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July 13, 2007

Comments

For me one of the critical moments in losing faith was the realization that the god I'd been raised to worship not only tolerated genocide, he actually ordered it. On multiple occasions in the OT god orders the slaughter of entire cities, explicitly including children. What an asshole.

Just to note: I altered a para. in this about ten minutes after posting, when I realized that I had changed one part of the argument but not another that went with it. I indicated where in the post, but didn't do the whole strikethrough thing, on grounds of ugliness and clutter. I normally leave myself a five minute rule for alterations (normally proofreading), but I know this is stretching it a bit.

Someone's personal belief as to what God thinks is good does not provide an "objective way to judge" whether something is good or not.

"Sometimes people think that it's obvious that "in a purely material universe", we have no way to make objective moral judgments, on the grounds that physics and the rest of the natural sciences don't use moral terms at all."

E.g.

"But if we accept the implicit standard in this argument -- that nothing is real unless it figures in the natural sciences -- then a whole host of other things turn out to be unreal as well: Louis XV chairs, birthdays, exquisite risottos, the distinction between real and counterfeit money, etc. (I defy anyone to find a natural science that uses the term 'Louis XV chair'. If it turns out that, oddly enough, there is one, then just substitute another of the many terms we use to describe kinds of furniture that really do exist.)"

As a physicist I'm happy saying that there is a Louis XV chair, where "a" means "one". Well, there was one, it doesn't exist any more since some of its constituent particles have changed state.


I don't think the material object stuff ("two") is correct, either - I suspect math can be formulated in a way that I wouldn't object to without demanding the existence of circles or 42-dimensional Klein bottles.


But mostly I object to "goodness" because I don't think it's possible to write down a non-trivial definition ("every event is purely good") without infinite regress of one sort or another.

You claim here that people who spend a lot of time reading and researching and thinking about ethics, and do it in a scholarly and rigorous way, are better positioned to say sensible thing about ethics than people who have never given it much thought, or have never tested their thoughts against any higher standard than what sounds good.

I think you offer some very strong arguments for the claim. Indeed, simply by the example you set in this post, you give strong evidence for the claim.

Thanks for making your case in the very act of making your case.

"It is unclear to me how to spell out what "a purely material universe" means in such a way that a belief in one allows for things like norms of rationality"

Sure, you have to talk about adaptive search algorithms instead of thought, then you run into Free Lunch theorems.

What would you make of a Kantian-influenced argument that relying on a deity as a groundwork for moral duty would by definition not be moral, because it would be for an end other than itself?

rilefan: "Free Lunch theorems."

-- ??

arbitrista: I agree completely. (But then, I'm a Kantian ;) )

Free lunch. If I understand the implications correctly, there's no such thing as thought outside a fixed problem landscape - no particular algorithm is privileged. This is like the problem with Bayesian priors, or directed evolution.

Heavy stuff for a Friday afternoon.

No free lunch theorems have also been (mis)used by intelligent design "theorists" like Dembski. Not that I'm qualified to comment on that.

Thanks, rilkefan. It's not clear to me how that very interesting bit of math is relevant to the original issue.

"Norms of rationality" does not mean that there are uniquely privileged algorithms. But it means, e.g., at the very least, that you won't move reliably from truth to truth by denying the antecedent.

Whether optimizing an algorithm or looking for chess moves, it can be very hard to find ideally *good* strategies, but it can be fairly trivial to identify clearly *hopeless* strategies. If you can even do the second, you have norms of rationality.

I don't think the larger issues here require more than that.

Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

i do love when theists use logic to defend their own absurdly illogical faith. atheists have the exact same way to judge the conduct of someone as theists do - atheists just don't pretend the ability comes from outer space.

i just read The God Delusion last month. i had put it off, thinking that i'd be a bunch of obvious logical smackdowns and rehashes of stuff i can find any day of the week on Phyrangula or Panda's Thumb. and, a lot of it was. but Dawkins goes farther than beating up idiot creationists and their idiot strawmen, he lays out a pretty devastating barrage against the very foundations of religion itself. he spends a lot of time describing the various ways in which religion makes no sense at all: it doesn't make sense in the Great Ghost In The Sky way, nor in the Basis For Morality way, nor in the Basis of Life way. there's just nothing there. nothing but wishing, that is.

i had never been a believer. though i've often wished there was a god, either as an omnipotent concierge, a safety net, or a final destination for my "soul" (another thing i often wished was real). but until recently, my disbelief hadn't really solidified. but, the more i read of this stuff from people like D'Souza, Gerson and the assorted hacks that PZ Myers beats up on, the more solid my disbelief becomes. the logical contortions believers have to go through to explain even the simplest bits of their theology, and the fact that it's all based on "well, you just gotta believe"... it's even more empty than they say atheism is. it claims a grand intricate structure that supports the entire universe, but it's so full of holes that it's like a Siepinski Triangle - it seems to fill up space, but it has zero volume, when you do the math.

"You claim here that people who spend a lot of time reading and researching and thinking about ethics, and do it in a scholarly and rigorous way, are better positioned to say sensible thing about ethics than people who have never given it much thought, or have never tested their thoughts against any higher standard than what sounds good."

Yes and no. They are like lawyers. Lawyers are highly trained and thus are well positioned to give good insights into the law. Unfortunately many of them actually spend time spinning things into ugly scary messes.

What people with good exposure to the literature have is a way to avoid common pitfalls without having to reinvent the wheel. But also in the literature, you can find finely spun but ultimately false arguments.

Gerson's problem isn't that he isn't trained, it is that he isn't thinking very clearly.

not being a practicing philospher or ethicist, I come to this conversation distinctly disadvantaged to our host and with more than a little trepidation.

but what the heck, it's Friday.

Hil: you take what I'll call the "interior" approach, in which a theist must question herself as to the reliability of god's command. I take a more Socractic(?) approach -- how can a theist persuade me that her advice is based on the word of god?

you can probably write the dialog in a far more persuasive approach than I, but it goes something like this:

Gerson: God commands us to do X [frex, use the power of the state to ban all abortions].

Me: How do you know?

Gerson: He spoke to me.

Me: you realize in this day and age that those who claim to hear voices are usually diagnosed as schizophrenic, not communicants with deity. How do I know you're not lying? Is there any external evidence of this transmission? Are you sure it was the one true god and not some lower-level godlet who is just messing with you?

Gerson: I JUST KNOW.

me: not good enough.

etc.

or alternatively,

Gerson: the book says so.

me: [at this point, there's not much need to proceed any further.]

So, for me, the question for theists is how to persuade others that they've received the one true word of god, as opposed to making an appeal to authority in order to impose their self-derived values.

I actually think there's a fair case to be made that it's reasonable when confronted with an apparently friendly being of demonstrably super-duper-post-human intellect to do what it says, esp. if one is convinced that being rational isn't getting one anywhere.

I'd like to plint about no-free-lunch.

The first assumption is that we're looking for results. If you have the idea that what you do is right because it's *moral*, that it's right independent of results, then you won't be interested in this stuff.

So, you have a well-defined problem to solve, where you have a series of choices to make and with each choice you have a finite number of alternatives. The definitive way to solve it is to try out all the alternatives. Each time you note how good the result is. Once you've tried every possible combination of choices you can tell which one is best.

Even for mathematical problems that could perhaps be solved analytically, sometimes searching gets a good answer quicker. For some problems it's easy to tell how good a proposed answer is, but very very tedious to compute a correct answer.

Of course for any problem that's the least bit complicated the brute force method will take a long time. Plus you have to keep on resetting the initial conditions. You'd like to get a good result without trying *everything*.

You could keep trying things out until you get a result that's *acceptable*. Then you don't have to try everything.

So, say you have an idea that you think will cut out a lot of bad choices without cutting out the better choices. If you're right, you can get an acceptable choice quicker. The better you are at zeroing in on good choices, the quicker you get one that's good enough.

So you might find some rules that help. Like, good solutions are more likely to be similar to other good solutions than they are to bad ones. So you might look at the better solutions you have, and notice what they have in common, and then just change the parts they don't have in common. Things like that.

And what the No Free Lunch theorem tells you, is just that for any rule you make about getting good solutions, there's a pathological case where it doesn't work.

You can get problems where each good solution has a bad solution right next to it. If you want to find the best solution, then it's easy to find pathological cases. Say a particular method works to discover that best solution by looking at only a subset of all solutions. Take the best solution and stick it off in the area that doesn't get searched. Now you have a problem where this method will not work.

So ideally when you solve a problem you know something about what the problem is like. Then you can try methods that you think are likely to work. Of course there will still be pathological cases but you can get the odds in your favor.

Of course, to really know whether your methods are good, you have to know everything about the problem already. Once you know the answers you can predict how well each different method will find them.

And if you don't know everything about the problem, can you be sure that it isn't one of those pathological cases? Maybe the best solution is something that looks really stupid, where each choice looks like it would lead to disster, but performed precisely right it leads to another precarious choice that in the end, when done without the slightest mistake, leads to a wonderfully good result. I like to avoid solutions like that. But that might be the *only* way to get a great result.

Fundamentally the no-free-lunch idea is trivial. But it has implications that -- while also trivial -- might be at least a little bit interesting.

Very interesting post, hilzoy.

What little philosophy I know suggests to me that the arguments for the existence of God are weaker than those for moral behavior. If so, basing morality purely on faith would seem to be less justifiable than basing it on non-theistic reasoning.

A similar idea is that even if the decision to behave in a moral fashion, when made without religious backing, is taken as purely arbitrary, so is faith. So there really would be no basis for calling faith-based morality more justified.

"The first assumption is that we're looking for results. If you have the idea that what you do is right because it's *moral*, that it's right independent of results, then you won't be interested in this stuff."

I think we're past the morals question to the "can we expect to be able to think" question. Surely the latter is more fundamental than the former.

As Mark Kleiman pointed out in ragging on Gerson, Plato had the basic refutation worked out in the Euthyphro, yea many moons ago.

My pendulum of belief has been swinging back to atheism, perhaps in part because of guff like Gerson's. Mostly however because the problem of evil turns out to grow longer, sharper fangs when one becomes a parent. God's indifference to the well-being of humans in general, and children in particular (as Dostoevsky so acutely noted), is intolerable.

The only way round that, to my knowledge, is to suppose that even the most terrible suffering is as a scuffed knee from the perspective of the eternal afterlife. That may be true, but it's an impossible perspective for me.

Isaac Newton was very pious, but he figured anyone who preached or followed an oraganized religion just did so for vanity or personal financial gain.

He also figured people like Bush and Gerson were actually tests god placed before the truly pious...believe in me even though it's only assholes and thieves who go to church.

Newton was a very smart man indeed.

J Thomas: "plint"? a little help please.

I've never understood the assumption of some Christians that just because I don't believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ I can't think "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a swell idea.

You know, plint. Not bloviate, not explicate, not assert informed opinions, not assert unfounded opinions, sort of inbetween. Plint. You know.

As a moderate religionist (the kind that atheists like Sam Harris despise), I must say that I cannot abide people who make instrumental arguments in favor of religion. You know: G*d exists/G*d must be followed/my religion is true because we are better off if we believe in it. Or a worse argument yet, we are better off if other people believe in it. Usually, as with Gerson, the way we'll supposedly be better off is that without [his kind of] religion, people will not be motivated to be good and/or will be too oppressed by fear of mortality. Either way, whether religion is true is irrelevant in this argument, religion is just a means to an end. If G*d is anything, S/he is not merely a means to an end.

Anyway, it is axiomatic that the truth of a proposition cannot be established by its convenience. It would also be really nice if I could get everyone to believe that I myself am G*d. Nice for me, anyway, and if I'm G*d, that's all that matters. Yet, that doesn't make a good argument that I am G*d. Nor that I have a right to your credit cards, nor any of a million other convenient non-truths. Attempts at proof by convenience not only makes the arguer sound like an idiot who is gratuitously insulting my intelligence, it strongly suggests that he himself does not believe the truth of the proposition.

I would prefer to think that most people who propound the instrumental argument don't quite realize what they are saying, because they so firmly believe in G-d's existence that they can't suspend the belief for purposes of argument long enough to see the contradiction. I.e., they really mean something like, "Well, of COURSE G-d exists, you're just being stubborn in not admitting that you know that, and don't you see how much better off we'll all be if you stop pretending?" There is a word for people who assume they know what I think when I say otherwise, but I believe that using it would put me in violation of the posting rules.

BTW, Hilzoy, am i correct that you are to a great extent recapitulating Plato's Phaedo? It's been a while since college, but I seem to recall the theme as, is a thing pious because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is pious.

Trilobite: It's the Euthyphro, and it's related but different. The Euthyphro asks what you say: is what's pious pious because the gods love it, or do they love it because it's pious? The generalized version: is what's good good because the gods love it, or do they love it because it's good?

This relative: do we love God because He's good, or for no reason? Here our love of God takes the place of God's willing the good. But there's no suggestion that our love of God makes Him good, which would (imho) be silly; just that our love of Him would be unmotivated, and thus wouldn't really give us a reason for action.

It's probably closer to something Kant says in the Groundwork (esp. the last part of this rather long sentence):

"Amongst the rational principles of morality, the ontological conception of perfection, notwithstanding its defects, is better than the theological conception which derives morality from a Divine absolutely perfect will. The former is, no doubt, empty and indefinite and consequently useless for finding in the boundless field of possible reality the greatest amount suitable for us; moreover, in attempting to distinguish specifically the reality of which we are now speaking from every other, it inevitably tends to turn in a circle and cannot avoid tacitly presupposing the morality which it is to explain; it is nevertheless preferable to the theological view, first, because we have no intuition of the divine perfection and can only deduce it from our own conceptions, the most important of which is that of morality, and our explanation would thus be involved in a gross circle; and, in the next place, if we avoid this, the only notion of the Divine will remaining to us is a conception made up of the attributes of desire of glory and dominion, combined with the awful conceptions of might and vengeance, and any system of morals erected on this foundation would be directly opposed to morality."

I tend to think people who are grasping at the "in a material world"-stuff have this hunch that they can't spell out and are basically expressing skepticism towards moral statements and moral value. They can't quite express their ideas cleanly, so they fall back on the metaphysics. There is something about statements like "It's obligatory to do X" or "X is good" that strike people as different, and lots of people have tried to get at the heart of just what's different about them in different ways.

The problem is that I'm not sure that even professionals agree on how they are different or why they are different, so it is difficult to put this kind of skepticism to rest with a simple explanation. You can tell people that the points they are making just don't follow, but that doesn't cure the itch that got them wondering in the first place. So I have a feeling that if you talked Gerson through this, he'd end up in a kind of aporia -- not quite able to make the claims he was, but still sure in his gut that there is a there there. There's something to the idea that bits of atoms and ethics don't get along super-easily. And, though there's just as much of a problem in how atoms and minds get along, we're all quite sure there are minds. But we can at least entertain the notion of moral skepticism.

Ara: I think you're right. Nonetheless, enough people seem to me to believe this "materialism = no morality!" stuff that every so often I find myself compelled to march through it. Because it's Just All Wrong.

(For some reason, I find that numbers work pretty well at getting the point across. I think asking in what sense "rational" or "true" or "valid" are material properties is the most interesting, myself, but for some reason the rest of the world doesn't seem to agree. Or at least the limited chunks of it I've tried arguing the point with.)

I’m having a hard time believing that many of you rational thinkers can believe that few years theism has been on this earth, it has not dealt with (co-opting or rejecting) the major Western philosophical traditions.

Gearson is just not a good apologist.

"Because it's Just All Wrong."

No It's Not.

Hilzoy: I always go with earned run averages or unemployment figures. Clearly real. Clearly not identifiable as a clump of stuff.

Less whimsically: I think then what Gersons end up thinking is: "Ok, so it was hasty to say that it has to be made of atoms or else it doesn't exist. But darn it it's still dicier than the number 2. I can say things about the number 2 (2 + 2 = 4) which I can't even entertain to be false. I can prove things about the number 2." That is, while he might accept that materialism no longer licenses him to infer skepticism, he still likely thinks it gives him grounds for skepticism.

I just want to know how to talk them past THAT point. And then they'll be cured and the dumb materialism argument will go away.

Here's a funky analogy: Zeno's paradoxes are all pretty silly, but until people got comfortable with the notions of infinitesimals and convergent series and all that they just wouldn't go away. There were refutations, good ones, well before the calculus. The refutations just didn't stop people from putting forth the problem.

Rilkefan, I don't know how to define thinking. What I'm talking about is making choices that lead to a desired result.

If you're still talking about morals, some people believe that you shouldn't try to judge by results but should do the right thing independent of results.

If you choose the right thing independent of results then you don't get tempted by the usual immoral arguments. "What if a terrorist tells you that he'll kill everybody in NYC unless you agree to torture him right now. Can he get you to do torture that way? What if it's the Devil and he's going to torture everybody in the world for ten thousand years unless you torture this one guilty person. Is that enough? What if you could save ten thousand souls from the Devil by sacrificing your own soul, would that do it?"

Once you accept that the ends justify the means, then the question isn't "Is this bad in itself" but "Will this have a good result?". Some people don't think that way. But if you do think that way then No Free Lunch applies. How do you figure out what will have a good result? How do you predict the future? And NFL says that no single method to predict the future works well for all possible futures.

So for example, you might have figured out that it's definitely better for the world if you torture the terrorist and save NYC. So you do it. But just before he reveals the secret a perverse miracle happens. The terrorist not only turns into Jesus Christ, but you realise he was Jesus all along. The bomb turns into a big vat of oatmeal to feed to the poor. And Jesus looks you in the eye and says "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.".

Unless you're absolutely sure which world you're living in, you can't be sure that your plan will give the best result.

well, that was a yeowoman's forensic dissection of Mr Gerson's philosophical cadaver.

But when I hear theistic nonsense of the kind he spouts in the editorial (smug assertions like 'if God were dethroned as the arbiter of moral truth' ((does he actually envision a scowling bearded guy sitting on a carved throne, observing human events from that heavenly perch?)) and snide asides like: "I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn" ((billowing white wings sending fallen leaves upward in a rushing vortex of movement?))) I prefer to go for the juggler, and tell them straight out: there ain't no God like the one you posit, pal, and the only angels on this planet are the ones who finance Bway shows.

In any case, he short circuits his own argument from the get-go in the 3rd paragraph when he admits that "in every culture, human beings can be good without God." Being good, of course, implies being moral. And it doesn't matter if that moral goodness is the result of evolutionary biology, brain chemistry, or imperatives implanted in our genes - they happen without theological imperatives passed down from on high. All cultures, religious or non, reflect the duality of human existence: we're a mixture of good and bad - always have been, always will be. Gersson says 'atheism provides no answer to this dilemma" but neither does religion, no matter how sublime the supposed God represented by it.

One other thing, before I go cha-cha-cha-ing for dinner, when Gerson says "America's Founders embraced public neutrality on matters of religion, but they were not indifferent to the existence of religious faith" he fails to mention many of them were the opposite of indifferent when it came to criticizing it. Here's two, for appitizers:

"All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."
Thomas Paine (from The Age Of Reason)

"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there is one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded faith."
Thomas Jefferson

Faith: Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
Ambrose Bierce (from The Devil's Dictionary)

"unemployment figures. Clearly real"

I think this is trivially false. If you disagree, tell me the procedure for determining the precise number.

I think many, maybe even most, people who are theists obey (what they take to be) God (or the gods) not out of love but out of fear of punishment if they don't.

Rilkefan: I'd tend to think that the unemployment figure is actually constructed or defined by the conventions we adopt for what counts as being employed or unemployed. Given those conventions, there's a precise number out there, though it may be hard to collect information at that level of precision.

If you think they are irreal or that there is no such thing as the unemployment rate, how is it that we can make true statements, say, comparing unemployment in one country to another?

Gerson seems to believe that the Founding Fathers were surrounded by churchy-wear-my-religion-on-my-sleeve-type of Protestants. They were not. That style of Protestantism does not come into vogue until the late 1800s.

Gerson seems to have mixed up “Rational” methods of thinking (think Platonists/Augustinians, Aristotelians/Thomists, Kantians, Gordon Clark, Mainline Fundamentalism, Mainline Liberalism etc) with “Irrational” methods of thinking (think Nietzschian, Charasmatic, Kierkegaardians, Derridians, Pentecostals, etc.) and the methods in between (think Neo-Orthodoxy: Karl Jaspers, Paul Tillich, Marin Luther King, Jr.).

"Given those conventions, there's a precise number out there"

I don't believe this, for example.

I might grant that you can make this sort of assessment to a specified accuracy given a sufficiently long algorithm, dealing with edge effects and corner cases one by one, but only for a particular moment. You don't get a free lunch if the situation changes.

Similarly, hilzoy might claim that she can write down a finite moral system that determines whether any act is moral or not, but that algorithm can always be broken by the above reasoning.

go for the juggler

I always go first for the mime. See how he quickly he gets out of that d*mn invisible box with a honey badger attached to his balls.

In the same vein, the best insult I've heard in a long time about another lawyer was that he had a great instinct for the capillaries.

Anyway, have a hearty good meal, and please post any other LA/OC County favorites. I'm down in Long Beach but can always travel along the arterials for a good meal or something new.

rilkefan: in order to prove that there is an objective standard for moral judgment, why should I have to be able to provide an algorithm that covers all cases, as opposed to either (a) being able to prove at least one non-trivial moral claim (e.g., 'this act is good', or 'generous acts are good', as opposed to 'good acts are good'), or (b) being able to prove sufficiently many moral claims that my standard of judgment turns out to be as objective as, say, my standard for saying whether or not something is a chair (which cannot, without elaboration, deal with just any case, but can deal with most of the ones we need to use it on)?

Also, does my standard get to work given descriptions of acts using terms like 'theft', which are not themselves fully well-defined, or must I solve all the problems of vagueness involved in any description of an act I might possibly use (meaning something approaching: all the problems of vagueness in a natural language)? If the latter, why?

What struck me was just how utilitarian and cynical Gerson's argument is at its base. Essentially, he is saying "You athiests have no way to tell what 'good' is! That's just crazy! How can you turn your back on religion? It's just so useful!"

There is no faith in or love of god in the uses that Gerson puts him to.

As for me, how do I tell what is good? Aggregate and synthesize, baby, aggregate and synthesize.

"a) being able to prove at least one non-trivial moral claim (e.g., 'this act is good', or 'generous acts are good', as opposed to 'good acts are good')"

Because this is trivially worthless: for "this act is good", there are two morals, and two shmorals, and no content, while for "generous acts are good" you're heading for that infinite regress.

"(b) being able to prove sufficiently many moral claims that my standard of judgment turns out to be as objective as, say, my standard for saying whether or not something is a chair"

I don't understand "prove" above - you're proving the existence of the morals, I think. Anyway, of course I don't think that the category of chairs exists. And if it did, it would involve very different truth claims than a morality would.

Finally, of course I think "theft" is begging the question - you don't get to use pink unicorns either. And sadly I have to split.

Rilkefan: Well, I for one would be perfectly happy if the existence of morals were at least as certain as the existence of chairs...

rilkefan: I meant: prove the truth of (some number of) moral claims. I don't know what 'the morals' are. For 'theft', you could substitute: taking someone else's property without that person's consent.

I think this improves Gerson's column:

Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests -- a fear of bad consequences -- will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Take, for instance, the Bush administration.

I used to think that people saying "if no God, then no morals" were saying "I don't think other people can be trusted to do right things without ultimate force involved". These days, particularly when I hear it coming out of the conservative machine or the media establishment, I tend to take it as a confession "I am a monster for whom only threats avail". I am sorry for their deficiencies, and wish they knew - and were - a better class of people.

In the early modern era, Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) notably held that nothing is inherently good or evil. The 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711 - 1776) serves in several important respects as the father both of modern emotivism and of moral relativism, though Hume himself did not espouse relativism. He distinguished between matters of fact and matters of value, and suggested that moral judgments consist of the latter, for they do not deal with verifiable facts obtained in the world, but only with our sentiments and passions. But Hume regarded some of our sentiments as universal. He famously denied that morality has any objective standard, and suggested that the universe remains indifferent to our preferences and our troubles.

For the orthodox and fundamentalist theist this is still the logical conclusion for all non-belief. It will lead to despair and nihilism; therefore there must be a God. While others would argue “What’s wrong with despair and nihilism? God certainly acts as if he is despairing and nihilistic.”

They claim metaphysical rhetoric should be privileged over taste and aesthetics.

... being able to prove sufficiently many moral claims that my standard of judgment turns out to be as objective as, say, my standard for saying whether or not something is a chair (which cannot, without elaboration, deal with just any case, but can deal with most of the ones we need to use it on)?

Operationally, something is a chair if I can sit on it. My kitchen counter is a chair. My bed is a chair, My bathtub is a chair. My washing machine is a chair. My balcony is a dangerous chair.

If I sit on my dog and he vigorously complains, then he is a rather bad chair. My full kitchen wastebasket is a bad chair because it would bend and it would leave garbage sticking to me. My floor is a very good chair -- I cannot fall off of it. My wife is a good chair when she's in the mood, but she's a better pillow or bed.

None of the space capsules in the Smithsonian aerospace museum are chairs at the moment -- not only are they encased in plastic but there are security guards to prevent people from sitting on them. Similarly with the ornate chairs in the mandarin section of the smithsonian -- we call them chairs but it is impossible to sit on them this month. The Hope diamond is not a chair. If you broke through the case hoping to sit on the Hope diamond the guards would carry you away before you managed it. Most of the dinosaur bones in the smithsonian are not chairs, but there is one they let you touch that my daughters have sat on. That one is a chair.

I am a chair for my daughters, but not for just anybody.

Hmm. If something is a chair for one person but not for another ....

Then if you had morals worked out at the same level, and you had things that were morals for some people but not for others ....

I expect you could do iot, but the results won't be what people usually think they're looking for.

J Thomas: that's a GREAT counterexample. The Smithsonian space capsules are most certainly chairs even though no one can sit on them!

"For 'theft', you could substitute: taking someone else's property without that person's consent."

"Person", "take", "property", "consent" are all controversial, even admitting there are such concepts - and I doubt this does what one wants, anyway.

Anyway, if you can point me to a proof of a non-trivial moral claim in natural language, maybe I'll change my mind.


Ara: Note that objects physically identical to the Smithsonian space capsules would be chairs under some definitions, so it's kind of bizarre to say the original capsules aren't, if you think there are chairs.

Oh, I think it's fair to say that the capsules contain chairs, but saying they are chairs is like saying my house is a chair.

Ok, maybe not all that much like it, but it's a similar kind of overgeneralization error.

Caveat: my house just might be a chair, to someone else's way of thinking. Bob Mcmanus springs to mind.

Two and one half somersaults, two twists, layout position.

I'm no moral scholar, nor a philosopher, but it seems to me that a basis for morality (or ethics, for that matter) can't be found anywhere but the material world, because only corporeal life in the material world choses actions, which have consequences, from which morality is derived.

Take, for example, "Thou shalt not kill." Imagine that you have no context in which to interpret those words. The bare statement alone can be taken to mean no one shall kill anyone, or anything, for any reason at all. If you tried living by that standard, you'd have to come up with a strange and limited diet: fruit, milk, carrion. Plus, you'd quickly become food to a predator who hadn't gotten the word about not-killing. Or you get killed when the animal you're taking milk from kicks you in the head.

So right away we need some elaboration based on actions in the material world. Provable assertion No. 1: If "I" don't kill anyone or anything, I quickly die myself, one way or another. Therefore, I carve out an exception for self-defense ("self-defense" to include "eating"); based, in other words, on an obvious, exingent need.

Now put "me" into a social situation: an immediate family. Do I kill my parents because they eat first, my siblings because I compete with them for what's left, or even my offspring because they, too, are competition for food? Well, if I can kill them for those reasons, they can kill me for the same reasons. I still wind up dead. So let's elaborate on "Thou shalt not kill except in self-defense" to exclude my immediate family, because they don't actually (as a rule) present an immediate threat to my life. In fact, they make life easier: they give me shelter, company, and even help out with the hunting.

By the same process, I gradually include a clan, a tribe, a society in the category of people who I don't kill in self-defense.

In other words, "Thou shalt not kill" comes after I have, by many generations worth of choices, developed enough of a social construct to deem not-killing worthwhile. The connection between killing and surviving has become attenuated enough that I can rationally, and survivably, refrain from killing. The social construct preceded the moral construct; the social construct enabled the moral construct.

Let's take another one: Slavery is bad.

Well, when you think about it, there's nothing self-evident about that. How did slavery start? My wild-assed guess is it began when there was a surplus population; when resources were plentiful enough that not everyone had to spend their entire time looking for food or defending themselves from becoming food. When you have plentiful resources, and surplus population, politics is born. The crudest form of politics is getting someone else to do the work that you get most of the benefit of. It's not a big leap from that to lording it over low-ranking individuals who can be forced to work their tails off, and who get a bare subsistence for their work while the lords get the rest.

What's wrong with that? Nothing, on the face of it. Maybe the lords provide some other service - protection from other tribes who are even worse. Maybe "slavery" is an optimal answer to what one does with a surplus population who would otherwise sit around and consume resources without offering anything in return. Or maybe it's an optimal answser to what one does with surplus individuals who can't hunt worth a damn but can perform some needed but laborious or menial tasks.

When does slavery become wrong, then? It can't be due to the "inherent worth of all individuals," because there's nothing inherent in slavery that says they lack inherent worth. Quite the opposite, if the alternative to slavery is getting kicked out of the tribe to take one's chances in the wilderness.

No: slavery becomes "wrong" when it deforms the society which practices it. And that's a very tough, very complicated evolution. It might come when the resource surplus becomes plentiful enough that hard labor is a matter of choice rather than necessity, and slaves begin to resent that they're still being worked to the bone when there's no reason for it. It might come when the lords decide they can do anything they want to to slaves - beat, rape, torture, kill - without repercussion. It might come when the slave society encounters a non-slave society, and people start thinking about that, wondering why, and so on.

It might come when slavery becomes a trade, a commodity, and slaves are sold to other tribes. Slave trade disconnects the slave from the context in which slavery "made sense" because it served the slave's own tribe; the slave had a stake in his or her own slavery, because his or her own tribe prospered. Sending slaves off to strangers violates that pact, that sense of identity. A slave sent off to strangers has to develop a different sense of identity, has to find some other way to determine his or her own value... and so that slave might start thinking about the nature of slavery itself. Might start thinking slavery is bad.

Here again, actions precede morality. You don't get complex moral codes until you have complex societies, where interactions require more nuance and more long-term planning. The morality of contracts ("Thou shalt not steal") alone requires an established and quantified sense of property, ownership, valuation, transfer of ownership of property for value given - and penalty for noncompliance! - in order to happen at all.

Religion is no help at all with this. I know of no religious moral edict that arose from a vacuum, or from a static society. Marriage wasn't invented by any god; it was invented by humans when societies became complex enough to make officializing mating and child rearing necessary. God didn't tell people slavery was evil; there are slaves all through the Old Testament, and the only time God smote slave-owners was in Egypt (and then, only because God's "chosen people" were the slaves; too bad about everyone else, including slaves owned by those chosen people).

No god, of any religion, ever commanded its followers to do something they had not already figured out themselves. Religions use gods as Ultimate Referees, handing out punishment or reward for breaking or following moral precepts, but the precepts themselves evolved along with human culture.

The bottom line, I suspect, for many progressive/pluralistic theists is, politics is no place for theological debates. So Gerson’s desire for theistic bureaucrats appears to be a cover for justifying right-wing activism. A devious attempt to federalize church discipline.

Ara, Rilkefan, something is a chair for me if I can sit on it. The space capsules are not chairs for me, at the moment, because I cannot sit on them. I don't see how this could be plainer.

A copy of a space capsule that I can sit on is a chair for me.

A kit that I could assemble into a chair, with 5 dowels, 4 legs, 3 slats, and a seat that's packed up into a box is not a chair for me unless I can sit on the box.

The computer code that can tell a milling machine etc how to turn some hunks of metal into a chair, is not a chair.

The blueprint for a chair is not a chair unless I can sit on the blueprint.

This approach works in the contexts Hilzoy was talking about. The way you show something is a chair, is by sitting on it. If you try to sit on it and fail, then for you it isn't a chair. It's only a chair for those who can sit on it.

You must have a lot of time on your hands. Gerson is a jackass.

When Gerson speaks I find myself thinking, Why are we even listening to this torturer?

For some reason Gerson in particular drives me nuts. Maybe it's because he has made it his mission to Christianize us liberals. Yet while he tries to take the mote out of my eye (which needs doing), I keep getting hit upside the head by the Abu Ghraib-sized plank in his own, for he is the apologist for the centurions, he is Saul at the stoning of Stephen, he is an agent of the state. No man can serve two masters, and the master Gerson served brought (and for what?) the scourge of war and the death of civilization. And Gerson covered these despicable actions in a beautiful blanket of words, like snow on corpses, like whited sepulchres.

"Because it's Just All Wrong."

No It's Not.

Care to elaborate, or shall we just take your word for it?

Per cleek, above, I cannot recommend the God Delusion highly enough. Dawkins handily dismantles Gerson and his ilk in quick manner, essentially saying: "Oh, I'll stipulate right away that atheists have no objective reference for morality. Neither, as it happens, do theists, and here's why."

It's usually demonstrable quite easily, in the following manner: Ask a theist, "If you heard the voice of God -- and you truly, truly believed it was the voice of God -- telling you to walk out to the street and kill the next child you saw as a sacrifice to Him, would you do it?"

If the answer is "No," you have proven the point: The person does not base his or her morality on the commands of a deity, but on other things.

If the answer is "Yes," then, living in a world which nearly univerally considers the slaughter of random children to be immoral, this person's deity cannot possibly be the source of morality.

I've enjoyed reading the discussion. My mind goes round and round on this stuff though I am a Christian. I think that much of this stuff questioning the existance of God misses the point. The question; 'Does God exist?' is a seperate proposition from 'Should I believe in God?' If the answer to the former is yes then obviously the answer to the latter would have to be yes as well. However even if the answer to the former is no I would argue that the answer to the latter is still yes. Usually I don't wish to believe false things, but the upside of getting to have an emotional relationship with the knowing, aware, beneficent creator of the universe is so huge that it would be totaly worth it even if in reality I am just talking to my imaginary friend. In other words its much more important that God's love is real, than that God is.

rilkefan: ""Person", "take", "property", "consent" are all controversial, even admitting there are such concepts - and I doubt this does what one wants, anyway."

That was why I asked whether success, as you define it, involved clearing up all the vagueness of natural language ;)

From Ara, "I'd tend to think that the unemployment figure is actually constructed or defined by the conventions we adopt for what counts as being employed or unemployed. Given those conventions, there's a precise number out there, though it may be hard to collect information at that level of precision.

If you think they are irreal or that there is no such thing as the unemployment rate, how is it that we can make true statements, say, comparing unemployment in one country to another?"

As I learned in my now recently complete Economics class, unemployment rates are highly mutable, and not really comparable between countries, as each country uses a different criteria for determining what their unemployment is.

For example, just prior to the unification between East and West Germany, East Germany's unemployment rate was officially 0%. How accurate do you consider that number? But it was the number in the CIA Factbook and other similar sources.

In the United States, for example, take the total population; subtract out everyone under 16 or institutionalized; remove the armed forces; and then you survey the rest. You are unemployed if you have looked for work in the last 4 weeks; if you've given up with your current skillset and gone back to school to get a new cert so you can be more employable? Not unemployed. Gotten depressed and stopped looking? Not unemployed. Lost your 50,000/year office job and working flipping burgers for 5.25 an hour, for 20 hours a week, or 1 hour a week? Not unemployed.

It seems Dawkins and Hitchens (more Hitchens than Dawkins) resemble the theists they claim to despise. That is to say, white Western atheists (especially the men) seem to believe in their own self-righteousness.

Humility is foreign to white men (theist or atheists) on a mission to save civilization.

Can you expand on that, someotherdude? Is this another iteration of "atheism is just another religion" (which it really, really isn't), or some variation on the reductive idea that anyone who believes they are right about something is, by definition, self-righteous? I fail to see your point.

I also don't think Dawkins is "on a mission to save civilization," and I'd like to know precisely what you've read by him that indicates otherwise. If you could give exact publication names and excerpts it would be helpful.

but the upside of getting to have an emotional relationship with the knowing, aware, beneficent creator of the universe is so huge that it would be totally worth it even if in reality I am just talking to my imaginary friend.

A nice point, and one that I (officially agnostic, but leaning atheist) don't have any problem with, and I suspect that many of my fellow atheists have no problem with it either. Faith can be a wonderful thing, and there are times when I wish I had some.

The problem comes when faith becomes certainty, and the faithful regard everyone else as inferior. Trouble on the way, as a large body of history (even very recent history) shows.

I once worked for a man who demanded constant flattery and unquestioning obedience from his subordinates. These qualities trumped performance for him. Anyone who doubted him, or who wouldn't flatter him, got fired.

We used to call him, "God" . . .

Personally, I've always been a fan of starting with enlightened self-interest when determining what 'right' is. After all, the only thing we can be reasonably certain about in this universe is ourselves. We can hallucinate everything else, but we can be reasonably certain we exist. Based on that, many moral principles can, at least for this untrained, non-philosopher-type, be adduced. As a simple example, harming others is clearly wrong (OK, actually we have to assume the reality of other people for this, but since it is clear that, hallucination or not, others can affect us, that doesn't seem too great a stretch) because if we are all better off if we don't take actions that harm others. I can't prove that philosophically, but basic game theory suggests we're in a series of repeated games (forgive me if I err in terminology; I have a meeting in ten minutes and will doubtless err in my haste), so tit-for-tat is the most effective strategy. If I harm you, you should harm me. If I leave you alone, you should leave me alone. Since I can accomplish more if I'm not constantly being harmed by others, it is in my own self-interest not to harm others.

Further, on a larger scale, when human beings have a level of trust that allows them to interact without having to establish independent methods for verification and trust, people are richer in aggregate and in the absolute. Consider the richest man in a tribal society to the richest man in a high-trust society: the high-trust society produces vastly more wealth. Once again, acting not to harm others produces results in your own self-interest.

That's probably easily dissected by a true philosopher, but it makes good sense to me, and it seems far more verifiable than belief in a supreme being.

OK, have some patience, I’m writing with a whole family growing-up behind me. But I do have few things to say on the matter. More tonight if you wish to engage in some cyber-discourse.

This article by Terry Eagleton is a great place to start Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.

Phil,

OK, have some patience, I’m writing with a whole family growing-up behind me. But I do have few things to say on the matter. More tonight if you wish to engage in some cyber-discourse.

This article by Terry Eagleton is a great place to start Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.

From Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.

“Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’.”

I know a film critic (hi Andy!) who used to find it annoying that more or less everyone assumed that they could do what he did for a living; that there was no expertise or skill or trained judgment involved in being a film critic.

Having just moved in to a tidy new home, and having just spent 3-4 days taping off, priming, cutting in, rolling, touching up, and touching up the touch-ups, I can say with some authority that what is true for film criticism and moral philosophy is also true for house painting.

He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves.

If this is what Eagleton thinks god is, Dawkins is definitely on to something.

For all his long-winded criticism, Eagleton fails to answer either of the two basic questions asked by Dawkins:

1. why believe in god?
2. why believe in a particular (eg christian) god?

Having slogged through the essay, as best I can tell the answer is straight from George Michaels. You gotta have faith.

dude, like, that's the whole point of the book.

Below I've linked to an atheist and evolutionary biologist who studies religion and doesn't think highly of Dawkins's book.

BTW, the fact that atheism isn't a religion doesn't mean that evangelical atheists can't have some of the same unpleasant traits as some (not all) religious fundamentalists.

DavidSloanWilson

'"Because it's Just All Wrong."

No It's Not.'

novakant: "Care to elaborate, or shall we just take your word for it?"

Well, you could read the thread, or the many other discussions of this we've had here. Or you could notice What I Was Responding To.


That DSW essay struck me (before I got too bored and gave up) as being really wildly question-begging and, well, defensive. Dawkins takes the mainstream position and sees where it leads him, and DSW is unhappy he's not starting from the minority position - at length, and on and on, and where are Dawkins's specific arguments, and are they valid in context, and when _are_ we getting to the point?

No hurry here, s.o.d. -- I'll be out at my nephew's graduation party all afternoon and possibly a movie this evening. Not enough hours etc. etc.

That Terry Eagleton link, though, is just awful. Despite his castigating Dawkins for setting up strawmen, he engages -- while trying to define God positively, rather than just saying "God is not any of the things nonbelievers think we think it is" -- in precisely the behavior Dawkins describes. He puts forth a bunch of words that have the appearance of describing or explaining something but whose semantic content taken altogether is exactly zero. ("For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.")

I suppose it's arguable that what Eagleton is talking about is what theologians believe rather than what believers believe, but Dawkins can only deal with the facts on the ground, as it were, and if you were to ask the vast majority of American believers what they believe, Eagleton's missive here wouldn't fall within three standard deviations of hitting it.

Also, in my experience, "evangelical atheist" as used above refers to someone who won't keep it to himself.

"Evangelical atheist" refers to someone who won't keep the truth to himself and hence needs to be labeled.

For all his long-winded criticism, Eagleton fails to answer either of the two basic questions asked by Dawkins:
1. why believe in god?
2. why believe in a particular (eg christian) god?

Posted by: Francis | July 14, 2007 at 11:21 AM

There was a guy who swore that he could show me ONE way to respect my great-great-grandparents. And he had the scientific charts to prove it.

Another guy who said there was only ONE way to love and make love to my wife and he had just the scientific text to prove it. His wife wholly agreed, so he had a witness.

Francis,
If you are only looking for one way to possibly believe in anything, then you will find only one way to possibly look at anything.

Phil,

No, many believers do not have the same types of knowledges as theologians. So?

Are you a scientist?

I enjoy sex, on whose authority should I go to: a biologist or prostitute? Maybe the context would matter?

Regarding Togolosh's comment about God in the Old Testament ordering genocide -- before my marriage in a Presbyterian church, my wife-to-be and I met with the minister. I explained that I didn't believe in God, and told him that I had a difficult time worshiping an entity that killed the first-born of all Egyptians in the story of the first Passover. He didn't try to argue with me, but just replied that he thought the story depicted what would happen if one tried to go against God.

Not a particularly satisfying response, as far as I was concerned.

Not a particularly satisfying response, as far as I was concerned.

I’d take it to mean: don’t have kids. ;)

"God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him."

I am too lazy to argue theology with my born-again relatives, but I am pretty sure they would not find this Tillich quote acceptable.

So I've been thinking that a morality is something like a map from the space of intents of members of a society to the reals. But that's a trivial construction. Presumably it's actually an algorithm for generating such a metric. So a question that occurs to me is: say there is a morality M. Is there then a morality M' which produces the same metric as M except that any intent by rilkekind has a value of +1000.0?

JakeB,

Yeah, Tillich, Barth, Jaspers, Niebuhr were the dominant mainline Protestant theologians circa 1910 – 1960. The modern day American Fundamentalist movement was a response to those guys and the Fundies failed dramatically. However, the seeds were planted and eventually the Fundies grew so influential, during the 70’s to the present, most people can not separate Fundamentalism from Christianity or Evangelism.

Evangelical atheist in my terminology just means someone who is as arrogant about the subject of God as a great many religious fundamentalists are. It is possible to be arrogant, even when someone is on the right side of an issue. Whichever side that happens to be.

I wouldn't have called the DSW essay defensive--he's apparently someone who actually studies religion from an evolutionary perspective (and an atheistic one too) and thinks Dawkins has it wrong.

DSW writes "but the question is: What’s evolution got to do with it?"

um. maybe that's his question, but that's not Dawkins' question, nor his thesis, nor the major point of his book. Dawkins could be wrong on all of the bits he wrote about what evolution had to do with religion and it would hardly matter - religion would still be bogus.

"Caveat: my house just might be a chair, to someone else's way of thinking. Bob Mcmanus springs to mind."

Only if I can perch on the roof like a gargoyle. Beware taking a paranoiac's name in vain. He is probably watching you.

Reading this thread with interest. Nothing much to contribute, as I am usually in the Nietzschean/Kierkeggarrd ( Georges Sorel?) irrational crew, which doesn't mean I have no morals, but means they are not objectively grounded. Those who think they need reasons to be kind to animals and generous to strangers can be forgiven.

The distinction made above about Kant and ontology vs theology...with the three postulates as necessary and sufficient...the emotional relationship to the ding-in-sich...never mind.

Oops, ignore "metric" above, that was from some other thought, substitute "real function".


Hmm, "evangelical antitorturist". No, "evangelical" in concert with "atheist" has a sneering implication given the contrast and the canard that atheism is a religious belief system.

I really liked your first three paragraphs, but felt the following ones were harder for the lay person to understand. It also avoided the details that I believe are usually the "heart" of this argument, which is that science is said to have no room for a soul, and for the way feelings "feel," not just their mechanism. And since common sense --- our own experience --- tells us that these exist, this somehow leads to God, or at least the inability to deny the possibility of God. I'd be interested in seeing the argument framed that way.

No, many believers do not have the same types of knowledges as theologians. So?

What types of knowledge do theologians have? What, exactly, are they studying?

Are you a scientist?

We are all scientists in some way. Not by profession. What is the point of the question?

I enjoy sex, on whose authority should I go to: a biologist or prostitute? Maybe the context would matter?

If you enjoy sex, I suggest going to a sexual partner of the gender of your choice. I myself wouldn't particularly care what his or her profession is; YMMV.

Ethics Vindicated

A long review by David Forman of Ermanno Bencivenga's 2007 book on Kant, with many references to Korsgaard. Via Farhang Erfani.

"Rather than following the trend of finding some wiggle-room for Kant to assert the reality of free, immoral action, Bencivenga stresses once again that Kant always aims only to prove the possible, and hence only to prove that it is possible for us to be free (p. 23). However, he does not mean that Kant claims that it is possibly true that all normal human beings are free and thereby responsible for their actions. That is ruled out by his analysis of freedom as rationality. Instead, he takes Kant to be claiming that it is possible to think of ourselves as free in a way that provides us with a standard of behavior to live up to (p. 55), that articulates our duties (p. 37)." ...DF

I claim Kant for we irrationalists. Dammit, everybody else gets to claim him, why can't I?

science is said to have no room for a soul

oh, there's room for one, but it turns out that the room is empty.

Anecdote from Norm Geras, fwiw.

Slart's giving himself an 8.8 for an attack on the universally despised is about as impressive as hilzoy's demolition of this bantamweight Gerson. This smug committment to a sensible lack of ambition is why I place little hope in the blogosphere, and certainly part of the reason for the lack of real-world effects and results.

If the response is the really really Ignorance and Stupidity Rule the World and we Saints of Small Steps must Educate the Unenlightened on our way to Universal Peace and Justice so troglodyte-bashing is the Best Method...hell, John Dewey was past that stuff a century ago.

Liberals.

Phil,

Dawkins seemed to have interviewed many fundamentalists or observed them through newspaper clippings. (What scientific method does he use, by the way?) He then uses these caricatures to come to an absolute objectifiable conclusion about believers and belief. He seems to have proved Hume correct; it really is a matter of taste and aesthetics. I know a lot of atheists who are dicks and assholes about their beliefs, why would that make atheism a false idea? It seems there are many reasons why folks choose atheism; Nietzsche sure was NOT scientific concerning his atheism. My brother is an atheist with no knowledge of science what-so-ever. I know many nurses and engineers who are very sloppy about the scientific language concerning their fields; would Dawkins maintain this is an apt method to make claims about Biology and Engineering? I have met book lovers who believe the whole field of Literary Criticism to be a crock, especially since LitCrit folks are sooo stuck-up, so it must be so! It seems Dawkins would like better PR to prove the rationality of religious belief…which hardly seems scientific. Then again, considering the type of society we live in, it might be rational. Stalinists and many other sectarian Marxists were vicious atheists, what does that have to do with Dawkins? Atheists seem to have a better time of it in China, than say a Buddhist monk or Roman Catholic priest. At least Nietzsche and Hume would admit that it was their personal aesthetics, ultimately, that made them come to their conclusions concerning religion.

I take most of my scientific knowledge by faith. I can do so much research before it is a foreign language, so I go to the professionals check out who’s funding the work and which academic institutions the research comes from. And even then it becomes a leap of faith. (I do the same thing with Literary Criticism, Moral Ethics, Politics, cinema criticism, History, Geology, Sociology, etc.) I have heard the scientific evidence my parents and grand-parents were fed and reading Thomas Kuhn, the whole history of Western science becomes a leap of faith even after all the available information is in. I don’t see how that minimizes the value of the scientific method. I was under the impression that the scientific method is meant to arrive at pragmatic conclusions about the material world it can study and demanding absolute proof is out of the scientific method’s ability. Dawkins and Hitchens seem to be going further than what is expected of science or the scientific method, resembling the theists who show up in a lab to confront the professionals on how it is really done. I get the sense they believe they are the scientific method made flesh.

I suspect Dawkins and Hitchens may be sincere; however they don’t have the guts to admit that their absolute objectifiable conclusion is an incomplete personal journey through the world of believers and belief.

Sh!t, I didn’t realize I had that much to write. Hitchen’s seems to really defy the Western traditions, not that there is anything wrong with that, but so do most fundamentalist theists.

Hilzoy wrote:

I know a film critic (hi Andy!) who used to find it annoying that more or less everyone assumed that they could do what he did for a living; that there was no expertise or skill or trained judgment involved in being a film critic. I sometimes feel the same way about being a moral philosopher. If one of Bush's speechwriters wanted to write an op-ed on the latest advances in entomology, or some unique properties of eight-dimensional space, or the best techniques to use in constructing a certain kind of organic lattice, I imagine that the editors of the Washington Post would recognize that some fact-checking was in order. But moral philosophy? Anyone can do that!

Theology seems to work the same way. Dawkins seems to think that the scientific method is best served by asking just anyone he likes “What is religious belief?”

I’m still slogging through Chapter 4 "Why There Almost Certainly is No God" which seems to be primarily epistemological and metaphysical, but I have read most of the arguments in some form or another. Dawkins is certainly a lucid and clever writer and I always enjoy faith being challenged and tested.

Dawkins seemed to have interviewed many fundamentalists or observed them through newspaper clippings. (What scientific method does he use, by the way?) He then uses these caricatures to come to an absolute objectifiable conclusion about believers and belief.

caricatures? those were real people he interviewed, not cartoons. the quotes are verifiable.

I suspect Dawkins and Hitchens may be sincere; however they don’t have the guts to admit that their absolute objectifiable conclusion is an incomplete personal journey through the world of believers and belief.

right. No True Believer would do or say the things Dawkins' interview subjects did or said. he must've only ever encountered the wrong kind of believer.

can you name a person, or a group of people, who represent the true face of the faithful ? who should Dawkins have talked to, and what would they have told him ?

My background is being the son of a protestant pastor, a father of three children and a bachelor in philosophy (among other things) and my take is this:

1. Whether by wikiing The Brain In The Vat or watching the Matrix while stoned, philosophical scepticism should be mandatory curriculum for anyone who wants to offer their 5c's on this subject.

2. Being agnostic is the only meaningful proposition, from a strictly rational POW. Rabbis/Mullahs/ lamenting the secularism of modern society are equivalent to agnostics lamenting the backwardness of religious belief, which essentially is giving coherence to that which you cannot comprehend.

3. Good (right) and evil (wrong) as objective concepts is a losers propostition. If anything, that should be epitaph of GWB era.

4. All logic rest on axioms tethering a model onto Reality. This is why Science and Religion are conjoined at the hips and why Theology as a scientific discipline makes sense.

So what are we left with:
The art of synthesizing our rational and our emotional beliefs and then go forth, spread the Word. Then we shall see who delivers the better Meme.

Now tell me again, what all the fuzz about?

To me it looks like Much Ado About Nothing...

Well, you could read the thread, or the many other discussions of this we've had here. Or you could notice What I Was Responding To.

Forgive me, but I can't grasp any info from your replies in this thread that would support the conclusion that would support your claim.

If you say "materialism = no morality!" is not wrong, then you're saying the claim must be at least partially right. This would involve either positing supernatural entities or throwing out the whole notion of 'morality' as used in natural languages. Now you seem to tend towards the latter option, calling moral claims trivial and vulnerable to infinite regress problems, but to me that case hasn't been made. Natural languages are trivially not up to scientific standards, but that doesn't mean that every problem can be suitably reformulated in the scientific language or that natural languages are not better suited to adequately describe certain types of problems.

sorry for the messed up sentence structure

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