Caputo: Chapter Five—Postmodern Prophets—Part One

In the Enlightenment and early modernity, truth and the concepts surrounding that idea were thought of (and communicated as) mostly academic and abstract intellectual endeavors.  Along with Hegel came others who began to think the idea of truth was much more like something that cut deeply into the grain of the real world, the world we actually lived in, and not just an abstract world of ideas.  And those primary others were Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  These two thought (all quotes from Caputo) that what,
“…philosophers had been in the habit of calling truth is something of an intellectual fiction, an armchair construction, bred in an academic hothouse rather than grown in the wild of the real world.  Truth, for them, on the other hand, is something that is deeply disturbing, filling us personally with ‘fear and trembling’ (Kierkegaard), and sending us back to Greek tragedy (Nietzsche)—as opposed to the frail and malnourished weakling that perishes almost instantly upon making contact with the air outside the academy.  Truth is a matter of blood, sweat and tears, something visited upon us in an unguarded moment, forcing us to stare into the abyss…Although they never heard of it, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are the founding figures of the confounding thing that was later to be called postmodernism.”
Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were bachelors and both certainly went against the grain.  I think both felt they somehow didn’t belong to the age in which they had been born.  They couldn’t just “go along.”  The hollow and fake did not sit well with either.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with either figure, we should respect and hear their intense honesty and genuine willingness to face into the wind of life and reality.  They weren’t all grim and brooding however.
“Among their many innovations, one that I especially treasure is that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche introduced laughter into their books, which represented an unprecedented break with a humorless philosophical tradition (Kant is said to have written jokes into his lectures to lighten the heavy German tone, but they fell like rocks.)  Truth cannot be heard, felt or appreciated without laughter, which breaks down the walls within which philosophers had immured their anemic imposter.”
Neither man was a democrat or liberal humanist.  They both saw the equalizing forces in western culture at the time as a race to the bottom.  Neither were friends of a free press or for the technological advances in the area of communications. They thought the world was becoming cold and machine-like but each had very different ideas regarding how to restore the passion for life and living.
“Kierkegaard hailed the passionate faith of Abraham and the Christian martyrs, Nietzsche the pagan passions of the Greek tragedians, the ‘tragic sense of life’.  They each thought life a radically gratuitous event—why was I not consulted (about being born)? Kierkegaard complained.  Nietzsche treated life as a piece of cosmic chance, of stupid cosmic luck; Kierkegaard as the grace of an inscrutable but providential God, of divine love.  Nietzsche is one of the most brilliant, eloquent and unrelenting atheists the West has ever known.  He is the philosopher who infamously declared: ‘God is dead.’  Kierkegaard, on the other hand, was the most brilliant brooding Christian writer of the last two hundred years.  His reflections cut so deeply into the fabric of the human condition that not even the most cold-hearted atheists can think they have nothing to learn from him.  By the same token, despite the virulence of Nietzsche’s attacks on religion, the insults he heaped upon it, his complete contempt for the religious psychology, religious thinkers return to him again and again for inspiration.  Both mounted furious attacks upon Christianity, the one in the name of Christ, the other in the name of the anti-Christ.”
Both thought Europe to be diseased, but both offered radically different cures.  Kierkegaard offered a cure of returning to an earlier Christian faith, the faith of the martyrs and Apostles.  Nietzsche offered a cure of wiping out that very faith.
“But whatever their differences, truth, they both agreed, is not a matter of thinking but of existing, of living.  Not of books but of blood.”
First, we will focus on Kierkegaard.  As he looked around his city (Copenhagen) and age (19th Century), he noticed how the advances in technology most certainly made life easier in many respects.  He made a connection however to what this new ease of life would mean for “truth.” 
“In this modern and thriving city, he observed, the real truth or Christianity was all but dead, suffocated by the prosperity, commerce, distractions, gaiety and quickening pace of life.” 
Kierkegaard looked around and saw a thoroughly drenched Christian culture, but one only nominally.  Everyone went to church on Sunday and kept the Christian traditions and no one would have had the “poor taste” not to.  But in his mind, they did this because it was easy and there was no longer a struggle, a wrestling with God.  There were no tears or passion.  In fact, the only way to have a good standing in the city and in polite company, was to be fully committed to the outward apparatus and machinery of the church and the mantle of Christianity.  Thus, it was a benefit, something to be sought for personal gain and moving forward in society.  This is what he called ‘Christendom’ ‘bourgeois Christianity’.
“…where everything was safe and easy, and in which the everyday life of the average Christian was as good as Godless.”
God was not really needed in such a world or city.  One gets the sense here that Christendom had become its own grave-digger.  It mirrors the tale of the family that works hard for decades, goes through grave trials, and ends up creating an empire only to see the generations afterward squander or not appreciate it, even though it provided their trust funds, college, cars, and so on.  When all the heavy lifting has been done and one basks in the comfort created by others, it is easy to lose the very qualities and perspective that built what created the comfort to begin with.
Of course Kierkegaard thought God was needed most in such a city and time.  In a world where one thought he was an heir to the culture’s empire simply by birth, he wanted to remind people that one had to choose, to decide, to understand, to reach back and take hold the original mantel.  Thus he:
“…first had to disabuse them of the ‘misunderstanding’ under which they labor, that they already are in the truth (Christians), which they are not—whence the pantomime and mockery—and then to persuade them to take up the task of becoming Christian, which of course they thought they had done some time ago…”
His moment in time and place then caused him to think differently about “Truth” and its intensely personal nature.  You can’t borrow your Grandfather’s truth and stand under its umbrella.  You have to open up your own umbrella—you have to own it.  This led Kierkegaard to his take on the subjective nature of truth.
“He is saying that whatever truth is, it does not come easily; it must come packing no small measure of fear and trembling.  A real Christian is not one whose name is recorded in the parish registry but a Christian ‘in spirit and in truth’.  Truth means living it, in truth, verily, truly, which, said Kierkegaard, is not a matter of the ‘what’ but of the ‘how’; not a matter of what you believe but of how you believe it.  Truth, he said, is ‘subjectivity’, an ‘existential’ matter, a matter for the existing individual, who is what is truly ‘concrete’.”
Lest we misunderstand Kierkegaard, he is not saying that truth doesn’t have an objective referent, which he would have located within the Christian narrative and, obviously, to God’s existence.  This objective referent is what we are subjectively responding (or not) to.  However, he is noting that unless one truly owns and lives that truth existentially, authentically, who cares?  In a sense, unless one does that, the truth might as well not have existed for that person.  They missed it.  Perhaps it was there, but they will never know.  One does not stand back, objectively, and God-like gather all the data, observe, test, experiment, and then come to a reasoned, cold, and calculated decision about this God that supposedly exists, as if one were a judge justify his rulings.  No, like falling in love, or passionately following one’s deepest dreams and desires, one throws himself into this unknown and fully owns the decision to do so.  One dances in the fire.  Might they get burned?  Yes, that is a risk.  However, might they also be saved?  How else could love be?  It either burns us or saves us.  But we can never know unless we risk loving.  Such is the case with God, Kierkegaard would tell us.
And of course here is where ‘existentialism’ enters the Western philosophical world.  As Caputo notes:
“The word ‘existential’ was destined for the history books.  It took the German philosophical world by storm in the 1920s, then the French after the war, and finally washed up on American shores in the 1950s.  But we cannot forget that the first people to seize upon the existential character of truth were religious.”
Unfortunately, Kierkegaard, one could argue, took subjectivity too far.  The time he lived in, he felt, called for a radical line to be drawn—to rattle the cages.  He felt one had to make a ‘leap of faith’; a literal leap in the dark, regardless, throwing all caution to the wind.  But that is not really faith.  Faith is head and heart settled into one.  Faith is reason and emotion—subjective and objective. Faith is not belief or action without evidence or in spite of, but the initial perspective (which flows from head and heart) that considers the evidence and decides (by faith) what conclusions or actions are required.  I’m not describing simply what “religious” people do, but all people.  No one escapes living by faith.  A leap in the dark is presumption if we are assuming God is going to catch us just because we were not willing to check (if it were in our power) to see where bottom was; and it is unwise if we simply were not willing to think it through and reasonably consider the possibilities of our actions.  We may dance in the fire, but that doesn’t mean we thought it was water we were stepping into.  This radical view of “faith” is what took him to interpret the story of Abraham and Isaac (the attempted sacrifice of Isaac) as a willingness to do whatever God tells us no matter how crazy or wrong.  Like Caputo and many others, I think he took this (false) idea of faith too far.
Regardless, Kierkegaard brought back to the Western world the idea that “Truth” had to be about more than just objective facts we could measure and weigh.  The fact we could not measure or weigh the truthfulness of something, or prove it mathematically, did not make it any less true.  Truth was what we were willing to sacrifice and die for.  Truth was what made us get up in the morning to work, toil, strive, love, cry, laugh, and live this life for.  Truth was something we could not stand back from and neutrally observe, but the thing we had to give ourselves over to and inhabit.  Again, this aspect of truth is a hallmark of being human.  An atheist doesn’t possess the truth about things…the truth of things possesses the atheist.  My point isn’t that the atheist’s beliefs are true, but that he sincerely believes what he does and inhabits that very truth.  And within this sensibility we see the beginnings of the postmodern.

With our next post, we will move on to Nietzsche.
This entry was posted in Enlightenment, John D. Caputo, Kierkegaard, Postmodernism, Truth. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Caputo: Chapter Five—Postmodern Prophets—Part One

  1. Burk says:

    Darrell-

    Why must atheists be cold-hearted? Perhaps they are warm-hearted, like maybe Nietsche was.

    Thanks for the coverage of Kirkegaard- very interesting. Was he perhaps the spiritual father of the born-again movement?

    Truth- it seems to deserve splitting into various meanings, since what this article is about is rather far from the objective referent and corespondence theory of abstract truth. It sounds more like a personal leap of faith truth or gestalt, which characterizes one's commitments and ideology, whether based on anything factual or not. One's “story”, as per Ron.

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  2. RonH says:

    Burk…

    Why must atheists be cold-hearted?

    Logic fail. Darrell said, “His reflections cut so deeply into the fabric of the human condition that not even the most cold-hearted atheists can think they have nothing to learn from him.” Meaning: if cold-hearted atheists exist, even they cannot think they have nothing to learn from Kirkegaard.

    Taking this to mean “atheists must be cold-hearted” is an uncharitable non sequitur. It makes you sound defensive and too quick on the “I'm offended” trigger.

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  3. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Why must atheists be cold-hearted? Perhaps they are warm-hearted, like maybe Nietsche was.”

    I never wrote they were. Caputo mentions it only to make the point that even atheists have appreciated Kierkegaard’s writings and passion. Clearly Caputo is using hyperbole (See Ron). I don’t know that anyone would describe Nietzsche as “warm-hearted” but he was certainly honest, passionate, and cared deeply about this thing called “truth” and Caputo certainly recognizes that.

    “Thanks for the coverage of Kirkegaard- very interesting. Was he perhaps the spiritual father of the born-again movement?”

    Interesting, I've never read where that movement was attributed to him. It is normally associated with the American revival preachers of the 20th and 19th centuries. I can see where one might see that though, with his push for a radical, individual decision.

    “Truth- it seems to deserve splitting into various meanings, since what this article is about is rather far from the objective referent and corespondence theory of abstract truth.”

    Yes, that is one of Caputo’s points throughout his book. The correspondence theory cannot be the only single theory of truth and that idea (that truth is more than simple correspondence) is certainly reflected in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s writings.

    “It sounds more like a personal leap of faith truth or gestalt, which characterizes one's commitments and ideology, whether based on anything factual or not. One's “story”, as per Ron.”

    Well, everyone’s narrative is based upon the factual matter of existence and the world (universe) we all live in—the evidence if you will. The point is that everyone, including the atheist/agnostic makes a personal leap of faith when it comes to the metaphysical and the meaning/interpretation (even if one asserts there is no meaning but what we make up) of the evidence. One believes there is no God or doubts the existence of God (or transcendence) by faith. And if you are using “ideology” in a pejorative sense, it would also come back on you as well. We all have a world-view, a narrative, a philosophical view-point. If you are using ideology to speak of those aspects in a negative sense, it would encompass you as well so I’m not sure that is helpful to you.

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  4. RonH says:

    I, for one, am looking forward to the Nietzsche post. I really do enjoy Herr Fred. I often don't understand him, but when I do he really seems to cut through philosophical BS and get to the heart of experience. He's fun to read, and pretty quotable.

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  5. Darrell says:

    Thanks Ron, yes Nietzsche has to be reckoned with. He is the one true atheist.

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  6. RonH says:

    Darrell…

    A suggestion: It might be easier to distinguish your own words from Caputo's if you set off extended/paragraph quotations using blockquotes or some other typographical indicator. I find myself often losing track of “who's speaking”.

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  7. Darrell says:

    Ron,

    I didn't realize that–that is a helpful suggestion and I will do such in the future. Thank you.

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  8. Burk says:

    Darrell-

    No, I don't mean ideology in a pejoritive sense, but in the general sense of one's personal and collective narratives. As you note, everyone has them, (Nietzsche most flagrantly, mercurially, and preachingly), but it seems that our impressive capacity to delude ourselves means that various narratives come in a spectrum more or less reality-tethered. Part of them, the meaning and value part, are made up / subjective, not dependent on correspondence reality, but rather expressive of our capacities for empathy and emotional/spiritual identification with the world/others. But part typically rides on a model of how things out in correspondence reality are or work. Like how “bad” other people are, how victimized we are (objectively), our origin story, our model of salvation, etc.

    Calling all this “truth” is something that sets my teeth on edge. Perhaps something as simple as calling it “personal truth” would help make the point / distinction clear.

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  9. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “…it seems that our impressive capacity to delude ourselves means that various narratives come in a spectrum more or less reality-tethered.”

    Perhaps you have deluded yourself, true? And they are all “reality-tethered” in the sense that we all only have this one reality to interpret and navigate, right?

    As to the rest, yes, we understand how you feel about all this, but re-stating your position is not an argument against Caputo or anything I've noted.

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  10. RonH says:

    Burk…

    it seems that our impressive capacity to delude ourselves means that various narratives come in a spectrum more or less reality-tethered.

    Right, so when we delude ourselves, our narratives are less “reality-tethered”? Therefore, you can tell you're deluding yourself by seeing how tethered to reality your narrative is, right? The question is: what is reality? I mean, all we have is experience. And experience is real. If experience weren't real, then we wouldn't be experiencing it. So, to say “there's reality, and there's crap in your head” is really nonsense, because all our experience is “crap in your head”.

    Now, what you want to label “reality” appears to be “experiences I have which can be corroborated by other people”. But this won't work. For starters, just because an experience can't be corroborated by other people doesn't mean it isn't “reality-tethered”. Just because I saw a meteor that nobody else did doesn't mean I didn't see a meteor after all. Furthermore, experience of the divine is pretty widely corroborated across humanity — but not you. So whose corroboration defines “reality”?

    So your statement is circular. You ultimately can't define what is “reality-tethered”, so you can't detect when you're deluding yourself.

    Have you seen the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure trailer for Eric Kaplan's book, Does Santa Exist? You should check it out (and play along!). (To allay any fears, I got the pointer from Sean Carroll's blog…)

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  11. Burk says:

    Ron-

    Sometimes experience is not real, such as when you take something by hearsay, instead of experiencing the supposed truth for yourself. Which authority do you trust to tell you about human biological development- Muhammed, or a current anatomy text book? A long cultural trail leads to the selection of one's authorities. FOX news is another source of not-real data, as is NPR, et al. Which to trust? Does one tabulate a statistical track record of news & interpretation that turns out to be accurate on further research and historical hindsight? Or does one use a different method, more subjective? Actually, experience counts for very little of our subjective or objective narratives.

    Experiences that are direct are also rarely interpretable instantly. We need a structure of pre-conceived notions, and ontology of reality to fit them into (Darrell has a great deal to say about that). Here again, one's cultivation, information sources and authorities play a crucial role. Witches are real only when some cultural system tells us they are real / can be real. They do not happen spontaneously.

    Thus the war for cultural authority, which McGrath and Caputo, et al. are engaged in, as am I. The experience of a meteor is a classic case of something that is prone to wildly different interpretations. Are any “better” than any others? Is popularity the best criterion for best-est-ness? That would be a question to you.

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  12. RonH says:

    Burk…

    Yes, we do rely heavily on hearsay. That's what much of modern science is, in fact. Someone has some experience and publishes results. Of course, it's coming to be a point of concern that very little replication is going on out there. There was a study published a few years ago that showed historically that a majority of published studies turned out to be false. But that rejection rates of studies by journals are dropping. And people are getting papers published in reputable journals with intentional, glaring errors that go uncaught. One of the most famous psychology studies on priming, cited in all the textbooks and popular literature both, turned out be be unreplicatable. More of our world than we'd like to admit comes to us by hearsay. And who to trust is the big question on the table. How to choose? Ah. We're back to experience again, aren't we? I might trust you if my experience of you has been reliable in the past…

    The questions you raise are part of the postmodern conundrum. To crudely oversimplify: the Reformation and collapse of the authority and certainty that the Church provided cast us adrift. How could we be sure of truth anymore? The Enlightenment promised great things, and the science that arose from it has delivered on many of them. But it's also given us the power to kill, enslave, oppress, and destroy at unprecedented levels, while providing no guidance at all as to what we ought to do — which is, of course, the hardest question to answer. We have more knowledge, but in many ways are even less equipped to use it wisely. Our most basic, pressing questions about morality, human responsibility, the true, the beautiful, and the good are still unresolved.

    You talk about a “war for cultural authority”… But this is an unwinnable war, because even if you win, you lose. Concentrate enough power in the hands of men, and they will use it to oppress others for their own benefit. Christianity has largely come to grips with this lesson. Atheism hasn't yet. You still talk as if you would finally get it right, if only you could get religion out of the way… But you are fools to do so. Christianity insists that there is something wrong with Man, but at least it can be fixed. Naturalism cannot say there is anything “wrong” with Man, because Man is just what evolution made him — and he is by definition a success, since he's still here. There is neither room for improvement nor judgment.

    I can show that this “war for cultural authority” violates the very narrative that the combatants from “my side” claim to live by. Can you do the same?

    Is popularity the best criterion for best-est-ness? That would be a question to you.

    The question is meaningless. “Best” relative to… what? What is the standard against which you're measuring? “Reality!”, you say. And by that you mean… scientific consensus? Is that not basically just “popularity”? Or at least, popularity amongst an intellectual oligarchy?

    We cannot establish the truth of a narrative, because the narrative itself defines what we consider true in the first place. But, as with living organisms, some narratives thrive while others die. Some evolve, some go extinct. Some make worlds I want to live in, others don't. A narrative that makes a sustainable society that more and more people want to live in survives. On naturalism, that's the best you can hope for anyway. So give up your archaic pursuit of objective certainty. Come to grips with the postmodern… er… reality. Learn to play the narrative game. If you don't, you will die off. Or, which is worse, you'll recapitulate the lessons of Christendom all over again. Only with more corpses. 'Cuz, y'know, Science!

    If you're going to be an atheist — or, more accurately, a humanist — then be a winsome one!

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  13. Burk says:

    Ron-

    Point one about the scientific literature is pretty much the pot calling the microwave black…

    The enlightenment conundrum is more interesting. I think it is a temperamental issue in large part, as some people seem more needful of a structured god-king-country system than others. You live (I assume) in a country founded on the liberal pursuit-of-happiness philosophy, which is another model, attuned to another temperament, and works well in its way. It does not pretend to furnish final answers of value, which I think is philosophically the soundest position, as our values are always in flux. The desire to have “the answer” and to otherwise feel “unresolved” seems to me to be a temperamental issue, not a real one of philosophy or politics, (not that it isn't a perennial philosophical question, just that it is unanswerable on behalf of all people and all time). Anytime we do actually get such an “answer”, it tends to be problematic, to say the least.

    I mentioned the culture war theme not as some actual war or desire to run everything, just as a nod to what we are doing in our pleasant discussions. Remember that I am not running into every local church yelling “sinners repent!”. Rather, I am disputing the rationality of religious narratives, which are typically presented as reasonable or rational by philosophically-minded people who want to see themselves as rational at the same time that they, through “belief” in such narratives, show the opposite. (And which sometimes go so far as to corrupt well-understood science in order to preserve a scientifically-uninformed ontology on which the narrative sometimes- I would say typically- rests.) And you generally concede that these stories have a more psychological function than a reality-explaining one, I think. How important that function is, and whether there are any functional stories that put less strain on one's credulity, seems to be a major issue.

    “We cannot establish the truth of a narrative, because the narrative itself defines what we consider true in the first place.”

    Well, hopefully we are not so trapped in our narrative that we can not peek out to see that an asteroid is coming our way (or that the emperor has no clothes). This was what the enlightenment was all about- looking beyond one's given narrative to see reality in a more critical, and may I say accurate, way. The paradigm shift, etc.. And it has been, as you note, enormously successful. Both in an operational sense of providing unimagined resources of knowledge, wealth, and power, but also in its ideological narrative of pluralistic, liberal human progress. We live in an amazingly peaceful, rich, populous age. With a lot of problems, granted, but not ones, in my humble view, that belief in deities would help solve.

    .. cont …

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  14. Burk says:

    .. cont …

    “Christianity insists that there is something wrong with Man, but at least it can be fixed. Naturalism cannot say there is anything “wrong” with Man, because Man is just what evolution made him — and he is by definition a success, since he's still here. There is neither room for improvement nor judgment.”

    There is certainly a role for overall humility. But that seems to come naturally, as our self-improvement and spirituality industries seem to show. People are always “seeking” some better understanding and narrative.

    But I think you have naturalism fundamentally wrong here. Its biggest dictum is that we are free. Free to engineer our social systems, free to enjoy life, free to heal or destroy the planet. We are not going to be helped or drowned by some deus ex machina. We are not going to get our just deserts in another life or age. We might change our genetic code to improve ourselves.. something far more momentous, both philosophically and practically, then all the prayer in the world. Or we might replace ourselves with sentient machines with higher capabilities. Or we might not.. it is hard to say, but naturalism doesn't dictate that we are the pinacle of existence. Only that our reason combined with our motivations and senses as generated by evolution are, necessarily, all we have to work with in making the world “better”, whatever we think that means, in our current wisdom.

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  15. RonH says:

    Burk…

    Point one about the scientific literature is pretty much the pot calling the microwave black…

    LOL. Exactly. Because both the pot and the microwave are black, although for some weird reason the microwave insists that it can't be black because it's a microwave. I'm sayin': Hey, black is beautiful! Own your blackness! Of course, one is still a pot and one is a microwave. The latter is a great tool for reheating a piece of fried chicken, while you really want the former for cooking a tasty lamb korma.

    As for the Enlightenment conundrum… I think you're linking it closer to politics than I meant it. I was thinking more philosophically… How can we know what is true, and what we ought to be doing? This desire for certainty is in our nature. Trying to ascribe it to temperament is missing the fact that it afflicts us all. Now, temperament may affect where we go seeking certainty. Although I think the factors are too numerous and too complicated to say for sure. Chalking it up to religious tendencies is just naive, however. The American revolutionaries were quite religious, but created a liberal government. The French revolutionaries were atheists, and created a horrifically totalitarian regime. The idea has been floated that religion has flourished in the US precisely because of its disestablishment. European states with strong, authoritarian state churches are often the least religious now. Doing away with God just causes us to seek certainty in something else, be it Reason, the State, or whatever.

    The Enlightenment wasn't about “looking beyond one's narrative”. None of us look beyond our narrative, because we are looking though it. Narratives can change over time, true. But the fiction that one can step outside one's narrative is… well… a narrative itself. And one that is in tension with what we see in philosophy and history. And one that, if believed, can have a tendency to turn one into a threat. “You people are encumbered by your narrative, but I can see clearly. Let me tell you how to Fix It All…” God save us from central authorities who know how to Fix It All.

    …cont'd…

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  16. RonH says:

    …cont'd…

    Now, I personally prefer a classically liberal society where on balance a man controls himself, rather than being controlled by something else. If a man's narrative leads him to value freedom, self-reliance, justice, charity toward others, etc, then I can work with him even if his narrative doesn't involve a deity. And he should be able to work with me. If a man's narrative leads him to think that we should all be compelled to submit to Experts, regardless of whether or not some of us respect the authority of those Experts, then we have a problem. If a man's narrative leads him to believe that I am irrational, mentally ill, and an impediment to the future welfare of society (as, say, Peter Boghossian does), then we have an even bigger problem.

    But I think you have naturalism fundamentally wrong here. Its biggest dictum is that we are free.

    Really? How so? Because naturalism is necessarily deterministic. And if we are determined, then how can we be free? But even if I grant you freedom… How does that help? Free to engineer our social systems, but neither nature nor science can suggest what we should create. Free to heal or destroy the planet? But which one is better? (If I can be rich and powerful at the cost of planetary catastrophe long after I'm dead, what's not to like?) How do we even agree on what “better” is, on naturalism? Change our genetic code? So, if it were possible to eradicate religious belief with some kind of painless treatment, where the subject comes out not just an atheist but glad to be relieved of his religious delusions, would you approve of rounding up religious people and “treating” them? If not, why not? Naturalism does indeed say we can do anything we like, because there is nothing to dictate otherwise. Of course, no action can be considered “worse” than any other action. Do you not see the hazards of a creed that says nothing but “Do whatever you want?” Oh, you want to qualify that? On what basis? What kind of society can you build on this narrative? What's likely to go wrong with that society, and how would the narrative help prevent it? Chesterton said that before you tear down a wall, you might want to know what purpose it serves first. I don't think many atheists have thought through the implications of their god-free freedom.

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  17. Burk says:

    Ron-

    On narratives, though we all have narratives, they clearly come in a spectrum of plausibility, from the creationists to the Newtonians / Vulcans. Some people's narrative is so out there as to be laughable, even though it may make them very nice people- say a new age religionist. So evidently the functional effect is not deducible from the ontological plausibility alone, though there are often direct connections between the specific teachings and their functional effect. Even Islam comes in nice and not-nice flavors, given enough interpretive lattitude. Why does such a variety of narratives exist? But more critically, how far out can it go before endangering one's ability to function in society? Fringe religious sects often come pretty close, and the Amish for instance have decided it would be better to renounce the larger society rather than give up the narrative / lifestyle. I would not say that that is a bad thing in global terms, but it does confine its members, some involuntarily, to a difficult existence.

    I guess the point is that as you say we all have a craving for certainty, and it can lead us seriously astray, to superficial narratives that claim a lot more certainty than they actually merit. Isn't that an argument for skepticism, and double-checking one's narrative for, like, reality? Wouldn't the world be better off with less creationism? The fact that narratives can change, and that people change, means that looking outside one's narrative is possible, at least to the extent of trying on a different one.

    Ok, so the practical question is whether we collectively demand a commitment to civility and pluralism (live and let live) over one's particular narrative. And there we end up with secularism.. that the state and civic space should be neutral territory with no established religion / narrative, at least overtly. This is, incidentally, an instance of narratives of differing plausibility & commonality, since what is excluded by this deal are what we recognize as religious narratives, which I think are generally classed (by non-believers) as not very plausible, while the common narratives of nationalism, civic duty, manifest destiny, apple pie, etc., while not problem-free, are more this-world based, generally plausible, and thus commonly held.

    This deal is particularly a problem with Islam, which in Europe among other places, is very unwilling to submit(!) to this pluralist bargain. Coming back to Boghossian, I had never heard of him till you mentioned him, which shows you how plugged in I am. All I am aware of in the atheist community supports pluralism and one's right to believe whatever, but fights vigorously for the cultural / intellectual authority of reason and more reasonable narratives, using reasoned argument (and perhaps some scoffing). I think that is quite fair to do, so long as the moral stance is one of humanism and pluralism. Which is where Mr. B, by your report, clearly crosses the line. No one I know supports your proposal of genetically eliminating religiosity, for instance. First we have to figure out its genetics and biology(!) Just kidding. But the fact is we have very, very far to go before we understand our own biological basis, let alone are ready to alter it. And we might not want to, “we” being us on a very democratic collective level. I do support restrictions on genetic alteration of the human germline on a laissez-faire basis, without a societal consensus. That seems to me like a very dangerous slope, actually.

    … cont …

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  18. Burk says:

    … cont …

    “Do you not see the hazards of a creed that says nothing but 'Do whatever you want?' Oh, you want to qualify that? On what basis? What kind of society can you build on this narrative?”

    Firstly, all we are doing here is recognizing the factual position of humanity. By naturalism, which has in my view strong historical and philosophical support, all our scriptures and narratives are made up by ourselves anyhow. Nothing is coming in from the great void to tell us what to do. We have been exposed to the dangers of doing whatever we want from the very first, and the establishment of religious narratives offers only an artificial layer of social convention & authority, which leaders in the vein of Machiavelli have understood quite well forever. It has had its good points, but some bad ones as well.

    Secondly, there are many levels of “Do whatever you want”, from heedless hedonism to the most staid and stoic probity. The basis I have is what comes naturally to most mature people- utilitarian, empathetic, etc., where probity generally pays off in the long term better than hedonism does, especially on a collective level. We have many common action / community problems that must be solved at the community level, using the civic space fostered by secularism/democracy. Religious people tend to get overly exercised by the “everything is permitted” scare, as if morality had no utilitarian, aesthetic, empathetic, or other basis other than the traditional discipline of cross and sceptre. I think if you consider it deeply, every moral choice we make is much better done on a conscience / practical basis than on a scriptural basis. I mean, whether god did or didn't want us to invade Iraq doesn't seem like the most critical point of argument, really. And that is after all how it is done anyhow, as the scriptures are written and interpreted by … us. Which is, incidentally, an undisprovable proposition.

    What is the ideal? You are right that atheists tend to be focused on the opponent, (and on feeling superior), rather than on what they are interested in building in its place. We see Europe as a more secular, more happy, more liberal, (and even more economically mobile and fair, despite its currently disastrous recession) place, so that is one intermediate goal. We also read alot of science fiction, with all its warnings of technology run amok, and various secular and religious imagined worlds. Would the world be bearable if everyone believed the same things and had only reasonable and nice narratives? I bet it would be, but surely diversity has its importance as well. At any rate, atheism has no escatology, which I think is on the whole a good thing. Humanism has no end-point, though saving the biosphere from catastrophe is one goal that I think comes up a lot.

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  19. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    I’m only inserting myself in this exchange just to point out a couple of things—no need to reply—I don’t want to detract from the exchange. You are clearly being much more reasonable and less dismissive in your comments; however I just want to point out some basic logical fallacies in your comments:

    “On narratives, though we all have narratives, they clearly come in a spectrum of plausibility, from the creationists to the Newtonians / Vulcans. Some people's narrative is so out there as to be laughable, even though it may make them very nice people- say a new age religionist. So evidently the functional effect is not deducible from the ontological plausibility alone, though there are often direct connections between the specific teachings and their functional effect. Even Islam comes in nice and not-nice flavors, given enough interpretive lattitude. Why does such a variety of narratives exist? But more critically, how far out can it go before endangering one's ability to function in society? Fringe religious sects often come pretty close, and the Amish for instance have decided it would be better to renounce the larger society rather than give up the narrative / lifestyle. I would not say that that is a bad thing in global terms, but it does confine its members, some involuntarily, to a difficult existence.”

    The above is a straw-man argument. You really need to address progressive Christianity, not fundamentalism or various other fringe narratives.

    “I guess the point is that as you say we all have a craving for certainty, and it can lead us seriously astray, to superficial narratives that claim a lot more certainty than they actually merit. Isn't that an argument for skepticism, and double-checking one's narrative for, like, reality? Wouldn't the world be better off with less creationism? The fact that narratives can change, and that people change, means that looking outside one's narrative is possible, at least to the extent of trying on a different one.”

    Again, a straw-man. And the “like, reality” is ad-hominen.

    “Ok, so the practical question is whether we collectively demand a commitment to civility and pluralism (live and let live) over one's particular narrative. And there we end up with secularism.. that the state and civic space should be neutral territory with no established religion / narrative, at least overtly.”

    The above begs the question. The very point is that secularism is a narrative too. You are basically saying you want everyone to do something “over” their own narrative and live by your (secularism) narrative, because you assume only the “other” person’s narrative is a threat to civility and pluralism. (Continued)

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  20. Darrell says:

    (Continued)

    “This is, incidentally, an instance of narratives of differing plausibility & commonality, since what is excluded by this deal are what we recognize as religious narratives, which I think are generally classed (by non-believers) as not very plausible, while the common narratives of nationalism, civic duty, manifest destiny, apple pie, etc., while not problem-free, are more this-world based, generally plausible, and thus commonly held.”

    The above is not only question-begging but factually wrong. The most common and considered plausible narratives in the world are religious ones, not secular ones. Atheists and radical secularists make up a small part of the world population. All those aspects you mentioned, civic duty, etc., are thought of and held within a greater religious narrative, even in the west.

    “Firstly, all we are doing here is recognizing the factual position of humanity. By naturalism, which has in my view strong historical and philosophical support, all our scriptures and narratives are made up by ourselves anyhow. Nothing is coming in from the great void to tell us what to do. We have been exposed to the dangers of doing whatever we want from the very first, and the establishment of religious narratives offers only an artificial layer of social convention & authority, which leaders in the vein of Machiavelli have understood quite well forever. It has had its good points, but some bad ones as well.”

    The above is entirely question-begging.

    “…as if morality had no utilitarian, aesthetic, empathetic, or other basis other than the traditional discipline of cross and sceptre. I think if you consider it deeply, every moral choice we make is much better done on a conscience / practical basis than on a scriptural basis. I mean, whether god did or didn't want us to invade Iraq doesn't seem like the most critical point of argument, really. And that is after all how it is done anyhow, as the scriptures are written and interpreted by … us. Which is, incidentally, an undisprovable proposition.”

    The above is both question-begging and a straw-man argument.

    “…At any rate, atheism has no escatology, which I think is on the whole a good thing. Humanism has no end-point, though saving the biosphere from catastrophe is one goal that I think comes up a lot.”

    The above is extremely debatable, but more importantly it is just bald assertion. From the Humanist Manifesto III, we read:

    “Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.”

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  21. Darrell says:

    My point regarding the Humanist Manifesto quote is that such is an eschatology and an end-point; it has an ideal in mind, a point on the horizon, in which it wants to move toward in the future.

    Like

  22. Burk says:

    Darrell-

    I don't know, is .. humanity can “progress toward its highest ideals” … an escatology? It doesn't sound like the four horsemen to me. Rather like the vaguest kind of pablum, just right for an essentially aimless enterprise of just sort of trying to make things better.

    I recognize that my arguments can be rambling, but I think they address questions that Ron put. For example, I do not think that civic duty is in any substantive way a religious narrative. Sure, religions have entwined themselves with the state, and thus an identification has come about. But its origin is quite commonplace and functional. Jesus, for one, had no such ambitions, by my reading. It was … render unto Caesar what you must, but otherwise forsake the world and family to follow me and prepare for another world entirely. Supporting the civic infrastructure of Rome (or that of the Sadducees) was not part of the program.

    More generally, my argument is about the nature of narratives, and the possibility of (and desirability of) more or less reality-based narratives. That takes a comparative approach. I think I have bashed enough on the progressive Christian narrative.. no need to take more potshots at it. It should be clear that my take is that believing a lot of non-disprovable things does not add up to a rational narrative, though admittedly it is not as irrational as it could be.

    Anyhow, happy pumpkin carving…

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  23. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    This is what I mean…this is too easy…you are reverting to arguments replete with logistical fallacies…

    “I don't know, is .. humanity can “progress toward its highest ideals” … an escatology? It doesn't sound like the four horsemen to me.”

    Straw-man. You miss that “progressing” contains the very idea of an eschatology, which is an unveiling of what is now and is to come. The very word, “progress” points toward or contains an eschatology. Plus, your assumption regarding what the “four horsemen” means is a straw-man argument.

    “Rather like the vaguest kind of pablum,”…

    Ad-hominen.

    “…just right for an essentially aimless enterprise of just sort of trying to make things better…”

    Ad-hominen.

    “I recognize that my arguments can be rambling, but I think they address questions that Ron put.”

    No, it is not that they are rambling. Rather, they are just a bunch of logical fallacies. And, I will let Ron answer for himself, but they do not address his questions. In fact, they evade or do not understand his questions. I point this out to help you, not to attack.

    “For example, I do not think that civic duty is in any substantive way a religious narrative.”

    No one wrote that it was. This is what I mean—you do not “hear” what the people you disagree with are writing. I wrote that such a notion is contained within a narrative.

    “More generally, my argument is about the nature of narratives, and the possibility of (and desirability of) more or less reality-based narratives.”

    This is a question-begging, ad-hominen statement. It assumes your narrative is the only “reality” based narrative. It contains both logical fallacies. That is the very issue disputed—what is hard about this?

    “That takes a comparative approach. I think I have bashed enough on the progressive Christian narrative…”

    No, you haven’t at all. All you have ever addressed is fundamentalism. We are still waiting for your arguments.

    “…It should be clear that my take is that believing a lot of non-disprovable things does not add up to a rational narrative, though admittedly it is not as irrational as it could be.”

    This is just an ad-hominen, question-begging argument. So, once again, we see that you are not able to muster anything that would pass for a reasoned, logical, and cogent philosophical argument.

    What do you have here? Nothing. This is why it is hard to engage and have a conversation with you. Every response seems to scream, “I disagree…but I don’t know why…I will just say stuff!!!”

    What are we to do with this? You are very close to becoming an irrelevant…sort of side-show…an amusement at best.

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  24. Burk says:

    Darrell-

    Perhaps the core is the issue whether any narrative can be either less “realistic” or less “realistic”, i.e. mapping to reality. You, and also Ron, seem to take the position that we are each in a narrative, so we are all blinkered and can not see “reality” out there. So far so good, but the implication you seem to take from this is that therefore all narratives are equivalent, or at least equally on some level of can-not-be-escaped, so it is useless (and apparently ad hominem, as well as question begging) to attempt to critique another narrative from within what is necessarily another one. This is very much part of the post-modern (in an extreme sense) conceit, and I think it is wrong.

    I have provided many examples of narratives that are more realistic, and ones that are less realistic. Out there, way out there, and way, way out there. It's a complicated subject, but there is no question that people can adhere to a variety of narratives, and some are far more absurd than others. Is this problematic? Do I understand correctly? This seems the essence of our critical faculty, to not just assert difference but to marshal reasons why one view is more true (either in a subjective humanistic artistic psychological way, or in an external correspondence way). And sometimes, those reasons can be based on some powerful basis such as logic, empirical findings, historical facts, etc.

    Life after death is one example I have given of a (part of a) narrative that I believe progressive Christians (am I correct?) hold that has no basis in fact. It is indeed non-disprovable, as things stand, and perhaps forever, depending one one's attitude towards the correlation of brain / mind activity, but that is not the same as being supported by evidence. That puts it in the not-realistic camp of narrative elements, as I would classify these things.

    Also, you seem a bit overly smitten with the ad hominem fallacy. That is an argument against a person, which I don't think has been an issue here recently, though I am sure there are plenty of others.

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  25. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    I guess at this point, all I can do is show how your responses are full of miss-readings and logical fallacies—beyond those there is nothing really to respond to.

    “Perhaps the core is the issue whether any narrative can be either less “realistic” or less “realistic”, i.e. mapping to reality.”

    No, this completely misstates or misunderstands what I am saying anyway. You are simply trying to argue that your narrative “maps” to reality while others do not. That begs the question.

    “You, and also Ron, seem to take the position that we are each in a narrative, so we are all blinkered and can not see “reality” out there.”

    Wrong—a complete straw-man argument. No one is saying such—at least I am not. See, you don’t even really understand what is being said here. That is why all the abusive terms throw around are just mind boggling.

    “I have provided many examples of narratives that are more realistic, and ones that are less realistic.”

    No, you have not. You simply assume your narrative is more realistic to begin with. We would counter that the Christian narrative is realistic and based upon reality.

    “…It's a complicated subject, but there is no question that people can adhere to a variety of narratives, and some are far more absurd than others. Is this problematic? Do I understand correctly?”

    Do you understand that yours might be absurd?

    “Life after death is one example I have given of a (part of a) narrative that I believe progressive Christians (am I correct?) hold that has no basis in fact. It is indeed non-disprovable, as things stand, and perhaps forever, depending one one's attitude towards the correlation of brain / mind activity, but that is not the same as being supported by evidence. That puts it in the not-realistic camp of narrative elements, as I would classify these things.”

    This is completely question-begging. It is not an argument for anything. Your atheism is non-provable. How many times do we have to point out that this is not about the evidence but the interpretation and meaning of the evidence? Further, this whole area was covered with Bernard and JP and you saw where that went.

    “Also, you seem a bit overly smitten with the ad hominem fallacy. That is an argument against a person, which I don't think has been an issue here recently, though I am sure there are plenty of others.”

    I am using it in an informal and derivative sense that for you to continually refer to the beliefs of your opponents as “pabulum” “fairytales” “aimless” “irrational” and all the rest are very clear jabs at the person who would hold such beliefs. Please. Really? You know exactly what you are doing. When a person has to resort to using disrespectful,abusive and uncalled for terms, it is always because he simply cannot rely upon the internal strengths of his own argument. If there is a better term for that problem, let me know and I will start using it. In the meantime, I will use ad-hominen.

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  26. Burk says:

    Darrell-

    Let me take another step back. Your issue seems to be that progressive Christianity is some kind of middle way between the fundamentalist evangelicals (and other religionists) and the so-called fundamentalist atheists. Though this is not a self-label as you would grant to any other group. Rather it is a pet name you have made up yourself. I would refer to them as atheists.

    I on the other hand view the spectrum as going across the same span, but think the atheists are the most rational / reasoned, with religionists retaining invalid, unrealistic, and more or less primitive beliefs as the spectrum goes out from progressive religionists to more fundamentalist and extremist.

    To some extent this is mere personal preference, like my country is better than your country .. end of story. What possible other criteria can we bring in to nail this onto some objective framework? We could make an index of the rhetoric used by all sides, and label those with milder expressions the middle party, and those with worse language the more extreme. That has some value, but I don't think really gets to the intellectual issues. My offering (and probably Bernard's) is that we index the various narrative elements / premises each side has, and tabulate how many are factual, how many are in that non-disprovable twilight zone, (which is to say, by my book, fantasies, but ones no one can prove wrong), and how many are knowably false.

    These are different projects, and perhaps do not speak to each other effectively. As Ron notes!

    One thing I would say, in light of Halloween, is that history shows something quite clear, that we (culturally) give up various undisprovable beliefs (and false beliefs) over time, progressing to more rational / consistent beliefs. We give up lightining gods, then we give up ocean gods, then we give up witches and fairies. None of these are factually disproven. They are simply unnecessary when we have a more knowledgeable perspective on how reality operates.

    And who knows what we might give up next? This is the secularization hypothesis, as you doubtless recognize, but it isn't a hypothesis, but rather fact, up to some historical point somewhere along the series. (That incidentally constitutes part of the narrative of human progress which is also factual, not a narrative based on non-disprovable speculations.) And I think you agree that giving up various superstitions has been a good thing, and progressive Christians see history going in the same direction, up to a point. Whether we (should, can, want to) give up more such beliefs is the question, and I think Ron makes a much better case with regard to the (un)desirability of such a step than you do in denying that such a step is in any way meaningful because you posit that everything you believe is totally rational, no difference from science, and so forth. It isn't.

    So perhaps where I should go next is to look at the relationship between superstitions and the (remaining) beliefs of progressive Christianity, (PC), which you probably would not see as superstitions at all.

    “Superstition is the belief in supernatural causality—that one event causes another without any natural process linking the two events—such as astrology, religion, omens, witchcraft, prophecies, etc., that contradicts natural science.” – wiki

    Well PC certainly has the supernatural causality part, and the no natural (naturalistic) linking cause, for things like souls, life after death, god's action on reality, perhaps the efficacy of prayer, resurrection of the dead and of Jesus particularly, and doubtless some more. Whether they contradict natural science is the question we have batted around so much. And I will leave it there for the moment. You can tell me whether I am going in the right direction, should go in a different one, or desist entirely.

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  27. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “My offering (and probably Bernard's) is that we index the various narrative elements / premises each side has, and tabulate how many are factual, how many are in that non-disprovable twilight zone, (which is to say, by my book, fantasies, but ones no one can prove wrong), and how many are knowably false.”

    This is all ground well covered. The grand narrative we each inhabit is inhabited by faith. We all start with the same evidence, the same reality, and the same body of knowledge available to all of us. But how we view such, interpret, and surmise its meaning depends upon these very narratives. What you suggest above would not escape this fact. You don’t seem to see or realize this.

    “One thing I would say, in light of Halloween, is that history shows something quite clear, that we (culturally) give up various undisprovable beliefs (and false beliefs) over time, progressing to more rational / consistent beliefs. We give up lightining gods, then we give up ocean gods, then we give up witches and fairies. None of these are factually disproven. They are simply unnecessary when we have a more knowledgeable perspective on how reality operates.”

    The above is a straw-man argument. Further, it was the influence of Christianity that led many to give up those local and nature gods and so forth. Science and its ability to unlock the way the physical world operates has never posed a problem to orthodox or progressive Christianity (especially given the narrative provides for the very philosophical framework to produce modern science)—only fundamentalism.

    “And who knows what we might give up next? This is the secularization hypothesis, as you doubtless recognize, but it isn't a hypothesis, but rather fact, up to some historical point somewhere along the series. (That incidentally constitutes part of the narrative of human progress which is also factual, not a narrative based on non-disprovable speculations.)”

    I disagree. The secular hypothesis has most certainly been called into question—even by secularists. That you think this all “factual” is question-begging.

    “…I think Ron makes a much better case with regard to the (un)desirability of such a step than you do in denying that such a step is in any way meaningful because you posit that everything you believe is totally rational, no difference from science, and so forth. It isn't.”

    I have no idea what you are talking about as to Ron here and I do think my beliefs rational. But I've noted over and over again that they cannot be proved scientifically or empirically so why would I say they are no different than science? Again, you miss-read. You are the one who sees a direct correspondence between his beliefs and science-based facts. That you don’t think my beliefs rational is question-begging. Whether they are or not is the very thing disputed. You waste time with such comments—entirely unhelpful.

    “So perhaps where I should go next is to look at the relationship between superstitions and the (remaining) beliefs of progressive Christianity, (PC), which you probably would not see as superstitions at all.”

    Whatever you want to do is up to you. The trick is can you do it without just stringing together a series of question-begging, straw-man, and ad-hominine arguments wrapped up in dismissive, disrespectful, and insulting rhetoric.

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  28. RonH says:

    Burk…

    My parents came through town so I've been out of the loop since Thursday. Lots of text here since then, and I don't have the time to respond to all of it. Silence should not be construed as concession! 😉 But to address the high points…

    On narratives, though we all have narratives, they clearly come in a spectrum of plausibility

    As Darrell pointed out, you're still question-begging here. What determines whether or not someone's narrative is “plausible” is… what your own narrative permits. What we're trying to get you to see is that framing the discussion in terms of “plausibility” or “correspondence with reality” generally doesn't address anything, and can even make things worse by forcing your interlocutor into a (sometimes aggressively) defensive posture. Saying we can marginalize a perspective because it is implausible and/or irrational are, as we say here in Texas, “fightin' words”. Because, frankly, if you've decided I'm irrational, I cannot use reason to convince you otherwise.

    A variety of narratives exist because human experience is widely varied. If you value exposure to wide experience, narrative variety is the price you pay. This is one reason why atheism appears to work so well in places like Scandinavia and Japan. They're homogenous populations. BTW, I've lived in Japan. Even without a deity, they've got a society I doubt you'd be comfortable in. It's quite homogenous though, and everyone more or less shares the same narrative. It's not all it's cracked up to be, I assure you.

    You want to have some kind of objective standard by which you can assess (and ultimately disregard) other narratives. Narrative certainty, if you will. But such a standard is necessarily impossible. Few people elucidated this better than Nietzsche. You only have objectivity within a narrative, not across narratives. This doesn't mean all bets are off and anything goes, however. In principle, yes… But in actuality, we usually share common intuitions, preferences, and inclinations even if we do not share narratives. If you value pluralism, then you have to learn to operate with others in narratives that conflict with your own. You have to identify points of commonality. At points of conflict, you have to try to see through the other narrative to identify how you might resolve the conflict. What will not work is castigating the holders of the other narrative for their inability to see the Really Plain Truth that you see. If they shared your narrative, there wouldn't be a conflict in the first place. This can be really hard… and it's easier to just marginalize the Other as irrational, evil, deluded, stupid, or whatever. It's easier — and more traditionally human — to scapegoat the Other, blaming him for impeding your agenda for Making Things Better, and convincing others who agree with you that if we could just get rid of him, life would be good. If your narrative is cool with that, then we have a point of conflict and I have to try to see through your eyes to figure out how I might resolve it. Honestly, that's the reason I bother with discussions like this.

    You see, “secularism” isn't the harmless neutrality you seem to think it is, because there is no neutrality. Furthermore, getting religion out of discussions doesn't resolve the hot conflicts in the first place. Pick a hot topic: abortion, same-sex marriage, feminism… Being an atheist (or humanist) doesn't mean you come down on a predictable position. There are pro-life atheists. There are atheists who think same-sex mating is an evolutionary defect. There are misogynist atheists. If you think you can collapse these conflicts with your fellow atheists using Reason and Science, then… well… I'd say “Go for it!” but secretly think you really don't get out much.

    …cont'd…

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  29. RonH says:

    …cont'd…

    Now, you think that adopting the creed “Do whatever you want” is just “recognizing the factual position of humanity”. But again, this is an epic question-beg. I don't recognize it to be the factual position at all. You can't just “Do whatever you want”, because I believe there is a purpose or telos for everything, including humanity. When you veer away from that purpose, bad stuff will happen. On naturalism, there is no such purpose. So there is no “bad stuff” that can happen — because one cannot define “bad”. On naturalism, there are no good roads and bad roads, good destinations and bad destinations. You've got some kind of rosy view that, if left to ourselves, we'll behave in ways that “come naturally to most mature people”. But what's come naturally to most mature people throughout history has been quite varied, and generally quite brutal. After all, evolution is all about self interest and competition for scarce resources. Your values of individuality, civility, diversity, democracy, etc. are not at all intrinsic to human nature. They aren't derivable at all from naturalism alone, and they're not even necessarily derivable from humanism.

    Going back to my thought experiment, which you waved off: If religious (aka “non-reality-based”) narratives are bad, harmful, and/or undesirable, and we develop the tech to “deactivate” those narratives painlessly and in such a way that the subject emerges from treatment grateful at having his narrative expunged, would you endorse mandatory treatment for the good of society? If not — and this is the important bit — how would you justify your position to your secularist opponents? To what scientific principle can you appeal?

    You can pooh-pooh this hypothetical as being farfetched, but I think it's worth discussing for two reasons. 1) People are actively researching to what extent religious impulses/ideas can be correlated to brain states, and how those states can be manipulated (remember the “god helmet”?). If materialism is true, there's good reason to believe we'll work it out at some point. Or, at least, think we've mostly worked it out. Peter B. and company can't wait for the day when we can begin “treating” religious belief as a mental disorder. 2) The hypothetical highlights the inadequacy of mere secularism/humanism for resolving moral questions, and illustrates how we all have to end up appealing to principles rooted in narrative and not some objective “reality”.

    …cont'd again…

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  30. RonH says:

    …concluded….

    If the hypothetical were reversed (i.e. there's a treatment that will make atheists have all the religious intutions I experience), I could appeal to fellow Christians using commonly shared Christian principles how treating atheists would be completely immoral and at odds with our own beliefs. Other Christians would no doubt present opposing cases, but at least I'd have one. But were I an atheist, I honestly don't see how I'd make a case based only on science and reason that religious people shouldn't be forcibly treated for the good of society. I could make an appeal based on emotion, personal preference, my own private values, etc. But on “secularism”, these subjective views can hold no sway in the “public sphere”. It can be objectively demonstrated that treating religious people is a positive course of action. The counter cannot be objectively demonstrated. A world with religious people in it cannot be said to be objectively better than a world without them.

    So I guess my two main points are: 1) If you think getting religious views out of the civic square actually solves anything, you're being really naive; 2) If you want to live in a pluralist society, you're gonna have to overhaul your approach to those who share a different narrative. To be sure, equivalent charges can be levelled at Christians. However, Christianity is further along in coming to grips with them. On #1, Christians have kept other perspectives out of the public square for much of Christendom's history, and it didn't create the Kingdom of God after all. Many (possibly most) Christian thinkers now agree that Christendom was a failure — and good riddance. On #2, many Christians recognize the postmodern reality, and are actively trying to come to grips with it — successfully so, in many cases. The atheists I encounter by and large reject postmodernism in favor of Objective Scientific Certainty (aka naturalism). Nietzsche proclaimed God dead, but he might as well have done the same for Logical Positivism.

    (This diatribe brought to you by the end of Daylight Savings Time…)

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  31. Burk says:

    Ron-

    I appreciate your replies. Life intervened over here as well.

    “What we're trying to get you to see is that framing the discussion in terms of “plausibility” or “correspondence with reality” generally doesn't address anything, and can even make things worse by forcing your interlocutor into a (sometimes aggressively) defensive posture.”

    I understand the posture, but historically speaking, you seem overly cut and dried with “anything”. I am trying to get you and Darrell to see that narratives have two overall parts- the subjective part, which is, as you say, not to be gainsaid. We feel the way we feel. But there is another part to narratives which is their model of reality- how the world turns, who is running everything, what voices speak into our ears, what goes bump in the night, etc. etc. And these two components interact in important ways, with the latter part being most certainly critique-able, using models of reality that have been improved by modern critical and empirical thinking. How can this possibly be in dispute, Halloween having just passed?

    And recognizing this doesn't mean that person A is irrational and B is rational, only that they have particular irrational ideas. Francis Collins, in my estimation, has a few irrational ideas, but that doesn't make him irrational in whole. Anyhow, we are all irrational at base, so having the most rational ideas and accurate models of reality, as far as we can, is an unreachable ideal of civilized behavior, like being able to eat with etiquette, converse with politeness, vote with data, etc. Does that make sense?

    I am not saying that one can do without narratives, or that a narratives can be purely objective. We have nationalism, for instance, which while it does not (at best) have any non-objective aspects to its reality model, (countries do exist, I am a member of my country), is still irrational, in that my attachment to my country is subjective, and that is OK. When I start to think that my country has superior races, and can save humanity from satanic aliens, we start to have a problem that can be addressed by critique of the objective aspects of the narrative's reality model, defensive posture or no defensive posture.

    “You only have objectivity within a narrative, not across narratives. This doesn't mean all bets are off and anything goes, however. In principle, yes… But in actuality, we usually share common intuitions, preferences, and inclinations even if we do not share narratives.”

    Sorry, this doesn't quite make sense, at least to me. Putting aside the subjective aspects of a narrative, and focussing on its reality-model, things like: is climate change real or do witches exist … are objective issues. They may not be provable or disprovable, but the category is objective. I think you are speaking of shared subjective feelings, which do tend to product agreement in narratives, like on nationalism, for instance. But there is an important role for shared objective knowledge and judgement as well.

    .. cont ..

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  32. Burk says:

    .. cont ..

    “Now, you think that adopting the creed “Do whatever you want” is just “recognizing the factual position of humanity”. But again, this is an epic question-beg.”

    I stated that this was by the view of naturalism. You asked what I thought of that dire condition of human freedom, and that was my answer. So it is not question-begging, given the question asked.

    So, you don't recognize this naturalist position. Fine. Prove it. The whole problem here in our comparison of narratives is that I am taking minimal premises … what we know to be true about the world, which may not be a lot, and is certainly less than what you assume to be true, given your various progressive Christian non-disprovable propositions of faith. I.e. faith. So you have all these extras added on, like heaven, god, Jesus, trinity, souls, etc. Which have plenty of tradition and intuition on their side, but withstand philosophical argument purely out of their non-disprovability, not out of their provability or plausibility, to a skeptical person. Its epistemological foundation, on its objective aspects, is not particularly strong.

    Anyhow, back to the evils of human freedom…

    “So there is no “bad stuff” that can happen — because one cannot define “bad”. On naturalism, there are no good roads and bad roads, good destinations and bad destinations.”

    Oh, right. World War 2 was totally Okey Dokey. Hmmm. You seem to have a rather low opinion of humanists, and of humanity at large. I guess that is part of your narrative, as we are sinners born in sin, and are saved only by divine intervention. Or something like that, all (in its objective propositions) in a realm completely impervious to knowledge of any rigorous kind.

    Anyhow … bad is very easy to define, being whatever we individually judge as bad. And if large enough groups of people come to agreement about what is bad, we can have a society, government, civic life, etc. Every child, well before they learn any theology, feels quite acutely what is bad- at least what is bad for her or him. But of course they are lacking in objective knowledge (oh, that part of the narrative equation again!!), so their judgement of ultimate utility, even on their own behalf, is pretty poor.

    It is not clear to my why a god is required here. But in any case, getting to your thought experiment of de-activating religious narratives from people, I would not mandate mandatory “treatment” at all. Human nature is far more complex than I understand, and such activities, besides being fundamentally illiberal, would probably be quite harmful to us on balance.

    But let me propose a counter-experiment. Suppose you could cure schizophrenic people of their delusions and cognitive problems with an analogous treatment. Would you do that against their will, or only voluntarily? Where is the line between normal and not normal? How deluded is allowable? What does voluntary mean in such a context, if one's narrative is enormously unhinged?

    “The hypothetical highlights the inadequacy of mere secularism/humanism for resolving moral questions, and illustrates how we all have to end up appealing to principles rooted in narrative and not some objective “reality”.”

    That is an interesting statement. Why are moral questions even an issue here? You disagree with Mr. B. I do too. How about that? I agree we have to appeal to narratives. But I have one, and you have one as well. We all have them. So where does that leave us? Suppose mine has a long series of wrong facts, like religion makes people miserable, cruel, and sends them to hell after they die. (A humanist hell … humor me!). That kind of narrative certainly gives me alot of reason to take action, doesn't it? What could possibly be wrong with it?

    .. cont …

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  33. Burk says:

    .. cont …

    “If the hypothetical were reversed (i.e. there's a treatment that will make atheists have all the religious intutions I experience), I could appeal to fellow Christians using commonly shared Christian principles how treating atheists would be completely immoral and at odds with our own beliefs.”

    I'm not quite sure that follows, really, but bully for you, (and me), if so. And I might add that atheists do indeed have religious intuitions that you experience, and mystical experiences, and LSD trips, and the whole gamut. But they put a different narrative interpretation on them, I think. You might read something about pluralism, personal autonomy and choice, etc. in the humanist creeds, but jeez, that is just written-down stuff, right?

    1) If you think getting religious views out of the civic square actually solves anything, you're being really naive;

    But that is a big lesson of European history, and of American history. Not that they have to be removed completely, but that state functions and reasons should be secular. What people think is their own business, but getting religion out of public office has solved quite a number of problems.

    2) If you want to live in a pluralist society, you're gonna have to overhaul your approach to those who share a different narrative.

    I think you are taking Mr. B a little too seriously here. No one is trying to put you on the rack, at the stake, etc. We just want a commitment to reason and truth to play the authoritative cultural role that you probably do as well. Sorry to be intemperate at times.

    “On #2, many Christians recognize the postmodern reality, and are actively trying to come to grips with it — successfully so, in many cases. The atheists I encounter by and large reject postmodernism in favor of Objective Scientific Certainty (aka naturalism). Nietzsche proclaimed God dead, but he might as well have done the same for Logical Positivism.”

    I have significant issues with all this postmodernism stuff. To some degree it makes fair points, but it has been taken to ridiculous, and really quite disturbing extremes, destroyed academic departments, etc. as well. When Christians use it to license a belief in what they already believed anyhow, and then call it edgy & radical, after they think they have escaped the strictures of criticism from the higher, textual, historical, and scientific fields, I think they are seriously mistaken. It seems like a fool's errand, really.

    I think that naturalism is a very accurate approach to objective reality, encompassing everything we know about, and discarding what we don't know about. Really, it is very simple. But it does not deal in subjectivty, art, narratives, etc. All that stuff that is fundamental to human existence, and needs some other narrative, or many, like nationalism, humanism, cosmopolitanism, vegetarianism, tree-hugger-ism, etc. etc.. there are plenty of options in that space. It is much bigger than just religion or the void, so to speak.

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  34. RonH says:

    Burk…

    But there is another part to narratives which is their model of reality… the latter part being most certainly critique-able, using models of reality that have been improved by modern critical and empirical thinking.

    You might wish this to be the case, but it simply isn't. As Nietzsche said, “Against that positivism which stops before phenomena, saying 'there are only facts', I should say: no, it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations.” You can try to critique a narrative's model of reality from within the narrative itself, but if you try to critique using a model of reality from your (or another) narrative, you'll be largely wasting your energy. For example, as shocking as it may be, there are geneticists who are young earth creationists. As “objective” as you may think empirical “reality” to be, it won't be objective enough to get very far with them. You have to take a different approach. Or simply marginalize them. Or find a way to coexist. The idea that there is some “objective” measure that can adjudicate our disputes is a fantasy. Claiming that “science” is such an objective mechanism is not only a fantasy, but a fantasy that is privileging the naturalist narrative by default.

    Oh, right. World War 2 was totally Okey Dokey. Hmmm. You seem to have a rather low opinion of humanists, and of humanity at large. I guess that is part of your narrative, as we are sinners born in sin, and are saved only by divine intervention.

    Stop it. If you want to have a civil discussion, I'm game. In that case, at least pretend to have some respect for my position and argue against it, not some caricature in your head.

    Anyhow … bad is very easy to define, being whatever we individually judge as bad.

    Kind of like, “porn is in the eye of the beholder”? So if enough people think WW2 was “totally okey-dokey” then it was, right? Sounds kind of like narrative creating reality, if you ask me.

    Which is my whole point. Your narrative will define what you view as “good” or “bad”. If that narrative spreads successfully across society, then that will be what society defines as “good” or “bad”. If your narrative says that Jews are troublemakers who are the cause of all our problems, and that narrative spreads far enough, you get the Holocaust. It's neither good nor bad… it simply is. To the Germans who participated in it, it wasn't bad. To the Allies who stopped it, it was. They had more numbers and better weapons, so they win. Your narrative constrains your behavior in some regards, and encourages it in others. It constrained empathy in the Nazis, and inflamed righteous anger in the Allies.

    …cont'd…

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  35. RonH says:


    Not all narratives are created equal. There's a reason why nobody worships Molech or Odin anymore. Christianity took off amongst educated Romans because it was more satisfying than paganism. How well a narrative “models reality” is irrelevant because: a) we can't tell anyways, since our “reality models” come from our narrative in the first place; and b) even if a narrative “models reality” more accurately, that doesn't mean it will be successful. American atheists are always pointing to Europe as some kind of secular paradise. But how well is “secularism” really working there? For the first half of the 20th century, they slaughtered each other by the millions (in non-religious warfare, I might add). More recently, birth rates have plummeted and the socialist systems are increasingly dependent on immigrant workers to expand the tax base. However, those immigrants have brought Islam with them. And now free speech is being clamped down on, since we can't afford to let someone say anything critical of Islam (or even draw a cartoon!) because then something will get blown up. This is threatening the free press. And without free press and free speech, how long do you think a real democracy can last?

    The humanist/naturalist narrative is flaccid. There's no “good” or “evil”, just what our respective preferences are. And since we can't really agree on those, it's hard to get organized. There is ultimately nothing more important than survival, because there ultimately is nothing else. No heaven, no hell, no God, no moral absolutes, no soul, no afterlife, no purpose, no (objective) meaning, no story… nothing beyond our own personal time horizons. Why risk getting blown up over someone else's right to draw a cartoon? Or to practice their religion?

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  36. RonH says:

    Now, the response of many atheists is to say “The problem is that religion causes people to be irrational and blow stuff up”. Or sometimes just “Religion is bad all the way 'round”. You think I'm taking Mr. B too seriously, but I think you're not taking him seriously enough. People didn't take Hitler seriously either. B isn't just a crank with a fringe following. (As I pointed out, even a libertarian like Michael Shermer is lending his support.) Mr. B doesn't just “want a commitment to reason and truth to play the authoritative cultural role”. He wants my narrative to be classified as a “mind virus” so that we can enact policy to treat it like the “public health crisis” that it is. You disagree with him, and I'm glad. But my question wasn't whether or not you approve — I've read enough by you to know that you wouldn't. However, you two share a humanist/naturalist perspective. I was asking that if his narrative spin started to gain traction, what arguments could you make against it using your common narrative points? After all, you know that religious belief does not comport with reality. Academic psychologists (who are overwhelmingly atheist) are running off study after study that shows how religious people are less prosocial on pretty much all indicators. They tend to be less innovative, less creative, and more favorable to authoritarian structures. (Of course I think this is all horse hockey, but that's just my religious anti-science biases talking, naturally.) And then there's just the news of religious people doing evil/stupid things. I mean, the evidence showing that religion is harmful to society far outweighs the evidence that it is helpful. Given that, if there were a way to deactivate the religious impulse easily and painlessly in a way that the patient is happier afterwards, how could you argue against it in a way that carries any force? “Fundamentally illiberal”? How so? You're freeing both the patient and society from his religious delusions! “Probably be quite harmful to us on balance”? On the basis of what evidence? We're already showing that religiosity is more harmful than not. Your objection is not based on science. Any principle that would admit your nonscientific argument to the “civic square” on this point shouldn't exclude my religious nonscientific arguments.

    It was an appeal to the Creator, as a power greater than the State, that anchored the Founders' common assertion of inalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. A naturalist humanist narrative (or at least the ones with which I'm familiar) recognizes no power greater than the State, and instead confers objective authority on “science”. Frankly, I think the narrative fails on two counts: 1) it cannot sustain democracy, since it lacks justification for inalienable rights; 2) it cannot inspire strength of will necessary to overcome attacking narratives. We've been seeing this in Europe, and we're starting to see it in the US.

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  37. Burk says:

    Ron-

    “If your narrative says that Jews are troublemakers who are the cause of all our problems, and that narrative spreads far enough, you get the Holocaust. It's neither good nor bad… it simply is.”

    And how does one address this kind of problem? Is it merely to each his own and postmodernism and Nietzsche all the way … “it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations.”?

    No, there are two approaches. One is empathy and feeling, as you recommend to me, stating that if a Jew is pricked, does he not bleed? The other is factual, doing the research to show that Jews do not actually run the world, eat babies, etc. These are not just interpretations, but are facts. Most people are impervious to facts, true enough. But that is no reason to wash one's hands of them.

    You touch on an interesting phenomenon … the conspiracy theorist. The 9/11 truthers, swift boaters, etc. Is love-bombing them the only answer, or is refuting their private facts important as well? I think that in the larger social context, the latter is actually far more significant, at least to the onlookers, if not to the theorists themselves.

    ###

    As you note, religion is highly motivational. I certainly don't spend my days going door to door in a futile effort to spread the word of Mormonism, or The Watchtower. That makes it scary as well as beneficial. Can we get along without such extremism? We don't really have much choice, since it maps more to human nature than to any outside cause. Extremists will find their ideology, whether it is greenpeace or Jihad. But the rest of us can, I think, perform a useful service to keep them at the fringes by putting cultural authority not behind poorly supported and unempathetic ideologies, but rather behind sound scholarship, the philosophical virtues, accurate news, human-centered media, etc.

    The challenge to democracy is not, I think, from extremist ideologies. It is from money, pure and simple. Money is what is screwing with our media and our political system, dumbing it down and fomenting every id-centered attack ad on behalf of interests that can not lay out their desires and program openly. Here again, dedication to reality & facts (how quaint!) seems highly important, however outgunned, not by crazies, but by the opposite.. money.

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  38. RonH says:

    Burk…

    And how does one address this kind of problem?

    Well, once you've got a Holocaust on your hands, it's too late. The horse has already left the barn. You have to head narratives off before they gain that kind of traction. But if you think that presenting your research that Jews didn't in fact run the world or eat babies would have changed anything… well… People rarely succumb to ideologies like that because of “the facts”.

    Is love-bombing them the only answer, or is refuting their private facts important as well?

    It's not an either/or. If you want to present facts that challenge the foundation of someone's narrative, you have to get close enough for them to trust you… To believe that you really are doing it for their own good, and not just to score a kill for your team. Of course, the surest way to convince them that you're out for their own good is for you to really be out for their own good. Chesterton said “Jesus told us to love our neighbors. He also told us to love our enemies. Probably because they are the same people.”

    I was a young-earth creationist for the first half of my life. I wasn't one because of the scientific evidence. And when I stopped being one, it wasn't because someone finally clubbed me over the head with the evidence! My position was slowly swayed by people I knew and respected, and by the writings of Christians like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, Alastair McGrath, and John Polkinghorne, and charitable atheists like Michael Ruse. P.Z. Meyers, Jerry Coyne, Dawkins, and their ilk couldn't get the time of day from me. Chesterton said that when you're up against a mind in a tight-spiral, “we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument.”

    Eric Reitan posted on this a year or two ago. You took him to task then, also. I wonder how often your “Hit 'em in the head with their own anti-factual irrationality!” approach has brought you success. You certainly seem to have a lot of faith in it…

    Money is what is screwing with our media and our political system

    I'm entirely in agreement here. Although, I'd add that for many, the money is just a means to enact agendas to fulfill other goals (cf. utopianists, megalomaniacs, etc.). I support transparency endeavors like opensecrets.org and votesmart.org. However, I think the only real solution to this problem will involve the decentralization of power and increasing direct accountability. Where power concentrates, money will flow to influence it. This is inescapable.

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