When good skeptics go bad: Isaac Chotiner interviews Barbara Ehrenreich about her mystical experiences

Barbara Ehrenreich has written 14 books, many of them on the economic difficulties of average Americans or the role of women in history, and I’ve read (and enjoyed) two of them: Nickled and Dimed and (especially) Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. She’s always seemed to me rational and level-headed, but that was until her latest book came out, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything. Judging from her prepublication interviews, and now a personal interview with Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic, it looks as if this is her attempt to become the Thomas Nagel of autobiography: an affirmation that there is Something Out There beyond naturalism.

In a previous post, I described Ehrenreich’s mystical moment that she experienced as a teenager (the subject of a piece she wrote for The New York Times), seeing the whole world suddenly take on a lovely flame-like appearance. Rather than attribute it to the exhaustion and hypoglycemia she had from skiing, she chose to see it as something numinous—a reflection of a higher plane of reality and consciousness. And that’s the theme she’s pursuing in her new book. Its summary on Amazon includes this:

Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the most important thinkers of our time. Educated as a scientist, she is an author, journalist, activist, and advocate for social justice. In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, she recounts her quest-beginning in childhood-to find “the Truth” about the universe and everything else: What’s really going on? Why are we here? In middle age, she rediscovered the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence, which records an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that she had never, in all the intervening years, written or spoken about it to anyone. It was the kind of event that people call a “mystical experience”-and, to a steadfast atheist and rationalist, nothing less than shattering.

In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, Ehrenreich reconstructs her childhood mission, bringing an older woman’s wry and erudite perspective to a young girl’s impassioned obsession with the questions that, at one point or another, torment us all. The result is both deeply personal and cosmically sweeping-a searing memoir and a profound reflection on science, religion, and the human condition. . . .

It sounds bizarre, as did her NYT piece, and my suspicions that all is not well are reinforced by yesterday’s interview of Ehrenreich by Isaac Chotiner, “Barbara Ehrenrich: I’m an atheist, but don’t rule out ‘mystical experiences’.” Go read it: it’s short, very strange, and, at times, almost incoherent on Ehrenreich’s part. The strange thing is that, as an atheist, she is absolutely sure that there is no God, yet at the same time she’s convinced that her personal experience with the numinous points not to some glitch in her brain (as she thinks the religious have), but to something real about the universe beyond the ken of science. A brief excerpt will suffice:

IC: It’s interesting that you call yourself an atheist rather than an agnostic.

BE: I am insistent on atheist. If we are talking about a monotheistic, benevolent God, I know there is no such thing.

IC: How do you know that there is no benevolent God when you think there might be spirits talking to me?

BE: It depends on what I have experienced. I have many areas of experience which show there is no giant benevolent force.

IC: But some people claim to experience a monotheistic God.

BE: That is not my experience.

IC: But we don’t make these grand judgments based on our own experience. [Pause] Do we?

BE: Yeah.

IC: We do?

BE: To an extent. Where is the evidence for a benevolent God?

IC: I agree with you. But there isn’t evidence for spiritual figures in the room either.

BE: Well, we need to find out.

Granted, this was a phone interview, and perhaps Ehrenreich wasn’t at her most eloquent. Nevertheless, the fact that she’d write a book on this—one that reminds me a bit of Marilynne Robinson’s strange antimaterialistic and pro-religious Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self is just weird. I don’t know what to make of it, but if anyone reads it, send a report.

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Oh, and one more thing. If Ehrenreich is an atheist, why does she sneak the word “God” into the title? I suppose that that, combined with an atheist’s claim for the transcendent, will help the book sell briskly.

117 Comments

  1. francis
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    //

  2. Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    If Ehrenreich is an atheist, why does she sneak the word “God” into the title?

    Possible answers:

    a) she has a sticky label with the word “God” written on it and feels impelled to stick it on something

    b) to feel, (as xkcd said), superior to both

    c) she doesn’t like Dawkins

    d) to prove that religion really does poison everything, including atheism

    • Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:25 am | Permalink

      Or (e) so that it sells loads more copies, particularly to the religious.

      • eric
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:28 am | Permalink

        Yep, could just be a pragmatic decision. Another possibility – and maybe Jerry can weigh in on whether this is true or not – but AIUI book titles are often negotiated with the publishers. IOW what you see may not be the author’s first choice of wording.

        • Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:04 am | Permalink

          I can vouch for that. Book cover designs and titles are often at least partly determined by the publisher, not the author.

    • Don
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      In a recent Fresh Air interview, in answer to Terry Gross’s question, she did say that the title had originally been a chapter head and that her editor suggested it for the book’s title. She assured Terry that by “God” she did not mean THE God. Though what she did mean seemed (and seems) unclear.

  3. Joe L
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    “…why does she sneak the word “God” into the title?”

    The word “God” is the same size as the rest of the title. There is no “sneaking” involved.

  4. eric
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    BE: I am insistent on atheist. If we are talking about a monotheistic, benevolent God, I know there is no such thing.

    IC: How do you know that there is no benevolent God when you think there might be spirits talking to me?

    Problem of evil, Chotiner – it’s a major issue for a tri-omni god, not so much a problem for polytheism. Neither is supported by evidence, but polytheistic systems at least have the advantage of avoiding the internal inconsistency problems that tri-omni monotheism struggles with.

    But that’s a quibble – IMO Chotiner scores with the bigger point here by making it clear that Ehrenreich believes in one set of entities while rejecting a different set, when evidence for both sets is equal.

  5. estraven
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Oh boy, I’m probably going to be banned now. But I’m telling you, atheist that I am, I grew up in a house that had a ghost in it. Okay, so it seemed to me at the time. And then when I’d moved out of said house, and my mom had sold it, I got a call from the new owner, who wanted to know about the ghost that no one had mentioned to her. There was poltergeist activity and so on. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation but I’m still waiting for it. I’m not saying there’s anything supernatural but I definitely would like to have an explanation of some type.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      We can’t even speculate without any details. Skeptics who investigate ‘haunted’ houses (Nickell, Radford) usually find explanations which involve the physical (i.e. pipes, settling, insects) and the psychological (i.e. misinterpretation, imagination, errors in memory.)But at this late date and over the internet you’re unlikely to get a “scientific” explanation for this particular case.

    • inkydisaster
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      Low frequency sounds. Usually a vibration in air vents.

      http://www.cracked.com/article_18828_the-creepy-scientific-explanation-behind-ghost-sightings.html

    • John in Florida
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      I *could* say that I’ve both seen and felt ghosts myself if I was of a mind to believe in ghosts. Once I saw a human-shaped shadow walking toward me in the middle of the night and twice I felt my old dog from when I was a kid jumping on the bed and making herself a place to sleep.

      But they were just so-called waking dreams. Artifacts of a restless brain. No gods, no demons, no ghosts . . .

    • Rhetoric
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Don’t worry, it wasn’t a ghost. If an ethreal being suddenly materialized to open your pantry or make garbling noises at night, the spontaneous creation of the matter needed to move the pantry door or make the noises would have leveled your entire neighborhood with a massive explosion.

      You were just confused because you lack a basic understanding of physics.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        Well said. Ghosts = a lot of energy to maintain definition.

        • Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

          Everyone knows Dawkins’s anecdote about the Manx Shearwater, right?

  6. Greg Esres
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    The question is, why is she an atheist in the first place? The answer to that might help figure out her reaction to her mystical experience. Some atheists haven’t familiarized themselves with all the cognitive biases that make one receptive to supernatural explanations and can fall easily into the same thinking patterns as the religious.

    • Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      Yes, that’s it and I think very common. And anyone who flirts with some sort of woo, such as dowsing, homeopathy, chiropractic, alien visitation etc. (it’s a long list) is already indulging in religious thinking to an extent.

      In many cases the search for something else seems to be prompted by having to face the reality of one’s own unimportance in relation to the natural world; and that can seem insufferably bleak, when going through personal difficulties.

    • eric
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      “: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

      -Stephen F. Roberts. (I don’t have a primary citation for this quote, but secondary, partial references can be found here and here.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        Quotes like this give me a nauseating feeling about my fellow humans who happen to be monotheists. They simply have not understood their own belief systems and/or they avoid the truth about how arbitrarily malformed and shallow their belief system is.

        Another way to enlighten them is to ask them to raise their children as Hindus if Baptist, as Mormons if Jewish, as Muslims if Protestant, and as Jews if Catholic.

    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      As eric noted above, the Problem of Evil. As a journalist covering the downtrodden of this goddy nation, she has more experience with the everyday tragedies of the innocent than most.

      Not every road to atheism passes through skepticism, metaphysics, or even science.

  7. Sastra
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Go read it: it’s short, very strange, and, at times, almost incoherent on Ehrenreich’s part. The strange thing is that, as an atheist, she is absolutely sure that there is no God, yet at the same time she’s convinced that her personal experience with the numinous points not to some glitch in her brain (as she thinks the religious have), but to something real about the universe beyond the ken of science.

    I had the same reaction.

    At first I thought that perhaps she WAS using her experience as evidence for God if we simply define God as Hart does and make it a Conscious, Blissful Reality. But no, that doesn’t see where she’s going either.

    From the interview:

    I knew it was an encounter with something, some being or beings. But I also knew or suspected that the rational or scientific explanation would be mental breakdown.

    For crying out loud, why do people do this? It’s called the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle. EITHER it was a visitation by supernatural beings OR it’s insanity. No middle ground called “fascinating mental experience which a basically normal person could have.” No. She wants it to be one or the other. And science won’t consider the first one.

    Maybe because it’s having so much success with her excluded middle.

    In fact, she later says that she’s being called “insane” by her critics — presumably for claiming such an experience. Even we aren’t saying that. We’re not even saying it regarding her claim that she “knew” it was an encounter with some being or beings.

    That has been central to science, the denial of agency except in the case of humans and some hypothetical diety.

    WTF? There are plenty of scientists looking at the development of agency starting from simple life forms to more complex ones and always has been. And I really don’t think you can accuse science of assigning agency to a hypothetical Deity.

    Yeah, it’s a public health issue that modern science isn’t considering multiple spirit people. Or whatever the hell she’s on about. She doesn’t know, she’s just asking questions! And wanting different answers!

    • eric
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      why do people do this? It’s called the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle. EITHER it was a visitation by supernatural beings OR it’s insanity. No middle ground called “fascinating mental experience which a basically normal person could have.”

      Completely agree. People seem to have a really hard time accepting that a perfectly normally functioning human brain occasionally produces experiences that are not accurate or direct representations of the outside world. Which is a very odd idea to reject, given that we all accept dreaming as normal.

      • Sastra
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        Maybe. Or they might just really, really want to demonize the opposition by turning skeptics into what amounts to bullies who are demonizing THEM. “You’re crazy.” “You’re a liar.” “It’s all in your head.” Don’t you see now why I prefer the alternative?

        Ehrenreich may be doing something similar to what the critics do with Dawkins. “You’re mistaken and here is why.” “Look, he’s calling us stupid!”

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      EITHER it was a visitation by supernatural beings OR it’s insanity. No middle ground called “fascinating mental experience which a basically normal person could have.”

      I disagree, and I rather suspect that you didn’t mean to say it quite that way.

      • Sastra
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        I should have put a colon after the previous sentence: that was supposed to be a description of Ehrenreich’s version of the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle.

      • noncarborundum
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        You need to read that first sentence as an encapsulation of the fallacy, not as a statement of Sastra’s own opinion.

    • Mark Reaume
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      I’m one of those people that had a very vivid experience during a religious activity that was interpreted by my young mind as visitation or feeling of a presence of some entity. I’ve also had some very vivid dreams which I interpreted as a visitation of some sort.

      As I got older I realized that this was just a natural state of the mind. IIRC it took me a while before I settled on this previously excluded middle.

      I do look forward to my vivid dreams though.

      • eric
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        I kinda know the feeling. I have lucid dreams (not always, but sometimes), and realizing I’m in control of the dream always comes with a nice kick of pleasure.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Also this:

      We are impelled to see the world as dead, without conscious agency. We are reductionists.

      Ehrenreich has it almost exactly backwards here. By nature we’re animists, impelled to see agency everywhere. It takes intellectual discipline to overcome this tendency, discipline that Ehrenreich hasn’t applied in interpreting her own distorted perceptions.

      • Sastra
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        Exactly. Given that she was apparently raised by outspoken atheists, maybe she’s simply assuming that her background represents the ‘average’ person. Atheism may also be common in the intellectual circles in which she lives. So now she’s being daring and edgy and coming up with a possibility that scientists must have dismissed too thoughtlessly.

    • Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      People want reality to look like a TV dinner with separate compartments for each vegetable. But reality often gives us succotash.

      Black and white thinking is everywhere.

  8. still learning
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    An atheist sneaking “God” into a book title? It’s happened often:

    “God is not Great”
    “The God Delusion”

    etc.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      One of these book titles is not like the others.

  9. richardwkc
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    My experience, about 33 years ago.

    My granny was very sick, in a semi-comatose state, and my uncle [my mother’s brother] was staying with us to provide nursing care and was sleeping in her room on a bed a couple of meters away from her. My granny and my uncle were the only occupants of this room. I was sleeping in an adjoining room. I think it was probably around 2 to 4 am when I was woken from my sleep by someone talking audibly in Bahasa [Malay/Indonesian dialect/language] in my granny’s room. It sounded like the voice of a female. My uncle’s voice was gruff, distinctly masculine, totally unlike the feminine voice that was heard and appeared to be coming from my granny’s room. The talking was highly audible but beyond my comprehension as I was, except for a few basic terms, not conversant with Bahasa. How could it be Bahasa when I was and still am not fully conversant with Bahasa? Well, I know when someone is speaking Mandarin, although I cannot speak a word of Mandarin myself without making any mispronunciation. You may not be conversant in, say, English or Mandarin but you will know whether it is English or Mandarin when one or the other is spoken, once you have had some listening experience with these languages.

    The same can be said for Bahasa; I grew up in a neighborhood where Bahasa was one of the dialects/languages used. And I can easily tell whether it is Hakka or Hainanese—both Chinese dialects—when either dialect is used in conversation, though I have no understanding of Hakka or Hainanese.

    My attention on being awoken was focused on the talking that was going on in my granny’s bedroom. The talking, however, stopped suddenly, but for how long this had been ongoing before I was aroused from sleep I am obviously unable to say. I was listening for at least a few minutes and I cannot say for sure whether the talking stopped because the speaker had come to the end of her monologue or because of some other reason, such as awareness on the part of the speaker of my being awake. It was not a dialogue but a monologue as it was evident to my ears that only one person was doing the talking. My granny was too sick to open her mouth to speak.

    I could not return to sleep after that. I think it was close to dawn when I heard what sounded like muffled footsteps moving down the staircase. My granny’s condition remained unchanged for the following few days. My uncle was unaware of my experience on this night as I did not consider it necessary to keep him informed or to discuss it with him. Who was doing the talking still remains a mystery. It was definitely not my uncle’s voice, nor my granny’s voice. And I can add that the lingua franca for conversation between my uncle and granny is Hokkien, a Chinese
    dialect. But this is not saying that my uncle and granny were not conversant with Bahasa. In fact, Bahasa was like a mother tongue to them, being used mainly in their conversation with their “grandmother”, or “mother”, as applicable between each of them and my great granny.

    Until now I have been unable to imagine my granny as the one who was doing the talking. It wasn’t her voice I heard in the first place. It was a voice that was strong, clear and crisp, unlike
    that of my granny, which was on the soft side even when she was healthy.

    My mother was then staying temporarily with my sister in another neighborhood and when she returned and heard the story she offered this explanation—it was probably my great granny, my granny’s mother, who used my uncle’s body or granny’s body to talk to her daughter or her grandson. Or was it a case of my great granny, in her spiritual self, talking to both, her daughter and her grandson? Can this be something possible? I have no explanation. According to my mother, Bahasa was my great granny’s lingua franca.

    Without giving any further thought you may say that it could all have been a dream or hallucination. It is easy of course to advance the view that although I was awake I was dreaming. But I can only vouch that it was no dream, no hallucination. I have been dreaming since my early childhood and I know precisely what dreaming is about. I have had all sorts of dreams, ranging from the fantastical, like swimming to the depths of the ocean or collecting raw diamonds on the seashore, to the mundane, like lunching with a friend or attending a wedding dinner. If the talking I heard was nothing but a dream I would not have bothered talking or writing about it in this manner. No doubt some dreams can be recalled with vividness but I have not been bothered with any of them. I was not suffering from any illness and had never taken any drugs with possible hallucinatory side effects. I did not consume any alcoholic drink before going to sleep, on the night in question. The point is, I was fully awake when I heard the talking and it was the talking that awoke me from my sleep.

    A friend of mine asked whether the voice could have come from a radio. There was no audio or video equipment in my granny’s room and, besides, radio or TV stations, if I remember correctly, broadcast only until midnight in this era. You may ask: What about the possibility of a neighbor next door playing a cassette or running an audio tape? I will have to accept this as something possible, even at that unusual hour, but the neighbors in the adjoining house do not speak Bahasa and, moreover, the playing volume would have to be at a high level for the audio output to come through in that manner. Such possibilities appear to be only distractions, as the voice, to my ears, was coming directly from my granny’s room. If in accepting as true what I have said, what other explanations do we have? I have to accept that some people may consider my story as nothing more than a dream or hallucination but if that is their opinion it would not be unusual. And like most other personal experiences, being subjective, whether it did or did not happen as described may have to remain open insofar as others are concerned, and no doubt privy only to the individual concerned, who had experienced it, myself in this case. I may have to be my own judge for this experience.

    To skeptics, such an experience cannot of course be taken as proof of the existence of ghosts. Hence to say that ghosts exist is not stating a fact. But to say I appear to have had a ghostly experience is just to state a personal experience, and any personal experience of this nature is naturally not provable. Thus, if a man says—I have directly experienced God/god—it would simply be a matter of personal experience, although he might be asked to describe precisely what he had experienced exactly and give reasons as to why or how he believed it was God/god he had experienced; would he be able to say that it was God, or some other god, that he experienced? But others may have doubts concerning what he has said or his alleged experience. Such an experience can only be its own guarantee for the person concerned; it can never act as a guarantee or testimony of the existence of God/god [or ghosts] for non-believers. As my granny and uncle have long passed away, the probability of such an experience being repeated is probably zero, even if I may have a wish for a repetition, just in the hope that I may be able to tape, this time round, the auditory input, however mysterious it may be, flowing into my ears—provided my voice recorder is with me and ready and capturing such a phenomenon is something possible.
    {excerpted from God or Allah, truth or bull? pages 243/244 ISBN 978 1 60976 813 3

    • Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      Actually, that experience sounds like a textbook case of sleep paralysis.

      Sorry to take the mystery out of it, but….

      b&

      • Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        Certainly could be.

        Richard, were you able to move during this experience?

    • Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      A very interesting experience, and one that you should treasure and wonder about. But it seems reasonable that you had a ‘lucid dream’. I have had these many times, shortly before I am to wake up, where I am dreaming about what I am doing now (in bed, sleeping), but then the dream morphs into a series of events that start out mundane but become increasingly strange. Noises and other environmental information in the room will be incorporated into the dream. Invariably, something happens to startle me awake, leaving me in utter confusion. I had thought the dream was real. I would have sworn it was real.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        When I used to train (swim) heavily in my younger years I would take periodic naps during the day and managed a rather distinctive skill of lucid dreaming almost every day. I could control my actions (mostly flying like superman) and control the weather. I always went places in my dreams but I controlled how I got their. It was surreal.

    • John Taylor
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:35 am | Permalink

      I once had a dream that my twin brother was in distress. I woke up and went to check on him. He was fine.

    • Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      A post from another blog:

      Theists often tell us we are not allowed to question their “personal experiences”. But why do so many of them sound like waking dreams?

      I once heard someone throw open the back door and was walking down the hallway to my bedroom. I couldn’t move and became really scared as I recognized that I was in a waking dream state and tried to force my way out of it to confront the intruder, all the while thinking what a rotten time to be having a waking dream when an intruder was in the house.

      As he approached my bed, I was finally able to turn my head voluntarily and then throw the blanket at him. I was about to start punching him through the blanket.

      The blanket fell to the floor. He wasn’t under the bed, either.

      I felt very shook up. I searched around the house. Eventually I noticed that the back door was still closed though I had heard it open and slam against the wall. This was the empirical evidence that made me realize that the intruder was really a part of my waking dream.

      We often have dreams that seem real and they may be scary. When we wake up, we find we are in bed which proves to us that it was just a dream. But what if we dream we are in bed when God talks to us, or an angel, or a deceased relative, or a space alien transports us to his ship and back to our bed? How do you disconfirm that it was real?

      A friend told me he was in bed when he heard a car crash into his living room. He even felt the bed shake. He immediately called the police. Then he went to investigate the damage but nothing had happened. The police told him they get calls like that alot. (my emphasis)

      The moral is: Don’t believe everything the brain tells you when you are asleep.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      But I can only vouch that it was no dream, no hallucination…Such an experience can only be its own guarantee for the person concerned; it can never act as a guarantee or testimony of the existence of God/god [or ghosts] for non-believers.

      No, the person who has an anomalous experience is not necessarily the best person to interpret it — nor should we assume they’re the most reliable in remembering.

      You are not allowed to be so sure of all these details. It doesn’t matter that it was your own experience. Even if you are absolutely correct and it WAS a ghost, you should still temper your certainty that all the natural explanations have to be wrong because you vetted it thoroughly. Doubt yourself.

      Neuropsychological Humility is a term which describes the “knowledge of all the various ways in which we deceive ourselves, the limits and flaws in human perception and memory, the inherent biases and fallacies in cognition, and the methods that can help mitigate all these flaws and biases.” I suspect you lack this knowledge.

  10. Ken Pidcock
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    What’s frustrating (she also did a Point of Inquiry interview) is that Ehrenreich seems insistent that her experiences couldn’t have been natural in any way we understand nature. It’s like she lacks the imagination to appreciate what consciousness is capable of.

    • Posted April 22, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      She needs some microdots, yellow, purple, whatever

      Maybe shrooms

    • Marella
      Posted April 24, 2014 at 3:48 am | Permalink

      I think lack of imagination is a very common problem among the woo-filled and the religious alike.

  11. Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Well, to be fair, some of us actually do live with gods. But, sadly, I don’t think Ms. Ehrenreich has true gods in mind….

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Kevin
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      That is a great looking god.

      • Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        Indeed! My god is truly an awesome god.

        b&

  12. Diogo
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    A lot of people call for God or gods when they are ignorant about a particular phenomena. And it does not stop there, some go one step further and produce several different types of stories about it. This will hardly ever stop.

  13. Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Really flogging a moment of low blood sugar for some book sales, aren’t we?
    In college I once stood up too quickly (and was not entirely sober), and I sort of fainted. I really had an interesting few moments where I felt completely lucid while I watched the room go black and yet objects and people were outlined in bright neon colors. My neon-outlined friend smiled when he realized I was alright. Then the room brightened, the pounding pulse in my ears subsided, and the normal world returned.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      In the last twenty years or many swimmers have voluntarily undergone a procedure where they anaerobically push themselves to the limits such that within moments (<2min) they can be brain dead.

      I personally had an experience where this happened. Fortunately, I was pulled out of the water within seconds. In only moments (<10 seconds) I was floating above the earth, silent, peaceful, dark but light with beautiful green grass below my feet. It was lovely.

      Of course, when I found myself coughing water I spent the next couple of days feeling as if I did 10000 calf raises and 10000 wrist curls. Amazing how our bodies protect the two important organs, the brain and heart and screws the extremities.

  14. jrdonohue
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    A marker for a failed atheist is the claim to know there is no God.

    Yes, it is a temptation to so claim. However, the atheist must avoid the near temptation of sin and decline the claim.

    For “Atheism” to be true to its essential foundation, it can only be used as “without God,” as in “My conviction of metaphysical truth does not involve God.”

    As such it is not a proactive statement of one’s metaphysics, only an identification of what it does not contain, in case anyone asks.

    • Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      We can be as certain that there are no gods as we can be that Santa Claus is not a married bachelor living death in spartan luxury north of the North Pole.

      Granted, you can always invent any number of lunatic conspiracy theories — we’re living in a computer simulation, our tinfoil hats have slipped and aliens are controlling our thoughts with mind rays, reality is just Jesus’s imagination, and so on — that prevent absolute certainty with respect to any claim. Then again, that applies to the gods as well; Jesus could be imagining us because his tinfoil hat has slipped and aliens are controlling his thoughts with mind rays, and all this is happening in the Matrix. And if even the gods themselves cannot rule out the possibility that they’re insanely deluded, of what sense does it make to call them gods?

      So, by your lights, I must be a failed atheist. Huh. Go figure. But if you think that means that I’m gonna start playing play-pretend cannibal zombie with Jesus juice, you’ve got another thing coming.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • tristan eldritch
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        “We can be as certain that there are no gods as we can be that Santa Claus is not a married bachelor living death in spartan luxury north of the North Pole.”

        In other words: “I THINK the existence of any gods is as unlikely as Santa Claus being a married bachelor living death in spartan luxury north of the North Pole THEREFORE we can be as certain that there are no gods as we can be that Santa Claus is not a married bachelor living death in spartan luxury north of the North Pole.” That isn’t an argument, or even something resembling an argument, it’s just hot air and question-begging, so I’m not sure if that makes you a failed atheist, but it makes your argument on behalf on your particular brand of atheism an abject failure.

        • Posted April 22, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

          Eh, did you even bother to read the second half of the post? The one where I gave but one small example of the absurdity of the notion of gods?

          But, never mind. You seem most convinced that the gods are coherent entities whose existence we must take seriously before we can reasonably dismiss them.

          What, then, would you have us believe is a god? Can you offer us an example of one? Any evidence indicating its existence? A method by which we can determine god from not-god, should the question arise?

          I rather doubt it; you’d be the first to succeed in meeting even that low a bar. But maybe today is my day to be surprised….

          Cheers,

          b&

          • tristan eldritch
            Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

            I wouldn’t have you believe in gods, but I would like it if you could back up what seems to me to be a very strong claim which you are making: that all concepts of gods are both logically incoherent (like married bachelors) and more or less demonstrable false (like the existence of Santa Clause.) For the life of me, I can’t see how you think you’ve established either of these points in the second part of your comment, where your argument is more or less exactly the same, ie “It is possible to invent various scenarios which are absurd and obviously false, and which prevent absolute certainly with respect to any claim; I think all concepts of god are invented scenarios which are absurd and obviously false, and which prevent absolute certainly with respect to any claim, THEREFORE all concepts of god are invented scenarios which are absurd and obviously false, and which prevent absolute certainly with respect to any claim.” Sorry for the repetition, but your argument is entirely circular. If I were to say “We can be as certain that no kind of multiverse exists, as we can that all reality is not a ray of light reflected from the plumage of an infinite, multi-dimensional peacock”, the onus would clearly be on me to establish WHY the claims for a multiverse and those for a multi-dimensional peacock are closely equivalent; just as the onus remains on you to demonstrate WHY all concepts of god are logically incoherent (like married bachelors) and demonstrably false (like the existence of Santa Clause.) Until you do that, your argument is question begging.

            • Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

              <sigh />

              If you’d simply care to explain, exactly, it is that you think a god is supposed to be, I’d be more than happy to demonstrate for you the absurdity and / or nonexistence and / or banality of any and all such entities.

              But if you’d rather not even provide a mere definition of what it is you’re so convinced is plausibly real and instead bang away on how you can’t conceive otherwise, feel free to do so. Just don’t expect me to play your game.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • tristan eldritch
                Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

                According to the western monotheistic tradition, god is the intelligent being who is responsible for the existence of our universe. And your claim is that this concept is logically incoherent (like married bachelors) and demonstrably false (like the existence of Santa Clause, so forgot about your subjective opinions regarding absurdity and banality, and concentrate on logical incoherence and demonstrably non-existence.

              • Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

                Oh, that one’s so easy that even young children figure it out, before the priests slap them down. It’s pure Aristotelian Metaphysics, perhaps the most laughably discredited attempt at making sense of the world still often found in the modern world.

                Everything that happens needs a cause, right? And Jesus / Allah / Brahman / etc. is posited as the Ultimate Cause that Caused Life, the Universe, and Everything. But then what caused the Cause? We only got so far as the Cause because of our initial premise that everything requires a cause; only special pleading can permit us to stop now. If we can stop now, then we’ve disproven our initial premise and not everything actually needs a cause — as, indeed, we’ve known in physics since at least Newton. But if we hold to our original premise, then the Cause needs a Super-Cause, and the Super-Cause a Super-Duper-Cause, and so on. This leads to an infinite regress…and, clearly, this regress cannot itself have any Cause, once again invalidating our original premise.

                So it’s quite transparently logically incoherent.

                And it’s also demonstrably non-existent, too; we now know with great certainty that Inflation is real, and Inflation is itself exactly the same general class of random quantum activity as radioactive decay and vacuum fluctuations. There’s nothing for any agent to cause in the first place; shit just happens. Any insistence that Inflation needed an agent to cause it is exactly as idiotic in the modern world as one that inertia needs a Mover or else how is inertia to move the planets?

                I guess today isn’t my day to be surprised, after all.

                No, wait — let me guess: that’s not actually the real god, and you had some other one in mind now that it’s obvious how silly it is? Or are you going to insist that Aristotle really was the last word in logic and that physics is irrelevant? That’s a popular avenue for the fantasists, too.

                Cheers,

                b&

        • Kevin
          Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

          Religion is arbitrary. Any counter example (e.g. FSM) is allowed to be as arbitrary, just as a married bachelor jobber in the north pole.

          • tristan eldritch
            Posted April 22, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

            Ben Goren – couldn’t reply directly to your last comment, apologies. Your initial claim was that the concept of god (and of all gods)is logically incoherent, like married bachelors. However, you seem unable to demonstrate the logical incoherence in the concept as I expressed it (“the intelligent being who is responsible for the existence of our universe”), so you attempt a different track: you attempt to show that the Kalam Cosmological Argument is logically invalid. Note that this is a complete moving of the goal-posts from the initial claim that: The concept of god is logically incoherent to: One of the arguments (the Kalam) advanced in favor of god’s existence is logically invalid. So even if you could demonstrate that the Kalam argument was logically invalid, you would still not have made good on your initial claim that the concept of god itself was logically incoherent. But worse is yet to come: after climbing back from your original claim, you add insult to injury to attacking an amateurish misrepresentation of the argument itself. “Everything that happens needs a cause, right?” “We only got so far as the Cause because of our initial premise that everything requires a cause” “we’ve disproven our initial premise and not everything actually needs a cause”… The argument does NOT state everything requires a cause – it states that everything which has a beginning of its existence requires a cause of its existence – therefore your rebuttal of the argument is flat out wrong and based on a complete mispresentation of the first premise. (Please do even a modicum of wikipedia level research.)

            “And it’s also demonstrably non-existent, too; we now know with great certainty that Inflation is real, and Inflation is itself exactly the same general class of random quantum activity as radioactive decay and vacuum fluctuations.”

            You think that Inflation proves god’s non-existence? Seriously? Assuming inflation to be definitely established, that still leaves open a vast number of questions with regard to cosmological origins; why, for example, are the initial conditions of the universe fine-tuned for inflation to occur in the first place? Inflation is something that happened in the early life of the universe, not something which the universe’s existence might be thought to derive from. I think most reasonable atheists, and quite a few unreasonable ones, would think you are WAY overstepping the mark if you think that Inflation proves the non-existence of god.

            • Posted April 22, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

              If you’re looking for an encylopaedic demonstration of the absurdity of every theological variation on the notion of one god or another as the ultimate creator, you’re barking up the worng rope. I’ll instead push it back on you: demonstrate the internal logical coherence of your creator god, and explain its consilience with observations from physics and cosmology.

              My position, if you haven’t noticed, is that any and all attempts at either task are utterly and instantly (and, generally, laughably) doomed to pathetic failure. And you yourself, right here, right now, are doing a bang-up job at providing yet more empirical evidence in support of my position.

              Care to take another swing at the bat? Explain for us how it is logically coherent for a god to have created existence, and how that isn’t contradicted by well-established scientific understandings of reality. And when you fail — as you most surely will — you can rest assured that that will, once again, be even further evidence that no such god could even hypothetically exist.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • tristan eldritch
                Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                “I’ll instead push it back on you: demonstrate the internal logical coherence of your creator god, and explain its consilience with observations from physics and cosmology.”

                Sorry, as you should well know, the burden of proof lies the person making the claim. You claimed that all concepts of god are logically incoherent (like married bachelors) and demonstrably non-existent (like Santa). I asked you to substantiate this claim, but instead of demonstrating how the concept of god is logically incoherent, you tried instead to rebut the cosmological argument – and when I suggested that you should take ten seconds to look up the argument you were rebutting on wikipedia in order to SEE WHAT IT ACTUALLY SAYS IN THE FIRST PREMISE – you turn that into me demanding “an encylopaedic demonstration of the absurdity of every theological variation on the notion of one god or another as the ultimate creator”. (And anyway, even if somebody did demand an encyclopaedic rejection of every variety of theological argument,the irony is that they would be entirely justified in doing so – because you are the one who insists on making the strong and frankly unnecessary claim that we can be as certain that NO TYPE of god exists as we can of Santa’s non-existence.) Now, having reached the end of your tether of obfuscation, you want to shift the burden of proof onto me. I’m perfectly satisfied that the idea of a creator deity is logically coherent; you are the one who claimed that is not, and the onus remains on you to demonstrate how it is logically incoherent (and attacking a straw man version of the cosmological argument clearly will not do that on any level.)

              • Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                Thank you.

                You have added yet another piece of empirical evidence to my claim that nobody is capable of demonstrating the logical coherence of the gods or of providing evidence for their existence.

                That you seem to think that your inability to do so despite repeated claims to the contrary (“I’m perfectly satisfied that the idea of a creator deity is logically coherent”) represents my failing, not yours, is your problem, not mine.

                If you feel compelled to make even more emphatic your inability to demonstrate the coherence of your gods or provide evidence of their existence, do please, by all means, continue to do so. You’ve already made my point for me, and you’re more than welcome to continue to do the heavy lifting for me.

                Cheers,

                b&

        • eric
          Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

          Tristan, if you have no problem stating “there are no fairies in my garden” without mentioning all the various caveats about the limit of inductive reasoning and empiricism, then you should have no problem stating “there is no god” without the caveats too.

          To go around making empirical claims without caveats, but then insist that we must verbally qualify our rejection of god by saying its tentative, subject to revision, etc., etc., is to two bad things (or maybe one – they’re very closely related): it treats god-belief as an exception to the normal rules of claims and conversation, and it leaves the audience with the implication that god-atheism is less certain than fairy-atheism. When in fact the rational thing to do is not carve out any exceptional treatment and ensure your audience understands that you are equally certain about both.

          • Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

            Indeed, a very accurate and concise definition of a god would be a faery that somebody hasn’t yet realized is imaginary.

            Of course, those who still believe in faeries…er, gods…would object to that definition, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. And, of course, just as faeries come in all different shapes and sizes, so, too, do the gods — which, considering they’re both the same type of entity, shouldn’t at all be surprising.

            Cheers,

            b&

          • tristan eldritch
            Posted April 22, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

            “Tristan, if you have no problem stating “there are no fairies in my garden” without mentioning all the various caveats about the limit of inductive reasoning and empiricism, then you should have no problem stating “there is no god” without the caveats too.”

            No, this is simply false. For example, it is easier to claim with a reasonable degree of certainty that there are no fairies in a particular garden than it is, for example, that there are no intelligent lifeforms elsewhere in the universe, because these are two very different claims. To a have a reasonable conviction that no gods exist requires a much vaster knowledge than that which would satisfy a person about the contents of a modest terrestrial garden; see, for example, Carl Sagan: “Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.” (Also, with regard to “fairies in the garden”, isn’t it bizarre that modern atheists, who are so opposed to religions of the book, find themselves nevertheless constantly rehashing word for word bad arguments and rhetorical devices from The God Delusion?)

            • Posted April 22, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

              My first impulse was to ask you why the two claims are very different. It seems the distinction you make is that gardens are a smaller search domain. But if you’re already positing something supernatural, then why should that matter? Fairies could be just as difficult to find as god, because magic.

              But then the thought occurred to me that your distinction is not entirely insignificant, but it actually works against you. Gardens are, well “smaller” may not be the right word, but local. Terrestrial, as you put it. In other words, we can actually go look in a garden. Gardens exist. Where are we supposed to look for god?

              If one of these claims is more likely to be confirmed, it is the fairy claim.

              • Posted April 22, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

                But God is supposedly omnipresent, so He should be in the garden with the fairies. And we have photos of those…

                /@

              • Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

                Yes, but we also have photos of God, so that argument might not be quite as persuasive as one might think….

                b&

              • Posted April 23, 2014 at 12:48 am | Permalink

                Now, he should have played the eponymous role in _The Prisoner_: *I am not a number…*

                /@

              • tristan eldritch
                Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

                “Terrestrial, as you put it. In other words, we can actually go look in a garden. Gardens exist. Where are we supposed to look for god?”

                I dunno, maybe in the same place we’re supposed to look for that whole ensemble of other universes which we aren’t able to observe (and will probably never be able to observe)but whose hypothetical existence is by no means on a par with that of fairies in some specified garden?

              • Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

                So your hypothetical can’t-be-disproven god doesn’t even bear the remotest semblance to any god ever actually worshipped by any human ever in the entire history of humanity?

                Why are you calling this entity a god, exactly?

                I have an idea. “God” is a Delft teacup orbiting one of the outer moons of Uranus, placed there by an hyperintelligent shade of the color blue. Can’t disprove that one either! And, as a bonus, it’s actually a much better match for the gods the rest of humanity recognizes than yours.

                b&

              • Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

                The difference is that we already know there is one universe, so we know that there must be or have been some way of generating universes. Consequently, the hypothesis that there is more than one is not unreasonable. That’s not the case with fairies, leprechauns etc. it is obviously unreasonable to claim that fairies exist in the absence of a single known case of a fairy.

              • Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

                Tristan:

                I’m no physicist, but I will say that it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if the multiverse theory turned out to be wrong. What point have you proven?

            • Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

              That’s enough Tristan. The multiverse hypothesis may someday be testable, and you’re just parroting religious arguments to say that it’s forever beyond our ken.

              In the meantime, before you continue, please give us evidence, if you’re religious, for your God, and why, if you are, you think your religion is right.

              In the meantime, don’t blather on about physics that you don’t understand. It’s annoying, and you’re being close to a troll.

              • tristan eldritch
                Posted April 23, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

                I’m not religious, and wasn’t defending the truth of any specific religion (I was arguing against the assertion that one can claim “there is no god” with the same level of certainty that one can claim “there are no fairies in this particular garden.”) If I had a religious belief to defend, why would I be compelled to offer evidence for it – wouldn’t I be perfectly entitled to offer the same promissory note you are extending to the multiverse hypothesis: my belief may someday be testable? This is why I raised the issue of the multiverse – because the previous commentator suggested that “god” and “fairy” claims are equivalent because neither can be directly seen or tested. But if this is really the case, then the same would have to apply to any theories regarding other universes which cannot be seen or tested – they too would have to have “fairies in the garden” status. The truth, of course, is that if a hypothesis is philosophically agreeable to us, “it may one day be testable”, if it is not, “fairies in the garden” and “show me the evidence now.”

                Roqoco offers a good objection to that argument above: “The difference is that we already know there is one universe, so we know that there must be or have been some way of generating universes. Consequently, the hypothesis that there is more than one is not unreasonable.” That’s a great point, but do you think that the hypothesis of a vastly more powerful type of intelligence or consciousness than that which we observe in ourselves and other animals is “obviously unreasonable”? Why exactly?

              • Posted April 23, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

                Intelligence is an avoidance mechanism that likely evolved for the purpose of reacting to threats, finding mates etc., so that we and other animals get to reproduce before getting knocked off by a flying rock or something. There is no such reason why some super being with those abilities should exist (unless they evolved too) any more than say a super being with a long beak for extracting worms from holes in trees.

                So, the mistake that theists make is to elevate intelligence into some universal principle, when it fact it’s just a particular adaptive strategy. Intelligence would in any case be useless to God as envisaged by monotheistic religions, since (being omni-everything) he would have no problems to solve or decisions to take – intelligence is a limitation, it is meaningless if you already know and do everything (as Spinoza argues in part one of Ethics). So how/why would such a super being arise in the first place?

              • Posted April 23, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

                The multiverse hypotheses “fall out” of the equations that are current promising candidates for explaining the best observations we currently have of the early state of our universe.

                The gods, in stark contrast, fall out of the posteriors of those who propose them.

                Equating the two is akin to equating current theories with stellar nucleosynthesis with some sky faery drawing the Sun in a chariot across the metallic dome of the firmament. And, no, I’m not exaggerating.

                Cheers,

                b&

    • Larry Gay
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Gee whiz, that’s pretty profound, maybe even a metaphysical truth.

      • jrdonohue
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        I didn’t make a declaration of my metaphysical belief in that post. I only stated my position (opinion, informed) that “athiest” means, and should (normative declaration) only be used as simply “without God.”

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          By that logic, anything that moves itself should be called an automobile.

          Etymology does not dictate meaning. Meaning derives from how words are actually used in everyday speech, and those everyday speakers are not obliged to conform to your definition.

          People who believe there are no gods are, as a matter of empirical linguistic fact, called atheists. So in fact “atheist” does not have the narrow meaning you think it has.

          • jrdonohue
            Posted April 22, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

            Dear everyday speakers: You are making it up as you go along, sorry you believe that is true or ought to be important. You are contributing to confusion. Actually, words have precise essential meanings. “Atheism” from the Greek, means ‘without god.’ and I am not obliged to track your wanderings and putative constructions.

            “People who believe there are no gods are, as a matter of empirical linguistic fact, called atheists. So in fact “atheist” does not have the narrow meaning you think it has.” It has the precise definition I cited. Further, anyone claiming to “believe there are no gods” are asserting proof of a negative. This is poor.

            Gregory Kusnick: It appears that the thrust of your response is that people can construct any meaning they wish for a word, and it is something true. Well, that’s what theists do. When you unleash such relativism, you unleash theism.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted April 22, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

              I’m saying that meanings are established by consensus, not by fiat. If you want to buck the consensus, that’s your privilege, but you don’t then get to blame everyone else for causing confusion.

              • jrdonohue
                Posted April 23, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

                No, the meaning of a word, the concept of the thing, is established by rational epistemology. Allowing a random ‘consensus’ to spin or destroy a word is yielding to emotion and contributing to confusion.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 23, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

                And yet somehow words continue to have meaning, and people manage to go on communicating successfully with each other, century after century, without any top-down imposition of “rational epistemology” on their language.

              • Posted April 23, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

                +1

              • jrdonohue
                Posted April 23, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

                I suggest the results of allowing the meaning of words to become corrupted has not been successful, if wisdom, freedom and peace is the measure.

                Also, “imposition” is your word and your prediliction, I am arguing for a win by persuasion.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 23, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

                See Pinker’s Better Angels regarding historical trends in wisdom, freedom, and peace. (Spoiler: they’re not in decline, and certainly not as a result of changes in word usage.)

                And if your goal is persuasion, then I suggest that “Dear everyday speakers: You are making it up as you go along” is perhaps not the best approach.

            • Posted April 22, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

              @ Caterpillar: If you expect English words to have only the meanings implied by their etymology, then I think you are going to end up very confused.

              /@

    • Sastra
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      jrdonohue wrote:

      A marker for a failed atheist is the claim to know there is no God.

      Not necessarily It depends on how “God” was defined by the person who proposed it. There are atheological arguments which involve demonstrating logical contradictions (or incoherent absurdities) in some of the definitions.

      Barbara Ehrenreich seems to be suggesting that she can KNOW God is not benevolent due to experiences. I suspect she’s invoking Euthryphro Dilemma and inconsistency in omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

      • jrdonohue
        Posted April 22, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        My claim “A marker for a failed atheist is the claim to know there is no God” does not entail the necessity for someone to propose/define it. The statement is a general claim to have proof of a negative, and therefore subsumes any and all constructions that might float by. Hopefully, such a claim is a non-starter for readers of this website.

        Why do I call it “a failure?” 1) the aforementioned claim to have proof of a negative; 2) the powerful and destructive enabling unleashed when engaging in any way with a theist’s definition, observations and characteristics, since you give him standing as an honest thinker when he has the burden of proof to demonstrate “god” and identify, from objective reality, the characteristics of god in a way that would satisfy reason, science.

        • Posted April 22, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          Can you prove your claim that there are no nonexistence proofs?

          If I were to demonstrate you that nonexistence proofs are legion, and amongst the most ancient and hallowed of proofs, would you stop damning us for using them?

          Cheers,

          b&

        • Sastra
          Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

          A logical contradiction is analytically false; it’s not ‘proof of a negative.’ And if the theist is donkey enough to insist on a particular definition which is going to fail through logic alone, I’d grant it for the sake of argument … and unleash the power and destruction of reeeeeason.

          • jrdonohue
            Posted April 22, 2014 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

            That enables the donkey. “Logic alone” is not reason; you need to insist on FACTS plus logic. make him identify all existents in his premises, make him prove they exist, first.
            He WANTS you to swim around in his premises, which include made-up existents, because it gives him the appearance of honest arguing. You think you win because you think you find a logical contradiction, but in his mind, and other people’s, the definition of the existents in his premises can shift without telling you, thus destroying your attack.

            • Sastra
              Posted April 23, 2014 at 7:07 am | Permalink

              You’re right — I should have made it clear that when I said someone was insisting on a particular definition this meant they had clarified the terms. If they’ve done that, then shifting the definitions mid-argument means they’ve changed the argument on which they CAN be beat.

              It is in principle possible for an honest theist to exist. When confronted by a logical disproof of a God which contains internal contradictions, this hypothetical honest theist would discard their belief in at least this version of God. If they have stipulated that this is for them the only True God, then they’d become an atheist.

              You’re arguing tactics on the assumption that theists are all personally committed to philosophical dishonesty. That’s debatable — but it wasn’t what I was debating. I was addressing the legitimacy of an atheist claiming to KNOW there was no God and I said this was indeed possible within certain parameters. Whether the theist changes the setup or you do makes no difference.

              • jrdonohue
                Posted April 23, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

                Thank you for responding appropriately to the content of my objection. Here’s my next step forward:

                Let’s assume the person “clarifies the terms.” Then, you can hold them to it. Then, you could attempt to find logical inconsistency to refute their claim.

                Yet…they still have control. One or more of the existents deployed in their claim has been constructed by them out of whim or imagination. They might have ‘clarified’ what this thing is/does, but they are making it up. Yes, for sake of argument, you “agree” to what they make up, but the definition and meaning of the thing is all them.

                Here is the critical point: the full existential reality, characteristics and definition of the thing was not identified in objective reality, where rational human beings can know its full meaning. As a result, despite the ‘clarification’, the person can hold onto unmentioned characteristics (which they invented, perhaps on the spot) without telling you, or they can whip them out whenever, or they can hold a warped construct of a certain characteristic to which their “choir” adheres, but is pure invention. There is no end to this, because the thing in their argument was not identified in reality through inductive reasoning, which is to say reality cannot stop their dishonest inventing. In other words: no rational epistemology on board. In other words, they are arguing about nothing.

                Why do I keep making this point? I contend that playing their silly game enables their project. They get to look like rational, “philosophically honest” thinkers. It ushers their existent onto the playing field, as if owed respect. They get to win the argument, too, sometimes, because the game itself is dishonest, and because a sophisticated theist or analytic philosopher has a powerful motive, scads of historical support from Plato on down, and might be quite brilliant at modal logic, more brilliant at it than you. If you think you can beat the top players, while playing their game on their terms, I suggest you look further than Plantinga et. al.

                My contention is: the most powerful razor to deploy is to make them identify, rationally, all existents in their argument as being real. This exposes them to the harsh reality that they are arguing about nothing, therefore not worthy of discussion.

            • Sastra
              Posted April 23, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

              jrdonohue wrote:

              There is no end to this, because the thing in their argument was not identified in reality through inductive reasoning, which is to say reality cannot stop their dishonest inventing. In other words: no rational epistemology on board.

              You make an excellent point: in practice, theists really do not make dispassionate logical arguments regarding clearly defined hypothetical God X. The temptation to continue to invent is coupled with the faith imperative to continue to defend and it’s therefore too easy to special plead or play some other variation of Calvinball — even if you honestly intend to be honest.

              Perhaps the atheist then is only justified in claiming certainty against a logically contradictory God in principle. In other words, because they themselves have no urge to invent surprise saves out of thin air their certainty is justified … but limited to a thought experiment. An analytical disproof in a hypothetical situation yields certainty — but to what end?

              I have never personally tried to claim I “know” there is no God, not even by going after logical contradictions in the definition — which do come up sometimes (try “God is totally immanent and God is totally transcendent.”) That’s partly because I’m too aware of multiple definitions of God (most logical arguments attack the ‘omnis.’) But another reason lines up I think with your basic point: when push comes to shove this won’t work and will likely backfire.

              Besides, as an honest atheist I have to admit that I don’t reject the God hypothesis because of logical contradictions in the definition. There are too many gods and too many other problems. And, as an honest atheist, I think I have to be at least theoretically prepared to change my mind given sufficient reason and evidence. That in itself precludes absolute certainty.

              Of course, most atheists are using the word “know” in a more casual sense. I just can’t relax around theists, though.

              • jrdonohue
                Posted April 23, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think an ‘analytical disproof in a hypothetical situation’ yields certainty of anything. If the proponent embeds void existents in his proof, his proof plus your disproof is just a game about nothing.

                I agree that one ought not relax around theists, but my vigilance is to afford them no quarter right at the root: their continuous attempt to usher their own imaginary existents onto the field of play.

                Thanks for responding.

  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    A problem with accounts of mystical experiences is the elusive absence of any consistency to the lot of them as a whole.

    There are thinkers (notably Aldous Huxley in “The Perrenial Philosophy”) who claim there is a common core to the many varieties mystical experiences which transcends the myriad of interpretations, but even that gets hard to get a fix on.

    • Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      I can accept that some accounts will have inexplicable causes, but many occur under conditions of hunger, low blood sugar, low oxygen, fainting, sleep deprivation, traumatic experience, standing up too quickly, drugs, anesthesia, and more drugs.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      A problem with accounts of mystical experiences is the elusive absence of any consistency to the lot of them as a whole.

      I’d say a common theme is a sense of omniscience. Ehrenreich:

      I had a sense that I had answered those questions from earlier. What is the world about? But there were no words for it.

      For the religious, I suppose, this is manifest as a sense that the mysteries have become clear.

    • eric
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      A common core of experiences could reasonably be taken as evidence for a common cause – but is not evidence that that common cause is supernatural. As Mark alludes to, it would be perfectly reasonable to think that people who suffer the same loss of oxygen to the brain or low blood sugar or what have you might experience the same hallucinations or same brain response.

      Leaping to the supernatural here is like saying “Alice drinks wine, and acts with less inhibition. Bob drinks wine, and acts with less inhibition. Charlie drinks wine, and acts with less inhibition. The consistency of thir respnse to wine must be evidence of…Dionysus!”

  16. Posted April 22, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I often wonder if there’s an additional component to these experiences that somehow turns off the “critical thinking” – for example, some tiny microstroke. For many people, myself incldued, have weird experiences (even when sober and rested, etc.). In my case it was two experiences of seeing from someone else’s perspective for a brief moment.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      I’ve forgotten the neurological terms, but there is a part of the brain which lends a sense of significance to what is being considered. Oliver Sacks wrote of a man who had brain damage in this area and subsequently believed that his mother and father were perfectly formed imposters (though he recognized and accepted his dad’s voice on the phone.)

      More important to the topic though is the hypothesis and I think evidence that this area can become very active during mystical experiences and even under certain drugs. For the last one consider the stereotype of the LSD user gazing in awe at his own hand and marveling that he’s seeing the whole universe. It’s the secret of everything, man. There’s an indescribable sense of knowing important truths which can’t be articulated.

      I’m going to guess that this was a component of Ehrenreich’s experience. And she doesn’t have the neuropsychological humility to overcome her feeling that she has a privileged position which trumps the shallow idea that it was only created by her mind.

  17. Barry
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I am surprised you viewed her broader work as having credibility in the first place. She has a non existent research pedigree in social science and this is patently obvious from her books. She is, very similar to Malcolm Gladwell, a very good writer who is able to explain things very persuasively. However, her book “Bright Sided” was dreadful and did considerable damage to well researched perspectives on the positive affect in human development by creating a strawman of aimless positivity. As someone who has published extensively in this area and written a best selling book on the topic I can tell you that she seriously misrepresents, or ignores extensive data in the area of human development.

    Like Gladwell, she will be seriously debunked. Few now take him seriously and I feel the same will happen to her. As for this new book – I lost interest in her a long time ago. Atheist she may well claim to be, but this does not immunize her from misguided analysis. It always surprised me why she was so popular to begin with.

  18. moarscienceplz
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you would know about this better than I, but my understanding is that the publisher gets final say on what title a book will have. PZ Myers did not want to name his book The Happy Atheist, but that’s its title.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      Depends on the relative clout of author and publisher. I expect Richard Dawkins can call his books whatever he likes, and if the publisher doesn’t like it, there’s always another publisher.

  19. cary
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Mystical experiences and atheism are entirely compatible. I’ve had several, and they truly are “peak experiences”. Such are the goal of the Eastern religions which are not theistic, but meditation oriented. None of this strikes me as odd in the least.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for acknowledging this.

  20. Jim
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    I just saw her speak last night about the book, which I’ve only read the first chapter of so far. I also don’t know what to make of all of this, especially after “Bright Sided”. Last night a lot of what she said was vauge and even incoherent. At no point did she actually describe the “mystical incident” with nouns, only adjectives that made no sense. I need to read the book entirely before I make a complete judgement, but so far I’m feeling a bit heartbroken and like I lost a friend. I almost wanted to yell at her and ask “Where is Barbara and what have you done with her?”

  21. Frank Bartell
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    There’s also an interview with her by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

  22. krzysztof1
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I just finished reading this book; having read (like you, Prof. CC) her previous books Nickeled & Dimed and Bright-Sided and enjoyed them, I expected to like this one as well. Her writing is just as impressive as in the previous books, but like you I had some trouble with this one.

    At this time I am probably prepared to be more generous in my assessment of the book than you. I say that with some caution, because of the things you mention. She seems to want to have it both ways: She says we need to find out about the causes of these mystical experiences and suggests that science is the way to do it, but she comes very close to saying that the way we should do it is to first assume that they are evidence for something “other” that is out there that we don’t know about, and that our minds can occasionally grasp glimpses of it, and when we do, it’s such a shattering experience that it has to mean something.

    I’m not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV, but I know enough to know that her proposal–or desire–runs counter to the way that science actually works. To argue, as she does, that the mystics throughout history might be on to something, is uncomfortably close to arguing that the paranormalists are on to something, because there are so many unexplained things that seem to be happening.

    In the latter case, however, we have people like James Randi to thank for showing us that there is no real evidence to support the existence of paranormal phenomena; and if there were, it wouldn’t be paranormal anymore.

    She obviously had some real experiences; in fact, I have had the same type of dissociative experience myself, in my twenties. When she described it, I knew exactly what she was talking about! I guess it never occurred to me that it might be the “Other” trying to send me a message, though.

    So why would I say that my assessment is more generous? Mostly because I saw it as a fairly honest attempt to get in touch with her former self, the young journal-writer. When she expounds on the differences and similarities of her present and former selves, she is at her best. When she tries to explain what went on back then, she seems to stumble, although she tries hard to make sense of it. In the end, she seems to make much more out of it than it really is.


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