Is atheism irrational? A philosopher says “yes”

Over at The Atlantic, you can read one of the more bizarre takes on atheism I’ve seen in a while. It’s not a nasty critique of New Atheism in the John Gray style, but a very strange piece about how New Atheism, LIKE RELIGION (these articles always draw that parallel), is based on wish-thinking.

“What?”, you say. “How can that be?” Well, read “Irrational Atheism,” a short piece by Crispin Sartwell, a philosophy professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and, according to Wikipedia, “a self-described individualist anarchist.” If you don’t know what that is, Wikipedia can also inform you about individualist anarchism.

At any rate, I find it bizarre that so many of these misguided pieces—articles that nearly all of us could refute standing on our heads, come from philosophy professors. What does that say about philosophy?

Sartwell’s piece starts off on a bad note:

Religious beliefs are remarkably various. But sometimes it can seem that there is only one way to be an atheist: asserting, on the basis of reasoned argument, that belief in God is irrational. The aging “new atheists”—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, for example—pit reason against faith, science against superstition, and declare for reason and science.

“Aging”?  Well, we’re all aging.  If he means “old,” implying “superannuated,” why doesn’t Sartwell just say so, or is he using some sly denigration here. And, of course, Sam Harris is hardly old: he’s 47. As for the rest of the sentence—the contrast between science and superstition—that’s fine. Except for one thing: Sartwell doesn’t buy it.

Sartwell’s thesis is in fact the tired old mill-horse that atheism, like religion, is based on faith: in his case, a faith in naturalism:

[New Atheism] pictures the universe as a natural system, a system not guided by intelligent design and not traversed by spirits; a universe that can be explained by science, because it consists of material objects operating according to physical laws. In this sense, atheism embodies a whole picture of the world, offering explanations about its most general organization to the character of individual events.

Ironically, this is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.

. . . I have taken a leap of atheist faith.

There we have it: naturalism, like supernaturalism, is a matter of faith.  That’s wrong on several levels.

First of all, while atheism is intimately connected to naturalism, the two are not identical. Most atheists do indeed believe that there is nothing supernatural (i.e., nothing defying the laws of physics) in the universe, but not all atheists agree. The philosopher Tom Nagel, for instance, believes in some kind of teleology that is not at bottom naturalistic, but he’s also an atheist.  The justification for naturalism is that it works: we have never understood anything about the universe by assuming the supernatural, while assuming naturalism as a working hypothesis has moved our understanding ever forward.

The justification for atheism is related but not identical: we haven’t seen any evidence for any gods. One could in principle be an atheist but not a naturalist: if, for example, you haven’t yet understood how nature works but you also haven’t seen evidence for any gods or divine intervention. Not understanding something doesn’t by default mean that a god is involved. (This is the mistaken “god-of-the-gaps” gambit.)

But at any rate, the kind of “faith” we have in science is not the same kind of “faith” we have in gods or the divine. I could explain this in detail, but fortunately I already have: in my piece at Slate called “No faith in science.” Suffice it to say that in religion faith is basically belief in something that lacks sufficient evidence to convince most rational people, or, in most cases, no evidence at all save revelation, dogma, authority, and wish-thinking. (These things aren’t evidence, of course.) In science we don’t really use the word “faith”; rather, we have confidence in the existence of phenomena based on evidence in principle available to anyone.  As I said in my piece:

You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

Somehow Sartwell seems to have missed this crucial difference.

Further, he seems to think that most atheists have arrived at their nonbelief in a manner similar to the way believers embraced their faith. He argues that we have an a priori emotional commitment to atheism, or were brought up as atheists, and then embrace the “arguments” for atheism only later, in a manner similar to how Jesus and Mo supported their religion. Proceeding with this flawed line of argument, Sartwell says this:

Religious people sometimes try to give proofs of the truth of their faith—Saint Thomas Aquinas famously gave five in his Summa Theologica. But for many people, belief comes before arguments, originating in family, social and institutional context, in desire and need. The arguments are post-hoc rationalizations. This can be true of atheism as well. For me, it’s what I grew up with. It gets by in my social world, where professions of religious faith would be considered out of place. My non-faith is fundamentally part of how I connect with others and the world.

Does Sartwell not know that for many—perhaps most—atheists, the adoption of unbelief came not from indoctrination by family or peers, but through thinking through the supposed evidence for faith? After all, many atheists (and many readers here) were brought up religious, and only later realized that it was a man-made system of thought that simply confected its “truths.” As for atheism helping us get by in our social world, religion would in fact be a much better way of doing that, at least in the U.S.

Sartwell continues his threadbare argument:

The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false. This accounts for the sense that atheists such as Christopher Hitchens or Dawkins are arrogant: Their line of thinking often takes the form of disqualifying others on the grounds that they are irrational. But the atheist too, is deciding to believe in conditions of irremediable uncertainty, not merely following out a proof.

That’s just bogus.  The atheist is not irrational to refuse to believe in gods without evidence. To say that this is “believing in conditions of irremediable uncertainty” is just obscurantist philosopherspeak for “the atheist doesn’t believe in things for which there is not good evidence.” I am still stunned that a card-carrying philosopher can make an argument like this. He goes on:

Religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on institutions and relied on the Church’s authorities and dogmas. But some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on “reason” or “science” without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data. Religion at its best treats belief as a resolution in the face of doubt. I want an atheism that does the same, that displays epistemological courage.

Really? Is naturalism—a way of regarding the world that came about not through fabrication or revelation, but from time-tested experience—the same thing as “a resolution in the face of doubt”? I don’t think so.  It is the “insufficient data” for god that leads us to atheism, in precisely the same way that the insufficent data for the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, or alien abduction leads us to doubt their existence. It’s simply bizarre that Sartwell seems to want an atheism arrived at without rational argument, an atheism that he simply likes, and makes him feel “episemologically couragenous.” (Even writing those words makes me chuckle.)  But an absence of evidence, where there should be evidence (as with God), is a rational reason for doubting the existence of gods.  What is irrational is to accept gods on the basis of no evidence at all.

And so, almost inevitably, Sartwell brings up Kierkegaard, the man who said that one should believe without evidence—indeed, one should believe in gods because the idea is silly and insupportable:

Kierkegaard defined faith as “an objective uncertainty held fast in passionate inwardness.” He recommended Christianity not because it was well justified, and not in spite of the fact that it was insufficiently justified, but because it constituted a paradox: “The eternal God had appeared in time and died.” That’s not just difficult to explain, he said; it is entirely contradictory. By any reasonable measure it simply cannot be true. But that’s why believing it called for total passion over the course of a lifetime. Christianity was the best thing to believe in part because it was the hardest thing to believe.

If a believer rejects rationality in this manner, you aren’t likely to persuade him by showing him that his reasons are bad; he admits as much, or more. There’s no use having an argument with a person who rejects argumentation.

So what? If someone is irrational, there’s no point indeed in arguing with them. But that doesn’t mean that all believers accept their faith precisely because it’s unreasonable. Many rely on arguments—things they (but not we) consider as “evidence”. That, after all, is what apologetics is all about, and it’s what Natural Theology is about as well. Believers crave evidence for their faith, because in their hearts they know that there isn’t any. That’s why they scour the slopes of Mount Ararat for remains of the Ark, and dig up Jerusalem looking for Jesus’s tomb. That’s why Indian Christians flocked to a statue of Jesus in Mumbai that was dripping water: it confirmed their faith.  When the skeptic Sanal Edamaruku discovered that the water came from blocked plumbing, so that Jesus was actually weeping toilet water, he was run out of the country on threat of arrest.  If believers believed simply because it was unreasonable, they wouldn’t care about miracles.

And imagine if, in our daily life, we believed things because they simply “couldn’t be true.” We’d believe that horses could fly, that DNA was a triple helix, and that Republicans cared about the poor.  Why exempt religion—supposedly one of the most important things one can commit to in one’s life—from the same evidentiary standards we use to accept other things?

At the end Sartwell simply jumps the shark in an incoherent burst of purple prose, much like the final group of explosions that end a fourth-of-July fireworks display:

By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering. I think both are perfectly real, because I experience them both, all the time. I do not see any reason to suspend judgment: I’m here, and I commit. I’m perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end.

But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.

Commitment for commitment’s sake is simply dumb and irrational. And Sartwell’s last sentence is ambiguous: a sign of poor thinking, poor writing, or, in this case, probably both. If by “actual experiences,” he means “I haven’t seen evidence for God,” then he is making an evidence-based argument, which of course undercuts his whole “leap of faith to atheism” trope.  But if by “actual experiences” he means “I have found that atheism helps me get by in the world,” as he says above, then that’s not a “reason” for being an unbeliever.

Religion is irrational, for it asks us to believe without evidence. It’s even dumber to believe things that can’t possibly be true based on what we know about the world, which is what Tertullian and Kierkegaard asked us to do.

Atheism, despite whatever Sartwell says, is eminently rational.  We see no evidence for any gods, much less the Abrahamic gods. There are thousands of different religions, each with adherents believing different tenets that are incompatible with those of other faiths. What is the justification for belief in such a case? If you’re a Pentecostal Christian, you think you’ll go to hell unless you accept Jesus as your personal savior. If, on the other hand, you’re a Muslim, you’ll go to hell if you believe that! That, my friends, is faith.

In contrast, there is only one brand of science, although we do have disputes about some issues not yet settled by hard evidence (and at least we have the guts to admit that “we don’t know” about things like dark matter). Neither scientists nor good atheists will accept something for which there is no evidence. It is in fact the paragon of rationality to refuse to sign onto such propositions.

How is it possible that a lowly biologist can see such things, and a credentialed philosopher can’t? Could Massimo Pigliucci possibly be wrong in saying that biologists aren’t credible when they try to do philosophy?

CSartwellcropped

Crispin Sartwell

h/t: Keith

368 Comments

  1. Posted October 15, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Sub

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 16, 2014 at 2:06 am | Permalink

      sub

      • godsabadjoke
        Posted October 16, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        sandwich

  2. Barry
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Give me a break! “Crispin Startwell” is the name of a new breakfast cereal.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      “Give me a break … fast!”

      /@

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      Beyond revealing that you have nothing interesting to say, what was your point in posting here?

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

        Pot; kettle.

        /@

        • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

          Humorous? Well, maybe not.
          Doesn’t suffice for an argument, sorry; nothing more to be said.

    • Marella
      Posted October 16, 2014 at 3:51 am | Permalink

      I feel very sorry for the poor man, think of the suffering he must have endured at school. No wonder he ended up unable to think straight and was forced to become a philosopher; tragic.

      • gary
        Posted October 17, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        You pity his students more, having to deal with a prof who thinks such drivel valid point.

        • wendy
          Posted October 18, 2014 at 2:12 am | Permalink

          He shows how to over complicate quite simple facts….phew is it healthy to believe in childish magical thinking i.e. flying pigs or more dangerous I can fly….look as I jump out of the window…splatt & as children we have to learn the dangers of magical thinking but he seems to say its ok?
          He goes round in circles & there is no argument in his writing.
          I am atheist because I question & do not have the arrogance or brain splitting to departmentalize superstisus nonsence as fact.
          Agree with Gary his poor students with a prof who has lost the plot.

  3. Posted October 15, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Any attempt to address the many philosophers who would disagree? Er, looks like not.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

      “Any attempt to address the many philosophers who would disagree?”
      Looks like not that you will make the effort. So what?

    • Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:31 am | Permalink

      Pardon my abrupt post previously. This discussion has mad me somewhat disconcerted, and your question deserved better.

      I think that Sartwell is here writing a personal essay. As a professional philosopher, he is certainly under obligations to respond to other philosophers, and in the one professional paper I have read from him, he does so. (Whether his responses succeed or fail is another matter.)

      I just really think that there is a confusion here; Sartwell is writing personally in this article, and the attacks on his text seem to presume he is writing professionally.

      There are certainly moments when it is right to dismiss a text on its merits; and certainly Sartwell’s essay has problems. But I think one has to distinguish between the casual remark, however informed, from the rigorous argument intended for professional readers.

      • Marella
        Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:00 am | Permalink

        Whether writing professionally or personally it behoves us all to express ourselves rationally. Even if this is nothing more than his musings on his own faith, it shows a degree of woolly, poetic thinking that does him no credit. He chose to have it published, he must be responsible for its contents.

  4. Posted October 15, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    As I still like to put it, Newton slammed the door shut on gods and the supernatural; Darwin bolted the door and tossed the key; and the team at CERN when they discovered the Higgs finished burying the lot under several miles of titanium.

    You can still construct logically-plausible conspiracy theories that include magical goblins, but they’re all equally insane.

    b&

    • reasonshark
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Funny you should mention magical goblins, because I was just comparing Sartwell’s argument for theism with an argument for believing in fairies. The result is that doubters of fairies are accepting on faith that there is no magic in the world, are less courageous than the nutheads claiming there is, and that the doubters’ positions have nothing to do with rationality and logic and are just inherited assumptions that they commit to as much as the fairy-lovers commit to their fairy-belief.

      It’s just a long-winded, and (amusingly) possibly unintentional, character assassination at atheists for the audacity of presenting arguments against believers. It’s falling headfirst into the appeal to emotions, the lowest of all arguments, under the impression that he’s being nice and egalitarian when it really just reveals he’s being patronizing and dumb. If that’s what philosophy does to you, it might as well be renamed anti-education right now.

      Sartwell’s bizarre emphasizing of faith, commitment, and character when discussing atheism reveals him as buying into the romantic and moralistic bulls**t framework believers themselves use to emotionally manipulate dissenters into shutting up. He’s so badly off the mark that he’s not even wrong.

      • Sastra
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        And I was just applying Sartwell’s argument to … everything.

        But for many people, belief comes before arguments, originating in family, social and institutional context, in desire and need. The arguments are post-hoc rationalizations. This can be true of atheism as well.

        Well sure. And this can also be true of science … and politics … and economics … and pretty much any factual belief whatsoever. You may have been raised in a family or culture which got something wrong, or you’re lazy and just accept what you’ve been told, or you tend to believe what pleases, comforts or flatters you.

        So what? Is everything reduced to the same level of faith because we aren’t always intellectually rigorous? Is this the gold standard above which nobody ever rises?

        As I understand it philosophy is supposed to be about questioning unquestioned assumptions, not giving in to them as a matter of principle. Very weird.

        • gluonspring
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          Yes. It’s very odd of him not to notice any distinction between what individuals do in their daily lives and what an enterprise does collectively. All of us are lazy about some things, all of us accept many things on some authority or another because we don’t have time to check everything out for ourselves. This individual necessity doesn’t translate into a collective necessity. “Science”, as an endeavor, isn’t lazy about checking out things, about verifying facts, about correcting (eventually) mistakes. “Religion”, on the other hand, is industrious in trying to avoid checking on things, industrious in sweeping away facts, and too busy confecting apologetics to correct mistakes. It may be that individuals have hitched their wagon to “science” purely based on it’s status in society or something, and so are individually really no more engaged in reason than are the religious (though, by happy accident, they will be more often right). So what? That doesn’t make science, as an enterprise equivalent to faith as an enterprise, nor does it negate the role of reason in building science’s reputation and following. It’s like claiming that because many Americans are lazy and uninformed about democratic principles, just like North Korean citizens, there is no difference between living in the United States and North Korea.

          • Sastra
            Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            Nice analogy.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      No, Ben, Newton didn’t slam the door on gods. He thought the Christian god had to tweak planetary orbits to keep them stable. Laplace (“I have no need of that hypothesis”) slammed the door.

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        I see the point — but would add that it took a John Locke to set the epistemology on its head, perhaps laying the groundwork for someone like Laplace (and Voltaire, etc.).

        Meanwhile, Newton exhibited his usual arrogance when after pondering a problem and having it beat him down, played the goddidit card, since it was obvious to him that no solution outside of miracles existed. Locke, to me, seemed to crack that nut in principle, even before the 17th century had concluded.

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        Actually, I think Newton is a case that amply demonstrates that one does not have to have “faith” in naturalism at all – because he still reserved a place for magical bullshit even as he was demonstrating its limitations. Dinesh “Duh”Souza loves to put Newton on the side of the angels, even though Newton’s accomplishments when he was being a supernaturalist are zilch, of course. Newton’s career demonstrates that naturalism is not a necessary assumption of doing science, it is just what you discover is the only effective approach if you want something that works.

      • Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        And Leibniz, no atheist, told him this was *theologically* awkward – why would god not make a perpetual motion?

        As it turns out, Leibniz was sort of right – perpetual yes (microscale only, mind), made – no.

      • Posted October 16, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        Of course, Newton’s Mechanics was incomplete; and, of course, he didn’t realize the full implications of his discovery. Our modern Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics are both incomplete, though less so, and it’s not all that hard to find people who know far more physics than Newton ever even imagined yet still insist on the reality of magic.

        But what Newton did, and what he credibly was the first to do, was demonstrate the universality of physics. Apples fall for the same reason that planets wander across the sky. The light that shines from the Sun is essentially the same as the light that shines from a candle.

        Before Newton, the Heavens were, plausibly, the privileged domain of the gods. Newton leveled the playing field. After Newton, claims of privilege could not logically stand.

        b&

    • Kevin
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Do not forget that it was Copernicus who unsettled us all.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Did Newton do that? I thought that he felt that god might step in now and again.

  5. Peter Beattie
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    I find it bizarre that so many of these misguided pieces…come from philosophy professors. What does that say about philosophy?

    Nothing, by itself. Unless you have a baseline with which to compare the incidence of philosopher-produced drivel. Also, the latter, so far, is only your perception. Answering your question would require representative data—not necessarily anecdotal perceptions.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Yes, it says something: that a published philosopher doesn’t necessarily have more expertise in the subject than does anybody else. And he’s not the only philosopher I’ve encountered who says such silly things.

      • Claudio
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        But we also have Behe writing as a biochemist. Perhaps they (philosophers) see Startwell the same way we (biologists) see Behe?

        • gluonspring
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          That would be interesting to know. Where do we go to get the low-down on how philosophers think of each other?

          • Dean Booth
            Posted October 15, 2014 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

            Some data: I’m a philosopher, and he doesn’t seem too bright. Any philosopher I know would shred his arguments.

            Sad: Someone is the worst philosopher.
            Sadder: Tomorrow, someone will listen to and believe the worst philosopher.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted October 16, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

              Sad: Someone is the worst philosopher.

              What metric(s) could a convocation of philosophers use to rank one philosopher against another?
              (In an earlier post today, I implied a geologist’s metric : number of oilfields discovered. Of course, if you’re into copper mines, then the oil field metric isn’t much use, but a copper mine metric is.
              you could count published papers, but that measures prolificness, rather than some intrinsic “quality”.
              Aw shucks, we’re back to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Again.

              • Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

                What *I* do (with my philosophy background) is first check compatibility with science and technology. This guy’s stuff fails this immediately, for all the anti-accomodationist reasons this website has rehearsed elsewhere.

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

                And by applying measures from the real world (whose existence is disputed MUST NOT REMOVE SHOES! by some philosophers MUST NOT REMOVE SOCK!! ), aren’t you in some way MUST NOT PICK UP ROCK !!! “letting down the side” of pure philosophy MUST NOT PUT ROCK INTO SOCK !!!! in a way that many would dispute the intellectual validity of.
                I have a reaction, a tic almost, to disputes over the unreality of the universe. I fight it, but it’s still there.

              • Posted October 16, 2014 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

                What metric(s) could a convocation of philosophers use to rank one philosopher against another?

                Calvinball. Isn’t it obvious? See the example with Sastra.

                Aw shucks, we’re back to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

                Don’t know about Zen, but ranking motorcycle mechanics is easy. How long before fixed shit breaks again? If she’s on a team, how many wins and records do her drivers have? Does he still have all, or at least most, of the appendages he was born with?

                b&

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted October 18, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

                Calvinball

                Huh? I had to Google it, but once goggled, it made as much sense as more than a few philosophers.
                My memory of the several attempts I’ve made at … wading … through ZatAoMM is that there’s buckets of agonising about trying to come up with some objective definition of “quality” … then there’s an episode of wittering on about finding a good welder … then, it just fades away. I’m not sure how far I got in my attempts at getting through it, but the “wading” analogy above refers to certain caves which are waste deep in glutenous, cold and gritty mud. Such wading is not exactly a pleasant experience, and I’ll do more of it underground than I would on the printed page.
                My sole foray into Dostoyevsky ended the same way. D-d-d-d-azed and confused.

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

                The “wading” analogy above refers to certain caves which are waste deep in glutenous, cold and gritty mud.

                The very essence of both theology and its bastard “love” child, philosophy!

                b&

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted October 19, 2014 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

                The grit gets everywhere.
                EVERYwhere. Including THERE. And THERE, too. No matter how closely your rubber suit fits.

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

                You mean, even there!?

                And have you tried duct tape? If duct tape won’t stop it, nothing will….

                b&

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

        Sartwell is writing a personal essay based on his philosophy, he is not making a philosophical claim.
        A lot of people, even scientists, make silly claims, especially when discussing their personal experiences.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      There is a lot of statistics on that philosophers go where their methods doesn’t work, where it actually is relevant to have something else than mere internal consistency. (Say, “philosophy of science”.)

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      I’ve frequently had Brave Maverick Scientists who support vitalism, ESP, or cosmic consciousness thrown at me (not literally, in discussions.) Misguided science is an ugly thing.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

        That’s why books like Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and Park’s Voodoo Science are so necessary and so wonderful.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:35 am | Permalink

        There was an episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage that talked about maverick science – real science that held up to scrutiny vs. the woo. It was pretty good and they explained the difference well.

  6. Paul Clapham
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    “Does Sartwell not know that for many—perhaps most—atheists, the adoption of unbelief came not from indoctrination by family or peers, but through thinking through the supposed evidence for faith?”

    Are you sure of that? I was brought up as an atheist, not through indoctrination, but simply because religion was never discussed in any way in my parents’ household. My children are atheists for the same reason. By now this must be a common situation — it would be interesting to see statistics about how many atheists are refugees from religion and how many are just apatheists.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      You do, in many societies, have the option of abandoning atheism. I was brought up an atheist as well, but I could easily have taken up with a religion and been much more respected in society in doing so.

      • darrelle
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        I think the phrasing, “brought up as an atheist,” concedes, unintentionally or not, too much to the believer’s, faithiest’s and accommodationist’s point of view. I prefer something like, “I was not raised as a religious believer.”

        Religions, belief systems of any kind really, require a lot of words and concepts to explain. And if the belief system is largely unevidenced, like religious beliefs, it takes a lot more words and concepts to make it seem reasonable to others and one’s self.

        In contrast atheism is very simple. It takes just a few words to explain. “A lack of belief in deities.” The only reason atheist’s often use lots of words and concepts when talking about atheism is to counter the warped claims regarding atheism made by religious believers and their ilk. And, of course, to counter the reasons given by religious believers and their ilk for why their beliefs are warranted / true / preferred.

        • Paul S
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          I agree. I was not raised atheist, I was simply raised without religion. We had xmas trees and easter baskets with Fannie May bunnies, but there was never any mention of religion, churches or god(s), except the Egyptian ones my mother was studying.

          • Dire Lobo
            Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

            Same here. Mother was very Jewish, culturally, but never believed in god. Father even more apathetic WRT god. I had a bar mitzvah, and it knew at 13 god was BS, but it was a party and gifts and attention, and all the Jewish kids in my neighborhood had one. We did Passover, as I suspect Jerry does too, and mumbled the words about god, skipped over them, and ate like pigs. My son is a freshman at Berkeley school of Chemistry, which i am overly proud of, and he has nothing but disdain for religion, a fact which I had everything to do with. But ultimately, he decides what he believes, I just showed him the path, maybe a bit more definitively than my parents did, but basically the same thing. I would have been even more disappointed if he had chosen to be a theist than if he had decided to pursue a degree in law. Thank ceiling cat neither has happened, and another dedicated atheist is let loose upon the world. Ramen.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

          Yes true. I usually don’t talk that way. I typically say that I wasn’t brought up (stifling my urge to say indoctrinated) in any religion.

    • JohnE
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      I don’t know of any studies, but at least in the U.S., to the extent that the population has historically been overwhelmingly religious, and to the extent that religiosity has declined in recent decades while non-belief has grown significantly, it seems reasonable to conclude that the increase in non-believers has come from people who have grown up in religious families.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      According to the informal numbers at http://www.atheistcensus.com, at least 2/3 of atheists report coming from religious backgrounds.

      That would include me. My childhood Sunday mornings involved two-hour charismatic services complete with glossolalia, weeping, the occasional healing, and other drama. No venomous snakes, thanks be to to Crom.

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        Interesting if you compare countries; in the UK, 30% answered “None” for religious background; in the US, only 15%.

        /@

        • lkr
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

          4000+ from Iran. Takes guts, if they’re not all ex-pats!

          • Posted October 15, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

            That many? Wow! Quite right about the guts.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted October 16, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

            14000 from Turkey, which when compared to the UK’s 19000 is another surprising result.
            There are obvious self-selection effects in there though.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted October 16, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

            I rather doubt that being an ex-pat would provide much protection. I’ve had run-ins in the past with the (relatively safe) UAE ; if I got work in Iran (we’re looking, and I’ve worked within 50km of the border), I’d have to seriously think about whether to duck the question or lie outrageously. I like to think that I’d stand up and be counted, but I’ve had enough guns pointed at me in my life to not need the experience again. I’m disturbed by the practised efficiency of their hanging-by-crane method.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      How one is raised is obviously important. In particular, the journey to atheism is generally a personally important one and, in some cases, definitely worth relaying to others. However, if one is going to argue that atheism is important and rational, then how people are raised is not necessary to justify that the natural world is by definition, secular. In physics, the study of the universe, we do not see God in the universe. If at all, we see It only in ourselves…a self-made, make-believe proposition to help puppy d*gs sleep soundly.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      In my experience atheist parents are much more likely to either not mention religion or teach about many religions, explaining to their children that they will have to make their own mind up some day — and they’ll be respected for whatever they choose.

      Frankly, I think the fact that one can live a perfectly fine life without ever even hearing about religion is a strong argument against it being true.

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        Atheist parents should certainly speak about their lack of belief with their children.

        I didn’t with ours, and they thought that my wife and I were both believers. My wife was a “cultural Christian” for a long time, we married in church, had them Christened, sent them to a Church school (because it had the best results), and we always went to church when we visited her parents at the weekends (although I never took communion, ostensibly because I was a Catholic), which were still societal norms, so that would’ve seemed a fairly reasonable conclusion…

        But when they figured things out for themselves, they didn’t think that they could broach the issue with us, and felt guilty about “disagreeing” with us. This caused my daughter in particular significant anguish. It was only when they and I were all on Twi**er arguing against Creationists and the like, that the penny dropped and this all came out.

        (I was also surprised to discover, then, that my wife was now also an atheist; living with me had led her to realise all the unexamined assumptions she’d been brought up with. She’s now even more strident than I am, but not on social media. Her parents still don’t know — well, we haven’t told them.)

        So, speak up!

        /@

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

          It was only when they and I were all on Twi**er arguing against Creationists

          I love this! Such a sign of our high tech times – the family realizes something over Twitter instead of in meat space somewhere. 😀

        • gluonspring
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

          This is an apropos admonition for me. When my daughter was younger she defaulted to unbelief and so I didn’t worry much about it. Now, my wife’s religion is starting to influence her more and, for the sake of peace, I kind of leave my own views vague and hazy. I’m happy for her to make her own choices, but I don’t want to shock her later. So thanks for sharing this.

        • Posted October 15, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

          Wow, your story has a lot of striking parallels to my life. I don’t think my kids are old enough to thoroughly assess things yet, but I tell my older son, who is 7, that there’s never a question he should be afraid of asking.

          I don’t know how much longer I can keep up the charade of heading out to Church when my parents are in town though, but for now it beats having apologetics discussions with my father, who is a deacon.

          My wife was raised a cultural Catholic and seems to buy into some of the crap Pope Frank is peddling, but the deepest theological discussion I’ve ever had with her is that she admits no religion really has evidence of anything they claim. So, she’s not exactly a strident believer.

          • Dire Lobo
            Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

            Frankly shocked reading accounts of families who keep their atheism hidden from each other! Holy crap. Not how I was raised or live, but. YMMV and to each his own, but good lord (ahem, ceiling cat) don’t leave this to chance people! I urge you all to teach your children well. Let them make their own minds up, sure, but give them the damn information they need, don’t hide it under some crazy belief you are respecting their intellect or some shit, this is too important to send then out in the world where unscrupulous people (who we are all familiar with) especially in the US where religion runs rampant, how will you feel when when turns to some religious friends and ends up a believer, never knowing what you know, because you didn’t tell her! Don’t let that happen. They have no qualms about indoctrinating their children, the least we can do is counter that by giving our kids the truth, as we know it to be. Then let them decide for themselves.

            • Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:20 am | Permalink

              Well, for my part, I wouldn’t say it was a matter of keeping my atheism hidden, but neither was it in plain sight. I’d have been very open about it if asked, but my kids never did. In retrospect, it seems, I should have encouraged them to do so. But at that time it just hadn’t occurred to me that they’d got the wrong idea about me.

              /@

              • Posted October 16, 2014 at 6:42 am | Permalink

                That’s a good lesson for me to file away. On the other hand, I have already noted things such as the absurdity of the claim that Jesus made everything when my son brings it up.

                In my case, when I got married, I was still a theist, but religion was rarely even a point of discussion for my wife and I, nevermind a central theme to our lives. Part of what drove me away from theism only a few years ago was the fact that we had kids and I decided maybe I should start taking my faith more seriously. Well, I soon found that it’s turtles all the way down. As other posters have said here, religion often simply isn’t a point of discussion with anyone outside of my family members who are extremely devout. A couple years ago, my father made a statement along the lines of being upset that people like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins say there doesn’t have to be a God. I responded, “Well does there have to be?” And, that was as far as the conversation went; this with an ordained member of the clergy!

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted October 16, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

          Atheist parents should certainly speak about their lack of belief with their children.

          I can’t imagine why you’d want to bring the subject up. I’m sure it would arise naturally at some point, but I can’t imagine why you’d manufacture such a circumstance.
          But I can’t imagine why someone would have children too. [SHRUG]

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    . What does that say about philosophy?

    That it is irrational as practiced by people like Sartwell.

    Their line of thinking often takes the form of disqualifying others on the grounds that they are irrational.

    Sartwell is a perfect example of needing to be disqualified for his irrational nonsense.

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Oh good grief. I am a life long atheist. My dad was, though no one had a word for it then, an atheist and anti-theist. I was still exposed to religion from school (bastards) and peers. I even went to Vacation Bible School for a summer because my baby sitter was putting her kids in it and she was teaching there so we didn’t have much choice.

    I wanted to believe – if I did then I would fit in with all the other kids who had a religion and went to church. Moreover, I experienced, what I think was some sort of early existential angst. I desperately wanted to live forever and hated the idea of my parents dying and my own death at some point. I really liked the idea of heaven but my parents told me that when you die that is it. I think my little developing brain really grappled with this. I remember wondering how I could inhabit this particular body and live in this particular place on earth and be born to these parents. What would have happened if I had not existed? Would I experience consciousness somewhere else as someone else. All these things weighed on my mind and used to give me, what I called “funny feelings”. I’d say, looking back, it was a sort of Angst.

    So, did I ever hate the idea of atheism, a lack of heaven and the unfairness of the world. But deep down, I knew it was true.

    As an adult, it would be much easier not to be an atheist – people would get me more, I wouldn’t have to worry that being an “out” atheist could ruin my job prospects, I’d certainly offend less people if I was “good with god”.

    So, why on earth would I have “faith” in atheism? Like most, I come to atheism out of consideration and evaluation of evidence (or lack thereof). To suggest atheism depends on faith is to misunderstand the meaning of evidence and turn a blind eye on the social implications of being an atheist.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      sub

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      +1 Internets

    • reasonshark
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      So, why on earth would I have “faith” in atheism? Like most, I come to atheism out of consideration and evaluation of evidence (or lack thereof). To suggest atheism depends on faith is to misunderstand the meaning of evidence and turn a blind eye on the social implications of being an atheist.

      Because Sartwell is throwing a sop to religion, plain and simple. The easiest way to do that is to pretend to level the playing field against atheism. He certainly can’t do it by actual rational argumentation, so his recourse is to knock the characters of atheists as a group as arrogant people who hypocritically claim superiority via a claim to rational “high ground”. The fact that his argument bears no relation to anything in the real world – such as actual atheists’ own experiences and the quality of the evidence – is to be expected.

      It’s a PR stunt to wave his pro-religion badge and show what a diplomatic atheist he is. The only question is to what extent he’s a deliberate spin doctor and to what extent he’s just that gullible.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        My thought about motives is based on the fact there are so many of these “clever” repudiations of atheism – specifically New Atheism. It appears people like Startwell read other people getting published in the popular press taking this stand and quickly think – “like, who couldn’t write THAT? Then, if this shit gets printed, I’ll be (at least semi-) famous”.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      I apostatised from Catholicism somewhen during my teens (I was never confirmed), clung on to “there must be something out there” for a bit, but certainly left university as an atheist.

      /@

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted October 16, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

        Looking through that “atheistcensus” website, there does seem to be a very strong correlation between having degree-level education and signing up to that website.
        The 3:1 ratio of males to females seems fairly consistent too. Which is a bit more surprising.

        • Posted October 16, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

          It’s bad form to say this without a citation, but I haven’t the time just now. However, there is research that indicates higher levels of religiosity amongst women than amongst men.

          But not to that degree. It must be a guy thing. * ducks *

          /@

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

            It’s a web census ; that’s almost certain to have a male gender bias for starters. (As I type this, I’m listening to the

            http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/inscience

            ” programme, on Ada Lovelace Day. Amongst other things.)

            • Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

              It is also, not really a census. A census attempts to get data from *all* the units in a population; this is self selected. So one can conclude that *self-reported* atheists are male at the ratio given. But very little else.

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

                Yeah, it’s deeply methodologically flawed. Barely even useful for an indication of trends, really.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. I was raised in a non-evangelical Episcopalian family. Confirmed at age 11, pantheist by age 12. My siblings are still churchgoers, some decidedly so.

      My parents never discussed theology or belief, so I had a fairly easy path. They remained church members, primarily, I think, for social reasons.

      Atheism isn’t the easy road. No one professing atheism gets elected, and it’s easiest just to keep quiet. Questioning religion is a bit like using the N-bomb. I just isn’t acceptable.

    • gluonspring
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      +1

      I was soaked to the bone in fundamentalism into my early 20’s. I didn’t want to abandon my faith, in fact I was terrified of “losing my faith”. I couldn’t keep it primarily because I knew too much science. I knew the apologetics I was fed by my church were incorrect (and sometimes actual lies). My faith eventually collapsed under the weight of real knowledge. I didn’t decide to leave it. I didn’t want to. I just woke up one day and realized I couldn’t believe it any more.

      On the social implications: I know at least five friends from my childhood church who are now atheists. All of them are scientists or engineers, for whatever that says about the role science in abandoning religious belief. All but one of them are almost completely in the closet about it, still attending church every week, even teaching Sunday school. They’ve been closet atheists for, like, 20 years now. Perhaps our fundamentalist situation is unusual, maybe atheism is becoming the lazy default for many people, but it’s clear that for many people it still takes some guts to come out as an atheist.

    • Another Tom
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      My heart goes out to all who have to be closeted atheists. I know I’m lucky to live and work in a place, Seattle, where no one seems to care about me being an atheist.

      I “came out” to my mom before I set my Facebook religion to atheist in case she got a bunch of emails, she did not seem surprised. So far no one has seemed surprised. Although she thinks it funny that I will still say grace at big family meals. It seems to make her happy, so why not.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

      Well, my wife – who gives Big J his orders for the day personally every morning – knows perfectly well I’m not a believer. And has done for 30 years. We just don’t discuss it, probably because neither of us thinks we could change the other’s mind so there doesn’t seem to be much point in arguing about it. I have a strong aversion to going to church services because they bore the ** out of me, and she tends to be averse because she doctrinally disagrees with most of the preachers, so that’s a non-issue.

      I have no idea at all whether her many brothers and sisters know I’m an atheist, or indeed how many of them are unbelievers.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:39 am | Permalink

        I have no idea at all whether her many brothers and sisters know I’m an atheist, or indeed how many of them are unbelievers.

        When they pray before a meal, look around & notice if anyone is also not praying & looking around — those may be your atheists!

      • Posted October 16, 2014 at 6:33 am | Permalink

        I tend to get that same feeling of boredom from Church services of any flavor (excepting some holiday services which have some decent music). Otherwise, I find when I’m not bored, I’m angry listening to the ideas being spewed forth in the name of compassion.

  9. David Evans
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Not that it ought to matter, but Crispin Hartwell is 9 years older than the ageing Sam Harris.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      He’s got one foot in the grave! I hope his life will endwell

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        I know, when he said aging I immediately though the following: “Sam Harris is my age. I’m not old! Who’s calling me old?!”

    • gluonspring
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      It’s a refutation of the implied argument his aging comment is making. That makes it relevant.

  10. eric
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    At any rate, I find it bizarre that so many of these misguided pieces—articles that nearly all of us could refute standing on our heads, come from philosophy professors. What does that say about philosophy?

    I’ll be cynical: it says that some philosphy professors have figured out a good way of getting themselves their 15 minutes of fame.

    • James Walker
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      That was my thought – if not for this piece, would any of us here every heard of this guy?

      • James Walker
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        Argh – “have ever heard of”

    • rickflick
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Exactly.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

      “What does that say about philosophy?”
      Nothing.
      Trying to find individual lapses about philosophy to gain claim against philosophy in general is frankly churlish and childish.

    • Marella
      Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:35 am | Permalink

      What it says is that philosophy’s methods of self criticism are failing. The academy has no effective way to judge the good from the bad.

  11. francis
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    ,,,,ahhhhboy….

  12. Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    There exists a continuum of unhinged credulity, but one is always better off on the side where the hinges are more firmly attached.

  13. ricardomenacuevas
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    “There we have it: naturalism, like supernaturalism, is a matter of faith.”

    Animal faith, as Santayana said.

    The most coherent faith you must have, otherwise you won’t leave your bed and go to work.

    Believing in matter and nature (and evolution) is not only animal faith, but an evidence that we are very well adapted to our environment. Those who don’t believe in matter or nature don’t survive at all.

    Supernaturilsm, on the other hand, is naturalism applied to another world. It is animal faith in disguise. And, although poetical if Platonic, unworthy of a Philosopher.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Animal faith — or pragmatic reliance — lacks the crucial aspect of commitment which defines religious faith. If a cat mistakes a shadow for a mouse, they don’t keep chasing it.

      Well, okay, they do keep chasing it. But they don’t eat it.

  14. eric
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    But some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on “reason” or “science” without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data.

    Um, yeah no. 120 years ago science thought the universe was steady state, the continents didn’t move, light was a wave, and electrons were Newtonian particles. 50 years ago we thought there was no cosmological constant and the universe was headed for a big crunch. 30 years ago we thought it was flat and inflation was this crazy, hair-brained idea. Tomorrow someone’s going to discover what dark matter is composed of, and our perspective on the entire universe will likely change again. Accepting science is the opposite of a bold commitment, it’s a conservative tentative acceptance of the nature of the universe, with the understanding that new data is likely to change that acceptance any day in the future.

    Want to see what bold commitment with utterly insufficient data looks like? Visit the AIG website.

    • reasonshark
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Also, people tend to forget that supernatural phenomena have been scientifically investigated before. It was a big thing and perfectly respectable in Victorian Britain, for instance, to investigate the existence of spirits and ghosts.

      Naturalism is a result of scientific investigation, not a prior assumption.

      • darrelle
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        And also, believers like to argue that science changes its mind all the time and therefore is not effective at discovering “the truth.” Which only demonstrates their lack of understanding of course. That GR subsumed Newton does not indicate that Newton is wrong, only that Newton is incomplete. Very rarely do new scientific discoveries completely invalidate models that are so successful that they have been formally granted the label Theory by modern science.

        • Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          Which is the biggest reason I take issue with Thomas Kuhn’s characterization of scientific revolutions — or at least the relativism some philosophers have taken from Kuhn’s central message.

          • Doug
            Posted October 15, 2014 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

            Believers argue both sides–scientists are constantly changing their minds and are therefore unreliable, AND scientists are dogmatists who never change their minds.

            Whatever works.

            • rickflick
              Posted October 16, 2014 at 5:37 am | Permalink

              Whatever works == post modernism.

          • Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

            You can actually formalize the idea and *show* (demonstrate from reasonable premisses) that Kuhn is wrong, too. (See my review of the book on Amazon.com)

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

        Naturalism is a result of scientific investigation, not a prior assumption.

        Noted and memorized. Could not have been said better!

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      I found that quote puzzling: what precisely would “sufficient data” for naturalism look like?

      • gluonspring
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        I’d hazard that he is a bit of an epistemological nihilist, taking nothing other than his own conscious experience as sufficiently justified rationally, that actual knowledge is impossible, which would fit a radically individualistic conception of the world that I gather (though they try very hard to hide what they mean) is implied by “individualist anarchist”. I experience. I choose. All else is tyranny.

  15. Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    It used to be said that the clergy existed to provide career opportunities for the family’s idiot son but it becoming increasingly obvious that philosophy serves that same function.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

      except of course that philosophy doesn’t provide many career opportunities, so empirically, you’re claim is simply wrong.

  16. Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Well, I generally disagree with Sartwell, but here are some thoughts:

    (1) On the justification of naturalism and atheism: I’m not sure how successful “naturalism works” will be. One problem is that we lack a control-group. We’ve seen religion and we’ve seen naturalistic science, but we haven’t really seen supernaturalistic science, unless you count the scientific work of Christians such as Copernicus, Newton, and Boyle. Relatedly, the religionist will argue that of course assuming naturalism will get you success by naturalism’s standards, but that’s kind of question-begging. In other words: The assumption of naturalism has actually failed (they will say), because it failed to detect God, Who (allegedly) exists. (As for atheism, when understood as lack-of-belief, great, but when understood as positive-disbelief, that will require more than just lack-of-evidence.)

    (2) On why a philosopher is writing this: From what I can tell, Sartwell is generally not situated in the dominant philosophical tradition in the Anglophone world, which is something like ‘philosophy-as-an-analogue-of-science,’ or ‘methodological at-least-weak naturalism,’ or ‘analytic philosophy.’ (None of these names is perfect.) But I can report that most of my colleagues would offer pretty much the same disagreements with him that you do.

    (3) On the same note: On how a “lowly biologist” such as Jerry Coyne can see these problems: Well, it’s fairly clear to me that you’re a philosopher as well. You certainly, commonly take characteristically philosophical positions and use characteristically philosophical arguments. Some biologists are also persuasive philosophers, and some philosophers aren’t very persuasive philosophers.

    • reasonshark
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      but we haven’t really seen supernaturalistic science, unless you count the scientific work of Christians such as Copernicus, Newton, and Boyle.

      Actually, supernaturalistic science was quite common in Victorian Britain (when people like Dr Hyppolite Baraduc investigated such things as the existence of spirits), and it survived even as recently as the cold war (when the FBI looked into psychic phenomena in the hope of recruiting psychics for investigations) and the modern day (some parapsychology departments). The fact that it’s died down since should indicate how productively it turned out.

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        Well, not really. If, for instance, there were solid evidence for psychic abilities and a good theory for how it worked, would it not be perfectly natural rather than supernatural?

        /@

        • darrelle
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          Yes. The real problem is word games. “Natural” is the set of everything that we can perceive in some way. Coming up with a word to mean something that doesn’t fit that category can be fun, but it is meaningless in the context of trying to model reality. It is like claiming that there is a color that can not be detected by any kind of electromagnetic detector.

          It is done purely to support the contention that “science can’t touch this.” Why not? Because that is the definition they have invented. Science investigates what is. Doesn’t matter what we call it. If it is in any way, even just in principle, perceptible to human beings science can, in principle, yield useful information about it. Science is, after all, merely people looking around to try and figure shit out, but doing it very carefully.

          • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

            plus one

          • Posted October 15, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

            Exactly. You beat me to this. I saw Michael Shermer make this point in an IQ^2 debate against Dinesh D’Souza. He said that anything “outside of nature” that is observed to have an effect on nature would be incorporated into the science and then be natural. Religion has failed to define what something outside of nature would even consist of and set up a false boundary fuzzily defined as whatever the current limits to our knowledge are.

        • Sastra
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          If the good theory for how psychic abilities worked reduced them to common matter and energy, then they’d be natural. But an irreducible “power,” “force” or “energy” which just IS intention — supernatural.

          The natural/supernatural distinction is not set by “what science can investigate” — it’s characterized by the type of thing it is. Pure mentality.

          • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            I had a suspicion that a comment from you along these lines would not be long coming. And I don’t disagree. BUT … if pure mentality was shown, by scientific methods, to exist, in what practical sense would it not be natural?

            /@

            • Sastra
              Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

              I think a top-down phenomenon like that is so different than the bottom-up reducible material explanations science has been using that a special term would seem to be called for. One could of course invent a word for some new level of naturalism (as when ‘quantum’ was created) — but why do the work when there is already a perfectly common word which highlights the distinction between ‘mind-comes-from-matter’ and ‘matter-comes-from-mind?’

              As said above, the terms don’t matter as much as what it is they describe (as I’ve tried to tell my friends who think a Universal Mind is not “God” so an atheist should have no problem with it.) I think just relabeling God, ghosts, and souls “natural” when they turn out to be real sounds petty, though. Naturalism can’t be falsified by definition? That seems like the opposite of considering it a falsifiable theory.

              • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                Fair point. I like the analogy with classical/quantum … although no one was arguing for the existence of quantum phenomena until the terms were coined!

                /@

              • Posted October 15, 2014 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

                I think it depends in what your definition of nature is. If we call nature, or the Cosmos, “all there ever was, is, or ever shall be,” as Sagan put it, then it is serving not as a falsifiable theory, but as a definition.

                Ideas that apply to nature could still be falsifiable. For example, if we discovered demons could occasionally suspend the laws of Physics or make the Law of Noncontradiction fail to hold, we’d have to accept it as an inexplicable exception to how everything always works. But, it wouldn’t mean that demons exist outside of the set of everything that exists, merely that there are different rules for them.

              • Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

                As chrisbuckley80 wrote, putting things that are real in one category and things that are not or indeed cannot be real in another isn’t a hypothesis. Figuring out what’s natural is already a matter of definition.

                So I don’t think it makes sense to talk about falsification. Defining “nature” as “that which exists” isn’t an attempt to exclude certain phenomena by definition. It would only mean that the set “nature” will grow as we discover more phenomena, perhaps including ghosts etc.

                The flip side of this coin, it seems to me (and I think we’ve discussed this before) is that the category “supernatural” can only be populated with concepts that are necessarily imaginary. How can something that doesn’t exist exist? Again, this is not to say that I’m trying to define ghosts out of existence. What it shows is that the category “supernatural” is a nonsense, and the concepts traditionally contained in the category are better thought of as simply as yet “uncategorized” concepts that are either more or less likely to ever find themselves admitted into the category “nature”. (Sean Carroll and Ben Goren would lean very far to the “less” side for good reasons.)

                I think it’s important to think about the issue this way because it shows just how confused theists and other supernaturalists are. They’re not just mistaken about what exists. In a virtuosic display of doublethink, they want it to be real, but they also want the magic of impossibility. I think they want the impossibility more.

                “Ohmygod!! Look at that ball suspended in mid air! Amazing!”

                “Here’s how it works: the Bernoulli principle blah blah…”

                “Oh. Ok. Well…see ya later.”

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

              It would still be natural perhaps just no longer reducible. Like consciousness – still natural but perhaps an emergent property of complex systems.

              • Sastra
                Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

                Reducible to or dependent on matter and energy in patterns = natural. A lot of people argue that consciousness (excuse me, Consciousness) is supernatural, in that the brain is just something it sometimes uses to communicate with. That is, they probably won’t call it ‘supernatural’ — instead they’ll maybe talk about spiritual dimensions — but it’s what they mean.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

                Yes those people are dualists that pretend to be open-minded but to them open-minded = woo belief.

              • Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

                Byw, there’s this NYTimes article” http://ow.ly/CPntY

                /@

        • Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

          This is why I (following Bunge) start with some axioms of naturalism. Some are (mixing ontology and epistemology for the time being):

          (1) The universe contains objective patterns.
          (2) These patterns are discoverable by humans to some degree.
          (3) The universe consists of matter (= that which possesses energy).
          (4) Some fictional objects are useful to understand how matter behaves (e.g., the objects of pure mathematics) but others (gods) are not.
          (5) The basic conservation laws.

          • Posted October 16, 2014 at 10:13 am | Permalink

            Contemporary physicists might argue with (3).

            And some mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics might argue with (4).

            /@

            • Posted October 17, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

              Physicists have nothing on (3) – radiation is matter in that broad understanding (or fields, if you prefer to put it that way).

              (4) outrages mathematicians and some philosophers of same, but I’m still not convinced they are anything more than incredulous – in part because contact with non-material objects violates conservation laws mentioned in (5). In any case, one has to learn to *control* fiction for other reasons. (e.g., idealizations).

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

                @ Keith

                Apologies for the tardy reply.

                * Physicists have nothing on (3) – radiation is matter in that broad understanding (or fields, if you prefer to put it that way). *

                No, that’s not the right distinction. Some kind of radiation (α = He nuclei, β = electrons) is matter, but electromagnetic radiation (γ = photons) is not. Everything fundamentally /is/ fields, but there is a meaningful distinction between /matter/ (fermions: quarks, electrons &c., neutrinos, and everything made from them) and /forces/ (bosons: photons [electromagnetism], gluons [strong], Higgs, and so on).

                Outraged mathematicians I couldn’t care less about.

                /@

              • Posted October 21, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

                But all the fields and such in question are matter as I stipualtively defined – they are energy possessing entities. I don’t know of exceptions in physics or any other science. (Note: energyless is not the same as energy = 0.)

              • Posted October 21, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

                But that “stipulative definition” is what gets you into trouble with physicists; “matter” has a narrower sense that is so well established that trying to pin a broader definition to the term for the sake of argument begs confusion. 😉

                /@

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I guess my worry is that if those had worked, then we would consider them part of naturalistic science by now. We would expect, e.g., some kind of boson that carries psychic force or something, and we’d be looking for it.

        What this points to, of course, is the extreme difficulty in demarcating what’s “natural” from what’s “supernatural,” but of course it’s kind of incumbent on the self-identified ‘naturalist’ to provide that demarcation.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

          There hasn’t been a problem of principle since the 18th century, when thermodynamic science was invented. Magic action is anything that breaks the thermodynamic closure of a system. (Ghosts, astrology, creationism, clairvoyance, FSM, what have you.)

          Playing word games around that (alternative forces, say “psychic” forces) would be a deepity.

        • eric
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          The demarcation problem largely goes away if we keep our eye on the ball (so to speak), and focus on specific claims like the existence of souls, spirits, or miracles like the resurrection. If science had found evidence of souls or resurrection(s), that would make Christianity more credible. If it had found evidence of spirits, that would make mediums more credible. It doesn’t matter whether we label these phenomena natural or supernatural, the point is whether we have found confirming or disconfirming evidence for specific claims. And for souls and the like, when proponents have made testable claims, they have not panned out. Of course when they fail to make testable claims at all, that is a failure of a whole other kind.

          • gluonspring
            Posted October 15, 2014 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

            +1 for focusing on specific claims.

        • reasonshark
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, I guess my worry is that if those had worked, then we would consider them part of naturalistic science by now. We would expect, e.g., some kind of boson that carries psychic force or something, and we’d be looking for it.

          Not unless we were conforming to a stereotype about science that assumes all science is like particle physics, no. Nothing so stereotypically “straw man”. Curious thing to worry over, at that.

          Worrying over what’s “really” naturalistic and what’s “really” supernaturalistic” is not really the point, is it? That’s either a quibble over word use or special pleading for something that doesn’t pass the scientific tests. The point is that, if psychic powers, ghosts, and other examples of the supernatural (and throw in current pseudoscientific claims there too) had impacts on reality, then that alone would make them viable for science. You don’t have to find the psychic boson; a basic benchmark would be someone who, given no information beforehand, could guess the outcomes of certain events to an accuracy well beyond chance.

          Because they haven’t, the supernatural has ceased being a viable area of study and has become a place to hide concepts that are long past their expiration date.

    • eric
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      One problem is that we lack a control-group.

      I’m not sure the idea is relevant. We’re talking about comparing methods of knowledge or information generation here, what does it mean to have a group that uses no such method? Everyone uses something. Even “gut check” is a method.

      If you mean we lack a group of non-empirical information generators to compare science to, that is untrue; there are loads. Every person claiming some spiritual or divine revelation is one. Mediums, psychics, and prophets are our points of comparison. Pat Robertson, Sylvia Brown, and the like.

      Relatedly, the religionist will argue that of course assuming naturalism will get you success by naturalism’s standards, but that’s kind of question-begging.

      Yes, this is a common trope. My reply would be that it is clearly not science or naturalism’s standards by which science is judged a success, it is the greater society’s standards…to include the standards of most religious non-naturalists. After all, we don’t pay ourselves to do the science thing – society pays us. Venture capitalists pay us. Does anyone really think they are motivated by some ideological commitment to naturalism? Politicians pay us. The DOD pays us to develop weapons and defenses – again, outside a few paranoid chatrooms, is anyone seriously claiming that the Department of Defense funds sceince merely because they are ideologically committed to ‘naturalism’s standards of success? Yes, a small minority of people do actually commit to rejecting science as unsuccessful. They reject things like vaccines in favor of prayer, not just out of faith but because they think prayer is more effective at curing disease. But the vast, vast majority of religious people who think nature is not all there is will still vaccinate their kids, and gladly expect science to come up with more and better vaccines in the future. Because their measures of success are the same as atheist meausers of success, and are not linked to any acceptance of philosophical naturalism.

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        I wonder whether mediums and psychics are really claiming to be doing science, though, instead of something else entirely. (Maybe it’s difficult to conceptualize a supernaturalistic science, but if we rule that out a priori, then that just further supports the religionist’s charge of question-begging.)

        As for the common trope, yes, religionists rely on scientists for “scientific matters.” But they generally don’t for “religious matters.” After all, people certainly pay religionists for religious “goods and services,” such as, e.g., salvation and revelation. Again, the religionist’s claim is that science is great for telling us what to put or not put into our bodies, but not so great for telling us whether (e.g.) there’s an immortal soul.

        • eric
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          They are claiming to do something else entirely. I thought that was your point: you want to compare science to other methods of knowledge generation, but (your representation of the other side is that they are saying) no such comparable knowledge-generators exist.

          If you want to compare naturalist scientists to non-naturalist scientists, we can look at scientists who have studied things like telepathy, telekinesis, tried to weigh souls, etc… Doing so brings home the point that measures of ‘success’ have nothing to do with a commitment to philosophical naturalism; the vast majority of people who span a range of religious and spiritual beliefs seems to share very pragmatic measures of success, and science meets those measures better than any human-tested alternative.

          I guess a really obtuse philosopher could just reply that pragmatism = secret naturalism = back to circular reasoning, but it seems really strange to say that (people like) Pope Pius VII was a secret or brainwashed naturalist just because he accepted that science gave legitimate answers on human origins.

        • eric
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

          the religionist’s claim is that science is great for telling us what to put or not put into our bodies, but not so great for telling us whether (e.g.) there’s an immortal soul.

          You look across the span of religious answers to soul-questions, and I think its fair to say that whatever process religions are using, their answer about souls and such is so imprecise as to be useless.

          Let’s be charitable for arguments’ sake and assume that somewhere in the mass of contradictory religious revelations about souls and afterlives there is an accurate answer. You’ve still got two problems. First and foremost, religion is still like a bathroom scale that gives you your correct weight…plus or minus 100 pounds. Such an instrument is useless. A method or tool that provides accuracy with such great imprecision is useless. Giving the right answer occasionally is no good, if it also gives lots of wrong answers and you can never tell the right answer from the wrong ones. The second problem is that you must now theologically explain why, if revelation works for souls, it fails to work for practical questions…and what does your answer to that question say about your God? When a believer claims that it works for one but not the other, they are quickly going to run into the ‘not omnipotent, not omnicient, or wicked’ problem.

        • Sastra
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          Mediums and psychics (and religious people in general) will gladly accept scientific tests of their beliefs if the tests turn out the way they want them too. It’s only when they fail (or people think they will fail) that they drag out the private, personal, subjective nature of the claim. Faith is an immunizing strategy which would be dropped in a heartbeat if strong evidence — including scientific evidence — shows up. It’s not really intrinsic to paranormal or religious claims.

          If scientists had managed to discover evidence for souls, do you think any pious person of faith would have denied it? Look at what happens when the media touts some dreary “proof of God.” The only religious people who don’t jump up and down are the ones who wisely suspect it’s not really what it’s cracked up to be.

        • gluonspring
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

          “I wonder whether mediums and psychics are really claiming to be doing science, though, instead of something else entirely.”

          It doesn’t matter whether they are claiming to do science or not. It matters only that they are making claims that touch on observable things, and such claims can be checked.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

      “On the same note: On how a “lowly biologist” such as Jerry Coyne can see these problems: Well, it’s fairly clear to me that you’re a philosopher as well.”
      I agree, and I think that raises severe problems for this whole conversation.

  17. ladyatheist
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    It seems to me the whole point of his piece is to prove that he’s smarter & more well read than sciency people.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      Maybe I’m being uncharitable towards him, but if that was indeed his intent I can only recommend he read up on the Dunning-Kruger effect. But then, I probably am not a good fit for his target audience, since I am not a believer looking to bolster justification of my beliefs.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

      That’s simply wrong. His essay is an affirmation of his belief that atheism needs no justification beyond personal experience.

  18. Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I never ‘became’ an atheist.

    I was born without a belief in gods and nothing I have been presented with since has persuaded me to change my mind.

    The ball is in their park.

    • merilee
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      ditto

  19. eric
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I looked at the comments on the article; very disappointing. There is some atheists/scientist representation and pushback, but even those guys aren’t very good. I’d say the quality content to insult ratio is about 1:10, maybe worse.

  20. history57
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    “I find it bizarre that so many of these misguided pieces—articles that nearly all of us could refute standing on our heads, come from philosophy professors. What does that say about philosophy?”

    Aldous Huxley, perhaps, can answer that:

    “Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons – that’s philosophy.”

  21. eric
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    But some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on “reason” or “science” without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data.

    “Utterly insufficient data.” Says the guy who probably typed his essay on a computer and emailed it to the publisher…with the strong expectation that all these electronic devices and networks will work as predicted. Because they worked yesterday, and the day before, etc… as predicted.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that these folks think “[empirical] data” is some rare commodity, hidden away like jewels in a locked box an a few people’s basements. Its all around you, dude. It’s everywhere. You’re wearing the data that science works. You’re sitting on it. Your philosophy class probably relies on it when you present units and assignments, and when class is over, you probably drive home in it.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      Most of these critics of ‘science’ tend to assume ‘science’ is something scientists do, and not an outlook most people in the developed world share.

      I mean, who cowers away from thunder gods when a storm strikes? Who fears their ship is about to sail off the edge of the world?

      Today’s cutting edge science is tomorrow’s common knowledge.

  22. jeffran
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand the point of the ageism in the very first paragraph. Not an impressive start.

  23. darrelle
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    “At any rate, I find it bizarre that so many of these misguided pieces—articles that nearly all of us could refute standing on our heads, come from philosophy professors. What does that say about philosophy?”

    Let me put on my cynical hat. I formed the opinion in my teens that most people of any category are not too bright. While that was a pretty naive and smart ass conclusion, my experiences as an adult support that fairly well.

    PHDs, MDs, scientists, psychologists, lawyers, senators, philosophers, it just doesn’t matter. A large percentage of any group you care to define, close to half at a wild guess, are just competent enough to hold down a job as long as nothing too much is expected of them. And then you’ve still got the ones that are below that.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      It is amazing (and perhaps scary), but statistics say that half the population is actually dumber than the average person. Imagine that!

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        As long as the average and the median coincide. 😉

        • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

          Well, my thesaurus gives mean, median & mode as synonyms for average! Pedantry in this medium is the mode, but kind of mean.

          /@

          • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

            Wow. What friggin thesaurus equates average with mode? (I can understand mean & median getting the linguistic goofball treatment, but mode?!?)

            Obviously, scientifically, they are three distinct but related concepts. And my pedantry knows no bounds (which was what the smiley-winkey was all about)… but the (non-normal) data I usually deal with, one gets sunk very quickly if one cannot keep medians and means straight.

            • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

              Whichever thesaurus is attached to the NOAD in the OS X Dictionary app.

              Wikipedia concurs. *ahem*

              And I certainly remember being introduced to the three terms under the rubric of “averages” in maths at secondary school in the UK.

              I’d say you’re being too demanding; there’s an idiomatic sense of “average” that is “an amount, standard, level, or rate regarded as usual or ordinary”. In that sense, in some circumstances, a mode is a perfectly good average. For example, the average number of limbs humans have. The mean is clearly less than 4, but it doesn’t make any sense to say that the average person has 3.94 (or whatever) limbs. (Of course, the median is v v likely equal to the mode in this example.)

              /@

              • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

                Yes – I had crossed from idiom to scientific/definitional… hence the winky.

                What is really funny is when the conversation is in a clearly non-scientific context, involves non-scientists, and yet the pedant still has to chime in with this pearl of wisdom. Makes me yearn to deliver an even better understanding in the pedant by chopping off something they cannot regrow.

              • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                Which goes back to my first comment…

                But still… maths class, not just idiomatic!

                /@

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

                “The mean is clearly less than 4, but it doesn’t make any sense to say that the average person has 3.94 (or whatever) limbs.”

                Awww. It is in exactly that sense that I can claim to be Above Average in almost all respects. It’s a cunning trick for winning silly bets, with the advantage (unlike Monty Hall) that the average person can instantly understand it when it’s pointed out to them.

            • merilee
              Posted October 15, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

              High School math texts around here call all three averages:-(

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      I’d agree with that analysis.

      I think there’s another phenomenon at play, as well: it seems to me that many people, especially those who have careers in the humanities, have a counter-intuitive pronouncement-making fetish. They suppose that in order for an idea to qualify as “intellectual” or “sophisticated” it must involve some quirky inversion of logic. Ideas that emerge from straightforward analysis of evidence and facts are hopelessly low-brow. If you think their idea doesn’t make sense you’re simply not capable of thinking at their level!

      Of course this phenomenon was famously observed by George Orwell: “Some ideas are so absurd only an intellectual could believe them”. These intellectuals are frantic to make their mark by coming up with absurdity after absurdity.

      Sometimes counter-intuitive ideas are true. But I’d bet evolution has endowed us with perceptive capabilities to the point that *most* ideas or descriptions of reality should *not* be counter-intuitive.

      • Sastra
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        That’s a good possibility.

        But I’d probably place more blame on the media than I would on the philosophical field. “Smart person says atheists are wrong and/or need to shut up” is an automatic crowd pleaser.

        Let’s say they get 100 articles/essays/proposals a year from atheism bashers. 50 of them come from the average population, 40 of them come from religious authorities, and the other 10% is philosophers and scientists. You’re an editor: which category would you look at first?

        • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

          Of course there’s good and bad work being done in every field.

          I was more pointing to a tactic often resorted to by individuals in many fields, rather than indicting any specific field as a whole.

          Most of the postmodern philosophers of the last century resorted to the tactic, but where I’m really familiar with it is in music, where, often, the first hurdle that a piece of new music has to clear in order to be taken seriously is that most “regular” people should not “get it”. After that then you can commence constructing post hoc rationalizations for why this or that characteristic of the piece is sophisticated. It’s like the apotheosis of hipsterism.

          • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

            I realize my music example could be better explained: a musicological claim or even a more theory-oriented explanation of an actual piece of music is more likely to be admired as Sophisticated™ if only it avoids straightforward ideas and instead comprises an inky cloud of obfuscation. Just like theology.

            • darrelle
              Posted October 15, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

              I agree wholeheartedly. Sophisticated Tortured Profundity seems to be the metric of success for a lot of people in a lot of fields. And it does seem to be more prevalent in humanities oriented fields. For example, it is rampant in the Arts from the lowest level of starving artists to the highest levels of art interpretation.

              • Posted October 15, 2014 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

                I would guess that its prevalence in the arts has to do with the subjectivity that is in fact a part of how we consume, process and experience art. But Tortured Profundity abuses that subjectivity. Purveyors of Tortured Profundity in the arts are trying to make that subjectivity do all the work of legitimizing their pronouncements. “Who are *you* to say my take on this is nonsense?!”

    • Posted October 16, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      I am an engineer (quickly ducks the flying brickbats) and for several decades in industries whose products support people’s lives, literally.

      I have found that only a tiny handful of the PhD engineers I worked with could engineer their way out of a wet paper bag.

      They were great at theorizing and digging to infinite depth into tiny details. But so far as deciding on a design, writing the test protocols, executing tests, banging out the required drawings and requirements, redesign in the face of failure? Fuhgetaboutit!

      Happily, at my current employer, this trend is reversed.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 16, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

        I’ll show some solidarity and share a brickbat – I’m an engineer too. Or at least, a creature that was once an engineer, and I think a good practical one. These days I’m a reluctant ‘project manager’ and an incredibly inefficient one too (and I used to be a good engineer…) So all I do these days – officially – is bean counting. If I’d wanted to do that shit I’d have become a bl**dy accountant. But the utility I work for has decided to ‘manage risk’ by letting consultants design everything (i.e. management covers its ass as usual…), often I end up redesigning the consultant’s designed-by-the-office-boy-on-a-deadline efforts by stealth because they really don’t have a clue…

        I’m that close to retirement I doubt I could change jobs… but it does foster a certain feeling of intellectual independence from the party line in that I don’t have too much to fear from official displeasure. So long as I don’t commit any sacking offences, what can they do? Not give me a raise? – big deal. Make me redundant? – oh yes, please. 😉

        As I attached to my annual review form a couple of years ago –
        http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/1995-09-25/

        P.S. Agree with your point about many engineers, but the same goes even more for ‘managers’.

        • Posted October 16, 2014 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

          I have to show solidarity too, since my son is an engineer, working on novel manufacturing techniques for a firm in Coventry. I guess he’s a god one as he was promoted from graduate engineer to research engineer after six months rather than the normal 24 …

          /@

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 16, 2014 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

            Freudian, Ant, Freudian.

            • Posted October 17, 2014 at 1:56 am | Permalink

              Ha! No, he’s definitely not a god one.

              /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted October 17, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                😉

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

              LOL! I thought the same.

          • Posted October 17, 2014 at 5:05 am | Permalink

            Yes, he must be doing well. And good on him for getting into an interesting industry.

          • Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

            Your son engineers god novels? You mean, like Joe Smith and L. Ron Hubbard? He must be rolling in dough….

            b&

            • Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

              Well, I hope he is one way or another, so he can look after us in our old age.

              /@

        • Posted October 17, 2014 at 5:10 am | Permalink

          That Dilbert is wonderful! I keep telling my (very young) son that Dilbert is a documentary, not a comic strip! He loves Dilbert but doesn’t get a lot of it, of course.

          I’ve known several colleagues in your enviable (in some ways) position: Able to retire; but staying for a bit. They were pretty relaxed at work!

          For a brief time, I worked designing high-tension power pylons for the electrical distribution industry. Almost all of my bid jobs were accepted, which was pretty gratifying, some were quite large.

          Almost all my career, however, has been designing jet transport airplanes and active implantable medical devices.

          • Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

            That seems quite diverse!

            /@

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 17, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

            I’m most impressed!

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted October 17, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

            That is indeed high-tech. Most of my career has been designing sewers and wastewater pumping stations – which is hardly the image of a ‘high-tech’ occupation. There is, however, a surprising amount of complication to consider, not least because you can never just shut them down for maintenance. Everything gets more difficult when you have 200 litres a second of highly polluted wastewater coming at you and you can’t turn it off and these days you are absolutely not allowed to go ‘on overflow’. Specially if the original long-dead designer never considered the problem…

            • Posted October 18, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

              Talk about a real shit job….

              b&

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted October 18, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

                Yeah. Pushing shit uphill, mostly. 🙂

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

                …let me guess…no paddle…?

                b&

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted October 19, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

                Different figures of speech, though. We do hope one doesn’t turn into the other. 🙂

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 18, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

              I actually see that as interesting, probably because of the constraints you mentioned. Or maybe it’s just that I was exposed to Roman aqueducts and plumbing at an early age. 🙂

              • Posted October 18, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

                Your last phrase conjures up a rather insalubrious image …

                /@

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 18, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

                Yeah, I thought as much when I was typing it.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted October 18, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

                It actually is interesting because it involves a whole range of specialties – geotechnical (because pumping stations are ‘always’ sited in holes in the ground in the wettest, boggiest spot in the area), structural, hydraulic, mechanical, electrical and sometimes architectural. The designer doesn’t have to be expert in all those (phew!) but he does have to grasp what the specialists are telling him, which implies a basic knowledge of each. A bit like the conductor in an orchestra (to reference another of these wild digressions) – he doesn’t need to be able to play all the instruments but he has to know what they can and can’t do.

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

                Never mind the Roman aqueducts. Have you ever been to a Turkish bathhouse?

                b&

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        Ha ha! You actually describe many MBA graduates as well. It’s obviously odder with engineers but people running businesses regularly fail on execution because all they can think of is strategy and to be successful, you really need to do both or at least recognize that it needs to be done and have competent people working for you that recognize the same and plan and execute accordingly.

        It is sad that companies often waste their talent. I remember being given really junior tasks for a whole year. I was very board and laughed that they were paying me what they were paying me to do that type of work.

  24. gravityfly
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    “Believers crave evidence for their faith…”

    BAM!

  25. Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    The aging “new atheists”—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, for example—pit reason against faith, science against superstition, and declare for reason and science.

    I think we are seeing the emergence of New Ageism – not so much belief in New Age nonsense, but an increasing acceptance in liberal media of prejudice based on age. Adam Lee pulled the same BS on Dawkins in The Grauniad

    And what the hell? Like you point out, Harris is 47. That’s slightly younger than me. I’m younger than the current Doctor Who.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Hemant Mehta is 31. Rebecca Watson is 33, DJ Grothe is 41, and Jessica Ahlquist is 19.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Yeah, but Doctor Who is over a thousand years old …

      Oh. Wait. Shut up. You mean Peter Capaldi.

      /@

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Oh crap I made the same smart ass joke.

    • jeffran
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, and get this: These new atheists aren’t just old, they’re white…AND MEN!!

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Yes! See that Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So old. So white. So male.

        /@

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          It just occurred to me that I shouldn’t be so loose with the term “old” in proclaiming myself “not old” because my optometrist suspects I have cataracts.

          “Cataracts!” I exclaimed. “I’m starting to think my parents had me when they were much younger and have lied about my age the whole time.”

          • Posted October 15, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

            Now you have me curious about the nature of cataracts. I was under the impression that they are an observable phenomenon, not something that a doctor may just suspect.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:20 am | Permalink

              He thinks he observed them in my eye during the exam but to be sure, he needs to put drops in my eyes and I couldn’t do that because I had to be places so in a couple weeks I am going to go back and he is going to confirm or negate his suspicions.

              I also had a big change in vision (more near sighted, my right eye has developed astigmatism & the slight astigmatism in my left eye is worse & now needs correction (it was never bad enough to warrant correction). This is highly unusual for someone my age as things typically level off and you start having issues with up close (not true far-sightedness) due to aging and hardening of the lens. Also, often with cataracts brought on because of myopia, these are the symptoms people experience (vs. glare that people experience with cataracts brought on through age).

              • Posted October 16, 2014 at 7:02 am | Permalink

                Oh, okay, that makes much more sense now. I can relate to astigmatism. I have bad astigmatism in both my eyes, though I never needed glasses until last year at age 33. When I went back to the eye doctor this month, I could still read the 20/30 line without glasses but everything was blurred and bent like looking in a fun house mirror, much as it was for the first few weeks wearing glasses.

                Anyhow, this is now hopelessly off topic. Let’s just thank God that the Intelligent Designer made body parts as magnificent as our eyes, it’s truly a testament to his remarkable power! 😉

          • Pete Taylor
            Posted October 16, 2014 at 3:10 am | Permalink

            Well, I developed cataracts when I was 48 (right eye) & 50 (left eye) so you’re not unique Diana.

            I was a bit miffed to notice the medical description was (IIRC) “senile cataract”, but I suppose that’s to distinguish them from those in children.

            BTW, they can come in 2 types – most of them develop over 10-15 years before totally obscuring the vision, but there is a fast-acting type which will cause blindness in about 18 months (the type I had). So you might want to, erm, keep an eye on it.

            (One benefit – the implants I had almost cured my short-sightedness.)

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:56 am | Permalink

              Yes, I think the cataracts I have are brought on by bad myopia. Since childhood, my myopia has grown increasingly worse. As a university student, I lost 1/4 dipoter per year (and I was there 7 years). They levelled out a bit when I started working but they are -6.50 in each eye now. These ones are probably fast acting as I think that’s just how the myopia induced ones work (I couldn’t figure out why I could never see projected presentations – I would join the WebEx with my computer/iPad to view instead even though I was in the room, or I’d sit as close to the screen as possible and try to just listen).

              Stupid genetics. I suspect this is all from the side of the family whose health I do not know (my dad was adopted). At least if I had been Spartan, they wouldn’t have exposed me at birth because I didn’t start falling a part until I was around 8 or 9.

              • Pete Taylor
                Posted October 16, 2014 at 5:25 am | Permalink

                My myopia was about -9.0 before the op., now it’s about -1, so I can see stuff reasonably clearly without specs. Need varifocals now though, as implants can’t accommodate of course.

                Best of luck if you need an operation anyway.

                I was lucky enough to have them on the NHS as we have a civilised healthcare system :).

                Do you have a similar system in Canada, or is via insurance?

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 16, 2014 at 6:07 am | Permalink

                Visits to the optometrist are done through insurance for adults. Children and seniors do not pay (luckily, when I was in university, the government paid).

                Getting the operation is part of provincially funded health care so it is all covered and there is no need for private insurance. My dad has had both eyes done and my mom will have her operation soon too.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted October 16, 2014 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

                My eyes are in perfect focus – at one dioptre past the horizon. So I can use $2-shop plastic glasses, which is good as I usually lose/sit on about one pair a month. Only hassle is swapping to the 3-dioptres every time I want to read something.

                Yeah I know I could get bifocals or progressive lenses but the multi-hundred-dollar crunch every time I sat on them would be just too painful…

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

                My eye doc actually recommends cheap reading glasses. My parents have been using them for years.

            • rickflick
              Posted October 16, 2014 at 6:17 am | Permalink

              “One benefit – the implants I had almost cured my short-sightedness.”

              I had only the right eye done, and it greatly improved my distance vision. I asked the doc about the other … “not bad enough yet.”
              I’m now hoping the left one goes quickly so I can see like I did when I was 20.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      But the Doctor is over 400 years old.

      (runs for cover).

  26. Hempenstein
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I see an Addendum to the Albatross coming: This Goes for Individualist Anarchism, Too.

  27. Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    At bottom, atheism is a response. Theists make all sorts of claims and atheism is what you call it when you say “no, those claims are not supported by evidence and many are in fact contradicted by evidence”. It’s amazing to me how many supposedly intelligent people don’t grasp this. It is the opposite of a leap of faith.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I think many of those you speak of probably do. That is likely what drives them to so much rationalizing about atheism. That and how arrogant we are for pointing out the lack of evidence.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      I’d characterise atheism as maybe a ‘position’ or ‘stance’, like scepticism. It’s the opposite of credulity rather than of belief.

    • Paul Clapham
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Atheism might be a response for some people, but not to me.

      Let’s put it this way… I’m not at all interested in what happens in the Indian Cricket League. This isn’t a response to anything cricket-related, it’s just that Indian cricket isn’t part of my world. Likewise I’m not interested in any religions, and that isn’t a response to any of them. They just aren’t part of my world.

      • Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        That’s still a response. Your response is “no thanks, not interested”.

        I don’t mean “response” in the sense of one person’s actual, verbal response in the context of an actual conversation. I mean that atheism-the-concept only exists as such in response to theism. If there were no theism, atheism wouldn’t be a worldview we talk about.

  28. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    The most generous reading I can put on this is that CS is going with a much older definition of atheism as strong confidence in the non-existence of God, and is therefore defending agnosticism as the preferred position as lawyer Vincent Bugliosi did in his book “Divinity of Doubt”. But if so, he should say so more overtly.

    If that is his position, than I would reply with Bertrand Russell’s self-description as “technically agnostic but for practical purposes atheist”.

    • eric
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s an oldie but not so goodie. Define as “agnostic” anyone not an exact 7.0 on the Dawkins scale, “atheist” only those who are a 7.0 on the scale, then rant and rave about how irrational atheism is. Never mind that there are no 7’s in the world, and most people self-identifying as atheists would, like Dawkins himself, but themselves somewhere in the 6.5-6.99 category.

  29. Kevin
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Congratulations Sartwell, you are added to the list of philosophers who have contributed no answers to questions regarding the existence of a supernatural being or why anyone should believe in them. What exactly is your purpose? Because you have not justified anyone’s belief in a supernatural being and made no reasonable criticisms why people should be atheists.

    I am going to the lab now and command electrons to serve their master using my Juju spear.

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Bizarre indeed.

    Sartwell brings up Kierkegaard, the man who said that one should believe without evidence—indeed, one should believe in gods because the idea is silly and insupportable … “The eternal God had appeared in time and died.”

    So Sartwell is a mythic, albeit of a rare atheist type. And his belief in belief is based on the mistaken idea that a specific myth has any kind of historical evidence.

    [shrugs] He still stands with his feet planted in the Asylum, albeit further in than most.

  31. Roger
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Wow who knew atheism was so complicated. All of the atheists need to update their status to “It’s Complicated” right away.

  32. Myron
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    “[W]hile atheism is intimately connected to naturalism, the two are not identical. Most atheists do indeed believe that there is nothing supernatural (i.e., nothing defying the laws of physics) in the universe, but not all atheists agree. The philosopher Tom Nagel, for instance, believes in some kind of teleology that is not at bottom naturalistic, but he’s also an atheist.” – J. Coyne

    Actually, Nagel is an atheist but he doesn’t seem to be an example of a non-naturalistic atheist, because he explicitly calls the kind of teleology he’s talking about natural. Moreover, it’s wrong to say that he believes in some kind of natural teleology.

    “Some form of natural teleology…would be an alternative to a miracle—either in the sense of a wildly improbable fluke or in the sense of a divine intervention in the natural order. The tendency for life to form may be a basic feature of the natural order, not explained by the nonteleological laws of physics and chemistry. This seems like an admissible conjecture given the available evidence. And once there are beings who can respond to value, the rather different teleology of intentional action becomes part of the historical picture, resulting in the creation of new value. The universe has become not only conscious and aware of itself but capable in some respects of choosing its path into the future—though all three, the consciousness, the knowledge, and the choice, are dispersed over a vast crowd of beings, acting both individually and collectively.
    These teleological speculations are offered merely as possibilities, without positive conviction.”

    (Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. p. 124)

  33. Jeffrey Shallit
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Looks like Sartwell himself is 55 or 56, so he’s actually older than the “aging” Sam Harris.

  34. Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Crispin waxes philosophical here [http://www.crispinsartwell.com/know.htm] about belief and why we can forego truth and just “believe stuff”. It’s quite apparent to me why he’s a faitheist.

  35. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    From his own words:

    I’m perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God.

    He has framed his attitude in terms of belief, and must hold that belief in the terms he outlined. Unfortunately for him many of the New Atheists do not ‘believe’ there is no god, they mostly think there is no evidence for the existence of god.

    I don’t bother with a lot of the debates about the meaning(s) of atheism, but I suspect the article is really about an anti-theist (Crispin) feeling let down by other (broad definition) atheists.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Sometimes there is a critical distinction between “belief” and “conclusion.” The first has additional connotations which can be exploited.

      Put ‘atheism’ in the same category as liking apple pie or hoping you’re a good dancer and it’s much easier to defend everybody’s “right” to believe what they want. But it’s harder to argue that all conclusions are equally correct.

      I’d say that atheism was my conclusion.

  36. Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    What an idiot! Science doesn’t have to begin with the assumption of naturalism – naturalism can be viewed as a hypothesis, subject to verification, just like any other scientific hypothesis. No faith in naturalism is required in order to begin offering other hypotheses, making observations and conducting experiments. If the process doesn’t work, then science doesn’t work, and we can conclude that the world is a magical place.

    How difficult is that?

  37. pk
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Petrol into pineapple juice: http://youtu.be/S3vgTNrhrGo

    Even hardcore believers will dismiss the above “miracle”. But why?

  38. Bill Gilliland
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I believe it’s quite possible to limit our set of fundamental assumptions to a much tighter set of axioms than “naturalism” does. I think the barest assumption that needs to be made is “materialism”; we are assuming the universe actually exists, and that we can use our senses (aided by our instruments) to make sense of it. Where our senses fool us (e.g. optical illusions) they do so in a way that we can detect. To phrase this in a more pop-cultural manner, we are explicitly assuming that we are not living inside The Matrix, at least until we see Lawrence Fishburne offering us the choice between Dayquil and Nyquil.

    After the materialism assumption, we then can propose the “naturalism hypothesis”: that natural processes (the laws of physics and their emergent properties) are sufficient to explain how the universe and everything in it came to be. This is an inductive hypothesis, with a large number of observations supporting it (as Tim Minchin put it, “Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic.”)

    The advantage of setting naturalism up as a hypothesis is it avoids the charge that we have written God out of the universe by our fundamental assumptions. Which is not necessary to do so for the scientific method to work; both divine creation and naturalism are making testable statements about the universe, that we have already tested. When we invented radioisotope dating, the result could have been that nothing we measured was ever older than 4004 B.C., as Bishop Ussher predicted. Instead, we found that things on earth can be billions of years old, just like astrophysics predicts. When we did DNA phylogenies, the data could have supported a comb (or star) shaped phylogeny, consistent with all species arising independently, as special creation predicted. Instead, we observe nested groups within groups, just like naturalistic evolution predicts. Our scanning tunneling electron microscopes could have allowed us to directly assay the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. (Well, they do, but the number is always zero.)

  39. Sastra
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    This accounts for the sense that atheists such as Christopher Hitchens or Dawkins are arrogant: Their line of thinking often takes the form of disqualifying others on the grounds that they are irrational.

    By any reasonable measure it simply cannot be true. But that’s why believing it called for total passion over the course of a lifetime. Christianity was the best thing to believe in part because it was the hardest thing to believe.

    Wait, what?

    Being called irrational is an insult to believers — but irrationality is a glorious virtue to believers.

    Come on. Pick.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

      “Christianity was the best thing to believe in part because it was the hardest thing to believe.”

      I think I read somewhere (possibly Feynman) that orthodox Jews used the same rationale – the more pointless the ritual, the more spiritual credit one acquired from following it.

      Either way, it’s completely daffy.

  40. qlz
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    And what on earth is appealing about such an argument (i.e., belief without evidence)? Why would Sartwell, or Kierkegaard or anyone characterize it as courageous (rather than, e.g., mentally defective) to believe something absurd? Is the need for certainty so important that they would sacrifice sanity?

    • gluonspring
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      In Kierkegaard’s case, yes. I believe he suffered from the terror so many religious people suffer from. Brought up to believe in God and Hell and so on, even when you realize it’s obviously bullshit the consequences of rejecting the Christian God, if against all appearances there is one, are so horrifying that fear drives them to embrace God even in the teeth of absurdity. LOTS of believers do this. Kierkegaard was just smart enough that he could see himself doing it and needed to erect an elaborate mental smokescreen to rename his fear as a kind of “courage”.

      • Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        Kierkegaard has long had my vote for the most consistent Christian, at least post-scientific revolution.

        It is somewhat important though to realize that “absurd” is a technical term in his work. Not that it changes *too* much, but the gist is that “life is wacky, so pick the most wacky world view possible.” And so he thinks that’s *why* one should be a Christian, *because* it is crazy.

  41. Keith Cook
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    A residue of faith will not allow Sartwell to move on, stasis has set in accompanied by self deceit i.e. fact from fiction, I recognize this and accord due sympathy.
    He might like to grow up some day though but that may mean being honest with oneself, starting with his own age..

  42. Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Re. “How is it possible that a lowly biologist can see such things, and a credentialed philosopher can’t?” The more I read philosophy, including both professional philosophers like Dennett and Sartwell and amateurs who comment on blogs like this one, the more I am reminded of Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5: ” it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.

  43. Posted October 15, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t really find anywhere in the piece where Sartwell attacked atheism directly. He might’ve glibly insulted it, but his piece was an attack on rational empiricism.

    In other words, it’s postmodernist claptrap. (As an ex English major cum Physics major, it’s something I’ve learned well to spot.)

    • Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:20 am | Permalink

      Sartwell’s American roots are in Pragmatism and Transcendentalism, not post-modernism. It may be wrong (or wrong-headed), but it is certainly not claptrap.

      • Posted October 16, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        Except there’s a segment of bastardized pragmatism that is *also* a pomo-section – the Rorty folks. Claptrap it certainly is, at last selectively because anyone who repeatedly said they are following Peirce (no squishy thinker there) and clearly weren’t (see Haack’s work on this) is doing something dishonest. (I would also add that any science-hostile philosophy, like Rorty’s, is also claptrap for that reason as well, but that’s another story.)

  44. Posted October 15, 2014 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Jerry makes cogent points; Sartwell’s decision to write a journalistic article invites such criticism. But after reading Sartwell’s article, and some of his professional paper on epistemology (“Knowledge Without Justification,” http://www.crispinsartwell.com/know.htm), it seems there are some basic misunderstandings here. Sartwell’s simply not writing the kind of article that Jerry thinks he is. He’s writing a personal essay explaining why his own atheism is not open to demands of justification.

    This does derive from his philosophy. I don’t argue for Sartwell’s position, I only try to clarify it. Within the field of Analytic epistemology, it should be noted, justification includes purely logical justification, independent of sensory experience. To pull the James card and claim that experience vouchsafes an emotionally committed truth is as much as to reject the need for the purely logical entailment of a claim that would provide justification.

    This is in keeping with his political – and ontological – commitments. The general implication is that the individual is the final arbiter of his or her own knowledge.

    Sartwell reveals some of what this means personally when insisting on the validity of his own experience:
    “Genuinely bad things have happened to me in my life: One of my brothers was murdered; another committed suicide. I’ve experienced addiction and mental illness. And I, like you, have watched horrors unfold all over the globe. I don’t—I can’t—believe this to be best of all possible worlds. I think there is genuinely unredeemed, pointless pain. Some of it is mine.”
    This is not ancillary to the article – it is the heart of it.

    Sartwell’s remark on New Atheism was unnecessary and ill-advised. However, I also think that some of Jerry’s comments (if I’m right that Sartwell’s is a personal essay), were poorly targeted.

  45. Posted October 15, 2014 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I think therefore I am. I believe and therefore I am not.

  46. Posted October 15, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    One can believe the right things for the wrong reasons. Sartwell might be suffering the platonistic curse and thinks in discrete labels, such as naturalism, whereas many criticial thinkings think in different levels of confidence towards propsals, however they are framed or named. A universe without an absurd Christian God is simply more plausible than one with such a God.

    We also can’t help and must accept some things, such as that there is a “human way to perceive/think things” paired with some reality “out there” to which we as a species have adapted.

    The problem of induction may not go away, yet we can’t escape that either on a basic level and have to accept it: Things we come across are natural, and they behave in natural ways. The next, currently unknown thing, you will be coming across is more likely to be natural than unnatural or supernatural, too. Therefore we can have greater confidence in naturalism than in supernaturalism, even if — as per problem of induction — we never know if the next item will be supernatural.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      I still want a coherent definition of supernatural. If something were discovered that defied the laws of Physics, would we draw a line in the sand and declare that we’re now doing supernatural science? If we discovered the principles behind which this new discovery acted, would we then call it part of nature? Quantum Mechanics seems to fit this bill and we don’t call that supernatural.

      This would seem to leave us with supernatural being that which we discover but cannot explain. It’s reduced to the same notion as the god of the gaps argument.

  47. Another Tom
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    My definition of theology has always been people making stuff in order to pretend that what they want to be true is true. It also make apologetics synonymous with theism.

  48. Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    I debated with myself whether to make this personal comment, but my intellectual commitments demand that I do.
    Let me first say that I think Sartwell’s position has a lot of difficulties, which could be properly addressed in another forum. So I do not defend his philosophy, but his integrity as a thinker worth disagreeing with.
    Although there have been many thoughtful posts on this comment thread, there has also been a lot of rubbish. Indeed, I find find myself very disillusioned.
    I was surprised here to find a ‘Coyne-cult’ much as one can find a (‘A+’) ‘PZ Myers cult’ at Pharyngula; I doubt Dr. Coyne wants that, and I know he doesn’t need it.
    The philosophy-bashing here has been disgraceful. Philosophers are, for the most part, profoundly committed to thinking deeply over problems of knowledge and language. Few of them, in the American traditions, reject science; but science has not yet permeated the whole of our experience to the point that we can reject their inquiries. The nasty sarcasm here (making fun of of Sartwell’s name, for gosh sake!) only persuades me not to take such antagonism seriously.
    Indeed the unpleasant result of this whole discussion is that it has provided evidence for Sartwell’s assertions of arrogance against New Atheism, and for Pigliucci’s complaints about scientists practicing philosophy without warrant.
    If one wants to engage in philosophical debate, one had better shore up on philosophical knowledge. Some of the comments here are intellectually impoverished.
    It should be noted, that the importance of rhetoric in such discussions is that it persuades. Logic and argument never by themselves convince (and certainly, ad hominem attacks convince not at all). Some of the commentators here need to decide if they want to win people over, or merely pat themselves on the back for being clever.
    What a disappointment! Well, the cats are very pretty (although I’m a d*g man myself).

    • Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:30 am | Permalink

      Perhaps you haven’t read enough of Jerry’s posts about philosophy and readers comments. There”s actually a very wide range of views about the value and worth of philosophy. Some (Ben, Torbjörn) consistently and coherently argue “no” (ironically, these might be thought of as philosophical arguments); many disagree (though none, I think, holds the view that it is *all* good). And there are philosophers — say, Dennett, Grayling – that are generally well respected.

      /@

      • Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:48 am | Permalink

        Given our disagreement on a previous comment, I am glad you responded here, because your remark is measured and leaves no room for misunderstanding.
        I would never have bothered with this site, or occasionally commenting here, if I did not admire Dr. Coyne’s work, or recognize the intelligence of his readers. The problem with this particular thread has been, I think, a rush (on some parts) to comment before thinking the matter over.
        I will note that the most thoughtful comments here have been from those sharing their own experiences with becoming (or, in some cases, having always been) atheists. And I think, to pay Sartwell his due, that this is also the strongest part of his essay.
        His remarks on New Atheism are mistaken, and his particular take on naturalism is very much open to debate; but surely we can allow his personal experience into the ‘atheist club’ if there is one, and I feel this could be more sympathetically addressed.

    • TJR
      Posted October 16, 2014 at 2:31 am | Permalink

      Fair enough, the thread includes scenes of moderate sarcasm and explicit feeble jokes, but no more than you would expect in any informal forum. He is writing informally and people are responding similarly.

      However, apart from that it is not clear from the above what exactly you are disagreeing with. If I read your comments above correctly, you seem to agree with the main criticisms of the article.

      Could you clarify what exactly it is you are disagreeing with here? Thanks.

      • Posted October 16, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        First, let’s consider a fault in Sartwell’s article, his denial that any atheist becomes so through the use of reason. That’s too broad, and clearly not so. This opens the door to Jerry’s criticism.
        The problem: In the context Sartwell is not writing as a professional philosopher, so he is not fully making his case. Consequently there are missing premises, and Jerry’s argument starts looking like a mis-reading. This is particularly so concerning the problem of ‘justification,’ since Jerry is using the term in the strict empiricist sense, and Sartwell’s ploy is to use it both in the Analytic, linguistic sense (which includes logical entailment), and in the common language sense of satisfying demands concerning one’s beliefs. A dubious rhetorical ploy; but in the context of a defense of his personal experience (and partly because it’s the result of his professional work on the problem of justification), it needs to be unpacked on its own terms; insistence on empirical justification is simply inadequate.
        Finally, there is nothing in Sartwell’s article that is anti-science or anti-scientific method. His express commitment to naturalism indicates that he accepts the world science has given us. Given his emotivist epistemological position, he would need to come up with a different logical foundation for it than we currently accept, but he can’t do that in a brief journalistic paper, and I think it a mistake to suggest he ought to. Yes, he does seem to stray into Feyerabend territory; but he is not making any strong claim on philosophy of science, he seems more concerned with the ability (specifically his ability) to profess atheism socially without recourse to debate. Sartwell is wrong to suggest we all do this, but it’s a mistake to exclude this as one way to live as an atheist.

  49. Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on valores, principios, defectos y vicios humanos: el autoconocimiento no es el nirvana! and commented:
    Pues el debate no está tan difícil de entender, y por lo tanto, se puede ver desde la crítica aquí publicada, que hay quienes tratan de solamente mantener el debate en vigencia, sin importar que se propongan ideas tan contradictorias como que el ateísmo se basa en la fe, igual que una religión, pues levanta sosèchas sobre quienes afirman tal cosa. Sospechas de ser manipuladores de la información, y/o, sopechas de ser unos ignorantes ilustrados, con título de “apantallapendejos”.

    • Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:44 am | Permalink

      To save others the trouble:

      So the debate is not so difficult to understand, and therefore, can be seen from the review posted here, there are those who try to only keep the debate into force, no matter how contradictory ideas proposed as atheism is based faith, as a religion, then raises suspicions about those who say such a thing. Suspected of being manipulators of information, and / or suspected of being ignorant illustrated with title “shielded to the assholes.”

      Google took a little coaxing; roger seems to have made a couple of typos, and I hope I deconstructed the last word correctly.

      /@

      • Posted October 16, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

        Muchas gracias Ant (@antallan) por su traducción, le agradezco mucho. Y como ven, este tema me parece muy importante, porque sí hay diferentes perspectivas sobre el atehísmo, de los mismos ateos, desde los que no se detienen a preguntarse si son ateos o agnósticos, pues están en la vanguardia de las investigaciones de sus diferentes ramas de la ciencia, hasta los ateos beligerantes y soberbios que se burlan de los creyentes y sus dioses, pasando por los “moderados”hasta llegar a los ¡absurdos! Y la mayoría queriendo que su visión sea la verdadera, y en ese sentido, si se comportan como sectas cristianas. Pero “¡gracias a dios!” (jajaja) se avanza en Física, en Neurociencias, en Astronomía y Astrofísica, y se fortalecen las hipótesis y se confirman teorías que significan crecimiento del conocimiento del Universo y lo Humano, que impactan directamente aunque sin ser esa la inteción, en las ideas y argumentos que derrumban mitos y fantasías que aún eclipsan la percepción humana de “lo real”, lo cual aprovechan quienes gozan hasta el orgasmo, del control mental y la administración de la ignorancia para fines de élites y cúpulas oscuras y poderosas. Saludos a todos los participantes, de quienes aprendo mucho. Por cierto, mi intención al comentar donde me lo permitan y sea tema de mi interés, es la de obtener respuestas que me corrijan, orienten o de plano me hagan saber que no tengo idea de lo que digo, pues así es como mejor estoy entendiendo estas cosas que en mi niñez me decía mi abuela paterna: “¡los ateos son adoradores del diablo, y dicen que se roban a los niños…”

        • Posted October 16, 2014 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

          This is not going to be the norm; but just once more:

          Thank you very much Ant (antallan) for his translation, thank you very much. And as you see, this issue seems very important, just because there are different perspectives on atehísmo, atheists thereof, from which they do not stop to wonder if they are atheists or agnostics, because they are at the forefront of research in their different branches of science, to the belligerent and arrogant atheists who mock believers and their gods, to “moderate” to reach the absurd! And most wanting his vision is true, and in that sense, if they behave as Christian sects.

          But “thank God!” (Lol) advances in Physics, Neuroscience, Astronomy and Astrophysics, and strengthen hypotheses and theories mean growth of knowledge of the Universe and the Human, that directly impact but not be confirmed the intention, in the ideas and arguments that collapse myths and fantasies that still overshadow the human perception of “reality” which exploit those who are covered to orgasm, mind control and administration of ignorance end of elites and domes [cúpulas; there’s some Spanish idiom here that doesn’t translate literally, I think] dark and powerful.

          Greetings to all participants, who learn a lot. By the way, I intend to discuss where I permit and be subject of my interest is to obtain answers to correct me, guide or flat I do know that I have no idea of what I say, for this is how best’m understanding these things in my childhood that my grandmother told me: “atheists are devil worshipers, and say that children were stolen …”

          /@

  50. Posted October 16, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    “we have never understood anything about the universe by assuming the supernatural”

    This is exactly right. As I always put it: Magic explains nothing.

    If you allow magic, then any effect can equally well be assigned to any cause, and you can learn nothing of value.

    Pointing this out usually drives the theists crazy. Of course they know their magic is right! It says so right here in this book! 🙂

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 16, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      If you allow magic, then any effect can equally well be assigned to any cause, and you can learn nothing of value.Pointing this out usually drives the theists crazy. Of course they know their magic is right! It says so right here in this book!
      😺

      Hey, no fair! Asking for a useful result out of philosophy! [puts on Lady “Handbag” Bracknell voice] The very idea!

  51. Posted October 16, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, once again, to be in disagreement with you, Jerry, but reason itself compels me to respond. I do so with some trepidation.

    The first question, from the philosophical point of view, that needs to be answered, is: What is Reason? And with that one comes the correlative question: What is rationality? Neither of these questions have an obvious answer, though you assume that rationality consists exclusively in basing one’s beliefs on empirical evidence.

    Sartwell, however, thinks, with some justice, that rationality must be more than this, since rationality consists, at least in part, in accepting the consequences of logical argument. Bear with me for a moment, before jumping to conclusions. You might say that we have “evidence” for the truth of logical argument form Modus Ponens, that it is simply always true, even if the conclusion of premises used in this form of argument may not be true. But what is this evidence? WVO Quine thought there must be some, since the distinction between truths based on relations of ideas and truths based on evidence of the senses is simply, he though, a philosophical dogma. However, we can simply formalise Modus Ponens. If a, then b; a; therefore b. This is a truth of logic, but what is the evidence? According to your criticism of Sartwell, something constitutes evidence if it works, without consideration, apparently, of why it works. But why something works, why, in particular, Modus Ponens works, is different from what makes the general theory of evolution “work”.

    The problem with the answer, “because it works,” is that this is only a local feature of scientific argument. If it works, you simply go on to the next stage of research, based on this discovery, and so on and on. But the problem Sartwell is raising is a very different one. He is raising a question — and quite a legitimate one — about the whole system just working. We are ourselves embedded in the system, as he points out at one stage, and there is no way for us to see the system as a whole. We are simply part of a system that works. Now, that’s evidence enough for local discoveries within the system, but does that answer to larger questions of why and how it works? Something’s working, within the system, is a sign that we have got something right within the system. But we are embedded in that very system, so that the whole of what we are investigating is seen from our point of view. Is it just a coincidence that mind and matter cohere in the way that they do? Or is there something else about our situation that makes that system work? Do you have any evidence that can answer that question? (Remembering, of course, as you try to answer it, that you are part of the very system whose structure you are trying to explain and justify.)

    The point that Sartwell is making is that naturalism is a metaphysical position, and cannot itself be justified in terms of the system as defined by that position. It’s like the old verificationist problem all over again. If a proposition p is true because it can be verified, what about the proposition that only verified propositions are true? Since it is not obvious that this can be verified, is it true of false? The same goes for the natural world in which we are embedded, and which can be known by us only perspectivally. We do not have a non-perspectival way of looking at the universe, and therefore there are questions about our existence in and knowledge of the universe that we simply cannot answer. The best we can do is to place our trust in the only way that works for us in giving us knowledge of the world (as we see it from our point of view). It seems reasonable to do so, based on the fact that it works for us, but we need to remember the large context in which this claim is being made, and which cannot be ultimately justified. So there is an element of faith involved in our confidence in science. That’s at least part of Sartwell’s point.

    Now, let’s take religion. Religion, you say, is simply about the existence of gods. (This, itself, is such an impoverishment of what constitutes religion, that I accept it here simply as a basis for argument.) Is there any evidence for the existence of gods? Any religious person of any sophistication would say both yes and no. Yes, there are experiences and arguments that seem to show that there are higher powers than any acknowledged by science. But, no, any god worthy of the name could not produce empirical evidence for his existence, quite aside from beliefs in miracles, the truth of the Bible, etc. For God is the creator and ground of all that exists, and cannot appear, as another existent, amongst those things that exist.

    At one level religion cashes itself in in terms of rituals, and sometimes superstitions, that cannot be evidence for God, and are often justly ridiculed. Some of these things are the things that religious people cleave to in times of trouble and darkness in their lives. But they do not define religion as such, which is one reason there is such a diversity of religious beliefs and practices worldwide. If there were a ground and creator of the universe, it is unlikely that such a ground or creator would appear to all in the same way or on the same terms. These are the things that underlie the religions, which are, everyone of them, human creations, and must be seen as such, if God really is creator and ground of the universe. To appear in his uncreated word, as Muslims believe, is blasphemy, that the creator of the universe could himself be present in human words subject to human interpretation. The same applies to the incarnation in Christianity. These are fully human creations, and are to be seen as ways in which people have sought to explain what they think of as encounters with God. There is no more unreason in supposing that the universe has an intelligent ground than there is in believing that all the particles and force fields of physics must be imaginable in ways that human beings can descriptively understand (as in the classic model of the atom as a small solar system).

    You say:

    The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion.

    Well, this is not just a trick. You are forgetting the more fundamental question that Sartwell asks regarding the ultimacy of the picture of the universe held by beings who are themselves embedded in the universe, and can see it only perspectivally. For Sartwell, the religious question is ultimate in a similar way. So that when you say:

    It is the “insufficient data” for god that leads us to atheism, in precisely the same way that the insufficient data for the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, or alien abduction leads us to doubt their existence.

    you are simply missing the point. For God is not in any way like the Loch Ness Monster, which, if it exists, is an existent like you or me, not the creator and ground of the universe. It is this inability to distinguish between levels of thinking that Sartwell is drawing attention to. I think what he says is right, and that you have simply misunderstood the points he has been trying to make (not very effectively, in your case).

    You even go so far as to say, without qualification:

    That, after all, is what apologetics is all about, and it’s what Natural Theology is about as well. Believers crave evidence for their faith, because in their hearts they know that there isn’t any.

    Start with the second sentence, remembering what you mean by the word ‘evidence’. Believers do not, so far as I know, crave evidence for their faith, though they do seek to know more about their beliefs, and their implications both for what they know about the world, and how they seek to live out their religious traditions in the world. Faith is more like a settled disposition towards the world than it is a canon of beliefs which must be held. Both Apologetics and Natural Theology are less eagerly addressed than they used to be. The real problem now is to rid theology of terms of belief which conflict with what is otherwise known, and to recognise as human, many if not most aspects of faith.

    Now, I realise I may not have been a typical priest, but this is what I tried to do for over fourteen years in my last parish before retirement, and while I was out of step with some of my brother and sister priests, I was by no means the only one who believed that religious faith and its expression must be radically changed if it were to be a vehicle for rational faith. To some extent, I think, I succeeded, and I do not see anything that I did or said as in conflict with science at any point.

    • Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      1. What we do know, to a very high degree of confidence, is that there is no evidence for anything outside the “natural” world; no hidden variables (quantum theory), no mysterious influx of energy (thermodynamics, Planck), no unknown forces that act at human scales (Standard Model, LHC). While this doesn’t rule out the existence of anything “supernatural”, it does indicate, with that same very high degree of confidence, that if it does exist it does not interact with the “natural” world.

      2. Along those lines, it doesn’t matter if God “cannot appear, as another existent, amongst those things that exist”. If God interacts with “those things that exist” (the “natural” world), then his presence (as the ground of being or whatever) is amenable to scientific investigation. If he doesn’t interact (and there is every indication that he doesn’t — and can’t; see #1), then he might as well not exist, and no religion can claim knowledge of him or of his desires for humanity. Very few religions resemble the attenuated metaphysical abstraction you describe, and do make those claims.

      3. As for “the incarnation in Christianity” being a “fully human creation” … well, you and we may think so, but doesn’t it flout the doctrine of every mainstream Christian church?

      /@

      • Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        Now, note, Ant, I’m not defending religious belief. I’m defending Sartwell’s argument, which I think has some merit.

        As to 1, this is still within the limits of human embeddedness in the universe and the perspectival nature of our knowledge of the natural world.

        As to 2, most Christians would say that God’s interaction with the world is personal, in that it is an address to persons, and not a matter of having an effect in nature. The assumption, I suppose is that mind is, in some sense, not defined, other than a completely natural phenomenon. In any event, the scientist is not in a position to question this assumption, though he may react by saying that science does not allow for the mind being other than an effect of natural phenomena that can be measured and observed. But this cannot be other than an article of faith at the present time, convinced as we may be that it is true.

        As to 3, that is true, but it does not, in itself argue against my point, that such things as incarnations, direct revelations to prophets, and other such supposedly supernatural visitations are not in fact the outcome of the human creative process, which, I think, must be true. That does not mean, as in 2, that we are addressed personally by God in our experiences. There is every reason to believe that this at least could be true. At least we have no reason not to believe this, or at least to cast aspersions on this belief. But, at the same time, such experiences, while they may be turned into positive religious rituals and other beliefs and behaviours, would not change those rituals and other beliefs and behaviours into something other than a human creations.

        The point is that there is another level of metaphysical questioning that supersedes the level of thinking about science in terms of that which works, because what works in the context of our embeddedness in nature does not clearly provide an ultimate explanation of the natural world. This is why Hawking spoke of model dependent realism, because, in fact, we are limited by our models, created in the context of the embeddedness of science in the world, as but one perspective on it. The point is that philosophical argument cannot, as Jerry says, be simply solved while standing on our heads.

        • Posted October 16, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

          Now, note, Eric, that I wasn’t attacking a putative defence of religious belief.

          I’m sorry that I don’t have the leisure to lay things out more clearly, but, I don’t think you get just how strong #1 is.

          I call philosophical shenanigans on “the limits of human embeddedness”. Yes, our knowledge is perspectival, but anything can interact with us and with the “natural” world that we interact with can be perceived (if not always directly by our senses). Nothing that can interact with the protons, neutrons and electrons our bodies are made of can do so except by the forces described by the Standard Model, which the results from the LHC confirms. See Sean Carroll’s talk on this at Skepticon 5. Ergo there is nothing that we can perceive or which can interact with us which is not described by the Standard Model. (Which is not to say that the Standard Model is a complete account of the physics of the natural world; it’s not. But anything outside the Standard Model – e.g., dark matter – is too weak at human energy scales to have any appreciable effect on the functioning of out bodies and brains,)

          And this puts paid to any dualist notions about the mind: “… he may react by saying that science does not allow for the mind being other than an effect of natural phenomena that can be measured and observed. But this cannot be other than an article of faith at the present time…” Well, cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind might argue the point, but they, like you, miss the point that the issue is fixed by physics. If the mind were something other than a natural phenomenon, it would have to interact with our brains, and such interactions would be limited to the forces described by the Standard Model (all normal chemistry and biochemistry follows from the physics, of course). We can say this even without knowing what such a mind might be composed of and what strange mental forces it might involve, because ultimately it must interact with the protons, neutrons and electrons our brains are made of. And thus we could – but don’t – see those interactions experimentally. (We are very good at measuring those.) Even more strongly, we know, thanks to LHC, that there are no exotic particles (= fields) that interact with Standard-Model forces at human energy scales; thus nothing unknown that could interact with the brain that the mind could be made of! See Sean’s talk again.

          /@

          • Posted October 16, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

            “This.”

            Eric, we still have trouble forecasting the weather past a few days, and there’s still a good deal of uncertainty even then. But we know without a doubt that it’s virtually entirely masses of air and water vapor at different temperatures and pressures moving at different speeds, and we know what causes those differences and how they interact. More to the point, we know most emphatically that it has nothing to do with Zeus or Tempestas or Thor, as the ancients once thought.

            Similarly, we know that, because your mind can cause you to move your fingers in a way that sends photons representing your thoughts to my eyes, those thoughts must be made of the stuff of the Standard Model. Complaints that we don’t fully understand cognition are as irrelevant as complaints that the weatherman didn’t predict that freak thunderstorm; and suggestions that spirits are therefore a plausible explanation are as bizarrely tangential as invoking Jupiter to explain the storm.

            You don’t need to know every detail of the physics to reasonably accept it true. I rather doubt you could readily precisely model Mercury’s orbit — I know I’d need to do a lot of research for that one — yet you surely don’t feel any compulsion to call upon Hermes to explain why it moves in such tricky ways.

            Sean Carroll summarized it here in a short (700 words — shorter than many of your own posts!) and engaging essay:

            http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2010/09/23/the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-are-completely-understood/

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted October 17, 2014 at 4:52 am | Permalink

              Ben, what we accept as true is accepted within the specific context of our embeddedness in physical reality. The question is whether there is a more general perspective from which the whole of reality can be “observed” and in which the certainties we establish within our own limited perspective, turn out to be merely marginal truths in relation to the whole. I think that is what Sartwell is on about, and I don’t think there is a definitive answer that we can give to such questions, which is why, as I said, that Hawking speaks of “model dependent realism.” What is real depends on our perspective, on the models we can create from that perspective, and on the tests of those models we can conduct from within that perspective. Nothing you say here really questions or undermines that further questioning. This goes for jblilie in the comments to follow.

              • Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

                Ben, what we accept as true is accepted within the specific context of our embeddedness in physical reality. The question is whether there is a more general perspective from which the whole of reality can be “observed” and in which the certainties we establish within our own limited perspective, turn out to be merely marginal truths in relation to the whole.

                Eric, that’s the textbook definition of a paranoid conspiracy theory.

                Yes, it’s possible that we could all be computer subroutines living in the Matrix, and there’s no way to disprove that possibility.

                But there’s also no way to disprove the possibility that we could be brains in vats, that Alice’s Red King is dreaming us, or that our tinfoil hats have slipped and aliens are controlling our thoughts with their mind rays.

                Logically, all are identical propositions, as is your “more general perspective.”

                Until you can come up with evidence that such a perspective even exists let alone why your proposed perspective is more likely to be “really real” than some other, you don’t even have a place to start from, let alone propose as a reasonable conclusion.

                After all, how do you know what your “more general perception” isn’t itself part of the computer simulation that Alice’s Red King is being forced to dream by alien mind rays?

                b&

              • Posted October 17, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

                Only three levels down? No, I think we need to go deeper.

              • Posted October 17, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

                …and somebody wake up the bass trombone — he missed his cue!

                b&

              • Keith Cook
                Posted October 17, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

                Apparently conductors do not even look at the brass section, it only encourages them..
                excellent piece, loved that.

              • Posted October 18, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

                Conductors have tried not looking at us for a while. Doesn’t work. If they’re not looking at us, we just assume that they’re not unhappy with whatever we’re doing.

                b&

              • Keith Cook
                Posted October 18, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

                When I first heard this statement about looking at the brass section the conductor was referring to the volume a brass section in an orchestra can generate and he didn’t want to get them excited. That hit my funny bone.. interesting title to that piece ‘Dream is Collapsing’ by the way.

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

                It’s from the movie, “Inception,” which is all about dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams. That bit of the soundtrack comes when the whole thing starts collapsing in on itself as people start to wake up (or do they…?).

                b&

              • Posted October 18, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

                Conductors have tried not looking at us for a while. Doesn’t work. If they’re not looking at us, we just assume that they’re not unhappy with whatever we’re doing.

                I wonder if sub atomic particles feel the same way.

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

                You could just ask a conductor. Most have brains made of but one or two subatomic particles….

                b&

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

              In mentioning Mercury’s orbit, I just had to jump in and mention that I recently learned that Pluto’s orbit is chaotic and then as I was typing this, thought I’d do some Google checking and learned that the solar system is considered chaotic since it’s stable according to humans, since things remain stable and predictable over the next few billion years but outside of that not so much. (Wikipedia article here)

              I think what is notable in this example is that although humans are indeed restricted by the physics of their brains (which gets messy with the study of consciousness and self-consciousness) we have developed tools (in particular math) that verify what our minds alone cannot. And yes, we know these tools work because they make accurate predictions.

              • Posted October 17, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

                And even those unpredictable systems…well, it’s like breaking a racked set of pool balls. Predicting the bounce of a single ball off the rail is trivial. A two-ball interaction is almost as easy. Three balls gets harder, and so on…but, if you take a massive cluster of such interactions and focus your attention on just a single ball and ignore all the others, it is again apparent that it’s still obeying all the same rules.

                The limitation is in our computational ability to create a model with all the parameters as the real thing — or, in other words, to create a perfect 1:1 scale map of the original. And when you’re actually embedded within whatever you’re trying to map, it should be obvious why your maps will always be less detailed than the original.

                That your map doesn’t show you the inch-wide rivulet running past the rock you’re sitting on doesn’t mean that there could be an ocean on the other side of the rise that was invisible to the mapmakers…but, if you think it does, then you’re now mistraking the territory for the map.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted October 17, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

                That’s interesting. Somewhere in these discussions it was mentioned that Newton thought God had to tweak things from time to time to keep the planets on track, and somebody else (Liebniz?? I forget…) pointed out that if God had created the solar system he would have made it perpetually stable.
                Which of course it is but (Diana is telling us) long-term it isn’t. God goofed up…

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 17, 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

                Or he made it like that so he could still feel useful.

              • Posted October 18, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

                I’ve know people who try to do their jobs like that — such an intricate mess that they’re convinced that they’re irreplaceable. Never makes a difference. Sooner or later, some sweeping change comes along and it turns out that the boss doesn’t actually need anything that person does, even if it’s stuff that nobody else could possibly do.

                …witness YHWH v Newton v Einstein….

                b&

            • Posted October 18, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

              Ben, this has nothing to do with subroutines of the Matrix, or brains in vats, or anything like that. It is simply the point that we are embedded in a physical system, and that any view we take of that system is inevitably perspectival. I am not, for example, suggesting that we can’t know what we know (in science or elsewhere), only that, could we look at the whole of reality in a perspectiveless way, we might find that what we know is but a small portion, and even a corrupted portion, of what there is to be known. This is obvious simply by the fact that science has evolved, and perhaps, as Kuhn says, has undergone radical conceptual revolutions. Read Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere (which I haven’t for years) to get an idea of the difficulty posed by the supposed strict objectivity of (say) physics, when, in fact, we are still looking at the world from a specific perspective, that of embodied beings living on the borders of reality. The point that Sartwell is making, I think, is that this makes all our claims about reality relative to our point of view, and makes these claims, to this extent, a matter of faith.

              Jerry thinks that Sartwell is saying that science is irrational, but he’s not. He’s saying that science is limited, and that that doesn’t matter, because we are limited. It could not be otherwise. But this means that there is still a question whether our scientific theories are true independently of our perspectival way of seeing the world, or whether they are true absolutely. So far the claim, “Nothing is true unless we have evidence for it,” is an expression of faith. Of course, if we have evidence, it works. But this does not take the sting out of the tail, because the claim, “Nothing is true unless we have evidence for it,” is still a claim for which we have no evidence. Is it, or is it not, true? For a logician this means that the claim is self-subverting.

              Regarding apples and oranges, by the by. The fact that I cannot pick two apples and give a whole apple to three different people, is not in itself evidence that 1+1=2. It is just another way of stating the equation. It’s an illustration, not evidence. This is shown clearly by the fact that there are, for instance, alternative logics, and geometries, to go no further.

              • Posted October 18, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

                I am not, for example, suggesting that we can’t know what we know (in science or elsewhere), only that, could we look at the whole of reality in a perspectiveless way, we might find that what we know is but a small portion, and even a corrupted portion, of what there is to be known.

                Eric, this is part deepity and part misunderstanding.

                First, of course, we already know that we’re but an insignificant speck of a tiny corner of the observable universe. Next, we have good reason to suspect that that the observable universe is, itself, but a tiny fraction of a much larger multiverse and / or many quantum worlds (which some have even proposed are congruent with each other). And, more to the point, we know that there’s a great deal to physics itself we’ve yet to figure out, especially the reconciliation of quantum and relativistic interpretations of gravity.

                But the point you’re missing is that not only do none of those “known unknowns” have anything even remotely to do with cognition, we’ve also established that none of the “unknown unknowns” possibly could, either.

                In essence, you’re pointing out that we’re an ant on the kitchen table, and we don’t know what’s on the other side of the front door…so maybe there really are invisible marionette strings stretching off the table and through the door to our hidden puppet masters.

                It doesn’t matter what type of magic thread you’re positing the control strings are made of, or the nature of the puppeteers, or any other variation on the theme. What matters is that we know that they’re not there, barring the most insanely paranoid of conspiracy theories.

                b&

              • Posted October 18, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

                An interesting allegory! (I should point out, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am not currently on the kitchen table.)

                Going back to my earlier points, Eric, which you have not engaged with as you have with Ben’s, and exploiting Ben’s allegory.

                We do not know whether there are or are not any puppet masters.

                But if there were, we know both what the strings must be made of and, thus, that we would be able to detect them. If we cannot detect them, they cannot control us. (The Standard Model and LHC tell is this.)

                We see no evidence of strings anywhere in the room and can conclude with a very high degree of confidence that they do not exist.

                Thus, if puppet masters do exist, we are not their puppets nor they our masters. In short, their existence is irrelevant to ours.

                Don’t object that you’re not making any claims about there being puppet masters. This is an allegory. I’m sure you can find the right hermeneutics to interpret it more generally.

                /@

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 18, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

                I think what Eric is saying is that we are trapped in our meat bodies using our meat brains so our experiences of reality are therefore limited. It’s somewhat what I believe Nietzsche lamented about really knowing what it is to be a different object. Philosophers of that time considered music and mathematics to be the best languages for representing reality simply because they didn’t let much get in the way between human and object.

                I can accept the meat world analysis and I’m sure others do as well but I think the closest we can get is understanding through mathematics. An example is understanding the sub-atomic world that we would otherwise not be able to access in the classical world.

              • Posted October 18, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

                But I don’t see that any lament about not really *knowing* what it is like to be a different object puts any practical limits on what we can discover about the cosmos (*real* knowledge!). Both mathematics and technology enable us to transcend the limitations of our meat bodies and meat brains.

                Richard Dawkins made an interesting observation that, while quantum theory and relativity are bizarre in comparison to our everyday experience and intuitions, if the effects were incorporated into video games (making h significantly larger and c significantly smaller), players would very easily develop an intuitive understanding! I guess the right video game might also help us understand better what it’s like to be a bat.

                /@

              • Posted October 18, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I agree. I think the constraints of meat brains has been acknowledged centuries ago and we have come far in working out what the constraints are and how to overcome them.

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

                Exactly — it’s not an experiential question, but an evidential one. Will you or I ever walk on the moon? Almost certainly no. Can we be overwhelmingly confident it’s not made of green cheese? Yes. Is there any correlation between those two facts? No.

                b&

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

                Well, Diana, I’m not sure that limitations of what you are pleased to call “meat brains” has been acknowledged generations ago. It’s still a very open metaphysical question. How does meat think about meat, for example? How is intentionality possibility in a physical system? Some neuropsychologists seem to want to deny the mental altogether. These are just the after effects of cognition which takes place in the brain; but it is not clear that such a determination can be made simply by considering the brain itself. We know all about attention deficit, and the fact that our senses do not take in everything that, in theory at least, impinges upon them. But this does not show that what is represented in the mind is a kind of afterimage of what the brain has already “cognised”. I simply don’t see how this is to be done. Indeed, I suspect that it makes the physicalist/naturalist paradigm a non-starter, though I doubt I’m going to find many supporters here.

                However, I would like to add that I never suggest what Ben “accuses” me of, namely, an “insistence on the non-physical nature of cognition,” which, as he goes on to say with appropriate hubris, “is a perfect example of a crazy religious proposition that ignores science.” No one has shown that cognition is a physical process. If they have, I would like to see the proof of that claim. Nor am I prepared to say that the non-physical nature of cognition (if that is what I indeed hold to be true — while I am not sure what cognition consists in) is a religious proposition, much less a crazy religious proposition. These are claims which go far beyond the evidence, and, indeed, it seems to me, shows what is wrong with the naturalist paradigm of knowing. But here I speak generally from ignorance, though it seems to me a logical consequence of the existence of intentionality, that at least something that we know about human beings is not known on the basis of scientific evidence.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 19, 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

                I dunno – when I read about consciousness (I just finished Christof Koch’s book: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist there is a lot of discussion about how the brain edits out quite a bit of the information that the optic nerve takes in then passes it on to other systems before the information even gets to consciousness. I think it is fully acknowledged that the brain does some weird stuff and mitigates what is shown to us (I am using dualist language only because it’s too clumsy not to). Sam Harris has said the same in his book, Waking Up. In other words, I think it is acknowledged but perhaps not yet fully understood (which is also acknowledged).

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

                How does meat think about meat, for example?

                Oh, that was answered a long time ago — and not even first in humans.

                https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron

                Turn those same neurons inward, and there’s your consciousness: a model of the world that recursively includes itself.

                No one has shown that cognition is a physical process. If they have, I would like to see the proof of that claim.

                CERN.

                Everything that interacts with human-scale phenomena, whether by changing it or observing it, comports to the Standard Model. Period, full stop, end of story. Everything else that is real doesn’t act at human scales; every other proposal that acts at human scales isn’t real.

                You accept, for example, that Michelson and Morley demonstrated the non-existence of the Luminiferous Aether, right? CERN has similarly demonstrated the non-existence of everything else outside of the Standard Model.

                And most of the Standard Model is irrelevant to humans, too. The only bits you’re ever going to personally directly experience are electromagnetism, gravity, photons and the various particles that make up atoms (especially including electrons). And for the functioning of brains, gravity is irrelevant, and photons can probably be largely ignored. At a low level, it’s going to be electrochemistry to understand what neurons do; at an higher level, it’s going to be information theory to understand how the logic of those networks of neurons function.

                Anything else in this day and age is as much faery tale and make-believe as the Four Elements, astrology, the humor theory of disease, and phrenology.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                At a low level, it’s going to be electrochemistry to understand what neurons do; at an higher level, it’s going to be information theory to understand how the logic of those networks of neurons function.

                “It’s going to be …” Very aptly put. In other words, it hasn’t been demonstrated yet. It’s a research program, one which, I suggest, may still be questioned on philosophical grounds. I am not at as confident as you that the study of the brain is going to explain consciousness or intentionality.

                As for Diana’s point about the sifting process that precedes consciousness. What exactly are you saying? That we can tell what external data impinge upon the senses, and we know what the mind is conscious of? So something is being “sifted” out before consciousness arises. Certainly, the more salient points in the visual field, for instance, are likely to be noticed. Therefore, we miss the man in the gorilla suit appearing for a second and then disappearing. But what does this say about the relation between brain events and mental events?

                For some reason consciousness, as a non-physical event or process (or whatever it is), is being shunted off into a religious never-never land, but it is hard to discern how events at the level of synapses produce consciousness, control the direction of attention, and make choices. Indeed, there seems to be a category error at work here someplace, despite the confidence with which these things are claimed. I do not think information theory will ever achieve this, but I am patient. If it really does show this (which I doubt, Ben) — that is, information theory as a purely algorithmic process — then I will capitulate, but it will take a lot of showing. And then, I fear, science will have taken all the wonder out of life. We will have to — Churchland-like — adopt the language of brain events, hormonal effects, and drop talking about love, morality, meaning and so on. Good luck on that!

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

                In other words, it hasn’t been demonstrated yet. It’s a research program, one which, I suggest, may still be questioned on philosophical grounds. I am not at as confident as you that the study of the brain is going to explain consciousness or intentionality.

                So maybe there’s something to astrology after all, eh? Ebola could possibly be the result of demonic influence rather than a virus? If Michelson and Morley had oriented their apparatus 90° it could perhaps have found the Aether after all?

                Eric, the reason we know that consciousness is a property of the brain is because we know there’s nothing else it could possibly be. I know you don’t want to believe us on this, but CERN really has ruled out all other possibilities as emphatically as Newton demonstrated that Helios doesn’t draw the Sun across the sky in his chariot.

                We will have to — Churchland-like — adopt the language of brain events, hormonal effects, and drop talking about love, morality, meaning and so on. Good luck on that!

                Oh, what nonsense. We know perfectly well that there aren’t any magical little men in the computer operating miniature lanterns and gramophones in response to our typed commands; there’s no question whatsoever but that it’s all ultimately differential states of electrical charge (etc.) in various semiconductors (etc.). And I program computers for a living, and I can most emphatically assure you that I never even pretend to think of an electron or a transistor or an integrated circuit at any point during the workday. It’s mostly a matter of things like, “SELECT COUNT([person_id]) AS [Total overtime employees] FROM [phcharg] WHERE [charge_date] BEWTEEN @From AND @Thru AND [job_code] IN (‘301’, ‘304’, ‘305) GROUP BY [person_id] HAVING SUM(ISNULL([charge_hours], 0)) > 40);” and similar arcana. You want to talk about love in human brains, you’re still going to need your Shakespeare, no matter the operating system nor the hardware your love is running on.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

                Yep. Everything is fixed by physics.

                We don’t have to wait to know what consciousness is to know what it is not.

                /@

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

                Well, let me quote then from Sam Harris on the mystery of consciousness (you can google it):

                <blockquote<Likewise, the idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken. We can say the right words, of course—“consciousness emerges from unconscious information processing.” We can also say “Some squares are as round as circles” and “2 plus 2 equals 7.” But are we really thinking these things all the way through? I don’t think so.

                So much for physics dealing with it. It really is so tiresome having these faith statements thrown at me, when I am the one who is trying to deny faith here, but to rely on what might be reasonably be called evidence. Instead, I get regaled with these easily slung off platitudes, such as Ant’s truly banal

                Yep. Everything is fixed by physics.

                We don’t have to wait to know what consciousness is to know what it is not.

                This is perhaps the most foolish remarks so far made on this thread, and it means nothing at all. Nothing. Nichts. We don’t know that everything is fixed by physics. That is, if anything is, a statement of faith. We simply don’t know it. We don’t know a lot about the most complex being in the universe that we know, namely, the human brain, and the human mind. And tossing off silly platitudinous pieties simply won’t cut it.

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

                We don’t know that everything is fixed by physics.

                Eric, do you accept that the physics of everyday objects around you is fixed by the Mechanics that Newton invented? That is, do you accept that objects in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by a force? Do you accept that all objects with mass are attracted to each other, and that like electromagnetic fields repel and opposite ones attract?

                Is there any way in which you would deny that everything for which Newtonian Mechanics applies is fixed by that physics?

                Would you accept similar propositions for both Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics for those scales where Newtonian Mechanics breaks down?

                If so, then, yes, everything is fixed by physics, and that physics goes way beyond the physics of human bodies and brains.

                And if not, you are proposing magic which the CERN team especially along with countless other experiments has demonstrated with overwhelming statistical certainty simply doesn’t exist.

                b&

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

                Ben, you claim,

                Eric, the reason we know that consciousness is a property of the brain is because we know there’s nothing else it could possibly be.

                is quite simply bollocks! We don’t know that there’s nothing else it could possibly be. Perhaps consciousness is in a category all of its own. You don’t know it’s not, and have not shown that it is not. You do not know what consciousness is, and there are problems with thinking that consciousness is a property of the brain. What do you mean by ‘property of’ here? We know what it means to say that red is a property of (most) ripe tomatoes, that they emit a certain light wavelength, that is perceived by the mind as red. But what do you mean when you say that consciousness is a property of the brain? Do you have any idea what it means to say that? I doubt it. Again, faith statements followed by faith statements. Science is obviously, to you, the most faith-ridden of all human endeavours, that it must resort to faith statements to fill in the blanks when explanation has come to an end — instead of saying, We don’t know. We simply do not know. As Harris says, you can say the words, but have you thought it through? I very much doubt it.

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

                Eric, I really don’t understand why you’e having such a difficult time understanding me.

                Let me try a different approach.

                Would you agree that perpetual motion machines are impossible? And the various conservation laws are inviolate?

                I would also hope that you would agree that consciousness is constantly interacting with the physical world. You perceive things in the physical world, and your consciousness is the motivator that causes you to pick up things and speak and walk around and all the rest.

                Either those interactions between consciousness and the rest of reality are obeying the same laws of thermodynamics (etc.) that apply everywhere else, or else the equation isn’t balanced and your consciousness is a perpetual motion machine pumping energy into the system that didn’t exist before.

                So the choice is to embrace perpetual motion machines or accept that minds really are wholly physical entities. Or, I suppose, you could deny that your thoughts interact even tangentially with the real world, but I have no clue how that is supposed to work.

                Eric, is it your consciousness that is interpreting these words you see I have typed? Is it your consciousness that’s causing you to move your fingers on the keyboard in response?

                If so, either you accept that consciousness is a physical phenomenon solely of the world of the Standard Model of modern physics, or you embrace the magical fantasy world of supernatural perpetual motion machines, whatever label you choose to apply to that world.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

                No, Ben, you analogy is wrong, because perpetual motion machines are supposedly operating in physical space, which makes them impossible. We don’t know what consciousness consists of, as Harris points out so effectively. It’s not that I’m having a problem with you, so much as with the fact that you are trying to claim knowledge of something about which you haven’t a clue. Why not just say, I don’t know?

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                No, Ben, you analogy is wrong, because perpetual motion machines are supposedly operating in physical space, which makes them impossible.

                Eric, if your consciousness isn’t operating in physical space, then how is it that it interacts with physical space? How do you know what words I just typed? How do you type words in response?

                That’s what it all comes down to. Either your consciousness interacts with the physical world, in which case it’s either physical itself or violating elebenty brazilian laws of physics.

                As you type your response, consider the connection between your consciousness and your fingers. Are your fingers operating in physical space? Are they operating in concert with your consciousness? If yes, how can that be without your consciousness also operating in physical space? If no…well, that way lies all sorts of cheap shots….

                b&

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

                @ Eric

                Wow! This really frustrates you, doesn’t it?

                I’m sorry that you think this is banal, because, actually, it’s a big deal. That everything is fixed by physics, that anything that interacts with our bodies and brains is fully described by the Standard Model, are incredibly powerful and exciting results.

                This is not foolish; this is not faith. This is a rational conclusion based on mountains of evidence.

                We know that everything in chemistry is consistent with the Standard Model to a very high degree of confidence. Everything in biochemistry. Everything in biology. Everything in human physiology, neurology, neurochemistry. See Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality — and refute that if you disagree.

                We know that there are no new particles and no new forces up to at least the mass/energy of the Higgs boson, and with the same five-sigma confidence. Nothing, then, that can interact with the matter in our bodies and brains, nothing that can influence our neurochemistry or neurology, except the particles and forces described by the Standard Model. See (as I’ve said more than once before) Sean Carroll’s presentation at Skepticon 5 – and refute that if you disagree.

                Physics does fix everything and it does rule out, with the same high levels of confidence, some conceptual possibilities. It is pretending otherwise that is foolish, that is a matter of faith.

                And it really doesn’t matter what Sam Harris thinks or says about the “mystery” of consciousness. As I suggested earlier, some cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind might argue against a purely physical mind, but they, like Sam, like you, miss the point that the issue is fixed by physics.

                Glibly dismissing this as bollocks just isn’t good enough. By continuing to advocate that consciousness is not fixed by physics, you are, in Sean’s words, “saying that our current knowledge of the laws of physics is wrong, which means you better give me a good reason to believe that our current knowledge of the laws of physics is wrong.”

                (It seems, in any case, that consciousness might not be the phenomenon we need to explain; it may, like free will, be a kind of illusion. It may be that “conscious“ awareness is only the brain’s crude model, a caricature, of “attention schema”, which is where the mind’s real work is being done. See Michael S. A. Graziano‘s “Are We Really Conscious?” in The New York Times.)

                /@

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

                It seems, in any case, that consciousness might not be the phenomenon we need to explain; it may, like free will, be a kind of illusion

                I would argue that the only meaningful working definition of consciousness there could be would be a model that recursively includes itself in the model. As such, the existence of mirror neurons basically solves the matter. “Free will” is therefore best understood as the brain running its model into the future, hitting the fast-forward button, and doing so for the choices we perceive as being available to us, leaving us to pick and choose from our predictions of likely outcomes.

                I don’t think there’s any observation of consciousness or description of what it means to have free will that gets left out by that. And, of course, it leaves on the cutting room floor all the mumbo-jumbo that physics has already ruled out.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 5:54 am | Permalink

                As Descartes recognised, consciousness cannot be an illusion. Nor, I suggest, can free will. Somewhere or other you are misunderstanding consciousness. If it were an illusion, then anything you can say on the basis of it would also be an illusion, and so science itself would become the product of illusion. You are either arguing in good faith, or your neurons are simply firing with the result that your fingers move over the keyboard. If that is the case, then Alvin Plantinga’s argument regarding naturalism is undoubtedly true, which I don’t think is the case.

                Of course, one of the problems of consciousness is how it relates to the physical world, but you can’t solve that particular problem simply by saying that physics (exhaustively) determines consciousness. One of the real problems is how it is possible for us to know. How is it possible that mind and physical world are so closely aligned? The answer might lie in the fact that the mind models the physical world, and this is what comes to be called reality (from our peculiar point of view). Given a different time of cognitive apparatus, the world might appear very differently than it does to us.

                I don’t know the answer, but I do recognise a faith statement when I hear one, and this thread is simply laden with them. There is no obvious reason why the world, as seen from a hypothetical nowhere, should be normative for us. Of course it works, but that doesn’t mean that our theories model reality, only just as much reality as is necessary to do the kinds of things that we do. You keep forgetting the point of view which is there whether you acknowledge it or not. And supposing that consciousness is illusion is a clear sign that you’ve lost touch with the sources of knowledge, for if it were not for consciousness, we wouldn’t be able to model the reality (remember Hawking’s “model dependent realism”) with which science deals. The model here is an aspect of our consciousness of things, not a mere side effect. If it were, science itself would be an illusion. However, basta! I’ve had enough.

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

                Of course, one of the problems of consciousness is how it relates to the physical world, but you can’t solve that particular problem simply by saying that physics (exhaustively) determines consciousness. One of the real problems is how it is possible for us to know.

                Eric, I’m trying to explain exactly how and why it is that we know.

                There is a causal chain that starts with your consciousness and continues to neural activity in your brain and then your spine to your fingers, which then wiggle in patterns upon your keyboard that’s connected to your computer and the Internet and my computer and its display and my eyes to my brain and my consciousness. Indeed, it is a loop, as my consciousness responds with a similar cascade that leads back through my fingers to the ‘Net to your eyes and consciousness.

                I believe that we are in agreement that every step of that loopy causal chain comports with physics, save you disagree about the final consciousness / brain interface. However, for consciousness to not comport with physics the same way everything else in that chain does would mean that everything we think we know about physics is worng, horridly worng.

                So, either physics is correct (in which case consciousness is a product of physics we already know) or consciousness somehow transcends physics. But were that the case, consciousness would be a perpetual motion machine and similarly violate all sorts of other rock-solid physics, and those violations of physical law would be trivial to observe and confirm…meaning the real dichotomy is that either physics is correct or there’s some sort of insane conspiracy theory at play, on the scale of aliens controlling your thoughts with their mind rays, or the Mind of God, or the Matrix, or some other variation on that theme.

                Indeed, the conspiracy would have to conclude that reality is radically different from how we perceive it on a scale few ever seriously contemplate. Some Biblical literalists like to propose that Satan planted fossils to test our faith…that would be child’s play. We’re talking here about gross distortion of everything from kids measuring gravity by rolling balls down tracks to the biggest experiment ever performed.

                Again, we don’t need to answer the question of what consciousness is and how it works to know this. We don’t fully understand the Earth’s core, but we know that volcanoes aren’t the result of Hephaestus getting exuberant at his forges. We don’t fully understand ocean currents, but we know Poseidon doesn’t guide them. We don’t fully understand ebola, but we know it’s not caused by demons.

                And we don’t fully understand consciousness, but we know for absolute certainty that it’s a product of the functioning of the brain in accord with physics — and, really, biochemistry, for that matter.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

                @ Eric : “As Descartes …”

                Do you really think that Descartes still has the last word on this, 400 years on?

                No.

                Our models pf reality are /not/ an aspect of our consciousness of things.

                The model here is an aspect of our /minds/ and of our (say, in Graziano’s model) /attention/ to things. Consciousness is an “awareness”, shortly after the fact, of our mind’s attention, thoughts, “decision making”, and so on. This notion of consciousness as a mere observer is well attested; see the spooky slide carousel experiment in Dennett’s _Consciousness Explained_.

                /@

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 5:56 am | Permalink

                Sorry….”type of cognitive apparatus.”

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

                Sorry, Ben, but you can’t do science by elimination. This is the way that physics works. There must be a connexion between the physics of the brain and consciousness. Therefore, it must be a physical connexion, for we know of no other possible connexion. Not a decisive argument by any means. Doesn’t help us understand consciousness or the relation of consciousness to the brain. It simply states a conclusion which follows from none of the premises.

                Oh, but, you say, if it doesn’t work this way, then we must be horridly wrong about physics. Why so? After all, physics is a theory based on a particular perspective on the world, one which, in fact, cancels through the mental phenomena in terms of which it is framed and verified. I think this is why Thomas Nagel said in Mind and Cosmos that “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False” (the book’s subtitle). All his life Nagel has been concerned with the “view from nowhere” (another book title) inscribed in scientific theories. Despite the fact that so many have panned the book, it seems to me that they miss the point, that science cannot in fact take the human (the mental) point of view into consideration, so it misunderstands the relationship between mind and cosmos. But physics may be quite adequate as a way of explaining the universe from the view from nowhere (which is in fact the view of an embedded mental point of view), but it cannot itself encompass the view from somewhere which is inevitably included in the scientific viewpoint, so science imagines a complete objectivity which it can never achieve. The same implication is included in Hawking’s “model dependent realism,” which in fact says it all. What we take to be real is based on models constructed by the mind. The fact that then the relationship between such constructs and the mind itself is ambiguous should come as no surprise whatever.

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

                * you can’t do science by elimination *

                Utterly, utterly wrong.

                Science is *all about* eliminating bad explanations. Ben’s favourite, the luminiferous aether. Phlogiston. Caloric. Élan vital. To misquote an old advertising catchphrase: It’s the hypotheses scientists reject that makes scientific theories the best.

                And science certainly can rule out conceptual possibilities. Though you keep denying it, we *can* exclude any new forces that have appreciable effects at human scales. http://ow.ly/D2CdE

                /@

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

                Sorry, Ben, but you can’t do science by elimination.

                Eric, you’re typing nonsense. All science is a process of elimination. How do you think we know that the Luminiferous Aether doesn’t exist? How do you think we know that the Periodic Table accounts for all elements with an atomic number up to 114 (or whatever)? How do you think we know that the Standard Model is complete at energies up to and including the Higgs?

                That is, after all, exactly what it means for a theory to be falsifiable. You have an idea. A consequence of that idea is that you would expect to make a certain observation if the idea is true. So, you have a look. Do you see what you expect to find? Yes? Great; your idea can live until the next test. No? Well, sorry, but you’ve just eliminated that idea. Better luck next time.

                But let’s try a different set of tracks.

                How, pray tell, are mind-altering substance supposed to alter the mind if the mind has no substance?

                That’s the one that really gets me. We’ve had hard evidence for at least a dozen millennia, ever since we figured out how to brew beer, that you can change the mind by doing physical stuff to it.

                Unless you wish to assert that there really are spirits in your spirits that can lift your spirits?

                There is not one single aspect of your consciousness that can’t be changed in superbly predictable ways by altering your brain physiology, either through chemical ingestion or electrical stimulation or physical trauma.

                Not one.

                And the correlations are perfect one-to-one examples in overwhelming instances. If a patient reports this-and-that symptom, there’s a lesion in such-and-such a spot. Apply electrodes to this bit here and the patient reports feeling very, very frightened for no apparent reason; move the electrode a smidge to the left and change the voltage, and the patient reports being blissfully at peace with the world. Give a subject so many milligrams of whatever’s in that jar over there, and the subject will report experiencing something-or-other.

                How on Earth is your mind not of this world, if it is so firmly embedded in it that we can play it like a cheap violin?

                Now, this is exactly what one would predict if your consciousness is a property of the underlying physical hardware of the brain. Change the brain, change the thoughts.

                And is is the exact opposite of what one would predict if consciousness is even in the slightest bit independent of the physical hardware of the brain. Were that the case, there would have to be some aspect of consciousness that survives anything and everything you could do to the brain — a soul, in other words. But we know that souls don’t exist, again, because we can be played like cheap violins.

                If you don’t believe me, try an experiment. Get drunk — completely blotto. BAC above 0.10%. Contact the local police station to find out when they’re next training cadets on field sobriety checks; they’ll welcome you as a volunteer and provide the safest imaginable environment for you to do exactly that, from ride there and back to the “bartender” checking your vitals (including instant breathalyzer results) to anything else you can think of. They even provide the alcohol! While you’re drunk, make notes as detailed as possible about the state of your consciousness. Ideally, get somebody to provide video documentation.

                Are you the same “you” when drunk as sober?

                If so, congratulations; you’ve just confirmed that your mind is independent of your brain. If not…welcome to the real world. And sorry about the hangover….

                b&

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

                This is not the way a normal conversation is carried out. One goes from one statement to another, rather than reading one statement in a way that is out of line with the ongoing conversation. So when I say you can’t do science by elimination, I meant to follow on from what Ben was doing, not suggesting that science is not a matter of eliminating mistaken hypotheses. So, you can’t go from: We don’t know what else consciousness can be but brain events? to: Therefore consciousness must consist of brain events. Of course, brain and consciousness are closely linked, Ben. I never suggested otherwise, but it does not follow that, just because getting drunk affects my state of consciousness, that consciousness and brain events are identical. That’s the elimination I was speaking of, as the context makes clear, and as a reasonably conducted response would have recognised. You simply can’t jump from whatever else could it be but …, to therefore it must be … It may give you a lead as to directions in which research may take you, but it does not, in itself constitute a valid argument. That in itself ought to be obvious. It’s a form of Modus Tollens, which is a fallacy.

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

                Miscommunications aside, we may actually be making progress!

                Specifically:

                Of course, brain and consciousness are closely linked, Ben.

                We can work with this!

                You’ve identified a correlation that I agree exists. There are therefore five possible explanations for that correlation:

                1) Changes in the brain cause changes in the mind. ii) Changes in the mind cause changes in the brain. c) The mind and brain each cause changes in each other. four) Some other phenomenon independently changes the mind and brain both. V) The correlation is coincidental and spurious.

                If you can identify your position from those on the list, we should be able to continue moving forward. (And, of course, my own position is the first on the list, though I could perhaps consent to certain interpretations of the third depending on definitions.)

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

                * You simply can’t jump from whatever else could it be but …, to therefore it must be … *

                But that’s badly misrepresenting the argument. We don’t start with “whatever else could it be but”. We start with the *empirical* result that we *know* what it *cannot* be; we have eliminated the impossible. You know haw the rest of the quote goes.

                I can’t help if you find the implication implausible. But that’s the way it is.

                /@

                >

              • Posted October 20, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

                And it’s not merely that we’ve eliminate the impossible; we’ve also got overwhelming evidence supporting the physicality of minds — see, again, beer.

                If we can change minds with physics, and physics tells us that there’s nothing else that can change minds, you’re again left with conspiracy theories that physics is worng as your only alternative.

                b&

              • Posted October 21, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

                Sorry, Ben, this just doesn’t work: Only the biochemistry of the brain can change minds. But you’re surely trying to change my kind by means of argument. Nothing at all to do with physics, chemistry or biology. Argument can change minds. Showing a scientist that his hypothesis is not borne out by what really happens, he is likely to change his mind (with a number of qualifications, of course). I can change a student’s mind about the validity of Modus Tolens, by showing him or her the result of including such an axiom in a logical system. And he will accept the point, not because of the chemistry of his brain, but because of his (or her) understanding of the logical consequences of the fallacy. Of course, there will be brain events that underlie that conviction, but the conviction, which has directedness, intentionality, is different to the brain events. I don’t know what ontic status the conviction has, but it is not physical, and cannot be reduced to the physical.

                Our conscious experiences for one thing have what John Searle calls a first person ontology. That is consciousness cannot be reduced to a view from nowhere, like blood flow patterns in the brain. (Of course, Searle thinks that brain events can be both physical and phenomenological at the same time, and still be biological functions. However, it seems to me that he still holds a point of view which is indistinguishable from property dualism, which he rejects.) It is the first person ontology that makes mental events different from physical events. Searle says that consciousness is “causally reducible but not ontologically reducible” (see his Consciousness (p. 127)).

                I don’t see that this is the case, for reasons given above. We can change minds in ways that cannot be described in causal terms, but can only be accounted for in terms of the meaning of the arguments used or reasons given. This is also why I think the idea that free will is an illusion is also mistaken, because we make choices for reasons (not as a result of causes). Of course, that is not to deny causal influences on our decision making, but I do not think that decision (whether changing my mind, or deciding to do one thing rather than another) can be reduced (or can always be reduced) to neuronal activity, because mind (which does things for reasons) interrupts the causal flow of events, and directs or redirects them.

                As to the relationship between mind (consciousness) and brain, I haven’t a clue, but I think there are good reasons for thinking that the relationship is much more complex than can be accounted for by contemporary physics or biochemistry alone. Obviously, they are related, but how are they related? My consciousness can be affected by my physical state (drunkenness), my physical state can be affected by my consciousness (depression). There is a clear relationship between brain and mind. There would have to be if the brain was to be of any use to us at all. Almost no one has questioned this, except for the occasionalists, whose influence was slight.

              • Posted October 21, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, Ben, this just doesn’t work: Only the biochemistry of the brain can change minds. But you’re surely trying to change my kind by means of argument. Nothing at all to do with physics, chemistry or biology.

                Au contraire!

                I am using the physics of banging on a keyboard to initiate a series of physical reactions that make their way to the light patterns coming from your monitor. Those patterns get focussed by your eyes which in turn cause biochemical reactions in your brain.

                I could use the exact same type of language to describe how I program computers for a living. And, indeed, computers in many ways seem like ethereal abstract magical objects, but even the distinction between “hardware” and “software” doesn’t really exist and is purely arbitrary. When I write software, I’m causing minuscule physical changes in the hardware, mostly flipping around various magnetic fields. In every instance. Indeed, I’m doing exactly that as I type these words: each letter is associated with eight teeny tiny little transistors somewhere in RAM, and the state of electrons in those transistors get associated with those letters. You could do the exact same thing with, say, water hoses or even a bunch of rocks.

                And that’s the point, really. Your mind is a phenomenon of your brain, and your brain is really just an incredibly complex Rube Goldberg contraption. Pull this lever here, a ball runs down this ramp there, and rings that bell over there, and you experience it as the smell of a rose.

                You might not think of it as very romantic, but it’s no different from what Newton did when he demonstrated that the planets move by their own form of clockwork, or that a rainbow is “merely” a dispersion of white light, and so on.

                For me, it’s incredibly exciting. Who needs ancient myths about angry wizards doing CPR on mud dummies, when we now know that all that’s standing in our way of creating new intelligences of our own is correctly designing a computer? Not that chances are great for me to live long enough to see the engineering challenge met, but just knowing that that’s “all” there is to it…how can you not be excited to have the basic idea of what makes you tick?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted October 21, 2014 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

                In the same way that Sean Carroll points out that if consciousness is not a product of the brain, then one is proposing that the Standard Model is wrong, if the proposal is that the brain can’t be replicated by a sufficiently advanced computer, then the alternative proposal is that the brain is either an infinite state machine or brain states don’t predictably map to certain behaviors, moods, feelings, etc. There’s not a shred of evidence for either of these possibilities and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Can we build a computer like this yet? No, but there’s every reason to believe it is possible.

              • Posted October 22, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

                Exactly. Since CERN has demonstrated the completeness of the Standard Model, and since said Model is perfectly computable by a Turing-equivalent device, the Church-Turing Thesis therefore holds for at least all domains within the Standard Model.

                b&

              • Posted October 21, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

                * I can change a student’s mind … of the fallacy. * This is egregiously begging the question.

                /@

              • Posted October 21, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

                Well, talk about leaps of faith! No, I don’t think it’s in the slightest exciting; nor do I think it is in the slightest likely. I wouldn’t bother waiting. It’s not going to happen. But that is a leap of faith too. I just don’t think the brain is a computer, nor, more importantly, will it be possible for us to think of it as one. But enough of this. There isn’t enough evidence to go on, and, I think, plenty of room for enough doubt to make me sceptical. If you don’t think so, you should try religion. It’s less given to flights of fancy! But enough for now.

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

                There isn’t enough evidence to go on, and, I think, plenty of room for enough doubt to make me sceptical.

                You, of course, are the only one who can decide what evidence is and isn’t good enough.

                However, the evidence from CERN that the Standard Model is complete is better than the evidence we have for virtually any other scientific conclusion, save possibly Evolution itself. They’re up to six sigma or better by now…only the most extreme of conspiracy theories can overturn something like that.

                And as to the question of computability: the Standard Model is perfectly computable by a Turing-equivalent device and so the Church-Turing absolutely holds over the entire domain covered by the Standard Model. Worst case scenario, you can always in theory build a quantum-level physics simulator to emulate any computational device…though in reality you’re basically guaranteed of far more significantly efficient solutions. Even a protein-level simulator of a brain would be overkill.

                Cheers,

                b&

    • Posted October 16, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Eric: “Believers do not, so far as I know, crave evidence for their faith”? Really?

      What about Lee Strobel’s long series of well-selling (at least among believers) books like The Case for Christ? (And many similar books by other authors.)

      What about the hubbub around the supposed Shroud of Turin and the Vatican’s equivocating around the C-14 data on it?

      What about the RCC’s saint-making process? Most of the entire field of apologetics?

      They don’t crave evidence for their faith? That’s not what I see.

      • Posted October 17, 2014 at 5:03 am | Permalink

        Of course, I never suggested that there were no crazy religious people who endeavour to ignore as much of science as they dare or can. The Vatican’s position regarding the Shroud of Turin is just a refusal to disorient the faithful by giving weight to scientific tests that have been done. It’s in the “steady as she goes” school of ecclesiology.

        Nor did I suggest that there weren’t people like Lee Strobel who try to establish the historical bona fides of the resurrection, doomed to fail as such things are; for if the resurrection occurred, it certainly did not occur in historical time or by means of unknown physical forces, and it is wasting forests to try to prove differently.

        Those, in fact, who continue to seek certainty about their beliefs have forgotten that religion is about faith (and faith is not about beliefs). As I suggested faith is a settled disposition towards reality (very much like suggestions about secular alternatives to religion suggested by such as Dworkin or Kitcher), not a canon of beliefs which one must memorise and adhere to. Christians who are still playing the apologetic game have missed the bus, or haven’t got the memo, that there is no point in questioning the findings of science, and no point in trying to historicise something that could not have occurred in history. I’m not saying that such crazies don’t exist. Of course they do, and it would be foolish of me to deny it. But they are spinoffs from the scientific revolution, and no longer part of the faith traditions which they claim to be defending. I am not, by the way, defending religious faith, I am simply trying to defend what Sartwell takes as a legitimate philosophical approach to it. I do not think he is so far wrong, though he might have qualified what he said by pointing out that some religious apologetics does not fit into the paradigm of religion he has in mind.

        • Posted October 17, 2014 at 5:19 am | Permalink

          Eric: This is a new one on me:

          “and faith is not about beliefs”

          It isn’t? Really? What are they having faith in if not their beliefs?

          It seems to me that religious practice is to a large extent exactly about beliefs. What is the purpose of the creeds recited each Sunday in most Christian churches by all of the congregation?

          Here’s what the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has to say about this:

          What We Believe

          “Our profession of faith begins with God, for God is the First and the Last, the beginning and the end of everything. The Credo begins with God the Father, for the Father is the first divine person of the Most Holy Trinity; our Creed begins with the creation of heaven and earth, for creation is the beginning and the foundation of all God’s works.”

          —the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 198

          Catholic belief is succinctly expressed in the profession of faith or credo called the Nicene Creed:

          The Nicene Creed

          I believe in one God,
          the Father almighty,
          maker of heaven and earth,
          of all things visible and invisible.

          I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
          the Only Begotten Son of God,
          born of the Father before all ages.
          God from God, Light from Light,
          true God from true God,
          begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
          through him all things were made.
          For us men and for our salvation
          he came down from heaven,
          and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
          and became man.
          For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
          he suffered death and was buried,
          and rose again on the third day
          in accordance with the Scriptures.
          He ascended into heaven
          and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
          He will come again in glory
          to judge the living and the dead
          and his kingdom will have no end.

          I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
          who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
          who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
          who has spoken through the prophets.

          I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
          I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
          and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
          and the life of the world to come. Amen.

          This seems to me to say that beliefs are the definition of faith. The USCCB seems about as mainstream Christian as one can get.

          It also consorts with what I’ve been told by every Christian I’ve ever known, including the (kind, liberal, well-meaning) pastors that taught me as a youth.

          • Posted October 19, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

            Well, jblilie, what am I to say? Of course, some religious people think of faith in terms of specific beliefs. Some may even find them in the Nicene Creed, though my guess is that very few, even of educated Christians, have much idea of what they are affirming when they recite the Creed. When the creed is recited it is more like a national anthem than it is like a statement of actually held beliefs. And the diversity of belief within a single congregation is so great that it is hard to say that what brings them together is a collection of specific beliefs. Certainly, there is an underlying trust (which is what the word ‘faith’ is all about, really), in what, in a God (conceived of in so many ways its scarcely to the point to say, simply that Christians believe in God). If we take Tillich at heart, and I see no reason not to, God is whatever is of ultimate concern for us. Indeed, in most cases, the gods in which people believe are, in Tillich’s sense, idols, finite things blown out of proportion, like the specific beliefs apparently imposed by the churches. For these beliefs are as finite and correctable as anything else in the religious canon. People’s trust, ultimately, is in life, and that all things will turn out for the best (which, even whilst they don’t always seem to) is something to cling to through all the chance and changes of life, that there is a pattern, a purpose, a meaning, something that makes the otherwise thankless job of living (as it often is) worth the struggle. If this gets expressed in terms of the Nicene Creed, fine, but it is not so much as a collection of beliefs framed in the fourth century that the creed is recited Sunday by Sunday or day by day. It is an expression of trust in the purpose and ultimate meaningfulness of life. And in those terms it has much to commend it, since it provides a source of order and strength for people who express such confidence. But to reduce religious faith to a set of beliefs is so to misrepresent the nature of religious faith as to make it a pointless exercise that anyone with half a brain could see as a pointless exercise. And this is what atheists so often do, reducing religion to its most simplistic form, in terms of which its demolition can be done in a few smart phrases who have nothing to offer in return for the depths of faith, and experiences of trust, in the way of things, and in their fellow human beings, that the religious person enjoys. One of the reasons why I think Boghosians manual for making atheists is a silly, puerile piece of work that could only have been dreamed up by someone who doesn’t understand how religion functions in people’s lives. This is not to deny that there are religious crazies out there who themselves reduce religion to this caricature, but you only have to listen to them to recognise what comic figures they are. If that is the kind of religion you seek to demolish, well, smash away. That’s not what religion is about, and the sooner the crazies realise this the better for everyone concerned.

            • Posted October 19, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

              Eric,

              Those are some nice sentiments but I really think the mirror needs to be turned back on the religious people if you’re concerned about religion in its most simplistic form.

              Certainly, there are some moral frameworks (some of which are quite grotesque, others more humanistic) that can be drawn from religious beliefs and there are also social and communal aspects, but to assert that any significant amount of devout Church goers who recite the Nicene Creed don’t take it seriously is quite disconnected from the experience of myself and just about every formerly religious person I’ve talked to.

              Those of us who have had psychological scars from being terrified of hellfire and eternal torture certainly didn’t get the message that these aren’t sincerely held views and it is all just about how to live this life. Sure, these are anecdotal, but it’s difficult to find even one anecdote about a person who was turned off by religion due to an experience resembling what you say educated religious believers have. Add to that the surveys that Jerry has repeatedly posted here about literal beliefs in heaven, hell, angels, ghosts, resurrections, etc., and we have a framework completely at odds with what you’re portraying. No doubt there are some educated, liberal Christians who interpret religion in the way you suggest (by everything you write here, you seem to have been one of them). However, to pretend this sort of religion is the type that atheists are most concerned about is silly and to further pretend that it is atheists creating these unsophisticated interpretations is sillier still. Generally, we respond to the claim being made and all too often the claims are utterly absurd and at odds with what we know with a very high degree of certainty thanks to science.

              • Posted October 19, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

                Of course, Chris, I would never deny that. That after all is where, for the doubter, the rubber must hit the road. It doesn’t matter before hand what form religious life takes, and how faith is expressed, when doubt enters the picture, the only thing there is, is to doubt the beliefs, and then the beliefs come to seem quite the central thing. So of course that’s what people will emphasise, and since for many nonbelievers doubt starts very early, before young people have had a chance to live the religious life, and see how peripheral beliefs really are to the religious life (not to say that they are irrelevant, but that they are not the central consideration), belief comes to seem terrifically important, especially since most pastors and priests, when they induct young people into the faith, concentrate on the most unimportant things, the things that are easily taught and memorised, like the creeds. So, I have no doubt that when people are losing their faith, or coming to doubt what they have been told, beliefs figure more largely than they do in the life of the ordinary religious person. This simply makes sense, but it doesn’t change what I have said about people of faith, and how faith functions in the average religious believer. If belief were actually central, you’d think people would rattle off consistent beliefs, but they almost never do. The religious life is about other things. They may be, back somewhere, grounded in some theological claims, even creedal summaries, but, in the end, these are not the things that are chiefly important in the life of faith. I speak from experience of having gone through a period of disbelief, and then realising that this wasn’t how I taught the faith, or how I lived it. This doesn’t mean I’ve gone back, but it means I’ve rethought my reasons for leaving.

        • Posted October 17, 2014 at 5:27 am | Permalink

          Link to that USCCB quote:

          http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/

        • Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:30 am | Permalink

          Of course, I never suggested that there were no crazy religious people who endeavour to ignore as much of science as they dare or can. The Vatican’s position regarding the Shroud of Turin is just a refusal to disorient the faithful by giving weight to scientific tests that have been done.

          That’s the thing, Eric.

          As an example of the first…well, your own insistence on the non-physical nature of cognition is a perfect example of a crazy religious proposition that ignores science. Going down that path doesn’t take much; merely a lack of understanding of the science coupled with a desire to explain what you don’t think science can — an all-too-common trait and a very easy trap to fall into. (And the cure is to admit ignorance rather than embrace speculation that lacks evidential support.)

          Your second example, of course, is of the exploitation of such epistemological innocents by experienced predators. It’s far more profitable for the parasites in Rome to have hosts who are too ignorant to realize they’re being scammed mercilessly, and the most effective scams are ones the marks come up with themselves. Why disabuse them of something so useful as the notion that there’s hard physical evidence of Jesus?

          When it comes right down to it, the Shroud of Turin, the Loch Ness Monster, and non-corporeal cognition are all variations on the same theme. Knowledge of the science that first indicated their extreme improbability and then their non-existence isn’t anywhere near as generally known as it should be. Lacking such knowledge, all three are reasonably plausible, and all three represent enticing possibilities that would certainly be exciting if true.

          In other words, all are prefect examples of faith, of the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

          That faith inevitably produces such spectacularly incorrect conclusions — again, as evidenced by these three examples alone — is more than ample reason to dismiss it as worse than useless. But your second example, of how the Church preys on faith like any other confidence artist to the extreme detriment of its victims…well, that’s all the evidence you need to know that faith is perhaps the most perniciously evil threat faced by humanity.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted October 19, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

            I think I have said enough already, Ben, to suggest why I think this is just blarney.

      • Posted October 17, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        There are believers who are of the Kierkegaardian persuasion who claim evidence and reason are not necessary, however anecdotes do not make a trend. Catholicism (still the largest Christian sect) in fact regards this kind of fideism as gravely sinful.

        Going over to the Catholic answers site, you’ll find questions about angels hearing prayer, arguments over the Big Bang, and whether Arabic prayers are “correct” to name a few. This is all well beyond Ground of Being arguments and the discussions certainly center around attempts to produce evidence.

    • Vaal
      Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      Eric,

      Neither of these questions have an obvious answer, though you assume that rationality consists exclusively in basing one’s beliefs on empirical evidence.
      Sartwell, however, thinks, with some justice, that rationality must be more than this, since rationality consists, at least in part, in accepting the consequences of logical argument.

      But certainly Jerry DOES accept the consequences of logical argument. It is the application of logic to experience that is the “making sense” of experience (and deriving conclusions) in the first place. There seems a danger of a false dichotomy, or straw manning, being set up here.

      Putting aside exactly what Jerry believes, as he can explain that himself, and moving to the various points of caution you raise about Naturalism and “faith…”
      There seems a similar tenor in what you are writing to the presuppositionalist debate tactics (not saying yours is a “tactic” too) used by Douglass Wilson, e.g. in his debates with Hitchens.

      Douglass would declare that Hitchens and he both used “faith” – Douglass himself in the truth of the bible, but Hitchens employed “faith in reason.” The suggestion being that Hitchens can’t “justify” his use of reason (viciously circular) so it equated to “faith” to rely on it. And..yay…I have faith in the bible, Hitch has faith in reason…he can’t claim to start off on any firmer foundation my own!
      But this ruse is just a misleading rhetorical trick. Of course you don’t justify the use of reason; reasoning is WHAT YOU ARE DOING WHEN JUSTIFYING. It’s definitional, descriptive, no more an act of “faith” than it is the decision to simply apply the term “honest” to describe someone who has the tendency to tell the truth. So it’s not that “the justification for reason” may have some mysterious “answer” to it that we have to hold out for on “faith.”
      Rather, it’s that the since “reason” is our DESCRIPTION for a certain mode of thinking, the mode of thinking by which we justify, it is NONSENSICAL to even ask “how do we justify it?”

      Any possible answer will have us engaging in reason. Whereas it is quite coherent, when engaging in reason, to ask for justification for believing in a God, or the truth of the bible. The theist will be necessarily “doing reasoning” should he engage in ANY justification whatsoever for his position. (Which, after all, is what a debate is about – Douglass had to accept of necessity “reason” to even make the debate concept coherent, and hence had further to go, whereas Hitchens did not have to accept biblical truth or the existence of God to do so). Appealing to or reliance on “reason” is not a “faith” position in the same way religion requires faith.

      Now the case you are somewhat defending for Sartwell isn’t simply “the case against Jerry Coyne” but his argument regarding
      naturalism. With that in mind…

      “You might say that we have “evidence” for the truth of logical argument form Modus Ponens,”

      But you know that the naturalism don’t entail a commitment to such a naive-sounding empirical view of logic, right? Many naturalists could and do take an analytic point of view of logic. And there are all sorts of ways of hashing out whether logic is descriptive, or prescriptive, necessary or contingent, how it relates to the world of our experience, without falling to the most naive versions of “I want evidence for logic.”


      The point that Sartwell is making is that naturalism is a metaphysical position, and cannot itself be justified in terms of the system as defined by that position.”

      But it’s a mistake, and hence of little consequence, to point that out since the justification for naturalism isn’t even to be found in the “system of naturalism.” No one thinks (or should) that naturalism is “self-justified.” Justification comes from REASON, which precedes any wider world view of naturalism, or materialism, or supernaturalism, or what have you. As many naturalists keep pointing out, naturalism is a conclusion from using reason.


      It’s like the old verificationist problem all over again. If a proposition p is true because it can be verified, what about the proposition that only verified propositions are true? Since it is not obvious that this can be verified, is it true of false?”

      (Putting aside for a moment that common example has always relied on the most naive possible version of verificationsism…)

      What you just posted in regards to verificationism makes it out to be not an instance of faith, but essentially self-refuting. Naturalism is not committed to any such naive, self-refuging axiom. Most naturalists I know would take certain axioms of reason as necessary (if you discard them you end in incoherence), notice the application of reason to the combination of our desires and our experience suggests certain epistemic strategies – e.g. parsimony, minimizing assumptions as much as possible, methods to deal with variables etc, and that these lead to a current naturalistic picture of reality, which can be amended if necessary. All of this will appeal to reason, and if the criticism boils down to “but you must have faith in reason” then that is to make the type of mistake I’ve already talked about. It suggests reason must be justified by some other criteria of justification, which is a mistake like us gathering to “justify” why we are letting our bodies continue to be attracted to the earth; it’s not like we have a choice, it’s a descriptive fact that it happens, just like it’s a descriptive fact, by our own definitions, that “when you are thinking in X mode you are reasoning (e.g. without contradictions) but not in Y mode…(e.g. accepting contradictions, inconsistency, etc)”

      So I just don’t find that you have, in explicating Sartwell’s position, made the case you want to make, or that in fact undermine’s Jerry’s position. (As of yet..)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:30 am | Permalink

        +1 well stated, Vaal!

    • Vaal
      Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Eric,

      One more thing…

      As for what you’ve said about God and religion, it’s hard to discern when you are simply describing what a theist might say, vs what is your own view on religion and God. For instance, when you write:

      “But, no, any god worthy of the name could not produce empirical evidence for his existence, quite aside from beliefs in miracles, the truth of the Bible, etc. For God is the creator and ground of all that exists, and cannot appear, as another existent, amongst those things that exist.”

      Is that something you actually agree with, insofar as IF God existed the above would be the case?

      Because if so, I can not imagine a remotely cogent defense of that claim (and yes I’ve seen many attempts). First of all, it is nonsensical that an All Powerful God couldn’t provide empirical evidence for Himself. He’s created an entire EMPIRICAL UNIVERSE for one thing. It would be illogical to imply he could not manipulate empirical reality in ways that show He exists.

      In fact, it’s part of Christianity that God DID JUST THAT. How can you just brush aside “the truth of the bible” and “beliefs in miracles” when it is so central to the beliefs of so many Christians? If God “could not” manifest himself empirically, and provide empirical evidence, then the whole central claim of Christianity – Jesus’ divinity, death and resurrection – COULD NOT have happened. And you think most Christians would be on board with that?????

      “For God is not in any way like the Loch Ness Monster, which, if it exists, is an existent like you or me, not the creator and ground of the universe. It is this inability to distinguish between levels of thinking that Sartwell is drawing attention to.”

      I see no such inability to distinguish; Jerry has many times addressed the Ground Of Being God vs the empirically demonstrated God (Jesus) believed in by many Christians.

      It’s not an inability to distinguish between levels of thinking; he’s pointed out (along with plenty of other atheist) BOTH levels don’t make sense. First, the God believed in by most Christians, the one depicted as creating an empirical manifestation of the divine in Jesus and doing miracles, IS an empirical claim for which there can be in principle evidence, for which there is CLAIMED to have been evidence, and for which the evidence ought to be compelling before we believe it. But just like the Loch Ness Monster claims, the evidence fails this test.

      It is, I believe, the atheist thinking carefully who does not conflate the Biblical God that drives Christianity with the purely metaphysical, abstract non-empirical God which you and Sartwell are describing.

      And I and many other atheists, clearly Jerry too, find the claims associated with the “Ground Of Being” God to be very unpersuasive as well. Like the ideas you raise that this God “could not” manifest strong empirical evidence for Himself is on it’s face absurd (and remains absurd when you go further into the claims – I’ve delved into Aquinas/Thomistic Aristotelianism on this for instance, and found the claim no more justified).

      And to say “any god worthy of the name could not produce empirical evidence for his existence,” strikes me as outrageously unjustified. Why wouldn’t He provide empirical evidence for his existence? IF God wanted us to know He exists, it seems to me that’s EXACTLY what a rational Being in his position would do. God made us empirical beings, in an empilrical world, and our minds are “made” for looking to empirical evidence in forming beliefs. It’s what we do all day, how we are built to survive, in this EMPIRICAL WORLD. If God wanted to communicate anything to us it makes the most sense to do so empirically, evidentially. How many people doubt or debate whether Barack Obama exists? None that I know of – or a hell of a lot less than are confused as to whether God exists.
      This is how our brains work: empirical, publicly checkable evidence is what we crave, how we work, how we form our most reliable beliefs about “what’s beyond myself.” That very assumption explains why the Bible, like so many “revealed” religions, operates on just that theme: all through the stories God continually manifests empirical evidence for Himself and His Powers, “Don’t believe me? Watch what happens! WHAM!” It’s why Jesus, his miracles, his death, the evidence of his resurrection, even occurs!
      The whole thing trades on the human propensity to look to empirical evidence!

      And you see this continually in Christianity today. I’ve been discussing/debating these issues with Christians since the mid 90’s, have followed the religion/secular clashes, and if there is one common thread it’s that many Christians DO think they have evidence for their beliefs, and DO care about having evidence and reasons for their beliefs. One could fill pages with examples of this, and I don’t think I could count on one hand the number of Christians I’ve seen who say they rely on no evidence for their belief in Christianity.

      Vaal

      • Posted October 17, 2014 at 5:10 am | Permalink

        Is that something you actually agree with, insofar as IF God existed the above would be the case?

        It is the classic understanding of God in traditions which have a developed theology. It is, in fact, the only reasonable conception of God, for any gods which are part and parcel of the world, are not gods, as such, but more like the Olympians, merely immortal human beings who do peculiar things on whim.

        Regarding Modus Ponens and the status of logic. Of course, Jerry accepts logic, but there is no empirical evidence for its truth. The point is that, once you restrict yourself to empirical evidence, you have severely hindered, not only our search for truth, but you have also corrupted what you mean by speaking about truth. The complications regarding the status of logic objects had not escaped me. They were simply not relevant to the point I was making.

        And sure, once more, of course Christians care about evidence for their beliefs, since, after all, they live within the scientific age. All such attempts at providing evidence, however, are futile, that’s why arguments like that go on and on forever, and no one is ever satisfied with the outcome.

        • eric
          Posted October 17, 2014 at 6:31 am | Permalink

          There does not need to be any evidence for logical operations, because they are simply tools that we employ when they accurately model the world, and tools we put aside when they do not accurately model the world. Think that’s absurd? But there is more than one logic! For example, we have three-value logics. Now its true we use the standard system almost exclusively, but that’s because it is a ver effective tool for solving many problems, it’s not because we think the two-value logic version of modus ponens has some platonic truth to it.

          You might think of two-value logic and operations like modus ponens as the Newtonian Mechanics of deduction. Incredibly powerful and useful models of reality, but ultimately nothing more than models of it, with boundary conditions and situations in which they may be innacurate: useful for solving many problems, but not all.

          • Posted October 19, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

            Well, but all logics have a kind of Platonic truth to them, three value, fuzzy, modal, what have you. And we don’t only use them because they work, but because they are, in themselves, worthwhile studies. Also, questions about the status of logical objects is always an interesting and difficult one. It is not so simply answered as saying they are not Platonic objects. What makes them true, when they are true? Is it, merely, as Hume says, a matter of the relations of ideas. That is, are they simply true by virtue of the meanings of the terms used? Well, perhaps, but you can make mistakes in logic, and think your results true. Carnap makes a basic logical mistake in his Aufbau, and no one noticed it until the 1970s. I played a very small part in the discovery. But then, is it just that he did not understand the meaning of the terms he was using? It’s much more complex than this, and empirical evidence doesn’t come into it.

        • Vaal
          Posted October 17, 2014 at 6:53 am | Permalink

          Eric

          It is the classic understanding of God in traditions which have a developed theology.

          Which does not encapsulate either the God depicted acting empirically in the scripture of the major religions, nor the beliefs of most adherents of those religions. It’s like saying “I’m talking about the first black president of the USA. (Except this president has no physical body and has no powers of office).”

          That isn’t the President people think of as Barack Obama, and using the point of contact “but they believe in a first black president so they DO believe in the president I’m describing” does not make their identity equivalent.

          Further, while you are persuaded that the “classic understanding” of God is the most reasonable one, I find various claims associated with the conception to be incoherent. I’ve pointed out a couple already (that the claim that such a God could or would not manifest empirical evidence for Himself makes no sense – particularly if this God has ANY point of contact with the one worshiped in the major religions, the one that wishes us to know about Him).

          On logic: I don’t believe Jerry is committed to searching for empirical evidence for logic; rather he applies logic in looking at empirical evidence. So I don’t see any substantial problem yet raised in your argument for Jerry. I also believe (as it seems Jerry does) that the necessity of empiricism gets off the ground VERY quickly, epistemologically speaking, and the “ways of knowing” debates have been about this issue.

          “And sure, once more, of course Christians care about evidence for their beliefs, since, after all, they live within the scientific age.”

          But it didn’t take getting to the scientific age for people to care about empirical evidence, which was my point. The way we work is to interact with the empirical world, so explore and test “how things seem to be out there” in order to navigate and survive reality. Any rational Being who cared that humans know about Him would understand that interacting with our empirical world, manifesting empirical evidence, would be the most unambiguous way to provide such knowledge. Again, this is why the Bible takes the form it does. It’s not a philosophical tome about a Ground Of Being that has formed the basis of the great Revealed Religions, it’s the depiction of humans who are continually supplied with empirical manifestations of God and his powers. Because that’s what we are built to look for. Even among other religions like Buddhism, the craving for the empirical,the tangible, manifests itself in the astounding number of idols, statues, figures of Buddha etc, that people interact with daily.

          These are some reasons why I find the God-speak that you seem to engage in or admire so utterly unconvincing.

          • Posted October 19, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

            The Bible, Vaal, may be “the depiction of humans who are continually supplied with empirical manifestations of God and his powers,” but this depiction is constantly being held up to scrutiny and question. Moses is told to tell the people that “I am” (as close as I can get to the Hebrew) sent him to them, and of course Moses objects that people won’t accept that. And Isaiah saw God has “high and lifted up”, unapproachable, holy, distant, with which he had a personal encounter. So, the Bible is not only about empirical manifestations. Indeed, empirical manifestations are rejected as idolatry. You cannot picture God. You cannot describe God. You cannot even use the name of God, because that is, somehow, to pretend to be invested with God’s power. God is a far more distant, theological figure in the Bible than you seem to acknowledge, as any conception of one supreme God would have to be. For such a God could not take on the temporary cultural clothing of the ages through which his story passes, and this is made clear again and again throughout the Bible, whatever people want. Indeed, Jesus says that only a corrupt generation would seek a sign. You must understand this about the biblical god or you have not even scratched the surface of the biblical doctrine of God.

            In the next comment Ben says that if this were so we should see a convergence in understanding of the nature of God, and, in fact, this is what we do see, in the deeper levels of the Vedanta, for instance, or of Buddhism, which are effectively atheistic, because the biblical God is not present in empirical ways. Some claim that God is present in personal ways, as in personal experience, and I have no judgement on that, but one thing you would expect, if God is this distant figure, beyond rational description, is that religions, being, as you say, created by people who do seek physical signs, would be cultural traditions, and would differ from place to place, and that is indeed what we do find.

        • Posted October 17, 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink

          It is the classic understanding of God in traditions which have a developed theology.

          Were that the case, we’d expect two things not in evidence. First, a convergence of consensus about the nature of “God,” and then a rapid expansion of acceptance of that consensus, much like what happened with Newtonian Mechanics, Darwinian Evolution, Germ Theory, the Periodic Table, Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics, and so on. Second, we’d expect that consensus view to make useful predictions.

          When you can demonstrate that the 3/4 or so of God-believing Americans don’t actually believe in guardian angels, we’ll grant you the significance you claim. Or, if you can demonstrate useful predictions this “developed theology” is capable of producing, we’ll tentatively grant you the potential for future respectability.

          Of course, Jerry accepts logic, but there is no empirical evidence for its truth.

          Eric, if you wish to go down this path, you must embrace the labels of, “illogical,” and, “irrational.” And they are dire epithets in our culture for very good reason.

          Show me just one married bachelor, snap just one photo from north of the North Pole, or just once pick two apples from a tree and give them whole to three people, and I’ll grant you that there is no sound empirical evidence for the truth of logic.

          b&

    • eric
      Posted October 17, 2014 at 5:50 am | Permalink

      You might say that we have “evidence” for the truth of logical argument form Modus Ponens, that it is simply always true, even if the conclusion of premises used in this form of argument may not be true. But what is this evidence?

      This seems to be a really warped way of looking at it. Modus Ponens is a logical relation, similar to a mathematical model. Like a mathematical model, we use as a predictive or analytical tool in situations when it appears to accurately describe what we observe…and we don’t use it when it appears to be inaccurate. The phrase “correlation is not causation” encapsulates the fact that we often reject it as an inaccurate model. If you were right and people thought modus ponens was always true, we would have no such phrase, and we would not draw a distinction between correlation and causation.

      The point that Sartwell is making is that naturalism is a metaphysical position, and cannot itself be justified in terms of the system as defined by that position.

      Naturalism can be a metaphysical position, but it doesn’t have to be. For the hundreds of thousands of religious scientists worldwide, it’s “merely” a well-supported rule of thumb: we’ve done a lot of experiments. In every single experiment throughout history which has yielded a causal explanation, that causal explanation has been natural. So if you are going to bet your next month’s work, your career success and future publication record on whether to look for a natural or non-natural explanation, do the former. It’s the horse to bet on. That doesn’t mean you think it’s the only horse or the horse that will win every single race in the future, it means you recognize that there is favorite in the next race, and that favorite is the horse called “natural explanation.”

    • eric
      Posted October 17, 2014 at 5:59 am | Permalink

      But, no, any god worthy of the name could not produce empirical evidence for his existence, quite aside from beliefs in miracles, the truth of the Bible, etc. For God is the creator and ground of all that exists, and cannot appear, as another existent, amongst those things that exist.

      Wow. This is a view of religion that seems to exclude mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three have God producing empirical evidence for his existence in the past. How do you explain this seeming discrepancy? If someone believes in the burning bush or Jesus-as-Lord, is that not a “God worthy of the name”?

    • eric
      Posted October 17, 2014 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      There is no more unreason in supposing that the universe has an intelligent ground than there is in believing that all the particles and force fields of physics must be imaginable in ways that human beings can descriptively understand (as in the classic model of the atom as a small solar system).

      Well you’re wrong here on two counts. First, I don’t think science or most scientists claim the latter: they do not claim that all of the physics underlying the universe must be understandable by humans. That would be silly. Its enough to say that we will continue to try and understand as much as we can. So if you think belief in God is analogous to the latter, I am very comfortable calling them both unreasonable. Or agreeing with you that belief in God is as unreasonable as a belief that the universe must be ultimately explicable to the human mind.

      Secondly, there is much unreason in supposing that the universe has an intelligent ground because all the evidence we’ve collected so far points to the conclusion that intelligence is something that arises out of physical brains: material organized in a way that allows complex electrochemical signal processing. So unless you are positing that before the universe there was this large collection of organic matter arranged in a configuration to support neural signaling, no – there is no reason to suppose the universe has an intelligent ground. As a sci-fi fan, I like the idea that that conclusion will someday be proven wrong. That we might produce silicon-based AIs or find intelligent gas-based entities or what have you. But for now, it’s the best conclusion we can draw. The conclusion that intelligence can occur absent such material is not supported by the evidence; it is unreasonable.

    • eric
      Posted October 17, 2014 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      God is not in any way like the Loch Ness Monster, which, if it exists, is an existent like you or me, not the creator and ground of the universe. It is this inability to distinguish between levels of thinking that Sartwell is drawing attention to.

      I would counter-argue that the NT Jesus and OT Yahweh are both sufficiently like the loch ness monster that they could, if they wanted to, provide scientists with credible evidence that passes our criteria of reproducible, testable under controlled conditions, etc…

      You seem to be getting really wrapped around the axle about this idea of them not being able to be fully of this world. But “fully” isn’t necessary. They just need to be enough in this world to turn water into wine under laboratory conditions, reproducibly. Or to create a pillar of fire under laboratory conditions, reproducibly. And since Christianity and Judaism (respectively) make the positive claim that yes, Christ and God were of this world at least that much, those theologies cannot rationally or logically defend themselves from empirical demands by saying that their God could not possibly do such things because their God cannot enter the world in that way. That is not a theologically consistent defense: its hypocrisy.

    • Posted October 17, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      So wait, a religious claim is like modus ponens?

      For one thing, modus ponens is not found in all logics. So there’s a study of criteria by which we select logic. It isn’t done circularly or on a whim, it is done by what other desirable features the logic has. Does it allow us to understand (say) mathematical reasoning, or get used in deductive database? (For example.) So, yes, there are criteria, and they aren’t “verificationist”.

      Gods are straightforward factual hypotheses, at least to the vast majority of believers – you have to assume some non-standard theory of reference which has this ad hoc special case to determine otherwise. Why believe the special case? Metaphor and such are ok, but then the question *is it a good metaphor*, which others have dealt with. So moving back to factual hypotheses. We know how we know to some degree. Somewhere in there is a check against the world; this requires energy transmission; non-material objects fail this.

      • Posted October 19, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        Keith, please don’t be stupid. I never said anything about a religious claim being like Modus Ponens. But Modus Ponens is like religious claims in not being in need of empirical validation. God’s are not straightforward factual hypotheses, because God (in the singular), lies beyond the factual, and grounds it. That’s the theory, anyway, but it’s just as well to get it right, instead of messing it up like Dawkins did. When you add the qualification “at least according to the vast majority of believers” that may be true, but it says nothing at all about the truth of religious claims; you’re just questioning the simple religious claims made by people who see Jesus in a donut, or something like that. There are, of course, philosophical questions about the analogy of being used to demonstrate the being of God, but that’s another question, and needs a fair amount of metaphysics to understand. I’m not altogether sure that I do.

        As to God being sufficiently like the Loch Ness Monster: this is just ignorance talking to ignorance. Read a bit of Aquinas and see. It’s just too tiresome trying to point people in the right direction, and have them say, “Oh, the old Courtier’s Reply scam, eh? Well, don’t expect me to fall for it.” Fine, remain ignorant then, The simple point is that the God of the cosmological argument is not the first cause, but that which stands outside of empirical existence altogether, and grounds by a pure act of being, the existence of everything else; rather unlike the Loch Ness Monster, which, I assume, if it exists, can be found in Loch Ness. So, if you make eric’s claim, you’re right off the deep end and looking for a life preserver.

        • Posted October 19, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

          Read a bit of Aquinas and see.

          <sigh />

          We have, T-shirt and all.

          The simple point is that the God of the cosmological argument is not the first cause, but that which stands outside of empirical existence altogether, and grounds by a pure act of being, the existence of everything else;

          Then either this God is a Matrix- style conspiracy theory or this God is the most crass of perpetual motion scams. Or, perhaps generously, it’s a really bad and profoundly confusing synonym for the Big Bang.

          b&

        • Posted October 20, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

          I *have* read Aquinas (to some degree, obviously not everything) and applied a straightforward theory of reference. (What’s the reference of “god”? Something that exists forever and always, etc. etc. This reference has a null extension, but so what?) Again, to not be do so correctly is special pleading, unless of course it can be explained why. Nowhere is this done in any author that I am aware of. (And I do have advanced degrees in philosophy and philosophy-connected fields, as it happens. I don’t mean to tout my own limited authority, but …)

          “outside of empirical existence altogether” – taken etymologically, this is exactly like any transphenomenal hypothesis. If the “new use” of empiricism is meant, I don’t understand the claim. Again, it looks all the world like special pleading. Christians claim that god lived in Palestine ~2000 years ago (at least now they do). That’s a factual claim, and no amount of “god is somehow different” changes that belief.

          As for the “grounds”? *Nothing like that is necessary*. Conservation laws, once again, rule it out. Or put another way – one doesn’t get to make up ontological categories unless you can show they are needed. (See the other stuff about mathematical objects, for example.)

  52. Posted October 16, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    A good blog: When it comes to the question Is there a God? It is always interesting to deal with this question; Either you believe or you don’t believe” is always the answer and the concept of God is much to complicated for mere mortals to prove objectively. Faith or no faith.

    There are many reasons to accept the philosophical answer since it id always the same.

    Under Faith, there are many objective answers that support faith. Some of the important ones are that the earth has been proven objectively to be four and one half years old by radio active decay analysis. This supports a time span to explain evolution (it takes a very long time to occur) and is also supported by LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor) which is using a lot of research and future research.

    My book, The God Myth and Reality by Daniel R. Sullivan, MD explains a number of objective vs subjective assumptions which lean toward supporting faith.

    Have a nice day
    drblarney.com

  53. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 16, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Here’s my wish-thinking: that the author would take that name of his — Mr. Crispen Sartwell — and climb back into whatever Dickens’ novel he escaped from. Maybe sArtwell Dodger?

    Saw that list of influences for individualist anarchism. Godwin, Thoreau, Proudhon,Spooner, Spencer, Stirner — oh my,did any of these cats even make it into the last century? “Individualist anachronism,” is more like it.

    (OK, I checked: Spencer said Happy New Year to the 20th Century but, at 80, just barely; he was pining for the fjords just three years later. Very fin de siècle, or as his Sartwell might explain, “aging.” This guy does know what the alternative to aging is, don’t he?)

  54. Barbara
    Posted October 16, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been surprised by the number of people I know who don’t believe in god(s). They are flying under everyone’s radar: they don’t read books & blogs, rarely discuss their lack of belief, don’t join atheist/freethinker groups, aren’t suffering any angst. Many were raised religious; some weren’t. They have just concluded that there is no god. And they usually oppose Christian legislative efforts to control everyone else’s lives.

    In my own case, there was no traumatic event or much of a philosophical process. I was raised in a conservative religion but recall from an early age that the beliefs didn’t make sense to me. Science and critical thinking, however, did make sense. By the time I was a young adult it rather dawned on me that I just didn’t and couldn’t believe in supernatural entities. It was rather a surprise, living as I was in the Bible belt.

    Sartwell’s blather makes no sense to me and, I suspect, to a lot of nonbelievers.

  55. bertamus
    Posted October 17, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read anything more ridiculous in my life…well, except for the Bible of course.

  56. bertamus
    Posted October 17, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read anything more ridiculous than Crispin Sartwell’s article…well, except for the Bible of course. What a moron.

  57. Zachary
    Posted October 17, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Philosophy is dead.

  58. Posted October 17, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    ‘One brand of science’? And what of epistemology?

    I believe this is the point Sartwell attempted to raise (though admittedly he wasn’t very clear): many atheists or scientific-rationalists do make commitments or assumptions about the ‘philosophy or theory of knowledge’ that remain unexamined.

    While there are considerable scale differences between the ‘leap of faith’ required for some scientific philosophies compared to religious ones, Sartwell still has a point.

    I don’t seem to read many ‘atheistic’ pieces that grapple with the foundation of knowledge and science.

    He also has a point regarding the emotional or personal interpretation of atheism (whether your atheism takes a negative-nihilistic or a utopian-humanist skew). To some extent this is not driven by rationality; though you might support your conclusion with reasoning, it is fundamentally an emotional or temperamental reaction.

    • Posted October 18, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      I don’t seem to read many ‘atheistic’ pieces that grapple with the foundation of knowledge and science.

      That would be because there ain’t all that much to grapple with.

      https://xkcd.com/54/

      Understanding something means building a mental model, a conceptual simulation, of the phenomenon. Is it any surprise that iteratively refining the model against comparisons of the original is the best process there even theoretically could be?

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 18, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        “That would be because there ain’t all that much to grapple with.”

        Love it!

        And because, even if there were, it’s a complete waste of time to “grapple” with anything that can’t be demonstrated, anything for which the conclusions arrived at can only be a matter of opinion. Srsly, how can people spend lifetimes engaged in nothing but assumption?

        • Posted October 19, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

          How? It’s a very, very profitable scam….

          b&

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 19, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

            Well, exactly. What was I thinking?

            And of course to be successful dupe-ers require plenty of dupe-ees.

            • Posted October 19, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

              And, if you’re at first one of the dupe-ees and realize you’ve been had…you can either cut your losses and admit you’ve been had, or you can try to become one of the dupe-ers….

              b&

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 18, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        OK so that’s a black body radiation curve I think. Planck comes to mind. I’m not sure of the connection though…?

  59. Posted October 17, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Pedantic spellchecker – “episemologically couragenous”…

    Other than that, couldn’t agree more. This kind of sloppy thinking is why I distanced myself from philosophy quite rapidly after graduating. It seems to be becoming more frequent, although maybe it’s just the internet giving it wider exposure.

  60. Posted October 18, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    These self important know it alls discount the centuries of bad acts by state-sponsored organized religion. A short list includes: brainwashing and bullying children and adult from womb to tomb.

    They simply ignore the hell storm raised by people like Madalyn Murray, who suffered attacks, physical threats, and intimidation for years. Which, only lessened after she agreed to recant her atheism and become a born again Christian. They choose to ignore the decades of conflict over Roe vs. Wade. Even the more recent discontent stirred up by the Hobby Lobby religious kooks is supposed to be ignored or discounted, as if atheist should suffer in silence as religious supporters continue to force their goofy belief system on everyone in the community even undo statutory mandates to protect their believes from atheist.

    The argument that Atheism is a religion. Then we should receive the same tax breaks as all other religions. Let’s face it; atheist have every right to be angry. We have suffered (and continue to suffer) intimidation all over the world. We must continue to fight a gainst the relentless effort to proztilize and intimidate all non believers into believing or silence.

    I say to all you religion pimps: PISS OFF!

  61. Posted October 19, 2014 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    The way Crispin Sartwell approaches atheism seems to resemble a more agnostic point of view imho…

  62. KimmoK
    Posted October 21, 2014 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    “At any rate, I find it bizarre that so many of these misguided pieces—articles that nearly all of us could refute standing on our heads, come from philosophy professors. What does that say about philosophy?”

    It shows that philosophers feel threatened because they are not exactly as relevant as they used to, when empirical science had not yet become the culturally dominant world outlook. Perhaps they rush to religion’s defence because they see in its current predicament the historical downfall of their own profession.

  63. Posted October 23, 2014 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    I don’t why but I do love all these website have to say about religion.
    I am 100% with you – Jerry! 100%

    Dont’ take it on faith, ask questions…

    That’s the way of understandings reality!

  64. Adri
    Posted October 27, 2014 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    There may be only one way to define atheism, but there are numerous “ways” to “be” an atheist.


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