“If you’re bored, you’re doing something wrong”: Dawkins and Gervais discuss religion and science

Here’s a 15-minute conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais—apparently in a church! The caption on the YouTube video isn’t really accurate:

A surprisingly respectful yet critical look at religion and science. This is full interview. Snippets of this were used in Richard Dawkins recent documentary for more4.

It’s not all that “respectful”! Gervais evokes feelings of wonder, and claims that religion becomes harmful only when the faithful start making policy from their beliefs, but that’s about as respectful as it gets.

I like the “childlike” wonder that pervades the discussion, especially when Richard explains the neuronal impulses that are really behind their conversation.  The issue of free will comes up, and Gervais professes uncertainty about whether we have it, but says that because he feels like a free agent, in the end it doesn’t matter. But it does, for whether our wills are “free” has profound implications for societal policies of punishment and reward.

At 10:20, Gervais explains why agnostics annoy him more than do the faithful.  I don’t quite agree if you define “agnosticism” as “profession of no knowledge about God.” Scientifically, that’s the right attitude, and yes, one can (contra Gervais) be agnostic about fairies.  All that means is that we have no evidence for fairies, and of course scientists never professes absolute certainty.  As Dan Barker says, “agnosticism” is about lack of evidence and “atheism” is about lack of belief.  You can, I think, be both an agnostic and an atheist, and some agnostics are nevertheless theists.

h/t: Michael


  1. gbjames
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink


  2. Somite
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    I think this is the first time I disagree with Jerry.

    The larger problem is that the term is incorrectly used in the vernacular to express uncertainty. It would be more accurate if it was understood as “no knowledge”

    However, it is also incorrect to claim “no knowledge” (agnosticism)about the existence of god because we know with certainty that there is no evidence for a god, or need to invoke it as a mechanism everywhere we have looked so far.

    And let’s face it. The term agnostic as it is used is a crutch to make it more socially acceptable to express doubts about the existence of god. In other words, accomodationism.

    • Xena
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      You may know for certain there is no god but not everyone believe that the existence of god is knowable. It may be deductible but not knowable. I can call myself a agnostic with an inclination towards deism. None of the why questions are answerable eg why is man’s intelligence so limited that we cannot answer why the universe behaves the way it does. We may guess at how but why? Why do we feel that we have any value at all? Why do we think we have any rights? Why do 2 year old always ask why?

      • Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

        Another “why” question if I may – why are you inclined towards deism?

      • Scott near Berkeley
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        Problem is, those “Why” questions are not meaningful. They carry no meaning, but just a series of words that =sound= like they have meaning, but they don’t!!

        If I narrated my day’s activity in Czech, everything I stated might be true, if…if.. you understood Czech. I would know that I was not really describing something that had meaning to me, even if it was about me, and the same for any English-only speaking person.

        “North of the North Pole” = sounds like a place, but it isn’t.

        “Married bachelors” =sounds like a particular group of men, but it doesn’t hold meaning.

        If “Why” questions had valid answers that a deity would have information regarding the answers to why-questions, all that deity’s efforts would be consumed, 100%, in generating “why-answers”.

    • Bob Carlson
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      And let’s face it. The term agnostic as it is used is a crutch to make it more socially acceptable to express doubts about the existence of god. In other words, accomodationism.

      A case in point is Bart Ehrman, Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He calls himself an agnostic because he realizes that this seems less offensive to his fellow religionists as well as the multitudes of religiously faithful. It helps him to paint atheists as being unreasonable in their certainty. The ruse seems to persuade the irrational that agnosticism is the more sophisticated viewpoint. It seems like a cheap and weasely smoke screen to me. Moreover, because gnostic is pronounced nostic, I can’t help thinking that agnostic really should be pronounced a-nostic.

  3. Chris
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Pretty sure that the agnostics jab was at those people who see agnosticism as directly in between theism & atheism…

    • davidintoronto
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Yes. I can imagine a self-described “agnostic” equivocating between true atheism and some form of deism. But I think many theists interpret the label much more hopefully – as if there’s a chance that the agnostic (upon sober reflection) might actually embrace a full-blown dogma (Appalachian snake handling, perhaps).

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        I’ve heard this before, doubt that many people actually equivocate between atheism and deism. I imagine it to be the most “popular” position, maybe because it’s where I was most of my life – God? I don’t know. Don’t see any God. Everyone (all the adults) seems to think so…

  4. Griff
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    agnostic – “I do not know”
    atheist – “I do not believe”

    I have this argument with people (usually Theists online) who don’t seem to understand the distinction, or that I can both “not know” and “not believe” simultaneously.

    It usually takes the form of “Atheists state that god does not exist – i.e., we claim knowledge that god(s) do not exist, and therefore we have a burden of proof.

    • Somite
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

      But you do know with certainty that there is no evidence for existence of god and no need for it as a mechanism to explain anything.

      Atheism is not a belief it is a conclusion.

      The distinction between agnosticism and atheism as knowing and lack of information is made usually by those that like the term.

      • Griff
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

        I see atheism (at least mine) as entirely passive.

        Waiting for evidence…
        Waiting for evidence…
        Waiting for evidence…

    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      agnostic – “I do not know”
      atheist – “I do not believe”
      anti-theist – “There is no god”

      If there is, we can be reasonably certain that it is not the god of monotheism, and if there does turn out to be a god, against all evidence, then it is not worthy of worship and therefore no god at all.

      Imagine a being showing up and proclaiming itself our god but knowing nothing of any of our human religions – that situation where everyone but agnostics are wrong, and they are only right by accident. Would that truly be a god?

      There is no god.

      • Griff
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

        The biggest problem I have as an atheist is understanding why otherwise intelligent people still fall for it.

        • Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

          You’ve been to a shopping mall lately? Seen any reality tv? Anything that makes us feel better about life or ourselves will sell like hotcakes if it is packaged pretty.

          Any big name clothier can make something that is absolute shit and it will sell, and people will look down their noses at you while wearing it.

          If you stop to think about it, a meat robot with an imperfect brain/programming will construe the facts as they need to to make sense of the world, and reality is not something they are really willing to accept. It’s a bit too harsh, uncaring, and pointless for most of the species because in that they are not special at all… and that, that single thought rules out reincarnation for me. To think this is the higher form? ROFLMFAO

          • Griff
            Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

            No and no. (don’t watch TV or go to shopping malls!)

            Like it or not (I don’t), not everyone who is a theist is robotic about it. I have a lot of respect for the likes of Ken Miller, and I just don’t get his acceptance of Catholicism.

            • moarscienceplz
              Posted December 3, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

              Personally, the Ken Miller types make me sad. It’s as if he’s spent his whole life wandering along the path of Science and Logic, except that when he comes to the fork in the road that should lead him to investigate his religious convictions there is a Black Knight standing in the middle of the path waving a sword and shouting “None shall pass!”

              It’s almost like a self-inflicted lobotomy.

              • Griff
                Posted December 3, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

                I would desperately like to ask him how he reconciles his acceptance of natural selection when the pool of alleles derives from RANDOM mutation, withe idea that we a god chosen people. How can they both be true??

                I just find it puzzling.

              • Scott near Berkeley
                Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

                Typically, this type of person is afraid that they will not be living eternally. There is an absolute horror, a hideous eternal sleep, that scares them. They want the immortality that Xtianity promises. How do you think Xtianity made such inroads against the Roman Gods?? Immortality and the promise of eternal love, when for 98% of the population, life was cruel and basically shiitty all the time.

      • Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        Well, an anti-theist would be someone who said something like “Let’s get rid of all religion”. The statement “there is no god” is just the atheist position stated with a bit more confidence.
        “Therefore no god at all” does not necessarily follow from “not worthy of worship”.

        • Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

          A ‘god’ that is not worthy of worship is not god at all. From this, there is no god. I will not say that there are not powerful beings that we don’t yet know. I’m not going to call them gods.

          Should it turn out that there is a god who is not worthy of worship, to give that being honor is like saying there were good slave owners, or honest murderers, or kind rapists etc.

          As far as can be seen, all notions of gods are human thoughts, not divine revelation. We could well be better off without religion. I think we owe it to our species to give it a try. This whole religion thing has not worked out so good so far, time for a change.

          • Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

            Well then I suppose it’s a matter of definition. The Devil in Christian theology, while never referred to as a god by Christians, possesses a lot of godlike qualities, but probably wouldn’t be considered “worthy of worship”.
            “As far as can be seen, all notions of gods are human thoughts, not divine revelation. We could well be better off without religion.” – this I agree with unreservedly.

        • Myron
          Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

          Like the words “atheism” and “agnosticism”, “antitheism” is ambiguous, too:

          1. theoretical/philosophical antitheism = positive atheism: the belief in the nonexistence of God/gods
          2. practical/political antitheism (antireligionism/anticlericalism): (partial or total) intolerance toward religious people, religious organizations, or religious practices.

          Political antitheism is based on philosophical antitheism, but the latter doesn’t entail the former.

    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      I’ve had this discussion a few times myself, with someone who seems to want avoid calling himself an atheist. He seems to be put off calling himself one by people “like Dawkins” [most of the people who say this can’t possibly be that familiar with the things he says or the way he says it, but rather the media’s portrayal of him], who speak with such certainty &, in his eyes, intolerance. We’re in the middle of an exchange about this at the moment.

      • Griff
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:27 am | Permalink

        There seems to be quite a difference in attitude towards the word atheist between the UK and the US.

        Isn’t it odd though – I don’t like person who professes to be an “X”, therefore I won’t say I’m an “X” because people will then associate me with that person, despite the fact that I clearly am an “X”.

        If X were “vegetarian”, – well, Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore I won’t call myself a vegetarian, despite the fact that I clearly don’t eat meat, just in case people think I’m a Nazi. (and no, I’m not comparing RD with Hitler!)

        • moarscienceplz
          Posted December 3, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

          “There seems to be quite a difference in attitude towards the word atheist between the UK and the US.”

          Hell, yes, and not just atheist, either. There are some counties in Texas where people are afraid to admit they voted for Obama. You risk never having a peaceable meal with your relatives, never getting invited to parties, possibly even having your job jeopardized, just for going against the herd mentality. I blame most of this on Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and their ilk.

  5. Peter Beattie
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    whether our wills are “free” has profound implications for societal policies of punishment and reward

    Um, no, it doesn’t. Whether you believe that punishment and reward are sensible reactions to a person’s actions in no way logically depends on whether you think that that person has free will—whatever your definition of free will is, actually. People punish and reward dogs, but they don’t ascribe free will to them.

    RG actually directly says this: “You’ve still got to lock someone up if they go around murdering people.” Which is the basic insight that you need to protect society from defective individuals, in quite the same sense that you need to protect society from defective machinery. Free will or no makes no difference with respect to that issue.

    • Stephen
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      I was going to make the same comment. Free will is a fascinating issue, but if it turns out we don’t have it that doesn’t mean we’ll just shrug our shoulders and say “that’s Barry!” after Barry murders someone.

    • happyheretic1962
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      I think it does make a difference. Of course if someone murders another individual we must lock them up but this is to protect the rest of society. The issue is do we punish or rehabilitate. I am interested on how rehabilitation would work if we assume that free will is indeed an illusion. How can we change the ‘model’ that led them to kill. Can we undo something which has presumably developed from childhood.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        » happyheretic1962:
        How can we change the ‘model’ that led them to kill. Can we undo something which has presumably developed from childhood.

        But that too has nothing to do with the issue of free will. Even if we agreed that we are robots, something like behavioural therapy to alter responses to stimuli has been shown to work in people. Any machine can be reprogrammed.

        And the concept of retribution almost exclusively makes sense in a spooky-free-will world, where people can be held solely responsible for choosing—unrestrained by biology, social convention, or indeed any causality—to harm another person, in full knowledge of their own wickedness. And I can only hope that I don’t need to spell out the absurdity of that even further.

        • happyheretic1962
          Posted December 4, 2012 at 12:09 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the reply Peter. I suppose my position is in what sense are we making choices when the decision has been made in the sub conscious part of our brain, taking the Sam Harris position. The issue of restraint can only occur once we become aware of the decision.

          I’m interested in exploring the extent that we can be held responsible for our choices given that it appears that they are a result of our circumstances, environment, personal history etc which seems to inform our decisions without conscious control or do you think that we always have the option not to act.

      • Marella
        Posted December 4, 2012 at 12:03 am | Permalink

        Of all criminals, murderers are the least likely to repeat their crime. This is because it is usually a spur of the moment thing dependent on the circumstances rather than a way of life. So in the case of murder you have less to worry about than most other crimes.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted December 5, 2012 at 4:30 am | Permalink

          …except the being dead part, of course.

  6. Dominic
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    This was part of RD’s short series for Channel 4 recently… I guess the church is an ex-church venue a bit like the Union Chapel in Islington (London). Ask Richard!

    • Dominic
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      As for evidence for a god or gods, we have been over that ground before & I am on the side of PZ – not sure there is anything much that could convince me there is a god, as ther is not a god.

  7. Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    We love to play word games, but agnostics are atheists. I always use this term, “atheist/agnostic”.

    • Griff
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      Athnostic? Ageist? (no, that sounds wrong)

  8. John
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Jerry quotes Dan Barker as saying that, “agnosticism” is about lack of evidence, and states that “some” agnostics are nevertheless theists. Applying Dan Barker’s definition, we can rightly conclude that ALL theists are agnostics.

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink


      Some (many?) theists just have a really, really, low threshold for what they accept as ‘evidence’.


    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      I think the point would be more about recognizing what the absence of evidence means.

      I wouldn’t call theists agnostics because, even if they admit that they don’t have conclusive evidence, they don’t acknowledge what that implies and they (obviously) don’t adopt the appropriate position vis a vis the existence of a god.

      If you describe someone as “a runner”, people will understand that you’re talking about someone who is at least moderately good at it, trains somewhat frequently, enjoys doing it and having it as part of their life, etc, even though, technically, everyone with use of both legs is capable of running.

      In both instances there is an extra step beyond default the person must take before they can really be described as “a runner” or “agnostic”.

      • Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        THere is plenty of evidence about the origin and nature of most theistic and supernatural Myths.

        Its call psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience.


        There are also they whole laws of physics that are consistent and not dependent on the emotions of some inter-dimensional entity.

        Just because we can’t open a portal to “heaven” and do a census of the residents, doesn’t mean there are no facts to be debated here.

        • Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

          By “absence of evidence”, I mean absence of positive evidence for a god, which absence even the esteemed proprietor of this website has noted.

          There is quite a lot of evidence against the existence of a god, agreed.

          But this argument is neither here nor there regarding my semantic point about what qualifies one as “agnostic.” I just don’t think John’s reductio (that Barker’s logic entails theists being technically agnostic because they don’t have conclusive evidence showing a god does exist) works.

  9. Myron
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    The words “atheism” and “agnosticism” are both ambiguous, and there is no such thing as the “only true” meaning:

    1. atheism
    1.1. negative atheism: lack of belief in the existence of God/gods
    1.2. positive atheism (antitheism): belief in the nonexistence of God/gods

    2. agnosticism:
    2.1. doxastic agnosticism (neutralism): lack of belief in the existence of God/gods and lack of belief in the nonexistence of God/gods
    2.2. epistemic agnosticism: no claim to knowledge or certainty with regard to the existence or nonexistence of God/gods

    – All doxastic agnostics are negative atheists, but not all negative atheists are doxastic agnostics (since positive atheism implies negative atheism).
    – Epistemic agnosticism is compatible both with positive atheism and with theism.

    • Griff
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      Like all of us, I suppose we’ve considered this issue (usually when a theist claims that atheists have burden of proof, because (as they say) we make the statement “there is no god”)

      But I still hold that the best definition of atheism is “absence of belief in gods”, because that position is shared by both strong and weak atheism. No atheist “believes in god(s)”.

      • Myron
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        True, but it blurs the fact that there is still an essential difference between merely negative atheists and positive atheists.

        • Griff
          Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

          Yup. Some people think that difference is subtle, but I don’t agree. The statement “there is no god” is a positive statement about the universe external to ones’ mind. “I don’t believe” just describes your internal mental state. The latter I KNOW for a fact. The former I can’t know absolutely (although I find the idea of gods absurd)

          I just find it tedious when theists claim that atheism (by default) is strong atheism, although I understand why – because they then have some (small) claim that atheism has burden of proof.

          • Myron
            Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

            Most atheists define “atheism” as “negative atheism”, and most theists define it as “positive atheism”, arguably because they can thereby statistically reduce the number of atheists in the world.

            • Griff
              Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

              and sometimes conflate negative atheism with agnosticism!

  10. Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I consider myself an agnostic atheist. Agnosticism (for me) is about whether or not you think that it is ultimately possible to know whether God exists. I don’t think we will ever know for sure, as I can easily conceptualise a non-interventionist deist god that would have exactly the same expectation of evidence as no god at all. Why would you believe in such a god or think one exists? I can’t think of a good reason, hence I am also an atheist.

    Agnosticism is not about “sitting on the fence”, which many people seem to think.

    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      Cross-posted with Myron. I guess I am an epistemic agnostic atheist. (Although I would also point out that I am not agnostic with respect to certain gods, which includes most/all of the theist ones. They are incompatible with the evidence as I see it and their existence could, in principle, be knowable.)

    • gbjames
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      I consider myself the kind of atheist who just can’t abide bullshit: an abullshitistic atheist.

      • Griff
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        Aren’t all atheists Abullshitists?

        Maybe not. You can not believe in gods and still believe in some pretty weird nonsense. (homeopathy anyone?)

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Right. Agnosticism is about whatever the user of the word wants it to be about (for me). The word has negative value – instead of adding meaning it adds confusion.

      • Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        I think it is just like pretty much every other word in the English language – context-dependent, open to different interpretations and in need of explicit clarification if you want it to mean something precise. “Agnosticism” doesn’t mean whatever you want it to mean: there are a few distinct ways that people use it, so you just have to be clear how you are using it. (Regardless of whether you think the other uses are right or not. Language is the servant of meaning, not vice versa.) Any term resembling something technical “adds confusion” if you just assume that everyone uses it in the same way as you, unless you are writing for a specific audience.

  11. Roo
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Richard Dawkins is very dear. It must be hard to be Gervais, because even in a serious conversation like this, I keep subconsciously waiting for him to do something wacky. “Eh, eh, where’s the punchline, where you going with this one David Brent? I bet it’s good!”

    For the sake of making myself look totally absurd, I’d like to say that I don’t think comparing agnosticism regarding fairies and a personal god is a good analogy. If you want to take life on other planets, the possibility of a multi-verse, and other such things into account, I don’t fairies particularly improbable. They’re just smallish people or intelligent creatures with wings, and we already have plenty of species that fly on this planet. Not to split hairs, sorry…

  12. Roo
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Also, since your other post reminded me of Where The Sidewalk Ends, I think this poem reminds me the talk above. Atheists make their own magic in life…

    Sandra’s seen a leprechaun,
    Eddie touched a troll,
    Laurie danced with witches once,
    Charlie found some goblins gold.
    Donald heard a mermaid sing,
    Susy spied an elf,
    But all the magic I have known
    I’ve had to make myself.

    • gbjames
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink


    • Notagod
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      I’m going to memorize that, its very good.

  13. Notagod
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    atheism” is about lack of belief.

    I don’t care who says it or how many time they say it, I do not lack belief in god(s).

    I don’t mind if any particular atheist states that they lack a belief in some god as it certainly is possible that some might wish there were gods but, to apply that statement to all atheists is absurd.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    I have to agree with Gervais and Somite here, agnostics inhabit the most annoying position ever. (But I’m not so keen on Gervais blanket acceptance of spiritualism either, if just because the term is at least misleading and often an attempt to pry open a gap for gods.)

    Most agnostics are fence sitting on the likelihood for gods, while they would never do that on the existence of fairies and Santa. They have chosen a theological position to protect their belief in belief.

    I don’t think it is meaningful to define empirical categories based on philosophy because it can’t handle facts.

    For example, do we need 0 % uncertainty to make an observation? Of course not, if that was the case we couldn’t do observations at all!

    Similarly we don’t need to observe what we can reject based on observation, such as objects that travel faster than the universal speed limit. Yes, we still want to try observe cases where the USL is broken. But we also know for a fact that it can’t be broken without upsetting all of physics. It would be like observing a Precambrian rabbit or a water molecule which wasn’t made up of one atom oxygen and two atoms hydrogen.

    Gods are Precambrian rabbits. All cases of outside-of-physics intervention would break local conservation of energy. In effect it is magic of type perpetual motion machine of the first kind.

    This is now extended back beyond the emergence of universes, because they arise spontaneously within known physical laws. There goes theism.

    And we now know that physical laws are spontaneously selected within eternal inflation, the ground state of inflation in standard cosmology. Unless the Planck probe can reject eternal inflation next year, there goes deism. There are no magical interventions left!

    So if you want to, atheism is an observation. There are of course other ways to motivate atheism, as a conclusion based on the absence of gaps et cetera.

    And yes, you can even choose to believe in fence sitting supported by religious props. But the precarious and ridiculous position should be an important source for vital self-criticism.

    A hallmark for belief is that when asked for evidence that should make you reconsider, you are unable to answer.

    When asked what would make an atheist reconsider, most would answer “evidence for gods”. Say, all the stars lining up to spell “I am your god.”

    However, a religious agnostic can’t be moved. They can claim “NOMA”, they can claim “not knowable”, they can claim “not known” without specifying what would constitute knowledge.

    That religious basis and all its poisonous consequences such as being unable to reconsider (because, let’s face it, religion poisons everything) is why it is so annoying.

    • Notagod
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      Thank you!

    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink


    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      Glad you brought up “0% uncertainty”. Like I say below, “usable certainty” is all the requirement necessary.

    • Chris
      Posted December 4, 2012 at 4:52 am | Permalink

      Actually he didn’t say anything about “spiritualism”, but rather “spirituality”… And yeah, that can be a confusing word as what I mean by “spiritual” (as a non-magic believing person) isn’t the same as what a religious person may think.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 6, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the correction!

        Thinking back, I think I fumbled the terminology. But either way, it wasn’t very clear.

  15. Posted December 3, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    whether our wills are “free” has profound implications for societal policies of punishment and reward.

    I’m fairly sure I cannot believe that. As pointed out repeatedly before, virtually all humans behave as if they are determinist compatibilists anyway. So what beyond our current policies could be the implication, then? The only I can think of would be to treat a four year old and a forty year old, or an animal and a human, or a lunatic and a sane person all the same for committing a given offense, and surely nobody advocates that?

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      No, but considering that they do not have free will should be a consideration inside the law. Papers to this effect are already written. Point is, our law evolves. And knowing that people lack free will eventually will change the way we school people, what rights they have at an early age, things we cannot imagine as necessary or realistic right now.

      • Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

        But what would now be the implications? Saying that that “we cannot imagine” them is just a dodge.

        To me, it is fairly clear:

        If the claim is that there is no difference in degree of freedom, in autonomy of decision making, between an avalanche that covers me and a murderer who kills me to steal my money, then you either have to put the avalanche into jail or let the murderer go. Same treatment for same degree of responsibility – that is the logical consequence of actually believing that free will is just an illusion. But the fact that this will immediately be rejected as a straw man merely shows that nobody actually holds the belief that free will is an illusion, but merely that we should not use the word “free will” to describe our really quite non-illusionary autonomy of decision making when compared with a rock.

        If the claimed “consequences” or “consideration inside the law” boil down to still treating a three year old who shoplifts differently from a thirty year old who shoplifts, and somebody who caused a traffic accident differently from somebody who intentionally caused damage, then there is no significant difference to how all civilized societies do things already.

  16. neil344
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m a doubtheist. I simply doubt the existence of god or gods, with my degree of doubt depending on the type of god proposed. It ranges from “geddowdahere” for the bibilical god to “maybe, but so what” for some distant deity.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      I’m a geddowdaherent myself. But an agnostic regarding the ramifications of reality.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Being a ‘doubtheist’ is kind of a “I like free ice cream” position. You’re hoping to enjoy the afterlife, so you don’t want to conclude that the afterlife is not possible. And, seeing no real effects of a deity in our lives (He allows church buses to crash on a regular basis, as well as tornadoes devastate churches and parishioners) there is no need to ascribe to a religion and all the duties, but, since “no one has all the answers”, no need to think about an ultimate position.

      However, if your memories (made up of sodium ions, calcium, dozens (I mean -dozens-) of enzyme reactions, all which quit when you die, it means no traveling to the afterlife. Your memory cannot survive you.

      Known since 1960, and more known in detail, every year since.

      So, what other argument do you need to dismiss the idea “could be a Big Fella up there…could be!!”??

      • neil344
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        I’m certain (or as close to certain as anyone can be) there is no afterlife, so you can toss that claim about the beliefs of someone you do not know and have never met.

  17. Kevin
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    “whether our wills are ‘free’ has profound implications for societal policies of punishment and reward.”

    How? If our wills are not free then those policies will be what they will be.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      You are not understanding “free will”. It doesn’t mean societal randomness or lack of responsibility to society.

      The absence of free will is a complicated, non-obvious phenomenon. Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. Read proponents who argue our absence of free will. Then ruminate, cogitate on it.

      I was finally convinced that we lack free will, but I never tell anyone what steps will lead them to the same conclusion. It’s like attempting to teach the calculus in a paragraph, though examples that led to its creation abound around us.

  18. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    “Absolute certainty” is a bit like “absolute zero”…probably not attainable for practical reasons, but isn’t it more usable to put a temperature number? 4 degrees Kelvin?

    I never use the term “absolute” when discussing anything metaphysical, because it comes with too much baggage. How about “usable certainty”? I cannot know with “absolute certainty” the acceleration of gravity every square foot on planet Earth, but I have “usable certainty” that it is “g” everywhere. So what is “usable certainty” when discussing a deity? Well, since I am “certain” there is no deity, no afterlife, then I have no use for prayer, clergy, going to church, those sorts of things. And “certainty” works to guide me to push for public policies reducing the effect of religion.

    “Absolute” and “perfection” are the starting points of ontological arguments, which usually start with “perfection” and end with “and so, Xtian god!” Not a useful thought in the least.

    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      I like this.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 6, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Thank you! Certainly a usable definition. (Meaning: I will so steal this!)

  19. Marella
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Until someone provides a coherent definition of god I am happy to say that I am convinced there is no god. There is nothing that anyone has yet described to me as god that could exist, because this being is self-contradictory and its existence clearly demands that the universe be other than it is. Therefor there is no god, as so far proposed. Even Karen Armstrong has to define god out of existence to be able to ‘believe’ in it! Anything that deserves the name god can’t exist, anything that could exist doesn’t deserve the name god.

  20. DV
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    “But it does, for whether our wills are “free” has profound implications for societal policies of punishment and reward.”

    I disagree.
    And as I’m currently ready Better Angels…, I think Pinker would probably disagree also. It’s not whether our wills are “free” that should drive policies of punishment and reward. It should be whether those policies work.

    As Pinker discussed in his book, predictable and consistent enforcement of mild punishment is more effective than harsh punishments unpredictably or rarely enforced. Calculating agents tend to discount rare events the further off in the future they are.

  21. Posted September 24, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Very funny. Thank you.

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