thinking person would think so. How about if it were more specific? In one instance, this was actually erected as an objection against this example, but it doesn't stack up. I could, for example, say that it will be a Calzone Piccante with extra mozarella and mushrooms, that it will cost £6.50 and that it will arrive within 30 minutes of ordering, I've gotten pretty specific, yet I still don't think anybody would classify this as a prophecy, and the reason is perfectly clear, because I know about the prediction, and can work toward ensuring that it's fulfilled.

There was a bit of a scandal in this year's FA Cup tournament. Sutton United, a team from the National League, the fifth tier of English football, were in a cup-tie with the Gooners. As is often the case with sporting events, people like to gamble. In the UK, there's a fairly strong tradition of having bets on silly stuff that might happen, and this match was no exception. One bookmaker, Sun Bets, had offered a price on Sutton's reserve goalkeeper, Wayne Shaw, eating a pie live on air. He duly did, and then the excrement made contact with the cooling appliance. Shaw is now under investigation by the FA and the UK Gambling Commission for breaching rules relating to integrity and betting. He insists that it was a bit of fun and that he didn't gamble on the game, but has resigned on the basis of bringing the club into disrepute.

There's our big clue to what would really constitute a prophecy. It would rely on a set of predicted circumstances involving actors who were entirely unaware of the prediction. This is certainly not the case with Israel, as everyone involved in the process was fully aware of the prophecy. This particular example, even if constituted a specific enough instance, and even could it be shown that this was what it was talking about (it can't, which means it also commits the Texas Sharpshooter), this would constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy of exactly the same type as my prandial prediction above. In short, there's nothing remotely impressive about it.

So what about other kinds of prediction?

There's a long tradition of preying on the gullible, manifesting in society in myriad ways, not least in the manner from which the umbrella term by which sceptics refer to the purveyors of such practices has come to be known - snake-oil salesmen - and such predation is extremely common in the form of prediction. Those who fleece the unwary and the credulous in such a manner are worthy of a particular contempt I usually reserve for corporate and political creationism, and they show no sign of letting up.

In recent years, since the advent of television, they've managed to get their nonsense in front of a wider audience, even spawning many shows specifically aimed at promulgating this nonsense. For the most part, what gets on television is largely harmless drivel, much like the horoscopes in newspapers (although they're also guilty of this). However, these broadcasts lend weight to the ideas themselves, which are in turn utilised to fleece people of their hard-earned.

Over the years, I've encountered quite a few examples of people who defend the practices of such 'psychics', and there's one instance that highlights just how they operate. There was an appearance some years ago on an Australian show called The Circle by James van Praagh, a well-known charlatan, who picked on a member of the audience. I wouldn't recommend subjecting yourself to the entire clip, not least because his methodology and its failure are pretty obvious from the outset, and there's a danger that your intestine will try to leap up and strangle your brain at the stupidity of it.

Among his first bits of fishing might, to some, look impressive. He starts out in the usual manner, by fishing for a name, Mary/Margaret. Now, this might seem to be a pretty difficult thing to pin down, but he isn't without clues, and these clues are essential to the process. He gives the game away somewhat with what follows.

We'll come back to the name, because one of the audience picks up on it quite quickly. The first thing to note is that, after each thing he says, he asks the audience member if it makes sense to her, and all the time he's watching her reactions. His second question is if she had some problems with medication before she passed. This is hardly predictive brilliance, since the vast majority of people have some medication in their last days. He then goes on a fishing expedition to try to pin down the medical problem and, when he fails to hit his mark, he shifts the focus of this fishing to the audience member herself (I'm getting something about the back, does that make sense? I'm seeing a cushion behind her back, no? Or was that you?) then he moves on to the legs. It's pretty easy to see what he's up to. Then he asks if there's anyone that had trouble with the legs, and the audience member says that her father had had two hip replacements. Van Praagh says 'so he can't walk as well as he used to'. This is a real clanger, and exposes his ignorance, not least because anybody who's ever known anybody with new hips will tell you that, in the vast majority of cases, they walk much better afterwards.

He goes fishing again, looking for somebody by the name of Kathy, another fairly common name, and one of the audience member's family talks about a cousin named Kate, who was having surgery.

Now he changes tack, and says that he gets the sense that there's a Catholic connection somewhere, and we're not supposed to notice that the audience member is wearing a crucifix so, again, hardly an Earth-shattering revelation.

He waffles about a funeral for a bit, and then talks about 'mother Mary'. He smiles when he sees a reaction and thinks he's on firmer ground, except that the family member points out that pretty much ALL Catholics have a mother Mary around somewhere...

I won't belabour the point any more but, even with his catastrophic failure, his methodology is blatant, and it's clear that he's not even a competent charlatan, which begs the question of why he gets away with it. This process is known as 'cold reading' and it's reasonably obvious why. What he's doing the entire time is looking for clues that you give away, in the form of what you're wearing, your bearing, and easily-read microexpressions. 

He's not alone. In most cases, it's understood that, when you go to one of these shows to see a psychic, not only are you often asked to fill out a personal information form of some description, but there are plants in the reception area talking to the audience members before the show. There are documented instances of psychics using an earpiece and being fed lines and directions. Put all of this together with cold reading, and the verdict is clear: this is not a robust area for prediction.

Before I move on to the last class of prediction, I want to highlight one more instance from this general area, because it's really telling.

 There was a  marvellous programme  on BBC3 a few years  ago called Bullsh!t  Detectors. In it, the  presenter set up a  scenario in which  parapsychologist  CiarĂ¡n O'Keeffe wrote  a fake history and it  was posted on the  website of an  abandoned chocolate  factory that had been  converted into an arts  centre. Somewhat conscious of the length of this, I don't want to go into too much detail, so I'll just link the video.
It's perfectly obvious that the three mediums in this had read the fake history on the website. What's most interesting is the mental pretzels they engage in when the lie is exposed and they need to save face, with one suggesting that he must have read the presenter's mind, begging the question of why he didn't spot it as a fake. I also found it incredibly amusing that one of the psychics went through the motions of pretending to be receiving information about the fake former owner's name while he was standing in front of a framed picture of the man with his name on a name plate at the bottom, as if he - and we - couldn't see it as plain as day.

So, what are we to take from all of this? Is it impossible to predict the future reliably?

Actually, no. There's one means we've found that manages to accurately predict future events, and we all rely on it every day, even while maybe not aware that we are.

I'm talking, of course, about science. Science gives us the ability to not only reliably predict the future in vast swathes of phenomena, it also doesn't make any pretence at anything like the mysticism in the above examples. It's a methodology that anybody, with hard work and diligence, can learn to employ. There's nothing mysterious about it, even though it's known to use some symbols that we might see as arcane.

In short, if you really want to know what's going to happen in the future, there's one way, and only one that we know of, that will allow you to do it, and it's open to all.

Science: It works, Bitches!

Thanks for reading. Nits and crits welcome as always.

Cosmology and beginnings:
In The Beginning
It Wasn't Big, and it Didn't Bang
You Must Be Off Your Brane!

*The process took considerably more than a year, from the first murmurings in the newly formed United Nations in 1947 to the cessation of the British mandate in 1948 and the formation of Israel proper.

On a 'Need to Know' Basis...

There is no more parochial view, no greater hubris, than that which asserts that the universe was created precisely to have one in it and simultaneously decries the honest enquirer who says 'I don't know' as arrogant.
It's a truism that the theist needs to know, while the atheist is happy not knowing. Is it actually true, though (Go on, Mr Betteridge; have at it)?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to follow me down the rabbit-hole of apologetic which, for today, is a particularly pernicious one, not least because of how widespread misuse of a particular term is; knowledge.

On the face of it, the positions at the head of this post look fairly unobjectionable but, once you delve into the semantic content of those phrases, some problems come to light, and I thought that elucidating those problems might prove instructive.

Before I do that, it will be helpful, I think, to draw a clear distinction between knowledge and belief. Many philosophers and thinkers will define knowledge as 'justified true belief', and will say, therefore, that knowledge is a subset of belief. I know that Matt Dillahunty has said that he finds the former problematic, but has expressed his assent to the latter. I actually find them both problematic but, of course, it's a purely semantic issue. That it is a semantic issue doesn't mean, however, that we can simply dismiss it. Indeed, I'd argue that it's precisely because it's a semantic issue that it needs to be fully explored, so that we can be clear about what we're saying.

I've said before that I don't do belief. This might seem on a cursory assessment to be a silly statement and, in fact, if you define belief in certain ways, it definitely is, but there's a reason I say that. If you define knowledge as a subset of belief, or as 'justified true belief', then of course I have beliefs, but there's always a huge danger of equivocation in accepting a without question or qualification. 

The issue is, for me, that 'belief' is such a broad term, applied to such a disparate range of concepts, that it's almost impossible to know what somebody is talking about when they use it unless the context defines it. It's semantically ambiguous at best which, in my estimation, renders it misleading and, ultimately, without utility. For almost the entire spectrum of concepts to which the term is routinely applied, there's a much better, far less oblique term that more accurately describes the concept. Thus, I draw a firm distinction between knowledge and belief to ensure that what I say isn't open to equivocation.

So, I define knowledge as 'acceptance of that which is demonstrably true' and belief as 'acceptance of that for which there aren't sufficient data to demonstrate truth', and I have no use for the latter.

That's not to say, of course, that I have no hidden beliefs that I would define in that way. I'm not a machine, and there are no doubt some things lurking deep down in my psyche that colour my perceptions of the world and that are unwarranted but, as they become exposed as beliefs, they're either supported or discarded, much the same as any claim I might encounter from somebody else.

Matt Dillahunty has a go-to phrase that he put on a t-shirt, "I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible", which is a nice, pithy way of expressing much the same thing. I would say that I want to know as much and believe as little as possible, now that all danger of equivocation has been removed.

I'd probably go so far as to say that treating knowledge and belief as residing on the same spectrum is problematic. In my opinion, both knowledge and beliefs are complex functions of two independent spectra. Here's a crude graph to show how I think about these things.

There isn't really an easy way to represent these ideas, because they are necessarily somewhat fuzzy, and we've seen before the dangers in thinking in dichotomies, but this should be reasonably clear. In the upper-right and lower-left corners, we have knowledge, denoted 'K'. The upper-right represents the things we know to be true, things demonstrated to be the case. Facts, in other words. In the lower-left corner, we have things we know to be untrue. This is where we have falsified theories and hypotheses and all things demonstrably not in accord with reality. Knowledge resides on the blue line, with differing degrees of certainty apportioned to the evidence available.

The red line represents belief, with the extremes of belief denoted 'F', for faith. There is, I should note, a slight danger of lack of clarity here, precisely because of that fuzziness, because it isn't the case that all things one might have faith in are untrue, or that faith represents falsity, but what I'm trying to show here is that belief and knowledge are qualitatively different things.

It's easy to see where the confusion arises, of course. We treat knowledge as a degree of certainty, and certainty as a degree of belief. However, we must, of necessity, treat certainty separately from truth. You can be 100% certain of the veracity of a proposition and still be wrong. Similarly, you can be 100% certain of the falsity of a correct proposition.

Now, it's often said that science is never certain about anything, which would tend to suggest that there should be no place for certainty when discussing science but this, although pithy and somewhat useful generally speaking, doesn't get to the nub of the issue, and can be a bit misleading. There are many things that scientists are justifiably certain about.

I made a meme some time ago that has enjoyed a little popularity dealing with the hierarchy of epistemology in science. It was made to deal with another ubiquitous apologetic misrepresentation, and it's probably useful to bring this hierarchy to light here, as it shows how the boundary operates in practice. 

  • A fact is a data point; something observed to be the case.
  • An hypothesis is a guess; an attempt to explain what is observed to be the case. It's essentially a machine for generating predictions about what future observations should reveal if the hypothesis is correct and what, if it is observed, will show the hypothesis to be incorrect.
  • A law is a description, usually mathematical, of some observed behaviour or some relationship between observed quantities.
  • A theory is an integrated explanatory framework encompassing all the facts, hypotheses, laws and observations pertaining to a given area of interest.
Facts constitute knowledge. When we observe something to be the case, we can say we know it. The Shannon information content of an observation is 100%. There are no reductions in certainty. 

Let's take evolutionary theory as an example. Darwin started out by observing that the anatomy of a closely-related family of birds varied with environment. These are facts, and they will always be facts.

From these observations, Darwin formulated a hypothesis that the differences were directly correlated with the differences in environment, and that the environment was, therefore, having a direct impact on morphology (loosely, differences in shape). This was natural selection in a nutshell. His hypothesis was that the differences in morphology were a result of different environmental pressures in terms of availability of subsistence resources, etc. He worked out what this would imply, and then set out to see if those implications could be observed elsewhere.

Next up is law, and one might think we run into some issues here, because it's broadly thought that there are no laws in evolution, but this is wrong. There are actually quite a few laws in evolution although, unlike in, say, physics, they tend not to be mathematical expressions, largely because of the stochastic nature of evolution, but there are even mathematical laws in evolution. Starting with the simplest laws, then. Here's a law of evolution:

Every organism is the same species as its parents and its offspring*. 

Here's another:

Evolution is not reversible.

This one is a statistical law, known as Dollo's Law, and it deals with the negligible probability that an evolutionary pathway can be back-tracked perfectly. Sometimes, this is taken to mean that ancestral traits can't re-emerge, but this view is wrong.

There are other laws, of course, such as Mendel's Laws of Inheritance. The important thing to take away about laws is that they're not prescriptive, but descriptive. They describe observed relationships between quantities. There's a popular trope that, once theories have been proven, they become laws. This is simply untrue, because theories are never proven, and they never become laws. See footnote for a link to more on this, specifically in the context of evolution.

Finally, we come to theory, which is the integrated explanatory framework encompassing all the facts, hypotheses, laws and observations pertaining to a given area of interest.

When we look at the countering case, of course, what we see is an assertion of certainty masquerading as knowledge. In the case of the sceptic, she does need to know, but she prefers ignorance to false certainty.

In summary, the truism at the top of the page should properly read 'the theist needs to be certain, while the sceptic needs to know'.

*In Has Evolution Been Proven? we looked at the various concepts of species and why we use the biological species concept, and also the importance of a temporal component to any species concept. Here, I want to introduce two terms into the discussion to deal with two types of speciation. I would hope that these don't require explanation, but then we come across the common question from creationist apologetics 'if we evolved from apes, why are there still apes', which really exposes the depths to which ignorance of evolutionary theory sinks, and it's depressing to me that there are still people around who genuinely think this question is problematic for evolution.

So, the first of these types of speciation (there are others, but we don't need them for our purposes here) occurs when populations diverge genetically, or split into separate populations. This is known as sympatric speciation.

Under other circumstances, populations will diverge from their ancestral populations due to the accumulation of differences over time. This is known as allopatric speciation.

The question, as posed, assumes that all speciation is allopatric, which is the only reason to think that any group of organisms from which we evolved would necessarily be extinct. This is, of course, not a postulate of evolutionary theory.