Sastra’s Comment

Commenter Sastra, replying to my previous post on this subject, offers what I thnk is a perfect characterization of much of the response to Dawkins’ book:

From what I can tell, most of the sophisticated critics of Dawkins feel that he failed to address what I like to call the Argument from Generalized Vagueness. God is something so great, so other, so important and significant and unlike anything in our experience, that the only way we can bring it down to our level and understand it is by referring to it in veiled metaphors. It’s all very vague, and encompasses all sorts of general things like thoughts and emotions and morals and meaning, but not specifically being any of those, of course.

Therefore, there is no actual content to the concept which is firm or clear enough to criticize. Whatever you think God is, it isn’t really that, that’s only an analogy. It’s deeper and better than that.

Clearly Dawkins has only an incomplete, childish, unsophisticated understanding of a straw-man God. The Argument from Generalized Vagueness makes God bullet-proof against his clumsy scientistic attacks.

Bwa ha!

Well said!

Comments

  1. #1 PrePostModern
    December 27, 2006

    This applies also to other concepts that thrive from a vague definition. e.g. Deconstruction.

    The more I think about it, the more I find commonalities between the defense of religion and defense of postmodernist writings.

  2. #2 Pseudonym
    December 28, 2006

    The subtext of most of the arguments that I’m hearing is actually that Dawkins didn’t specifically address (insert reviewer’s name)‘s particular conception of God.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    December 28, 2006

    So, to test PrePostModern’s hypothesis, we should need Alan Sokal to write an article full of random theological gibberish, constructed to be grammatically perfect but devoid of meaning, and publish it in a respected journal of theology. Actually, it might be better if Sokal’s name weren’t on the thing. . . .

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    December 28, 2006

    Speaking of which, I should probably put Sokal’s thoughts on the record here:

    Even most liberals and agnostics take a dim view of blunt talk about religion, except to denounce the excesses of fundamentalism. After all, the battles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries between the Church and the secular liberals were largely resolved in favor of the latter; religion in the West has largely abandoned its pretensions as a political influence, except on matters of sexual morality and (in areas of the United States where fundamentalists are strong) education. As a consequence, nonbelievers have reached a modus vivendi with organized religion: you agree to stay out of politics (more or less); we, in return, will refrain from publicly questioning your theology and from attacking the remnants of your temporal privileges (e.g. state subsidies in Europe, tax exemptions in the United States). Why bother criticizing ideas that are so inoffensive? Indeed, the liberal churches do much social good (e.g. in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the United States, and liberation theology in Latin America) and serve as an ethical counterweight to the untrammeled power of money.

    A similar modus vivendi has been reached between the scientific community and the non-fundamentalist churches. The modern scientific worldview, if one is to be honest about it, leads naturally to atheism — or at least to an innocuous deism or pan-spiritualism that is incompatible with the tenets of all the traditional religions — but few scientists dare to say so publicly. Rather, it is the religious fundamentalists who make this (valid) accusation about “atheistic science”; scientists, by contrast, generally take pains to reassure the public that science and religion, properly understood, need not come into conflict. This is no doubt shrewd politics, especially in the United States, where the majority of people take their religion quite seriously; some scientists have labored to convince themselves (and the rest of us) that it is intellectually honest as well. But the arguments do not hold water.

    These remarks come from pp. 66–7 of Sokal’s paper “Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers” (PDF link). I would add that the “social good” which he ascribes to the churches represents a potential those churches are not constructed to realize. Few will deny that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a hero of progress and reform, but who taught us all that King was a great man — our churches, or our public schools? How many churches teach the children of their parish that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not just a great man, but one to be emulated? How many preachers advocate following the example of Jesus and overturning the moneychangers’ tables within the Temple? Again, I do not know for sure, but I suspect the answer is “Not enough.”

    I would have fewer problems with organized religion if the organizations lived up more often to the claims people make on their behalf.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    December 28, 2006

    Final note:

    The commercialization of American religion, touched upon in the next thread, suggests the worrisome possibility that churches can no longer “serve as an ethical counterweight to the untrammeled power of money”.

  6. #6 David D.G.
    December 28, 2006

    Sastra’s comment reminds me of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — specifically, the plight of those beings who, when they finally get the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything,” find that it makes no sense to them because they have never actually formulated it as a proper question (and certainly not as a question that would result in an answer of “42″!) — which must have made the philosophers very happy, seeing as that gave them another 10 million years to keep pontificating!

    ~David D.G.

  7. #7 alkali
    December 28, 2006

    [This is my effort at a not-too-long but comprehensive response to Sastra's comment.]

    To set the stage, here is my thirty-second version of modern liberal (meaning here non-fundamentalist, non-literalist, but not necessarily liberal in the sense of American politics) Judeo-Christian religious belief:

    “God created the universe. The entire nature of God is beyond human comprehension. God loves us all, and wants us to love Him and to love one another. Our moral obligations — including the obligation to love one another — derive ultimately from God. Our efforts to adhere to those moral obligations have significance above and beyond our lives as physical beings. To the extent that we have ‘religious,’ ‘transcendental’ or ‘mystical’ experiences, those experiences may be ways of apprehending God. When we refer to God or religious experience, we are referring to the same being and kind of experience that is recorded in our traditions, including the books of the Bible.”

    Lots of liberal religionists believe lots of stuff in addition to this, but this is pretty much the common core.

    I would note that on the one hand, the foregoing includes some strong claims (e.g., the claim that God exists in the first place). On the other hand, it leaves a lot of traditional religious dogma out (e.g., that the Noah’s Ark story actually occurred).

    I am not going to argue here that anyone should believe any of this stuff. However, I would point that this stuff is what I and my fellow religious liberals actually do believe. It’s what gets us to church or temple or meeting on the weekend, it’s what we teach our kids in religious education classes, it’s the reason we run soup kitchens and clothes closets, and it’s what we talk about when we get married, have children, and die. It’s real to us. It’s not a put-on.

    An atheist (e.g., Dawkins) might criticize this religious position by saying, you really don’t have to believe any of that stuff. There isn’t scientific evidence for any of it. You can all lead nice moral lives and sleep in an hour later on Sunday morning. The liberal religionist’s reply to this in a nutshell is, well, yes, but I do happen to believe it. (The deeper problem here is whether it is ever justified to believe something you don’t have evidence for, which is ultimately a philosophical question. See the entry on fideism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for more discussion of this.) Suffice it to say that I agree that this is an intelligible criticism of liberal religion even if I don’t find it persuasive.

    A second criticism of this religious position is what I take to be another criticism by Dawkins: you Unitarians and UCCers and Episcopals and liberal Methodists and “cafeteria Catholics” and Reform Jews are just enabling the religious crazies by believing what you believe. I don’t think this is actually empirically true — do the evangelicals really care what the Unitarians think? — and in any event I’m not really sure what could be done about it even if it were true. It’s not like religious beliefs can be switched on and off. (As a thought experiment: could an atheist agree to believe in God for $100/week? You could pretend, but you’re not actually going to sincerely believe it.)

    A third criticism of this religious position is what I take to be Sastra’s criticism here: this is all too vague for my taste. I am not really sure what this criticism amounts to, other than a demand that we liberal religionists ought to adopt some plainly unreasonable dogma that Sastra can make fun of.

  8. #8 Jimmy
    December 28, 2006

    alkali,

    I think your description of the “common core” of “modern liberal Judeo-Christian religious belief” is almost as vague and substanceless as the one Sastra is ridiculing. You say your description embodies the “strong” claim that God exists. But according to (for instance) Allen Orr, the meaning of even that straightforward-sounding proposition is cloudy. In criticizing Dawkins’ arguments against belief in the existence of God, Orr claims that Dawkins makes “no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?)” Presumably, if the meaning of the religious proposition “God exists” is murky, the meaning of propositions like “God loves you” or “Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour” or your own “our efforts to adhere to those moral obligations have significance above and beyond our lives as physical beings” is even murkier. Indeed, that last one is so vague it’s hard to know how to respond. It could mean only that our moral behavior affects the lives of people other than ourselves, though I suspect you mean something else by it.

    So it seems to me that Sastra’s critique is exactly correct. It’s certainly consistent with my own experiences discussing and debating their religious beliefs with liberal Christians. When all else fails, they invariably resort to obscurantism and appeals to impenetrable mystery.

    I see you have a blog. It would be interesting if you wrote a post describing and defending your own religious beliefs. Maybe you already have.

  9. #9 Jimmy
    December 28, 2006

    alkali,

    “I don’t think this is actually empirically true — do the evangelicals really care what the Unitarians think? — and in any event I’m not really sure what could be done about it even if it were true.”

    The problem, articulated more fully by Sam Harris in The End of Faith than by Dawkins in TGD, is faith. Just like the conservatives and fundamentalists, religious moderates promote religious faith as a virtue, and claim that it justifies strong beliefs about the existence and nature and will of supernatural agents and realities. I think it’s pretty disingenuous, therefore, for moderates to claim that they bear no responsibility for encouraging acts motivated by religious faith, including acts they abhor such as the 9/11 attacks. If religious faith justifies strong beliefs about objective truth, why is the faith of a suicide-bomber any less of a justification for his beliefs and actions than your faith is for yours?

  10. #10 Pseudonym
    December 29, 2006

    Jimmy, that argument is also disingenuous. Suggesting that religious moderates bear some responsibility for fundamentalism sounds an awful lot like suggestion from some religious fundamentalists that belief in biological evolution is (partly?) responsibile for belief in “social Darwinism” (and hence eugenics, Nazism or whatever).

    I can tell the difference, even if some people refuse to.

    Part of the problem is that fundamentalists misunderstand the word “faith” as the Bible uses it. The Greek word that we translate “faith” does not mean “belief”, but something more like “trust”. (Terms like “faithfulness in marriage” use the term correctly.)

    I don’t “believe in” science, because science isn’t a set of propositions to be accepted or rejected. Science is a process by which we discover things about the world. I trust that the things that it has found are factual. I trust it so much, in fact, that every day I literally put my life on the line, putting my trust in safety equipment which has a solid body of science behind it.

    I’m not suggesting that science and religion are in any way the same thing. Far from it. But I don’t think that modern liberal religion places as much of an emphasis on belief as more fundamentalist religions do. Indeed, they’re willing to throw out “beliefs” (e.g. in the historical accuracy of the flood story) if they contradict the hard facts. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that modern liberal religion isn’t about “facts” at all, but rather about the philosophy.

    Just my $0.02.

  11. #11 Jimmy
    December 29, 2006

    Pseudonym,

    I think some people who advocate social darwinism do so in part because they misunderstand biological evolution. They’re confusing science with social policy. I’m not sure how you think that observation rebuts Harris’s and Dawkins’ argument that religious moderates are responsible in part for religious extremism by promoting the view that religious faith is a virtue and that it justifies strong beliefs about the existence and nature and will of God (not to mention all sorts of other religious doctrines).

    I’m not sure what you mean by “trust” in this context. I define faith as belief unsupported by evidence. If you have evidence, you don’t need faith. Why should we believe that faith is a reliable guide to truth? Why should we believe it’s any more reliable than a guess, a wish or a hope? Why should we believe that alkali’s faith about the true nature and will of God (assuming there is a God) is more reliable than the faith of, say, Mohamed Atta (one of the 9/11 hijackers)?

  12. #12 Pseudonym
    December 29, 2006

    Jimmy:

    I define faith as belief unsupported by evidence.

    What I was trying to point out is that this is not what the Hellenistic Greek word pisteuĆ³ meant. This is the word that is used in the New Testament and translated in English as “faith”.

    Yes, a lot of people use it to mean “belief”. There’s a lot of good linguistic scholarship into ancient Greek dialects which is independent of religion. The word refers to a kind of trust. It did not mean “belief”, except in extremely informal usage.

    Why should we believe that alkali’s faith about the true nature and will of God (assuming there is a God) is more reliable than the faith of, say, Mohamed Atta (one of the 9/11 hijackers)?

    Good question. I think the first important question is: What exactly are we observing?

    Obviously, if you don’t believe in God, then the question is entirely moot. It’s a fair assumption that God, if s/he exists, is not observable in the scientific sense.

    So what is observable? Basically, the sayings and the deeds. The philosophy, if you will.

    Unlike science, philosophy has no objective criteria by which it can be judged as far as I know. I’m a scientist by training, so I have no idea how philosophers do it. I would evaluate alkali’s philosophy as I would any other: look at what they say and what they do, and evaluate that based on my own criteria, giving a plus for anything food, a minus for anything bad and a neutral for anything I don’t care about.

    As far as I know, unlike Mohammed Atta, alkali has never killed anyone or even expressed hate. Certainly not here. Alkali has also indicated that people in his/her church do a lot of good stuff for the community. That sounds pretty good to me. As far as I know, alkali has never even turned up at anyone’s door at 9am on Saturday trying to convert them.

    I’d say that alkali comes across as pretty positive by secular humanist criteria, compared to Mohamed Atta. What do you think?

    Lest you think that I’m concentrating on Christianity, I should point out that I think that the Tenzin Gyatzo (the current Dalai Lama), Imran Khan, Bernard Kouchner and Carl Sagan also come across as very decent people who have done a lot of good in the world, who obviously follow(ed) a good life philosophy, be it religious or nonreligious.

  13. #13 Rohan
    December 29, 2006

    Jimmy,

    I think you are missing the point a little here. If advocators of social darwinsim misunderstand evolution it is a shame and we should try and prevent it. However evolution is a fact of life, one for which the evidence is becoming more crushing with every scientific discovery. It is not a faith position and we cannot disbelieve in evolution (unless it becomes scientifically disproven) in the manner we can (and should) renounce religion.

    Religious moderates should be aware that through their ‘sensible’ belief in these religions they are inadvertently giving credence to fanatics and extremists. If these belief systems did not exist in any form, nor would religious fanaticism and the ensuing terror attacks, militias, and suicide bombings

  14. #14 Rohan
    December 29, 2006

    Psueodonym,

    I’m not sure that we can characterise the Dalai Lama’s spirtual guidance and adherence to a life discipline as ‘religion’ as such, and I also do not imagine you would feel quite so kindly towards Imran Kahn if you were Jemima Goldsmith and were forced to wear a veil every time you ventured outside the house in Pakistan. (perhaps a factor in their divorce). As a follower of Islam he, like all men who force women into this subjugation and the belief that they are inferior, or require modesty around menfolk is preventing their emancipation and the continuing enlightenment of pople throughout the world.

    Please explain how this a kind act or good philosophy.

    I think the point is that it is irrelevant how well the person behaves if the religion they adhere to is either fostering fanaticism inadvertantly or inherently bigoted, be it against women, homosexuals, ethnicity etc….

  15. #15 Pseudonym
    December 29, 2006

    Rohan, now that really is disingenuous.

    Fanatics and extremists won’t go away if religion goes away, they’ll just pick another excuse for their stupidity. And it’ll be an excuse that you can’t as easily counter. Look how some misuse the good cause of “freedom”. Would you get rid of “freedom” because it feeds extremism?

  16. #16 Pseudonym
    December 29, 2006

    Rohan, that just goes to show that the veil thing is more cultural than religious. If it were religious, Jemima Goldsmith would have been “forced” to wear a veil elsewhere, not just outside in Pakistan.

    And I think you’re playing fast and loose with semantics by not calling Tibetan Buddhism a “religion”. It sounds an awful lot like it’s only a religion if you have a problem with it, otherwise it isn’t.

  17. #17 alkali
    December 29, 2006

    Responding to jimmy, 12/28 10:36 pm: Even keeping in mind that I was abstracting quite a lot to focus on commonalities among religious liberals, *I* don’t find what I wrote to be substance-less or unduly obscure. And if I don’t have a problem with it, I don’t see what problem Sastra or you could reasonably have with my believing it.

    Responding to jimmy, 12/28 11:54 pm: I understand the argument but it still doesn’t seem plausible to me, even less so in the more extreme form that you put it. Did the 9/11 terrorists actually feel more justified in their actions because of the existence of Quakers? I think as far as they were concerned, we’re all godless heathens. In any event, I still don’t see what can be done about it: you can’t cause people to change their sincerely-held beliefs by making arguments about what other people might do.

  18. #18 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    December 29, 2006

    alkali: Our moral obligations — including the obligation to love one another — derive ultimately from God.

    Here’s another criticism of your position, courtesy of Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue: is an action moral because God says so, or does God say so because it is moral?

    I was surprised not to find the dilemma of divine command in TGD.

  19. #19 alkali
    December 29, 2006

    Responding to Mustafa Mond, FCD:

    I don’t mean to suggest that liberal religion along the lines I’ve sketched out here isn’t immune to traditional philosophical attacks, including the issue you raise and — probably most importantly — the problem of theodicy (i.e., if there is a God, why is there evil in the world?).

    But those strike me as different categories of criticism than the criticism that Dawkins is principally interested in making, which is that religion is for silly people who don’t take science seriously enough. That is a serious criticism when directed at people who think the earth is 6,000 years old; it is not a serious criticism of liberal religion.

  20. #20 Jimmy
    December 29, 2006

    alkali,

    Sastra’s criticism, again, is that liberal theists’ defenses of their beliefs end up in statements so vague and obscure they are virtually meaningless. Allen Orr’s response to Dawkins’ arguments against belief in the existence of God is a typical example of this kind of obscurantism. Orr suggests that theists believe God exists in some sense other than the sense in which other things exist, but he does not describe what this other sense of existence is, or explain why Dawkins’ arguments do not apply to it. Your own statement that liberal Jews and Christians believe that “our efforts to adhere to those moral obligations have significance above and beyond our lives as physical beings” is another example. What does it mean? What is this supposed “significance?” Presumably, you’re alluding to “Judeo-Christian” doctrines about an afterlife, heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, that sort of thing, but it’s not really clear what you mean, or if you’re even referring to a belief remotely akin to traditional Christian or Jewish doctrines in this area at all. In my experience, liberal Christians often do not have any intelligible notion of what they mean by heaven and hell, or salvation and damnation, at all. They often seem deeply reluctant to discuss their beliefs on these questions, and when they do attempt to explain what they believe it invariably degenerates into the kind of obscurantism we are complaining about: statements to the effect that it’s all so ineffable and mysterious, that language is inadequate for expressing the true meaning of these ideas, and so on.

    I also don’t understand why you find it implausible that your defense of religious faith as a justification for strong beliefs about matters of objective truth encourages religious extremists as well as religious moderates. If faith justifies belief, why doesn’t it justify the faith-beliefs of a Mohamed Atta as well as the faith-beliefs of a Bishop Spong?

  21. #21 Jimmy
    December 29, 2006

    Pseudonym,

    You say the question I asked is a good one, but nowhere do I see you address it. Instead, you observe that alkali’s religious beliefs about how God wants us to treat one another are closer to your own beliefs about how we should treat one another, and to those of secular humanism, than are Mohamed Atta’s. I agree with you about that, but it’s irrelevant to the question I asked. Again, why should we believe that alkali’s faith about the true nature and will of God is more reliable than the faith of, say, Mohamed Atta? More generally, why should we believe that one man’s religious faith is a more reliable guide to truth than another’s? Why should we believe that religious faith is a reliable guide to truth at all, any more reliable than, say, a guess or a hope?

    If there’s no good reason to think that religious faith is a reliable guide to truth, why should we have any confidence in the truth of beliefs held as a matter of faith, whether those faith-beliefs are alkali’s, Atta’s, or anyone else’s?

  22. #22 alkali
    December 29, 2006

    Responding to Jimmy 2:17 pm:

    Sastra’s criticism, again, is that liberal theists’ defenses of their beliefs end up in statements so vague and obscure they are virtually meaningless.

    To pick on you mean by “virtually meaningless”:

    You certainly don’t mean that it doesn’t count as belief because it’s all tautologically true. (E.g., assume I were to say, “I believe, with all my heart, that two plus two equals four.” That arguably wouldn’t count as a “belief” because it doesn’t express anything meaningful other than perhaps “I am not confused about the definitions of the words ‘two,’ ‘plus,’ ‘equals,’ and ‘four.’”)

    Taking a further step, I think you’ve got to admit that the tenets of liberal religion I outlined above have at least some substantive content, and are not so meaningless that it’s not sensible at all to ascribe to them a truth value. Putting that another way, if you were asked as to each of the statements made in my prior post, “Do you agree?,” I think you would be able to say to most (if not all) “Yes” or “No,” not “I don’t know if I agree because I’m not sure what you mean.”

    At that point the question of whether these statements are sufficiently definite would seem to become a philosophical or aesthetic question. Suppose, for example, that Believer Bob thinks that there’s some sort of afterlife, the nature of which will depend on his efforts to honor moral obligations during his natural life, but he’s uncertain of any details beyond that. Does that uncertainty by itself constitute a reason he can’t hold that belief? If not, what’s the problem?

    I also don’t understand why you find it implausible that your defense of religious faith as a justification for strong beliefs about matters of objective truth encourages religious extremists as well as religious moderates. If faith justifies belief, why doesn’t it justify the faith-beliefs of a Mohamed Atta as well as the faith-beliefs of a Bishop Spong?

    You are posing two different questions.

    The first question is an empirical question — “Does crazy religious terrorist guy actually take encouragement in the fact that Episcopalians go to church every Sunday?” — and I don’t think there’s any reason to think the answer is yes. Even if the answer were yes, I’m not really sure what we would expect the Episcopalians to do about that: it might affect their public actions (“Let’s go to church in secret, so as not to encourage crazy guy”), but not their private beliefs, which you can’t just turn on and off.

    The second question is a philosophical question — “If the Episcopalians are justified in believing what they believe, isn’t crazy religious terrorist guy justified in believing everything he believes?”

    Let me back this hypothetical up just a bit and replace the crazy religious terrorist guy with a believer in the Noah’s ark story, because I’m not sure what crazy religious terrorist guy believes or why he believes it — it may have little or nothing to do with religion. Turning to Noah’s ark guy:

    I think the obvious answer is, from the point of view of liberal religion, you can’t believe that as a matter of faith because (i) in point of fact it couldn’t rain so much as to cover the earth; (ii) there’s no archaeological basis to believe that such a flood ever occurred; and (iii) the Bible can’t be relied upon to recount historical events with literal accuracy. Some religious claims are subject to those kind of objections, and some are not.

    Alternatively, suppose Believer Bob believes (A) we should love each other and (B) he should shoot Fred. The obvious answer from the point of view of liberal religion is (i) hey, you know, “A” and “B” can’t both be true, because shooting people is inconsistent with loving them; and (ii) “B” seems to be the kind of thing that some people with mental disorders believe, and maybe you’d like to see a doctor about that. Again, some religious claims are subject to those kind of objections, and some are not.

    The short version of this is: does faith justify belief? Well, sometimes it clearly doesn’t, but it doesn’t follow from that that faith can never justify belief.

  23. #23 Jimmy
    December 29, 2006

    alkali,

    I still don’t see what can be done about it: you can’t cause people to change their sincerely-held beliefs by making arguments about what other people might do.

    I would have thought that reflecting on the fact that religious faith seems to lead many people to hold convictions you strongly believe to be false (such as the beliefs of the 9/11 hijackers about God’s will. Or, for that matter, the beliefs of many conservative American Christians about God’s will) would tend to undermine your confidence in your own faith-based beliefs. If you are as fallible as the next man, if faith is as likely to mislead you as anyone else, I don’t see how you can escape this conclusion.

  24. #24 Jimmy
    December 29, 2006

    alkali,

    Your argument about faith makes no sense to me. You seem to be saying that faith-beliefs that are contradicted by scientific evidence (such as a belief in Noah’s Ark) are unreasonable and unjustified. This harks back to an earlier statement of yours about “plainly unreasonable dogma.” But what are your criteria for distinguising reasonable from unreasonable dogmas? If it’s consistency with scientific evidence, do you therefore claim that belief in, say, the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, or miracles, or the power of petitionary prayer, are examples of unreasonable, unjustified dogmas? Those dogmas are all inconsistent with scientific evidence but they are all widely believed by Christians, including many moderate and liberal ones. If a liberal Christian is justified in believing through faith that Jesus rose from the dead or that God sometimes heals the sick in response to prayer, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, why isn’t a conservative Christian justified in believing through faith that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, or that the Benny Hinn Miracle Healing Crusade has cured many sick people?

    And I don’t see how Mohamed Atta’s faith-belief that in flying a plane into the World Trade Center he was doing God’s will is any less consistent with science than your faith-belief that in feeding the poor you are doing God’s will. So why is your belief about God’s will any more reasonable or justified than his?

  25. #25 Caledonian
    December 29, 2006

    The short version of this is: does faith justify belief? Well, sometimes it clearly doesn’t, but it doesn’t follow from that that faith can never justify belief.

    Faith can be applied to any belief. If there’s any belief that we are willing to recognize as invalid (and logically there must be if there’s to be any meaning at all), it follows that faith is not sufficient to justify a belief.

    Not sometimes, not special beliefs, not particular people or unusual circumstances. Not ever. Faith does not justify. Period.

  26. #26 Jimmy
    December 29, 2006

    alkali,

    Taking a further step, I think you’ve got to admit that the tenets of liberal religion I outlined above have at least some substantive content, and are not so meaningless that it’s not sensible at all to ascribe to them a truth value.

    As I explained, the tenets you described are vague and the meaning of them is not at all clear. When critics of “Judeo-Christian” beliefs take statements of those beliefs at face value we are usually told by liberal Christian apologists that the stated tenets don’t really mean what we think they mean, they mean something much more sophisticated and subtle, something that can only be vaguely captured by the limitations of human language, etc., and that our criticisms are therefore invalid. That is the game Allen Orr is playing in questioning the meaning of the word “exists” in his response to Dawkins about belief in the existence of God. It is a game I see over and over again in my own debates and discussions with “sophisticated” theists. And I defy anyone to extract a clear meaning from your statement that “our efforts to adhere to those moral obligations have significance above and beyond our lives as physical beings.” As I said, I think you’re probably alluding to beliefs about things like the afterlife, heaven and hell, punishment for sin, and so on, but I don’t really know what you mean.

    Your statement that liberal Christians believe that “God loves us all, and wants us to love Him and to love one another” is similarly obscure. Virtually all Christians, and presumably most Muslims too, would agree with that statement. Yet you have such vastly different ideas of what “love” means here in terms of tangible, concrete behavior that the statement is just empty rhetoric with no clear meaning. Many Christians today, and virtually all Christians in antiquity, would claim that countless acts you and your fellow liberals would probably condemn as cruel and unjust are fully consistent with love for God and love for one’s fellow man–everything from torturing heretics to stoning homosexuals to banning abortion.

  27. #27 Pseudonym
    December 29, 2006

    Jimmy: I dodged the question for two reasons, and I thought I clearly stated both.

    The first reason is that assuming that God exists, it’s pretty clear that s/he isn’t objectively observable. So from a scientific point of view, the question about who “knows the mind of God” better is ill-posed at best, and meaningless at worst.

    The second reason is that if you treat it as a philosophical question rather than a scientific question… well, I simply don’t know how to address questions like that. I never studied philosophy. Instead, I did what I could do, which is look at things that I can observe. Those things, which are what alkali and Mohamed Atta (respectively) say and do, can be compared and evaluated against common criteria.

    Of course, there’s no objective criteria against which they can be judged, but that’s always going to be true where philosophy is concerned.

    To reuse an analogy, I strongly believe that free speech is a universal human right. However, I can’t prove this assertion scientifically. Is this “faith”, in the “unjustified by evidence” sense?

    I could probably, if I tried hard enough, show that nations that respect human rights tend to have people that suffer less, but I’m just pushing the problem back a step. The study on human rights and human suffering shows what does happen (which can be studied scientifically), but my assertion about free speech is a statement about what should happen: morals and ethics (which can’t).

    When you get down to it, your question is one of the second form.

  28. #28 Jimmy
    December 29, 2006

    Pseudonym,

    I didn’t mean it as either a “scientific question” or as a “philosophical question.” It’s just a question, period. Why should we believe one man’s faith is a more reliable guide to the truth than another man’s faith?

    I still don’t understand what relevance you think comparing alkali’s and Atta’s moral beliefs and behavior to “common criteria” has to that question. The question is about the relationship between faith and truth, not about which man’s beliefs are more common or more consistent with your own moral beliefs or with secular humanism.

    If you believe that alkali’s religious faith is a more reliable guide to the truth than Atta’s religious faith (or vice versa), please say so and explain why you believe that. If you don’t believe either man’s faith is more reliable than the other’s, please say so.

  29. #29 Jimmy
    December 29, 2006

    Pseudonym,

    To reuse an analogy, I strongly believe that free speech is a universal human right. However, I can’t prove this assertion scientifically. Is this “faith”, in the “unjustified by evidence” sense?

    Depends on what you mean by “free speech is a universal human right.” If by “right” you mean some entity that exists in an objective sense, then yes, I’d say that’s faith. But if by “right” you mean something like the codification of a subjective moral or ethical preference, then no, it’s not faith, it’s just a statement of your preference, something like saying “Blue is a prettier color than green.”

  30. #30 Pseudonym
    December 29, 2006

    Jimmy, I’m not claiming that any statement about “the mind of God” is “true”. Perhaps this is the root cause of the misunderstanding. Surely the only logically consistent answer to the question as posed is the strong agnostic line: Even if God does exist, then answer to that question is fundamentally unknowable.

    But that’s not the point. There is a serious difference between liberal religion and extremist religion. The difference should be obvious. Liberal religions do try to explain the difference, though they can only expend so much effort on this without eating into their community work. And, of course, what they do say never gets reported, given the media’s strong bias in favour of sensationalism. But that’s a whole other argument.

  31. #31 Jimmy
    December 30, 2006

    Pseudonym,

    Jimmy, I’m not claiming that any statement about “the mind of God” is “true”.

    I didn’t think you were claiming that. I’m asking if you believe that alkali’s religious faith is a more reliable guide to the truth than Atta’s. If you do believe that, please say so and explain why you believe it. If you don’t believe it, please say that. It’s not a trick question, I don’t think it’s hard to understand, and I don’t know why you keep evading it in your responses to my posts. Perhaps you are just reluctant to say publicly that you see any kind of equivalence between alkali’s and Atta’s belief systems given that one is a mass murderer and the other seems like a nice guy of admirable morals. But that won’t do, as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins explain in their books. There’s no “good faith” and “bad faith.” Faith is faith, and encouraging people to believe that they are justified in holding strong convictions about truth through religious faith is a recipe for disaster.

  32. #32 Pseudonym
    December 30, 2006

    Very well, here’s your answer: I do believe that alkali’s religion is a more reliable guide to the truth of how one should live one’s life.

    That’s all I know because that’s all I care about.

  33. #33 Caledonian
    December 30, 2006

    I love that word and its cousins: ‘extreme’. It’s a descriptive term used in a normative way so much that the normative meaning has taken over almost completely.

    Now, all a philosophy/perspective needs to be called ‘extreme’ is to be disagreeable to some person. It can be dominiant in the social sphere, common, virtually ubiquitous, and well within the average, but it’s still ‘extreme’.

    Reality check: there is intelligence, and there is stupidity; that is all. All religion is stupidity. All stupidity is harmful, but some is more harmful than others. The most harmful forms of religion are to be eschewed, but they’re not necessarily extreme, and the extremes are not necessarily incorrect and invalid.

  34. #34 Robert O'Brien
    December 30, 2006

    All religion is stupidity.

    This unfounded assertion has been brought to you by the vitiated mind of Caleduncian.

  35. #35 Pseudonym
    December 30, 2006

    Indeed. “All religion is stupiditity” is at least as dumb a statement as “all flint tools are stupidity”. There’s obviously some evolutionary advantage to religion, since all cultures historically practiced it to varying degrees.

  36. #36 Caledonian
    December 30, 2006

    Don’t be stupid yourselves. Flint tools do not have a truth value. Neither do languages, basketweaving techniques, crop rotation methods, or bricks.

    Religion, however, is made of precious little but claims that have truth values, and the nature of religion guarantees that most of the claims will be wrong. Like superstitions in general, religion may have been useful once, but now it’s grossly obsolete.

  37. #37 Jimmy
    December 30, 2006

    Pseudonym,

    I do believe that alkali’s religion is a more reliable guide to the truth of how one should live one’s life.

    What makes you think moral beliefs (“how one should live one’s life”) have a truth value at all, rather than being matters of subjective preference? If moral beliefs do have a truth value, how may we determine which ones are true and which are false?

    You still haven’t answered the question I asked, but I’m not going to keep badgering you to do so. I suppose your refusal to answer is a kind of answer in itself.

  38. #38 Jimmy
    December 30, 2006

    Pseudonym,

    Indeed. “All religion is stupiditity” is at least as dumb a statement as “all flint tools are stupidity”. There’s obviously some evolutionary advantage to religion, since all cultures historically practiced it to varying degrees.

    Your statement “all flint tools are stupidity” is not merely dumb, it’s meaningless.

    A predisposition towards religious belief may be an evolved trait, but that obviously doesn’t mean any religious beliefs are justified. The religious beliefs that volcanos erupt because Prometheus the Fire God is angry at us for failing to sacrifice enough virgins, or that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, or that schizophrenia is caused by demonic possession, may all be manifestations of an evolved predisposition towards religious belief, but presumably even you would agree that such beliefs are stupid.

  39. #39 Jimmy
    December 30, 2006

    Now, all a philosophy/perspective needs to be called ‘extreme’ is to be disagreeable to some person. It can be dominiant in the social sphere, common, virtually ubiquitous, and well within the average, but it’s still ‘extreme’.

    Yes, I see this all the time in discussions with liberal Christians. They routinely describe doctrines that are thoroughly within the mainstream of Christian tradition and teaching as “extreme” or as “fundamentalism” or with some similar dismissive epithet. Things like the doctrines that homosexual sex is a sin, or that unrepentant sinners suffer eternal punishment in hell.

  40. #40 Pseudonym
    December 30, 2006

    Jimmy,

    What makes you think moral beliefs (“how one should live one’s life”) have a truth value at all, rather than being matters of subjective preference?

    I’ve hung around scientists for years, and the only time I’ve ever heard the term “truth value” used is among mathematical logicians (and, by extension, computer scientists).

    Scientists talk about fact, evidence, data, theory, conjecture, hypothesis and, if they’re sufficiently mathematical, axiom and theorem. Unless they’re logicians, scientists don’t talk about “truth”, and if they are logicians, they use the term in a fairly precise sense.

    What makes me think that morals have a “truth value”? They don’t. But some morals are “more true” than others. I feel justified in saying this because “truth”, when you’re not talking about the specific field of mathematical logic, is a philosophical term, not a scientific one.

    Caledonian seems to have the same problematic understanding:

    Religion, however, is made of precious little but claims that have truth values [...]

    What is the truth value of the following statement: “Love your neighbour as yourself”? (That’s the wording from most English translations of the Bible, of course, but many, many religions have an essentially identical teaching.)

    Back to Jimmy:

    You still haven’t answered the question I asked, [...]

    No, but I gave at least two reasons why I can’t, and an answer (which is the best you’ll get from a non-philosopher) to the one part of it that I can answer. I still can’t help getting the impression that the reason why you think I haven’t addressed your question your is that I don’t have a scientific answer for a philosophical question.

    A predisposition towards religious belief may be an evolved trait, but that obviously doesn’t mean any religious beliefs are justified.

    Of course not. But it also doesn’t mean that all religious beliefs are unjustified, which is what the statement “all religion is stupid” seemed to say.

  41. #41 Jimmy
    December 30, 2006

    Pseudonym,

    What makes me think that morals have a “truth value”? They don’t. But some morals are “more true” than others. I feel justified in saying this because “truth”, when you’re not talking about the specific field of mathematical logic, is a philosophical term, not a scientific one.

    I find this paragraph completely incomprehensible. How can some morals be more true than others if morals have no truth value? It’s meaningless. And I am using the word “truth” in the ordinary, conventional sense, the sense in which we would say, for example, that it’s true that the sun is a star or that the number 5 comes after 4. So you don’t need to concern yourself with arcane philosophical definitions or debates about the nature of truth. If you do think that moral beliefs have a truth value–i.e., that they are either true or false–then I would still like to know why you think that, and what method you propose for determining whether they are true or false. If you have no such method, on what basis do you believe that “alkali’s religion is a more reliable guide to the TRUTH [emphasis added] of how one should live one’s life” than Atta’s? If you had said merely that alkali’s moral beliefs are closer to yours than Atta’s are, that would be one thing. But you didn’t say that. You made the very different statement that you believe alkali’s beliefs are closer to the truth than are Atta’s. It is this truth claim I am asking you to justify.

    What is the truth value of the following statement: “Love your neighbour as yourself”?

    I don’t think it has one. I think it’s probably just an expression of a moral preference. Again, if you do think it has a truth value, please explain why you think that, and how you think we may discover its truth value.

    Of course not. But it also doesn’t mean that all religious beliefs are unjustified, which is what the statement “all religion is stupid” seemed to say.

    I didn’t say it did mean that. You raised the idea of religion-as-an-evolved-trait in the first place, presumably because you think it somehow establishes or lends credibility to the idea that religion isn’t always stupid. But it doesn’t. (And if that wasn’t your reason for mentioning it in the first place, I have no idea why you raised it. Your posts are full of digressions and non-sequiturs that have nothing to do with the questions we are discussing, so perhaps this is just another one). If you think that any religious beliefs are justified, it’s up to you to explain why you think that.

  42. #42 Pseudonym
    December 31, 2006

    If you do think that moral beliefs have a truth value–i.e., that they are either true or false–then I would still like to know why you think that, and what method you propose for determining whether they are true or false.

    Philosophers have spent a lot of ink trying to decide what “true” and “false” mean in various contexts. In this case, applying a “true or false” value to moral beliefs is a false dichotomy. That’s why I keep objecting to the question, and you keep accusing me of avoiding it in return.

    Nevertheless, philosophers have tools for evaluating moral beliefs against each other; to say that given belief A and belief B, belief A is “more correct” (“truer?”) than belief B.

    If you have no such method, on what basis do you believe that “alkali’s religion is a more reliable guide to the TRUTH [emphasis added] of how one should live one’s life” than Atta’s?

    I don’t fully understand all the tools, but basically you do it like you would a mathematical calculus. You set some axioms (“deontology”), for example, that unnecessary human suffering is wrong, and then evaluate moral principles and beliefs by examining their effects (“utilitarianism”), then weighing those effects against your axioms.

    Your objection is that the axioms aren’t justified in the same way that the laws of nature are justified in science. My objection to your objection is that philosophy doesn’t play by the same rules as science, so you shouldn’t expect them to.

    For the record, here’s the reason why you asked the question in the first place:

    I think it’s pretty disingenuous, therefore, for moderates to claim that they bear no responsibility for encouraging acts motivated by religious faith, including acts they abhor such as the 9/11 attacks.

    My point, which I probably didn’t make well, is that you could say the same of any system of moral philosophy, including secular humanism. Some fundamentalist religionists go to great lengths to point this out: without their particular deity, they claim, you have no objective basis for morality.

    I have strong beliefs about the way that people should behave. Avoiding unnecessary human suffering is an important example. I can’t justify them to your satisfaction, but if you don’t hold this belief yourself, at least I’d like to know why. If so, we have a shared value which we believe is “true”, in some sense, even though it’s not a scientific fact.

  43. #43 Jimmy
    December 31, 2006

    Never mind, Pseudo. Your writing is so confused and confusing you’re not worth bothering with.

  44. #44 Sastra
    December 31, 2006

    (Coming in very late to this thread…)
    alkali wrote:

    God created the universe. The entire nature of God is beyond human comprehension. God loves us all, and wants us to love Him and to love one another. Our moral obligations — including the obligation to love one another — derive ultimately from God.

    How can you say “the entire nature of God is beyond human comprehension” when you then go on to say some rather specific things about God? It is the sort of thing which creates universes (presumably on purpose, because it wants to); it is the sort of thing which can love and wants to be loved; it is the source of the human ability to love. This all sounds familiar. It’s not beyond comprehension.

    The description of God you’ve given isn’t some vague abstraction or moral statement like “it is better to be fair than to be unfair.” This isn’t like saying “chocolate tastes good.” It’s like saying “God is a disembodied mind or life/energy force which preceded and created the universe, relates to people on a social level, and is the explanation for why human beings have the desire to love one another.” And this can all be critiqued.

    Do disembodied minds exist? Is life an “energy force?” Is mind something which can act directly on matter through will? Can thoughts create or move objects? Did consciousness evolve? Did morals evolve? Did personhood evolve? From a scientific, evolutionary perspective, does it make more sense to view mind as coming from matter, or matter as coming from mind? Is it plausible to think there was a person before there were stars? Why would a person which did not evolve within a social species desire or need to be “loved?”

    These are real questions — specific, clear questions — and when you come at them from the perspective of science, the answers do not lead to a confirmation of your “modern liberal religious belief.” Not if you take it seriously, as a claim about the universe.

    Which you really don’t. The real heart of your belief lies in the desire to adhere to our moral obligations towards others. It’s an attitude or approach. The God part is only an aesthetic flourish for emphasis, a bit of poetry tacked on for effect. Thus, the strange addition of the “God is beyond human comprehension” part of the statement. That makes no sense except as a defensive or protective move.

    God can’t be analyzed for serious content any more than one can analyze the Little Engine That Could. Look at the theme, pay attention to the lesson it teaches — don’t ask whether trains can talk or why the dolls couldn’t just walk over the mountain or what kind of fuel the engines used. Like the Little Engine That Could, God is simply a vehicle to tell a story.

    Per Daniel Dennett, the kind of people who make the Argument from Generalized Vagueness do not REALLY believe in God. They believe in the *belief* in God. They believe in what God represents on earth, human ideals.

  45. #45 Daryl McCullough
    December 31, 2006

    Sastra writes: The real heart of your belief lies in the desire to adhere to our moral obligations towards others. It’s an attitude or approach. The God part is only an aesthetic flourish for emphasis, a bit of poetry tacked on for effect.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing. I think that that is actually how many religious people think of God. What is primarily important is how people treat one another, having love for the world’s creatures. The stuff about God and Jesus and Heaven and Hell are just stories that serve to help (some) people get into the appropriate frame of mind about the world. The factual truth about such claims is not particularly important.

    As I said on my blog, that’s my mother’s attitude about religion, and it’s pretty much mine, as well. As you say, maybe that means that we don’t REALLY believe in God. I’ll accept that.

  46. #46 Owlmirror
    December 31, 2006

    Per Daniel Dennett, the kind of people who make the Argument from Generalized Vagueness do not REALLY believe in God. They believe in the *belief* in God. They believe in what God represents on earth, human ideals.

    And that’s why “atheist” might be considered to be a “worse” epithet than “agnostic”; an agnostic might not believe in God, but might presumably still believe in believing, and will still maintain the ideals of belief. An atheist, by that conceptualization, doesn’t believe in God or in the ideals (and is thus considered equivalent to nihilism).

    Which is perhaps an argument for preferentially using the term “(secular) humanism”. Thus emphasizing that a belief in ideals of ethical behavior does not require any appeal to religion.

    It’s interesting that so much of philosophy revolves around the definition of certain words, and the defense of one definition over another (or the offensive conflation of one definition with another).

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