Friday Roundup

“In any case, the situation is very different with God. The thought that God exists does strike many atheists as bizarre. But, in contrast to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, there are all of these theists and agnostics who do not find the thought of God’s existence bizarre, and I really think they ruin our atheist friends’ hopes for easy knowledge here. The basic point is that, when there are many other apparently sensible people who disagree with you, you need a good argument to claim that you know they’re wrong.”

  • Old, white, western, self-unaware…need more be said?

  • “…But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human.” -Solzhenitsyn

  • Closed minded indeed…including all his followers…if you support Dawkins—it is like supporting Jerry Falwell…

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14 Responses to Friday Roundup

  1. Burk says:

    Darrell-

    Thanks for the Dawkins link.. a very interesting review.

    “Religion may be an illusion, but that does not mean science can dispel it. On the contrary, science may well show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Unsurprisingly, this is a possibility that Dawkins never explores. “

    Well, it clearly has been dispelled in many individuals, so it is not intrinsic to the human condition, or universal. The situation seems to point more towards cultivation and indoctrination as critical elements in the fate of most people's religious “thinking”, such as it is. What is done can be undone.

    “If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess. … Balfour’s solution was that naturalism is self-defeating: humans can gain access to the truth only because the human mind has been shaped by a divine mind. Similar arguments can be found in a number of contemporary philosophers, most notably Alvin Plantinga.”

    Really, I do not understand this argument and its supposed power at all. The whole point is that we are error-prone, and not vouchsafed any truths intrisically. That is why we (must) use empiricism to improve our views of reality, using logic to create criticism and critical tests of our models. That is also why we must be so very suspicious of “obvious” intuitive truths that find ecstatic and popular appeal, and most especially those that use social mechanisms like flowery scriptures and costumes to stand up instead of mundane reason.

    How this is an indictment of naturalism is quite beyond me, except in the sense that one asserts naturalism without empirical evidence, as some kind of necessary property of the universe. But the opposite is the case for its adherents.. they extrapolate from the great amount we do know to postulate the unreality of that (supernaturalism) which has never had any evidence behind it.

    “The notion that things might be fundamentally different in the future is an act of faith—one as gratuitous as any of the claims of religion, if not more so. “

    This is frankly odious. To have a social faith in one's fellow humans is an entirely different matter than have faith in a traditional inference of so little intellectual merit. Does he deem it reasonable to have faith that god will snap its fingers and solve climate change for us?

    Anyhow, his put-downs of Dawkins are largely apt.. Dawkins can be an obtuse jerk. But that doesn't mean, as the author himself concurs, that he is wrong.

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  2. RonH says:

    Hi, guys!

    Wow, I see you're still going at it. And on the same points, too! Props to all of you for tenaciousness!

    Hey, Darrell, I read this opinion piece by Stanley Fish and thought it'd make a good log for y'all's fire. I think Fish is right.

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  3. Burk says:

    Hi, Ron-

    I see you are also not averse to repetitive argumentation. Probably because error takes no vacation!

    “policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs”

    Oh, right … no morality should be part of public debate. Uh huh. This is classic bigotry that only those who believe in fairy tales can be good and have morals. Later on he again states baldly that values come from religion- totally absurd and insulting. But it is merely par for the course in the swamp of theology.

    The issue is not that morals should not be part of public debate, but that public policy should be based on reasons that are legible to everyone, not hidden in private revelations. You probably wouldn't want the public debate on abortion to be between Catholics and Satan-worshippers whose most sacred practice is eating fetuses, or whatever it is they learn from their scriptures. It is not only the reasoning of civic debate that needs to be secular, but the goals as well, being the denominator all can subscribe to and work towards, moral or not. If one has “higher” religious goals, so be it. But fairness to others, including other religions, should prevent making them their goals as well.

    “Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) … there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?””

    Again, totally absurd. As if I had to have the boss of me to tell me what to do. Don't you have your own feelings and ideas about what you like and do? What kind of world you would like to live in? Do you need some confabulated primitive and cruel scripture to tell you what it is that you want out of life? Truly, it begs belief.

    “If public reason has “deprived” the natural world of “its normative dimension” by conceiving of it as free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself, how, Smith asks, “could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?””

    Same story… as though religion and higher fairy tales were the only possible thing that gives us values. Take the gay marriage debate. As I recall, the secular moral reasoning led the way and won the day. Ditto for moral moral advances since the enlightenment. Simple empathy will pretty much do for all the normative morals we need. Or do you & Fish et al. have a lock on empathy as well?

    “The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include “notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or a providential design,” all banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation.”

    This is simply false. Teleology is the last thing any secular person is interested in. No, we go with subjective feelings, the soul (pardon the expression!) of morality. So, if we see innocents dying in the Middle East, or in East Africa, we feel a desire to relieve their plight. We can't always do much, but making morality the stepchild of religion is both false and historically speaking, abhorrent.

    “Indeed, concepts like fairness and equality are normatively useless, except as rhetorical ornaments, until they are filled in by some partisan or ideological or theological perspective, precisely the perspectives secular reason has forsworn.”

    Again, totally false. Putting empathy though an ideological grinder is the business of FOX news, not civil, civic discourse. This article couldn't be more wrong-headed.

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  4. Darrell says:

    Hi Ron,

    Yes, I have read the Fish piece. Just curious–were you referring to the conversation with Bernard or to something within this post?

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  5. RonH says:

    Burk…

    I see you are also not averse to repetitive argumentation. Probably because error takes no vacation!

    Bwahahahahahah! Says the man who's been beating the same drum in the comments on this blog for six years!

    As for the rest of your comments…. Oh, Burk. If your reading comprehension was as keen as your knee-jerk reflexes, there might be a discussion here. But as it is, I think you've missed the point.

    Fish isn't saying you can't have morality without religion. What he is saying is that morality isn't “secular”. In a great many areas vitally important to human life, you simply can't account for everything empirically using only science. You can't answer the “ought” questions. You've got to draw on something else… something decidedly subjective and non-secular. So the idea that there are “secular” reasons, which are admissable in “the public square”, and non-secular, religious reasons which must be kept out of public discourse is just a bullshit power-play. Science, empiricism, and reason alone can't say anything about whether or not whomen should be allowed to abort babies or gays marry or any number of other issues that “secularists” are desperately trying to monopolize by barring any perspective fundamentally different from their own.

    There is nothing epistemologically different from a “secularist's” preference that women should be allowed to abort their babies if they wish, and a Catholic's preference to believe that such an action is an immoral affront to God and human life. Neither has grounds for excluding the other from public discourse.

    The issue is not that morals should not be part of public debate, but that public policy should be based on reasons that are legible to everyone, not hidden in private revelations.

    But that's the point. For many of our most important issues, there are few reasons that are legible to everyone. We're all working off our “private revelations”. “Gay marriage” proponents weren't arguing that “marriage” is a subjective, often religious, loaded term and that defining it shouldn't be within the scope of a secular government anyways (and, frankly, most of the Christians I know would agree). They were arguing that it must be redefined according to their understanding of it, and that it is justifiable to apply force of law to anyone who rejects their definition — like bakers, wedding photographers, etc.

    Lots of folks want people to conform to their preferences. “Secularists” are no different in this respect than anyone else. But their claim to hold a “secular”, “objective” perspective (while everyone else holds to an inferior, religiously-motivated one) is balderdash.

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  6. RonH says:

    Hi, Darrell…

    I was basically referring to the blog-wide conversation, not this particular post.

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  7. Darrell says:

    Got it, thanks.

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  8. Burk says:

    Hi, Ron-

    Our readings seem to differ substantially. Let me cite specifically.

    “It is not, Smith tells us, that secular reason can’t do the job (of identifying ultimate meanings and values) we need religion to do; it’s worse; …”

    I read this to mean explicitly that religion does the job of identifying ultimate meanings and values, for Fish. By implication, this extends to morals as well, which express our values. Apparently, we “need” religion, and his portrayal of secularism is that it excludes morality, per the first sentence which I cited previously. Am I wrong here in being disturbed?

    You make a logical point about subjectivity being the root of our morals and public discourse … that is fine. The question is not whether our feelings are reasonable grounds of preference and public policy, but rather whether the inferences we build on them in the institutions of religion deserve to be part of the civic conversation. Each person is due their own feelings, but not their own facts.

    For instance, if you think something like abortion is an affront to god, that carries very little civic weight. It applies exactly to every person who shares your view of god, but not to others. It is a view built on an inference that is without evidence and is never going to be universally applicable. If you in your religious community want to ban abortion to all voluntary members, so be it. Each religious community can make its own internal rules, to some point.

    On the other hand, if you think something like abortion is an affront to your feelings, that is a perfectly fine arena for public debate. Are your feelings on the matter more important than those of the parents involved? Or those of other parties, of the fetus itself? Are there principles of protecting life or even defining it that we can agree on? We can weigh all that in discussion. But if you add that it is an affront to god, then you are the one making a naked power play, based on unseen, unknown, unknowable entities against people not in your belief community, but involuntarily present the same civic community. There is a big difference.

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  9. RonH says:

    Burk…

    his portrayal of secularism is that it excludes morality, per the first sentence which I cited previously. Am I wrong here in being disturbed?

    I think you're reading Fish wrong here, although you're free to be as disturbed as you like. Secularism has to exclude morality as a basis for decisions, unless the morality is shared “by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations”. If we all think murder is wrong, it doesn't much matter why we do — a policy decision to ban it won't be difficult. It's only when there is a moral disagreement that conflict arises. At this point, a “secularist” wants to say “any moral perspective based in religion is inadmissable to the discussion”; however, the “secularist's” own moral viewpoints are every bit as subjective. “Secularists” tend to claim that their moral beliefs are rooted entirely in Objective Science, and are thus objectively superior to the moral beliefs of, say, religious people. But this is handwaving and a sheer power play. Science alone gets you the “is”, not the “ought”. Fish isn't saying a “secularist” can't have an “ought”. He is saying that the “ought” has to come from something smuggled in on top of science, which the “secularist” implicitly denies (and will criticize others for doing).

    Your example of the abortion debate is distorted. Obviously, an appeal to God won't carry any weight with people who don't believe in God, or believe in a very different God than I do. But science doesn't have much to say about whether or not a woman should be allowed to abort her baby. We have to look to other principles, ideas, beliefs to make that judgment. If someone wants to argue that my perspective should be disregarded because it is not empirical, while his must be given credence since it is based in science, then he's a liar trying to pull a fast one. In making a moral judgment, we're both drawing on something beyond just science, reason, and empiricism.

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  10. Burk says:

    Ron-

    I think we are talking past each other a little here. I have never maintained that “science” (or empiricism) plays a role here in moral discussions. At least not a fundamental role, aside from ascertaining facts about things like whether animals feel, what fetuses feel, cell phones cause brain cancer, etc.. what the facts on the ground are. But moral judgement is totally subjective by my lights, and that is fine.

    For example…

    “Secularism has to exclude morality as a basis for decisions, unless the morality is shared “by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations”. If we all think murder is wrong, it doesn't much matter why we do — a policy decision to ban it won't be difficult. It's only when there is a moral disagreement that conflict arises.”

    Obviously “everybody” never shares any morality of any kind. Yet secularists are as moral / moralistic as any one and as open to moral argument- the very conflict you speak of. Morality is by no means excluded from secularism, as the most brief perusal of any secular thought would make clear. Secularism does not = science and science only. It doesn't specify what morality one might have, such as Christian or humanist, or Nietzschean, etc. But it doesn't exclude it either.

    The question is whether this conflict is conducted by civil argument from actual feelings and legible arguments, or instead from absolutist inferences, holier-than-thou positions of righteousness, and obscure revelations.

    The question is whether you can treat other people as fully human people with commensurate rights of feeling and deliberation, or whether they are figments of some theological construct. For example, if you feel abortion is bad, telling others that god abominates it has very little purchase, as you agree. So that has no place in a civil discussion, though it may be determinative within a voluntary religious community in its internal judicial process. All well and good.

    What does have a place in civil discussion? You can have all the Christian motivations and views you like, but in civil discourse, you have to argue in ways that others can understand without a set of parochial beliefs. Like showing pictures of fetuses- totally reasonable. Or calling abortion murder- fine- which raises questions of what is murder and what is human being, at various levels of existence. You can't just assume that everyone else shares your definition of humanity or murder, since that is central to what the discussion is about.

    Does that clarify what makes a reasonable civic discussion? It has nothing to do with crying “science”, (except in factual issues, like climate change), but has everything to do with treating other people as independent, thoughtful, feeling people who fully share moral instincts and the capability of moral reasoning, but not your particular super-structure of religion, which is its own separate community with rules that apply only to its voluntary adherents, however strict (or not) those rules and concepts may be.

    Suppose you had a country like, say, Iraq, evenly divided between two religions, shia and sunni. How are they supposed to adjudicate political and moral issues? Wouldn't you appreciate an ability to conduct civil discussions about moral issues without resorting to theological high horses, not to mention petty tribalism? If their Islamic views coincide on various issues, like, say, keeping women oppressed, then good for them, sort of. But if they don't, what then? How do they get to common ground?

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  11. RonH says:

    Burk…

    Fish is criticizing a real, not uncommon form of secularist. There are secularists out there who say that since science is the only objective source of knowledge, arguments not based on it should not be admitted to the discussion. Sam Harris, for example, argues that morality can be firmly grounded in science, and that morality based on religion is inferior and should be replaced. There are many in his tribe. Boghossian says when someone brings up “faith”, you should tell them they aren't welcome at the “adult table”, where people who use science and religion instead of faith are. These people maintain that since they are free of religion, they are epistemologically superior and their morality is entirely based on objective truth. Sam Harris doesn't just feel a particular way about an issue… He insists that his view is scientifically established and that if you grant authority to science and are rational, you will arrive at the same feeling.

    For many non-religious people I encounter, once they get an authoritative answer on a subject from science (including social science), they consider reasonable discussion to be over. A 5-week-old baby in utero has no brain activity, therefore cannot be considered a human. QED. A 15-week-old baby in utero has brain activity, but cannot survive outside a mother therefore cannot be considered a human. QED. I accept the scientific facts about the capability of a baby in utero, but science says nothing about the worth of that baby in utero, or how to weigh it against the worth of the mother, father, or anyone else. But since my views on such worth is grounded in metaphysical notions, it carries no weight and deserves no respect. (Even though anyone else with judgments about worth are going to have to base them on metaphysical notions as well.)

    This is what I see Fish criticizing, and it jibes with my experience.

    Now, perhaps you don't share the view Fish is criticizing. And if so, I appreciate that. But your contempt for religious views (and the mental faculties of those holding them) features so prominently in your commenting here, it would come as rather a surprise.

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  12. RonH says:

    Ugh. Typo:
    where people who use science and religion instead of faith are

    should read:
    where people who use science and reason instead of faith are

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  13. Burk says:

    Ron-

    I think Harris is clearly wrong here.. morality is not knowledge, but preferences, desires, needs, dare we say values(!) … all wrapped up in negotiation about what is possible and what others want likewise. So reasoning and valid facts are important, but they don't drive the process. Nor does “objective truth”- that should be self evident. Most atheists adhere to humanism, but that is not a necessary consequence, really. One has to recognize some basic empathy and claims of others (take that Ayn Rand!) before one gets to that point.

    Anyhow, I recognize what you are saying, and it is unfortunate that we have people like Harris who, as Darrell would say, take a scientistic approach to subjective affairs. Neither side should get a high horse.

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  14. RonH says:

    Burk…

    Neither side should get a high horse.

    I can drink to that.

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