The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Haven’t Had a Good Fight in Ages

| 99 Comments

So here are some things to fight about:

1. Failing to make the distinction between sexism and misogyny is as unscientific as failing to make the distinction between authoritarianism and fascism.  Precision is important–if we actually want to solve the problem.

2. There is a certain disgust-inspiring smugness that goes with some flavors of agnosticism.  Yeah, sure, if you want to say, “I don’t know the answer, therefore neither do you,” then feel free; but not knowing something is a pretty silly thing to be proud of.  Agnosticism is a very specific epistemological position, and one that I think is wrong.  We can talk about why I think that when you lose your attitude.

3. Speaking of atheism, the fact that some atheists use their belief as an excuse for anti-Muslim bigotry says as little about atheism as the fact that some Christians use their belief as an excuse for homophobia says about Christianity.

I’m on a roll.

4. One more on religion (because if you can’t get into an argument about religion, you just aren’t trying): As an atheist–a materialist–I believe that the history of religious thought is as much a valid subject for scientific investigation as anything else in nature or society.  Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that only as a materialist can one actually understand the development of human thought, religious or otherwise.  Point being, the atheist who simply condemns religion as an evil without paying any attention to how it developed, to its complex and often contradictory role throughout human history, to how it emerged from and then in turn influenced the society that produced it, is being profoundly unscientific.

5. Concerning literature, I believe two contradictory things: 1) People can enjoy reading whatever they want, and ought not to be judged for it–if you say, “that book is horrible and you shouldn’t have liked it,” you’re just being an ass.  2) One important part of improving our field is to be sharply critical; if we don’t recognize what’s bad, how are we going to get better?  It seems like these two positions ought not to contradict each other, but in practice it always seems like they do.  ETA: This is apart from the content, especially in a moral sense, which is a whole different conversation.

6. Obama supporters keep pointing at things Obama has done that Republicans would have supported if Bush had done them.  And they’re absolutely right; there is a lot of that going on.  They seem to be missing the fact that they attacked Bush for doing the same things Obama is doing.

7. Expanding on something I said a while ago on Facebook: There is a difference between the prejudice felt by an oppressed people, and the prejudice felt by oppressing people.  Lenin spoke of the difference between the nationalism of the oppressor, and the nationalism of the oppressed. To just toss it away with, “prejudice = prejudice” is wrong-headed.  In the real world, A is never equal to A.  The history and experience of oppression makes a difference.  If you find yourself saying, “Black people say….” you are being a racist, an asshole, and an idiot.  If you find yourself saying, “White people say,” you are just being an idiot.

8. Last but not least, something we can all fight about: driving.  People who have the attitude, “I can drive in the left lane all I want as long as I’m going the speed limit,” are jerks.  People who have the attitude, “I should be able to go as fast as I want in the left lane no matter what else traffic is doing and if you’re going slower than I want I’m within my rights to tailgate you and flip you off as I zoom by on the right,” are jerks.  Both fail to realize that driving is a cooperative endeavor, and the more we all work together, the safer and more pleasant it will be.  It’s kind of like life.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

99 Comments

  1. How am I supposed to argue if I agree with pretty much everything you said?

    I mean, I can try to draw distinctions about 6: it’s possible to support President Obama without supporting his record on civil rights and privacy, which is frankly dreadful (as bad as Bush), but that’s splitting hairs.

    Man, I suck at this.

  2. I really want to oblige you, but the problem is that even as someone on the agnostic-to-theist spectrum I’m a firm secularist, so you have only said one thing in this whole post I even sort of disagree with, namely that “only as a materialist can one actually understand the development of human thought, religious or otherwise.” I think religious folks are still perfectly capable of rendering dispassionate academic analysis and reaching the identical conclusions on the history of human thought. Now, they will THEN go somewhere different with that…

    But I think I agree with you that, on the average, a materialist is *more likely to* undergo that process of study from an appropriate and logical remove, so I’m not sure it’s worth fighting about.

  3. skzb

    Just wait, you guys. Things will take off. Patience.

  4. Steve, with regard to point 1, do you think that holding open doors for women is sexist?

  5. Well, sure. *Lots* of people disagree with those statements quite vehemently.

    But in the meantime, we could fight about who the best football team is or something (it’s either the Packers or the Seahawks, and I don’t even sports).

  6. skzb

    Um. I certainly think it can be, depending on individuals and circumstances.

  7. skzb

    Matt: I’ll go with the Seahawks, because Packers fans are a delight to talk to about football when the Packers are losing, but become intolerable asshats when the Packers are winning.

  8. More importantly, do you remember that time we (you me & chaos) fought vehemently about it against wrong people who were wrong on Whatever? Good times. I’m just trying to summon a return of that fight for you. #helping

  9. No no no, you’re supposed to say things I *disagree* with. Gosh, you’re bad at this.

  10. skzb

    Help always appreciated. I know, Matt, I’m *terrible* at this game.

  11. Hm. Maybe if I say “I like the earlier-draft version of the first line of Dragon more than the published version?” Or is that not the fun kind of disagreement?

  12. skzb

    No, that kind isn’t fun. And, um, the first line of that one didn’t change from when I first thought of it and started chortling.

  13. Hm. Well, someone on your LJ misremembered it to me years ago, in that case – they insisted there was a version starting with the joke and not the punch line. But in any case, I *do* love the first line. And I will look for a different subject to be obligingly disobliging about.

  14. “the fact that some atheists use their belief as an excuse for anti-Muslim bigotry says as little about atheism as the fact that some Christians use their belief as an excuse for homophobia says about Christianity.”

    I’ll be pedantic and say it says less about atheism. Christian homophobia has some foundation in the Christian Bible. You can argue that it’s a misinterpretation of those passages or that those passages no longer apply because they’re in the same sections of the Old and New Testaments as discussions of slavery and dress code. But they’re present.

    Atheism doesn’t have holy writings, by definition, so anti-Muslim bigotry is unrelated.

  15. skzb

    Matt: Gee, that’s swell. 🙂

  16. Is it wrong of me to use my official religious status of “Lapsed Unitarian” as an excuse for nearly everything I do?

    I’d like to say on point 1: misogyny is quite the best scrabble word.

  17. … We could argue about what was really going on in (insert name of Gene Wolfe novel here) ? I mean, every time I re-read something of his, I disagree with *myself* about that one, so I think I’d *have* to disagree with someone else.

  18. Regarding 1 & 2: I think the problem is that atheism these days is largely treated as an identity rather than a lack of belief, and that’s where a lot of the bigotry comes from. People are trying to actively *be* atheists, hang out with other atheists, discuss atheism, dislike non-atheist things, constantly perform their atheist identity, etc.

    7: I disagree, because I think being racist is to perpetuate a racist discourse, and it’s entirely possible for the oppressed to be racists. (The most familiar case from American history being the Nation of Islam.) Moreover, in this extremely globalized world, I have a real problem with how some of these notions (like whiteness) get imposed by American liberals on everyone who’s participating in discussions of racism, even when they’re from half a world away, where bigotry takes completely different forms. This can even go so far as actually supporting neonazi logic and helping to legitimize racist concepts that were previously unheard of.

    Of course, people usually respond by saying “well, I didn’t mean to include *those* people” – which will sound familiar to anyone who’s argued with a racist.

    So while I do totally get it, and I know what Lenin meant, I think this is something to be very careful about. (Think about Golden Dawn. Greeks are extremely oppressed, have been for centuries, but do we want that nationalism of the oppressed?)

    8: Cars are boring.

  19. “I believe that the history of religious thought is as much a valid subject for scientific investigation as anything else in nature or society.”

    I’m not sure, but it sounds as if all you have is a hammer and you are viewing everything as a nail. Could you please confirm that your assertion is: scientific method can be used to explain why events happen without accepting the axioms from which the actors in those events are operating?

  20. Okay, why not?

    There is a certain disgust-inspiring smugness that goes with some flavors of atheism. Yeah, sure, if you want to say, “I categorically know the answer,” then feel free; but claiming to know anything about what is by definition supernatural is a pretty silly position for a naturalist to take. Atheism is a very specific epistemological position, and one that I think is wrong. We can talk about why I think that when you lose your attitude.

  21. “not knowing something is a pretty silly thing to be proud of”

    Socrates would disagree.

    On point 5, it’s perfectly possible for a sensible, intelligent person to like a particular work that just isn’t that good. Either because it had some fleeting, somewhat redeeming characteristic, relieved a person’s ennui for an hour or so, or was written by an author that they enjoy who is also responsible for superior other works. That doesn’t make the reader a bad person, or incapable of recognizing the low quality or particular flaws in the work.

    On point 8, this is something the Germans have got figured out. There’s really no better place on Earth to drive than on the Autobahn. The law says you MUST get over to the right unless you’re passing; driving too slow in the left will get you a ticket, and passing on the right is utterly Verboten.

  22. There are refinements to #8: If I’m already going faster than the posted speed limit, and/or the traffic ahead of me is moving no faster, get the hell off my bumper!

  23. skzb

    “: I think the problem is that atheism these days is largely treated as an identity rather than a lack of belief”

    Oh, I think you’re onto something. I’d never thought of it that way.

    As for point 7, we do not want nationalism in any form. Nationalism is a destructive force. But nationalism by an oppressed group–even the Nation of Islam (good example!) is something to fight, to oppose, to dispute; it doesn’t inspire the hatred and disgust that we feel toward the Ku Klux Klan, and there is a reason for that. And the issue of the Golden Dawn is significantly different–there a vast gulf between an oppressed group’s wrong-headed attempts to fight its oppression, and a group that is consciously and cynically using nationalist feelings in an attempt to crush the ability of the working class to resist. (It is possible that some of this dispute is lexical in nature–I know that “racism” has a different meaning in England than in the US, or at least it did 30 years ago).

    “Cars are boring.” Dude, you are SO not American.

  24. It may be smugness to say “I don’t know the answer, therefore neither do you,” and it may be something some people are proud of. But it’s hard to tell the tone of voice of someone writing on the Internet. Someone can be sad that he doesn’t know the answer.

    On the other hand, it is easy to understand why physicists didn’t like The Uncertainty Principle – which doesn’t make it wrong. We *should* know what we don’t know. Knowing where we are is the first step in reading a map.

    Lots of people say that religion can’t be proved. That’s because the standards for proof keep changing. We climb up Mount Olympus and don’t see the gods, then that no longer is valid evidence to True Believers. When we do double blind tests on whether prayer works, we ignore that evidence. There is nothing in the Bible that indicates that God is not part of the natural world, observable by anybody who looks.

    In 6. I attack Obama for doing what Bush did. And I attack Republicans for only attacking Obama for the same things. Nothing forgotten here.

  25. skzb

    JM6: I’m afraid you’ll have to rephrase that question; I couldn’t follow it.

    Eric: Has my atheism appeared smug to you? In what way?

  26. When I think about True Believers – whether it is in Religion or Economic System or Ethnicity, or whatever, the first thing I do is look at the True Believer and evaluate whether that belief either makes them rich or powerful – or tells them that their way is good (implying other ways are bad). When I see that bias, they have to work harder to prove their point.

    The next thing I do is compare their observed behavior with their stated beliefs. For instance a capitalist who is only capitalist when it is in his favor. Or a Christian whose values are contrary to those of Jesus Christ (who fought the Righteous, warned how difficult it is for a wealthy man to be saved – who welcomed the sinners, the outsiders, the unclean, and the poor – in other words who was exactly the opposite of Pat Robertson).

    So many True Beliefs aren’t believing in anything except “my way is right”.

    What is very obvious is that from creation on, God had my values. Obviously not my grandparents’ values, and tragically not my grandchildren’s values.

  27. I guess it’s just hard to find the point where one kind of nationalism ends and the other begins, you know? A lot of oppressed people genuinely believe in the reactionary groups they support, but that doesn’t make those groups any less vile.

  28. A humorous video via @lbitw1, which some may find amusingly relevant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtlxIcN_tAM

  29. skzb

    Jonas: Yeah, sometimes it can be hard. It’s like populism–in this country, right-wing populism uses a lot of the same rhetoric (anti-corporate, &c) as left wing populism; untangling the class base can be tricky. But hey, if this stuff was easy, everyone would do it.

    Jen: Oh, I need to download that ap stat!

  30. “Atheist” is a word chosen for convenience. What I really mean is that I don’t believe in any supernatural entity promoted by a major world religion, or any supernatural entity that would roughly overlap one of them.

    “God is nature” – maybe. I don’t care. “God is unknowable.” – maybe. I don’t care either. “God exists and wants your worship.” or “God exists and will punish you for immorality.” or “God exists and loves us in a way like human love but dialed up to infinity.” or “God exists and has a specific plan for humanity.” – Nope, those assertions don’t match the observable universe and logical thought in any way. If we can’t use observation and logical thought to guide our beliefs about God, then we might as well decide that the person in mental ward bed 415b a three hour drive west is the chosen emissary of heaven and we should all be dyeing our skin purple and worshiping God’s offspring, Macadamia nuts.

  31. Ah, there’s the smug sort of atheism: equating “god exists and loves us” with “worshipping macadamia nuts”.

    And I really don’t think that “atheism lacks a holy text” means atheist anti-muslim sentiment is less offensive or unrelated.

  32. Not particularly, but then, has my agnosticism appeared smug to you in any way? Should we fight over definitions of “smug” instead? I’m just trying to help here, man.

  33. I don’t mean that “god exists and loves us” is equivalent to “worshipping macadamia nuts”. I mean the evidence that “god exists and loves us” is equivalent to the evidence for “worshipping macadamia nuts”.

    To use an example that might be less smug, how about if I rephrase it this way: if we can’t use logic and observation to govern our choice of religion, what criteria can we use to select between Christianity, Islam, The Church of Latter Day Saints, Hinduism, or for that matter worship of Odin, Quetzlcoatl, Baron Samedi, Anansi, Zeus, Baal, Marduk, or Ra?

    I also did not assert that atheist anti-muslim sentiment is less offensive, only that it’s not intrinsically linked to atheist ideas the same way homophobia is linked to Christianity. Having weaker reasons for being a jerk does not make being a jerk any more acceptable.

  34. Well… ethics, Mike! We can certainly use logic and observation to govern our choice of religion – simply not the supernatural elements of that religion! Researching the dictates, moral codes, and guidelines for conscience one religion as opposed to another espouses, and seeing how well that fits our worldview, is perfectly possible! Now, if you’re going to ask “why choose a religion that suits your ethics when you can not choose a religion at all, and maintain your ethics just fine in their absence?”, THAT is a tough question. So maybe I’m just picking at your wording. But while I’m all about pluralism, I find the statement that we cannot use logic to govern our choice of religion pretty silly.

  35. Mike S, I think put that way, it is less irksome to me. 🙂 I’d agree that selecting a religious belief based on the amount of available empirical evidence (which I think is close to what you mean but let me know if I’m doing violence to your comment) isn’t likely to be useful; there isn’t much to choose from going that way. For me, I made a decision to hold some beliefs based in faith, and I went with the religion I was raised in–which as far as I know is the one my parents picked based on convenience and size of church social activities when they moved to Minnesota. So it is more culture than science.

    But often, discussing religion with an atheist ends up with them telling me that I’m wrong to have made the above choice, me being defensively pissy about it, and no one very happy. I like a lot of atheists! I sleep with atheists! But this is why I don’t like talking about religion at parties.

    To the other thing, I think homophobia has been deliberately adopted as a cause by certain types of far-right Christian politics and the fact that they can put it in terms of old-testament Bible verses seems less important to me than that followers pick it up from what their leaders say, much as defenders or followers of Dawkins can pick up anti-Muslim sentiment from some of what he’s said. Solidifying an us-vs-them sentiment is key to keeping those followers.

  36. Matt, if we use ethics to govern our choices, we find that all religions up to this point made serious errors in their treatment of subjects such as slavery, homosexuality, and women’s rights with respect to property, education, occupations, and choice of spouse (even leaving out issues like birth control, abortion, and marital rape, because in many cases religions still hold immoral positions on these issues).

    If we use logic and ethics to govern our choice of religion, we have to conclude that all of them have or at one point had serious ethical errors – which means either no divine being is involved, or no divine being an ethical person could in good conscience worship is involved.

    Ergo, you have to discard logic to choose a religion.

  37. Horse manure. Making serious errors is part of the history of every code of ethics, religious or not. If we must discard religious affiliation for that, so too must we discard all national or community affiliation, or indeed, any group identity whatsoever. We must discard religious fundamentalism, which treats all religious doctrine as inerrant. and tries to sweep mistakes under the rug. It’s still more than possible to compare religious doctrines against one another, consider their present as well as their past, and find that one particular doctrine or another matches one’s existing worldview better than the others.

  38. jenphalian,
    I believe atheism should be taught and spread, as much as it’s practical to do so, because I believe it’s correct and religions are mistaken. Admittedly, it’s not very practical to teach and spread atheism because almost no one – religious or atheist – takes well to having their ideas called into question with respect to the nature of reality, the supernatural, and ethics. And again, I’m using atheism as a convenience term for the meaning of, “I disagree with all widely known religions” and not the actual definition “I am convinced a supernatural creator does not exist” because I don’t have a better word.
    I absolutely agree with your point that many religious leaders use homophobia as a means to solidify their support base, and some (many?) notable atheists use anti-Muslim sentiment the same way. I hadn’t considered that angle, and would annotate my earlier posts with a note about it if I could.

  39. skzb

    Eric: “Not particularly, but then, has my agnosticism appeared smug to you in any way?” Um. This is liable to be insulting, but I really don’t mean it that way: I haven’t noticed your agnosticism one way or another; I didn’t even know you were an agnostic.

    Here’s the thing: I said “some flavors of agnosticism,” with a certain type in mind, and I chose not to name names. You can believe it applies to you or not; I have no opinion. But when you reply without specifically saying otherwise, you are replying to the original post, written by me, hence you are directing that to me. This is an unfortunate but unavoidable artifact of post-comment type discussions.

    If, as I’m now starting to believe, your point is only, “Anyone holding any belief can be a jerk about it,” you are certainly right, but that doesn’t get us very far. I’m speaking very much of our community, where most theists do not speak contemptuously of atheists; where a few but not most atheists speak contemptuously of theists, and–which is why I made the comment–there is an increasing number of agnostics who feel entirely justified about speaking contemptuously of anyone with a solid conviction.

    I have reason why I believe both theists and agnostics are incorrect, and I will discuss those reasons respectfully with those who disagree with me–respectfully. But those who combine arrogance with–in my opinion, of course–flawed reasoning are bound to incite annoyance, don’t you think?

    Mike: Well, after all, much of Christianity is, at bottom, a set of moral precepts that it is important for your neighbor to follow. :-Fe

  40. Yes, I know and am sorry that it’s an annoying thing to say, but so far as I can tell, there’s no point discussing atheism or religion with devout atheists or devout theists. I like people who are comfortable with doubt and mystery, and dislike people who are smug about anything.

    As for #7, if you say there are different reasons behind the different forms of racism, I’ll happily agree, but I gotta go with Malcolm X, who didn’t hesitate to use the term when discussing black folks. For example: “I totally reject Elijah Muhammad’s racist philosophy, which he has labeled ‘Islam’ only to fool and misuse gullible people as he fooled and misused me. But I blame only myself, and no one else for the fool that I was, and the harm that my evangelical foolishness on his behalf has done to others.”

  41. Matt, the supreme being, if it exists, doesn’t make mistakes. Religious doctrine must be inerrant, by definition. If it’s mutable, then it didn’t come from the supreme being.

    I know secular ethics has evolved. That doesn’t bother me, because the ideas it contains didn’t come from God.

    Now, if you redefine the supreme being as some sort of omnipotent but not omniscient being, you have two problems. First, that doesn’t fit the definition of God in most religions. Second and more importantly, if God makes ethical mistakes then I am ethically bound _not_ to use God’s wishes as the foundation of my own ethics.

  42. Mike – you can believe that religious doctrine must be inerrant, but plenty of religious folks don’t, so please don’t pretend that restriction applies to my beliefs rather than yours. Likewise, plenty of religions & religious folk claim neither omniscience nor omnipotence for their deities – great power, and great insight, but not infallibility. Nor must we ascribe miscommunication between the human and the divine as divine error.

    In Christianity, the very existence of the New Testament speaks to this – according to the prophets, God had been conveying messages to humanity for centuries, and humanity kept misinterpreting or misunderstanding… OR, if we don’t accept that, then we must accept that God once ascribed to Old Testament ethics, then revised his opinions to New testament ethics. Whether it is divine revision or imperfect human understanding, a belief in religious doctrine as immutable is simply not consistent with any form of Christianity.

  43. #5 is not actually contradictory, once you realize that “good” has multiple valid definitions. So, depending on how you are choosing to measure it, a book can be good and bad simultaneously. Indeed, the vast majority are!

  44. Ooh, this could be fun!

    1. Hm, no disagreement here. (I gotta be careful, though. I follow “atheism” on Quora, and I get into too many … disagreements … there already.)

    2. I consider myself a consistent agnostic: I don’t know, and I don’t *think* you know either. (For all values of “you”)

    3. “the fact that some atheists use their belief as an excuse for anti-Muslim bigotry says as little about atheism as…”
    Oh God,* yes.
    * No contradiction with #2. It’s an idiom, man!

    “I’m on a roll.” And when you’re on a roll, don’t stop till you run out of butter!

    4. “the history of religious thought is as much a valid subject for scientific investigation as anything else in nature or society”.
    Well, who could disagree with that? Nemmine, don’t answer that.

    5. “Concerning literature, I believe two contradictory things: 1) People can enjoy reading whatever they want, and ought not to be judged for it…  2) One important part of improving our field is to be sharply critical; if we don’t recognize what’s bad, how are we going to get better?”
    Disagreement here: I recognize the existence of “guilty pleasures”. I know I shouldn’t eat too many sweets, but goddam, those chocolates and Kahlúa fudge brownies my sister made for me are just SO GOOD! Similarly, some literature may be just junk, but it’s fun to read, for person X, Y, or Z. I feel fine saying “That’s junk” without criticizing someone (including myself) for enjoying it.

    This may be different for you as a writer. In strictly logical terms I don’t see how, but I do view it as entirely possible that your craft is so entwined with your reactions and esthetic that you find it hard or impossible to separate your (1) from your (2). We are not strictly logical creatures, thank whatever gods there be!

    6. Sounds sensible, but no other comment.

    7. “There is a difference between the prejudice felt by an oppressed people, and the prejudice felt by oppressing people.”
    Absotively.

    «If you find yourself saying, “Black people say….” you are being a racist, an asshole, and an idiot.  If you find yourself saying, “White people say,” you are just being an idiot.»
    I’m not sure what’s behind your ellipses. As a linguist, my first reaction is almost certainly not what you have in mind, because I start by thinking of dialects, and those are certainly a valid subject of inquiry (though NOT a basis for moral evaluation). My next thought, a couple of deciseconds later, is about in-group vs. out-group permissibility. Black people can say “nigger/niggah” to and about each other with impunity AFAIK, but from a white person it’s vile. (Exception for those [white] dialects in which it is the only word for a black person and is used without pejoration.)

    Similarly for Jews (my own people) and the word “yid”. I recall getting into an online argument with someone about Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”, in which the other person was castigating the author in absentia for the continual use of “yid” in his dialogue. She didn’t realize, or didn’t recognize, that most of the dialogue in that book is (in-universe) spoken in Yiddish, not English, and that the use of Yinglish words, idioms, and grammar was the author’s way of marking the Yiddish dialogue as such, as well as setting/building the characters, the environment, and so on, in ways that you are surely far more familiar with than I am. I don’t speak much Yiddish, but my grandparents did when they didn’t want “di kinder” to understand; and growing up in the setting I did, as even a Reform Jewish kid in New York, I absorbed the background flavor of Yinglish along with the ubiquity of Puerto Rican Spanish and the sounds of the traffic.

    Which segues, or maybe Segways, nicely into…

    8. Driving. Oh, yeah. When I’m in the left lane and see someone coming up behind me, and I switch into the next lane to let them pass (maybe slowing down a bit to fit into the traffic in that lane), I often think of that action as “negative passing” or “passing backward” or “passing behind”. See, regular passing involves
    + switching to the next lane (typically leftward)
    + possibly speeding up a little
    + till you’re safely ahead of the other car,
    + then pulling back into the original lane
    + and often slowing to your earlier speed.
    Reverse the sign on each part of that and you get
    – switching to the next lane (typically rightward)
    – possibly slowing down a little
    – till you’re safely behind the other car
    – then pulling back into the original lane
    – and often accelerating to your earlier speed.

    Hee! That *was* fun.

  45. Matt, “plenty of religions & religious folk claim neither omniscience nor omnipotence for their deities” Which ones? The Christian Bible makes many claims to God’s omniscience and omipotence (alpha and omega, He knows all, before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and dozens or hundreds of other similar verses) – so you can’t assert that the Christian God is neither of those things unless you classify gods omniscience and omnipotence under the list of things that were miscommunicated to humanity.

  46. Actually, there are many Biblical instances of God having to investigate something in order to have knowledge of it, of things being hidden from God, of God testing, wagering, or experimenting to discover unknown outcomes… the Bible is not a consistent document when it comes to omniscience, or indeed, many other things.

    And despite being called the Almighty, the theological arguments about what omnipotence means or implies, and what limitations it may still impose, are robust, ongoing conversations. The commonly held position is that omnipotence allows God to do anything it is in God’s nature to do, not the ability to do things in contravention of God’s nature, and not to do things which are impossible due to being contradictory (God cannot make a sandwich so big he cannot eat it, because God can do anything, including eating sandwiches of any size, so the phrase “a sandwich so big God cannot eat it” is an incorrect description of a sandwich. What meaning we are meant to derive from God’s capacity at eating contests has always seemed less clear to me; most arguments for or against omnipotence seem to me to boil down to linguistic ledgerdemain for the purpose of point-scoring and not philosophical contemplation.

    Regardless, the incapacity for error in divine communication does not contradict several understandings of omnipotence – a perfectly composed message may still not be perfectly understood by an imperfect receiver. Unless we argue that such perfection implies perfect understanding by beings not capable of perfect understanding, which makes us ask how we define perfection, and we once again descend into a rhetorical morass.

  47. thnidu, general agreement, but a quibble with junk food: there’s good junk food and bad, and if you don’t learn to tell the difference, you’ll poison yourself.

    From your description, I’m sure your sister’s brownies are in the first category.

  48. I’m accustomed to an argument from the opposite perspective – God does not make mistakes, and must be obeyed. That can be deconstructed based on the differences in early Christian (or Muslim, Mormon, Jewish, Hindu, etc…) ethical views and modern ones.

    But this different perspective, that God’s intelligence – including the ability to communicate with flawed human beings – has serious limits, still has problems. If a limited being that we don’t understand, and who doesn’t understand us well enough to convey useful messages sends us a garbled message, what should we do? I would say to ignore the garbled messages until we’ve reached a point where useful communication can occur, then start listening.

    The further you move God away from omniscient and omnipotent, the further you move from being ethically justified in following God’s instructions.

  49. Well, personally, God’s ethical instructions are one of several filters I view the world through. My own conscience is perfectly functional, my logical reasoning, knowledge of law, and awareness of the behavior of others among my friends and community, too. In order to deal with any morally complex situation, I’m going to try and find the solution most supported by the greatest number of those filters. If conscience, law, and community tell me something is wrong, and the Bible is silent or says it’s right, I’ll concede that the Bible is in error. If it’s two against two, that’s when there’s an interesting deadlock – if my conscience and my religion compel me one way, but law and community lean the other? That’s tricky.

    But then, ethical dilemmas are tricky with or without religion. I’m happy to have the input of the Gospels, but they’re no replacement for the mental faculties God gave me, and i am sorely annoyed when I see any coreligionist act otherwise. But I admit, it really gets my goat when I see an atheist acting as if all religious people behave that way, or as if atheists are immune to following irrational self-justifications for ethically indefensible actions. I’m not saying you were doing that, mind – only that it bugs me when it happens, and it happens quite a bit.

  50. skzb: Yep, I’d say I pretty well agree; the imbalance of the post-comment relationship strikes me as being a bit specious and unfair, but I‘ll accept it.

    I find agnostics who show contempt to those holding solid positions to be somewhat amusing, as my conception of an agnostic (the one I hold) is that if you don’t know, you don’t know. By accepting that you literally don’t know if there is a God or similar force, you therefore accept that the theists might be right; similarly, so might the atheists. (Probably not both, though.) For me, it’s not something to be proud of, but just something that is.

    It would be pretty interesting to see that discussion about why you think agnostics are wrong, conducted with an agnostic who felt similarly about your atheism.

    …wait wait wait, here you are being reasonable, and I’m being reasonable back. I thought the whole point was to have a fight! We’re terrible at this.

  51. Actually, SB, you are one of the few “atheists” I know who does not come off smug. [the quotes are because the term is used so many ways it’s confusing]. I believe, but not because I have proof. This requires me to be humble about judging others who do not share my beliefs. It helps that I understand that my particular path is for my self-improvement. I chose it because it made the most sense to me. The faith I was raised in included some ideas that made no logical sense, even assuming a supreme being. Especially assuming a supreme being.

    I especially appreciate two things–a secular approach to everyday life, which is just in that we can decide issues based on demonstrable fact, and a lack of any hierarchical faith organization that can demand obedience to any faith. Perhaps years of being Roman Catholic is responsible for those.

    My current faith is the very unpopular one that seems to be considered fair game these days, at least in this country. I am amazed to hear all the horrible things I am responsible for. There is a religious double-standard heavily at work: Muslims are told that if they do not loudly and repeatedly denounce the acts of ISIS and the Taliban and other fringe weird groups, we are aiding and abetting. Well, we do. Often. As any decent person would. But If I were to say that all Christians were slow to disavow the Oklahoma City Bombing, People would say what? That I was a hater?

    Brutes brutalize because they are brutes. No religion or philosophy is going to make a kind, compassionate person into a brute, but a religion can fail to improve a brute, and the brute can misapply aspects of that faith to justify brutality. (We are, of course, excluding murder-cults like the Thugs and that sort of thing.) But I grow very tired of having to defend a billion people because of a couple hundred thousand fiends. And of having people question that we value peace as much as anyone. History shows that violence is caused by humans. The details are ridiculously similar.

  52. I have to say, I agree with you on every point! Well-spoken! You must be brilliant or something. (:

  53. The trouble with “The further you move God away from omniscient and omnipotent, the further you move from being ethically justified in following God’s instructions.”, is that so very many times, “God’s instructions” appear to be stuff to push the listeners’ agendas. And someone else is following “God’s instructions” very contrary to mine.

  54. Mike S, did we arrive at some respectful mixture of disagreement and agreement with each others points? We were supposed to be fighting. Now Steve will kick us off the blog. *sigh*

  55. Whew! I can comment on one thing and start a fight, anyways!

    #8: If I’m a big rig in the middle lane of a three lane highway (Which I probably am as you read this) going 62.5 mph in a 75 mph zone, I’m there for a variety of reasons:

    1. So people in vehicles that I can squish without knowing can enter and exit the freeway at their leisure or speed on the right without me having to fight traffic in order to not squish them.

    2. So people in vehicles I can squish without noticing it can whiz by me in the left hand lane when they wish to go faster than 62.5 mph.

    3. My particular company governs trucks to 62.5 mph. Some companies govern at 65. Some 70. Owner/operators may not be governed at all, and may be driving like speed demons. I, however, wishing you to be safe, will keep straight and sure at 62.5 mph. Passing me on either side, flipping me off, then zipping in front of me completely defeats the whole idea of keeping you squishy things safe from my 18, 400# tires. Also, you’re a jerk.

    4. I don’t hate you, and your safety is important to me. I do not want to squish you. Therefore, please realize that if you zip in front of me and slam on your brakes while going down a hill with a 6% grade, I’m going to feel very bad about flattening you. I will not, however, be able to avoid flattening you, as I’ve got 80,000# behind me and it takes a minute to stop it. Your family will not be able to sue me, either, as I have cameras for just such situations. Also, you’re a jerk.

    5. Actually, yes we do make those rolling road blocks (2 rigs driving in two lanes at the same speed) in construction zones on purpose. For some reason, y’all lose your minds in construction zones and cause lots of speeding accidents. It’s for your own good that we are forcing you to drive the speed limit. 🙂

  56. Tch. Your topics are too broad; for a really good fight, you need more closely related details to wrangle over. You’ll always see more blood drawn over a Packers v Seahawks argument than over football v baseball. With that in mind:

    #1 – For a great fight, ask about making a distinction between chivalry and sexism, as in, is it possible for a male to treat a female co-worker chivalricly at work without it being sexist?*

    As for #5, that’s actually a good argument starter. I disagree they’re contradictary positions since I’ve never heard anyone say, “That’s a horrible book. The characters never just say things, they interrogate, quiz and muse. The lead ‘ambles casually’! The viewpoint character switches right in the middle of the paragraph. Twice!” They’re much more likely to say it’s a bad book because it was boring, while those being sharply critical of a book are more likely to go after the technical things.

    * No, it’s not.

  57. I think the important part in #5, and the reason it’s so contradictory, is that there’s a lot of room in criticism to be starkly subjective.

    It’s easy to say “This is why I think the book is bad”, in several different senses… it’s much harder to say “This book fails to meet objective criteria a, b, and theta”. If nothing else, you first have to explain the set of assumptions that will ultimately control your analysis.

    It’s impossible to say “You are a bad person for enjoying … ” without being an ass of some kind or another. (except for people who like wintergreen – they are all terrible and the world is worsened for their existence and continued support of this flavor profile)

  58. “Agnosticism is a very specific epistemological position, and one that I think is wrong. We can talk about why I think that when you lose your attitude.”

    Religious belief is not a matter of truth, it’s a matter of esthetics. People choose the religions they like. Some people like to be atheists, which is as valid an esthetic choice as any religion. Some people choose to be agnostic, likewise.

    There are people who disrespect other people’s esthetic choices. I won’t say that all of them are being assholes — that would imply that every esthetic choice is as good as any other, and I sure don’t believe that. If somebody stands up and claims that every position is as good as any other, some troll is sure to come along and present a position *purposely designed* to trigger revulsion and then call the moral relativist or the esthetic relativist (or whatever) a hypocrite for being repulsed.

    But if in fact every choice is as good as any other, then there’s nothing wrong with getting squicked out at anything you get squicked out by, and there’s nothing wrong with calling people assholes. Particularly when they want you to, because they want to think you’re an asshole when you do, and that’s the outcome they prefer.

    True tolerance will tolerate anybody being intolerant, including yourself.

    “Speaking of atheism, the fact that some atheists use their belief as an excuse for anti-Muslim bigotry says as little about atheism as the fact that some Christians use their belief as an excuse for homophobia says about Christianity.”

    Agreed! Similarly, some objectivists use their belief as an excuse for bigotry against poor people. Almost all of them. Actually I think it does say something about objectivism. The pure morality of the doctrines woudn’t have to come out that way, but somehow it’s been like that from the very beginning and nobody has worked it out other ways, and it will take a very long time before anybody does because if your esthetic choices are too far from those of the other followers you won’t take up that stand in the first place.

    “As an atheist–a materialist–I believe that the history of religious thought is as much a valid subject for scientific investigation as anything else in nature or society.”

    I agree! Similarly art history is a valid subject for scientific investigation. And the history of the novel. Science will eventually tell us how it works that a person can put ink on a page and stir other people’s emotions, and why some people can make a living that way while others can’t, and so on. Eventually the principles will be so well-understood that the process can be automated and it will not be necessary for human beings to slave away at creative writing — machines will produce novels that are objectively better than anything humans can produce, at far lower cost. There may be a niche market for human-produced novels just as there is now one for human-woven cloth. Machines can create cheap imitation hand-woven cloth that is very hard to detect is fake, but of course it’s unethical to do that.

    Only — science has not yet advanced very far toward an understanding of art, or novels, or religion. While in principle it can work miracles, maybe we should wait for science to actually do so before we use it to trample on other people’s esthetic choices?

    Well no, go ahead if you want to. My objection is mostly that when people try to use the concept of science to trump other people’s unscientific esthetic choices, it tends to get those other people to dislike science. I like science and I don’t like it when people persuade other people to have grudges against it. “Your religious beliefs are unscientific and therefore wrong. My own religious beliefs are scientific and therefore right. I’m right and you’re wrong, nyah, nyah, nyah!”

    See, there’s a difference between science and sciencism. Science is a way to find things out. It’s an exciting game, and it gradually works to find out more and more things. Sciencism is a religious belief that the world ultimately makes sense, that things happen for reasons and that science can eventually reveal those reasons. This is a belief in things unknown. Science has succeeded in creating understanding of an increasing range of things so we suppose that everything is in principle understandable. I share that belief myself, though there’s no objective evidence for it. I find it satisfying to hope that it’s true, and to assert that it’s true even though the evidence for it so far is utterly inadequate.

    Is it bullying to tell people that their beliefs are unscientific? I’m not sure. Is it worse bullying to tell people that their beliefs are unscientific when they believe that their beliefs are in fact scientific, than when they don’t use scientific props to buttress their perhaps-arbitrary beliefs? Yes, probably.

    People are assholes and they annoy each other. Not all the time, but it happens a lot.

    I believe we are in an evolutionary situation. We are gradually finding out which esthetic choices improve our own survival, and also which choices make good memes that spread whether they improve the survival of their hosts or not. This is an amoral process but people can draw moral conclusions from it, rising partly from their esthetic choices. I don’t know where it’s heading. I hope it’s something I’d approve of.

  59. skzb

    Internet went down last night; back now.

    thnidu: Good point. Behind the ellipses, what I have mind I are things I’ve read like, “Black people say they are targeted by the police, but…” and, “White people say the police don’t target black people, but…” Does that clarify my point?

    Erik: “skzb: Yep, I’d say I pretty well agree; the imbalance of the post-comment relationship strikes me as being a bit specious and unfair, but I‘ll accept it.” It IS unfair. But in my opinion, it’s inherent in the form.

    Thought: Why, no–if you agree, YOU are brilliant. *nodnod*

    Caliann: You are adorable as a truck drivin’ man.

    L. Raymond: Oh, that’s a good one!

    Jeff: Good point.

  60. Great topics, all! And each well worthy of a good fight. Let me just address atheism vs. agnosticism, since that always puts me in a fighting mood. Hopefully I can lay out my core beliefs without excessive smugness, but I am willing to take that hit for the cause!

    First, I’m going take exception to how Jonas Kyratzes’ characterizes atheists, “I think the problem is that atheism these days is largely treated as an identity rather than a lack of belief, and that’s where a lot of the bigotry comes from.”

    Not a terrible sentiment, but it misses the point and plays into theist prejudice. Atheism is a belief. Descartes showed that there are no assumptions that don’t require at least some choices on the part of a person that thinks thoroughly, including the evidence of the senses. An atheist has chosen to believe that reason and empiricism are the best tools for apprehending the nature of the universe, just as a theist has chosen to believe that faith is the best tool. An atheist believes in a phenomenological universe, one in which all effects have natural causes, one that operates by natural law not supernatural influence. This is a belief. It is not possible to test this belief exhaustively. You cannot know all natural law. You cannot prove the non-existence of the supernatural. You can say, however, that the universe seems to have no need of deities and that you feel no need either. You can say, lacking a lack, having no itch to scratch, you feel no compulsion to make excuses for supernatural beings that make no effort to make their presence obvious. You can say that, contrary to the expectations of Duck Dynasty stars, an absence at the very top of the Great Chain of Being does not mean that every vile impulse will be given full reign, because it is possible to arrive at workable codes of ethics without Eternal Activist Judges telling us not to eat shellfish.

    Am I sounding smug yet? Sorry, passion combined with a natural sarcasm can come across that way. Mea culpa.

    So, since I passionately believe that a godless universe is more sensible, more likely, and infinitely more desirable than a godded one, what do I think about agnostics? That they just haven’t bothered to make a choice. Not that they have weighed all the evidence and found it all impossible to work out. That they have decided that making the decision is too hard and not sufficiently interesting to spend time on. Fair enough.

    But here’s the thing: if you opt out of thinking about a question all the way to the end, you lose the right to having your opinion on the matter taken seriously. Yes, theism is not absolutely and unequivocably refutable. Yes, no matter how many times the apple and the Earth display their mutual attraction, Gravity remains a Theory not a Commandment. But it really does make a difference whether you choose to set your personal selfishness/altruism slider based on scientific analysis of the costs and benefits to society and yourself, or whether you try to follow homilies/koans/sutras. It really does make a difference whether you think a 3000-1600 year old collection of translated and re-translated anecdotes is as good a source of understanding of the world as constantly tested research.

    Saying it is all to hard for you to grok is fine. Telling me my choice is meaningless because you can’t figure out how I made it is BS.

  61. … Lars, are you saying agnostics *don’t* think scientifically? Or that they *do* believe that religious doctrines they don’t ascribe to are good sources of understanding?

    I mean, I’m sure there are people like that out there, but I’ve never run across one.

  62. Matt- I’m saying (or trying to say) they aren’t making the choice. They are not arriving at a consistent epistemology. They are just giving up 10 feet before the finish line.

    That little set of either/or statements that you are asking about are really my attempt to describe people that have made the choice. To be agnostic, truly agnostic, is not to weigh the value of either of those paths. It is to live without really charting your own course.

  63. It seems like a pretty poor description, to me (not to mention smug!). An agnostic can firmly embrace the scientific method (which is, among other things, not at all identical to atheism – I know plenty of unscientific atheists) and firmly reject religious teachings. I’m not really sure how it’s at all sensible to assert otherwise.

  64. Matt- an agnostic can, just a a scientist can believe in the supernatural or a religious beilever can also believe in evolution. I’m not saying they can’t. Humans are infinitely capable of rationalization

    What I am saying, and you are welcome to think of my certainty as smugness if it comes across that way, is that none of those positions are self-consistent. If there is no supernatural, there is no point in looking at divine revelation as anything other than ethnography: interesting in what it says about the people that wrote it down and consider it important. If there is a Supreme Being or a Divine Plan or even just an X-Fold Path, then science is all very interesting, but maybe you should be trying to guess which religion is right if you want to live a good life.

    If agnostics say, and I think this is the literal definition of agnosticism and not just my view, that they don’t know if the universe is phenomenological or supernatural and they aren’t going to try to guess, then they are sitting on the fence. They are not coming to an opinion. That’s what agnostic means in Greek, right? No knowledge.

    That isn’t an indefensible position. If you don’t find the question interesting, no problem. But, apropos the OP, if you then turn around and tell me I’m wrong for for choosing, for thinking it through and deciding which universe I’m living in, then I reserve the right to find your arguments uninteresting.

  65. skzb

    lars: I thought your comment interesting. It is not at all my approach to atheism, but it’s thoughtful and didn’t read as smug to me. Of course, as an atheist myself, I suppose it wouldn’t.

  66. The clarification greatly decreased the impression of smugness the initial comment gave me.

  67. Matt- fair enough! As I said, I make no apologies for the firmness of my beliefs or my tendency to mock. Well, actually, I will apologize for that, a bit. Not if I’m actually funny, though, I’m all good with anything I say that comes across funny! But if it is just snarky and tedious, I’m sorry.

  68. “If agnostics say [,,,] that they don’t know if the universe is phenomenological or supernatural and they aren’t going to try to guess, then they are sitting on the fence. They are not coming to an opinion. [….]

    “That isn’t an indefensible position. If you don’t find the question interesting, no problem. But, apropos the OP, if you then turn around and tell me I’m wrong for for choosing, for thinking it through and deciding which universe I’m living in, then I reserve the right to find your arguments uninteresting.”

    If you believe that thinking things out is important, then making an irrational choice about religion in the absence of evidence may be a mistake.There’s nothing to keep you from making up moral rules based on your best guess at the consequences even if you aren’t sure there’s no god. That might be what god wants you to do.

    And also there’s nothing to keep you from basing important choices on intuition, dreams and irrational leaps. You do what you think best.

    When there’s no way to tell the difference and none of your immediate choices depend your answer to this question, why choose? Well there’s peer pressure which can steer you one way or another…. And there’s no compelling reason that says you mustn’t choose. Just because it’s irrational to make a choice based on no evidence, isn’t really an argument not to do it. People make irrational choices *all the time*.

    It just doesn’t look like that big an issue, to me. Some people try to reason out the consequences of their actions, and do the things they predict will have the best outcomes. Others accept some doctrine and follow it the best they can, and find out by experience how well it works for them. I think the latter group is valuable because we often are no good at predicting the consequences of our actions. If we too slavishly follow our rational best guesses, then we won’t find out about the counterintuitive strategies taht work. We need some people who try out stuff that doesn’t make sense, and some people who try out stuff that does. It’s a big world and there’d be room for all of us if we got along better.

  69. “If you believe that thinking things out is important, then making an irrational choice about religion in the absence of evidence may be a mistake.”

    J Thomas, making an irrational choice is always a mistake. That is not what I have done, and not what I hope others do. I have made a rational choice in the absence of evidence.

    One of the guiding principals of empiricism is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Given that there is no evidence that the universe behaves in any supernatural fashion, no evidence of outside guiding intelligences, no evidence of afterlifes or other realms, I have not chosen to believe in them. And since there is ample evidence that all religions are the products of human imaginations and are extensions of their cultures, I have not chosen to believe that they are anything more. I haven’t “chosen to not believe in gods”. I have not chosen to believe. If you understand the distinction I am trying to make, you’ll see there is a profound difference.

    Given my original choice, to place reason, empiricism and the scientific method at the top of my hierarchy of techniques for apprehending the universe, I really had no other choice.

    So, why does it matter whether I decide that there are no gods or other supernatural beings or whether I throw up my hands and say I can’t prove it one way or another? Because making a choice always makes a difference.

    To live an authentic life, a self-consistent life, to be guided by principals that are deeply felt and important, you have to make decisions. To say, “I don’t know what is true and I don’t care to try to work it out”, is to say, “My opinion on the nature of the universe is unimportant.” To say, “There may well be a Divine Plan and a Maker, a Heaven and Hell, a Nirvana or Sheol, but I don’t know and I’ll just wait and see,” seems even more disturbing to me.

    To realize that there are no gods and that we must find our own way in the universe is a a conclusion with profound consequences for your life, just as much as any religious conversion is. It changes the meaning and value of everything you do.

    Look, I did say that agnosticism is defensible. Maybe you have better things to do with your time than try to figure if your existence has any meaning, or what constitutes a moral life? I don’t spend all day on those things either. My argument (remember, this is a thread about having a good argument!) is that failing to make a choice is not a basis for judging the choices of others. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a moral high ground.

  70. One thing I like about most atheists is that their lack of belief makes absolute sense. The other is that they are often good, ethical people because they choose to be good and ethical with hope of heavenly reward or divine punishment. Actually, I love that about them.

    Others are full of themselves, assuming I believe all kinds of things that I don’t and assuming that I am deluded (I’m not). I don’t let them bother me because they are all under the age of 27. Well, except Richard Dawkins. He would have made a great old-school Pope.

    My belief has always been a part of my life. But I am reasonable about it; I have seen and experienced things unexplainable by our current understanding of the universe. The only hypothesis that makes sense to me and covers these admittedly singular experiences is that life has a spiritual side. So that is my model of the universe. When more experience comes along, I will undoubtedly revise or even scrap my hypothesis. So far, it’s held up pretty well, with some revision. Just what you want in a scientific viewpoint.

    I quite understand that someone who had not had similar experiences would not come up with the same world-view.

    My religion is another thing. Religion is a program of self-discipline intended to make one a better person, based (usually) one one’s beliefs about the divine, or lack of same. Prayer, meditation, studying scriptures all help one to develop one’s virtues. I would never suggest that other programs not seen as religion would not do the same.

  71. Personally I don’t much care about atheism or agnosticism or theism as abstract patterns of belief or nonbelief. None of them do me any harm. IMO it’s logically impossible to determine the existence or nonexistence of God, either from first principles or within the realm of science. So the whole issue is just not operative for me. Even granting Pascal’s Wager, if i wake up after apparently dying in some hell or heaven, it could just as well be an illusion or some exercise of superscience, and until that unlikely event happens, I don’t have to worry about it anyway.

    What I’m against is organized religion. I think religions do a lot more harm than good, regardless of whether there is or isn’t a God or some transcendent intellect or purpose outside of our humanly accessible universe. Religions are retrogressive and oppressive for the most part, and in the rare cases where the core principles of a religion aren’t obviously and grossly illogical and harmful, that religion has almost certainly often been perverted to do vast harm in spite of its principles.

    So I really think we’d be better off without religions entirely. But what are the odds of that happening any time soon? The only examples I can cite of the elimination of religion come from thought-control tyrannies that try to replace traditional religions with state-controlled political cults that serve much the same purpose. There was a time in the mid-late 20th century when it might have semed like religion was slowly dying away due to tendencies towards atheism in northern Europe and even in the US, but those trends have been reversed in most of the world, including of course in the US.

  72. Just about everybody says it’s impossible to prove or disprove the existance of God. That is only true if either there is no God, or if God doesn’t want us to have that proof. Moses didn’t need proof, according to the Bible, God actually spoke to him. It’s kind of funny to have a God decide to hide, but punish people who didn’t believe (because they were born to the wrong parents?). Actually, seeing people claim to be Christian while rejecting the values of Jesus Christ fits this very well – it’s God will punish people who don’t have *my* values.

    Which religion should someone bet on taking Pascal’s wager? Would Hinduism be a good bet?

  73. Pascal’s wager has been the target of some humor along those lines. Somebody – Sam Harris? Dawkins? Has a wheel-of-fortune type “Pascal’s Wager Wheel” with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Hare Krishna, plus worship of Odin, Zeus, and dozens of others.

  74. If God talks to you you’re a fool for believing him 🙂

  75. re: Pascal’s Wager
    What if god is a scientist, and will condemn you to Hell if and only if you have Faith in him without sufficient empirical evidence?

  76. “J Thomas, making an irrational choice is always a mistake. That is not what I have done, and not what I hope others do. I have made a rational choice in the absence of evidence.”

    There are a whole lot of people who don’t see that what you just said is utterly irrational. So it doesn’t reflect all that badly on you that you didn’t see it either.

    “One of the guiding principals of empiricism is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.””

    I’m sorry, but this is just wrong in this context.

    Let’s try an example where it might make sense. Somebody claims that a secret organization of Nazi frogs has been secretly organizing the US government since 1880.

    This is a rather specific claim. It seems somehow extraordinary. The frogs I’ve observed or dissected appeared to be barely competent to organize a frog orgy, much less the US government. We’d probably need special super-smart frogs that have never been observed by biologists. How could they be Nazis when human nazis weren’t around then? Maybe the human nazis copied their ideas from the Nazi frogs? The whole thing seems so implausible that I’d want really good evidence before I believed it.

    But the issue about gods and such is different. Nobody has any evidence about any of it. The Mormon golden tablets are missing, the Lazarus who was raised from the dead and presumably can’t die is missing, whenever God speaks to you, afterward you decide that you were asleep and dreaming, etc. There is no evidence. In the absence of evidence, what do you use to decide which claims are extraordinary?

    Any one specific religious back-story could look extraordinary. Jesus walking on water. Moses turning all the drinking water red. Joshua blowing a trumpet and the walls of Jericho fall down. There’s the claim that people have souls that outlive them — but nobody has measured a soul, nobody has seen one when it’s certain they weren’t dreaming.

    But there’s a great big difference between a highly-specific religion with lots of claims that violate our experience — the whole point of a “miracle” is that it violates our experience — versus the idea that some religious idea might be true. This latter is not an extraordinary claim at all. It is a claim there is no evidence for or against.

    How can you decide in the absence of evidence what claims are extraordinary? By irrational prejudice. That’s it. “I have decided without any evidence that your claim is extraordinary and should not be believed without extraordinary proof. Since you have presented no extraordinary proof, I conclude that your claim is false.”

    This is logically wrong. It is not a rational response. You can argue against the specific JudeoChristian god as taught to preschoolers. He made the sun stand still for a day. He taught people to “speak in tongues” so that nobody could tell what language they were speaking but everybody understood them. He did all these extraordinary things but he stopped doing them and now we have an ordinary world where there’s strong reason to doubt that anybody ever walked on liquid water etc. Extraordinary claims without present-day evidence. But to argue that every possible god is more implausible than no gods at all, when there is no evidence one way or another? That’s going way beyond the evidence. It is a leap of faith.

    “I have not chosen to believe in them.”

    That’s rational. In the absence of evidence you have not chosen to believe.

    “I haven’t “chosen to not believe in gods”.”

    Then by the way I use the language, you are not an atheist. To be an atheist you must assert there are no gods of any sort. Either because you have evidence that you choose to believe determines that result, or because you have made a leap of faith.

    “So, why does it matter whether I decide that there are no gods or other supernatural beings or whether I throw up my hands and say I can’t prove it one way or another? Because making a choice always makes a difference.”

    I sort of agree. If you irrationally choose in the absence of evidence, that is likely to affect you. You are likely to make other irrational choices without evidence. The consequences of that remain to be determined. Maybe it’s a good thing when you do it.

    “To realize that there are no gods and that we must find our own way in the universe is a a conclusion with profound consequences for your life, just as much as any religious conversion is. It changes the meaning and value of everything you do.”

    Yes! And it might be good for you, just as becoming a practicing Catholic might be good for you. My only complaint is that you appear to suffer the illusion that there’s something rational about it.

    It might easily turn out that you personally benefit from this irrational belief. But that does not make it true.

    “My argument (remember, this is a thread about having a good argument!) is that failing to make a choice is not a basis for judging the choices of others. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a moral high ground.”

    If the search for truth is a moral imperative, then it is morally wrong to arbitrarily decide something on the basis of no evidence. By that standard, atheism is a moral low ground along with all the other religions.

    But there is nothing to say that the search for truth is important, except that some people choose to make it important to them. I can build my glass house at the summit of my moral hill, and you can do the same on your hill, and we can catapult rocks at each other all we want. We can agree to disagree, or we can disagree to disagree, we can find supporters and fellow-travelers and wage holy war on the heretics.

    If we choose to.

    In the absence of some god telling us the One True Way, we can take whatever stands we want and then respond to each other however we want.

    In the immortal words of RA Lafferty ( _Space Chantey_), “There are no rules. We do whatever seems the most fun.” Some of us think we’ll have the most fun by making up rules and trying to impose them on people. There’s a big variety of people who believe a big variety of things.

  77. Consider how hard it would be for you to communicate anything to a chosen individual bacterium in your gut. Now God is a lot more powerful than you, but God is also way bigger relative to you than you are to the bacteria.

    Ways around this: God is God. Or God is outside our dimensions; so God can interact with any point in time/space on God’s own timetable. (In which case, why hasn’t God always already fixed a bunch of stuff God really should have gotten around to a long time from now.) Or this is a simulation and God can control some of its aspects as it moves forward. Or reboot.

    It is also possible that God is some well meaning observer who cannot interact with us much more effectively than we can with that bacterium. Or God created this and then moved on. Or God is a real SOB. In the first two cases, whether God exists or not, God is not all that relevant, except possibly for answering some academic questions. In the last case, you might have to pray there’s a devil.

  78. I just wanted to say that I consider myself an agnostic and that is not something I am either proud of or ashamed of, it is just where I am. That said I also believe there is no god. But that is a matter of belief, just like the opposite opinion. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence–but it makes sense to me. But if I wanted to believe in a god, it is unlikely I would choose the self-centered, narcissitistic, and intolerant Abrahamic god.

    Someone said, “Good people do good things and evil people do evil things, but it takes religion to get good people to do evil things.”

    Another useful aphorism: The benefits of organized religion accrue mostly to the organizers

  79. “Someone said, “Good people do good things and evil people do evil things, but it takes religion to get good people to do evil things.””

    I would simplify that to “it takes belief”. I’ve seen religious, agnostic, and atheist people do awful things simply because they had a worldview that committed them to stopping their opponents by any means necessary.

  80. My question to agnostics is “Are you agnostic about all religions?”. Or just the major religion(s) of your culture?

  81. Here is a possible metaphor. I don’t put any particular belief in it, myself.

    Suppose that God is still in the process of creating the world. Maybe he’s doing it with a process of mutation and natural selection. It’s been going on for more than 3.5 billion years, and it might have a few billion to go.

    Humanity is not the final product, or the prime beneficiary of this process. We are instead part of the scaffolding, we are changing the world in some particular important ways, and once our task is done we might be given no more work or vw taken to some other construction site.

    So a human being tries to communicate with God. I can communicate a little bit with bacteria. Establish a sugar gradient, and that says “Swim in this direction.” A sulfuric acid gradient says “Swim in the opposite direction”. Etc. Bacteria mostly communicate with me by failing to thrive. I put them someplace they ought to grow fast but they don’t. They are complaining to me — “You aren’t treating us right and we’re on strike!”

    But a god could communicate with us within our limits.

    You wanted something?

    “You are not living up to your responsibility as a god. You are supposed to be all-powerful and completelyy good. I am a plank in your scaffolding and workers step on me every day. If you were a good god this would never happen. Only good things would happen to me, forever. You would give me everything I wanted.”

    Do you think you could tolerate that? You evolved as a problem-solving animal. When you don’t have enough problems you go out and create new ones.

    “I don’t care. It’s your responsibility to give me everything I want and never ask anything in return. No, wait. You have to give me everything that’s good for me.”

    You trust me to decide what’s good for you?

    “No! You’re supposed to be trustworthy, but you aren’t. I’d trust you to do that if you were a good god, the kind of god you’re supposed to be.”

    So, do you trust yourself to decide that?

    “I guess I have to, since there’s nobody else. So anyway, how do you pay the people who do work for you? Just asking….”

    Once the world is complete, we’ll have a big party to celebrate. And then I’ll tell the good workers what a good job they did, and they are welcome to work with me again, and I’llsign them up for the next world.

    “That’s it?”

    Hey, you haven’t seen one of my parties. I understand what you’re asking for. You want not to work on the world, and you don’t trust me to take you to a better world. You want to live here as if this world is already completed. I’ll give you part of what you want. You can live here without working to build the world. I won’t make you leave. But you have to remember this is a construction site and it’s inherently dangerous. You have to stay out of the way or you could be hurt.

    “That isn’t fair! You owe me a heaven right now! You’re supposed to be good! You don’t get to just do whatever you want no matter what happens to human beings! ”

    We have communicated all we can for now. Goodbye.

  82. In response to this:

    “An atheist has chosen to believe that reason and empiricism are the best tools for apprehending the nature of the universe, just as a theist has chosen to believe that faith is the best tool. An atheist believes in a phenomenological universe, one in which all effects have natural causes, one that operates by natural law not supernatural influence.”

    This is getting things backwards. A person who believes in reason and empiricism may be an atheist, but it does not follow that all atheists believe in reason and empiricism. An atheist may be a Buddhist who doesn’t believe in a Creator, an angry person from a very religious society, a nihilist who just hates reality, a postmodernist who believes there is no such thing as reality in the first place, a person who thinks God used to exist but a cat ate him, or a follower of Richard Dawkins’ pseudoscience of memetics.

    At the same time, today an atheist may be defined by hanging out in atheist forums, liking Atheism on Facebook, attending Atheist conventions, buying every book by the New Atheists, believing in memetics, fighting with theists on Twitter and Tumblr, buying atheist T-shirts, and generally filling out the atheist niche in the capitalist market. Atheism then functions just like any other type of identity politics, and frequently has very little to do with reason and empiricism.

  83. skzb

    Jonas: Which is why I call myself a materialist. It, also, does not inherently have to do with reason and empiricism (particularly with empiricism!), but it establishes an epistemological position, which atheism does not.

  84. I find the lack of consistent definition in what atheism is this comment chain disconcerting.

    Atheism is simply a lack of belief in a deity. That’s it. The term is not an assertion that there is no God(s) – it is not a belief, an evidentiary claim, or any type of positive claim in any way. It is a rejection of the statement “God/Allah/Krishnu/Thor exist(s).” Saying something exists is a positive claim, rejecting that claim is not asserting – or even saying evidence exists for – the negation of it.

    In reduced logic, it goes like this: P = “[Some specific definition of God] exists.” Atheism simply means that one does not accept there is sufficient evidence that P is true. It does NOT mean one asserts ~P is true.

    As an aside, in my experience, atheists who DO assert ~P – outside of certain cases of P (the omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipowerful, omnipresent quartet) – are just being dicks.

  85. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in a deity. That’s it. The term is not an assertion that there is no God(s) – it is not a belief, an evidentiary claim, or any type of positive claim in any way. It is a rejection of the statement “God/Allah/Krishnu/Thor exist(s).”

    Pretty much everybody I’ve listened to says that’s what it means to be agnostic. We have the term “agnostic” to make the difference between that and the positive claim that there are no gods.

    “As an aside, in my experience, atheists who DO assert ~P – outside of certain cases of P (the omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipowerful, omnipresent quartet) – are just being dicks.”

    Yes, and that’s pretty much all of them. Except for the ones whose understanding of logic is so poor they don’t get the distinction between refusing to say that a god exists versus declaring that no gods exist.

  86. skzb

    I’m considering a blog post to set out my disagreement with agnostics. I’m pretty sure it won’t convince anyone of anything but it might help me organize my thoughts. I dunno. In so many ways it’s such a pointless conversation.

  87. Steve, speaking as the patron saint of pointless conversations, I agree entirely, but it’s still worth doing to clarify your own beliefs.

  88. J Thomas:

    Agnostic, by definition, means one does not KNOW about the existence of a deity. Atheist means one does not BELIEVE. I am both agnostic and atheist, since (going back to preposition P) I do not think P is true, yet think ~P is unprovable in most cases. Going back to the Greek- Agnosticism: No knowledge, Atheism: No belief.

    I think that is the crux of my disagreement with someone who identifies only as agnostic – one wouldn’t say that “I can neither prove nor disprove the existence of leprechauns, yet I do not disbelieve in them.” Why is that sentence unacceptable with something as silly as Irish faerie spirits yet completely acceptable with deities?

    I am an atheist, and know many others, and none of them make the positive claim “There is absolutely no God.” It is simply: “There is insufficient evidence to sustain a belief in God.” I consider gnostic (or as some call it, positive or hard) atheists to have their logic house built on quicksand.

    It is also true that many agnostic atheists will say, “I’m agnostic,” based on it having the reputation of being less, well, dickish. These people are muddying the waters in my opinion.

    And I realize I’m more than likely muddying them further by engaging in semantics, but I both think and believe sticking to definitions in this is important.

  89. Nathan- I am agnostic about plenty of things I do not disbelieve in! I am agnostic about the prospect of alien life-forms visiting earth! I am agnostic about telepathic and psychic phenomena! I am agnostic about ghosts and similar apparitions!

    And for all of these things, like religion, for many of the same reasons: the conflict between the evidence of the senses and the evidence of reason.

    Reason tells me in a universe as vast as ours, extraterrestrial; intelligence is not only possible but probable. But in a universe as vast as ours, Earth is a damned unlikely tourist destination. Also, in the photographic age, if UFOs existed, we should damned well have incontrovertible evidence of them on film, not simply a few fuzzy, shiny pie plates.

    On the other hand, the breadth and depth of apparently independent anecdotal evidence of UFOs, close encounters, and abductions is great, even by people who seem quite rational and have no tangible motive for fabrication. My suspicion is that there is something happening here and it is NOT aliens visiting Earth, but many disparate phenomena which have all been interpreted as part of one big picture. Probably all mundane and ordinary, swamp gas and weather balloons. But I am too uneasy with that explanation to feel that Occam’s Razor gives me a clean shave on this one. So I am agnostic, but I do not disbelieve.

    As for ghosts: I do not believe in ghosts. There is no room in my worldview for them. But I, my former neighbors, and my sister-in-law have all seen apparitions which certainly meet many of the common definitions of ghost. I certainly disbelieve that they are wandering souls of the dead! But I do not disbelieve in SOMETHING which people see, and interpret as such.

    As for psychic phenomena; I am a big James Randi fan. I think that all attempts to falsify the existence of psychic powers have successfully falsified them. And yet… I, and several people I know, have had very specific dreams which later came true. One of them included a piece of a conversation which I recited, verbatim and in unison, when someone else finally said it. Unless someone presents me with a plausible explanation for how I predicted a week in advance that a friend would have a conversation with me on a staircase where he asked me to go to the pool and keep an eye on his girlfriend for him because some local guys were harassing her, I must accept that it was a genuine precognitive experience. At the time I had the dream, he hadn’t asked the girl out yet and I had never even heard of her, so it seems impossible that it could have simply been a very accurate guess on the part of my subconscious. I don’t believe in precognition! But I am forced not to disbelieve in it either, and say “I do not know.”

    In the realm of religion: I have has many spiritual experiences I cannot explain. I have had prayers appear to be answered. Two Christmases ago, in the middle of Christmas Eve services, in the middle of an anxiety attack, all my symptoms on anxiety and depression – which has been crippling my life for a year and a half at that point – vanished, and did not reappear for almost three months.

    I don’t believe in faith healing. I find the most plausible explanation, the simplest explanation, to be simply that my senses are fallible, and brain chemistry is strange. Indeed, the world is always stranger than we know, but that does not make it irrational.

    But I’m an agnostic, because I admit the honesty of uncertainty. I do not know what to believe. Maybe there is a God. Maybe there are aliens. Maybe there are ghosts, and maybe sometimes people have manifestations of psychic power. None of that shit makes sense to me. But the opposing hypothesis – that I and so many others have simply had a great many consensual hallucinations conforming to certain archetypal forms – is also unverified and unpersuasive.

    For someone who has not had their senses and their reason conflict, I admit I see atheism as the saner course. I would never tell someone else they ought to believe or identify as I do unless their experiences agreed with mine, which they are better qualified to determine than I. I hope that acquits me of the charge of smugness. For myself, I am an agnostic, leaning theist. On this and the other dilemmas mentioned here, sometimes that leaning changes. But agnosticism is the only honest option I am capable of.

  90. “Agnostic, by definition, means one does not KNOW about the existence of a deity. Atheist means one does not BELIEVE.”

    Interesting! That does make sense from the etymology. I could accept those definitions, if people have actually started using them that way. Or we could use them and hope they spread.

    “… one wouldn’t say that “I can neither prove nor disprove the existence of leprechauns, yet I do not disbelieve in them.” Why is that sentence unacceptable with something as silly as Irish faerie spirits yet completely acceptable with deities?”

    Prejudice. The same reasoning applies, but when I say it people laugh at me.

    Seriously, my Irish great-grandmother was 4′ 10″, small but not down to pygmy size. Look at what happened to Ishi in California. When invaders conquer your land and kill your people on sight, you learn to be very secretive. Do leprechauns need more explanation than that? And yet there’s no real evidence for it.

    “And I realize I’m more than likely muddying them further by engaging in semantics, but I both think and believe sticking to definitions in this is important.”

    The problem I face is that people use words the way they use them, and trying to get them to change results in *less* agreement about meaning. I had never run into your clear explanation before. I like it. But the meaning for most people I’ve discussed it with was disbelief, not nonbelief. After all, “I don’t believe in ghosts” translates to “I believe ghosts aren’t real”. Not believing in Santa Claws or the Tooth Fairy isn’t just a lack of belief.

    So I will try to watch for people who use the words your way, and respond appropriately. But I will not try to get people to use them your way, because it’s rowing upwind against the current, and while it looks like a good way to define the word it isn’t something I want to bother people about.

  91. J Thomas- you always use a lot of words when you argue. I tend to as well, but I don’t have time right now to read all of yours and respond in the depth I am sure you would like. I am certain I have missed at least a diozen of your arguments, so I’ll just respond to this one: there is nothing irrational in choosing not to believe in an unprovable claim. It is parsimonious. It is Occam’s Razor. It is just plain right.

    All of your points about my prejudice leading me to call claims of the supernatural “extraordinary” fall apart if you just bother to define the word “extraordinary”. Like your Nazi frogs (was that it, sorry, no time right now to go back and look), any supernatural power exerting influence on the universe would be, by definition, extraordinary. Ordinary forces can explain every effect that can be observed. Why do I need to take seriously any claim that hidden, unknowable forces are actually responsible? Why is it unreasonable of me to dismiss those claims completely?

    Yes, the vast majority of humanity throughout history and, by all evidence, prehistory believed in deities. That belief is not evidence of anything except a built in bias in human brain structure to construct stories out of anything. Literally anything.

    Here is a nice little article about the Heider-Simmel experiment: http://www.worldsciencefestival.com/2012/09/the_riddle_of_fiction/

    Don’t get me wrong. I love that our brains are so good at narrative! Especially narrative featuring smartass flying reptiles. But to actually try to understand the universe, you need to be able to separate narrative from evidence. It isn’t easy! That is why you need a solid epistemological system, clear standards of evidence and methodology. Taking disparate facts and stringing them together into a pleasing story about unseen entities or post-death existence is deeply satisfying on a fundamental level. It fills a need we have. It just isn’t any way to get at the truth.

    I have plenty of prejudices. I employ confirmation bais as freely as the next guy. I consciously and unconsciously seek out evidence that altruism is a stronger and more effective impulse than selfishness. I believe that, however values might be changed by circumstance, that it is possible to agree to ethical standards on the basis of reason alone. But when I say, without reservation, that I know there there are no gods with the same degree of certainty that I know that the Theory of Evolution, or Relativity, or Boyle’s Constant are all sound, that isn’t prejudice. It is consistency. It is no different from saying that I know Uri Geller was a conman or that Jacques Benveniste was self-deluded. Extraordinary claims can be dismissed if no evidence is provided for them. That isn’t prejudice, it is basic skepticism.

  92. Completely understandable – and I’d add “with only one oar” to that metaphor. Most people do not like their views changed, even on semantics, and most especially not in a conversation on religion.

    And, I’d just like to say that there’s a special rung in the hell I don’t believe in reserved for people that don’t use cruise control.

  93. Nathan- I just read your post. Well thought out! If I have time, I’ll add something later, but really, I think you have summed things up nicely.

    I have also just realized, apropos semantic confusion, that I might be muddying those darn waters with the way I am defining “know” and “believe”. I have to think about that too. ;P

  94. Larswyrdson, I will try to be brief.

    “There is nothing irrational in choosing not to believe in an unprovable claim.”

    Agreed. The irrational part comes if — as a result — you choose to believe in another unprovable claim.

    Statements are not either true or false. Some other options include neither true nor false, and both true and false.

    If a god is unprovable and therefore reasonably not believed, that is not a proof nor adequate evidence to believe there is no god. Disbelief on the one side is different from belief on the other side.

    “any supernatural power exerting influence on the universe would be, by definition, extraordinary. Ordinary forces can explain every effect that can be observed.”

    How do you know? Have you observed everything that can be observed and explained it all with ordinary forces? (Normally I would tell a story here, like the invention of the neutrino, but I’m trying to be brief.)

    “Why do I need to take seriously any claim that hidden, unknowable forces are actually responsible?”

    You don’t. People have been jumping to conclusions forever, why should you be different?

    “Why is it unreasonable of me to dismiss those claims completely?”

    In practice, when somebody wants to sell me a carburetor that gets 100 miles per gallon, or a miracle cure for cancer, or a way to legally stop paying income tax, I get suspicious. It’s far more likely a scam than anything real. When one of my gullible neighbors buys it and tells me he’s getting 85 mpg then I’ll pay more attention. But when I say it can’t possibly be true I’m depending on the common wisdom, on a big body of theory that people have come to believe because it almost always works out that way for them. There’s a subtle difference between “This guy is most likely a scammer” and “I know all the laws of chemistry and physics and I know the only correct way to apply them, and so I know there is no possibility whatsoever that I am wrong.”

    “But when I say, without reservation, that I know there there are no gods with the same degree of certainty that I know that the Theory of Evolution, or Relativity, or Boyle’s Constant are all sound, that isn’t prejudice. It is consistency.”

    Oh! Why didn’t you say so? If you have only the degree of certainty that you should have for evolution theory or Relativity theory, then no problem. These are both theories that are relatively consistent with experimental data so far, just as Newtonian mechanics was relatively consistent and the Great Chain of Being was consistent. We’ve already had a couple of revolutions in evolutionary theory, that improved it enough for previous evolutionary theories to be considered obsolete. We might be about to have one for relativity. No big deal, science marches on.

    The ptolemaic view of planetary orbits (earth at the center) was consistent with the data. The view that the sun was at the center was easier to calculate and some ways more pleasant, so people switched. In reality of course, the center of gravity is at the center and the sun is approximately there because it’s so massive. There are always errors in the predictions, which can be explained away by various stories. Maybe unknown planets have an effect.

    Scientists like to jump to conclusions like the rest of us. It’s predictable that eventually we’ll find we are wrong. Like, when I was in college the biologists claimed a “central dogma” that DNA makes RNA and RNA makes protein, and that this is the only way it works. When they found that RNA sometimes makes protein, they edited that part out. When they found that 80% of the DNA gets RNA copies but only 1% codes for proteins, they got a little bit embarrassed. And so on. Maybe they enjoy turning speculations into iron rules because it’s so much fun for the next guys to prove they’re wrong.

    But in the short run you won’t lose by accepting the dogmas of science, because once a dogma has stood for 100 years without being disproven, it isn’t all that likely it will be disproven this year. So if you bet on it you’re likely to win.

    When you talked about saying things without reservation, with certainty, I though you were talking about actual certainty. If you’re only talking about the sort of provisional best-hypothesis-so-far that science uses, that’s just fine!

  95. J Thomas- I hope you don’t think this is an unfair criticism, but you seem to have a slight tendency to arguing with straw men, rather than the people you are addressing.

    While I admit that I could have been clearer about what “knowing something” means to me, I did state from my very first post that I was speaking from an emprical framework. That does imply certain things, including recognition that certainty/uncertainty is a graduated scale, and that all knowledge is provisional. Should I have ordered a list all the things I feel I know, with a godless universe set in that scale?

    My point about agnosticism, at least in terms of religion, is that it is pointless. I understand, I can’t “know” there isn’t a god any more than a theist can “know” there is one. Not in the no argument is possible sense, that I do not believe exists for any question. Remember my invoking Descarte in the first post? How do we even know the universe exists? How do we know that anything our senses report to us corresponds with an independent reality? Where is my damn blue pill so I can go to a rave with Trinity?

    But I can be certain, for an etremely low value of uncertainty, that the universe operates by natural law without need for outside intervention and thatsupernatural is a costruct of the human imagination and peculiarities of how our brand of consciousness filters experience into meaning. I can be certain of this because:

    A. That statement fits reality better than any other hypothesis presented and has been upheld by thousands of hours of experimental data collected by many skilled and thoughtful individuals.

    B. Attempts to prove the opposite have not produced any reliable data that I am aware of. Furthermore, any attempt to extrapolate measurable, real world effects of a deistic universe lead to absurdities and conclusions that don’t seem to map with reality (e.g if there is a god capable of informing us of its will, why can no two people agree on what is nature and will are?)

    Does any of that really sound clearer than “I am absolutely certain there is no supernatural”? And, to echo Nathan but with a less extreme case than leprechauns, if I said I am absolutely certain that homeopathy is bunk, would that somehow seem less rigid? I am applying the same standard to both. I don’t need to run experiments forever to prove that water does not retain a beneficial memory of the chemicals introduced to it, and I don’t need to run an infinite series of experiments to prove that the universe is phenomenological. If tomorrow, someone presented me with incontrovertible evidence of the supernatural, then that would certainly slide the scale, but I don’t have to wait for that day to speak with certainty and to make decisions about what is important in life. I am not spending my money on homepathic remedies that are really just pure water or sugar. I am also not waiting to decide if there are deities.

    Did I just open a different can of worms? Never mind, never mind.

  96. “My point about agnosticism, at least in terms of religion, is that it is pointless. I understand, I can’t “know” there isn’t a god any more than a theist can “know” there is one.”

    I apologize. I let your earlier comments fade into the general background ad did not associate them with you. So I tended to respond only to your last couple of posts in isolation.You sounded to me like you thought you *knew*, and I responded to that.

    “But I can be certain, for an etremely low value of uncertainty, that the universe operates by natural law without need for outside intervention and that supernatural is a costruct of the human imagination and peculiarities of how our brand of consciousness filters experience into meaning. I can be certain of this because:

    “A. That statement fits reality better than any other hypothesis presented and has been upheld by thousands of hours of experimental data collected by many skilled and thoughtful individuals.”

    This is biased sampling. Scientists look at things they can make sense of, and ignore things they can’t make sense of. Maybe later they will tackle the harder problems, when they get better tools to deal with them. In a way it’s reasonable to suppose that the things which have not been explained yet are fundamentally similar to the things that have been explained. But in another sense it is not reasonable to assume that at all.

    “B. Attempts to prove the opposite have not produced any reliable data that I am aware of.”

    Biased sampling. Anything that provides reliable data will get interpreted as part of the natural law you believe in, that’s supposed to contradict every other point of view.

    “Furthermore, any attempt to extrapolate measurable, real world effects of a deistic universe lead to absurdities and conclusions that don’t seem to map with reality (e.g if there is a god capable of informing us of its will, why can no two people agree on what is nature and will are?)”

    If that’s supposed to be an argument against my position it’s a straw man, but I don’t mind you making it. Something I interpreted as a god has told me what it wanted me to do, but lots of people say it doesn’t happen for them and I don’t want to argue what it means. But I’ll respond as I think a person who takes that position would: Remember the story of the blind men and elephant? They each felt a different part and drew different conclusions. If a god showed each person what he needed to know, without trying to show him everything, is it any wonder if they didn’t all get the same conclusions? Maybe people don’t all need the same conclusions.

    “Does any of that really sound clearer than “I am absolutely certain there is no supernatural”?”

    Yes, it does! From my point of view you are making a better class of mistake than I thought before. Also, it’s a mistake that I doubt will do you any particular harm in your life.

    So if I thought I could change your mind by argument, I would hesitate to do it. There’s no guarantee that a better understanding would be good for you, apart from the (false) idea that people always benefit by knowing more of the truth.

    “And, to echo Nathan but with a less extreme case than leprechauns, if I said I am absolutely certain that homeopathy is bunk, would that somehow seem less rigid? I am applying the same standard to both. I don’t need to run experiments forever to prove that water does not retain a beneficial memory of the chemicals introduced to it, and I don’t need to run an infinite series of experiments to prove that the universe is phenomenological.”

    With homeopathy, we have a clear and practical issue. If homeopathy results in more people dying than we’d have without homeopathy, maybe we should shut it down. And with big data we have the chance to actually find out the lifespans of homeopathy patients versus the general population. I have not seen a study of that. I did see a study that compared college students raised as Christian Scientists against med school students. The children of Christian Scientists had a death rate approximating those of other people of their wealth level, while the med students had a death rate appropriate to their wealth. The study concluded that Christian Science did not work. I saw another study that compared Seventh Day Adventists to a randomized control group, and found the 7DAs lived significantly longer. They attributed this to their healthy diet and moral lifestyle.

    Homeopathy got boosts in the past when standard medicine on average had bad results. In the 1918-1919 pandemic it appears that regular MDs killed a lot of people by giving them aspirin, which was deadly in that particular case. Homeopaths avoided the aspirin and had much better survival rates. This suggests to me that homeopathy can give us control groups. Any treament that gives no better result than homeopathy is utterly and completely worthless. I am reasonably sure that it will turn out that US citizens treated by homeopaths will have about the same mortality rates as those who get standard treament, It will turn out that about half of the standard treatments do some good, and about half do bad, and we don’t know yet which half.

    “If tomorrow, someone presented me with incontrovertible evidence of the supernatural, then that would certainly slide the scale, but I don’t have to wait for that day to speak with certainty and to make decisions about what is important in life. I am not spending my money on homepathic remedies that are really just pure water or sugar. I am also not waiting to decide if there are deities.”

    Homeopathy gives you all the benefit of placebo effect — if it’s done well — with none of the risk of effective medicines. Any drug which does something important can be given at the wrong dose. You must hope that it is not very sensitive to dose, or that your MD will choose a good dose for you. Meanwhile, many physicians believe that the placebo effect is what happens when you do nothing, and that it’s fraud to bolster patients’ confidence when you have no effective treatment, so they learn nothing about how to do it well.

    Back to gods, at first glance it doesn’t look important to me what you believe. It has no obvious effect on your life whatsoever. If it did, we could measure that. People who don’t believe in any gods are just about exactly as likely to do armed robbery, rape, murder, banking, etc. It simply makes no difference, though converting to christianity while in prison can have a significant effect on your chance for parole. If it makes no difference to your life, why does it matter what you decide? I figure that on principle you might as well wait to get some sort of evidence before choosing. (Or else if there’s a time limit and you must decide without any basis, flip a coin before the deadline), since that’s a better practice in general and and it has no cost. But it isn’t all that important. People make all kinds of irrational choices on no real evidence, and some of them are vitally important. Atheism is valuable as an example where the stakes are very low.

    I went back and shortened this. It always seems to take me longer to write less. I left in the homeopathy stuff because I didn’t see how to say it short without losing the meaning.

  97. @Matt Doyle: “On the other hand, the breadth and depth of apparently independent anecdotal evidence of UFOs, close encounters, and abductions is great, even by people who seem quite rational and have no tangible motive for fabrication.”

    UFOs are real. They are unidentified. Once we are sure what they are then they stop being UFOs and become something else.

    “I, and several people I know, have had very specific dreams which later came true.”

    Here’s one of mine. I belonged to a social club and there was one member that I felt uneasy about. He seemed to act like he gained status if I lost status. He made various cutting little remarks, nothing quite overt, that sounded like he thought he was generally a better person than I was. One night I dreamed that I had gone to the monthly organizing meeting, and he came up to me. He snickered. “J, I don’t know how to tell you this, but your eye is a toilet! I mean, really, your eye is a toilet!”

    When I woke up I had no idea what it was about. It didn’t make sense.

    Three weeks later I got diplopia. One of my eyes turned inward and I couldn’t do anything about it. I might have gotten a viral infection from my new contact lenses. I did some eye exercises wearing them, and I might have strained a muscle. There were other possibilities. My optometrist gave me a piratical eyepatch to wear over the eye, but it wouldn’t fit under my glasses and I didn’t want to wear the contact lenses any more. Another optometrist gave me a better eyepatch, it was a nearly-flat piece of plastic with tabs at the top that fit over my glasses. Wearing it, I had one eye that worked and no confusing images from the eye that didn’t. In another two weeks we had the social group meeting. After the meeting, that guy came up to me and snickered. “J, I don’t know how to tell you this, but that thing on your glasses looks exactly like a toilet cover! I mean, really, it’s like you have a toilet cover over your eye!”

    It seemed like an utterly improbable coincidence. But then coincidences do happen. We can assume that there is no pattern there, that we remember the hits and forget the misses, that there’s nothing to explain. It isn’t possible to do science about this sort of thing, so almost by definition that means it isn’t real. If we could do science and find a rational explanation then it would be part of the world that makes sense and evidence that there is nothing unexplainable going on. If science can’t study it, that means it doesn’t exist.

    The only way it could be a problem is if it happened consistently enough to prove it was real, and science proved that there could not be any possible scientific explanation. Science is not designed in a way that can lead to a conclusion that something cannot have a scientific explanation.

  98. howardbrazee:

    Why don’t physicist like the Uncertainty Principle. I think most physicist treat it as a theoretical fact.

  99. When it was new, it was hard to accept. But evidence has a way of convincing the next generation, if not the old-timers. In science.

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