Amateur Atheists?

That, minus the question mark, is the title of a new article by theologian John Haught in the current issue of The Christian Century. The subtitle is “Why the New Atheism isn’t Serious.” Sadly, the article does not seem to be available online.

After reading that headline, I was expecting Haught to offer a variation on The Courtier’s Reply. Actually, Haught has something different in mind.

The serious atheists, in his view, are Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre. What makes them serious?

In this respect the new atheism is very much like the old secular humanism that was rebuked by the hard-core atheists for its mousiness in facing up to what the absence of God should really mean. If you’re going to be an atheist, the most rugged version of godlessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end. This means that before you get too comfortable witht he godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that? You will have to adopt the tragic heroism of a Sisyphus, or realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by. Don’t you realize that this will be an intolerable burden from which most people will seek an escape? Are you ready to allow simple logic to lead you to the real truth about the death of God? Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through “infinite nothingness.” You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendance. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.

Predictably, nothing so shaking shows up in the thoughts of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Apart from its intolerance of tolerance and the heavy dose of Darwinism that grounds many of its declarations, soft-core atheism differs scarcely at all from the older secular humanism that the hard-core atheists roundly chastised for its laxity. The new softcore atheists assume that, by dint of Darwinism, we can just drop God like Santa Claus without having to wtiness the complete collapse of Western culture — including our sense of what is rational and moral. At least the hardcore atheists understood that if we are truly sincere in our atheism, the whole web of of meanings and values that have clustered around the idea of God in Western culture has to go down the drain along with its organizing center. (Emphasis in Original)

Goodness! Melodramatic much?

How should we reply to something so unhinged? We could, if we wished, meet Haught on his own preferred level of abstract philosophy and theology. That atheism logically entails nihilism, as Haught argues above, is simply ridiculous. That could be a fun argument for another day, but there is really no reason to be so high-falutin. The fact is that we have extensive empirical data about what happens when societies become majority atheist, and that data does not support Haught’s fears.

Take Scandinavia, for example. All of the Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden, report high levels of atheism. Have they collapsed into nihilism? Has this widespread rejection of religion led to the destruction of Western Civilization in those countries? Of course not. Quite the contrary. They remain some of the most generous and charitable nations on Earth.

Traditional Christian belief has been in widespread retreat in Western Europe for decades. If there has been a massive uptick in feelings of nihilism and lack of compassion in those countries, then I am not aware of it.

The fact is that tens of millions of atheists and agnostics the world over find little toruble getting through their daily activities without even a whiff of existential crisis. They have little trouble making good moral decisions. Indeed, in my experience they do considerably better in that regard than people who ground their sense of morality in religious faith.

So it would seem that the correlation between atheism and nihilism is considerably weaker than Haught would have us believe. It is not hard to see why. Rejecting the existence of God means simply that you can no longer defend moral assertions with the statement, “X is morally right because God commands it.” It means that if someone asks you about the meaning of life you can not answer, “The meaning of life is to glorify God,” or some such empty nonsense. I would say societies make a dramatic leap forward when they discard those sorts of flabby arguments.

You might be thinking that Haught can defend his preposterous exaggerations on the grounds that he is not arguing that atheism leads in practice to nihilism, but simply that it would do so if atheists were rational in their beliefs. This conjures up the amusing image of entirely rational people basing their sense of value and purpose on a lot of groundless religious fairy tales, suddenly descending into irrationality when they manage to get on with their lives even after realizing the fairy tales probably aren’t true.

But Haught is not one to let extreme silliness get in his way:

Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings. We can agree with soft-core atheists on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?

The answer is yes, of course. But the harder question is how does faith in God provide rational justification for anything? It is not enough, after all, simply to believe that God exists. You must also believe that (a) the universe is superintended by the sort of perfectly good God who ought to be taken seriously on moral questions and (b) that we have some reliable means for ferreting out what God wants from us. It is certainly true that any sort of rational justification of anything requires that you start from certain assumptions that are themselves left unproved. But I hardly think that a and b above are more sensible starting points than some instinctual sense that people have certain obligations to one another.

One suspects that the real reason Haught is so enamored of Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre is not the strength of their arguments, but rather that the three of them make atheism seem very unappealing. If the question is what you would desire to be true as opposed to what is true (which seems to be the only question with which Haught concerns himself), there is little danger that Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre will attract many followers. But here comes Dawkins and the rest to tell everyone that those three fine gentlemen were not correct. You really can have it all. A life of moral purpose and value without the goofy and divisive supernatural baggage of religion. Now that’s a threat.

Haught’s article is almost wall-to-wall silliness. We are told that it is an excerpt from a new book of his to be published shortly. I am not optimistic that the book will represent an improvement over this article.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    February 24, 2008

    But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?

    And have you stopped beating your wife yet?

    See, that’s not the real question, because it’s founded on false premises, and a person who cares about rationality wouldn’t be asking it. First, values are not “timeless”, nor do they have to be: at the most, they came into existence when our proto-human ancestors evolved the capacity for moral thought. Beauty and evil and hate and justice are human inventions, which matter to us because we are human. They are not spooky juices in which the entire Universe is basted.

    Second, in the Enlightenment worldview, we can recognize that moral and ethical questions are not easy; their resolutions do not have to be immediately apparent, and sometimes, resolving a question means recognizing that a “value” we once cherished is, in fact, incompatible with our other principles or simply unnecessary. What’s so great about “unquestioning adherence”, anyway?

  2. #2 Jim
    February 24, 2008

    At least he didn’t go the next step & invoke the tired argument about how the representatives of atheistic regimes (Stalin, Hitler, N. Korea) give us a clear example of what our alternative is (at least not from your chosen excerpts). I suspect that this is where he’s eventually going though. This is why I’m not a fan of the term “atheist”; it is so broad that it is devoid of any real meaning. It’s like calling someone a non-alchemist. We don’t have a term for a non-alchemist because we don’t need one. If alchemists suddenly became ascendant in society we would simply use reason & rationality to call them on their bullshit — we wouldn’t invoke a term to refer to those that arn’t one. This is how it should be with religion. Atheism, as a trait of N. Korean society, for instance, has nothing to do with their problems. I suggest that if you ask yourself what is wrong with N. Korea, the answer you get back will not be that there is too much skeptical inquiry. They are essentially a cargo-cult armed with nuclear weapons. They think that our food aide to them is an offering to their great leader. If this is, in fact, where Haught is going then who is still fooled by such an argument?

  3. #3 J. J. Ramsey
    February 24, 2008

    I don’t think that you quite addressed what Haught was saying this:

    Take Scandinavia, for example. All of the Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden, report high levels of atheism. Have they collapsed into nihilism? Has this widespread rejection of religion led to the destruction of Western Civilization in those countries? Of course not. Quite the contrary. They remain some of the most generous and charitable nations on Earth.

    This only means that these poor Scandinavians haven’t really examined their atheism. If they did, they would feel the cold, dark, clammy hand of nihilism, and the United Nations would be forced to send emergency shipments of Prozac. It is only because of their shallow lack of examination that such charity isn’t needed.

    Ok, that’s probably an exaggeration of what Haught’s response would be, but you get the idea.

  4. #4 6EQUJ5
    February 24, 2008

    We were all born atheists. Most of us had grownups inflict their stupidities on us. Some of us have since smartened up, but the rest haven’t.

  5. #5 foreign observer
    February 24, 2008

    Evolution is everywhere and in everything. Man had to evolve from cuadruped to biped, from primitive to “civilized” and allong the way construct changing behavior guidelines. Just as with genes, there is selection and mutation working in this sociological process. So, religion has gone from animistic to politheistic to monotheistic und has to evolve to the next stage, the question is, is it going to happen through selection or mutation or both. Haught of course does not recognize this process and is a prissoner of fossilized behavior patterns.

  6. #6 Art
    February 24, 2008

    “But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?”

    What is the exact point of “timeless values”. We are not timeless creatures.

    I wake and I feel somethings needs to be done. I experience the world and compare what I think I want it to be to how I perceive it and what it may be if I act, or fail to act, in some way. I advance and express my individual judgments and values as best I can knowing I will never reach or see the ideals of what I want. After a few years I die and, presumably, time goes on.

    It is a timeless story in the sense that garden slug to human we all do it. But timelessness and unconditional adherence has nothing at all to do with it. Values are always provisional and conditional. They are always rooted in the time and place we are.

    The writer is free to postulate that there are, or more correctly, hypothetically might be, timeless absolutes but these are abstractions far beyond the human condition and evidence. So far beyond that the temptation is to assume they are extent when there is no evidence that they are and to see them as so widely applicable that they become metaphysical and timeless values instead of what they are, hypothetical constructs of an overheated egotistical mind idly projecting its need for an over-daddy and single unifying conceptual theme onto reality.

  7. #7 Leni
    February 24, 2008

    You will have to adopt the tragic heroism of a Sisyphus, or realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by. Don’t you realize that this will be an intolerable burden from which most people will seek an escape?

    Um… no?

    More seriously, I will never understand why the idea that “true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by” is so awful and burdensome. Why on earth would it be a burden? Is Haught saying that it is a burden to be responsible for your ideas and values?

    I’ll admit that being responsible for yourself can be annoying at times, but it’s not that bad.

  8. #8 Benjamin Franz
    February 24, 2008

    It sounds like just another variation of the very worn out ‘Argument Ad Consequentiam’.

    What those who push this line fail to ‘get’ is that it doesn’t matter whether Nihilism is or is not a consequence of atheism. No more than ’causes people to fall down cliffs’ is an argument against gravity.

    It doesn’t change its truth or falsity even the tiniest bit. Whether Nihilism is a consequence of atheism is completely irrelevant.

  9. #9 L. Zoel
    February 24, 2008

    So your morals are based on “some instinctual sense that people have certain obligations to one another”?

    Why (believing that your instincts were shaped by the selfish forces of Darwinian evolution) would you ever trust your instinct as giving you moral truth?

    The fact that you still assert such a thing proves that you’re not acting rationally and haven’t yet accepted the logical consequences of your atheism.

    If atheism really is about acting rationally, then it means rejecting “instinctive” truth and deeply and seriously questioning these things, rather than just accepting on faith that the answer is the one to which you are predisposed by virtue of your ancestry.

  10. #10 Koray
    February 24, 2008

    And what is option B? If the atheists (softcore or hardcore as he calls them) are right that there is no god, then what we value in the western world (btw, why are we so hung up on the western values? Have the Chinese lived meaningless lives?) are the inventions of a bunch of delusional people from the Middle East.

    Who’s to say that what they thought up gives better meaning to our lives?

    For some reason I find myself hung up on the truth of whether god exists than evaluations of the alleged benefits of the wonderful Abrahamic religions.

  11. #11 jeffk
    February 24, 2008

    There are lots of instincts that can lead to behavior that can be rationally justified, so if you’re trying to behave morally it helps to be in tune with them. They’re not a good argument for what constitutes moral behavior by themselves.

  12. #12 PhysioProf
    February 24, 2008

    How do you even read that shit? Goddamn, it’s so fucking painfully boring.

  13. #13 kevin
    February 24, 2008

    L. Zoel:

    (1) Atheism is not “really about acting rationally”. It is about “really” not believing in sky fairies, because they make no sense. For questions that have no decent evidence or rational argument to judge, of *course* an atheist must necessarily fall back on instinctive answers.

    (2) Atheists are not asserting an answer that should be accepted on faith and never questioned. By all means, question away, and argue, and try to convince people why some alternate way to structure society is better. Questioning is good.

    (3) Of *course* our morals are based on “some instinctual sense that people have certain obligations to one another”. What the hell else is there to base them on? Saying “god” is idiotic, because your view of the sky fairy and what it wants is based on your own “instinctual sense” of what a sky fairy looks like, does, and wants. Except it isn’t — it is based on the “instinctual sense” of a hodge podge of sometimes good, sometimes stupid, sometimes lunatic, (usually male) writers spanning many centuries, corrupted occasionally by vile and lying, (usually male) translators, then pounded into the brains of children who are told “do not question this — your instincts do not matter and must always be subservient to what is written in this book”.

    (4) Why (believing that our instincts were shaped by the selfish forces of Darwinian evolution) would we ever trust our instincts as giving us moral truth? How about this: (a) Because “moral truth” is a silly concept. What humans pretty much the world over seem to crave is no more and no less a way to live that makes us content. Why do we crave this? Because we are humans — apparently it is simply part of our genetic heritage, no more, no less. And what does it take to make a human content? Well, generally it seems to mean having family and friends, living in a society that cares for others, being generous, etc. Why — again, just part of being a human, apparently. Or how about (b), because we have some decent empirical evidence that basing morality, at the lowest level, on our simple instinctual sense of right and wrong (instincts that thankfully, I might add, seem pretty universal across the human species), works just fine in practice. And because we also have evidence that basing it on sky daddy books is a terrible way to do things. Or how about (c), because what the hell else do we have to go by but our own reason, intellect, and instincts. Atheists certainly recognize that, as humans, we are not purely rational, intellectual creatures. Most of us need love, friends, comfort, surprise, curiosity, beauty, and all the rest, and not all of these desires make all that much rational sense. So what? When our intellect fails us, we rely on instincts. And when intellect and instincts conflict, we have to make judgments and trade-offs. And we have only ourselves to make those decisions, because the sky daddy isn’t here to make them for us.

  14. #14 Tyler DiPietro
    February 24, 2008

    “Why (believing that your instincts were shaped by the selfish forces of Darwinian evolution) would you ever trust your instinct as giving you moral truth?”

    The ontological status of “moral truth” you are implicitly invoking here is questionable. Morality is contingent upon multiple factors including, but not limited to, our evolutionary history.

    Your description of evolution’s history as “selfish” is also a fallacy of equivocation. The way in which replicators are considered “selfish” in a Darwinian sense is different from the anthropomorphic sense.

  15. #15 bill r
    February 25, 2008

    Ditto on Leni’s comment. It only sounds spooky if you are on the “other” side, “the dark night of the soul” and all that stuff. I found the whole nihilism/Sartre/Nietzsche thing quite liberating. Didn’t run off and kill anyone either.

  16. #16 mc
    February 25, 2008

    Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.

    Someone should punch that guy in the solar plexus.

  17. #17 AL
    February 25, 2008

    So your morals are based on “some instinctual sense that people have certain obligations to one another”?

    Why (believing that your instincts were shaped by the selfish forces of Darwinian evolution) would you ever trust your instinct as giving you moral truth?

    Who claims that instincts give “moral truth?” Certainly no atheist I know. In fact, this is usually a theist position: the argument from morality. We all instinctively have morals, therefore it was God that imbued us with them (coupled with some gratuitous side argument that moral instinct could not have come by naturalistic means). You seemed to have confused your own theist position and strawmanned the atheist position with it.

    And what is a “moral truth?” Morals are simply rules for group living based on shared values. If you don’t share the value, you’ll have to fend for yourself against the group on that particular issue. That’s it. Morality is very straightforward and I really don’t get why religious people always feel the need to mystify and reify something so mundane.

    The fact that you still assert such a thing proves that you’re not acting rationally and haven’t yet accepted the logical consequences of your atheism.

    We don’t assert such a thing, as I’ve just pointed out, but even if we did, it should be noted and can never be noted often enough that theism doesn’t adequately address the notion of morality as theists believe it. God is not a source of morality (see Euthyphro) and no characterization of God’s relation to morality will bridge the is-ought gap (descriptive statements about God are is statements and don’t necessarily imply any ought).

    If atheism really is about acting rationally, then it means rejecting “instinctive” truth and deeply and seriously questioning these things, rather than just accepting on faith that the answer is the one to which you are predisposed by virtue of your ancestry.

    Once again, atheists don’t believe in any “instinctive” truth as you’ve laid out here.

  18. #18 Richard Eis
    February 25, 2008

    It’s the great invisible security blanket brigade. Sorry, but reality is served cold even if you imagine it’s warm. It is however always satisfyingly filling.

  19. #19 Richard Wein
    February 25, 2008

    Jason wrote:

    But the harder question is how does faith in God provide rational justification for anything? It is not enough, after all, simply to believe that God exists. You must also believe that (a) the universe is superintended by the sort of perfectly good God who ought to be taken seriously on moral questions and (b) that we have some reliable means for ferreting out what God wants from us.

    It’s even worse than that for the theist. Whether God is good or not (and therefore whether his moral code is to be accepted) is a moral question, not just a factual one. In order to judge whether God is good, the theist must have had some prior moral values. So belief in God–no matter how justified–cannot provide an ultimate rational basis for morality. Even a theist can’t get an “ought” from an “is”.

  20. #20 John Pieret
    February 25, 2008

    While I’m not sure anyone (including, perhaps Haught) is getting his point, here is the article:

    http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=4497

  21. #21 Coin
    February 25, 2008

    That’s okay; John Haught isn’t “serious” either.

  22. #22 Mike Fox
    February 25, 2008

    The fact is that tens of millions of atheists and agnostics the world over find little toruble getting through their daily activities without even a whiff of existential crisis. (sic, emphasis added)

    You spelled a word incorrectly. That means you’re incorrect and, therefore, wrong. Since you’re wrong, Mr. Haught is right. And that’s logic. See how confusing a word without God is?

  23. #23 Reginald Selkirk
    February 25, 2008

    Same old same old. Atheism means no purpose in life and no grounds for morality. Haught is no better than the semi-literate hellfire Baptist preachers who pound this theme along with their literal-Genesis anti-science snake oil every Sunday of the year.

  24. #24 Reginald Selkirk
    February 25, 2008

    Would it be fair turnabout to suggest that any Christian who did not embrace the evil, angry God of the right Rev. Fred Phelps was merely an “amateur” Christian?

  25. #25 Dan S.
    February 25, 2008

    Shorter Haught: You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!

    (Or perhaps: we can’t handle the truth! . . .)
    —–

    soft-core atheists
    Hey! Where’d that thumpy bassline come from, all of a sudden . . .?

  26. #26 Martin
    February 25, 2008

    You spelled a word incorrectly [...] See how confusing a word without God is? [emph. added]

    Talking about a self-referential argument :-)

  27. #27 Jason Failes
    February 25, 2008

    “Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through “infinite nothingness.” You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendance. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.”

    It doesn’t work like that.

    When you are raised with a love for and a curiosity about the world, when your parents teach you how to question and think critically instead of providing pat answers, when a beautiful harmony develops over time between what you see, what you’ve learned, and what you believe to be true, you never have to “go back” into someone else’s delusions and “get over” the nonexistence of a God you never believed in in the first place.

    Such existential problems may arise if you were raised religious, and are in the process of escaping. However, this is no argument against the escape, but against raising children to believe such nonsense in the first place.

  28. #28 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 25, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey-

    If you reread my post I think you’ll find I did address the point you mention.

    L. Zoel-

    As I said in my post, reasoning about anything requires accepting something without proof. You’re argument is tantamount to saying that Euclidean geometry should be rejected because it is based on unproved postulates.

    John Pieret-

    Thanks for providing the link.

  29. #29 Blake Stacey
    February 25, 2008

    Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through “infinite nothingness.”

    Dude, like, that totally happened to this guy I know who took like, ten hits of acid and then smoked a bowl of salvia. He started screaming about “the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet” or something like that, and the next morning he was all like, “Dude, I was in a completely empty universe, you know, like Captain Kirk in the episode with the Tholian Web.”

    You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendance.

    Hey, I still believe in pi.

    Mmmmm, horizon of pi. . . .

  30. #30 QrazyQat
    February 25, 2008

    It would seem that John Haught, like so many religious apologists appear to be, is a very frightened fellow who is barely holding onto his humanity and any sense of decency toward his fellow humans by dint of his belief. He assumes that all people are like this — perhaps because the people he surrounds himself with are like that. But everyone is not like that; not everyone is a frightened sort who would do despicably inhuman acts in the absence of a belief in god and a fear of what that being might do to him. I suppose we should be grateful these sort of people believe as they do, given that they seem to feel they would be horrible folks without those beliefs, but I wish they would be decent folks without them, as so many millions of people manage to be.

  31. #31 Dunc
    February 25, 2008

    You will have to [...] realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by.

    Well, as the kids say – duh! That’s kinda the whole point.

    Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through “infinite nothingness.”

    Been there, done that. I figured it was the clinical depression rather than the atheism, but either way…

    Are you willing to risk madness?

    Yes. I’ve risked it recreationally many times before. :)

    While I agree with all the previous posters that nihilism is not a necessary outcome of atheism, I can confidently state that I’ve been through all that, all the rigours of doubt, and a heck of a lot more besides, and come out the other side – probably stronger and happier for it. Bite me, god-boy, you’ve got nothing you can scare me with.

    So anyway, where do I sign up to become a professional atheist? Like a schmuck, I’ve been doing it for free all these years.

  32. #32 Interrobang
    February 25, 2008

    I’ll freely confess to being an amateur atheist. I’ve never taken money for practicing atheism in my life. Depending on how your ethics sit, that putatively makes me superior to those of them who earn their livings off the god racket…

    It’s amazing what kind of trumped-up rhetorical frippery you can generate if you use essentially meaningless terms, like “timeless values,” “infinite nothingness,” and “transcendance.” (What the eff is that even supposed to mean, anyway? That something shouldn’t exist because it’s too good to exist? What?)

  33. #33 Dan S.
    February 25, 2008

    At least he didn’t go the next step & invoke the tired argument about how the representatives of atheistic regimes (Stalin, Hitler, N. Korea) give us a clear example of what our alternative is (at least not from your chosen excerpts). I suspect that this is where he’s eventually going though.

    One of the more . . . sophisticated attempts to do so recently (that I’ve seen) is an article, “The sacred and the human“, by Roger Scruton, which bases itself in Rene Girard’s ideas about violence and the sacred. Blurb: “Today’s atheist polemics ignore the main insight of the anthropology of religion?that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred. As Rene Girard argues, religion is not the cause of violence, but the solution to it“.

    Lots of courtierish tsk-tsking over the supposed “extent to which religion is caricatured by its current opponents, who seem to see in it nothing more than a system of unfounded beliefs about the cosmos?beliefs that, to the extent that they conflict with the scientific worldview, are heading straight for refutation,” (perhaps Scruton should wonder why so many people see it as such?) but interesting anyway. I do think that there are criticisms of religion that could use a bit more reading – not in theology, except as subject matter rather than field – but in the social sciences: anthropology, sociology, religious studies, etc. Of course, Scruton has to do a bit of handwaving towards the end to explain what he refers to as “ the comparative neglect of Girard’s ideas” . . .

  34. #34 Reginald Selkirk
    February 25, 2008

    And if you are a Darwinian, how can your moral values ultimately be anything more than blind contrivances of evolutionary selection?

    At least evolution is real. It sure beats basing morality on an imaginary sky pixie. Which you can’t do anyway because of the whole Euthyphro thing.

  35. #35 Reginald Selkirk
    February 25, 2008

    It’s amazing what kind of trumped-up rhetorical frippery you can generate if you use essentially meaningless terms, like “timeless values,” “infinite nothingness,” and “transcendance.” (What the eff is that even supposed to mean, anyway?

    I think it means he wants to go back to those good old-time timeless Biblical values; bring back slavery and such.

  36. #36 David D.G.
    February 25, 2008

    You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendance. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.

    Does this fool think that “true atheists” worship Cthulhu or something?

    ~David D.G.

  37. #37 notthedroids
    February 25, 2008

    “The fact is that tens of millions of atheists and agnostics the world over find little toruble getting through their daily activities without even a whiff of existential crisis.”

    I think this is overstating (or misstating?) the case.

    I’d prefer to say “existential crisis” is part and parcel of the human experience, but simply inventing an imaginary font of “meaning” (i.e. God) isn’t the only way of dealing with it. It’s pretty obvious that believing in God doesn’t innoculate a person from existential crisis.

  38. #38 Blake Stacey
    February 25, 2008

    And if you are a Darwinian, how can your moral values ultimately be anything more than blind contrivances of evolutionary selection?

    OK, let’s think this through. I’m gonna pass over the points that “blind” might not be a good way to describe natural selection, that a sense of morality could possibly stem from byproducts of adaptations, etc. We can hash that out later if anyone thinks there’d be an interesting discussion there. More important, however, is the key point:

    Whether or not you personally are a “Darwinian”, your moral values are contrivances of natural processes.

    “Darwinians” are just honest about it. Clapping your hands and chanting “I believe in fairies” does not applaud into being a cosmic standard of morality; it just puts another idea into your head.

  39. #39 notthedroids
    February 25, 2008

    So Haught thinks I haven’t sufficiently probed the “intolerable burden” of nothingness after death?

    Let me suggest that Haught hasn’t sufficiently probed the intolerable burden of eternity.

    It reminds me of a sign outside of a local Pentecostal church that read: “Think life is hell? Try an eternity with Jesus.”

    The message I took from that sign was much different than the intended one.

  40. #40 Rey Fox
    February 25, 2008

    Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.”

    I felt like that for a little while. Then I finished puberty.

    “Would it be fair turnabout to suggest that any Christian who did not embrace the evil, angry God of the right Rev. Fred Phelps was merely an “amateur” Christian?”

    Ah, the whole of Christianity has been nothing but softcore since they got rid of the animal sacrifices. I’m supposed to believe God had himself killed so I can just eat a cracker every week to please him? Weak sauce.

  41. #41 Dan S.
    February 25, 2008

    Does this fool think that “true atheists” worship Cthulhu or something?

    David D. G. wins the thread.

    Although one can see how folks reading some PZ might get a little confused, what with all the tentacles and cephalopodophilia . . .

    Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.”

    Or have access to penicillin, at least . . . (if that interpretation of Nietzsche’s condition is correct.)

  42. #42 Kseniya
    February 25, 2008

    Don’t you realize that this will be an intolerable burden from which most people will seek an escape?

    The more I am exposed to these questions and the concepts surrounding them, and the more I look, listen and think, the more sure I become of the answer.

    “Yes.”

    I do realize it.

    What I realize is this: Religion is as popular as it is because it provides an escape from many of the responsibilities thrust upon us by the reality in which we live and of which we are a part.

  43. #43 Kseniya
    February 25, 2008

    Clapping your hands and chanting “I believe in fairies” does not applaud into being a cosmic standard of morality; it just puts another idea into your head.

    Ooh! Another highly quotable Stacey turn of phrase! ;o)

  44. #44 Dan S.
    February 25, 2008

    You will have to [...] realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by.

    Really? I’ve just borrowed mine from other folks – guess I’m not very original. Luckily, the last 50,000 years or so of our species’ ongoing development of ethical systems(with and then without supernatural aspects) mostly occured before folks got so obsessed over intellectual property and copyright infringement. . .

  45. #45 Dan D
    February 25, 2008

    A hearty “hear, hear” to Benjamin Franz‘s point above. This is an ‘Argument Ad Consequentiam‘, and the original article, and every other reply, has been sucked into the rhetorical trap.

    He may be right or wrong about whether atheism leads to nihilism. But it doesn’t matter, and more than the fact that life leads unalterably to death is an argument against life.

    Wishful thinking doesn’t make something true. Even elaborately justified wishful thinking. I don’t want wars and famines and global warming. But “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Ignoring long-term costs for short term gains is something we describe with words like “immature”.

    Suppose that we can actually prove that a counterfactual belief in some sort of super-being is actually a Good Thing. It seems unlikely, but I can’t actually prove otherwise, and there is some historical precedent arguing for the adaptiveness of religious belief. So let’s take it as given. Then we should immediately set out to figure out what sort of fairy story will produce the most benefit and least harm.

    Remember, despite the argument above, no deity actually exists, so that’s not a basis for choosing. There are an infinity of possible religions, and a completely ironclad argument that some religion is good still doesn’t justify choosing any existing one.

  46. #46 Tulse
    February 25, 2008

    Does this fool think that “true atheists” worship Cthulhu or something?

    That’s immediately what I thought of as well — his “hardcore atheist” sounds like some sort of Lovecraft protagonist, driven insane by the revelation of how the world actually is.

    The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

    Of course, in Lovecraft, the protagonists are actually right about the way the world is, as unpleasant a truth as that may be, and it is the religious who “flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”.

  47. #47 Eamon Knight
    February 25, 2008

    Like a lot of religious apologists (though not limited to them), Haught assumes that moral behaviour arises as a rational consequence of an ethical system. In fact (IMO) moment to moment pro-social behaviour is a fairly spontaneous product of the emotion of compassion, the gut-level understanding that what goes around comes around, etc. It is then justified post facto by appeal to some ethical theory (religious or secular). Most of us operate this way most of the time, irrespective of religious persuasion. The lack of a “rigorous” basis for morality only bothers the more thoughtful atheists (who nonetheless outnumber, I assert, those theists who are thoughtful enough to be bothered by the lack of a rigorous basis for belief in the God to whom they attribute their morals).

    I kind of went through the nihilism thing when I was in transition. I got over it.

  48. #48 Dan S.
    February 25, 2008

    The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

    Hang on, so Haught is a Chtulhu-worshipper? Well, just goes to show . . . well, something. And to think that he testified for the plaintiffs at Dover, too . . .
    (Perhaps having to deal with [pdf, starting p. 31] those fine representatives of high theology from the Thomas More Law Center cured him of any urge to pull out the Courtier’s Reply?)

  49. #49 CortxVortx
    February 25, 2008

    Why doesn’t Haught just quote “Deteriorata” and be done with it?

    You are a fluke of the universe.
    You have no right to be here.
    And whether you can hear it or not
    The universe is laughing behind your back.

    Therefore, make peace with your god
    Whatever you conceive him to be –
    Hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin.

    With all its hopes, dreams, promises and urban renewal
    The world continues to deteriorate.

    GIVE UP

  50. #50 Blake Stacey
    February 25, 2008

    We noticed months ago that Haught is pulling an argumentum ad consequentiam. The point now is that the “consequence” he dreams up is not a real one, either logically or empirically.

  51. #51 Calli Arcale
    February 25, 2008

    Man, these people give us Christians a bad name. It’s not enough to say they disagree with atheists. Oh no. They have to denigrate them enough to dismiss them out of hand. If you’re an atheist, by this guy’s logic, you’re either an intellectual wuss who hasn’t thought things through, or you’re suicidally depressed and deserving mainly of pity. (Of course, nihilism isn’t necessarily a depressing philosophy . . . .)

    It’s silly, of course. I believe that there are truly timeless, universal values — but the ones we rely on are not those value but are human-made approximations that serve us in our specific circumstances. (I also believe that those universal values are pretty vague and non-specific, and thus not really useful for everyday applications — hence why mankind has created all sorts of more specific “values” to allow people to interact productively. “Values” are a lot like language — vital, complicated, almost instinctive, but nevertheless a human construction and not remotely static.)

    Heck, there’s scriptural basis for concluding that “values” are a human construction, and that God finds them rather silly. (Of course, to take that view, one has to believe that the Old Testament was written by actual human beings and not magically zapped into existence by the hand of God.)

  52. #52 tourettist
    February 25, 2008

    To me as an atheist, morality and values are more meaningful because they come from humanity. They evolve over time from what has enabled us to live together, survive as a species, and form dynamic civilizations. They are enduring because they work, and if they work. I might add, only if they work, nothing eternal about them.

    I wonder if Haught is a whole-hearted or a wishy-washy Christian? If followed to their cold, logical conclusion, the tenets of Christianity could seriously impair one’s ability to function. How can he get through the day in the full knowledge of all the people who will be tortured in hell by his god? Geez, it’s no wonder so many Christians are so nutty. I have a strange, newfound compassion for the daily anguish they must suffer… unless, of course, they’re amateurs.

  53. #53 daenku32
    February 25, 2008

    Wonder if he will admit that democracy is opposite to monotheistic theology? After all, it reduces application of divine orders to whatever the simple majority decides.

  54. #54 Sacoglossan
    February 25, 2008

    Good grief, what a dishonest ramble from Haught.

    Its the argument from Hell all over again. For kids its: Scare the unbelief out of you by saying you’ll go to hell. For rational atheists now, its: Scare the unbelief out of you by saying atheism inevitably leads to nihilism and immorality. Both arguments are of course are unjustified, unevidenced, unnecessary and unkind. what an artificial, sensationalistic farce. He should be ashamed

    Good post Jason

  55. #55 Calli Arcale
    February 25, 2008

    tourettist, it seems very likely to me that Haught is employing a double standard. Of course he’s not an amateur, but is instead a reasonable person with great intelligence. After all, he agrees with himself, doesn’t he? That’s the problem — folks who argue this way believe they are right, so firmly so that their arguments derive from this rather than pointing to it. They do not seek proof of God; rather, they assume God exists and then try to apply that knowledge. They are then baffled when people question them, and conclude that the questioners must be questioning the existence of God.

    I think this is the source of most of the problems between religious and scientific types. They’re not arguing the same way, rendering many attempts at dialog into exercises in futility. That’s certainly how I’ve felt talking with a lot of Creationists.

    It is indeed ironic that the exact same things he uses to rail at atheists can be just as easily applied to theists of various persuasions — and often are, much to the consternation of many theists. I know a Christian who thinks that non-Christians are deluded morons for just blindly accepting what somebody (chiefly scientists or the government — he’s a bit of a conspiracy theorist) tells them. Yet he cannot even conceive of the idea that he might himself be blindly accepting what someone tells him (that there is a God, that Jesus died for our sins, etc). Question his God and you are a deluded sinner tempted away by Satan who is insulting his faith. But if he questions your positions, it is just a reasonable inquiry. A double standard, and he can’t even see it.

  56. #56 Dan S.
    February 25, 2008

    Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through “infinite nothingness.”

    I’ve been to Long Island -does that count?

  57. #57 Dan S.
    February 25, 2008

    How can he get through the day in the full knowledge of all the people who will be tortured in hell by his god?

    Well, because he’s not that kind of Christian. Read, for example, that bit of the Dover trial transcript – starting about page 90: one almost feels sorry for Thompson, who clearly can’t grasp the idea that a Christian theologian has an idea of god that isn’t a Big Sky Daddy, and who argues that one has to take the idea of a virgin birth in the context of ancient religious communities, and that a video camera in Jesus’ tomb wouldn’t have recorded anything, and etc.

    Anyway – I dunno, one way of looking at this, metaphorically speaking, is that it’s like some poor person who just got dumped and is doing the full-on agonizingly obsessive heartbreak thing – they’re gone they’re gone they’re gone my life is over ow ow ow it hurts – while everyone around is like:, oh geez, that sucks, we’ve been there – but, well, y’know, other fish in the sea – and meanwhile they’re stubbornly refusing to understand how super-specially special special That Person was. [The less flippant and far worse version of this isn't a bad breakup, of course, but the death of a loved one]. Haught (presumably) loves his idea of god very much, so the thought of losing it is just horrible.

    You know, I think he raises real issues – what would a deeply and multi-generationally laregly post-Christian West look like? – or should we be talking Wests, perhaps? – but geez, what an antisocial pain in the tuchas he’s being . . .

  58. #58 Dan S.
    February 25, 2008

    We can agree with soft-core atheists on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?

    That’s funny – in my experience, this question comes exclusively from theists of a certain stripe, often screeching about how learning about evolution inevitably leads to cats and dogs living together and suchlike . . .

  59. #59 Explict Atheist
    February 25, 2008

    Arguments such as Haught’s all seem to me to center on a false dichotomy that meaning and values are either transcendent or absent with nothing in between. We find our individual and collective meanings and committments to values in our day to day lives. Everyone, even the religious, do this anyway. I think some religious people, as exemplified by Haught, have lost touch with themselves, they don’t know themselves well because their ideology has taken over. Its like religious Muslim women who claim to feel naked without wearing a head covering. Haught doesn’t know what it is like to be an intellectual free person and has learned to fear and distrust himself too much to realize that relying on himself is a viable option.

  60. #60 J. J. Ramsey
    February 25, 2008

    Jason Rosenhouse: “If you reread my post I think you’ll find I did address the point you mention.”

    Yeah, you are pretty much right. I don’t think Haught would quite grant that those who think like him would concede that they are “basing their sense of value and purpose on a lot of groundless religious fairy tales,” though.

    Explicit Atheist: “Haught doesn’t know what it is like to be an intellectual free person and has learned to fear and distrust himself too much to realize that relying on himself is a viable option.”

    I’d be careful about the idea that relying on oneself is a viable option. We are fragile, fallible beings in an imperfect universe that is thoroughly indifferent to us. Haught is wrong in saying that perceiving ourselves as such should require tragic heroism, but hubris isn’t the answer, either.

    (IMHO, skepticism and a sense of humor seems a much better prescription.)

  61. #61 windy
    February 25, 2008

    a Christian theologian has an idea of god that isn’t a Big Sky Daddy, and who argues that one has to take the idea of a virgin birth in the context of ancient religious communities, and that a video camera in Jesus’ tomb wouldn’t have recorded anything,

    One of these things is not like the others…

  62. #62 Iain Walker
    February 26, 2008

    Why (believing that your instincts were shaped by the selfish forces of Darwinian evolution) would you ever trust your instinct as giving you moral truth?

    Coming somewhat late to the table, I notice that several commenters have already addressed this claim. But I’d kind of like to know why L. Zoel thinks that there is such a thing as “moral truth”, or more importantly, why he/she thinks it is even a meaningful expression.

    Basically, I’d like to see someone advance a plausible case for moral cognitivism. Because I certainly haven’t come across one yet.

  63. #63 Reginald Selkirk
    February 26, 2008

    Coming somewhat late to the table, I notice that several commenters have already addressed this claim. But I’d kind of like to know why L. Zoel thinks that there is such a thing as “moral truth”, or more importantly, why he/she thinks it is even a meaningful expression.

    I agree with you that moral truth is a category error. Epistemology is about truth. Ethics is about values.

    However, what several of us are getting at is that given a materialistic, Darwinian outlook, we are not left in moral freefall, we are constrained by reality. Material existence and an evolutionary history place certain constraints on us. A species which routinely eats its young would be less likely to survive, for example. A species which does not discourage murder and theft from other members of the species would not have been likely to form large, technologically advanced societies. And so on.

  64. #64 Reginald Selkirk
    February 26, 2008

    Does this fool think that “true atheists” worship Cthulhu or something?

    Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

  65. #65 Dan S.
    February 26, 2008

    Why (believing that your instincts were shaped by the selfish forces of Darwinian evolution) would you ever trust your instinct as giving you moral truth?

    Why (believing that your senses were shaped by the selfish forces of Darwinian evolution) would you ever trust your senses as giving you empirical truth?

    (Granted, they’re imperfect, but also absolutely necessary, and using – well, our senses (and brains) – we can work out ways to at least partly correct for that.)

    Incidentally, if there’s any justice in the universe, Alvin Plantinga will be reborn as a planarian.

  66. #66 Fastlane
    February 26, 2008

    These kind of religious hate screeds that display such rank ignorance really piss me off.

    Haught can go fuck himself with rusty tire iron.

    I went through a figurative hell, long after I was solidly atheistic in my worldview. My ideas, ethics and worldview was tested, and it was found to be moral, compassionate, and most of all consistent. I bet Haught can’t say the same.

    My best friend (the guy that got a ministerial certificate just so he could perform the wedding ceremony for me and my wife) committed suicide several years ago. He was 29. He wasn’t initially successful, and he lingered in the hospital for over a week before dying. I’ve always felt that true respect for life entails allowing others to make their own choices, regardless of how much you might personally disagree with it. My wife and I feel the same way about this, and so did my friend, and his wife, all atheists. It took a few days to decide to remove the feeding tube and life support, it’s uncertain if he would have ever regained conciousness, but we had to respect his right to end his own life. It was the single hardest fucking thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, and it still hurts after all these years.

    Not once did any of us lapse into nihilism or anything as retarded as Haught thinks we ‘have to’ in order to be consistent. Through it all, we shared our grief with each other, consoled each other as well as we could, and did what needed to be done when it was required.

    Not once did any of us appeal to some imaginary god or gods. We had each other, and that’s more comforting than any imaginary friend. There were a few theists among the mourners, and we respected their views and offered them the same comfort and sympathy. I think that’s more than a lot of god botherers would have done.

    Two weeks later, my stepfather died unexpectedly from complications related to emphysema (any of you reading this: quit smoking now!). My wife and I handled most of the details of his funeral, since my mom was just too devastated to be expected to do so. That including finding and making arrangments to have him buried at sea.

    Two and a half weeks after that, my grandfather died. Less unexpectedly, but much much sooner than any of us thought (he had just been diagnosed with alzheimers a few months before).

    Through all of this, never once did I feel the need to appeal to some imaginary god as a crutch. I, and everyone else, whether they admit it or not, am and continue to be linked to all others by my humanity. Even those with whom I stridently disagree, and would not show me and my views the same respect, are linked by our humanity. And we are all part of the natural order of the world as well.

    That is enough for me. I don’t need Haught’s imaginary friend, and his whiny, dishonest diatribe makes me proud of what I’ve accomplished in life, in spite of people like him.

  67. #67 Tulse
    February 26, 2008

    Perhaps we need LOLatheists: “OH NOES, I HAS WIPED AWAY WHOLE HORIZUN OF TEH TRANSCENDENCE! I IZ STRAYIN THRU INFINITE NUTHIN!”

  68. #68 Dan S.
    February 26, 2008

    Fastlane – my deepest sympathies and respect.

    (any of you reading this: quit smoking now!).
    Yes. My grandmother recently died of the same thing; she also got to spend her last years lugging around an oxygen tank, wasn’t (physically) able to see a grandson get married or (existence-wise) a grandaugher get engaged, and (while she lasted much longer than anyone predicted – she was one tough old lady) almost certainly died some years earlier than otherwise. And while her mind had always been very sharp, towards the end low oxygen levels increasingly robbed her of that, too.

    I miss her.

    Meanwhile, the rabbi at her memorial service clearly hadn’t made any effort beyond the most utterly cursory to learn anything about her, and just droned on interminably about how her death somehow proved that God was good, with only the barest of token efforts – hardly even that, really – to commemorate her actual life. I’m not much of an ‘angry atheist’ – let alone a violent person – but I came very close to slugging him. However, that certainly wouldn’t have helped matters, and some family members were clearly managing to derive comfort from it, so . . . {shrug}

    OH NOES, I HAS WIPED AWAY WHOLE HORIZUN OF TEH TRANSCENDENCE! I IZ STRAYIN THRU INFINITE NUTHIN!”
    : )!! Tulse, that’s awesome. I so want to see it . . .
    But it still needs to be with cats, y’know. Or perhaps babies.

  69. #69 Dave M
    February 26, 2008

    Incidentally, if there’s any justice in the universe, Alvin Plantinga will be reborn as a planarian.

    I hear that. But then that would constitute evidence for supreme benevolence! So he’s got us either way. Blast!

    Tulse: ZOMG, that’s awesome.

  70. #70 Explicit Atheist
    February 26, 2008

    OK, J. J. Ramsey, you are correct, I can say relying on ourself is a viable option for us and leave him out of it. Now if only someone can convince Haught to similarly confine himself to saying relying on himself is not viable for him and get him to stop projecting his insecurities onto us…

  71. #71 Iain Walker
    February 27, 2008

    However, what several of us are getting at is that given a materialistic, Darwinian outlook, we are not left in moral freefall, we are constrained by reality.

    Preaching to the choir, here – of course an evolutionary explanation makes moral behaviour intelligible, while theism provides no explanation worthy of the name at all. But being able to explain why we act in a moral fashion isn’t the same as providing a reason for acting morally (or for not acting morally, for that matter).

    Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not saying that a demand for such a “reason” makes any real sense. Moral behaviour is the sort of thing you expect from sufficiently complex social animals – it’s not really any different in principle from respiration or thermoregulation or any other biological activity. And as such, asking for some kind of ultimate justification for moral behaviour makes about as much sense as asking for an ultimate justification for breathing or sweating.

    The point is that explaining moral behaviour in biological terms doesn’t provide any kind of external justification for morality. Theism doesn’t either (although it likes to pretend to). The mistake is to assume that morality needs some kind of external justification in the first place. Theists seem to be obsessed with this idea, and it’s always worth taking care not to fall into the same trap.

    I suspect we’re not actually in disagreement here – just thought it was worth making the point.

    My original reason for delurking was really just to question the “moral truth” notion.

  72. #72 J. J. Ramsey
    February 27, 2008

    “OK, J. J. Ramsey, you are correct, I can say relying on ourself is a viable option for us and leave him out of it.”

    You missed my point entirely. Consider that the whole disciple of scientific peer review and repeating experiments is predicated on us not being that reliable. Heck, consider the grammar in what I quoted from you.

  73. #73 J. J. Ramsey
    February 27, 2008

    “Consider that the whole disciple of scientific peer review and repeating experiments is predicated on us not being that reliable. Heck, consider the grammar in what I quoted from you.”

    Or … errm … consider how I just misspelled “discipline” as “disciple.” But then, that just kind of proves my point, too. :)

    Anyway, considering that understanding the problems of religion implies understanding how our human brains trick us, it’s pretty silly to go back around and insist that relying on those same brains is such a hot idea.

    But this is getting off-topic.

  74. #74 Wes
    February 28, 2008

    So if you’re not a “real” atheist until you’ve faced down nothingness like Nietzsche or Sartre, does that mean you’re not a real Christian unless you faced the Absurd like Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, or confronted your own wretchedness like Pascal? I doubt many Christians are existentialists, so “hardcore” Christians are probably even rarer than “hardcore” atheists by Haught’s standards.

    Or is Haught’s standard, like so many anti-atheist standards, a double standard?

  75. #75 Malcolm
    February 28, 2008

    What always annoys me about this kind of Godbot nutjob is the hypocrisy. He fails to see that he doesn’t get his morality from the bible.
    Many Christians say that they can ignore the more insane passages in the Old Testament because they follow the New Testament, but last time I checked the 10 commandments were in the OT. So which is it: Adultery is in, or eating shellfish is an abomination?
    This guy gets his morality from his social environment just like everyone else.

  76. #76 Conradg
    February 29, 2008

    I think most people here are missing Haught’s point. He’s criticizing the philosophical superficiality of most athiests. He’s not saying superficial religiousity (of which there is an incredible amount in the world) is better than superficial atheism. Obviously it’s just as easy to superficially believe in God as it is to superficially disbelieve. What he’s talking about is that the intellectual movement of “new atheism” doesn’t even bother with the more profound philosophical issues that previous thinkers, such as Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre, grappled with. This is what makes them unsatisfying and relatively easy to dismiss. Their appeal is mostly to those who simply don’t care to think deeply about these issues, but like to compare and contrast themselves to the religiously naive and gullible, which is the only way they can win the argument.

    And let’s be honest, well-meaning as this blog and its commentators are, the arguments here merely prove Haught’s point. Rather than actually engaging these deeper philosophical matters, the general view is to just dismiss them as “so what?”. Which is pretty much how superficial religious people treat them as well.

  77. #77 Dave M
    February 29, 2008

    Rather than actually engaging these deeper philosophical matters

    Okay, but do realize this is a math ‘n’ science blog (and a good ‘un too), not a philosophy blog. And that Haught thinks Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre are the most directly relevant philosophers here just shows (IMHO) how superficial *his* philosophical understanding is (not that I think N, C, & S are themselves superficial; they’re just not directly relevant in this context, in the way H. thinks). But now I’m contradicting my premise, so I better shut up. 8-)

  78. #78 Sean Wills
    February 29, 2008

    Is it just me, or was that first paragraph one long compliment? I kept reading it as ‘Real atheism is hard, so stick with Christianity’.

  79. #79 gort
    February 29, 2008

    Conradg,

    “so what” is the proper answer to Haught’s points because the consequences, whether desirable or undesirable, are irrelevant to the truth value of a position. Atheism is simply a position that the probability that a god exists is low or zero. The multiple philosphical consequences of such a position are governed by secular and social factors (which, as many of the above commentators mentioned, are the same factors that actually govern so-called religious morals and ethics).

    Regarding “risking madness,” I believe that many of the god-deluded have already succumbed to their peculiar institution of religious madness.

  80. #80 conradg
    February 29, 2008

    Dave,

    Yeah, I do realize this is a math and science blog, and I like it a lot on that level. I think superficial religious people who try to defy science are simply idiots, and I think you all do a good job of pointing this out in detail. Now, I’d agree that I don’t think Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre are the most relevant or profound atheists out there. I’m not sure they’re really atheists at all, to be honest. Which is kind of the point. Really getting into these matters in depth makes the superficial categories of “athiests” and “believers” pretty much moot. Science is great, but it’s not philosophically great. It’s not emotionally deep. It has its own virtues, but when I see scientists using science to make profound and sweeping statements about the nature of God and reality, I feel the same shudder of disgust as I do when I hear Pat Robertson making proclamations about evolution.

    Sean,

    Yes, that is a compliment in many respects. And a criticism on a deeper level, but the deeper criticism doesn’t negate the compliment. I’m not a Christian, by the way, except by the loosest of definitions. Of course, Jesus wasn’t a Christian either, so maybe I’m in good company. But no, I don’t think atheism is hard. I think it’s very easy to become an atheist. All one has to do is say “no”. I was an atheist at the age of 12, and I found it remarkably easy. But really grappling with the deeper issues of both atheism and religion is indeed hard, and a lot of atheists don’t bother – just as a lot of religious people don’t bother.

    gort,

    You assertions about the “probability” of God are based on straw man notions of God. That does a good job of negating the naive and preposterous notions of God put forth by preachers and no-nothings who are, indeed, straw men. It doesn’t do much at all for any deeper and more challenging notions of God. I have no sympathy for the “God-deluded”, but neither have I any sympathy for the materialistically deluded. They are just two different and opposing ways of remaining superficial.

  81. #81 Iain Walker
    March 1, 2008

    Conradg:

    He’s criticizing the philosophical superficiality of most athiests.

    Actually, what he’s complaining about is the fact that a lot of atheists don’t react emotionally to the consequences of their non-belief the way he’d like them to. It has nothing to do with being philosophically superficial.

    I’m not claiming I’m remotely typical in any way, but I went: stopped believing in God (at about age 10); went through the nihilism phase several years later for unrelated reasons of self-absorbed adolescent angst; read Camus along the way in order to feel superior about being emotionally screwed-up; then did a philosophy degree which had the side-effect of making me realise just how silly and immature the whole nihilism business was.

    Haught is mixing up following an idea to its logical conclusion with a particular psychological response. Nihilism isn’t a logical consequence of atheism, and even if it were, there’s no particular virtue in getting all depressed about it. If studying philosophy taught me anything, it’s that the philosophically superficial response to non-belief is the very existential angst which Haught seems to think is an appropriate.

    In short, Haught is the one being superficial here.

    PS – it’s “atheists”, not “athiests”.

  82. #82 Leni
    March 1, 2008

    Iain, that was really well said. It looks like your philosophy degree paid off ;)

    (Incidentally, if you saved any of your nihilistic teenage rantings you smight consider sharing them here: Mortifying Shoebox Show The site was apparently hacked and they aren’t taking new submissions right now, but you get the idea. Very funny stuff.)

    Anyway- aside from that, do we accuse “a-astrologists” of being superficial? Well, I suppose the astrology believers do, but pretty much no one else does. Perhaps that’s because not everyone thinks the believers are as deep or profound as they seem to think they are.

  83. #83 Explicit Atheist
    March 1, 2008

    conradg.

    All “god did it” gods, like all “the devil made them do it” satans, are superficial non-explanations masquerading as deep explanations. Gods, satans, etc. are some combination of unkowns and attributes assigned ad-hoc by people sitting in armchairs making stuff up without the necessary evidence. I read enough to feel entirely comfortable asserting the necessary evidence for supernaturalism in any form is lacking and no appeal to “engage in deeper philosophical matters” to find “deeper and more challanging notions of God” is going to change that. I am simply not impressed with arguments that god provides any explanatory value added, least of all arguments based on some pre-existing bias against materialism. “Materialistically deluded” sounds to me like a notion not well grounded in the evidence which strongly favors philosophical naturalism.

  84. #84 Explicit Atheist
    March 1, 2008

    J.J Ramsey wrote:

    “You missed my point entirely. Consider that the whole disciple of scientific peer review and repeating experiments is predicated on us not being that reliable. Heck, consider the grammar in what I quoted from you.”

    I don’t know how reliable “that reliable” must be to qualify as sufficient to rely on ourselves without “implicitly invoking the existence of god”. Scientific peer review and repeating experiments are successful without invoking god, explicitly or implicitly, despite our being unreliable because we are reliable enough. We evolved to be reliable enough to successfully navigate our environment. I guess I missed the point because I don’t see what the point is.

  85. #85 jo5ef
    March 1, 2008

    “OMIGOD IM STARING INTO THE BOTTOMLESS CHASM OF MEANINGLESSNESS ARGHHH!!!”

    I had to reread this again this morning, it (the orignal article) must be the funniest piece written yet on the subject, i almost wonder if it was submitted by a prankster. Looking forward to the link.
    I’ve decided to include some of his lines in a song i’m writing.

  86. #86 Iain Walker
    March 2, 2008

    Iain, that was really well said. It looks like your philosophy degree paid off ;)

    Well, it was a relaxing way of spending four years fine-tuning my bullshit detector. Didn’t do a lot for my job prospects, though. ;-)

    (Incidentally, if you saved any of your nihilistic teenage rantings [...]

    Wasn’t much given to rantings, I’m afraid. Painting in oils was more my adolescent outlet, and I tended either to give the results away or to destroy them. As one does …

    Perhaps that’s because not everyone thinks the believers are as deep or profound as they seem to think they are.

    Nail. Head. Comprehensively hit.

  87. #87 J. J. Ramsey
    March 2, 2008

    Explicit Atheist:

    I don’t know how reliable “that reliable” must be to qualify as sufficient to rely on ourselves without “implicitly invoking the existence of god”.

    And I’m not even sure what the heck you are talking about. Indeed, you seem to have things exactly backwards. At least for me, atheism is a byproduct of skepticism. Because our brains aren’t all that great at seeing things as they are, and possibly because of cognitive features that were more useful in the savannah than in our current environment, we came up with all sorts of wrong ways of explaining how the world works–such as the various religions. If anything, religions, or at least their origins, are more of a by-product of being too self-reliant and letting our cognitive biases run amok. Skeptical atheism is what you get when you recognize this, try to correct for it, and find that the various purported evidences for religions are by-products of natural human messy error. Another implication is that the enemy is us; our brains still have their natural messiness, and compensating for this takes effort and humility, an awareness of our own faults.

  88. #88 gort
    March 2, 2008

    Conradg;

    Strawman? Nope, I don’t think so.

    All of the philosphy of religion defintions of god that I’ve seen paraphrase to “an entity that merits worship.” Indeed, worshiping anything that does not merit worship is base idolatry. Now, the omni-omni personal deity, if it existed, would be the strongest candidate for godhood under the PoR defintion. Thus, the probability argument deals with, not a strawman, but the a fortiori frontrunner concept of a god.

    Any more nuanced concept of a powerful entity, even a creator, is irrelevant to the athiesm analysis without a convincing argument that such an entity would have the necessary and sufficient qualifications to merit worship. Making such a convincing argument grows more difficult the more subtly the characteristics of the godhood candidate are hidden to avoid exposure to probability arguments. However, I’d love to be bowled over by a solid argument that a hidden, nuanced god-wannabe has what it takes to deserve worship.

  89. #89 Reginald Selkirk
    March 2, 2008

    Stephen Scharper has a less critical take on Haught:
    Erudite critic takes on new atheists”

  90. #90 conradg
    March 2, 2008

    Ian,

    First, I’m not claiming that atheism is superficial, or that all atheists are superficial, or that no one could be philosophically deep and still be an atheist. I do know that most atheists don’t have degrees in philosophy, and that the philosophical aspects of the arguments of the ?new atheists? are pretty superficial. Do you disagree on that central issue? I can’t really comment too much on Haught, since I don’t have access to the full article, but the issue in contention here seems sound ? many atheists, including the ?new atheists?, rely on philosophically weak and superficially ?straw man? arguments against religion, and ignore the hard stuff. I don’t see why this is so hard to admit, while yet defending the stronger aspects of atheism. I see no problem admitting that the weaker aspects of religion are superficial, and even indefensible, while asserting that the stronger aspects easily survive the attacks of most atheists.

    As for nihilism, you of course know you are distorting the issue (since you have a degree in the subject). The nihilism Nietzsche and others described as part of the path to atheism is rooted in the culture of 19th and early 20th century Europe, which was so intensely Christian, and its values so identified with religious belief, that letting go of that central concept necessitated a nihilistic passage, on the way to a re-assertion of both pre-Christian values, and the emergence of ?new values?. Those who make that passage do indeed pass through a nihilistic period. However, in our day and age we are not in the same position of an overwhelmingly Christian culture. Europe especially has almost entirely dispensed with Christianity. So many people are already starting from a position that is already post-Christian, and quite accustomed to being adrift in a nihilistic adventure. Thus, the passage to atheism for such people often doesn’t seem that big a deal. But that is only because the culture itself is already rather nihilistic. Look around, dude. Modern pop culture is nihilism incarnate. The world we live in hasn’t yet coalesced around a deep philosophical set of truths to replace traditional Christianity. So nihilism seems rather commonplace and natural, and thus easy to adopt without really thinking it through.

    Likewise the association of nihilism with ?existential angst?, ?nausea?, or being emotionally screwed up is just a tired cliché. Nihilism is mostly evident in our culture in rampant consumerism, feel-good-ism, self-indulgence, and materialism. Science itself has in many respects become a form of nihilistic rationalization for these things. Can you really have gotten a degree in philosophy and not grasped this?

    Now there is indeed a deeper ?angst? that needs to be faced up to. And if we took away pop culture’s superficial nihilism, and materialistic culture’s fascination with consumer promises of heaven on earth, people would have to face up to that existential angst. But the general response of atheism, secularism, and a-religiosity in our time is all about avoiding that by becoming obsessed with superficial distractions and material consolations.

  91. #91 Conradg
    March 2, 2008

    Leni,

    “Anyway- aside from that, do we accuse “a-astrologists” of being superficial? Well, I suppose the astrology believers do, but pretty much no one else does. Perhaps that’s because not everyone thinks the believers are as deep or profound as they seem to think they are.”

    Actually, I’d be happy to accuse “a-astrologists” of being superficial. I’ve never read a critic of astrology who actually knew much of anything about astrology. Do you know of any who do? I’m not saying most astrologers are deep people, but if you don’t know the subject you are criticizing with any depth, you can’t develop a deep criticism of it.

  92. #92 conradg
    March 2, 2008

    Explicit Atheist,

    I’m sympathetic to your criticism of invoking Deus Ex Machina explanations on virtually all levels. But reducing the notion of God to this simply doesn’t fly. You cannot explain your own consciousness and awareness, your own being and becoming, by merely materialistic mechanisms either. Accusing religious arguments of ?supernaturalism? is simply silly, as religious arguments are based on the very notion that God is the epitome and the source of what is natural. What we define as ?supernatural? depends entirely on what we know of the natural world, and any scientist who claims we know even a thousandth of what the natural world contains is a self-evident fool. Science is a new, young discipline, and it has barely scratched the surface of our universe. Can you really say that what you regard to be ?supernatural? today won’t turn out in a hundred, a thousand, or a million years to be perfectly natural? The problem with these arguments is their arrogance, and their failure to acknowledge the humility and ignorance of our scientific knowledge in the face of the vastly greater unknowns out there.

  93. #93 conradg
    March 2, 2008

    “At least for me, atheism is a byproduct of skepticism. Because our brains aren’t all that great at seeing things as they are, and possibly because of cognitive features that were more useful in the savannah than in our current environment, we came up with all sorts of wrong ways of explaining how the world works–such as the various religions. If anything, religions, or at least their origins, are more of a by-product of being too self-reliant and letting our cognitive biases run amok. Skeptical atheism is what you get when you recognize this, try to correct for it, and find that the various purported evidences for religions are by-products of natural human messy error. Another implication is that the enemy is us; our brains still have their natural messiness, and compensating for this takes effort and humility, an awareness of our own faults.”

    Now, this is an argument that I can respect. However, I think if you are an honest skeptic, you also have to be skeptical of science and its answers as well. I don’t mean that one should be skeptical of scientific measurements and physical findings, but of using those findings to draw deeper conclusions about the nature of God, reality, and human existential truth. I am not skeptical of science itself as a materialistic discipline, but I am deeply skeptical of materialism itself as a philosophical basis for making wider deductions about the meaning of life.

  94. #94 Conradg
    March 2, 2008

    I’m sorry. That quote above was from J.J. Ramsey, and my reply is directed to him.

  95. #95 Conradg
    March 2, 2008

    Gort,

    ?All of the philosphy of religion defintions of god that I’ve seen paraphrase to “an entity that merits worship.”

    This only tells me how little you know about religion. Do you know Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Dionysus the Areopagite, Neo-Platonism, Meister Eckhart, mystical Christianity, Nagarjuna, Shankara, Ramana Maharshi – I could go on and on? Do you even know the deeper philosophical understanding of theistic religion? Do you care? Well, probably not. What is an entity, and what is worship? These are matters that some religious people have struggled with immensely, and explored in great depth. That you don’t care to doesn’t mean much. But for the record, there are a ton of religions which do not see God as ?an entity that merits worship?. Do you know what ?Atman? means? Do you understand the concept of ?annata?? Again, probably not. And even those who do, roughly at least, see God as an entity that merits worship, do not have so simplistic an understanding of their God or Gods as you seem to think.

    ?Indeed, worshiping anything that does not merit worship is base idolatry.?

    Yes, and that applies equally well to the worship of science and materialism. Unfortunately, many who worship science and materialism don’t even seem to recognize that this is what they are doing – making a God of something that is not worthy of that kind of worship. They think as long as they are ?scientific? about it, it’s cool. That is what I call being superficial.

    ?Now, the omni-omni personal deity, if it existed, would be the strongest candidate for godhood under the PoR defintion. Thus, the probability argument deals with, not a strawman, but the a fortiori frontrunner concept of a god.?

    What about the concept of God as ?Self?? A concept, by the way, that can include all personal deities, as well as the whole material world, without being threatened by any of them. What about the concept of God as ?consciousness?, or ?being? or ?awareness?? Given any thought to such things? Read anything that does?

    ?Any more nuanced concept of a powerful entity, even a creator, is irrelevant to the athiesm analysis without a convincing argument that such an entity would have the necessary and sufficient qualifications to merit worship. Making such a convincing argument grows more difficult the more subtly the characteristics of the godhood candidate are hidden to avoid exposure to probability arguments. However, I’d love to be bowled over by a solid argument that a hidden, nuanced god-wannabe has what it takes to deserve worship.?

    Well, no. The atheism argument is that no such Gods exist, not that they might exist but aren’t worthy of worship. Have you honestly never heard of the ?worship of consciousness?? Do you even know what worship is about, that you can evaluate the worthiness of the enterprise? Do you know what love is? Or is that scientifically dubious also?

  96. #96 386sx
    March 2, 2008

    Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through ?infinite nothingness.? You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendance. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.

    Ummm, says who? Lol.

    Besides, how come it isn’t risking madness if you worry about all your friends being in hell for eternity?

    How come it isn’t risking madness if you worry about invisible creatures looking over your shoulder every moment of every day?

    How come it isn’t risking madness if you worry about the deeevil always tryin to git yer sooouuull John Haught!! Wooooooo…

  97. #97 386sx
    March 2, 2008

    Strawman? Nope, I don’t think so.

    All of the philosphy of religion defintions of god that I’ve seen paraphrase to “an entity that merits worship.” Indeed, worshiping anything that does not merit worship is base idolatry.

    That’s okay gort! Because no matter what you say about religion it’s going to be a strawman. Because nobody knows what the hell religion is. And all the religions are wrong anyway. That’s the whole point. Good luck trying making Conradg happy!

  98. #98 conradg
    March 3, 2008

    386sx,

    I agree with you that it’s unfair to tell atheists that they have to pass through “infinite nothingness” and risk madness, or they’re not a real atheist. I think you have to tell religious people the same thing. Taking either position seriously is hugely demanding, and most people on either side shuck the responsibility. Viewed from that perspective, most people are actually agnostic, and just like taking one side or another for reasons of personal affiliation with ideas they like.

    As for making me happy, dude, I’m already happy. I don’t need gort to agree with me to become happy. I wish you all the same.

  99. #99 386sx
    March 3, 2008

    Taking either position seriously is hugely demanding, and most people on either side shuck the responsibility. Viewed from that perspective, most people are actually agnostic, and just like taking one side or another for reasons of personal affiliation with ideas they like.

    Taking the atheist side is pretty much just wanting to see something more than just talk. The only thing demanding about it is having to put up with a lot of irrelevant smoke screen talk.

    Taking banana dumplings seriously is hugely demanding. Viewed from that perspective, most people are actually agnostic I guess! I can see your point my friend.

  100. #100 conradg
    March 3, 2008

    386sx,

    That you don’t see my point is pretty much my point.

    And inane comparisons of God to banana dumplings does not advance your argument very far. Talk about smoke screens.

    Now, if you want more than talk, try loving your neighbor. If you can do that, you have found God, and that will release you from a great many illusions.

  101. #101 Wes
    March 3, 2008

    Now, if you want more than talk, try loving your neighbor. If you can do that, you have found God, and that will release you from a great many illusions.

    Posted by: conradg | March 3, 2008 2:56 AM

    No. If you can do that, you’ve achieved the minimum level of morality needed for a primate society to be cohesive and stable. It shows you’re a good citizen. But it does not show the existence of God any more than it shows the existence of leprechauns. There’s no reason at all to suppose that the ruler of the entire universe would be deeply concerned with primate social values, or possess any such values in itself. Nor is there any logical or evidential connection between adhering to primate social values and discovering the existence of a universal overlord.

  102. #102 windy
    March 3, 2008

    What about the concept of God as ‘consciousness’, or ‘being’ or ‘awareness’? Given any thought to such things? Read anything that does?

    Hey, I’m all of those things! Worship me, puny mortals! Bwahahaha!

  103. #103 Iain Walker
    March 3, 2008

    conradg:

    I do know that most atheists don’t have degrees in philosophy, and that the philosophical aspects of the arguments of the “new atheists” are pretty superficial. Do you disagree on that central issue?

    Not entirely. I found Dawkins’ treatment in TGD of the arguments for the existence of God rather superficial – the sort of thing I’d expect from an intelligent 1st year undergraduate who had a basic grasp of the issues but didn’t know much about the history and complexities of the arguments. On the other hand, he is explicitly aiming at common, everyday notions of God (i.e., the God that most theists believe in), rather than the murkier abstractions of liberal theologians. When determining the requisite level of sophistication of one’s arguments, the actual target of those argument matters. Not that this really excuses Dawkins for not trying harder.

    As for nihilism, you of course know you are distorting the issue (since you have a degree in the subject).

    Must remember to put that degree in nihilism on my CV …

    [...] letting go of that central concept necessitated a nihilistic passage, on the way to a re-assertion of both pre-Christian values, and the emergence of “new values”. Those who make that passage do indeed pass through a nihilistic period.

    Letting go of the concept of God necessitates nothing of the sort, since it has no bearing on questions of value. The question of the existence of God is logically independent of the question of (for example) whether or not values are objective or absolute. Don’t fall into Haught’s error of confusing psychological association with logical dependence.

    One which note, Nietzsche’s view that nihilism is an unavoidable phase between the rejection of a former ideology (e.g., Christianity) and the formation of a new set of values makes some sense as an observation about human psychology, but only some. Most people live their lives and make judgements based on a variety of sets of principles and beliefs, and it is perfectly possible end up rejecting some of one’s former principles and beliefs while still accepting others. And even when those principles and beliefs are woven together into a single ideology, there are few ideologies that are so all-encompassing or tightly woven that you can’t reject some aspects without retaining others (to put it another way, few if any ideologies are irreducibly complex). Consequently, one can modify some of one’s beliefs while retaining others, even to the point of finding oneself in a position where one can relatively painlessly dispense with beliefs (e.g., the existence of God) which had previously been essential, but are no longer so. In short, world-views, ideologies and belief systems can evolve. They don’t have to crash and burn, leaving you wandering about the wreckage trying to construct a new one.

    So the people most at risk of nihilism are those who (a) initially adhere to an ideology which is so all-embracing that they have left themselves no fall-back position when they reject it, and (b) decide to reject it in toto, irrespective of whether this is logically justified. This isn’t uncommon, but it’s hardly a universal model for the psychology of belief change. Furthermore, I’d argue that it’s also far less likely to be a consequence of thinking things through to their logical conclusion, than of not thinking things through.

    I agree with Nietzsche that nihilism is a mistake. I disagree that it’s an unavoidable one.

    Nihilism is mostly evident in our culture in rampant consumerism, feel-good-ism, self-indulgence, and materialism.

    Modern popular culture may be all the things you say, but these still constitute a set of values – superficial and often unhealthy values, true, but values nonetheless. And that isn’t nihilism, so I think you’re being a little Humpty-Dumpty-ish here. And I don’t buy your claim that atheism is easier today than in Nietzsche’s time because nihilism (whatever you mean by this term) is more commonplace. Even if the latter claim were true, you’re still making the question-begging assumption that atheism necessarily leads to a position in which nihilism looms large. You’d need to supply an argument to show why this is so.

    Now there is indeed a deeper “angst” that needs to be faced up to.

    Can you be a little more specific than this? Please explain.

    But the general response of atheism, secularism, and a-religiosity in our time is all about avoiding that by becoming obsessed with superficial distractions and material consolations.

    This seems a little muddled. Our society may, to a large extent, be obsessed with superficial things, but that isn’t necessarily related to it’s being secular. It’s also affluent and technologically advanced, allowing more people to be obsessed with a greater variety of superficial things, compared with societies in the past. Futhermore, in most Western societies, the majority of the population are believers rather than non-believers, and so this superficiality is hardly the preserve of atheists and the non-religious. Indeed, since (IIRC) lack of religious belief tends to correlate with educational attainment, it would not be surprising to learn that non-believers tend to be rather more sophisticated than average in the things in which they find purpose and value.

    In short, I think you’re mixing up the response of society at large to a number of social developments (of which the decline of religious belief may be one), with the response of a non-representative sub-set of individuals to their lack of belief in a deity. Do you actually have any evidence that the latter response is typically the same as the former?

    One which note, how does the US fit into your argument? America pretty much invented modern consumerism and feel-good-ism, yet it’s still one of the most religious societies in the Western world. On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much preventing religiosity and the alleged “nihilism” (consumerism etc) of modern society from going hand in hand. Indeed, a lot of evangelical sects in the US seem to have embraced the latter whole-heartedly.

  104. #104 386sx
    March 3, 2008

    Now, if you want more than talk, try loving your neighbor. If you can do that, you have found God, and that will release you from a great many illusions.

    Okay thanks conradg!

  105. #105 J. J. Ramsey
    March 3, 2008

    Conradg: “However, I think if you are an honest skeptic, you also have to be skeptical of science and its answers as well. I don’t mean that one should be skeptical of scientific measurements and physical findings, but of using those findings to draw deeper conclusions about the nature of God, reality, and human existential truth.”

    There are certainly illegitimate ways of using scientific findings, true. However, we aren’t talking about doing dumb things like saying, “Science proves that humans don’t rise from the dead,” as if pointing to the normal tendency of things is enough to disprove a claim that says that something counter to the normal tendency of things has happened (though the normal tendency of things is is a good starting point). However, if one finds that even if one doesn’t do bone-headed things like that, one finds that the evidence for God lacks credibility because it is internally contradictory, or posits things that are contrary to fact, or is too easy to explain as legend or as something mundane, that ties in to conclusions about the nature of God.

  106. #106 conradg
    March 4, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey,

    “one finds that the evidence for God lacks credibility because it is internally contradictory, or posits things that are contrary to fact, or is too easy to explain as legend or as something mundane, that ties in to conclusions about the nature of God.”

    This depends on what definition of God one is debunking. Clearly, definitions of God which defy known scientific findings are debunkable, at least to the degree we are sure of those findings, and to the degree that they actually contradict a definition of God. But this only works with some definitions of God, and some of the claims made by religious people. It does not debunk the notion of God itself, or the definitions of God that many religious people hold dear.

    For example, atheists commonly attack Christians for some commonly held beliefs of theirs about the creation the heavens and earth, and the creation of human beings, which of course run contrary to scientific findings. But Jesus himself did not specifically teach these things as being intrinsic to faith in God. To the contrary, he declared that “God is love”, which of course has no implications about the origins of the earth or the human species, and does not define God as the creator of these. Likewise, Jesus taught that love is more than just “the minimum requirement for primate society” as one poster suggests, but is the doorway to a greater understanding of reality as something that is far more than material life. As he also said, “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. If one anthropomorphizes God, that sounds like a literal statement to be tested scientifically. If one is a bit more subtle and deep about it, then it means something greater, and lesser, depending on how you look at it. But if one simply considers that “God is love”, it makes it difficult to see God as the “entity deserving worship” that people here are trying to debunk.

    Now, I’m not a Christian, but that’s a taste of one of the many different approaches to God that can be used, even by Christians, and to reduce even the Christian understanding of God to the purely materialistic literalness that some popular Christian preachers do is to miss the point of this thread, which is that such arguments are directed merely at the most superficial advocates of religion, and thus are themselves merely superficial. It’s like beating up on a bunch of grade school basketball players and thinking of oneself as an NBA pro. Atheists who want the respect of deeper thinking religious people need to engage in deeper thought on these matters. Of course, I don’t think that’s actually a priority for many atheists.

  107. #107 conradg
    March 4, 2008

    Ian,

    Yes, Dawkins is addressing the easy targets, and ignoring anything that might make his work difficult. Unfortunately, virtually everything worthwhile is difficult, and that’s the problem with these public atheists. They address the religious equivalent of mass culture itself, and it’s pretty nihilistic as well.

    Regarding nihilism and Nietzsche, a much more interesting topic, I think you are treating Nietzsche too much as a psychologist, which he wasn’t, and not enough as a cultural critic, which he was. You are perhaps thinking of Kierkegaard and his description of the personal passages through nihilistic crises. But be reminded that Kierkegaard was a devout Christian as well, not an atheist, and the nihilistic passages he went through he saw in terms of the crisis of faith, not of doubt and atheism. Which makes the point I was alluding to earlier, that the passage through nihilism is what anyone who takes these matters seriously must grapple with, rather than just superficially pass by. Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is a profound matter, and it’s not about merely believing, but passing through the crisis of doubt and skepticism in which one dares to lose one’s faith, rather than clinging to it out of the need for security and comfort.

    As for Nietzsche, his concept of nihilism applied to the culture of Europe itself, and not merely to the psychological passages of the individual. He saw that Europe had been molded and shaped by Christianity for milennia, and that letting go of its illusions would indeed plunge the culture into a terrible, nihilistic despair, which it indeed did. He foresaw the rise of all kinds of nihilistic enterprises, from German Nationalism and anti-antisemitism to rank materialistic bourgeois consumerism. He saw that letting go of old, deeply held values would create a terrific struggle that would last, he thought, a couple of centuries, before new foundational values could be established and stability returned to the social order. Seems about right. We’re about smack dab in the middle of that time frame. And our culture shows it. There is virtually no common value system in the world anyone can agree upon.

    As for nihilism, you’d have to recall that to Nietzsche, Christianity is itself nihilistic, and that is why the culture based upon it was collapsing. It’s values were merely based on a naked ?will to power? of sickly and weak people who couldn’t hack it naturally, and so they inverted that natural values of man as a means of obtaining power over the strong, who were suppressed and considered ?sinful?, in need of punishment rather than encouragement. In this way, the nihilistic priesthood ruled, and culture became synonymous with inverted values, rather than strong and healthy natural values.

    Nietzsche was smart enough to see, however, that the God of these Christians was not the only God out there, and that debunking that God and its values did not mean debunking all Gods. He simply saw that culturally speaking, we would have to pass through a period without Gods, in order to both return to a natural order, and find new Gods who suited our real needs. And that is what today’s world represents in the Nietzschean view ? a period where the old Gods are dying, and new Gods are taking their place, one after another, until something sticks. Science is one of those new Gods, and we shall see how well it suits us.

    But let’s not pretend that atheism in our time and place is anything more than a reaction to this Christian inversion of values, and an attempt to find a better and truer system of values to take its place. Negating the conventionally inverted Christian God seems to me to be a natural part of the process, but it is not the end of the process, and stopping there is simply settling into a nihilistic niche. Atheism, after all, is by definition nihilistic. It is an attitude defined by an absence, a lack, of faith. As many atheists have said, there is no such thing as atheism, because the term does not actually describe any group of people. People are defined by what they believe in, what they value, not by what they don’t believe in, or what they don’t value. I am an American, not a non-Japanese. To define oneself as an atheist, therefore, is to define oneself nihilistically. It is a desire to exist as a negation. But this is impossible. We all have Gods, whether we call them ?God? or not. We all believe in the magic of our own life and consciousness, and we all have faith in our ability to discern what is true and what is not ? atheists more than many, I’d say. So atheism is merely a reaction to something seen as dangerous and powerful, whereas it does not describe what is embraced as a result. Letting go of belief in sky fairies does not mean that the alternative is a given, or the same for us in any way at all. We can go from there to almost anything, including a deeper understanding of God than that which we abandoned.

    That was and remains the case for me. I became an atheist when I was quite young. I remember telling my mother, around the age of eight, that Jesus was a fairy tale. By twelve I’d become a self-conscious atheist. And by thirteen I became religious, not by believing in sky fairies, but by examining the nature of my own awareness and consciousness. Since then I’ve lost and gained quite a few forms of faith, and quite a few understandings of God. It’s an ongoing process. Atheism was something I passed through, in other words, just as many phases of religious understanding were things I passed through. That’s just how people grow. But being stuck in one of those phases, and reifying it into an exclusive cosmology, is not something I’d recommend to anyone. So we become atheists many times in our lives, as we let go of one God and move on to the next. But defining ourselves by not believing in something seems absurd, and defining God by the understanding we’ve negated is a superficial way to evolve as a human being.

    Now, what you seem to be describing is somewhat similar, when you speak of letting go of certain beliefs rather easily. Yes, that is fine. Letting go of belief in sky fairies is probably a good thing for most people. But presuming that this means one has fully considered ?God?, and moved beyond it, implies an exceptionally superficial definition of ?God?. There is far more to understand about God than sky fairies and debates about their existence.

    Now, I think it’s obvious that nihilism is, indeed a necessary phase. You are simply hung up on some association of nihilism with cloying, sentimental despair and juvenile angst, which is only one possible manifestation of nihilism. There are many shades and colors to nihilism, and focusing on one may blind you to the nihilism you have in fact passed through, or are stuck in. I think everyone struggles with nihilism to one degree or another, especially in our culture. If you think you are immune to this, I would guess that you are simply not very self-aware. But I could be wrong. I’ve just never met a philosophy major who hadn’t passed through multiple nihilistic crises in his life. The key would be looking at one’s present values, and asking what fundamental truths are they based on. If you have to think about that, chances are you’re at least somewhat tinged by nihilism, as are most of us in this day and age.

    Your descriptions of the complexities of changing and shifting values systems and personal psychologies is good and fairly accurate, but you’re not noticing what this all means. It means that we don’t have a fundamental base from which we are operating. This is not the norm for human beings in any but modern western culture, and it is the defining characteristic of a nihilistic culture. Now, some people are trying to find a base in the scientific method and scientific materialism, but this can’t help but fail, because scientific truths have no base other than empiricism, and thus they are always changing and shifting, and leaving us with no actual base of truth or values to stand upon. And so we are left with consumerism, and what hot and what’s not, and an endlessly seeking pattern of attention that frankly drives us all crazy. This is not natural or healthy, and it is not the end process of the re-establishment of natural human values. It’s better than belief in sky fairies, but it’s not where we really want to be. It’s easy enough, but not satisfying.

    But I would disagree with you that Nietzsche viewed nihilism as a mistake, and I don’t think it is a mistake. It’s a natural part of the process of restoring our culture to health. In that respect I applaud even the ?new atheists?, and atheism in general. I just think it becomes superficial when it is unnaturally prolonged, and becomes a form of identity in itself, endlessly opposed to ?God?, by which it is really meant ?sky fairies? and ?people who suppress my natural urges?. Please, guys, get over this sky fairy fixation and start exploring a deeper understanding of God and our own existence than either that, or its negation.

    ?This seems a little muddled. Our society may, to a large extent, be obsessed with superficial things, but that isn’t necessarily related to it’s being secular. It’s also affluent and technologically advanced, allowing more people to be obsessed with a greater variety of superficial things, compared with societies in the past. Futhermore, in most Western societies, the majority of the population are believers rather than non-believers, and so this superficiality is hardly the preserve of atheists and the non-religious. Indeed, since (IIRC) lack of religious belief tends to correlate with educational attainment, it would not be surprising to learn that non-believers tend to be rather more sophisticated than average in the things in which they find purpose and value.?

    First, there isn’t that much difference between believers and non-beleivers in our culture. Most believers are just as materialistic as the non-believers. They believe in silly things like the literal resurrection of the dead, the literal ascent of Christ into heaven, the literal creation of the earth in six days 6,000 years ago, etc. These are all childishly materialistic notions of God, and they are countered by the materialistic findings of scientists, which totally debunk them. These materialistic believers are just nihilists in religious garb, whereas there has always been a deeper strain of religion which is not materialistic in nature, and does not fixate itself on materialistically literal interpretations of God. These kinds of people don’t have any arguments with science in itself, and so they don’t get much press these days, which focuses on childish conflict over mature discussion. But they do have an argument with the materialistic viewpoint that many scientists try to promote, and they don’t see their own understanding of God being addressed by atheists. It’s certainly not been addressed in this thread that I can see.

    Now, as for our society’s obsession with superficial things not being entirely the fault of its secularness, yes, I can agree to an extent, but really, there’s a rather obvious connection between our superficial self-indulgence and the lack of a deeper foundation for our lives. There are certainly individuals who have managed to find something deeper, but our society as a collective has not, and it hasn’t found a way to pass on deeper truths to its people effectively. One of the advantages of religion has always been its success in being able to pass on deeper truths in such a way as to hold a culture together. That is the very meaning of the word ?religion?, to ?bind together?. As a result, we have a very divisive and conflicted culture which takes respite in superficial distractions. Is this really what wealth is for?

    ?In short, I think you’re mixing up the response of society at large to a number of social developments (of which the decline of religious belief may be one), with the response of a non-representative sub-set of individuals to their lack of belief in a deity. Do you actually have any evidence that the latter response is typically the same as the former??

    Belief in a deity is only one way to create a culture with fundamental values. Buddhists don’t believe in deities, at least not in the conventional way, and yet they’ve created a culture. But religious worship is nonetheless fairly universal, whereas atheism is not. The evidence suggests to me that atheism is something like celibacy. There’s about five percent of any population which is naturally celibate, or asexual, whereas most people are sexually active. Likewise, there’s about five percent of the population which is naturally atheistic, meaning not interested in ?deities?. I’m not saying this is unnatural, it’s just not the common orientation. But it’s natural for people to be this way. However, I don’t think this means that the five percent who are a-theist, can’t also find a way to understand God that goes beyond theism. I’d consider myself one of those. When I became an atheist, I never went back, I went forward. I never returned to deistic beliefs, but went forward into a trans-deistic orientation. I don’t react to deism, and in fact I think there are aspects of deism which are actually true and worth embracing, just from a different orientation. But I would say that it is actually not normal for most people to be wandering around without a God, as so many do. It’s a sign of an aberated culture. I don’t know if I’d say it’s the cause, however, but it’s definitely an indication that we are rather screwed up, and not able to provide people with a foundational set of truth from which they can operate in a happy and stable manner.

    ?One which note, how does the US fit into your argument? America pretty much invented modern consumerism and feel-good-ism, yet it’s still one of the most religious societies in the Western world. On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much preventing religiosity and the alleged “nihilism” (consumerism etc) of modern society from going hand in hand. Indeed, a lot of evangelical sects in the US seem to have embraced the latter whole-heartedly.?

    America is a strange place, because it’s a hybrid culture, literally composed of people from all around the world. Our religion is itself a form of rebellion against traditional Gods, not an embodiment of them. Recall that the pilgrims were religious exiles, too weird to get along in Protestant England, so they came here, and barely got along here either. So we invented secularism to deal with our own mongrel wierdness, because otherwise we’d have destroyed ourselves. American protestantism is not, despite its claims, a traditional religious culture. It is a hopelessly schismatic, divided religion which represents no real fundamentalist core, despite its claim to ?fundamentalism?. It is seeking fundamentalism, but never actually attaining it. And as I say, it is in many way just as materialistic as science and secularism, maybe more so, which it is why so many have embraced consumerism and feel-good-ism even more enthusiastically than many secularists.

    BTW, if this doesn’t make any sense, it’s really late at night, and I think I’ve gone on way too long. Nighty-nite.

  108. #108 Iain Walker
    March 4, 2008

    What about the concept of God as “Self”? A concept, by the way, that can include all personal deities, as well as the whole material world, without being threatened by any of them. What about the concept of God as “consciousness”, or “being” or “awareness”?

    If you’d care to explain what (if anything) these circumlocutions actually mean, then they might merit serious consideration.

    On the face of it though, this looks like arbitrarily redefining the term “God” in such a way that it no longer bears any relationship to the normal theistic sense. Consequently, it’s less than obvious what “God” in this sense has to do with the theist-atheist debate.

    I’m also inclined to call Fallacy of Reification on this one. These would-be redefinitions may have some fruitful metaphorical application within the human world of value and imagination, but it’s doubtful that they have anything useful to contribute to our understanding of reality.

  109. #109 Iain Walker
    March 4, 2008

    conradg:

    I think you are treating Nietzsche too much as a psychologist, which he wasn’t, and not enough as a cultural critic, which he was.

    That’s not unfair, although I’m inclined to think he can be read as both.

    However (and to avoid taking up too much space by quoting your subsequent points) I think this also highlights another source of muddle and equivocation in this discussion. There’s a distinction to be made between the intellectual and psychological journey of an individual letting go of a belief in God, and the historical development of a culture in which such beliefs are in decline. So what exactly is the nihilism that atheists are supposed to be confronting but are failing to do? The personal (and, I’m suggesting, unnecessary) loss of values, or nihilism as a social phenomenon? They’re not the same thing, and although you seem to appreciate the distinction, you seem to be jumping about from one to the other. So what exactly is the complaint here? Are we supposed to be grappling with the alleged implications of our non-belief for our own value systems, or are we supposed to be grappling with the alleged social implications of non-belief becoming more widespread?

    Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is a profound matter

    Hmm. Profundity in such matters is often in the eye of the beholder. I’m not belittling the psychological and personal significance of these kinds of experiences, but their profundity at an intellectual level is a little more debatable.

    There is virtually no common value system in the world anyone can agree upon.

    Maybe, but was there ever?

    Modern Western society may be more pluralistic and diverse in terms of belief systems and the components with which to construct them, but I’d deny that this constitutes nihilism in any meaningful sense of the term, or that it’s necessarily an undesirable thing. If you’re saying that Western culture lacks any deep-seated values which provide a common unifying foundation for its diversity, then I suppose such a case could be argued – although ideas of democracy and human rights provide a framework to which most Western societies adhere, in principle if not always in practice.

    I’m not denying that self-indulgence, superficiliality and the pursuit of material gain aren’t common characteristics of Western culture. However, they’re not the only characteristics of said culture. And if they’re the price we currently have to pay for liberal democracy and human rights (however imperfectly realised), then I’m not unwilling to pay it.

    To define oneself as an atheist, therefore, is to define oneself nihilistically. It is a desire to exist as a negation.

    If I define myself as an atheist, all I’m doing is stating my disbelief in the proposition “God exists” (the term “God” being understood in the ordinary, theistic sense). It’s just a handy quirk of the English language that there exists a term for a person who disbelieves said proposition. Talk of a “desire to exist as a negation” is just melodramatic nonsense. And again, you seem to be using the term “nihilism” to mean an awful lot of different things.

    Letting go of belief in sky fairies does not mean that the alternative is a given, or the same for us in any way at all. We can go from there to almost anything

    Which isn’t entirely unrelated to the point I was making. If we can go from “God does not exist” (again, normal theistic sense of the term) to almost anywhere, then there’s no obvious reason why one has to end up trudging the path through the Valley of Nihilism.

    I’ve just never met a philosophy major who hadn’t passed through multiple nihilistic crises in his life. The key would be looking at one’s present values, and asking what fundamental truths are they based on.

    Depends on what you understand the expression “based on fundamental truths” to mean. I’m a moral non-cognitivist, so I don’t take value judgements to have inherent truth values, and I don’t take them to be logically derivable from descriptive premises alone. So in that particular sense, I wouldn’t consider “What fundamental truths are my values based on?” to be a valid question. But that certainly doesn’t mean I don’t question my values or modify them in the light of experience or reflection.

    BTW, if this doesn’t make any sense

    Most of it did, and some of it I even agreed with (kind of). Liked the analysis of American religiosity, for instance. I do realise that I haven’t responded to all (or even very many) of your points here, the main reason being that if I let myself get stuck into a discussion thread, I have a tendency to start writing essay-length posts, and I’d kind of like to cut back on that, otherwise I’ll never get anything else done …

    Cheers

  110. #110 conradg
    March 4, 2008

    Lain, (sorry I spelled your name wrong before)

    Responding to your post about the concept of God as “Self”

    “On the face of it though, this looks like arbitrarily redefining the term “God” in such a way that it no longer bears any relationship to the normal theistic sense. Consequently, it’s less than obvious what “God” in this sense has to do with the theist-atheist debate.

    “I’m also inclined to call Fallacy of Reification on this one. These would-be redefinitions may have some fruitful metaphorical application within the human world of value and imagination, but it’s doubtful that they have anything useful to contribute to our understanding of reality.”

    The concept of God as “Self” is not a redefinition of the term, it is a reference to the Vedantic tradition of seeing God as “Atman”, which means “Self”. This tradition is thousands of years old, going back into the prehistory of Indian civilization – 1500 B.C. at the very least. So it predates Christianity by a long shot. This is a hugely rich and varied tradition, beginning with the Vedas, expanding into the Upanishads, and spreading across the whole of India. There are about a billion people today who base their notion of God upon this understanding. What you call the “normal theistic sense” of God is simply a parochial modern western Christian notion, and not normative in any sense whatsoever. There is no “normative” theistic sense that I’m aware of. There is a huge variety of theistic senses of God. The Hindus have tons of theistic ideas and practices of worship and various yogic and intellectual and devotional traditions of theism, and yet none of them are what you are trying to define as “normative”. And that goes for other religious cultures as well.

    Now, I’d be hard pressed to define the Vedantic traditional understanding of Atman to someone who hasn’t heard of it before, because you probably don’t have the “norms” for it, and when you hear the word “God” you hear something quite different from what an Vedantist or Hindu hears. But in essence the notion is that the very consciousness of the individual, if traced to its source, is transcendental in nature, and is the very source of the material world itself, which is merely a projection from the depth of consciousness. Likewise, this transcendent source of our own consciousness, this “Self”, is universal in nature, such that we are all manifestations of the same transcendental Divine Self, who can be thought of as a “Being”, but not in the sense of an “entity”. Thus, the “position” of God is not up in the clouds, high and far away, as some separate entity, but is literally within ourselves, within the very depth of our own being and awareness, in our “heart” so to speak. The Bhagavad Gita, for example, claims that the Self is situated in the heart. Likewise, all the manifestations of “God”, all the deities and theistic expressions of God, are simply expressions of our own Self, made manifest within the context of dualistic experience. In that sense, there is indeed a “Creator God”, or “Brahma”, just as there are all kinds of other Gods, but each of them, in reality, is merely an outward manifestation of the Self, just as the material world is, in every detail and in every individual. Thus, everything is Godly in nature, and everything is sacred, from a leaf or a flower to the highest mountain to the greatest vision of some deity. Likewise, everything can be worshiped as God, and actually is in one or another of the incredibly varied religious expressions that come under the umbrella of “Hinduism”.

    Now, this view of God is not, as I say, unique. Jesus also taught that “the Kingdom of Heaven is within”, and that we should “love your neighber as your self”. There’s a strain of non-dual wisdom in most religions around the world. Even Judaism defines God as “I am that I am”. It’s just that it’s very easy for people to reify these concepts of God into something rather deadly and dull, which is what I think you mean by the “theistic norm”. But by calling that the norm, you are defining theism by its lowest expression, by what is in my view a perversion rather than a norm, rather than by its highest and purest expression, or even by something in between. That is suitable enough if the only purpose is to condemn theism and make a straw man of it. But it doesn’t really add to our understanding. It merely serves some propagandistic end, or the reification of materialistic reductionism.

    BTW, there are other ways and traditions for considering God as “Self” as well. I’m just pointing to one of them.

  111. #111 Conradg
    March 4, 2008

    Lain,

    There’s a distinction to be made between the intellectual and psychological journey of an individual letting go of a belief in God, and the historical development of a culture in which such beliefs are in decline. So what exactly is the nihilism that atheists are supposed to be confronting but are failing to do?

    Yes, the difference is important. My main point is that western culture is based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it’s notions of God are rooted in that tradition. Likewise, most of its cultural norms are rooted in that tradition. When the central notion of “God” is challenged and found wanting in that tradition, it necessitates a deep and prolonged process of re-evaluation of all those notions and norms and values. This is hugely complex, and is both personal and cultural. We cannot separate the person from the culture he has grown up in, however. Even though you are an atheist, for example, and don’t believe in God, your very notion of what God is, what the “norm” for the God you don’t believe in is, is defined by the Judeo-Christian culture you have grown up in and found wanting. Thus, you are yourself only part way through this process of re-valuation. You have rejected the Judeo-Christian model for God, but you have not yet redefined God itself in other other fashion, so you are in a kind of half-way state. You have not evaluated the full spectrum of religious notions of God, such as the Vedantic notion of God as Self (Atman), or any others. Being rid of the Judeo-Christian notion of God is a relief, I’m sure, but it’s not the end of the line.

    Now, this kind of passage does, indeed, necessitate a kind of nihilism – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Nothing that is necessary can be considered “bad”. Quite the opposite. When you define yourself further down in these terms…

    I’m a moral non-cognitivist, so I don’t take value judgements to have inherent truth values, and I don’t take them to be logically derivable from descriptive premises alone. So in that particular sense, I wouldn’t consider “What fundamental truths are my values based on?” to be a valid question. But that certainly doesn’t mean I don’t question my values or modify them in the light of experience or reflection.

    …you are in fact describing someone who is passing through a long nihilistic crisis. You are, in Nietzschean terms, a high-wire artist, walking the tight-rope over the abyss, struggling to keep from falling, and making his way to the other side. You have not fallen into the abysss, and perhaps where our confusion in terminology comes in. Perhaps you think of a nihilist as someone who has fallen into the abyss, who has lost his balance and simply immersed themselves in the squalor below. Nietzsche doesn’t see it that way, nor do I. The passage through nihilism is the tight-rope act (from Thus Spake Zarathustra), and it requires that we courageously stare into the abyss as we make our way across it, and yet not fall into it either. From your own self-description I think you are pretty good at walking the tight-rope, and trying to maintain balance. But you are also unsure of what is on the other side of the abyss. And that is fine and well. Yet making one’s way across the abyss also requires that we deal with all these notions, like “God”, and thoroughly understand them. When you say that you have values and that you are constantly modifying them according to experience and reflection, I say that is very good, that is what a high-wire actor must do by necessity, but it does not describe someone who is standing on solid ground and walking freely across the earth, knowing who he is and where he comes from. It is someone who is in the process of trying to find all that out. And that is where our culture is altogether. It is not composed of people solidly walking the earth, but of people trying to walk a tight rope, with varying degrees of success. This applies to both religious people and atheists, plenty of whom on both sides have actually fallen into the abyss, but just don’t know it. Or religious “norms” are actually fairly well a perverson of religion, the product of people who have fallen into the abyss. And there’s plenty of atheists, such as the communists of the last century, who exemplify what happens when atheists fall into the abyss. But not all such cases are so extreme. Scientific materialism is itself a nihilistic abyss that many have fallen into and can’t seem to find their way out of.

    Now I agree that this is getting too lengthy to respond to all points. You make plenty of good ones, so that’s a shame, but I hope you understand.

    Cheers

  112. #112 J. J. Ramsey
    March 4, 2008

    Conradg: “This depends on what definition of God one is debunking. Clearly, definitions of God which defy known scientific findings are debunkable, at least to the degree we are sure of those findings, and to the degree that they actually contradict a definition of God. But this only works with some definitions of God, and some of the claims made by religious people. It does not debunk the notion of God itself, or the definitions of God that many religious people hold dear.”

    The thing is that the definitions of God that aren’t debunkable are the ones that are unfalsifiable, and the unfalsifiable deities are the kind that get shorn by Occam’s razor.

  113. #113 Leni
    March 5, 2008

    I see the posts are getting quite long so I’ll try to keep my reply brief.

    conradg wrote:

    Actually, I’d be happy to accuse “a-astrologists” of being superficial. I’ve never read a critic of astrology who actually knew much of anything about astrology.

    What exactly did these critiques leave out? If you know it’s false, and they gave valid reasons, what else did you want?

    In any case, the claims that make astrology wrong have almost nothing to do with its minutia. It’s essentially a few relevant, testable claims attached to several centuries worth of compounded silliness. Skeptics, much like ninjas, are going to go for the quick, quiet, merciful kill. Why chop of all the kraken’s arms when you can just, you know, stab it in the eye?

    Do you know of any who do?

    Well, I know of plenty of treatments that I consider sufficient. I have a BS in astrophysics, so one of the first things in the subject that I learned was why astrology is wrong. Trust me, it doesn’t need a treatise unless you think you need to reinvent the wheel. Beyond that, I think I could probably find something rebuking astrology in every astronomy book on my shelf. Including my shitty telescope mount manual, lol. (FYI I am laughing, but not actually joking.)

    I don’t need to know, for example, what the difference between a sun and a moon sign is in order to know that there is no evidence for any correlation in personality traits, birth date and birth location (that can not be attributed to mundane factors), much less an invalidation of each and every specific claim as described in one of the various astrological traditions.

    No correlation is no correlation. They can’t find anything, much less what the astrologers promised. There’s no reason to keep looking.

    I’m not saying most astrologers are deep people, but if you don’t know the subject you are criticizing with any depth, you can’t develop a deep criticism of it.

    I don’t think that’s true, necessarily. My point here is that you don’t always need a “deep” criticism of something, especially if that subject is a known pseudo-science or otherwise obviously wrong. In this case, it’s essentially a bunch of bullshit attached to a testable claim or two. Test the claims, dismiss the bullshit. End of story.

    So, rejecting an obviously bad idea without examining the minutia isn’t necessarily being superficial, sometimes it’s being practical.

    For fun, and because I’m bored…

    I can think of so many funny cases where this is true:

    1) I don’t need to know why some people think rhino horns are good aphrodisiacs to know that killing endangered animals to get laid is disturbing and wrong. And creepy. And not clinically supported.

    2) I don’t need to know the where the Heaven’s Gate spaceship supposedly came from or why they thought it was coming order to know it wasn’t hiding behind Hale-Bopp.

    3) I don’t need to know why some people think rabbit’s feet are lucky to know that they aren’t.

    4) I don’t need to know who temporarily(?) went insane or why to know that something was terribly, terribly remiss when Nick Nolte was “voted” People magazine’s “Sexiest Man of the Year”.

    5) I don’t need to know the proposed mechanism of Psi activity to know that John Edward is a douchebag and that Sylvia Brown is parasitic hag.

    The list goes on. They are only going to get progressively sillier, so I think I’ll stop here. Still, none of these things require deep criticism.

  114. #114 conradg
    March 5, 2008

    Leni,

    I’m not sure how deep we want to get into this, but I’ll say in brief that I don’t think astrology is a science, and thus scientific refutation isn’t relevant, except to claims by astrologers who actually think that astrology is a predictive science. And there are of course many of those around, and I have no problem with debunking their claims scientifically. But just as debunking the silly notions of materialistic deists who claim the universe is only 6,000 years old doesn’t prove that there is no God, debunking astrology through science only negates those claims which are material in nature.

    There’s a tradition of astrology which isn’t materialistically oriented, and which views astrology in very different terms. Aristotle, for example, wrote some of the best material on astrology, and he pointed out that astrology is not based in causality. In other words, all this talk about ?astrological influence? by the planets and stars is nonsense. Most critics of astrology point out that there is no known force exerted by planets and stars which could account for the effects astrology claims. But if astrology is looked upon as an acausal art, rather than a causal science, this changes the picture completely.

    The value I see in astrology is that it approaches the world in a completely different manner than science does. Science is looking for causes, and it examines everything that could be considered either a cause or an effect and looks to find the causal correlation between the two. Astrology simply doesn’t do that. Instead of looking for causal correlations, it looks only for patterning correlations. In other words, the very thing that science seeks to establish, astrology deliberately ignores. Science is looking for firm knowledge of causes, whereas astrology is saying, fine, but there’s something more interesting going on in the universe, there’s a correlation in all these patterns that has nothing to do with causation, there’s a pattern in our very consciousness, in our minds, in our subjective interiors, that is reflected in the objective exterior of the world.

    Astrology is just one example of many possible ways of studying patterns in an acausal manner. One could look at all kinds of things for patterns and correlations, and many people do, from tea leaves to animal behavior. The idea is not to come up with superstitious causes, some magical influence out there similar to that of an ?intelligent designer? it is to look at the world as a phenomena in which causation is not the primary matter of concern at all. This is of course utterly counter to science, which deals only in causations, but it is not counter to human intelligence, which is always looking for correlations, regardless of whether there is a causal relationship to them. In fact, the reason astrology is so useful for this pursuit is precisely because there is so little possibility of a causal relationship between stars and planets and human affairs. By choosing to look at astronomical patterns and comparing them to subjective human patterns, one is basically looking at two patterns that are as far apart causally as possible. This leaves any discernable patterning correlations entirely acaual in nature, and this gives them a depth that science can’t find, and doesn’t even want to find. The practice of astrology, therefore, is not about science, it’s about consciousness, about the patterns in our observing consciousness whether the object observed is internal or external. And the fruits of that practice is not in answering the kinds of questions that science wants answered, but in exploring the correspondences between our own internal awareness and the world that is seemingly around us. Or is it? Astrology points to a view of the world around us as not actually being ?around us? at all, but contained within consciousness and reflective of a pattern in our own minds.

    I don’t want to drag on, but I simply haven’t found any critics of astrology who have even the faintest comprehension of these principles. I’d be glad to know of any, however, if you are aware of them.

  115. #115 conradg
    March 5, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey,

    The thing is that the definitions of God that aren’t debunkable are the ones that are unfalsifiable, and the unfalsifiable deities are the kind that get shorn by Occam’s razor.

    Is your self falsifiable? As you read this post, is the ?you? who reads this falsifiable? Can you prove that it exists? What evidence can you give me that ?you? are aware and alive? How do I know you aren’t just a very sophisticated Turing machine made out of flesh and blood, with no ?there? there?

    I think you have to admit that you, yourself, are not debunkable by me, and I am not debunkable by you, at least not by scientific means. Does this mean that we are shorn away by Occam’s razor? Yes, of course we know that we exist, that we are aware, regardless of whether we can prove it to anyone else. I am suggesting that God is of the same nature as our own self, and that by exploring the nature of this unfalsifiable self, we can learn about the nature of God as well.

    This suggests that scientific falsifiability is not the most important factor in defining true knowledge. If it were, then we could never know that we exist. So while the principle of falsifiability is essential to objective knowledge and causal relationships, it is not even possible for knowledge of the subject, or of acausal relationships. And since God is proposed to lie in the subject, not the object, of our attention, Occam’s razor does not apply, at least not in the same way that it applies to objective observations and phenomena.

  116. #116 Iapetus
    March 5, 2008

    Hi everyone,

    I have been reading this blog for quite some time now (btw, I appreciate your work in fighting against creationist ignorance, Jason, even though the things you have going on in the US in this regard often seem surreal to European eyes) and have found this discussion to be one of the more interesting I have encountered thusfar. In the following I would like to add my own two cents:

    1.) One should be careful when throwing around terms like “nihilism” and “nihilistic”, since they can be highly ambigous. It would certainly help the discussion, conradg, if you could clarify what you actually associate with being a nihilist. Sometimes you seem to imply that it means someone who has no values at all, sometimes only ones that you consider wrong or dangerous (e.g. consumerism, feel-good-ism etc.). It is also not conducive to the conciseness of your position when you associate nihilism with “scientifc materialism” or “secularism”, since I can see no logical, let alone necessary connection between these terms.

    2.) Regarding the alleged unavoidable link between atheism and nihilism (in the strong sense that Haught obviously has in mind), it was already pointed out that this is simply false. While I would agree that in the case of Nietzsche, his nihilism followed from his atheism, one has to be precise to consider exactly what nihilism entailed for Nietzsche. He asked the question what would happen if the idea of the Christian God as guarantor of moral values would be abandoned. His conclusion was that humans would be the creators of their own values that can no longer be grounded in a transcedent deity or in the properties of the physical universe we inhabit. This is certainly an important insight, but it does not mean that a nihilist a la Nietzsche has to deny the fact that human beings can set themselves goals and strive towards them, have moral values that they hold dear etc. They simply have to refrain from alleging that these goals or values are anchored in a god of any kind or somehow ingrained in the fabric of reality. Thus, there is absolutely no need for an atheist to fall into the abyss of existential angst and the madness of meaninglessness that Haught describes so melodramatically.

    This might also be a good time to turn the question around and ask the theist in what way his worldview could guarantee the eternal truth and general applicability of moral precepts and values. The answer is: it can not. The theist typically answers the question “Why should I follow God’s orders?” either by pointing to the rather unpleasant consequences in this or the next live of failing to follow said orders or by declaring that God equals Good, therefore it is natural to follow his commands. The first answer is clearly insufficient, since it is no different from saying that society will punish you if you disobey the law. It might work in practice (especially considering that the punishment might last for eternity), but should not be the basis for our morality.
    The second answer also falls short, since it would require us to recognize that God=Good, i.e. it presupposes that a) God exists, b) he is objectively good and c) we can recognize him as such. None of these criteria is even remotely fulfilled.
    Thus, the supposition that god-belief would form a firm basis of morality while atheism would lead into the chasm of a chaotic world without values is an illusion, which is nonetheless (and for obvious reasons) tirelessly promoted by representatives of the religious hierarchy.

    3.) Regarding the gratuitious Dawkins-bashing that also came up in this thread, I would like to point out that his book was aimed at a mass audience. Anyone who complains that he did not include a detailed discussion of modal logic in his treatment of the ontological argument either wants to feel smug about his/her knowledge or simply ignores the purpose of Dawkins’ book. Furthermore, all the alleged or real shortcomings aside, I have yet to see an argument that invalidates his main thesis, i.e. that there are good, even compelling reasons to be an atheist with regard to the traditional God of Judaism/Christianity/Islam. Of course, there is always the option for the theist of draining the concept of God of any content so that it can no longer collide with any conceivable fact. The results are usually obfuscations containing terms like “universal consciousness, primordial ground of being, creative intelligence, Self” etc. which are so sophisticated and subtle that words are seemingly inadequate. Or the speaker has no idea what he is really talking about.

  117. #117 J. J. Ramsey
    March 5, 2008

    Conradg: “Is your self falsifiable?”

    If by “self” you mean the Hindu idea of “atman,” then no, it isn’t falsifiable. If by “self,” you mean just the garden-variety meaning of the word “self,” then we aren’t seriously talking about God.

    Iapetus: “Regarding the gratuitious Dawkins-bashing that also came up in this thread, I would like to point out that his book was aimed at a mass audience.”

    Considering that Dawkins has a reputation for making complex topics accessible without oversimplifying, this excuse doesn’t really fly. Judging from what I’ve read on the Stranger Fruit blog, he could have properly covered the weaknesses in the ontological argument–including the problems with the modal logic version–in the same space that he filled with filler anecdotes and stuff he apparently stitched together from Internet sources without understanding it. At best, Dawkins is adequate in his arguments, and too many times he is fuzzy, sloppy, or he flat out gets his facts wrong. His book was good as an icebreaker, but as a rational defense of atheism, it is mediocre at best.

  118. #118 Iapetus
    March 5, 2008

    J.J.Ramsey,

    I am aware that you are not impressed with the quality of Dawkins’ efforts (to put it mildly). I agree with you that it is inexcusable to include obvious factual errors or to take argumentative short cuts that amount to sloppy and inconsistent reasoning. I am also not particularly interested in cheerleading Dawkins personally or his book.

    Having said that, I also recognize the difficulty in breaking a complex topic down to a level that the proverbial “man in the street” can understand and follow. If the scholarly accuracy sometimes suffers in the process, that is certainly regrettable but maybe unavoidable. As I said before, IMO Dawkins arrives at the right conclusions, and I have yet to see a conclusive rebuttal.

    However, as you stated, the book probably should be credited for the impact it has had rather than for the quality of its content. It helped to raise awareness that in a time when religion seemed to again become the natural, default position, there is a reasonable and emotionally satisfying alternative that many people either did not know even existed or only had an unclear concept of. I believe Dawkins deserves some praise for that. And to all the critics who sniff rather haughtily at Dawkins’ unsophisticated style: by all means go ahead and do better, it’s not like the world is currently suffering from too many brilliant defenses of atheism…(-;

  119. #119 Leni
    March 5, 2008

    conradg wrote:

    I’m not sure how deep we want to get into this, but I’ll say in brief that I don’t think astrology is a science, and thus scientific refutation isn’t relevant, except to claims by astrologers who actually think that astrology is a predictive science.

    I don’t think it’s a science either, but there are testable claims. One of those claims is that there are patterns. We looked for them, but they don’t exist.

    In other words, all this talk about astrological influence by the planets and stars is nonsense. Most critics of astrology point out that there is no known force exerted by planets and stars which could account for the effects astrology claims. But if astrology is looked upon as an acausal art, rather than a causal science, this changes the picture completely.

    No it doesn’t. Astrology is still a claim about how the universe works. The fact that the assumptions are part of an a priori philosophy about how one thinks the universe should behave, like Aristotle, does not change that.

    It simply underscores the problem with that approach.

  120. #120 conradg
    March 5, 2008

    Leni,

    You might as well say there are testable claims about art. Not that some astrologers don’t make claims that can be tested. The results of testing those claims sometimes show mild correlations, but nothing spectatular. But those aren’t even the point anyway. The actual approach of astrology is not even possible to test in any way that I can see, not empirically and objectively at least.

    Now, you could test the psychological effectiveness of astrology readings, compared, say, the the psychological effectivenesss of other forms of therapy, and I think astrology would do quite well. But that’s not the same kind of test that you are thinking of, I’m sure. The problem with a scientific test of acausal correlations is coming up with some kind of standard to judge the correlation. They tried doing this in one study I recall by looking for people with “Mars in the 10th house” in their charts, and because Mars has an association with war, and the 10th house has something to do with profession, they checked how many such people had military, police, or sports professional backgrounds. And yes, they did come up with a positive correlation, though a weak and indefinite one, that in the end really proves nothing. Aside from all the scientific reasons why this proves nothing, from an astrologer’s point of view this totally twists the meanings of “Mars” and “10th house”. I won’t bother going into it, but suffice it to say that there’s about a million different outcomes that could be correlated to just that configuration alone. In my view, trying to objectify an astrological chart is an impossible task, and is meaningful ONLY in looking at the chart in relation to the actual person who has this chart, and seeing how the correlations come about in that person. Doing an astrological reading is thus a deeply personal and subjective exloration of the patterns in our consciousness, and not an objective “science” in any way at all.

    Now, there are indeed tons of astrologers who try to make it into an objective science, just there are many theists who try to turn God into an objective deity, and they deserve to be debunked when they make claims about the power such deities (astrological or religious) have over the objective world, but such debunking doesn’t touch the core of the astrological approach, any more than it touches the core of the religious approach.

    I can’t emphasize enough that what astrology (and religion, for that matter) proposes is a completely alternative view of the universe from head to toe that is simply not comparable to the scientific materialist view, and can’t be tested scientifically. That doesn’t mean it can’t be tested at all, it only means that the “test” is of a deeply personal and subjective nature. THe reason I consider this view superior to science is that I think the deeply personal and subjective reality is where we all live and exist, whereas the objective material view is an abstraction. The abstracted view of science is a valuable discipline that produces decend objective results, but those results don’t actually change our personal and subjective reality – where we actually live and exist – they merely change our outward conditions, which don’t actually have the power to make us happy.

    In brief the “alternative view” these approaches take is to look at ourselves and the world from the viewpoint of consciousness itself, awareness itself, our selves as living conscious beings, rather than as objectified “entities” made out of meat. In this view, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “We are not human beings have a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

    The spiritual experience of being conscious and aware is itself not scientifically testable and verifiable, and this should tell us something about the limitations of the scientific method.

  121. #121 conradg
    March 5, 2008

    Conradg: “Is your self falsifiable?”

    J.J. Ramsey: If by “self” you mean the Hindu idea of “atman,” then no, it isn’t falsifiable. If by “self,” you mean just the garden-variety meaning of the word “self,” then we aren’t seriously talking about God.

    I thought I made it quite clear that I was talking about your personal self (jiva in Vedantic terminology) rather than the universal Self (Atman). By self (jiva) I mean the awareness that is reading this post right now. That awareness is what we identify with as “self”. I take it you have such an experience, as I do, and we all do? Well, I’m simply asking if you can actually prove to me that such awareness actually exists in you, as you, right now? I don’t think you can. It’s simply a presumption we all have about one another, based on our own experience. What I’m pointing out is that simply because you can’t prove the existence of your self, your awareness, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s the very core of your existence, and it’s the very means by which you can even observe the objective world, and do such activities as science. But it is not, itself, scientifically verifiable.

    As for the Vedantic view, though jiva and Atman are by definition two distinct forms of self, they are not considered in any way separate from one another. If one looks to the subjective source of the sense of self (jiva), one finds in due course that it is the Divine Self (Atman), and likewise, it is also found that Atman is Brahman (Universal Divine Being). There are many methods in the Hindu system for realizing this, but the simplest would be found in the Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta, which recommends vichara (self-enquiry) in the form of the question “Who am I?”, eschewing any belief system, including any theistic beliefs, and only examining our sense of self directly, in consciousness, precisely because it cannot be objectively observed, but is the very awareness that is observing anything. So the approach is to ask oneself, regardless of what is observed, “Who is observing this experience?”

    Now, that is what the Vedantic approach boils down to in its purest essence, and it’s not a theistic approach to God, and it’s not abstracted from our own direct experience of being a self that observes a multi-dimensional world of both objective and subjective experience. But it’s clearly not scientifically verifiable either, since it begins with the very sense of self we all have that is not, itself, scientifically verifiable.

  122. #122 conradg
    March 5, 2008

    Iapetus,

    I appreciate your desire to say kind words about Dawkins approach, but honestly, his “talking down to the common folks” approach is, I think, a huge turn-off to those “common folks” and has no effect whatsoever on their rationale for being believers. Nor does it impress those who are more sophisticated and discerning, precisely because it ignores the sophisticated and discerning arguments for God made by the sophisticated and discerning people who believe in God, and who actually might bother to buy and read his book. So in the end it’s more of a book for atheists themselves to read and pat themselves on the back for having all the right answers, and being so much smarter than those faithful rubes out there. And yet, even many atheists aren’t that smug and gullible, and are turned off by his book. So in the end it’s one of those books that is valuable merely for bringing up the topic at all, rather than providing a leading role in the discussion.

  123. #123 conradg
    March 5, 2008

    Iapetus,

    I’m not sure it’s my role to define nihilism, but I can at least say what I think it means with reference to Nietzsche, and then again in my own personal view.

    To Nietzsche, nihilism means the loss of true, natural, intrinsic values. He points out that the original values of mankind, before the Judeo-Christian tradition messed things up, was that strength, health, happiness, wealth, intelligence and confidence were considered the natural order of mankind. He points out that the latin roots for ?war? and ?good? are the same, and that the idea that the strongest of men should lead was simply taken for granted. Judaism, he points out, originally felt the same way, but after becoming slaves, they came up with a highly imaginative solution ? they inverted these natural values, and somehow reasoned that God loved the underdog best. Thus, the Jewish slaves were the ?chosen people? rather than their Egyptian owners. This created an inversion of values that survived as long as the Jews were on the bottom, but was abandoned when the Jews came back on top, and conquered Palestine, but then re-asserted itself when they became subjected to Roman rule, and even more so after the Diaspora.

    Nietzsche admired the Jews for their opportunistic creativity, but what the Christians did with this inversion of values he considered an abomination. They made the weak the ?inheritors of the earth? and the strong were associated with the devil and sin. They created what to Nietzsche was a permanent rule by nihilism, in that their values had no value at all, except the subjugation of the best of mankind by its worst, and thus the destruction of all true values, and the substitution of an ?otherworldly? set of values that had no core to them at all except the ?will to power?. Founded in resentment rather than anything of positive good, the Christians were the enemy of the good in his view, and turned the very notion of ?good? on its head. So in the Nietzschean view, it is Christians who are the nihilists, not those who reject Christianity. But he also points out that in rejecting Christian values, people at first plunge into raw nihilism itself, and have to ?walk the tightrope? to find their way back, or forward, to the real, true, natural values of mankind.

    One thing that should be pointed out about Nietzsche is that he not only pointed out that Christianity was nihilistic, he also pointed out that the Socratic method, and thus all of science, was nihilistic, in that it was based on a method of constant doubt and skepticism, which he saw as destructive to our natural values. He pointed out that what was true should never be in doubt, and that the Socratic method introduced an unending attitude of doubt and skepticism into the world which undermines humanity’s real strength and natural confidence. So he was not a champion of scientific rationalistic approaches either. He was in favor of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, the kind which considered Socrates a heretic and saw him method as a genuine threat to what was good and true. He pointed out that there were good reasons for condemning Socrates to death, in that the Socratic approach was, to him, a poison that would weigh mankind down, and turn him into a weakened creature of self-doubt, rather than a confident and purposeful being of strength and sureness, who knew who he was and what he wanted, and was not afraid to get it. He saw Socrates as a precursor to Christianity, paving the way for a total doubt and even condemnation of the ?nature of man?.

    Now, I’m not saying I agree with Nietzsche entirely, but he’s got some good points. There is indeed something inherently nihilistic about the Socratic approach, and by extension, science itself. As a discipline, science can’t presume any truths to be self-evident, but must doubt and attack all such presumptions, even its own. Within the discipline of science, this is fine enough, but outside of that discipline, in human culture itself, such an approach is destructive and yes, nihilistic. It destroys the innate sense of strength and power in our own being and awareness, in our own sense of existence, and replaces it with a constantly self-doubting approach which never find solid ground.

    In my own view, nihilism represents the loss of innate values, the loss of the innate knowledge of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. It turns those innate values into an objective search for specifiic answers, rather than an intuitive understanding of ourselves as conscious beings. But even more so, nihilism is, as Nietzsche said, simply a raw desire for power at all costs, even at the cost of the loss of our real being, our soul. Science in many respects represents that desire for raw power and control over the world at the cost of losing our innate sense of being, our soul. It’s doubting of all Gods does not actually help us, except to the degree that it makes us doubt the false, inverted Gods of Christianity, and similar structures of doubt elsewhere. But this is not truly accomplished by science, which merely substitutes an attitude of doubt and skepticism for an inversion of the principle of faith. What is required is a restoration of the fundamental sense of faith in mankind, in ourselves, which both Christianity and science are unable to provide by their very nature and structure.

    Now, a nihilist is not the same as someone who is passing through nihilism. As I said, there’s a big difference between the guy walking the tightrope stretched over the abyss, and someone who has fallen into the abyss. The nihilist is someone who has succumbed so deeply to his own self-doubt that he has actually come to believe in such notions as ?the fallen nature of man?, or who doubts his own strength and being, or who sees himself as merely ?an educated animal?, or who think the proper disposition of a man is a constant, permament state of doubting and skepticism.

    Now, as for ?god belief forming the basis of morality?, this depends on what kind of God we are talking about, and what kind of morality. In Nietzsche’s view, Christian morality is an inversion of the values of natural morality, and so he distinguishes between the their system and others. Likewise, he distinguishes between the Christian God and other forms of God that are not representative of this inversion of values. He liked the pagan Gods, for example, because they exemplified natural human values of strength, health, and also tragedy, which to him was redeeming, not in the Christian moralistic manner where the weak and sickly underdog comes out on top, but in a transcendent manner which goes beyond such moralistic inventions as ?good and evil?. To Nietzsche, Christian morality is merely a way of gaining power by resorting to the emotion of resentment, and is an inversion and a perversion of innate morals.

    Now, I wouldn’t say that I see Christianity, or Christian morality, in quite the same monolithic structure as Nietzsche does. But what he criticizes in Christianity is certainly the dominant set of values in that tradition, and in that respect I second his criticism. But I think Nietzsche had some major problems of his own, which made it difficult for him to appreciate anything other than ?masculine? values as being ?good?. In short, I don’t think that love, compassion, forgiveness, and charity are signs of weakness and a self-doubting character.

    Now, as for atheism being nihilistic, I think it’s obvious that by definition it most certainly is. It represents the negation of theism of all kinds, not merely those forms of God which are destructive, but all of them. It doesn’t distinguish between the healthy and natural forms of God, and the inverted and sickly or destructive forms of God. In fact it bases itself in an attitude of doubt and skepticism that is itself a destructive disposition to live in. To move out of that disposition, the atheist must embrace something positive, must embrace it a priori, must embrace his own nature and being, and once he does that, he is no longer an atheist. He may not believe in Christian Gods anymore, but he has chosen to believe in new Gods of some kind or other, even if it is the God of ?science? or ?skepticism? or ?reason? or ?practicality?. Whether or not he objectively deifies these Gods isn’t the point. They become a symbol to him for what he values every bit as much as the Cross is a symbol to what Christians value. The question as it relates to nihilism is, do these new Gods actually have any solid foundation in our nature? Or are they dependent upon a constant activity of telling ourselves that we are something different than our nature tells us? At root, this is part of the problem with the evolutionary narrative that science tells. Yes, the proof is all there that these bodies have evolved from apes in an objective sense, but our deeper nature tells us something different about who we really are, spiritually, meaning consciously, in our hearts and being. Not that those who are indoctrinated into Christianity are necessarily expressing themselves that way, but they are indeed responding, in a twisted expression to be sure, to a deeper sense of ourselves than is even addressable by scientific means.

    Anway, I’ve prattled on long enough. Hope that covers the points you’ve raised.

  124. #124 J. J. Ramsey
    March 5, 2008

    “I thought I made it quite clear that I was talking about your personal self (jiva in Vedantic terminology) rather than the universal Self (Atman). By self (jiva) I mean the awareness that is reading this post right now. That awareness is what we identify with as “self”. I take it you have such an experience, as I do, and we all do? Well, I’m simply asking if you can actually prove to me that such awareness actually exists in you, as you, right now? I don’t think you can. It’s simply a presumption we all have about one another, based on our own experience.”

    And that experience is so pervasive and so commonplace that presuming the opposite–that anyone besides you lacks that awareness that you mentioned–would require massive kludges in order to reconcile it with your own experience … which goes right back to Occam’s razor. If one wanted to use the language of science to describe this reasoning, one can say that the model where humans have an internal awareness is the most straightforward way of accounting for human behavior, so we accept it accordingly as a probably correct way of making sense of the world.

  125. #125 conradg
    March 5, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey,

    Yes, I agree that our own awareness is so natural and innate to us, that we can’t help but presume it exists in others. What I’m pointing out is that this universally presumed truth is not scientically verifiable, which should strike us all as a little odd, if science is supposed to be able to tell us what is true and what isn’t. What I’m saying is, if God is in the same direction – within, then it shouldn’t surprise us that God is likewise unverifiable scientifically, but also personally discoverable and recognizable.

  126. #126 386sx
    March 5, 2008

    But if astrology is looked upon as an acausal art, rather than a causal science, this changes the picture completely.

    Cool. I like astrology now! Thanks!!

  127. #127 Explicit Atheist
    March 5, 2008

    My response to conradg comment:

    “I’m sympathetic to your criticism of invoking Deus Ex Machina explanations on virtually all levels. But reducing the notion of God to this simply doesn’t fly. You cannot explain your own consciousness and awareness, your own being and becoming, by merely materialistic mechanisms either….”

    Two points here. First, reducing god to explanation does fly because a belief in a fact claim, and god is a fact claim, is not justified absent both explanatory value added and evidence. Second, it should be clear to everyone that there is no consciousness and awareness absent a particular set of pre-requisite materialistic mechanisms, so it seems to me that it is your claim that merely materialistic mechanisms are insufficient or untenable for consciousness and awareness is what doesn’t fly here. The notion of a consciousness or awareness absent those materialistic mechanisms or some materialistic mechanisms is far-fetched. Religionists have been claiming otherwise for centuries. The demon possession theory of illness has no more merit than the divine soul theory of consciousness and awareness. Now I am very aware of how much we don’t know, but what I don’t do, and what I won’t do, is cite our ignorance as some kind of justification for “god did it” so-called “explanations”.

  128. #128 Explicit Atheist
    March 5, 2008

    conradg wrote:

    “Yes, I agree that our own awareness is so natural and innate to us, that we can’t help but presume it exists in others. What I’m pointing out is that this universally presumed truth is not scientically verifiable, which should strike us all as a little odd, if science is supposed to be able to tell us what is true and what isn’t. What I’m saying is, if God is in the same direction – within, then it shouldn’t surprise us that God is likewise unverifiable scientifically, but also personally discoverable and recognizable.”

    Nuerologists can and do identify consciousness/awareness deficits and relate those deficits to materialistic malfunctions in specific regions of brains. We can know something about how intelligent a dinosaur was by its brain volume and shape just like we can know something about how fast it was, how good its eyesight and hearing was, what is diet was, etc. from its remains. We know these things because these are all attributes tied to measureable physical traits.

    Regarding god being “personally discoverable and recognizable”: Imagine a doctor telling you that she’s got self-authenticating evidence that you’ve got cancer, but the evidence can’t be grasped by anyone who doesn’t already believe it. Or imagine your husband telling you that he’s got special, private, self-authenticating evidence that you’ve been cheating on him. “Evidence” that’s private isn’t really evidence at all and a mere feeling that something just must be true, no matter how strong or persistent, is never enough to give it warrant.

    To put this another way, beliefs can be drivers. They can drive our thoughts and our dreams and our emotions. People can self-generate emotions and thoughts in accord with their religious beliefs. From this perspective, your personal monotheism experiences, although genuine, are belief driven and the interpretations of those experiences as evidence for god, while sincere, are nevertheless mistaken.

  129. #129 Explicit Atheist
    March 6, 2008

    conradg wrote:

    “Accusing religious arguments of “supernaturalism” is simply silly, as religious arguments are based on the very notion that God is the epitome and the source of what is natural. What we define as “supernatural” depends entirely on what we know of the natural world, and any scientist who claims we know even a thousandth of what the natural world contains is a self-evident fool. Science is a new, young discipline, and it has barely scratched the surface of our universe. Can you really say that what you regard to be “supernatural” today won’t turn out in a hundred, a thousand, or a million years to be perfectly natural? The problem with these arguments is their arrogance, and their failure to acknowledge the humility and ignorance of our scientific knowledge in the face of the vastly greater unknowns out there.”

    No, the problem here is that you are hiding behind ill-defined, undefined, non-defined, misdefined words. We have no basis for assuming that there is some one thing that is “the epitome and the source of what is natural”, and we have no reason for assuming such a thing is a god. You can play slippery word games all you want, but the arrogance here is yours if you think we are supposed to accept your insistence that the word “god” is appropriate or needed to refer to something that is not supernatural. If its not supernatural then there is no justification for calling it god, call it the unknown epitome and source of what is natural. Your notion that there is an “epitome of what is natural” sounds like nonsense to me, “natural” doesn’t have an “epotime” and it isn’t clear what it means for “natural” to have a “source” either.

  130. #130 Conradg
    March 6, 2008

    Explicit Atheist,

    Two points here. First, reducing god to explanation does fly because a belief in a fact claim, and god is a fact claim, is not justified absent both explanatory value added and evidence.

    First, what kind of fact claim is ?God?? That’s a key part of my argument. The fact claims that people make about God that can be refuted are things like ?God created the heavens and earth in six days, six thousand years ago.? Refuting that fact claim does not refute the existence of God, it only tells us that something isn’t true about God. Not all religious people think like this. For example, when asked what he would do if science contradicted his religious beliefs, the Dali Lami famously said, ?Then I would change my religious beliefs to conform to science.? Likewise, the kinds of claims about God that have been refuted only help religious people discard silly ways of thinking about God, yet they do nothing to discredit other, deeply held views about God.

    For example, many people, myself included, think that the physical universe is, indeed, created out of ?God?, by which I specifically mean ?Infinite Divine Consciousness?. Whether some specific Deity is involved in that process, I wouldn’t really know, but it could be possible. The kind of ?creation? I envision is not the same as one physical thing creating another physical thing. Nor is it creating something out of nothing. I envision infinite consciousness resolving itself into shapes and forms through a process not dissimilar to ?imagination?. As some would say, Vishnu in his sleep dreams all worlds, breathing out our creation, inhaling our return, over and over. The analogy of this world to a dream ? a creation of mind that seems real to us while we are in it, but later reveals itself to have been merely a thought ? is perhaps most apt. Now, within the dream, there are all kinds of laws and processes that seem to be matter of fact and even inevitable, but which in reality are not. Thus, science seems to believe that we are simply these material bodies living in a material world. And within the dream, the laws of dream physics certainly do seem to apply. But the mystery of consciousness is not explained by the dream itself. Nor is it explained by neurology.

    Well, the ?fact? that ?God? explains is our own consciousness and being, and how a world seemingly surrounds and creates us. It explains the nature of the world, which science cannot do. Science can describe it, but it cannot explain it. It cannot tell us how the universe comes into being. Yeah, sure, quantum fluctuations. Quantum fluctuations in what exactly? The scientific explanation for the universe is ?Something from Nothing?, which explains precisely nothing. How can something come from nothing? Where do the laws of physics themselves come from? The ?Big Bang? itself resembles nothing so much as what Kashmir Shaivism calls ?the Bindu theory of consciousness? in which worlds are created out of tiny points of consciousness, which expand and congeal into forms and shapes and planets like our own. At least that makes sense ? infinite consciousness endlessly modifying itself into forms, shapes, worlds, universes. But materialistic matter coming out of nothing? Dude, I may be naďve, but I’m not that gullible.

  131. #131 conradg
    March 6, 2008

    Explicit Atheist,

    it should be clear to everyone that there is no consciousness and awareness absent a particular set of pre-requisite materialistic mechanisms, so it seems to me that it is your claim that merely materialistic mechanisms are insufficient or untenable for consciousness and awareness is what doesn’t fly here. The notion of a consciousness or awareness absent those materialistic mechanisms or some materialistic mechanisms is far-fetched.

    Suggesting that this ?should? be obvious is an obvious giveaway that you are just making things up as you go along. Obviously if it were obvious, everyone would be an atheist, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But the fact is, very few people are atheists, and so you need to seriously re-examine your assumption about what ?should? be obvious. Specifically, what is not obvious is how our consciousness comes from material mechanisms. Could you please explain how this works? Please refer to peer-reviewed scientific studies which reveal the mechanism by which material processes of some kind create the neumonal experience of consciousness. I must have missed them.

    You see, all these neurological studies are great, but they don’t explain consciousness itself. I’ll tell you what I think is obvious, and even you ?should? agree. You, me, all of us, are consciousness. We are ?That? which observes everything ? body, thoughts, world, brain, emotions, whatever. We are not the body, because we are ?That? which observes the body. The body is certainly the vehicle our consciousness has ?taken on?, the way we can put on a suit of clothes, and just as ?the clothes make the man?, the body makes our consciousness, so long as we wear it. But even while we wear it, it isn’t us, it’s just how we look and function in this world. That should be obvious, because even in this moment, we are observing, feeling, touching, experiencing the body. Yes, we experience its neurological mechanisms, and are defined by those mechanisms. And so studies will show that neurological mechanisms define how our bodies and brains work. But none of that actually accounts for our consciousness and awareness itself, only how it functions in relation to the physical body.

  132. #132 conradg
    March 6, 2008

    Explicit Atheist,

    Regarding god being “personally discoverable and recognizable”: Imagine a doctor telling you that she’s got self-authenticating evidence that you’ve got cancer, but the evidence can’t be grasped by anyone who doesn’t already believe it. Or imagine your husband telling you that he’s got special, private, self-authenticating evidence that you’ve been cheating on him. “Evidence” that’s private isn’t really evidence at all and a mere feeling that something just must be true, no matter how strong or persistent, is never enough to give it warrant.

    This is a remarkably weak argument. The examples you give are all about external, objective events that can indeed be verified. I am not arguing in favor of some internally self-authenticating knowledge about external events. I am talking about internally self-authenticating awareness, which is precisely NOT verifiable by any external investigation. Tell me, are you self-aware or not? If not, then I agree with you. You must be a robot of some kind. But I am self-aware, and frankly, that’s all that counts for me. Now, you can posit that my self-awareness is the product of some mechanical, material mechanism, but neither you nor any scientist have even come close to thinking of a way this might occur. Scientists don’t even have a theory of what consciousness and self-awareness. They can’t even observe it. They can only observe the brain and body, but consciousness cannot itself be observed. Science can observe electrons, protons, electromagnetism, all kinds of subatomic particles, distant galaxies, black holes, you name it, but they can’t observe consciousness. How can they possibly explain it’s existence?

  133. #133 Leni
    March 6, 2008

    conradg:

    Arguing that “some people like it” and that “astrology is like art” aren’t exactly convincing arguments. You aren’t making a case for why it’s valid, you’re making a case for why people refuse to abandon it despite the fact that it is not rational or true.

    You might as well say there are testable claims about art.

    Except that art and astrology aren’t equivalent. Not even in Aristotle’s system.

    Art is an expression of individual experience. Astrology is is not. It is an attempt to correlate celestial mechanics with earthly events or divine activity. Pretending that it is just some kind of subjective expression of individual experience, at least in our culture, is bordering on dishonest.

    You can not hide behind the exception.

    The actual approach of astrology is not even possible to test in any way that I can see, not empirically and objectively at least.

    The “empirical” approach isn’t testable either. What difference does that make?

    Modern, western astrology is more properly described as pseudo-science, specifically because of its “approach”, which can be described as “make assumptions about how things are and jump to conclusions that make us feel good”. That fact is not going to go away because you ignore it.

    Now, you could test the psychological effectiveness of astrology readings, compared, say, the the psychological effectivenesss of other forms of therapy, and I think astrology would do quite well. But that’s not the same kind of test that you are thinking of, I’m sure.

    Utility his has nothing to do with truth value. And something tells me that the survival of the human species and our ultimate happiness does not depend on astrology. I think we could get by just fine, and probably even better, without it.

    The problem with a scientific test of acausal correlations is coming up with some kind of standard to judge the correlation. They tried doing this in one study I recall….

    Perhaps you missed the point I made in my last post where I said that no correlations have ever been found. You can’t keep changing the goalposts to hide the fact that astrology bombs in tests. It’s never panned out. Not significantly, and when and if it had the results weren’t repeatable. Now, to everyone else that means it’s bullshit. To astrologers, it means all the tests were set up wrong. Go figure.

    In any case, as it’s proponents claim: if it’s so universal, useful and true it shouldn’t be that hard to pick out. The fact that no one can find anything valuable in it but them should tell you something.

  134. #134 Iapetus
    March 6, 2008

    Conradg,

    “I’m not sure it’s my role to define nihilism, but I can at least say what I think it means with reference to Nietzsche, and then again in my own personal view.”

    Well, since you repeatedly use the term “nihilism” in your arguments (in ways that in my view indicate various, mutually exclusive meanings) I think it is required for a productive discussion that there are no misunderstandings concerning the content and meaning of the terms used. I appreciate your effort in doing so; however, maybe a more concise summary of what YOU understand nihilism to mean instead of a rather long-winded (although interesting) take on some of Nietzsche’s views, interspersed with your own opinions, would have been more helpful.

    Nonetheless, I will try to summarize what I gather to be your position. You believe that nihilism is characterized by extreme skepticism, which doubts the existence of gods, innate human values and so on and ultimately leaves the nihilist, if he takes his nihilism seriously, in a position of paralyzing self-doubt, where he considers his own life, the life of all humans or even the entire universe to be pointless, senseless and purposeless. You furthermore argue that science (by which I think you primarily mean the natural sciences) is somehow complicit in this through its insistance on verifiable facts and its dismissal of subjective experience and insights gained through introspection. Finally, you believe that atheism is intimately tied to nihilism as defined above because it rejects the notion of gods of any kind and is therefore a skeptical, negative and unhealthy attitude.

    The major flaws in this reasoning (taking into account the definition of nihilism outlined above) IMO are the following:

    a) It reduces a variety of conceivable options to a rigid dichotomy by alleging that either you accept that moral values are firmly grounded in some form of transcendence or the mere notion of values becomes meaningless, leaving you with no escape but to drown in ultra-sceptical despair and apathy. However, this simply ignores the fact that there is e.g. the alternative of recognizing that moral values are not timeless and in some way anchored in our reality and consequently negotiating our own values. Thus, a person can live his life without ever confronting this fundamental choice that conradg believes is unavoidable. Furthermore, as I argued in a previous post, the notion that god-belief can offer a firmer basis for moral values is simply false; the only difference being that the nihilist acknowledges the provisional nature of his values, while the theist tries to hide it (or does not even recognize it).

    b) The fact that science does not (and can not) rely on subjective experiences and internal feelings alone and constantly doubts its own conclusions is simply a prerequisite for its proper function. Otherwise there would be no way to decide between the inner feelings of persons A, B, C, etc. However, I think it is a mistake to conflate science (or more precisely: the scientific method) with an all-encompassing worldview or a philosophy to structure your life around. It is not. Science is simply a tool for gaining knowledge and has proved its reliability over and over again.

    c) Likewise, Atheism (at least in its weak form) simply means the lack of belief in any kind of deities. It is not logically associated with any particular worldview or philosophy and does also not determine the psychological/emotional constitution of the atheist. E.g. it is conceivable that an atheist rejects the notion of a personal god while still maintaining that objective moral values are part of our universe. There might also be atheists that, quite contrary to what conradg envisions, feel a great relief and sense of liberation after shedding the rigid moral framework that was imposed on them through a religious upbringing.

    Regarding the substitution of “God” with “Science”, “Reason” or whatever that is allegedly mandatory for the atheist to fill the void he created, this is a highly questionable notion. Actually I think it exemplifies the mindset of many theists who can not conceive of people going through life without recourse to a higher power.

  135. #135 J. J. Ramsey
    March 6, 2008

    Conradg: “Yes, I agree that our own awareness is so natural and innate to us, that we can’t help but presume it exists in others. What I’m pointing out is that this universally presumed truth is not scientically verifiable”

    And I was pointing out that this really isn’t quite true, for the reasons I stated above.

  136. #136 windy
    March 6, 2008

    Science can observe electrons, protons, electromagnetism, all kinds of subatomic particles, distant galaxies, black holes, you name it, but they can’t observe consciousness.

    Nonsense. Consciousness is much more easily observable than certain kinds of subatomic particles like neutrinos, or dark matter, but the principle is the same – we observe them by their effects, not directly. (in the case of consciousness, effects of matter arranged in a certain way, not a separately existing thing)

  137. #137 Leni
    March 6, 2008

    Woops. I totally messed up the end of my last post and totally forgot to fix the last little paragraph. Had to run to work!

    Oh well.

  138. #138 conradg
    March 6, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey,

    Conradg: “Yes, I agree that our own awareness is so natural and innate to us, that we can’t help but presume it exists in others. What I’m pointing out is that this universally presumed truth is not scientically verifiable”

    And I was pointing out that this really isn’t quite true, for the reasons I stated above.

    No, your reasons stated above don’t at all explain why this isn’t true. As you wrote:

    And that experience is so pervasive and so commonplace that presuming the opposite–that anyone besides you lacks that awareness that you mentioned–would require massive kludges in order to reconcile it with your own experience … which goes right back to Occam’s razor. If one wanted to use the language of science to describe this reasoning, one can say that the model where humans have an internal awareness is the most straightforward way of accounting for human behavior, so we accept it accordingly as a probably correct way of making sense of the world.

    First of all, how do you know this experience is so pervasive and commonplace? Because people tell you it is? What actual, independent, scientifically verifiable proof do you have that anyone is actually self-aware? None, I take it. What you have is people claiming this to be so. Well, how different is that from the widespread claims that people know in their hearts that God exists? How does it pass the Occam’s razor test in the slightest. You have one confirmed example of self-awareness – your own – among billions and billions of people. That’s hardly a convincing sample to base a mass generalization upon. But if you are simply will to take people’s word for it, why not take people’s word for it on so many other purely subjective claims. If I see elephants dancing in my head, should I presume that everyone does? Clearly, the very sense of self that each of us claims to have is not actually provable to anyone else. An odd situation to be in, isn’t it?

    Well, my point here is that if you want to find “proof” of God, you are going to have to explore this inner dimension, the “spiritual dimension” of the being, which is not provable to anyone else. And that is what many religious and spiritual people do. They look within, and they find God within, and the proof is as clear to them as the proof of our own self-awareness. In fact, I’m trying to point out that self-awareness is itself, at heart, the very God we are debating, whether or not religious and spiritually minded people would put it that way. They simply turn within on their own, for very basic human reasons, and they find God. Those who don’t bother to turn within in this manner will not find God, or they will presume God to be outside us, in the clouds above perhaps. Or they will simply confuse the two and project the inner God outward into the clouds. But the experience of God within is indeed just as genuine as the experience of self-awareness within, and is of the same nature. Just as we can’t come up with a scientific means for proving our own self-awareness, we can’t scientifically prove the existence of God. But just as our own self-awareness is self-evident, and not in need of scientific proof to us, neither is God. God is only in need of internal, subjective, deeply personal proof, whihc is to be found by looking within.

  139. #139 ctw
    March 6, 2008

    lapetus:

    You need to rethink the positions stated in your 3/6 8:20AM comment. I agree almost verbatim with each point which raises serious doubts about their rationality.

    I will just add that whether or not you are correct in interpreting conradg’s position to be that the nihilist “considers his own life [and] the life of all humans or even the entire universe to be pointless, senseless and purposeless” – is correct, many do appear to hold that position. And it simply doesn’t follow that nihilism so defined inevitably leads to despair, apathy, and paralyzing self-doubt.

    The error that seems to underlie this common – and erroneous – implication is the assumption that only cosmic meanings and purposes suffice to make life challenging, joyous, exciting, etc. (A version of the absolutism that always seems present in those who make that kind of argument.) Although I’m not clever enough to confidently explain why the implication is wrong, there are so many counterexamples that it boggles the mind that anyone could miss them.

    Especially for those who have the good fortune to lead privileged lives (and I assume that includes most readers of blogs like this one), it would seem to take Herculean effort to be miserable just because we may come and go without cosmic import. Among those I know who may fit that definition of nihilism (including myself), no one comes close to meeting that challenge.

    - Charles

  140. #140 J. J. Ramsey
    March 6, 2008

    Conradg: “In fact, I’m trying to point out that self-awareness is itself, at heart, the very God we are debating …”

    Then you are using the word “God” in a way that is at odds with its normal usage.

    Conradg: “First of all, how do you know this experience is so pervasive and commonplace? Because people tell you it is?”

    Fair point: I don’t know before I check that this experience is so pervasive and commonplace. That said, the rest of my point stands. If I were to presume that it wasn’t so pervasive, I’d have to resort to extensive kludges to make sense of my own experience, which, as I said before, takes me right back to Occam’s razor.

    Conradg: “What you have is people claiming this to be so.”

    What I have is people claiming to have this subjective experience, and acting as if they really did have that experience.

    Conradg: “Well, how different is that from the widespread claims that people know in their hearts that God exists?”

    Because the former claim–that others have self-awareness–is an explanation that conveniently makes sense of daily experience, while the latter claim–that God exists and does certain things–doesn’t explain much at all. At best, it is an unnecessary explanation, and at worst, it flies in the face of facts. And to head off what is likely to be your objection, I’ll reiterate that saying “God” is really just self-awareness is a misuse of terms.

  141. #141 Conradg
    March 6, 2008

    Iapetus,

    I thought, after my long-winded discussion of Nietzsche, I did make clear how I saw nihilism:

    In my own view, nihilism represents the loss of innate values, the loss of the innate knowledge of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. It turns those innate values into an objective search for specific answers, rather than an intuitive understanding of ourselves as conscious beings.

    I’m not sure where you got the impression that I think the nihilist is ?in a position of paralyzing self-doubt, where he considers his own life, the life of all humans or even the entire universe to be pointless, senseless and purposeless.? I’ve never used any words to that effect, or even remotely characterized nihilism in that way. You are simply projecting some rather sophomoric notions about nihilism upon me. As I’ve said in earlier posts, nihilism is more to be found in our culture of mindless consumerism, materialistic seeking for pleasure, attainment, and personal comfort, the narcissism of modern pop culture, than is some kind of stereotypical goth-style dark and gloomy teenaged hopelessness about the senseless randomness of the world. That’s someone who is still fighting nihilism to some degree. Those who embrace nihilism are happy and chipper people like Paris Hilton who live utterly senseless lives and simply don’t care, and who tear the earth apart in their quest to keep the party going, to keep themselves distracted from the empty hole in their hearts; or they are scientists quietly working on the next generation of nuclear weapons, or the next breakthrough in consumer electronics, who could give a damn that they aren’t actually producing anything of real value to anyone except the Gods of GNP. I could go on, but I don’t want to be even more long-winded than I am. The point is that nihilism represents the loss of real, fundamental human values. It is the philosophical analog to narcissism, the creation of a ?false self? which then overpowers our real self, and leaves us with no center, no heart, no ground to walk on.

    So your summary of my views on nihilism isn’t quite accurate. Nihilism can, indeed by characterized by extreme skepticism, but it can also be characterized by extreme gullibility. Both are possible responses to the loss of fundamental values and our fundamental sense of self. The range of possible expressions of nihilism is probably infinite, and maybe more complex than in those who possess fundamental values and a fundamental sense of self. As Tolstoy wrote, ?All happy families are the same, but all unhappy families are different in their own unique way? (or something like that). Nihilism is a hugely diverse group, just as unhappy people in general are. (Not that all unhappy people are nihilists, or that all nihilists appear unhappy).

    I thought I had made clear my views on science. I don’t consider science to be inherently nihilistic, but when science is not confined by its own limitations to purely material matters, and becomes itself the basis for our approach to life, yes, it often produces a nihilistic disposition and attitude. The attitude of skepticism, while appropriate within the discipline of science, becomes destructive to our very sense of self and our fundamental values if applied outside that discipline. Which is why I consider scientific atheism to be essentially nihilistic. Science really has nothing to say about God, other than that he didn’t do things like create women out of Adam’s rib, or create the earth 6,000 years ago. But when the attitude of universal skepticism is imported from science into everyday life, and into religion and philosophy, it brings a nihilistic attitude into life.

    Now, as to your specific objections:

    a) It reduces a variety of conceivable options to a rigid dichotomy by alleging that either you accept that moral values are firmly grounded in some form of transcendence or the mere notion of values becomes meaningless, leaving you with no escape but to drown in ultra-sceptical despair and apathy.

    As mentioned, nihilism has nothing in particular to do with apathy. Many nihilists are highly enthusiastic people obsessed with their false ideas about life. Many are religious people obsessed with ideas about God. Many are scientific people obsessed with the latest technology. Many are atheists obsessed with negating other nihilistic people who are obsessed with God, and who likewise are obsessed with negating atheists. It goes round and round. The whole point here is that nihilists simply can’t accept that some things are simply and self-evidently true, such as their own self-existence. The nihilist, like the narcissist, suffers from a hole in his center, in his heart. He doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know how he got here, or where he is going. He makes up stories that try to fill that gap, from biblical stories to evolutionary stories, but none of them actually ring true. He is unable to simply accept himself unconditionally as he is, whatever that may be. He doubts everything. His doubt may take the form of atheism, or it may take the form of belief. It doesn’t make all forms of atheism a form of nihilism. Some things are simply false, and shouldn’t be believed. But our own nature is not one of those things.

    However, this simply ignores the fact that there is e.g. the alternative of recognizing that moral values are not timeless and in some way anchored in our reality and consequently negotiating our own values. Thus, a person can live his life without ever confronting this fundamental choice that conradg believes is unavoidable.

    Yes, some moral values are not timeless. But the very proposition that you are putting forth, that no values are inherent and timeless, is indeed what I would describe as nihilism. Or perfect enlightenment, but that’s another discussion entirely. Our own being is inherent and timeless, dude. Notice this much: whatever happens, good or bad, happy or sad, there’s one constant ? you are there experiencing it. This ?you? is constant, always there, always alive, always active, always witnessing everything. Our values come from this eternal truth. They aren’t arbitrary and meaningless. They come from a core of self, of self-in-the-world, which is self-evident, and which is the source of all our faith in God. No, you can certainly claim that this is just conradg’s personal view, and you would be right, but you arguments to the contrary are just your own personal view as well, so I hardly thinks that makes them more truthful than mine. I would simply say that you have not yet faced up to the full implications of your own existence. You think that doubting all values is the way to go. Well, maybe you should doubt that too. Maybe that’s an assertion that ought to be doubted. Maybe you need to find a core, a base, that can’t be doubted, and operate from there, and build from there. It’s worth considering, at least.

    Furthermore, as I argued in a previous post, the notion that god-belief can offer a firmer basis for moral values is simply false; the only difference being that the nihilist acknowledges the provisional nature of his values, while the theist tries to hide it (or does not even recognize it).

    I would say this depends entirely on what kind of God-belief you are talking about. There are indeed many kinds of God-belief that I would consider nihilistic, and that shouldn’t be believed in. That point is to find something that isn’t false, that is fundamentally true, that is self-evidently true, and build from there. I’ve suggested this tradition of ?God as Self?, but you could describe it in other ways as well. Buddhism puts it differently, as just one example. The point is not how it is expressed, but that something fundamentally true be accepted by us, and made the basis for our lives, such that we have a center, a basic core of reality that is not in doubt. Without that, we are indeed in trouble, and at best must walk a very thin tightrope over the abyss. At worst, we give up and fall in, which is the easy way out.

    b) The fact that science does not (and can not) rely on subjective experiences and internal feelings alone and constantly doubts its own conclusions is simply a prerequisite for its proper function.

    On this point I agree completely.

    Otherwise there would be no way to decide between the inner feelings of persons A, B, C, etc.

    Here’s where you go off the track. Science has nothing to say about the inner feelings of persons A, B, or C. It doesn’t accept them, it doesn’t negate them, it can’t even discover if they exist. It only applies its discipline to outward, objective phenomena, which inner feelings are not. When you start to apply science to our inner feelings, you have already made the mistake of conflating science with what is outside the purview of science.

    However, I think it is a mistake to conflate science (or more precisely: the scientific method) with an all-encompassing worldview or a philosophy to structure your life around. It is not. Science is simply a tool for gaining knowledge and has proved its reliability over and over again.

    But that is precisely what you have done when you try to apply science to our inner feelings. Science is a tool for gaining knowledge about the outer, objective, material world, not the inner, subjective, spiritual world. If you try to use the tool of science for that purpose, you have conflated the two, and will suffer some deep delusions as a result. Which, by the way, is exactly what religious people do when they make religious claims about outward, material facts, such as the age of the earth. It’s not better when scientific people make the same conflation.

    c) Likewise, Atheism (at least in its weak form) simply means the lack of belief in any kind of deities. It is not logically associated with any particular worldview or philosophy and does also not determine the psychological/emotional constitution of the atheist. E.g. it is conceivable that an atheist rejects the notion of a personal god while still maintaining that objective moral values are part of our universe. There might also be atheists that, quite contrary to what conradg envisions, feel a great relief and sense of liberation after shedding the rigid moral framework that was imposed on them through a religious upbringing.

    This is exactly the point I’ve made in numerous posts. I have no problem with atheism per se, or with science per se. I only have problems with the nihilistic conflation of atheism and science with things outside their purview. While atheism is, in itself a clearly nihilistic assertion, there is no such thing as ?atheism? except in the abstract. There are no ?atheists?, because everyone believes in something. What they believe in may or may not be true, but everyone has something they think is self-evident, and that they think everyone else should accept as self-evident. Even atheists tend to think that atheism is self-evident. Now, it’s perfectly reasonable that someone who doesn’t believe in Christian God, or deities floating in the clouds, to live a moral life. But to do so, they must come up with some truly solid, foundational morality that is grounded in reality, in their very being, or they will simply drift in a nihilistic manner from one thing to another, never actually building anything. As Jesus said, if you build your house on sand, it won’t last for long, you have to build it on rock.

    Regarding the substitution of “God” with “Science”, “Reason” or whatever that is allegedly mandatory for the atheist to fill the void he created, this is a highly questionable notion. Actually I think it exemplifies the mindset of many theists who can not conceive of people going through life without recourse to a higher power.

    I have yet to meet a man who can withstand the vacuum of losing his center. It must be filled with something. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do we. The problem is that unless we acknowledge it, we will fill ourselves with things from our unconscious, and lose self-awareness in the process. Those who think they actually have no Gods are simply ruled by the Gods of their own unconscious, and are among the most dangerous of men. The world is filled with them, which is one of the reasons why the world is such a dangerous place. Better to consciously fill that vacuum with Gods we have consciously chosen, Gods that do indeed represent our very being, our core, our very conscious existence in the world, our very self.

    Just one dude’s opinion, naturally.

  142. #142 conradg
    March 6, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey,

    Conradg: “In fact, I’m trying to point out that self-awareness is itself, at heart, the very God we are debating …”

    J. J. Ramsey: Then you are using the word “God” in a way that is at odds with its normal usage.

    I use it in a way that is at odds with modern, Christian and Muslim usage. It is not at odds with the usage of a billion Hindus, or hundreds of millions of Buddhists, Taoists, Sufis, etc. It’s also not at odds with Jesus himself, who taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is within, who taught that ?God is Love?, and who insturcted his followers to ?love others as our very self.? It is not at odds with the Old Testament definition of God, ?I Am That I Am?, which is the meaning of the name ?Yahweh?. So what you call the ?normal usage? of God is in fact very parochial and not at all the norm. It’s just what most western atheists like to define God as, because it would be far more difficult to challenge. As the article this thread was based on implies, atheists are all too often lazy and superficial, taking easy shots at superficial notions about God, and then declaring themselves the winner. There’s a big difference between shooting fish in a barrel and deep sea big game fishing.

    Fair point: I don’t know before I check that this experience is so pervasive and commonplace. That said, the rest of my point stands. If I were to presume that it wasn’t so pervasive, I’d have to resort to extensive kludges to make sense of my own experience, which, as I said before, takes me right back to Occam’s razor.

    Yes, fair enough. But the same applies to most people’s fundamental sense that God exists. People who have this feeling find it self-evident, and they also find that a good 95% of people share this feeling. So applying Occam’s razor to this suggests very strongly that God exists within us, rather than the converse. As you say, it takes some very extensive kludges to find a way to deny this.

    What I have is people claiming to have this subjective experience, and acting as if they really did have that experience.

    I’m just arguing devil’s advocate here, but honestly, that isn’t scientific. You don’t actually know how people would act if they didn’t have self-awareness. Scientifically speaking, there should be no difference between a human body-brain acting with conscious self-awareness, and one acting without conscious self-awareness. The same biochemical processes should be active in both, producing the same actions, reactions, and interactions. We are talking Turing machine here. How can you tell that everyone else in the world isn’t just a Turing machine? (I’m not suggesting this is the case, I’m simply saying it’s a meaningful thought experiment).

    Because the former claim–that others have self-awareness–is an explanation that conveniently makes sense of daily experience, while the latter claim–that God exists and does certain things–doesn’t explain much at all. At best, it is an unnecessary explanation, and at worst, it flies in the face of facts. And to head off what is likely to be your objection, I’ll reiterate that saying “God” is really just self-awareness is a misuse of terms.

    But the claim of self-awareness does not make sense of daily experience, objectively speaking. There is no need for self-awareness in explaining anything we as bodies do. A computer lacking self-awareness could evolve exactly the same complex set of interactions as we do, given a few billion years of evolution. And that, really, is the scientific argument for evolution in a nutshell. All that could occur by sheer chemical reactions and interactions without any self-awareness coming about. Nor do we have any explanation for how such chemical interactions could produce self-awareness. To suggest that self-awareness is needed to explain daily life, or evolution, is not different in kind from suggesting that ?intelligent design? is necessary to explain the mammoth complexity of life on earth. Occam’s razor recognizes that self-awareness is completely superfluous to any explanation for our daily life, and should thus be cut away. And yet, each of us knows that would be insane, because the very first thing we know, before we even think of applying Occam’s razor to anything, is that we are self-aware. The question then is, how could something so self-evident also be so superfluous?

  143. #143 Conradg
    March 6, 2008

    Nonsense. Consciousness is much more easily observable than certain kinds of subatomic particles like neutrinos, or dark matter, but the principle is the same – we observe them by their effects, not directly. (in the case of consciousness, effects of matter arranged in a certain way, not a separately existing thing)

    And what particular effect have we observed that proves the existence of consciousness, of self-awareness? What subatomic particle imparts “consciousness” to us, the way an electron imparts electrical charge?

  144. #144 T_U_T
    March 6, 2008

    And what particular effect have we observed that proves the existence of consciousness, of self-awareness?

    what about the behavior of other humans ? Do they behave like they are aware of what they are doing or do they behave like they are not avare of themselves. Make them do something that unconscious crature would not do. So …. You can make predictions and test them, thus the whole idea is scientific

  145. #145 T_U_T
    March 6, 2008

    LOL

    avare = aware
    crature = creature

    P.S. stop the humpty-dumpty-ism you are doing with the word -g-o-d

  146. #146 Leni
    March 6, 2008

    I think you are misconstruing JJ’s point. The “particle” that gives rise to (or mediates) consciousness is the being or entity (presumably biological although I suppose not necessarily) that possesses it. We observe the being, not a distinct object called “consciousness”.

    FYI, the electron does not “impart” charge the way I think you mean. Charge is a fundamental property of matter, like mass. Although your metaphor still works, albeit in a bit of a strange way. Consciousness would be more like a property of the being, rather than something imparted to or from it it.

    Ok That’s a little obscure. But it was your metaphor, so please direct all questions about it to yourself :)

  147. #147 conradg
    March 6, 2008

    Leni,

    Arguing that “some people like it” and that “astrology is like art” aren’t exactly convincing arguments. You aren’t making a case for why it’s valid, you’re making a case for why people refuse to abandon it despite the fact that it is not rational or true.

    I’m simply explaining why astrology is so entirely different from science that it can’t be scientifically evaluated ? like art. Whether it is true or not is not a scientific question, it’s a question outside of science, that has to be evaluated in a very different way than one might evaluate material matters. People refuse to abandon art also, in spite of the fact that it has not provable scientific validity. People just like, even love, art. People like, even love, astrology. There are good reasons in both cases. Claiming that it is not rational or true only tells us that you don’t really understand rationality or truth except in a highly limited, and might I say rather boring, context. Most of what is interesting and valuable in life is not scientifically rational or true. That says nothing about whether it actually matters.

    Except that art and astrology aren’t equivalent.

    They are in the same ballpark. They are both subjective attempts to make sense of the world, manipulating signs and symbols observed in the objective world, but manipulated in a subjective manner, and then re-created in the outward world. An astrological reading is highly subjective. The astrologer must choose from billions of possible interpretations according to his or her own subjective approach. Virtually everything about the process is artistic in nature, not scientific.

    Art is an expression of individual experience. Astrology is is not. It is an attempt to correlate celestial mechanics with earthly events or divine activity. Pretending that it is just some kind of subjective expression of individual experience, at least in our culture, is bordering on dishonest.

    Astrology transforms our experience into a series of signs and symbols, exactly as art does. It then transforms those signs and symbols through an internal logic, and then creates a subjective interpretation of them that is found to be meaningful, or not, to others. Some artists are successful at this, as are some astrologers, but many are not very good, and many are quite bad. Bad art does not negate the principle of art itself, and even one good artist proves the rule. It’s similar with astrology. Good astrologers uphold the principle of astrology quite well.

    You can not hide behind the exception.

    Almost everything good, in almost every field, is the exception. Michelangelo proves the value of art, regardless of how many bad artists can be found out there. But judgments are indeed subjective. Not everyone finds Jackson Pollack to be profound or even good. But enough do to spend millions on his art. And enough people find astrology valuable to keep it going. The market has spoken, dude.

    The “empirical” approach isn’t testable either. What difference does that make?

    Quite a lot of difference. It means empiricism isn’t the only way to find out what is true. It’s what allows art and poetry to make truth claims, for example. And astrology too.

    Modern, western astrology is more properly described as pseudo-science, specifically because of its “approach”, which can be described as “make assumptions about how things are and jump to conclusions that make us feel good”. That fact is not going to go away because you ignore it.

    I agree, in the same way that I agree that many modern religious claims are bullshit as well. Astrology is, indeed, filled with pseudo-science claims. Just as art is filled with pseudo-artists, and psychology filled with pseudo-science. But science itself is filled with pseudo-science. Look at modern medicine, fer chrissakes. Look at the trillions being poured down the pisshole there. We find out that not only are placebos are just as effective as anti-depressants, expensive placebos are more effective than inexpensive ones. And you’re saying the subjective dimension doesn’t matter? When merely believing that a more expensive fake drug works makes it work more than believing in a less expensive fake drug, and both work as well or better than a so-called real drug, I think we need to re-examine what the real source of heath is in this world.

    Utility his has nothing to do with truth value.

    Yes it does. If something works, it implies that there’s something true about it. Finding out what makes it work is important. One could have the wrong assumptions about it, and that has to be investigated. But in general utility is the only sure way of telling whether something contains any truth.

    And something tells me that the survival of the human species and our ultimate happiness does not depend on astrology. I think we could get by just fine, and probably even better, without it.

    Something tells me that if the human race becomes extinct relatively soon, it won’t be because of astrology, but it will be because of science. So if we are to argue whether the human race would be better off without science, or without astrology, I think there’s a pretty strong case to be made that it’s science we could dispense with.

    Perhaps you missed the point I made in my last post where I said that no correlations have ever been found. You can’t keep changing the goalposts to hide the fact that astrology bombs in tests. It’s never panned out. Not significantly, and when and if it had the results weren’t repeatable. Now, to everyone else that means it’s bullshit. To astrologers, it means all the tests were set up wrong. Go figure.

    Yes, I heard you make that claim, but I have heard differently, that some relatively weak correlations have been found in some studies. But I don’t have any references at hand to back it up, and as I say, I don’t think it much matters, for the reasons already stated.

    In any case, as it’s proponents claim: if it’s so universal, useful and true it shouldn’t be that hard to pick out. The fact that no one can find anything valuable in it but them should tell you something.

    But of course millions of people do find something valuable in it, and if that’s your standard, then astrology has long since been proven true. The fact that scientists don’t find anything valuable in it doesn’t really prove anything, other than that not everything is valuable to everyone. Some people think Jackson Pollack’s paintings have no more value than the mayhem of a chimpanzee with a paint bucket. Others will pay millions for them. Go figure.

  148. #148 windy
    March 6, 2008

    What subatomic particle imparts “consciousness” to us…

    What subatomic particle imparts “life” to us? None; the question is wrongly phrased.

    Consider that you learnt the words and concepts “consciousness” and “self” from other humans; how does that fit with the idea that you alone should possess them?

    Something tells me that if the human race becomes extinct relatively soon, it won’t be because of astrology, but it will be because of science. So if we are to argue whether the human race would be better off without science, or without astrology, I think there’s a pretty strong case to be made that it’s science we could dispense with.

    Now that’s nihilistic.

  149. #149 Leni
    March 6, 2008

    conradg g wrote:

    And you’re saying the subjective dimension doesn’t matter?

    No, I’m saying that people who don’t believe in astrology aren’t superficial for not believing it. A-astrologists, remember?

    Your replies regarding utility and aesthetics simply have nothing to do with it. And no, being useful doesn’t “imply” that something is true. It implies that it’s useful for some people in some circumstances. That is most emphatically not the same thing as true.

  150. #150 Leni
    March 6, 2008

    conradg wrote:

    But science itself is filled with pseudo-science.

    No it isn’t. Do you know what venn diagrams are?

    Psuedo-science is the overlapping bit between science and made up shit.

  151. #151 J. J. Ramsey
    March 6, 2008

    Conradg: “I use it [the word "God"] in a way that is at odds with modern, Christian and Muslim usage. It is not at odds with the usage of a billion Hindus, or hundreds of millions of Buddhists, Taoists, Sufis, etc. It’s also not at odds with Jesus himself, who taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is within, who taught that ‘God is Love’”

    That you wrongfully claim that your use of the word “God” is at not at odds with Jesus’ usage, even though Jesus reportedly talked as if God were an external personal entity, casts doubt on the credibility of your claim that your usage of the word “God” is consistent with Hindu and Buddhist usage. How do I know that you are not mangling your account of Eastern religions as you have mangled your account of Christianity?

    Conradg: “But the same applies to most people’s fundamental sense that God exists. People who have this feeling find it self-evident, and they also find that a good 95% of people share this feeling. So applying Occam’s razor to this suggests very strongly that God exists within us, rather than the converse.”

    You haven’t been paying attention:

    1) If I tentatively presume–contrary to popular belief–that it is false that other people are self-aware, then I have to resort to kludges to explain my observations of the world around me.

    2) If I tentatively presume–contrary to popular belief–that it is false that God exists, then a lot of my observations about the world fall neatly into place.

    Conradg: “But the claim of self-awareness does not make sense of daily experience, objectively speaking. There is no need for self-awareness in explaining anything we as bodies do.”

    Let’s see now: Other people’s bodies have brains that appear to work the way mine works, and they talk the same way I do about intentionality, yet despite these commonalities, I’m the only one in whom neural activity leads to self-awareness? Unless there is some material difference between myself and all these others, there is no reason to presume that my self-awareness is exceptional.

  152. #152 J. J. Ramsey
    March 6, 2008

    “Let’s see now: Other people’s bodies have brains that appear to work the way mine works, and they talk the same way I do about intentionality, yet despite these commonalities, I’m the only one in whom neural activity leads to self-awareness?”

    Even if I relax the assumption about it being neural activity that leads to self-awareness, assuming that others lack self-awareness means that I still have everyone else appear to use the same talk about intentionality that I do without having a self-awareness that corresponds to mine, which still means that I would be assuming that I was exceptional for no good reason.

  153. #153 Explicit Atheist
    March 6, 2008

    conradq,

    “There are black swans” is a fact claim declaration that is either true or false (in this case it is true). Astrology as a “method” for predicting the future, “there are gods”, and “there is an epitome and source of what is natural” are all also fact claims, they declare something(s) as factual, so it follows that those declarations are, in whole or in part, true or false (in this case they are, like the vast majority of possible fact claim assertions for which there is no evidence, almost certainly false). The mere fact that a fact claim assertion, like the assertion that invisible dragons are living in your attic, could be true, or the mere fact that you claim to have “discovered” a fact claim assertion is true by private personal experience, like “experiencing” visits of an alien from a distant galaxy, do not justify belief that the fact claim assertion is true.

    Just about everything else you are arguing is either correct and irrelevant or incorrect.

  154. #154 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    Wendy,

    What subatomic particle imparts “life” to us? None; the question is wrongly phrased.

    If by ?life? you mean ?biological life?, then the answer is easy. Protons, neutrons, and electrons have these fascinating relationships with one another which produce molecules, which produce chemical reactions, which produce carbon-based life forms. The details are hard to reproduce, and are not fully known, but the basics are fairly clear. Every single physical aspect of every single living creature can be described fairly well using these complex relationships of protons, neutrons, and electrons. What is not clear in any of this is how ?consciousness? is produced. So, please describe that process to me, in summary.

    Consider that you learnt the words and concepts “consciousness” and “self” from other humans; how does that fit with the idea that you alone should possess them?

    I never said that I alone possess them. Quite the contrary. I merely said that you can’t prove that I, or anyone else, possess them, regardless of our claims. I’m sure you don’t think scientific research should be done by asking people what they think is true, or have made words about, and merely accepting that as proof that something is true. For example, many people say that they have known and experienced God. We certainly have a huge vocabulary that describes God, including of course the word ?God?. By your logic, then, God must exist, since so many human beings have words for God. In fact, there are probably more words for God than any other subject in language. How do you explain that if there is no God?

    Something tells me that if the human race becomes extinct relatively soon, it won’t be because of astrology, but it will be because of science. So if we are to argue whether the human race would be better off without science, or without astrology, I think there’s a pretty strong case to be made that it’s science we could dispense with.

    Now that’s nihilistic.

    Excuse me, but I don’t bring up the idea of whether the survival of the human race was dependent on science or astrology. I’m just being practical, rather than idealistic. Do you really think that, absent science, humanity’s literal survival would be at risk in the way it now is due to nuclear weapons, biologically engineered threats, climate change, nanotech gray goo, you name the next great technology that’s going to make our lives better? Face facts, science is dangerous shit. Maybe it’s an indication that science is nihilistic, you think?

  155. #155 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    Explicit Atheist,

    “There are black swans” is a fact claim declaration that is either true or false (in this case it is true). Astrology as a “method” for predicting the future, “there are gods”, and “there is an epitome and source of what is natural” are all also fact claims, they declare something(s) as factual, so it follows that those declarations are, in whole or in part, true or false (in this case they are, like the vast majority of possible fact claim assertions for which there is no evidence, almost certainly false). The mere fact that a fact claim assertion, like the assertion that invisible dragons are living in your attic, could be true, or the mere fact that you claim to have “discovered” a fact claim assertion is true by private personal experience, like “experiencing” visits of an alien from a distant galaxy, do not justify belief that the fact claim assertion is true.

    The fact claim ?there are black swans? is simple to check, because we know what the meaning of the word ?black? is, and we know what ?swans? are. But the fact claim ?there are Gods? is not so easy, because we don’t know which meaning of the word ?God? is being fact-checked. There are many thousands and maybe millions of such definitions. I’ve been trying to point out that these arguments by atheists tend to cherry pick the easy definitions, and ignore the harder ones. I’ve given a few examples, and whether I’ve argued them well or not I can’t say, but I think you are being a bit of a peevish douche to suggest that everything that I’ve said that is correct is irrelevant, and everything else is incorrect. This simply suggests you don’t know how to deal with arguments that aren’t slam dunks against ignorant hick preachers from fundie-land.

  156. #156 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey,

    That you wrongfully claim that your use of the word “God” is at not at odds with Jesus’ usage, even though Jesus reportedly talked as if God were an external personal entity, casts doubt on the credibility of your claim that your usage of the word “God” is consistent with Hindu and Buddhist usage. How do I know that you are not mangling your account of Eastern religions as you have mangled your account of Christianity?

    What is your evidence that I’ve wrongfully referred to Jesus’ usage of the word God? Where in the bible does Jesus explicitly state that God is some external personal deity? Are you saying I just made up the idea that Jesus said ?The Kingdom of God is within?, or ?God is love?? Are you that desperate to avoid admitting that you haven’t got this whole atheist argument against Christianity down pat? I mean, come on dude, don’t be a chiseller. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that there’s nothing in the Bible that couldn’t be interpreted the way you suggest, but you gotta admit you don’t seem to know how to handle this line of argument except by pretending it’s not legit. Obviously many people do interpret Jesus as referring to an external deity, but if you look at what Jesus actually said, well, it’s not very well supported. He just doesn’t speak of God as someone external to himself, or to anyone. He not only referred to himself as the ?son of God?, but said we are all sons of God. It’s a rather remarkable teaching in that respect, undoubtedly complicated by corrupted translations and editing and doctored accounts, but your notions about Jesus are fairly easily challenged. Likewise, if you look at the dead sea scrolls and other sources not subject to mainstream church editing, you get a very interesting picture of the kind of teachings that Jesus gave that don’t seem so cut and dried as you would prefer them to be.

    What you don’t seem to understand is that in Jesus day, even among his contemporaries ?God? was not used in the same way that fundamentalists now refer to the notion. When Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is within, this wasn’t some kind of utterly revolutionary concept they’d never heard of before. They understood it pretty well. It was part of the lingo of the time, and it helped them to place Jesus within the various theological arguments going on in that part of the world. It’s modern day preachers who don’t know how to deal with this kind of talk, and so they ignore it, and like to talk about God up in the sky. But back in the day, even talk about a ?sky God? didn’t have the same meaning as we would think now. The sky was a magical place, not a literal one. And Jesus rising up into the sky wasn’t taken so literally either. Our modern age has a very different psyche going on, do in part to science itself, that leaves Christian preachers not knowing how to interpret what they read in the Bible.

    Anyway, regarding both this and your doubts about my mangling of eastern religions, you can do your own research if you like. I’ve been studying this sort of thing for, what 35 years, but you’re right, I could be mangling it, and you should check it out for yourself. In one sense, it’s irrelevant, in that if I just made this shit up, I’m pretty damn good, and if I didn’t it had to come from somewhere, and anwya, it’s still a valid argument in either case. The question is, do you really care? My sense is that you don’t, or you probably would have checked out this sort of thing long ago. Which is kind of my point. Most atheists are lazy and superficial, and they don’t really care much to look into the real issues behind the word ?God?, but just like to spout the easiest line of attack they can against the easiest targets. Doing more would require real research and real thought, and they don’t figure it’s worth the energy. Which is fine. No one’s going to force you to read a bunch of eastern gobbledy-gook about consciousness if you don’t want to. But your atheism doesn’t mean very much if it can’t address any but the most simplistic notions of God.

    1) If I tentatively presume–contrary to popular belief–that it is false that other people are self-aware, then I have to resort to kludges to explain my observations of the world around me.

    I don’t see what those kludges would be. What is it that can’t be explained, other than the claim of self-awareness itself, by not presuming that other people are self-aware, rather than just very complex biologically based Turing machines?

    2) If I tentatively presume–contrary to popular belief–that it is false that God exists, then a lot of my observations about the world fall neatly into place.

    That sure doesn’t prove anything other than that you choose atheism because it’s convenient for you, rather than that it is true. By the same argument, a believer who chooses to believe in God because a lot of his observations about the world fall neatly into place thereby is also doing the right thing, and this tells him correctly that believing in God is true. And don’t imagine that believing in God doesn’t make a lot of things suddenly fall neatly into place. I kind of thought that was one of the criticisms of believers. Now you are making a reason to be an atheist. Cool. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, I guess.

    Let’s see now: Other people’s bodies have brains that appear to work the way mine works, and they talk the same way I do about intentionality, yet despite these commonalities, I’m the only one in whom neural activity leads to self-awareness? Unless there is some material difference between myself and all these others, there is no reason to presume that my self-awareness is exceptional.

    Let me remind you for the umpteenth time, I’m not saying presuming that other people are self-aware goes against common sense. I agree that it is perfectly common-sensical. I’m simply saying that there’s no scientific proof that it’s the case, when there should be. There are many things that seem like common sense, that turn out on testing not to be. Before Galileo came along, it seemed common sensical that heavy objects fell faster than light ones. Amazingly, this turned out not to be the case. Phlogistan seemed like common sense, as did an ether for light to travel through. Testing found this not to be the case. So, what simple objective test shall we conduct to see if other people have self-awareness? I’ll be waiting for your answer breathlessly.

  157. #157 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    Tut,

    And what particular effect have we observed that proves the existence of consciousness, of self-awareness?

    what about the behavior of other humans ? Do they behave like they are aware of what they are doing or do they behave like they are not avare of themselves. Make them do something that unconscious crature would not do. So …. You can make predictions and test them, thus the whole idea is scientific

    The problem with this approach is that you first have to know how un-self-aware human actually act. You would have to study a group of human that lacked self-awareness, and see what they did that was different from humans who possessed self-awareness, and then use that knowledge to form a strategy for identifying humans who lacked self-awareness. But to do so, you would have to find a group of humans who you knew lacked self-awareness. To do that, you’d have to be able to know for certain that they actually did lack self-awareness. So you are back where you started from.

    The other way to go about this, of course, would be to actually find out what self-awareness actually is as a physical phenomena. For example, we knew that lightning was around for thousands of years, but we didn’t know what it was. Science discovered that lightning was just electrons floating around as ions, forming what we now call ?electricity?. Learning what lightning was enabled us to find it all over the place, in things that didn’t look like lightning at all. We learned what the mechanism was behind lightning, and it changed the world. I’m merely suggesting that to talk about consciousness in any real way as the product of a physical process of some kind, we have to be able to define it that way, just as concretely as we can define lightning as a form of electricity. To try to draw conclusions from mere behavioral similarities would probably be very misleading. It would be like concluding that lightning was a form of fire, since both are very bright, give off heat, and when lightning strikes, one often finds fire as the result. It would be completely false, but it would make sense in a behavioral way. Which just goes to show that the behavioral approach is not really very scientific at all.

  158. #158 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey,

    Even if I relax the assumption about it being neural activity that leads to self-awareness, assuming that others lack self-awareness means that I still have everyone else appear to use the same talk about intentionality that I do without having a self-awareness that corresponds to mine, which still means that I would be assuming that I was exceptional for no good reason.

    Yes, and this might cause you to drown in existential despair an angst.

    Just kidding!

    Talk is cheap, you know.

  159. #159 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    I think you are misconstruing JJ’s point. The “particle” that gives rise to (or mediates) consciousness is the being or entity (presumably biological although I suppose not necessarily) that possesses it. We observe the being, not a distinct object called “consciousness”.

    That’s like saying, we observe lightning, not a distinct thing called an ?electron?. Well, true, we observe the phenomena that electrons create when they move en mass from earth to sky and back, or vice-versa, or within clouds, etc. We observe the burning air, the light given off, not the actual electrons. But studying lightning allowed us to understand that it was, in fact, merely electrons moving around (and positive ions also). I’m just asking what, in all our studies of consciousness, have we discovered the physical correlate to consciousness to be, the mechanism that produces this phenomena we call consciousness? What subatomic particle, what chemical process, etc., is responsible for this nearly universal phenomena? We certainly know of neurological processes that control the senses, the nervous system, and the brain, but we have yet to find anything that is actually responsible for consciousness itself. Nor does it seem that we ever can, in that this is like the snake swallowing itself by the tail.

    FYI, the electron does not “impart” charge the way I think you mean. Charge is a fundamental property of matter, like mass. Although your metaphor still works, albeit in a bit of a strange way. Consciousness would be more like a property of the being, rather than something imparted to or from it it.

    Try operating your computer without using electrons to impart a charge it can run on. The results may be disappointing.

  160. #160 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    Leni,

    No, I’m saying that people who don’t believe in astrology aren’t superficial for not believing it. A-astrologists, remember?

    I agree. I’m not here to promote astrology or try to get you to believe in it. I was just responding to the notion that the critics of astrology have made any deep criticism of the basic propositions of astrology, in that they hardly even know what those things are. I thought it might be amusing to show that there are alternative ways of looking at astrology that make it more meaningful than some form of “pseudo-science”.

    Your replies regarding utility and aesthetics simply have nothing to do with it.

    Well, I’d disagree. They just don’t have anything to do with science, which is the point. They have a lot to do with the actual practice of astrology.

    And no, being useful doesn’t “imply” that something is true. It implies that it’s useful for some people in some circumstances. That is most emphatically not the same thing as true.

    I have a hard time imagining something that is useful, but contains nothing true. Hell, even lies can be useful, which means they must have some truth in them. The issue is finding out what is true in the useful thing, and what isn’t.

  161. #161 Iapetus
    March 7, 2008

    I suddenly have a sense of dread and deja vu (and people not familiar with an (in)famous poster over at the richarddawkins.net site will probably not know who I refer to)…
    posts appearing in a frequency and having a length that seems not humanly possible; the elevation of inner feelings and emotions to an epistomological status equivalent to independent corroboration; repeated remarks about the superficiality of atheism; the equivocation of GOD and CONSCIOUSNESS…

    DIANELOS, IS THAT YOU???

    If it is, I should warn anyone that a discussion with this individual, while certainly more interesting and on a higher intellectual level than with a run-of-the-mill theist, will take up most of your time, might go on for weeks on end and will ultimately not achieve anything, since I have never seen even a slight wavering in his position, despite the fact that very compelling counter-arguments were provided.

    Nevertheless, since I have some spare time on my hands I shall disregard my own advice and respond to the latest post directed at me.

    Conradg,

    “In my own view, nihilism represents the loss of innate values, the loss of the innate knowledge of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. It turns those innate values into an objective search for specific answers, rather than an intuitive understanding of ourselves as conscious beings.”

    OK, here we at least have a compact definition, although a rather murky one IMO. What are “innate values” supposed to be and how are they distinguished from other values? On what basis do you declare that a life of hedonism, consumerism and feel-good-ism (which undoubtedly are values and ideals that can govern a person’s life) fits your definition of nihilism? And most importantly (at least for me, since that was the reason I entered the discussion in the first place), how does that definition support the assertion that atheism logically leads to nihilism?

    I think it does not and can not, which you tacitly seem to agree with when you state “It [someone's doubts] doesn’t make all forms of atheism a form of nihilism”. It does not make ANY form of atheism a form of nihilism, unless you twist the normal meaning of atheism into unrecognizability.

    I would also like to comment on a theme that runs through your whole post, namely that we have to have a firm, self-evident, immutable basis for our values that must not get tainted by skepticism and that our own being, our Self can provide this.

    I think this desire for ultimate certainty, while emotionally understandable, is illusory and unattainable. The notion, which for some time was more or less universally held, that we can securely build our knowledge and our values from the bottom up either by observing the outside world (empiricism) or by logical, rational thought (rationalism) is untenable. One can always question the basis of ANY philosophical/moral system to the point where its proponent has to simply assert the correctness of a basic premise to avoid an infinite regress. However, this automatically invalidates any claims to universal validity.

    The same holds true for your basis of choice, conradg, the self-evidence of our being. When you say that you experience yourself as witnessing the events around you, as being alive, active etc. it means that you INTERPRET these experiences in a certain way. These interpretations however can not be sacrosanct and to view them as an unshakable base to build on is fallacious.

    In this regard I think your believe that skepticism applied to questions outside of science is dangerous and corrosive is in itself rather dangerous. It opens the door to boundless wish-thinking and delusions. Surely I do not have to list the countless times in human history when “self-evident” truths turned out to be totally false to reveal the idea of solemn introspection alone as a reliable guide to truth as absurd.

    Therefore, in light of the fallible nature of our intelligence and reason I believe that it is prudent to give up the notion of ever finding an eternal, 100% correct basis for our knowledge and our moral values. The alternative is to create our values through mutual discussion to the best of our abilities, but always leave them open to change if e.g. new knowledge arises.

    Finally, one minor point:
    “Here’s where you go off the track. Science has nothing to say about the inner feelings of persons A, B, or C. It doesn’t accept them, it doesn’t negate them, it can’t even discover if they exist. It only applies its discipline to outward, objective phenomena, which inner feelings are not. When you start to apply science to our inner feelings, you have already made the mistake of conflating science with what is outside the purview of science.”

    I think there is a misunderstanding here. I was trying to say that when persons A, B and C have some personal inner feelings about something and we consider them all equally valid, we are no longer doing science.

  162. #162 Daniel Murphy
    March 7, 2008

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve seen Haught speak. He seemed thoughtful. But this madman warning that western civilization will collapse without santa claus to save it from the nihilistic atheists is loony.

    Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.

    ROFLMAO. I read some godfree philosophy recently, Hume it was, with no apparent loss of sanity.

    … you are the creator of the values you live by.

    Yes, when it comes to my values, “I am the decider.” Duh! And Haught got one other thing right:

    Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings.

    Amen, brother.

  163. #163 MartinM
    March 7, 2008

    [Science] cannot tell us how the universe comes into being. Yeah, sure, quantum fluctuations. Quantum fluctuations in what exactly? The scientific explanation for the universe is “Something from Nothing”, which explains precisely nothing.

    Quantum fluctuations aren’t the only option on the table. The Hawking-Hartle no-boundary proposal and various past-eternal inflationary/braneworld models come to mind. And nothing you’ve written here indicates any understanding whatsoever of Vilenkin’s tunneling model, which, unlike the others, really does approximate ‘something from nothing.’ For someone who complains about others’ superficial understanding of philosophy, your grasp of modern physics seems pretty damn vacuous.

  164. #164 ctw
    March 7, 2008

    Despite being late to the party, can I play too?

    “What is not clear in any of this is how ‘consciousness’ is produced. So, please describe that process to me, in summary.”

    Clearly, so far no one can do that very convincingly. But experience with previous “unfathomable” phenomena suggests that the safe bet is that in time that will change. So what’s the point of asking?

    BTW, “prove” doesn’t seem like an apt word vis-a-vis aspects of self-awareness. The explanation presumably will be a theory, not a theorem.

    “By your logic, then, God must exist, since so many human beings have words for God.”

    Which is why I have reservations about “atheist” as it is commonly used, ie, “belief that there are no gods”. In the sense of this quote, “god” does “exist” for each person who has a word for – and hence, a concept of – “god”. And that’s fine. It’s only when one claims manifestations of their “god” that they think should be detectable by others that problems can arise.

    “I’ve been trying to point out that these arguments by atheists tend to cherry pick the easy definitions, and ignore the harder ones.”

    Again, IMO the problem is in the definition of “atheist”. Although I try to avoid labels because of people’s tendency to attach – often incorrectly – a wide range of attributes to a label, I do think “a-theist” can be sufficiently narrowly defined to be reasonably accurate. Eg, something like: one who does not believe in a god that directly intervenes in human affairs.

    The applicability of this to the quote is that in the US and in casual conversation, I think it’s safe to assume that people who self-describe as “atheist” primarily have in mind the god that vocal theists – especially Christians – invoke to explain natural phenomena (god’s will), justify their actions (serving god), give meaning to their lives (god’s plan), etc. They aren’t “cherry picking” the “easy” definitions, they’re addressing the immediately relevant one. Someone who believes some abstract concept of a god that transcends human experience is unlikely to militate for prayer in school or bomb abortion clinics. Why should a lay person care about that “god” at all?

    “What … can’t be explained … by … presuming that … people are … just very complex biologically based Turing machines?”

    [Quote intentionally mangled]

    Being an engineer, I’m used to “black box” analysis. So, I don’t quite get Searle’s “Chinese room” argument. From a functional perspective, the room “speaks” Chinese quite independent of what’s in the room. Similarly, if a Turing machine behind a curtain can fool an expert, from my nihilistic perspective it’s exhibiting “human” intelligence – and in fact, more so than the majority of humans.

    I read recently that some predict robots that can make love are on the horizon. If they can also think, what’s missing? [Just kidding!]

    “That sure doesn’t prove anything other than that you choose atheism because it’s convenient for you, rather than that it is true.”

    Like “prove”, “true” is a tell for absolutism. A thoughtful “atheist” (eg, Dawkins in TGD) speaks in terms of probabilities, not “truth”. Something like “The evidence suggests to me that it is very unlikely that a theistic ‘god’ exists”.

    - Charles

  165. #165 ctw
    March 7, 2008

    “DIANELOS, IS THAT YOU???”

    “Funny you should mention that!” (Punch line from an old joke, somewhat relevant to this thread.) I had the same reaction, only with respect to another poster on another blog (probably Brayton’s). A poster there explained that there is some movement – the name of which escapes me – that has a more-or-less coherent religious philosophy, clearly comprises well educated and intelligent members, uses the B. Clinton-esque technique of challenging the meaning of “is”, and posts an unbelievable volume of loooong comments.

    For reasons I’ve also forgotten, the group was considered a serious threat because their arguments were supposedly so convincing despite being “wrong”. I didn’t see why – the technique seemed to me to be simply combining considerable knowledge, discipline, and volume with a smattering of human psychology. The poster in question kept attacking opponents’ careless choice of words, unsubstantiated assumptions, inconsistencies, etc. Because we don’t like to be wrong, the natural tendency is to try to justify our mistakes instead of admitting them and to get angry. Game over, we lose.

    However, my guess is that conradg isn’t in that group. First of all, as I recall they tend to be young, and anyone who has done any adult thing for 35 years doesn’t qualify (although relative to me, almost any commenter here is probably young, even conradg). Also, the (presumed) member I encountered wasn’t quite as convincing – once that person got into an area of some other commenter’s expertise, the facade got shattered (ala MartinM’s comment).

    Perhaps conradg will enlighten us on this.

    - Charles

  166. #166 windy
    March 7, 2008

    Our own being is inherent and timeless, dude. Notice this much: whatever happens, good or bad, happy or sad, there’s one constant – you are there experiencing it. This ‘you’ is constant, always there, always alive, always active, always witnessing everything. Our values come from this eternal truth.

    You don’t sleep? That could explain things…

    Science has nothing to say about the inner feelings of persons A, B, or C. It doesn’t accept them, it doesn’t negate them, it can’t even discover if they exist. It only applies its discipline to outward, objective phenomena, which inner feelings are not. When you start to apply science to our inner feelings, you have already made the mistake of conflating science with what is outside the purview of science.

    More nonsense. Science has plenty to say on how our feelings and opinions form. (I know Iapetus meant it more in the sense of “opinions”, though)

    Every single physical aspect of every single living creature can be described fairly well using these complex relationships of protons, neutrons, and electrons. What is not clear in any of this is how ‘consciousness’ is produced.

    Then your first sentence isn’t true: every single physical aspect of every single living creature can’t yet be described well. Since ‘consciousness’ is subject to modification by physical things (blows to the head, psychoactive chemicals), it appears that it’s a physical aspect of living creatures.

    For example, many people say that they have known and experienced God. We certainly have a huge vocabulary that describes God, including of course the word ‘God’. By your logic, then, God must exist, since so many human beings have words for God.

    I guessed you would go there. There is clearly a concept of God but not proof that there exists anything corresponding to that outside human brains, absent other evidence. And now your equivocation of “God” and “Self” is in trouble – how do you explain all the atheists that make do without “God”, but clearly have a concept of self? Looks like “God” is superfluous, if you really mean that it’s equal to self.

    Do you really think that, absent science, humanity’s literal survival would be at risk in the way it now is due to nuclear weapons, biologically engineered threats, climate change, nanotech gray goo, you name the next great technology that’s going to make our lives better?

    Over 99% of all species that ever lived have gone extinct. It seems that the risk is always there. If we’d remained a few small bands of hunter-gatherers (and even they use technology and innovation to change their quality of life), we might already be extinct from whatever usually destroys species (the Toba eruption came close).

    Face facts, science is dangerous shit. Maybe it’s an indication that science is nihilistic, you think?

    So give up your computer and modern medicine and other dangerous fruits of science, hypocrite. We’ll wait here.

  167. #167 Cale
    March 7, 2008

    I know everyone wants to go on a rant but I have a question. In what ways are these heavily atheist countries more charitable than say the United States which is largely religious? Are the people more charitable or is the government social programs more charitable because theres a really big difference. You could say that the government is responsible for these religious views.

  168. #168 J. J. Ramsey
    March 7, 2008

    Conradg: “I’m not saying presuming that other people are self-aware goes against common sense. I agree that it is perfectly common-sensical. I’m simply saying that there’s no scientific proof that it’s the case, when there should be.”

    And let be remind you for the umpteenth time that my line of reasoning, as banal as it is, is essentially scientific rather than mere common-sense intuition, for the reasons mentioned above.

  169. #169 Adriyel
    March 7, 2008

    Nihilist here, this whole thing is amusing to me.

    You have Christians saying, OH NO, I’m not an ‘extremist’.

    You have Deists saying, OH NO, I’m not a ‘theist’.

    You have agnostics saying, OH NO, I’m not an ‘atheist’.

    You have atheists saying, OH NO, I’m not a ‘nihilist’.

    Think about the epistemology of your beliefs and the values it leads to.

  170. #170 trimtab
    March 7, 2008

    Theology is an academic failure: get over it!

    However many post-doctoral degrees in theology you may possess, however deep and complex your understanding of theistic objects may be, to most atheists-agnostics-adogmatists-philosophers-scientists-academics, the entirety of the theistic/theological edifice collapses like a house of cards because is fails to meet the most basic scientific requirement, i.e., being objectively verifiable. No objective truth has ever, nor will ever, come from theology, as the object of this academic discipline is not grounded in any empirical basis. It is pure speculation. Just like unicorns, fairies, orbiting tea-pots, etc.

    Theistic/theological thinkers regularly bring up the canard of “science is the new religion of the new atheists.” For the last time, THIS IS FALSE. Science is merely what, up till now, has proven to be the most efficient means of generating objective knowledge/truth. If something better comes along, all atheists-agnostics-adogmatists-philosophers-scientists-academics the world over (and, presumably, all faith-heads the world over) will switch to the new system. No dogma required. It may seem like dogma to theists, but they simply misinterpret the justifiable confidence atheists-agnostics-adogmatists-philosophers-scientists-academics put in the scientific enterprise. Typically shallow thinking on the part of theists/theologians.

  171. #171 David Marjanovi?
    March 7, 2008

    Epistemology is about truth.

    Mmmm… no, epistemology is about reality. Ontology is about truth.

    “OH NOES, I HAS WIPED AWAY WHOLE HORIZUN OF TEH TRANSCENDENCE! I IZ STRAYIN THRU INFINITE NUTHIN!””
    : )!! Tulse, that’s awesome. I so want to see it . . .
    But it still needs to be with cats, y’know. Or perhaps babies.

    Why? Make it with Dawkins.

    To define oneself as an atheist, therefore, is to define oneself nihilistically.

    Isn’t “to define oneself as an atheist” a strawman? I don’t define myself as an apathetic agnostic, I happen to be one. What is this talk of definition in the first place? I’ve never had the problem of confusing myself with anyone else.

    It is a desire to exist as a negation. But this is impossible.

    Huh?

    We all have Gods, whether we call them “God” or not. We all believe in the magic of our own life and consciousness, and we all have faith in our ability to discern what is true and what is not

    I, for one, am well aware of the limitations of the scientific method — the only existing way to discern what is real and what is not. I work in phylogenetics…

    – atheists more than many, I’d say. So atheism is merely a reaction to something seen as dangerous and powerful, whereas it does not describe what is embraced as a result.

    For most people it seems to be a consequence of the idea that what you call “dangerous and powerful” is a superfluous addition to reality.

    Since then I’ve lost and gained quite a few forms of faith, and quite a few understandings of God. It’s an ongoing process. Atheism was something I passed through, in other words, just as many phases of religious understanding were things I passed through. That’s just how people grow. But being stuck in one of those phases, and reifying it into an exclusive cosmology, is not something I’d recommend to anyone. So we become atheists many times in our lives, as we let go of one God and move on to the next.

    I don’t understand why you draw conclusions from yourself about everyone else.

    Your descriptions of the complexities of changing and shifting values systems and personal psychologies is good and fairly accurate, but you’re not noticing what this all means. It means that we don’t have a fundamental base from which we are operating. This is not the norm for human beings in any but modern western culture, and it is the defining characteristic of a nihilistic culture. Now, some people are trying to find a base in the scientific method and scientific materialism, but this can’t help but fail, because scientific truths have no base other than empiricism, and thus they are always changing and shifting, and leaving us with no actual base of truth or values to stand upon.

    And that’s supposed to be a problem?

    [Nihilism is] not where we really want to be. It’s easy enough, but not satisfying.

    Isn’t that an argument from consequences?

    But religious worship is nonetheless fairly universal, whereas atheism is not. The evidence suggests to me that atheism is something like celibacy.

    See, that’s an inductive argument. In other words, not a scientific one. In other words, not a defensible one. If it’s right, it’s right for the wrong reasons.

    So, is it right? Perhaps not. My own inductive argument is that the origin of religion is an argument from ignorance: trying to understand the world without knowing hardly anything about it. This suggests that, for someone who knows what rain is and what thunder is and what light is and why the sun appears to rise and set, the natural state of affairs is in fact apathetic agnosticism or atheism.

    That makes it your word against mine. Can someone find a way to test either or both?

    And there’s plenty of atheists, such as the communists of the last century, who exemplify what happens when atheists fall into the abyss.

    Au contraire ! They tried to replace their religions by another ideology. This ideology — a religion in all but the strictest sense — is what is to blame, what it takes “for good people to do evil things”.

    The value I see in astrology is that it approaches the world in a completely different manner than science does. Science is looking for causes, and it examines everything that could be considered either a cause or an effect and looks to find the causal correlation between the two. Astrology simply doesn’t do that. Instead of looking for causal correlations, it looks only for patterning correlations. In other words, the very thing that science seeks to establish, astrology deliberately ignores. Science is looking for firm knowledge of causes, whereas astrology is saying, fine, but there’s something more interesting going on in the universe, there’s a correlation in all these patterns that has nothing to do with causation, there’s a pattern in our very consciousness, in our minds, in our subjective interiors, that is reflected in the objective exterior of the world.

    But that’s it! This very correlation that astrology assumes does not exist. I didn’t say “cannot exist”, I didn’t say “shouldn’t exist”, I didn’t say “ought to not exist”, I said “does not exist”. Several studies have been conducted, and all have found that there is no correlation. They haven’t not found a correlation, they have found that there is no correlation, that the correlation coefficient is zero or statistically indistinguishable from zero.

    The basic premise of astrology is testable, it is within the domain of science, and it is wrong. If it weren’t, your explanation of how astrology deliberately studies a correlation between phenomena that are causally as far apart as possible would make a lot of sense — but this very correlation is not there.

    Any deep criticism of astrology is positively misguided in terms of being a complete waste of time. The basic premise of astrology is wrong, therefore astrology is wrong.

    And stop talking about “scientifically verifiable”. There is no such thing. Science cannot prove, only disprove.

    There is indeed something inherently nihilistic about the Socratic approach, and by extension, science itself. As a discipline, science can’t presume any truths to be self-evident, but must doubt and attack all such presumptions, even its own.

    Indeed, the one necessary assumption that science must make — that miracles are not so common as to render the universe completely unpredictable — is itself a scientific hypothesis, testable, and being tested in every single observation. :-)

    Within the discipline of science, this is fine enough, but outside of that discipline, in human culture itself, such an approach is destructive and yes, nihilistic. It destroys the innate sense of strength and power in our own being and awareness, in our own sense of existence, and replaces it with a constantly self-doubting approach which never find solid ground.

    This is the solid ground. This is what Western civilization is built upon. Just think about it: certainty is the root of perhaps not all but a lot of evil. Religious and ideological, including nationalistic, wars are started by those who believe they know the truth. Freedom of thought, speech, press, art etc. is oppressed by those who believe they know the truth, all the way to inquisition, torture, and death camp. Who are terrorists? Those who are certain that some things are worth killing and dying for.

    It is true that Western civilization has a big gaping hole at its core. This hole, quoting Richard Herzinger from memory, is what is precious about it. Any attempt to fill it in results in death. Death of millions of people. We’ve tried it out, we’ve done the experiment, way too often. And here you go saying we should try it again.

    which should strike us all as a little odd, if science is supposed to be able to tell us what is true and what isn’t.

    It isn’t supposed to be able to do that.

    If you don’t know what science is, why do you keep talking about it? Science is merely supposed to be able to tell us what is not real. Yes, it does go just one way.

    (I also like making the distinction between truth and reality. The notion that reality is in truth Vishnu’s dream isn’t falsifiable. Even solipsism isn’t falsifiable. Any such idea might be true — and that would mean that reality is untrue. Science isn’t concerned with this; it has reality for its subject, not truth. — Of course, philosophical materialism says that reality is in fact truth and that there is no truth other than reality, but that, while attractive on grounds of parsimony, isn’t falsifiable either.)

    Your notion that there is an “epitome of what is natural” sounds like nonsense to me, “natural” doesn’t have an “epotime” and it isn’t clear what it means for “natural” to have a “source” either.

    Agreed.

    Science can describe it, but it cannot explain it. It cannot tell us how the universe comes into being. Yeah, sure, quantum fluctuations. Quantum fluctuations in what exactly? The scientific explanation for the universe is “Something from Nothing”, which explains precisely nothing. How can something come from nothing? Where do the laws of physics themselves come from? The “Big Bang” itself resembles nothing so much as what Kashmir Shaivism calls “the Bindu theory of consciousness” in which worlds are created out of tiny points of consciousness, which expand and congeal into forms and shapes and planets like our own. At least that makes sense – infinite consciousness endlessly modifying itself into forms, shapes, worlds, universes. But materialistic matter coming out of nothing? Dude, I may be naďve, but I’m not that gullible.

    You are evidently naďve enough to overlook the Homer Simpson response: “So far!”

    In other words, you’re making a god-of-the-gaps argument. Right after talking about profound philosophy. How inconsistent. I think even my Religious Education teacher from highschool* would cringe; he didn’t like god-of-the-gaps arguments at all, as far as I remember…

    Besides, you’re at the same time making an argument from personal incredulity.

    * In Austria. For those students who nominally belong to one of the largest denominations and whose parents haven’t opted out. Above a certain age the students themselves can opt out.

    Scientists don’t even have a theory of what consciousness and self-awareness. They can’t even observe it.

    That’s not quite true. We can put a mirror in front of you and find out if you recognize yourself. If you’re too shy to look into anyone’s eyes, like a gorilla, we can put a video camera and a screen in front of you and again find out if you recognize yourself.

    Those who embrace nihilism are happy and chipper people like Paris Hilton who live utterly senseless lives and simply don’t care, and who tear the earth apart in their quest to keep the party going, to keep themselves distracted from the empty hole in their hearts;

    Wouldn’t someone who embraced nihilism rather embrace “the empty hole in their hearts” instead of trying to deny it from themselves? Isn’t narcissism this kind of living in denial?

    I don’t see what those kludges would be. What is it that can’t be explained, other than the claim of self-awareness itself, by not presuming that other people are self-aware, rather than just very complex biologically based Turing machines?

    You are assuming here that Turing machines could never be self-aware. This is the very point of contention.

    we have yet to find anything that is actually responsible for consciousness itself. Nor does it seem that we ever can

    How do you know?

    Try operating your computer without using electrons to impart a charge it can run on. The results may be disappointing.

    Dude, electric charge isn’t something that electrons impart, it’s something electrons have, inalienably. It’s a property of electrons to have the charge of -1, of up quarks to have +2/3, and of down quarks to have -1/3. What you’re doing with your computer is moving charge — electrons — around in it.

    ——————-

    BTW, conradg, there is no “Lain”. His name is “Iain”, with a capital i. It’s the Gaelic version of “John”.

    ——————-

    And now to morals. Innate empathy plus my own long-term (!) self-interest. Doesn’t that suffice?

    Reciprocal altruism has evolved repeatedly, the most famous example being the vampire bats who routinely share blood with random strangers and keep from starving this way.

    The reciprocation can be complicated: if people think I’m nice, they’ll help me when I need it; if people think I’m nice just for the sake of being nice, they’ll love me even more and act accordingly.

    ——————-

    Jason, could you introduce comment numbering, like most of your SciBlings have done? It would make scrolling to a certain post and back much easier.

  172. #172 David Marjanovi?
    March 7, 2008

    the entirety of the theistic/theological edifice collapses like a house of cards because is fails to meet the most basic scientific requirement, i.e., being objectively verifiable.

    No, falsifiable.

  173. #173 Cale
    March 7, 2008

    I’m just curious can anyone prove commonly held scientific beliefs to a person right now? Could you go up to a person who doesn’t believe in the big bang and prove to them it exists? Maybe I just like to argue but if I can’t explain/prove my own beliefs how am I any better than someone who scientifically can’t prove their belief in a god.

  174. #174 windy
    March 7, 2008

    Oh, and of course we have found something “that is actually responsible for consciousness itself”: the brain. As for pinpointing it further, we live in interesting times.

    Jean-Paul Sartre wrote (1): “In one sense choice is possible, but what is not possible is not to choose.” To the neurologist, however, gaining consciousness is a decision of the unconscious brain to make choices. Philosophers and scientists may argue about the definition of consciousness (2, 3), but neurologists have little trouble identifying its absence. Now, physicians are beginning to understand how it can be restored in some patients with severe brain damage. A case report by Schiff et al. (page 600 of this issue; 4) raises hope in this area, and sheds light on the neurobiological underpinnings of consciousness. Schiff and his colleagues treated a patient who had been in a ‘minimally conscious state’ (Box 1) for several years after a serious brain injury.

    Previous theories of consciousness have relied on a central executive and magical physiological phenomena (for example, synchronized reverberations) to elevate the subconscious functions of the brain to consciousness. However, viewed as a decision to engage, consciousness can instead be studied in the same framework as other types of decision and the allocation of attention (11). Rather than a central executive, there seems to be a network of brain regions that organize the resting state and maintain overall orientation towards context (12, 13). It is quite possible that they make decisions about whether or not to engage and in what way. They do what Sartre considered impossible: they choose whether to choose or not.

  175. #175 Jim
    March 7, 2008

    David Marjanović,

    … It is true that Western civilization has a big gaping hole at its core. This hole, quoting Richard Herzinger from memory, is what is precious about it. Any attempt to fill it in results in death. Death of millions of people. We’ve tried it out, we’ve done the experiment, way too often. And here you go saying we should try it again.

    Great comment. I, for one, really enjoyed that.

  176. #176 JimV
    March 7, 2008

    Once again I am spared the painful task of trying to marshal my thoughts into some sort of orderly rebuttal, without being too tedious or long-winded about it, by:

    David Marjanović | March 7, 2008 12:07

    I was going to add something I first saw by Michael Schermer in his column in “Scientific American” some years ago, about how the brain has no nerves monitoring its own performance, and how that probably leads to the illusion of dualism which in turn leads to all sorts of magical beliefs, but I’ll skip it and just say, as one Turing machine to another, good job. (Good work by Windy and others too.)

    I’ll second the request to have numbered comments, which also make it easier to find where to start reading again when a long thread has gotten longer overnight.

  177. #177 Leni
    March 7, 2008

    Cale wrote:

    Maybe I just like to argue but if I can’t explain/prove my own beliefs how am I any better than someone who scientifically can’t prove their belief in a god.

    The difference is that evidence can be referred to. If I need evidence, I simply need to take the time to find and understand it. Fact-checking is something we are all responsible for and capable of. Not doin git might be lazy, but it certainly isn’t as lazy as making blind assumptions about things one can know nothing about.

    In lieu of that, we might rely on the experts. Just like we rely on them to do things like prescribe us the correct medications in the correct amount, clean our water thoroughly, manufacture our goods reliably, design and build our bridges in a sound way, etc.

    None of us can know everything. There’s no shame in trusting experts.

  178. #178 fstid
    March 7, 2008

    I am an atheist and I agree with Haught. I went through a period of seeing the world in nihilistic terms and it took me a few years to proceed from the depressing perceptions of a cold and meaningless reality to a rich and empowering perception of a reality brimming with values, laden with meaning and humbling in awe.

    I feel I had to pass through this stage to emerge the other side into a gorgeous (atheist) world that fulfils me with the rewards usually offered by religion (humbling awe, empowering truth, and meaning from which to derive values). I believe these three things are human needs – the absence of them in my life was disabling, and their presence is fulfilling.

    Religion does not deserve mention in this quest, let alone contradiction, it is too irrelevant – But is easy to see why it has had sucess. Finding the spiritual (read ‘psychological’) staples I mentioned was not easy and required from me a certain amount of intellectual nomadery and wandering, and religion is always hovering like the biblical snake, requiring only that you delude yourself to bring psychological rewards in easy reach.

    Needless to say I am so charged by the state of mind I have arrived that I want to shout its praises to every ear and rooftop – and here I am doing so. I agreed strongly with much of Haught’s description. And I am happy to say, once you ditch your gods, and pass the through horrible, sinister, misguided oblivion of nihilism, you emerge into a new world.

    Atheism only says there is no god. Finding fulfilment in your life is something else that you have to do. And I would say: Look to science for truth to empower you – it is the greatest source of truth on earth. Look at reality and nature through the lens of science to find awe and to be humbled – the truth of nature is humbling. Look to project of humanity on earth for your meaning, from which you draw values – morality is the extension of love.

    /end sermon.

  179. #179 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    Iapetus,

    To put your mind at least partially to rest, no, I am not Dianelos, and I have never posted at, or even visited, richarddawkins.net. Nor I am a member of some group fascinated with the meanings of the word “is”, as Charles suggested, though now that you mention it, “is” is a fascinating word indeed. That said, I can’t guarantee that I am not every bit as annoying as these people, and a waste of your time to bother with. I could easily be. Yes, I do write extremely fast, and I have a bug in me which seems to require that I try to answer everyone who engages me, and even respond to as many of their points as I can, and in the process I’m sure make a great many errors and even a bit of a fool of myself, but that’s life, I figure. I just happen to have some time on my hands right now, and I know it won’t last, but this has been amusing and even productive. I don’t often get into things like this with atheists, usually because they have little to say once anything even slightly esoteric is brought up in regards to religion, so I appreciate the fact that many people are at least bothering to respond, if with varying degrees of depth. But I kind of have the sense that things are winding up here anyway, that we may have said as much as we need to say, or can productively say, and there’s no need to drag it out forever. I didn’t come here to convert anybody, mind you, just to point out that there’s more to religion and “God” than most atheists care to address, because it’s no longer so easy to do so once you get beyond the most conventional dull notions. I’m far from the best advocate of God or religion out there, but I can at least put forward ideas about God that are not being refuted by most atheists.

    I’m reminded of one other lengthy internet forum experience I did have, over at philosophy.net I think it was, a couple of years ago, in which I was debating a guy who’s something of a fixture over there, bubba-something-or-other. He’s a relatively smart fundamentalist Christian, and I was arguing in favor of humanism, though from a religious point of view, and damned if this guy couldn’t completely ignore any argument he didn’t like, and any set of facts that didn’t support his position, and while it was amusing for a while to engage the dude, in the end it was clearly utterly hopeless. It’s not my intention to emulate such people, I hope you know. If that’s what I’m beginning to sound like, let me know, and we can just wrap this up before any hard feelings develop.

    Now, back to nihilism:

    OK, here we at least have a compact definition, although a rather murky one IMO. What are “innate values” supposed to be and how are they distinguished from other values? On what basis do you declare that a life of hedonism, consumerism and feel-good-ism (which undoubtedly are values and ideals that can govern a person’s life) fits your definition of nihilism? And most importantly (at least for me, since that was the reason I entered the discussion in the first place), how does that definition support the assertion that atheism logically leads to nihilism?

    First, the murkiness of the definition is a product of the subject itself. It’s kind of hard to define something that is by its very nature a lack of something else, a vacuum as it were. It’s like trying to define atheism. There’s no “there” there. Hard enough to define theism, as we are discovering. As for “innate values”, these are also hard to define, because if they are innate, you don’t really need to define them, do you? I mean, you certainly could, but it’s not really necessary. It’s just what you are. A dog, for example, doesn’t need to define himself, he’s just a dog, and he does what dogs do without having to think about it. Human beings, on the other hand, have developed this idea that unless you define yourself, you can’t be yourself. It’s a kind of sickness, really. Our overly developed brains and pre-frontal lobes have this crazy notion that we have to conceptualize ourselves virtually to infinity, or we can’t really say we know who we are. But who we are isn’t a function of the mind, or concepts, or definitions. In fact, the very notion that we need definitions of ourselves, or of our innate values and being, is the very problem that leads to nihilism. As if, absent definitions, we are some kind of empty suit that can’t get through the day.

    What Nietzsche was criticizing in Socrates, and the whole self-doubting, self-questioning Socratic method, is the while it’s a decent exercise of the mind, it’s a terrible model for living and thinking and acting. It gives us the impression that self-definitions are somehow necessary, and required, because otherwise we are subject to grave doubts about our own nature and being. Whereas, a “real man” doesn’t need to define himself in such a way, he just “is”. (There we go with that word again). He’s satisified with being who he is, and while he can use the conceptual mind when needed, he doesn’t define himself through concepts, nor does he act through concepts, or limit himself to what his concepts can say or describe. The scientific mind, on the other hand, is entirely conceptual. It abstracts everything it observes down into a concept, and manipulates those concepts, signs, and symbols (mathematically or otherwise) to come up with insights and answers. All fine and good, on the conceptual level, but often in the process it is forgotten that life is not a concept, and that we are not a concept, and the conceptual answers may be decent descriptions of us on a conceptual level, but they do not actually define us, and they certainly are not the same as us. This is where Socratic thinking falls off the shelf into narcissism and nihilism. It tends to substitute for our a real, authentic self a false, conceptual self, a self-image, and this is indeed a dangerous and even pathological path to take.

    If you’re interested in the psychological factors involved here, I’d recommend “Narcissism: Denial of the True Self” by Alexander Lowen, which I found to be an excellent short introduction to the problem of narcissism, which I think is the psychological correlate to nihilism. Lowen, a practicing psychologist specializing in the treatment of narcissism, considers narcissism to be a disorder in which the self-image, which ought to correspond roughly to our basic bodily sense of self, becomes disassociated and distorted, disconnected from our sensual reality, and goes off on its own, taking on a life of its own, which ends up consuming us to the point of pathology. One could say the same thing about over-conceptualizing ourselves. At a certain point, there’s a danger that our concept of ourselves takes over from the actual experience of being ourselves, and at that point we no longer have a real center, we are just a floating collection of concepts and definitions disassociated from our real self and being.

    Culturally speaking, I think that certain traditions end up disassociating themselves from the realities of our conscious self. Major aspects of Christianity did this, and that was what Nietzsche was criticizing in them. But major aspects of science have the potential to do this also, and in fact do end up becoming forms of pathological disassociation. The whole disposition of conceptual doubting likewise has the potential to do this. There is a question of degree, certainly, but in general the conceptual mind simply is not “true”, and we always have to be aware of that. Our real self, and real being, is not a concept, and it does not require concepts. Concepts are useful, even very useful for a number of tasks, but we should not let them overwhelm us, or end up in the position of dictating to us what is true and what is not. They are not the “master” of us. We are supposed to be the master of our concepts, not vice versa.

    Now, as for the notion that atheism leads to nihilism, I don’t think it has to, but if atheism is taken on as a defining conceptualizing position, then yes it does. By which I mean the kind of atheism which treats everything as a concept and a definition, and thinks that this approach can tell us what is true, and what is not. It simply can’t do that. All too often atheism is found in people who are overly conceptualized, overly identified with the conceptual mind, and not surprisingly, people who were in the highly abstracted, conceptualizing fields of hard science. This is not, as many of them presume, because science refutes religion, but because the highly conceptual practice of science tends to overly emphasize the conceptual mind at the expense of our non-conceptual experiential self. It even tends to elevate abstract concepts above personal experience, and trusts concepts over personal experience. This makes sense in the practice of science itself, but it is a terrible model for how to live as a human being. It’s like being a fish-monger who carries the smell of fish with him everywhere he goes, and can’t get rid of the stink.

    In other words, this whole business of constantly practicing doubt and skepticism can lead to a narcissistic identification with concepts themselves, with the conceptual self, a self-image, rather than the natural identification with the non-conceptual, “real self”. And this is simply not healthy, or even happy. It can develop various neurotic symptoms, various narcissistic symptoms, even deeper pathologies. And those can manifest in the culture at large as well. In this sense, nihilism is the result of a displacement of the real, experiential, conscious self with a conceptual self-image, which has no experiential reality. In this way, a person ends up feeling empty, and at the same time, feeling as if they have attained great things in their own minds. The friction between these two causes all kinds of conflict, much of it projected onto other people and the world itself.

    I hope you see that the solution to this problem is not, at least in the beginning, some kind of absolute, immutable Self. Not that there is no such higher reality, but in the most basic sense the first step is to simply come down from the conceptualized sense of self into the sensual, conscious, experiential self. If one does that, then such ideas as “God” can be understood in personal, experiential, conscious terms, and not abstracted in the manner of science. Or, for that matter, abstracted in the form of an external deity, which is simply part of another kind of narcissistic nihilism, of a religious bent.

    The same holds true for your basis of choice, conradg, the self-evidence of our being. When you say that you experience yourself as witnessing the events around you, as being alive, active etc. it means that you INTERPRET these experiences in a certain way. These interpretations however can not be sacrosanct and to view them as an unshakable base to build on is fallacious.

    No, you aren’t quite getting my point. My point is that we don’t have to interpret our experiences, or make concepts out of them. We can simply be who we are. In fact, there’s a book of exerts from the teachings of one of my favorite Advaitic teachers, Ramana Maharshi, called “Be As You Are”, edited by David Godman, which I’d also highly recommend. The point here is that the concept of God is not nearly as important as the experience of God, just as the concept of self is not nearly as important as the conscious experience of self. Unfortunately, in our nihilistic, narcissistic age, we tend to live in concepts, rather than in ourselves. We tend to think that God is a concept, and we argue about the concept, when it is the experience of God that is significant. And the same goes for our own sense of self. I am here arguing with you that our own sense of self is inherent, and you are questioning this, as if it’s actually a reasonable question. I’m suggesting this is merely an addictive habit, rather than a genuinely reasonable approach to ourselves. It’s an addiction that is quite out of place in relation to our own experience of self, and that it brings various pathological neuroses into our lives which simply have no business being there.

    Nihilism, in other words, is the product of the conceptualizing of our nature and being and our innate values, when that conceptualizing process takes over, and becomes dominant, and tries to tell us what is valuable and what is not. The conceptualizing mind has no foundation, however. The foundation is in our experiential, conscious self. The conceptualizing self is merely a set of definitions and concepts, endlessly played upon one another, like a hall of mirrors. There is no “there” there. It is maddening, truly. And those who fall into this position do indeed experience a kind of madness. Atheism which is based on this conceptualizing self is, indeed, nihilistic, and it will, indeed, have to see it’s own madness at some point, even experientially, in order to come back down to earth, to the conscious, experiential self, which is not conceptual in nature, not always thinking and defining and doubting, but being, enjoying, living, consciously.

  180. #180 J. J. Ramsey
    March 7, 2008

    Conradg: “I’m reminded of one other lengthy internet forum experience I did have, over at philosophy.net I think it was, a couple of years ago, in which I was debating a guy who’s something of a fixture over there, bubba-something-or-other. He’s a relatively smart fundamentalist Christian, and I was arguing in favor of humanism, though from a religious point of view, and damned if this guy couldn’t completely ignore any argument he didn’t like, and any set of facts that didn’t support his position, and while it was amusing for a while to engage the dude, in the end it was clearly utterly hopeless. It’s not my intention to emulate such people, I hope you know. If that’s what I’m beginning to sound like, let me know, and we can just wrap this up before any hard feelings develop.”

    That is what you are beginning to sound like.

  181. #181 ctw
    March 7, 2008

    “Nor I am a member of some group fascinated with the meanings of the word “is”, as Charles suggested”

    For the record, I explicitly suggested the opposite.

    - Charles

  182. #182 Mark
    March 7, 2008

    Interesting. Both the original writer and the response. Both seem to be making legitimate points. It’s always surprising when two smart people find an excuse to ‘sit’ in opposite camps.

    I think the idea that atheism inevitably leads to an exploration of nihilism is true if people are approaching the question of God from the point of view of asking, ‘what does it mean if there is no God?’.

    Many people I would say are simply quite happy to ‘realise’ religion is a ‘fairy tale’ (thought fairy tales have their power sociologically) and then happily ignore the guilt trips that religion tries to foster on them. Let’s face it, that’s the worst part of religion.

    In that sense, they are happy to be moral beings, even if that morality doesn’t rely upon the idea of a God. The idea of calling these people ‘soft-core atheists’ seems reasonable.

    In fact, why would they even be offended by such a name? Unless they were taking on the job of defining in great detail a godless philosophy, then I see no reason why they should be upset. So it seems to me that the writer is himself over-reacting a little. He’s standing up for ‘soft-core atheists’ who probably don’t give a shit whether they are soft core or hard core.

    As a final comment, I want to point out the double bind that I see facing ‘hard-core atheists’. It seems to me that an atheist faces two unusual lines of reasoning, neither of which are particularly comfortable, from an atheist point of view, or rather an atheist that wants to preserve the underlying logic of a scientific paradigm. Here they are.

    First, as pointed out, atheism eventually gets to the idea that we are living in a kind of ‘dead’ universe. Meaning is therefore different to purpose. Meaning is ‘logical connection’, while purpose is the illusion of sentient intention. But even if we strip out the ‘sentient intention’, logical connection leaves us with a problem:

    The problem is faced by maths and philosophy. How to understand integrity (the fact that various entities in the universe hold constant). And having realised that the universe can be ‘split’ into parts and those relations between those parts described and made predictive (empirical science), what beyond all the unravelling ‘seams’ of the universe gives it ‘integrity’, or rather, the sheer ability to ‘exist’.

    And then the other problem is that atheism suggests a universe that has no ‘ultimate’ meaning. But that is not the universe that we see. In fact, to see such a universe is impossible.

    In other words, the word ‘nonsense’ is redundent. It points to something we cannot see. We only ‘see/perceive’ things that we have made sense of in some way. Even a random set of numbers, which can be described as ‘meaningless’ is nevertheless built on a structure, that of ‘numbers’. We cannot escape meaningful structure into the ‘meaningless’ reality which is supposed to underly a godless universe. At least, that is my suggestion. :) I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

    Anyhow, I enjoyed reading this and the comments. Great stuff.

  183. #183 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey,

    That is what you are beginning to sound like.

    Fair enough then. I will consider our personal dialog at an end.

    Cheers

  184. #184 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    David Marjanovi?,

    Thanks for the long post, but it’s a little hard to reply to these kind of ?fiskings?, and in any case, a whole lot of what you say I’ve already addressed in other posts with other people, so I won’t endlessly repeat myself. If there’s a particular point you want to stress, I’d be happy to respond.

    I did find this little discrepancy in your logic amusing:

    I, for one, am well aware of the limitations of the scientific method — the only existing way to discern what is real and what is not.

    followed a little later on by:

    Just think about it: certainty is the root of perhaps not all but a lot of evil.

    I’m curious how you square your certainty that science is the only existing way to discern what is real and what is not real from your observation that certainty is the root of a whole lot of evil. Are you suggesting that science is evil?

  185. #185 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    And another thing…

    A number of posters have suggested, maybe a little too snidely, that my knowledge of science is suspect, and that therefore I have no business talking about science. Let me just say that I’m not a scientist, I’m a layman, but my knowledge of science is pretty broad, and even deep, at least compared to most laymen. And while I don’t think I’m qualified to argue deeper matters of any particular scientific discipline, I think I have enough knowledge of science, and the scientific method, to argue about the philosophical and religious and cultural implications and affects of science.

    And I ought to mention that, while I have only a decent layman’s knowledge of science, I have yet to encounter anyone on this forum who even has a half-way decent knowledge of religion. I mean, guys, I’m not getting snooty on you all, but face it, none of you really know much of what you’re talking about when it comes to this whole “God” thing. Or at least it’s not in evidence yet.

    Just saying…

  186. #186 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    David M,

    One other point that you made, that someone else echoed, bears commenting:

    … It is true that Western civilization has a big gaping hole at its core. This hole, quoting Richard Herzinger from memory, is what is precious about it. Any attempt to fill it in results in death. Death of millions of people. We’ve tried it out, we’ve done the experiment, way too often. And here you go saying we should try it again.

    First, if you are talking about modern western civilization, religion has not been responsible for the mass deaths – atheistic movements have. Religion in the modern west has been very tame and civilized, and has not been responsible for mass murder and so on. Those who practice religion in the modern west do not end up monster by filling the “gaping hole” left by the absence of religion, because they have not left religion at all.

    Now, you could try to pin communism and fascism as “religious movements”, and there’s a valid point there, but they certainly were not theistic forms of religion, but atheistic forms of religion, which kind of defeats the whole point of championing atheism, which in itself makes it into a religious movement.

    Secondly, while monotheistic religion in the western world has been particularly violent, religion itself throughout the world has not been. Hinduism, for example, is not actually a single religion, but a collection of thousands of religions linked together by certain common philosophical and geographical elements. And Hinduism has a remarkable history of religious toleration and debate – largely because it lacks a dogmatic core or liturgy. So the idea that “any attempt to fill the gaping hole results in death” is sheer, unmitigated, ignorant nonsense. How do people come up with shit like this? Does something seem true to you just because it fulfills some nutty sentiment you have sympathy for? Don’t you think you ought to double-check such things for, you know, historical accuracy?

  187. #187 windy
    March 7, 2008

    Let me just say that I’m not a scientist, I’m a layman, but my knowledge of science is pretty broad, and even deep, at least compared to most laymen. And while I don’t think I’m qualified to argue deeper matters of any particular scientific discipline, I think I have enough knowledge of science, and the scientific method, to argue about the philosophical and religious and cultural implications and affects of science.

    I would love to take your word on it, but unfortunately you haven’t demonstrated a particularly deep understanding of, say, physics. See for example the comment by MartinM. Also there’s your apparent ignorance of the whole science of human feelings and consciousness.

    And I ought to mention that, while I have only a decent layman’s knowledge of science, I have yet to encounter anyone on this forum who even has a half-way decent knowledge of religion. I mean, guys, I’m not getting snooty on you all, but face it, none of you really know much of what you’re talking about when it comes to this whole “God” thing. Or at least it’s not in evidence yet.

    Should we just take your word on this, too? I’m starting to get a whiff of Kruger & Dunning here. You wrote:

    And the same goes for our own sense of self. I am here arguing with you that our own sense of self is inherent, and you are questioning this, as if it’s actually a reasonable question. I’m suggesting this is merely an addictive habit, rather than a genuinely reasonable approach to ourselves. It’s an addiction that is quite out of place in relation to our own experience of self, and that it brings various pathological neuroses into our lives which simply have no business being there.

    Congratulations, you (a self-proclaimed expert on religion) have managed to declare much of Buddhism pathological. (There seems to be a lot of disagreement on exactly what the no-self doctrine implies. However, even if some Buddhists believe in an underlying true Self, that doesn’t help your thesis, since you’ve been extolling the day-to-day experience of conscious self – this, I gather, is a no-no)

  188. #188 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    Windy,

    Thanks for the Sartre quote. One of my favorites.

    But no, your studies don’t address the issue I’ve raised. These are studies of brain function, not of self-awareness. They are not facing the issue of how do we know that others are self-aware when their brains are functioning properly. They simply assume that to be the case. They are simply studying brain impairment, which is another issue entirely.

    For example, when I was about ten, I had a serious accident, and I went into a terrible seizure, seemingly losing consciousness. However, in fact I was completely conscious of what was going on. Everyone was quite upset, however, and I of course could do nothing.

    Then there’s the cases of NDEs in which a patient has clinically been brain dead and yet knows what’s going on in the room. In one documented case, during a procedure in which the body was cooled to 60 degrees and brain death was artificially induced, with absolutely no possibility of brain activity, the person still was able to describe what was going on in the room, and possessed information that they could not have had unless conscious – which, of course, they claimed that they were.

    But that gets into a host of issue people here probably will get very excited about.

  189. #189 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    Windy,

    I missed an earlier posting of yours. A few points.

    Yes, I do sleep, but I remain aware during sleep. I just don’t have any sense of time or space or thinking, so it is fairly blank. But when I wake up in the morning, and someone asks me if I slept well, I say yes, it was very enjoyable. And deep sleep is, indeed enjoyable.

    Then your first sentence isn’t true: every single physical aspect of every single living creature can’t yet be described well. Since ‘consciousness’ is subject to modification by physical things (blows to the head, psychoactive chemicals), it appears that it’s a physical aspect of living creatures.

    You are confusing my use of the term ?consciousness? with the physical awareness of physical objects. I am referring to the internal experience of self-awareness, even of being aware that we are aware of objects.

    Look at it this way. I have a camera. It can take digital pictures, which I can download to my computer. I can look at the pictures on my computer. Now, is my camera aware of the pictures it has taken? Is my computer aware of the pictures displayed on its screen? You could say, in a technical sense, sure. The camera stores the digital information in its flash drive, as does the computer, so it ?knows? this information. But is it really self-aware of this information? I think not. I could be wrong, but I think not.

    Well, the body and brain are in a similar situation. The eyes capture an image in the retina, and sends the information to the brain. The brain processes that information, and tells another part of the brain ? ?baseball coming in real fast, outside corner of the plate, get ready to swing.? The brain then tells the body when to swing, how hard, and where to aim. All fine and good. The question is, where in all of that is there a need for self-awareness of any of this? Can’t the brain make all the calculations, and send the appropriate response messages to the muscles telling it to swing, without any ?us? being self-aware of the process? Is self-awareness even necessary for us to make a choice? Can’t the brain, all by itself, decide, ?wait, let’s not swing at this pitch. Let’s wait for a better one.? What is the need for self-awareness in choosing this path? Can’t a brain evolve this ?choice mechanism? all by itself through evolutionary means?

    Furthermore, how can we tell the difference between an ?artificial? baseball-hitting computer which lacks self-awareness of its own functioning and information, and a biological computer, like say Barry Bonds, who seems to possess self-awareness? The whole point of the Turing machine is that we can’t. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether Barry Bonds has self-awareness. It only implies that maybe Turing machines do have self-awareness, which is really just a case of our projecting our own self-awareness of something that acts the way we do? The fact is, no observation actually tells us whether or not the Turing machine or Barry Bonds has self-awareness. We are just reading that into the situation, or not, because it fulfills certain expectations on our part.

    If the Turing machine has self-awareness, we have to ask ourselves, how did it get there? At one point does the manufacture of a computer initiate self-awareness? And what process in the computer is responsible for that? Does it occur when a certain threshold of transistors is reached, when a certain level of interoperability is attained, when better software is written? What would it take? Well, obviously we don’t really know, and we can’t. At a certain point, the machine simply starts to act as if it had self-awareness to us, simply because it has behaviors that we associate with ourselves.

    But aren’t our own assumptions about self-awareness largely narcissistic? We see people and things as self-aware when they bear greater and greater resemblance to ourselves. We may think dogs or dolphins are self-aware, because they have some similarities to us, but are mosquitos self-aware, are flowers self-aware, are microbes self-aware? Or, for that matter, are rocks self-aware, are oceans self-aware, are mountains self-aware, are stars self-aware? We presume not, but that’s just because they seem so different than us. To many religious people, however, these seem like valid questions, and they will actually consider all these things to be self-aware, alive, conscious, even if not in the same way that we are. So how could you scientifically test to see if the Sun is self-aware, or if a rock is self-aware, or if a virus is self-aware? I don’t think you could. But we can presume to say we know that other people are self-aware, simply because we are people too. Not a terribly dumb thing to presume, but not very rational to exclude other things of this world either, since it isn’t something we can directly confirm either, at least not by standard objective means.

    There is clearly a concept of God but not proof that there exists anything corresponding to that outside human brains, absent other evidence.

    Yes, but the same is true of ourselves, our self-awareness. We have a language which includes the word ?I?, but what proof do we have that there is a self-aware ?I? inside our bodies, observing things, making choices, etc.? Where is the evidence for our own self-existing awareness? Another way of putting it is, what proof do we have that when we die, anything but a body has died? I think we consider murder horrible not just because it involves the destruction of a body, but because we fear it involves the destruction of someone’s self-awareness. Is that kind of death really imaginable by us ? not just the death of the body, but the death of our own self-awareness?

    And now your equivocation of “God” and “Self” is in trouble – how do you explain all the atheists that make do without “God”, but clearly have a concept of self? Looks like “God” is superfluous, if you really mean that it’s equal to self.

    I would say that atheists are only dispensing with a concept of God that is not essential, but are not confronting and dispensing with concepts that are, indeed, essential, such as our own innate self-awareness. I think it’s relatively easy to dispense with the concept of God as an ?other?, but that only includes some of the many understandings of God. There’s a long and varied tradition for understanding God not as an ?other? but as a deeper part of the Self. This depends on how one looks at things, of course. Ramanuja once famously said of his relationship to God, ?From the point of view of the body, I am the servant of God. From the point of view of the mind, I am a part of God. From the point of view of the self, I am God.? I would say that there are very, very few atheists who have considered these deeper matters of God and religion. As I have been saying, most of them are just shuffling off various perverted monotheistic notions of God, and often for very good reasons. If atheists confronted these notions, such as ?God as our true Self?, I don’t think a lot of them would remain classical atheists. I don’t think they’d become conventional theists either, however.

    Over 99% of all species that ever lived have gone extinct. It seems that the risk is always there. If we’d remained a few small bands of hunter-gatherers (and even they use technology and innovation to change their quality of life), we might already be extinct from whatever usually destroys species (the Toba eruption came close).

    Well, over millions of years, sure, most species go extinct. But that’s evading the issue. The question is what’s the greatest threat to humanity right now, is it astrology, or is it science? I say science, and with good reason. If you think astrology is more dangerous, I’d like to hear why.

    Face facts, science is dangerous shit. Maybe it’s an indication that science is nihilistic, you think?

    So give up your computer and modern medicine and other dangerous fruits of science, hypocrite. We’ll wait here.

    Maybe I like to live dangerously? Anyway, my computer is not what’s going to kill off the planet. I think, perhaps erroneously, that science is going to do whatever it is going to do whether I own a computer or not. But I will give up my personalized WMD program, and the weaponized smallpox culture in the basement fridge, if that will keep you from calling me a hypocrite.

  190. #190 conradg
    March 7, 2008

    Charles,

    Sorry, I almost forgot your post.

    I’m glad you’re at least willing to admit the real and serious difficulties in dealing with the issue of our own self-awareness.

    Clearly, so far no one can do that very convincingly. But experience with previous “unfathomable” phenomena suggests that the safe bet is that in time that will change. So what’s the point of asking?

    I guess you’re fully aware this is an evasive response? Is that the point ? wait out the clock, hope the game is over before anyone notices we never scored any points?

    I might feel differently, of course, if this were akin to most technical issues that science has had success in working through. But there’s no indication that science has ever had any success with this kind of question. When has science ever figured out this kind of thing? You might as well just not bother voting, because eventually science will figure out this whole ?politics? problem. I’d suggest that until it does, we shouldn’t presume it ever will.

    Again, IMO the problem is in the definition of “atheist”. Although I try to avoid labels because of people’s tendency to attach – often incorrectly – a wide range of attributes to a label, I do think “a-theist” can be sufficiently narrowly defined to be reasonably accurate. Eg, something like: one who does not believe in a god that directly intervenes in human affairs.

    Well, that’s a reasonable compromise. I don’t know if I’d still agree, but it’s reasonable. But atheism as it is presented here, on this forum, is essentially bound to a disbelief in any kind of God, any kind of metaphysical reality beyond the physical. Of course, I’d fully agree that this God doesn’t exist:

    The applicability of this to the quote is that in the US and in casual conversation, I think it’s safe to assume that people who self-describe as “atheist” primarily have in mind the god that vocal theists – especially Christians – invoke to explain natural phenomena (god’s will), justify their actions (serving god), give meaning to their lives (god’s plan), etc. They aren’t “cherry picking” the “easy” definitions, they’re addressing the immediately relevant one. Someone who believes some abstract concept of a god that transcends human experience is unlikely to militate for prayer in school or bomb abortion clinics. Why should a lay person care about that “god” at all?

    I think that’s a pretty fair explanation, even a defense, of most atheists. But it’s not as if the only religious people around are the nuts. Atheists do seem guilty of choosing the easiest targets, even of delberately ignoring the kinds of arguments that are difficult to wade into. I can’t imagine that Dawkins and Hitchens haven’t ever encountered intelligent religious people, or heard of eastern religious ideas, or non-monotheistic ideas before. It just seems that whenever atheists look at any religious ideas, they invariably choose the silliest examples, and reduce them to caricatures. And this accounts for the rather vapid superficiality of their arguments.

    Being an engineer, I’m used to “black box” analysis. So, I don’t quite get Searle’s “Chinese room” argument. From a functional perspective, the room “speaks” Chinese quite independent of what’s in the room. Similarly, if a Turing machine behind a curtain can fool an expert, from my nihilistic perspective it’s exhibiting “human” intelligence – and in fact, more so than the majority of humans.

    The issue I’ve brought up isn’t whether it is exhibiting human intelligence, but whether we can say that it is self-aware. Why shouldn’t a machine be capable of exhibiting human intelligence, while yet not being self-aware?

    Like “prove”, “true” is a tell for absolutism. A thoughtful “atheist” (eg, Dawkins in TGD) speaks in terms of probabilities, not “truth”. Something like “The evidence suggests to me that it is very unlikely that a theistic ‘god’ exists”.

    Well, then there’s a lot of absolutist atheists out there, and on this forum, because they throw the words ?true? and ?prove? around quite a lot. I was simply responding to them in kind with a thought-experiment.

  191. #191 Conradg
    March 7, 2008

    Charles,

    I mistakenly left out a long quote I intended to put into my last reply. After the phrase…

    Of course, I’d fully agree that this God doesn’t exist:

    …I intended to put in this quote from John Hagee, John McCain’s latest BFF:

    HAGEE: All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are — were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.

    Charming, no?

  192. #192 windy
    March 8, 2008

    Yes, I do sleep, but I remain aware during sleep.

    I’m sure some physician would love to do a case study on you. The deep sleep stage is not what most people would call “aware”.

    You are confusing my use of the term ‘consciousness’ with the physical awareness of physical objects. I am referring to the internal experience of self-awareness, even of being aware that we are aware of objects.

    And self-awareness could be regular awareness turned on itself. This is what the Nature article was talking about, did you read it?

    Furthermore, how can we tell the difference between an ‘artificial’ baseball-hitting computer which lacks self-awareness of its own functioning and information, and a biological computer, like say Barry Bonds, who seems to possess self-awareness? The whole point of the Turing machine is that we can’t.

    I think you mean “Turing test” (Turing machines are abstract computers) And the point of the Turing test was simply to replace the question “Can machines think” with a more practical approach, actually almost opposite from your point!

    If a baby has self-awareness, we have to ask ourselves, how did it get there? At one point does the growth of an infant’s brain initiate self-awareness? And what process in the brain is responsible for that? Does it occur when a certain threshold of neurons is reached, when a certain level of interoperability is attained, when better ‘software’ is learned? What does it take? Well, obviously we don’t really know, and we can’t. At a certain point, the baby simply starts to act as if it had self-awareness to us, simply because it has behaviors that we associate with ourselves.

    I replaced “computer” with “baby” and it still works the same – there is no fundamental difference. Except the “can’t know” – this would be news to the researchers who study the emergence of self-awareness in babies and animals!

    Yes, but the same is true of ourselves, our self-awareness. We have a language which includes the word ‘I’, but what proof do we have that there is a self-aware ‘I’ inside our bodies, observing things, making choices, etc.? Where is the evidence for our own self-existing awareness?

    Actually there probably isn’t an “I” inside our brains in the sense of a central authority separate from the normal processes of attention and action. See the Nature article and its links and the writings of Dennett.

    As for evidence, you just pick a workable definition and proceed from there, you don’t have to have absolute knowledge so please don’t keep asking this question over and over again, it has been addressed by David and JJ Ramsey already. There’s plenty of evidence of our self-awareness right here in this thread – we talk about it. As for rocks and stars, let’s stick to things with nervous systems for now. You wouldn’t ask someone who studies aggression in animals whether the Sun is aggressive. Studying self-awareness is in principle no different from any other study of non-human cognition (we can’t study those either without some kind of reference to humans).

  193. #193 Iain Walker
    March 8, 2008

    Conradg:

    …you are in fact describing someone who is passing through a long nihilistic crisis. You are, in Nietzschean terms, a high-wire artist, walking the tight-rope over the abyss, struggling to keep from falling, and making his way to the other side.

    I had a funny feeling that you were going to say something like that, rather than address my request for clarification.

    However, I don’t feel obliged to accept your characterisation of my position, because I don’t buy your Nietzschean metaphor. I think it’s simplistic and fails to do justice to the complexities of the topography (as it were) of human value. Instead, I’d offer an alternative metaphor, which goes something like this:

    Call it, for want of a better term, The Waterworld Metaphor.

    Imagine an endless ocean dotted with floating islands. These islands are partly natural formations, and partly the product of generations of human artifice. They’re stable enough, as long as they’re kept in repair, there’s usually plenty of room to move about, and most of their inhabitants have no problem living perfectly fulfilled lives on them.

    However, a large proportion of those inhabitants are also obsessed with something called Dry Land. They’ve convinced that life is devoid of meaning and purpose unless the surface they’re walking about on is not only solid but goes all the way down (i.e., their values are “based on fundamental truths”). Because of this, they typically delude themselves that their particular floating island is in fact Dry Land – which often has the consequence that they assume that its structual integrity is a given, and so neglect to maintain it properly, thereby increasing the likelihood (in the long run) that it will break up or sink.

    When this happens, people may abandon the island – some start swimming in the hope of eventually reaching the real Dry Land (corresponding to the tightrope-walker undergoing a nihilistic passage in your metaphor), others just cling to bits of driftwood and bob about aimlessly, while others just sink beneath the waves (equivalent to falling into the Nietzschean abyss). Of the swimmers, some manage to reach another island (which they then mistake for Dry Land all over again, thereby perpetuating the cycle). Others are sufficiently clued up that they realise that none of the islands are really Dry Land, but refuse to give up on the illusion, and so keep swimming.

    So far, this largely parallels the Nietzschean metaphor. However, the Waterworld metaphor allows for other options that the Nietzschean one doesn’t, to whit:

    Some of us reckon that Dry Land is a myth, but also understand that it doesn’t matter. The islands are solid enough to allow us to live perfectly meaningful lives, as long as we take the care to maintain them. We can cast off bits that don’t fit anymore and incorporate new elements, whilst modifying the rest of the structure so that overall integrity is maintained. We can even add rudders, oars and sails, the better to avoid whirlpools and ride out storms. Islands can be remodelled, even radically, without one having to get one’s feet wet. On this metaphor, then, both nihilism and nihilistic crises are avoidable.

    Or to sum up the above in suitably aphoristic form: just because we’re afloat doesn’t mean that we’re adrift.

    Now, I’m not saying that the above is an ideal metaphor. Just an improvement on the Nietzschean one.

    (And my apologies for addressing just this one point. You’ve posted a lot of stuff here which is worth responding to, and I wish I had the time to do so. But I don’t, so … )

  194. #194 Iain Walker
    March 8, 2008

    And reading on down the thread, I see that Iapetus has already made much the same point about the fruitlessness of seeking absolute certainty, only in much more straightforward terms. Oh, well.

  195. #195 windy
    March 8, 2008

    Well, over millions of years, sure, most species go extinct. But that’s evading the issue. The question is what’s the greatest threat to humanity right now, is it astrology, or is it science? I say science, and with good reason. If you think astrology is more dangerous, I’d like to hear why.

    Firstly, this whole thing of whether science is a “threat to mankind” seems beside the point, so I don’t want to start another huge run of posts about it. But I want to point out that your question is a bit sneakily phrased. Astrology is just one field of pseudoscience, so should it be contrasted with all of science? To make it more balanced: which is a greater threat to mankind, rational thought or irrational thought?

    And by “threat to mankind”, do you mean only threats that could end mankind, or threat to “life as we know it”? Since science is in large part to thank for the latter, it seems a bit myopic to blame it only for the threats. And science may help us avert some of the natural threats, too.

    Maybe I like to live dangerously? Anyway, my computer is not what’s going to kill off the planet. I think, perhaps erroneously, that science is going to do whatever it is going to do whether I own a computer or not. But I will give up my personalized WMD program, and the weaponized smallpox culture in the basement fridge, if that will keep you from calling me a hypocrite.

    What is this that “science” is going to do without people participating? Our computers are part of the threat to the planet, with our unsustainable use of resources and energy. The basic science that enabled computers to be made is way back in the past – should we blame Alan Turing for what we choose to do to the environment today?

    And science didn’t create smallpox, it eradicated it from the wild. Whereas plagues created by science are still in the realm of science fiction.

  196. #196 Explict Atheist
    March 8, 2008

    conradg,

    “Well, I’d disagree. They just don’t have anything to do with science, which is the point. They have a lot to do with the actual practice of astrology. ”

    And the practice of astrology is nonsense. Which is why belief in fact claims without evidence is a mistake. Justifying monotheism by citing the deluded practice of astrology could just well serve as an argument that people are justified in worshipping Kim Jong-il. Your argument here is essentially: People believe such and such therefore belief in such and such is justified.

    “I have a hard time imagining something that is useful, but contains nothing true. Hell, even lies can be useful, which means they must have some truth in them. The issue is finding out what is true in the useful thing, and what isn’t. ”

    This is a corruption of the concept “truth”. It is useful for North Korea’s government for North Korean’s to believe that their leader has supernatural powers. Therefore there must be some truth that Kim Jong-il has supernatural powers. This argument regarding what is truth is elephant diarrhea.

  197. #197 conradg
    March 8, 2008

    Iain (is that pronounced ?Ian??),

    I hope you understand that I am trying to argue in good faith. If I have not clarified my views on nihilism, it is in part because I don’t know what you are unclear about. So perhaps your could clarify your request for clarification. (The alternative is that my own views are simply unclear). Also, if I have addressed ?you? in these posts, I don’t mean the full ?you? in any personal sense, but just the philosophical argument you are presenting here, so please don’t take offense). Likewise, my Nietzschean metaphor is not something I expect you to accept, but it should help clarify the views I’m putting forth. I think we are both beyond the illusion that anyone will accept our views as true simply by our arguing them, however well argued they may be.

    As for your Waterworld Metaphor, I rather like it. I wonder if you were aware, consciously or unconsciously, that you are almost duplicating the Buddha’s famous ?Islands in the Stream? metaphor? I can’t find the full quote, but in essence Buddha compared humanity to a series of islands in a stream, each seemingly separated from one another, connected only by the stream itself. It’s a powerful metaphor that he used quite often. For instance, he often referred to someone who was starting to get the point as a ?stream-entrant?, someone who had entered the stream of true understanding. And in his final sermon, he famously concluded:

    “Therefore, ?nanda, be ye islands unto yourselves. Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Seek no external refuge. Live with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge. Betake to no external refuge.

    “How, ?nanda, does a Bhikkhu live as an island unto himself, as a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge, with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as a refuge, seeking no external refuge?”

    “Herein, ?nanda, a Bhikkhu lives strenuous, reflective, watchful, abandoning covetousness in this world, constantly developing mindfulness with respect to body, feelings, consciousness, and Dhamma.”

    “Whosoever shall live either now or after my death as an island unto oneself, as a refuge unto oneself, seeking no external refuge, with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as a refuge, seeking no external refuge, those Bhikkhus shall be foremost amongst those who are intent on discipline.”

    The difference between your use of the metaphor and Buddha’s is clear. In your metaphor, people are disturbed by the fact that they are islands floating in the stream, and are trying to find some way to find solid ground. The Buddha, on the other hand, is suggesting that the whole trouble comes when we do not accept the fact that we are islands, and instead try to create some kind of artificial connection, looking for salvation and satisfaction outside of oneself. A large part of his teaching was about going beyond concepts, disregarding concepts, and living directly, without concepts. Concepts, to him, are immaterial, external, not intrinsic to us. So they are part of what is to be abandoned. Instead, he is recommending that we ?take refuge in ourselves?. This is a radical teaching, telling us to abandon the conceptual self, and resort instead to our real self, or real being, which is not conceptualized, and is not found through concepts.

    Where you misconstrue my use of the tightrope metaphor is that it seems as if I am using it to describe someone looking for an external ?ground? upon which to land. I had thought you would grasp that my constant reference to ?self-awareness? and ?God as Self? would help you to see that this is not the case, that the metaphor of ?walking the tightrope? is a description of the process of self-discovery, not a process of finding some external ?truth? to ground oneself in. My understanding of nihilism is that it represents the loss of fundamental values, and the fundamental values I refer to are all based on the immutable fact of our self-existence and self-awareness. I’m sorry if I was vague about that. So the man walking the tightrope is in fact making a journey into himself, discovering who he truly is, and trying to avoid the pitfall of nihilistic identification with concepts.

    The Buddha’s famous aphorism, ?Be an island unto yourself? is often translated as ?Be a light unto yourself? as well, because the word for ?island? can also be construed as a ?lamp?, ?light?, or ?guide?. Most believe the choice of words was intentional, that all these meanings are implied in the statement. The point being that we must turn to our own intrinsic self-awareness as our guide, and our ground, rather than to the world of mental concepts and ideations. The path of concepts and ideations leads to nihilism, and having found ourselves in a world of concepts and ideations, we must find a way back to ourselves. The only true guide for that is our own self-awareness, not our conceptual thinking. Thus, the admonition to take refuge in oneself, and to use one’s self as the ?light? that guides us back.

  198. #198 conradg
    March 8, 2008

    Windy,

    The deep sleep stage is not what most people would call “aware”.

    Right, because there are no objects we are aware of while in deep sleep. And yet, awareness remains. This is true of everyone. Pay more attention to your own self-awareness, and you will begin to notice this, even in deep sleep. It’s not a personal anomaly.

    I think you mean “Turing test” (Turing machines are abstract computers) And the point of the Turing test was simply to replace the question “Can machines think” with a more practical approach, actually almost opposite from your point!

    Yes, I’m aware of the original point of the Turing Test, and I am deliberately turning it on its head to make a different point, which I think is fair, since it’s a thought experiment. And yes, I’m using the term “Turing Machine” to describe the machine on the other side of the wall in the Turing test, whatever that may be. It would of course be some kind of “Turing Machine” in the sense that he used that term, but not necessarily. Sorry for the confusion.

    I replaced “computer” with “baby” and it still works the same – there is no fundamental difference. Except the “can’t know” – this would be news to the researchers who study the emergence of self-awareness in babies and animals!

    Yes, and again, that was my intentional point – that the human body itself is like a wall, behind which we can’t see. We can only infer from various outputs that the mechanism has a “mind” behind it. I guess I should have stated this more explicitly, that it’s not even necessary to have a wall hiding the fact that it’s a machine, because the human body it itself a machine. My point is that the really interesting aspect of the whole “Turing test” is not intelligence, but self-awareness. Yes, a machine that duplicates human responses to such a degree that we can’t tell them from a human would, by default, have to be considered human. The queston that remains is, would it be self-aware? What I’m saying is that what we define as “human” is not really “intelligence” or even “behavior”, but “self-awareness”. In other words, if a machine had all the characteristics of a human being, but we somehow could know or tell that it wasn’t self-aware, we would not consider it human, or even alive, because it is our own self-awareness that we consider “us”, not our intellectual capacity or behavioral patterns or speech. That is where the whole “zombie” myth comes from. We don’t consider zombies to be human, they are the “walking dead”. And of course we imagine they would walk or look differently, or eat brains – but that’s just the point – the brain is what they “eat”, meaning that they have lost their own self-awareness, and are trying to regain it by “eating brains”, but it doesn’t work. It’s a metaphor for the fear we have that when we die, we lose self-awareness, and the awful sense that the body itself is not really the source of our self-awareness, that it’s just a dead machine that is only truly “alive” as long as we are associated with it, even if it were to move around without our self-awareness of it.

    Actually there probably isn’t an “I” inside our brains in the sense of a central authority separate from the normal processes of attention and action. See the Nature article and its links and the writings of Dennett.

    Yes, I ‘m well aware of this. Which is one of the reasons I don’t think self-awareness originates in the human brain, but that it works the other way around. The human brain, and life itself, originates in self-awareness. That self-awareness is prior to the brain, and that as a child grows, our self-awareness learns to associate itself with, and interact with, the growing body and brain of the child. The best empirical evidence for this is probably found in reincarnation studies. I’m not sure if you’re aware of the literature, but there’s some awfully strong fieldwork that has been done in this area demonstrating what appears to be the very strong probability of reincarnation memories in young children that check out to a rather high degree of accuracy. It’s not nailed down laboratory proof, but pretty damned convincing in my book.

    As for evidence, you just pick a workable definition and proceed from there, you don’t have to have absolute knowledge so please don’t keep asking this question over and over again, it has been addressed by David and JJ Ramsey already. There’s plenty of evidence of our self-awareness right here in this thread – we talk about it. As for rocks and stars, let’s stick to things with nervous systems for now. You wouldn’t ask someone who studies aggression in animals whether the Sun is aggressive. Studying self-awareness is in principle no different from any other study of non-human cognition (we can’t study those either without some kind of reference to humans).

    Yes, I’d agree that there’s plenty of evidence for self-awareness in this thread. But I’d also say there’s plenty of evidence for God in this thread as well, if you saw things my way. But I think you and I both have to admit, there’s no actual scientific evidence of self-awareness, just an inference drawn from intimately personal experience. And no, JJ and David have no actually responded to my challenge for scientific evidence of self-awareness. They simply say it is too obvious for that. To which I say, join the club of those of us who make the same claims about God.

  199. #199 ctw
    March 8, 2008

    “I’m glad you’re at least willing to admit …”

    I don’t mean to appear overly sensitive, but this is unnecessarily condescending. We’re addressing a field of on-going research – of course I’m willing to admit “the real and serious difficulties” associated with that field.

    “I guess you’re fully aware this is an evasive response? Is that the point – wait out the clock, hope the game is over before anyone notices we never scored any points?”

    I’m not even aware of what “evasive” means in the context. The consciousness phenomenon (or self-awareness, if you insist) is not well-understood, so asking that someone – especially a lay person – describe it in detail is pointless. And I don’t understand the sport metaphor about “waiting out the clock”. This isn’t a Jamesian “forced choice” or Pascal’s wager – if there isn’t a good theory about how a phenomenon works, of course one waits. In fact, even if there were a good theory of the consciousness phenomenon, I don’t see how that would affect a lay person. What would such a person do differently?

    Re computers exhibiting self-awareness: you seem to assume that self-awareness is something unlike any other mental function and that it makes humans unique in some undefined way. That may be true (although I rather doubt it is), but so what? Is the point that unexplained (and possibly inexplicable) self-awareness is evidence of something you want to call “god”? Fine, but once again – so what? How is one to react to that situation?

    Finally, here’s my beef with comments about “atheists” as a group. Let’s assume that some large fraction of those in the US who appear to be non-religious are arguably atheists. That’s tens of millions of people, enough that every human trait, admirable or otherwise, is likely to be well represented. So to say “atheists have trait X” is true of some, maybe a lot; but it is also not true of some, maybe a lot, and possibly most.

    My contention is that for any large group G, almost every statement pair of the form “G’s are X” (often inaccurate) and “I disapprove of X” can be replaced by the always accurate (unless one is lying, of course) statement “I disapprove of people who do X”. And suddenly one will find a lot of additional people agreeing. If someone argues that people who say “I am sure god – no matter how defined – doesn’t exist and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool” are being unserious and unnecessarily offensive, I tend to agree. If someone suspects Hitchens is mostly trying to sell books, I won’t argue otherwise. But if a person says “atheists are shallow and haven’t thought through their position”, a statement that applies to no one whom I know to be an atheist (whether or not they actually self-label as such), then I become annoyed and can’t help but react by thinking – and possibly saying – that that person is some combination of arrogant, ignorant, and presumptuous.

    BTW, I single out statements about atheists only because of context. The same comments apply to all “G are X” type statements, especially G = “liberals”. (I would react the same for G = “conservatives”, but those statements don’t seem to be as prevalent now as they were 30 or so years ago.)

    - Charles

  200. #200 ctw
    March 8, 2008

    conradg -

    To save you the trouble of a response re self-awareness, note that I was composing when you posted your last two detailed comments on that topic. It appears that my understanding that you see some analogy between self-awareness and “god” (“as you understand him”) wasn’t too far off. To which I have only the same response as several others: if you make your concept of “god” sufficiently abstract, of course no reasonable person will deny the possibility of that god’s “existence”. But IMO, that has nothing to do with “atheism” as the term is used by thoughtful people in the US in the year 2008.

    FWIW, I and several friends have been influenced by eastern “ways of thought”, so some of your views are not all that foreign to me. I am not a practitioner of any particular “way” but I do try to think of things with Zen in mind. And, of course, mostly fail.

    - Charles

  201. #201 Leni
    March 8, 2008

    Conradg:

    Try operating your computer without using electrons to impart a charge it can run on. The results may be disappointing.

    Actually, as long as I have electrons it should work just fine because computers don’t “run on” charge.

    Again, charge is a property of matter (electrons in this case) that is exploited in various ways by circuit boards to control current flow. That flow generates signals which the computer can translate as binary code. More or less. I’m not an electrical engineer, but that’s the gist of it. So, as I said, electrons don’t “impart” their charges to anything.

    I’m just asking what, in all our studies of consciousness, have we discovered the physical correlate to consciousness to be, the mechanism that produces this phenomena we call consciousness?

    Actually, you asked what subatomic particle was responsible for consciousness when JJ tried to explain to you that some things aren’t observed directly.

    I don’t have anything to say about it other than I think your treatment of it is even less substantial that the treatment you seem to think astrology gets.

    There was a bunch of other things you said that I did not have the time to respond to at the time, so I might bring a few more up. But the truth is I’m having a hard time finding where the hell the comments were, so… we’ll see.

    Well, I’d disagree. They [utility and aesthetics] just don’t have anything to do with science, which is the point. They have a lot to do with the actual practice of astrology.

    Again, it’s irrelevant since astrology does not confine itself to those spheres. It’s makes claims about how things work.

    In equating astrology with art you are doing nothing short of redefining astrology to fit your argument. I have already pointed out that even your one example, Aristotle’s astrology, didn’t fit your a-causal criteria because of (among other things) the prime mover argument.

    Since you are so well-versed with the depth of astrology, I’m a little surprised you missed that.

    I have a hard time imagining something that is useful, but contains nothing true. Hell, even lies can be useful, which means they must have some truth in them.

    No it doesn’t. It means they are useful. If I lie on my resume and say that I received a PhD from Harvard when I in fact have not, it doesn’t mean there is something “true” in the statement. It means I said something I knew to be false because I knew it would more useful than the truth.

    Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t sometimes a kernel of truth in a useful lie. There often is. But not necessarily. So when you say it means they must have some truth in them, you are trivially and demonstrably wrong.

    The issue is finding out what is true in the useful thing, and what isn’t.

    Don’t you mean what is true in the useful false thing? Modern astrology is both factually false and doesn’t tell us anything we can’t get from more reliable means and sources, and in fact astrologers themselves don’t seem to get much out of it. Except possibly a great deal of other people’s money.

  202. #202 Leni
    March 8, 2008

    Conradg, of course:

    Except that art and astrology aren’t equivalent.

    They are in the same ballpark. They are both subjective attempts to make sense of the world, manipulating signs and symbols observed in the objective world, but manipulated in a subjective manner, and then re-created in the outward world. An astrological reading is highly subjective. The astrologer must choose from billions of possible interpretations according to his or her own subjective approach. Virtually everything about the process is artistic in nature, not scientific.

    Virtually everything about the astrologer’s approach is artistic, except the part where he or she tells others that they are gleaning this secret information from observing that workings of the natural world. In other words, all but the most central aspect of it.

    Astrology transforms our experience into a series of signs and symbols, exactly as art does.

    Here you go, redefining astrology so it fits your argument. No it doesn’t transform our experience with signs and symbols. It attempts to predict our experiences based upon the facts of a person’s birthplace and time, and claims that the apparent motion of the stars can tell us something about human psychology or fate. That ain’t art. It’s a particularly depressing kind of geographic fatalism.

    It then transforms those signs and symbols through an internal logic, and then creates a subjective interpretation of them that is found to be meaningful, or not, to others.

    Yet this all occurs while practitioners claim to be objective, determining their results from a strict set of criteria. In other words, astrologers claim to be objective when they, by the very tools of their trade and the definition of their practice, can not be.

    Good astrologers uphold the principle of astrology quite well.

    Which principle would that be, exactly? This is actually important, so I’d appreciate an answer.

    The “empirical” approach isn’t testable either. What difference does that make?

    Quite a lot of difference. It means empiricism isn’t the only way to find out what is true. It’s what allows art and poetry to make truth claims, for example. And astrology too.

    Except when it is a falsifiable claim of some sort, as is often the case with astrology. As soon as that happens all bets are off. Poetry and art get kicked off the field.

    Aside from that, the point in not that there is absolutely nothing true about astrology. Who knows. Stranger things have happened. Maybe they got something right (aside from rote celestial mechanics). But whatever those true things are, they did not arise as a result of the factual claims associated with them, as astrologers pretend they do. And my cynics’ guess is that they aren’t even unique. I bet you could get the same results from asking anyone, much less those well-versed in a centuries old practice. A practice that has had more than enough to time to get it’s act together, by the way.

    I agree, in the same way that I agree that many modern religious claims are bullshit as well. Astrology is, indeed, filled with pseudo-science claims. Just as art is filled with pseudo-artists, and psychology filled with pseudo-science. But science itself is filled with pseudo-science. Look at modern medicine, fer chrissakes.

    I responded to this before, but I will say it again because I think it bears repeating: pseudo-science is the place where the Venn diagram of made up shit and science meet.

    Science is not “full of pseudo-science” because pseudo-science in not a kind of science

    Look at the trillions being poured down the pisshole there. We find out that not only are placebos are just as effective as anti-depressants, expensive placebos are more effective than inexpensive ones.

    So therefore all medicine is bullshit? Because we all know how well cancer tumors and tuberculosis and Ebola respond to placebo.

    Something tells me that if the human race becomes extinct relatively soon, it won’t be because of astrology, but it will be because of science.

    Who knows. Perhaps it will be the result of stupid people who think placebos are better than medication refusing to vaccinate their children.

    But of course millions of people do find something valuable in it, and if that’s your standard, then astrology has long since been proven true. The fact that scientists don’t find anything valuable in it doesn’t really prove anything, other than that not everything is valuable to everyone.

    Who said scientists don’t find anything valuable in astrology? As part of our history, and as a motivator for observational astronomy it has been extremely useful. Personally, I find our reliance on it to be an endearing testament to the difficulty of navigating life. I have t-shirts with astrological symbols on them because I like the aesthetics.

    That doesn’t mean we can’t notice that it’s also full of all kinds of bullshit. I can manage to appreciate it without having to treat it as an accurate description of how the universe works. That doesn’t mean it’s true though. That still only means it’s useful.

  203. #203 Conradg
    March 9, 2008

    Charles,

    I fail to see how self-awareness is an abstraction, since it’s the most obvious experiential thing in the world to each of us, and needs no conceptual framework, though of course one can always create one.

    While I am indeed making analogies between self-awareness and God, it is not an arbitrary one, in that the very notion I am putting forward for understanding God is that it is intimately tied to our self-awareness. If you have dabbled in eastern religions this is probably somewhat familiar to you. If you have trouble with things such as Zen, it is probably because this matter of self-awareness has not made enough of an impression upon you to see what they are getting at.

    Now, indeed, as I have said from the beginning of this thread, if we are merely talking about atheism in terms of popular debate in the West in the year 2008, in relation to standard mainstream fundamentalist Christian notions of ?God? I am on the side of the atheists pure and simple. But that has not been the subject of this thread. Instead we are talking about the deeper matters of both atheism and religion, and how the serious debate among serious people has never really been about these rather superficial notions of God or the lack thereof. To suggest that our age is so superficial that deeper considerations have no place is rather depressing, and something I reject, personally, though of course you are free to live and think in any manner you choose. I’m merely pointing out that serious people do indeed exist in our day and age, even if they don’t get much exposure, and they always will exist, and they are the ones who end up making the greater difference, regardless of how it plays out on TV.

  204. #204 Explicit ATheist
    March 9, 2008

    conradg

    “Look at the trillions being poured down the pisshole there. We find out that not only are placebos are just as effective as anti-depressants, expensive placebos are more effective than inexpensive ones.”

    Medicines are a for-profit business and we are just at the dawn of the age of science. Here we have an instance of science trumping the profit motive by revealing that highly profitable anti-depressants are not effective. Unfortunately, policy-makers may not follow the science here because pharmaceutical companies also generate jobs and pay taxes, but at least the truth is out there for the public. So this is an example of the triumph of independent science and its built in self-correcting tendency relative to self-interested corporations and government. That you interpret this the other way around, as a defeat for science, reflects your bias more than it does the facts here.

  205. #205 conradg
    March 9, 2008

    Windy,

    Firstly, this whole thing of whether science is a “threat to mankind” seems beside the point, so I don’t want to start another huge run of posts about it. But I want to point out that your question is a bit sneakily phrased. Astrology is just one field of pseudoscience, so should it be contrasted with all of science? To make it more balanced: which is a greater threat to mankind, rational thought or irrational thought?

    First, I wish you would actually read my posts, and acknowledge that it was not I who brought up this question of whether science of astrology was more important to mankind’s survival, but another poster here, I can’t even recall who, and you have been berating me ever since as if I was being sneaky. That’s just false and rather nasty of you to keep imputing some kind of underhandedness on my part, when I have merely been answering someone else’s question, and I think making a damned good point that you have yet to refute on the merits. I think the facts speak for themselves: the human race has survived for millions of years, and astrology is not a threat to that survival. Science, in a few hundred years, has already threatened that survival in numerous ways that are so serious there’s good reason to think we may not get through the next thousand years, when otherwise we would most certainly survive for many hundreds of thousands more, barring some kind of truly enormous natural catastrophe. So I understand why you are trying to change the subject: the facts just don’t support your position at all.

    That said, I think it’s worth considering this wider question of whether rational or irrational thought is the greater threat to mankind. This of course depends on what you consider rational thought, and what you consider irrational thought. There’s probably a ton of ways to define those two categories, but doing so in a way that they don’t actually overlap is hard to imagine. Is art rational or irrational? Is emotion rational or irrational? Where exactly do you draw the line? If by rational you mean ?science?, and everything else that isn’t supported by science is ?irrational?, then we are still back to the same problem, in that science has indeed shown itself to be incredibly dangerous to our survival. Not only that, but science owes an incredible amount of its own legacy to irrationality, in both the areas of politics and religion. Much of scientific progress has been driven, mind you, by the need to develop better weapons for killing other people. If scientists were actually rational people, they would refuse to engage in such activities, but instead, they seem to rush forward in every generation to develop more and better ways to kill one another, even though any rational person should be able to see that this only leads to one final end: the death of every human being on earth. So how is that such incredibly rational people as scientists can be so devoted to an entirely irrational enterprise?

    Well, I guess you could argue that there are rational and irrational sides to us all, and that even scientists are subject to being ruled by their own irrational motives. Except that they are not. Each scientist developing a weapon does so for very rational means. He wants his side to win, he wants to gain fame and money and recognition, he wants something that is actually quite rational. As do the scientists on the other side. It isn’t until just a few seconds before Armageddon that the irrationality of the whole pursuit actually rears its head and says ?stop!? And of course, by then it’s too late. So the problem is, rationality can lead to some truly terrible motives. Whereas, irrational motives, such as love, belief in God, self-sacrifice, and so on, can actually lead to a much more harmonious, and less conflicted world. Of course, there are indeed irrational motives that don’t have such pleasant ends, even the very same ones as love, belief in God, self-sacrifice, and so on. But while irrational thinking certainly can lead to trouble, it doesn’t lead to the creation of all these fabulous weapons with which to carry out our destruction as rational thinking does. Yes, irrational religious people have been killing one another on a rather limited scale for a very long time, but it’s only rational, scientific people who can actually kill off the whole of humanity, and they do seem dead set on just that goal ? not intentionally, of course, but as the natural result of their endless rational pursuit of self-satisfaction, safety, and dominance over others.

    Al Qaeda, for example, is not much of a threat to humanity’s unless they can get ahold of weapons of mass destruction. Science, on the other hand, could kill us all off in a hundred different ways before the end of the century, whether or not Al Qaeda gets it hands on WMD. Kurzweil’s ?singularity? may not be so rosy as he thinks: it could easily spin off into mass destruction of the planet and the death of our entire species. Or not. We’re kind of rolling the dice. Whereas, absent modern science, all these irrational people and their nutty ideas just aren’t so big a threat.

    And science didn’t create smallpox, it eradicated it from the wild. Whereas plagues created by science are still in the realm of science fiction.

    Ah, then you haven’t heard of ?mousepox?? It’s not science fiction. A few years ago some Autstralian researchers were playing around with a form of chickpox that causes a similarly mild but very contagious disease in mice. They were genetically altering this disease by inserting a gene from the mouse’s own genome that governs the mouse’s immune system, trying to find a way to create a vaccine. Well, it kind of had the opposite effect. Every mouse infected with ?mousepox? developed an unstoppable form of the disease that their immune systems were powerless to stop. Every single mouse exposed to the disease died. There was no cure. And of course, that’s not the scariest thing. The researchers had been using this particular mouse gene because an almost exact analog to this gene is in the human genome, governing the human immune system. They of course realized that if they inserted this gene into a human disease, such as human chickenpox or smallpox, that it would likely create an unstoppable killer disease that could wipe out every person on earth. Naturally, they freaked out, they called in the Australian military, and the US got involved, and the whole research operation got shut down and was made highly classified. Well, who knows if it got shut down or not, once it went behind the military security wall. There’s been some research done on how to contain things like this, and some information has been put out, but this kind of thing isn’t going away.

    So let’s not pretend this shit is just ?science fiction?. It is very real, and it’s a lot more threatening that ?irrational thought?, much less astrology. It’s a little hard to imagine that as genetic manipulation becomes easier and easier to do that someone won’t either duplicate this, or find some other similar method with equally catastrophic potential. If you really care about the survival of the human race, I suggest you stop directing all your ire at astrologers, and begin to think about your highly rational friends in the scientific community as perhaps not being quite so benign as you thought.

    Here’s a link: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/747502/posts

  206. #206 conradg
    March 9, 2008

    Explicit Atheist,

    Medicines are a for-profit business and we are just at the dawn of the age of science. Here we have an instance of science trumping the profit motive by revealing that highly profitable anti-depressants are not effective. Unfortunately, policy-makers may not follow the science here because pharmaceutical companies also generate jobs and pay taxes, but at least the truth is out there for the public. So this is an example of the triumph of independent science and its built in self-correcting tendency relative to self-interested corporations and government. That you interpret this the other way around, as a defeat for science, reflects your bias more than it does the facts here.

    When I said earlier that science is filled with pseudo-science, I meant the private sector scientific research in particular. I don’t think there’s a great deal of pseudoscience in basic research. But you have to realize that most science is done in the private sector these days, for profit, and much of it is thereby corrupted by the profit motive. Even when the science itself is not corrupted, it is often sold with the promise that it will actually change our lives and makes us happy, when in fact it rarely does anything of the kind.

    This is particularly true in medicine. Much of medical research is just crap, pure and simple. It’s not that I think medical research hasn’t done great things, or doesn’t have the potential to do great things, but it is so hopelessly corrupted by the profit motive that a lot of it is actually just destructive. I think that research into sanitation and nutrition have been fantastic in terms of disease prevention, but a whole lot of what has been done in the treatment of disease is just sheer exploitation. Most of the ads on TV for these billion-dollar pharmaceuticals are just poison. Most of them we can do without and be better off for it. So while I’m not suggesting that all medicine is crap, a lot is, and the notion that there is no pseudoscience in science because a Venn diagram doesn’t allow it is sheer blindness to the facts of what is actually going on in the world.

  207. #207 Iapetus
    March 9, 2008

    Conradg,

    “To put your mind at least partially to rest, no, I am not Dianelos, and I have never posted at, or even visited, richarddawkins.net.”

    I am glad to hear that, as it gives me hope that you will at least consider some of the arguments that were provided in this discussion. On the other hand, declarations of your own expertise in many areas while simultaneously denying this to everyone else diminishes this hope again.

    Anyway, to address your points:

    “As for “innate values”, these are also hard to define, because if they are innate, you don´t really need to define them, do you? I mean, you certainly could, but it´s not really necessary. It´s just what you are. A dog, for example, doesn´t need to define himself, he´s just a dog, and he does what dogs do without having to think about it.”

    So I note that you did not (or could not) provide any tangible definition of your “innate values”. Consequently your assertion that consumerism, feel-good-ism etc. are an aberration or loss of those innate values and therefore nihilistic can not be substantiated. This is why I was so adamant about your definition of nihilism, because if we do not properly define our terms we are just throwing words around. A person whose whole being longs for mindless enjoyment and abhors any personal or social responsibility would not be nihilistic according to you, because he is simply doing what he is doing without having to think about it. How could you possibly deny that he is following his innate values? It would not be enough to say that you do not agree with those values, you would have to establish why your innate values (whatever they are) are in any way superior or truer. Otherwise our hedonist might simply turn the tables and declare YOU a nihilist for not following HIS innate values.

    “Now, as for the notion that atheism leads to nihilism, I don´t think it has to, but if atheism is taken on as a defining conceptualizing position, then yes it does. By which I mean the kind of atheism which treats everything as a concept and a definition, and thinks that this approach can tell us what is true, and what is not.”

    OK, so we are in agreement that atheism is in no way necessarily connected to nihilism, which was Haught´s assertion that you seemed to endorse. As I argued before, atheism in its weak form is nothing more and nothing less than the absence of belief in any kind of deities. It is no philosophy of its own, it entails no further premises and it most certainly is no methodology for arriving at any valid or sound propositions as you seem to imply.

    “No you aren´t quite getting my point. My point is that we don´t have to interpret our experiences, or make concepts out of them. We can simply be who we are. [...] The point here is that the concept of God is not nearly as important as the experience of God, just as the concept of self is not nearly as important as the conscious experience of self.”

    I expected your response to go in that direction, which leads me to believe that I do in fact understand what you are saying. However, I have the impression that you do not fully understand MY point, so let me try again:

    I do not doubt that you experience yourself as an aware and self-aware, defined entity with the capacity to monitor and react to both the outside world as conveyed through the senses as well as the inside world of thoughts, emotions, dreams etc. I would furthermore endorse the proposition that I, along with several billion other human beings on the planet who have passed a certain age, share an experience very similar to your own.

    However, no matter how natural, convincing, self-evident, indisputable this may seem to us, it is not and can not be an indicator of an immutable, objective truth that could form this solid base for our knowledge and values that you crave. I could ask the simple question “How do you know that your experience and the image of a conscious Self you derive from it are not an illusion?” Your only possible answer, which you have already given, would be the self-evidency of it. However, this just indicates that you have deliberately chosen to terminate the infinite chain of substantiations or reasons at this point, which invalidates any claims to universal validity. You may wish to term this scepticism unhealthy or pathological, but this hardly constitutes a counter-argument.

    Regarding your general dislike of the excessive use of concepts in our culture, I hope you see the irony that your complaint, which you argue and try to convince other people of, is itself a concept. The moment you sit down at your computer and start typing away to convey your thoughts, you are conceptualizing. It is simply a prerequisite for any form of communication, since we can not directly access the consciousness of other people.

    Finally, I would like to make some general comments about the alleged superficiality of most atheists and the nature of “sophisticated” notions of God.

    An atheist can only define his atheism in response to certain concepts (there we go again) of God. If one considers certain types of god-believe superficial, one can not blame the atheist who does not believe in them and explains why for this superficiality.

    Furthermore, I have made the experience that the “sophistication” of many modern versions of God consists of not much more than the equivocation of “God” with terms that are normally used in quite different contexts, e.g. “Love”, “Consciousness”, “Self” etc. If one chooses such amorphous notions, it certainly has the advantage of making it hard to be an atheist in the conventional sense about them. However, I think that it also stretches and dilutes the term “God” beyond breaking point, where the concept becomes unintelligible and/or superfluous.

    Since my regular day-job will resume in the near future, I will not be able to post in any length for quite some time. I would like to thank everyone for a really interesting and civil discussion that I enjoyed quite a lot, especially since it marks the first time I changed from passive reader to active poster in such a setting.

    Cheers.

  208. #208 ctw
    March 9, 2008

    OT to leni:

    On the Dispatches thread a while back I posed a question re the “foot washing for shoes” establishment clause case to which you (I assume you’re the same “leni”) responded. Unfortunately, I had already given up on getting a substantive response and happened upon yours after the thread had died. Just a belated “thank you” for the response, which I appreciated – despite disagreeing with it.

    - Charles

  209. #209 ctw
    March 9, 2008

    “I fail to see how self-awareness is an abstraction”

    On the one hand, I didn’t say this. I said if one’s “concept of “god” [is] sufficiently abstract” it’s hard to argue against the existence of that “god”. The analogy between such a concept of “god” and self-awareness is your creation, not mine.

    On the other hand, I suspect you are ascribing to one’s self-awareness an inappropriately low degree of abstraction. I don’t think intensity of belief that X exists is a good measure of the likelihood that X actually does exist, at least with all the attributes that the believer associates with X. Yes, we all have a strong sense of our own existence and we have corroborating evidence in that others seem to agree. But we and those others may be experiencing a common illusion with respect to the details of that existence.

    Could the problem of self-awareness be analogous to the philosophical problem of “truth”? As I understand Simon Blackburn’s discussion in his book with that title, the problem is that to ascertain the truth of a proposition one needs an objective external standard and an objective external evaluator, neither of which exists unless one is addressing the “truth” of propositions that are limited in scope to a closed system of which we are external “observers” (eg, a mathematical system). Similarly, in addressing an individual’s self-awareness, mightn’t we be limited in how accurately we can understand and describe it? To meet the requirement of externality, we can’t address our own self-awareness, and perhaps we can’t adequately “observe” that of others.

    Just mental meandering. As is no doubt clear, I know little about either of the things I’m trying to analogize.

    - Charles

  210. #210 ctw
    March 9, 2008

    “An atheist can only define his atheism in response to certain concepts … of God.”

    Although I don’t share the disdain for Dawkins (in his atheist avatar) expressed by some here and elsewhere, I have come to object to his – admittedly cute, but IMO inaccurate – quip that “everyone is an atheist with respect to most gods, we just go one god further”. It suggests the indiscriminate atheism that the above quote from lapetus – with which I agree – rejects, and thereby gives some credibility to the assumption – incorrect, IMO – that “atheism” necessarily means disbelief not only in god’s that make your crops grow but also in god concepts like “god is love” that are too ill-defined for disbelief to be meaningful.

    OTOH, the quip also suggests that Dawkins had a specific “one more god” in mind, and I seriously doubt that it was some vague abstraction invented by one of the “serious” theologians whom supposedly he ignored or was ignorant of.

    - Charles

  211. #211 Explicit Atheist
    March 9, 2008

    ctw:

    “Although I don’t share the disdain for Dawkins (in his atheist avatar) expressed by some here and elsewhere, I have come to object to his – admittedly cute, but IMO inaccurate – quip that “everyone is an atheist with respect to most gods, we just go one god further”. It suggests the indiscriminate atheism that the above quote from lapetus – with which I agree – rejects, and thereby gives some credibility to the assumption – incorrect, IMO – that “atheism” necessarily means disbelief not only in god’s that make your crops grow but also in god concepts like “god is love” that are too ill-defined for disbelief to be meaningful.”

    Any god that fits in the expression “god did that” or “god will do such and such”, like any devil that fits the expression “the devil did that” or “the devil will do that” (past or future tense, either way), I believe doesn’t exist. To put this another way, I consider anyone who utters those phrases to be saying exactly the same thing as someone who says “I don’t know why that happened” or “I don’t know that will happen”. I don’t really care what attributes you assign to that god or devil, that makes no difference. Furthermore, if you define a god or devil that doesn’t fit into those expressions then it simply makes no difference whether or not that god or devil exists and it is an improper useage of those words, so when I say I believe god(s) and devil(s) do not exist then I have still committed no logical error. The error here is with the person who is misusing those two words to cover-up or whitewash their own atheism or agnosticism.

  212. #212 conradg
    March 9, 2008

    Iapetus,

    I too am not going to be able to continue these lengthy postings for much longer, and am already falling behind in reply to many worthy posters. Let me express my gratitude to you and everyone else here for the opportunity to engage with many intelligent and sophisticated minds. You’ve all certainly given me much to consider, and I hope the reverse is also true.

    I am glad to hear that, as it gives me hope that you will at least consider some of the arguments that were provided in this discussion. On the other hand, declarations of your own expertise in many areas while simultaneously denying this to everyone else diminishes this hope again.

    I’m sorry if I come off that way. I don’t claim expertise in any of the areas we are discussing, but I hope you understand that it’s simply a fact that most of the posters on this forum know very little about the kinds of religion and culture I am talking about. Imagine yourself talking about science to a very intelligent gathering of otherwise sophisticated people who had never heard of Quantum Mechanics, Newton, or Einstein. Well, this is how I feel when addressing this group, who seems never to have heard of Advaita Vedanta, Shankara, or Ramana Maharshi. It’s not that you are less intelligent than me in any respect, it’s just that your knowledge base of the topics I’ve been bringing up is just remarkably lacking. It makes it difficult for me to make the kinds of ordinary references in argument that would seem perfectly natural to a group more educated in these topics, but here seem to require so much back-tracking to the explain the basics that it’s like trying to explain to someone who has never worn clothing how to put on a shirt, much less what a shirt is. So forgive me if I’m not very good at figuring out quite how to say things such that everyone here would understand me, my intentions, the cultural background of these matters, the history behind them, the complex philosophical basis of their arguments, etc. Undoubtedly I have not done a very great job, but please understand the difficulty of the task.

    For example, to address your innate values question, I could indeed get more detailed. I could talk about compassion, harmony, clarity of mind, enlightenment, love, happiness, self-confidence, simplicity, strength of mind, peace, self-knowledge, intelligence, surrender, relaxation, renunciation, transcendence, tolerance, empathy, universalism, inclusiveness, non-separation, absence of conflict, oneness, etc. The core innate value of self-awareness naturally gives rise to these values in a fashion that is not hard to comprehend if one has any first hand experience of it, or of the religious traditions which make this central to their understanding of ?God? and the practice of religion on that basis. And anyone familiar with these traditions would know immediately what I was talking about without it having to be explained or justified. Again, this only tells me how far the atheist community is from any appreciation of the relationship between these values and our innate nature, or any understanding of where they come from or how they can be cultivated. I don’t mean that atheists lack these qualities, only that they seem to have a hard time seeing them as related to anything innate in us.

    A person whose whole being longs for mindless enjoyment and abhors any personal or social responsibility would not be nihilistic according to you, because he is simply doing what he is doing without having to think about it. How could you possibly deny that he is following his innate values?

    The person you are describing is avoiding and evading his or her own innate self-awareness, and is not basing his life and values upon this core principle. Instead, they are seeking for enjoyment in objects outside themselves. They are not achieving ?mindless? enjoyment at all. Their enjoyment is purely ?mind?, meaning an obsession with objective notions of enjoyment, not the primal, intrinsic enjoyment of our simple self-awareness. When I refer to ?conceptualization?, I am of course using that word in the context of Buddhist and Advaitic teachings, but since you don’t know much about those things, you don’t immediately understand the context of the word ?concept? within those traditions. You probably are thinking of ?intellectuals?, when in fact non-intellectuals can be just as lost in ?concepts?, just of a different flavor. People who lose themselves in the world, who lose hold of their own intrinsic self-awareness, are nihilists, regardless of whether they are sophisticated intellectuals or vapid valley girls.

    It would not be enough to say that you do not agree with those values, you would have to establish why your innate values (whatever they are) are in any way superior or truer. Otherwise our hedonist might simply turn the tables and declare YOU a nihilist for not following HIS innate values.

    It is both impossible and unnecessary to prove to anyone that self-awareness is innate, or that the hedonist who has lost himself in his pleasure seeking is inferior or less ?true?. Self-awareness, as I have said all through this thread, is not provable to anyone else. It does not make anyone superior or more ?true?. Quite the opposite. Recognizing the centrality of self-awareness destroys those artificial concepts of superiority and inferiority, and I even the dualisms of ?true? and ?false?. It helps us to recognize the inherent equality of all beings, and the inherent preciousness of life and consciousness. To suggest that such a viewpoint is ?superior? contradicts the actual insight achieved in that viewpoint, and thus it makes no sense to make such claims. I am not threatened by the accusation that I am a nihilist, in other words, though of course I cannot stop anyone from making the charge. I don’t think it makes any difference that matters. It is simply important for me to understand what my own self-nature is, and what values it imparts, and to see that forgetting my own self-awareness in pursuit of things outside myself leads to nihilism.

    OK, so we are in agreement that atheism is in no way necessarily connected to nihilism, which was Haught´s assertion that you seemed to endorse. As I argued before, atheism in its weak form is nothing more and nothing less than the absence of belief in any kind of deities. It is no philosophy of its own, it entails no further premises and it most certainly is no methodology for arriving at any valid or sound propositions as you seem to imply.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that atheism is in no way connected to nihilism. I think it certainly has a kinship with nihilism, but the key is to understand atheism as merely a transitional stage, from belief in one thing to belief in something else. The key is what that something else is. One can transition from belief in the Christian Gods to belief in the Scientific Gods, without much actually changing, in the same way that one can transition from being a heroin addict to a meth addict. Or, for that matter, from being a meth addict to being a religious addict. There’s something much more important to consider behind the mental substitution of one set of concepts and beliefs for another. I hope you recall that I agree with Nietzsche that the western Christian tradition is basically a form of nihilism itself, and that becoming an atheist in relation to that tradition does not mean that one has ceased to be a nihilist. In fact, it may mean that one has embraced an even purer form of nihilism, as I think was the case with many communists ? which is why we see such elevated levels of destructive nihilism in them. But that does not mean that all atheists are simply moving from one form of nihilism to another. I think that many, particularly the kinds of atheists found on forums like this, are in fact looking for something a bit deeper than that, a bit more solid and grounded. In that respect, science actually helps them achieve some form of grounding. But science alone can’t do that, I don’t think, because science cannot actually address what I believe to be the core matter of innate values, our own intrinsic self-awareness. That’s simply my own view, to be sure, but that’s what I’ve been trying to put out there for your consideration. Make of it what you will.

    However, no matter how natural, convincing, self-evident, indisputable this may seem to us, it is not and can not be an indicator of an immutable, objective truth that could form this solid base for our knowledge and values that you crave. I could ask the simple question “How do you know that your experience and the image of a conscious Self you derive from it are not an illusion?” Your only possible answer, which you have already given, would be the self-evidency of it. However, this just indicates that you have deliberately chosen to terminate the infinite chain of substantiations or reasons at this point, which invalidates any claims to universal validity. You may wish to term this scepticism unhealthy or pathological, but this hardly constitutes a counter-argument.

    Well, this conflict you are describing is both self-created and irresolvable, except by yourself, since you created it. The problem is that you think you didn’t create this problem, that the problem itself is self-existing, and that therefore it can’t be resolved. I can only say that you have to examine yourself and this problem much more closely, until you can see that it was in fact created by you, and can therefore be resolved by you. And this is the case with all our conceptual problems. They are self-created, rather than created by ?existence?, or the world around us. One of the discoveries that occurs in examining our intrinsic self-awareness is that all problems are self-created, the result of concepts turned upon themselves, and operating under the illusion that the concepts are themselves self-existing, rather than that we are. In the first place, notice that while the ?image? of a conscious self may be an illusion, the conscious self which observes this is not. Whatever concept we may have of ourselves, we are observing even that. We are conscious prior to any image we may create, and our own consciousness is not in the least bit changed or altered by that conceptual self-image. The attitude of doubting all self-images is, indeed, a rather healthy one, but we must come to see that none of those doubts apply to our actual, intrinsic self-awareness, which cannot be in doubt, because we must be self-aware first before we can possibly doubt anything. If doubt is dependent on self-awareness, then doubt itself means nothing if we take self-awareness away, so it would only negate its own existence and functionality. But that is not really possible, since self-awareness cannot actually be doubted, only our self-image can be doubted. The real problem arises when our self-image does not correspond to our innate self-awareness. When our self-image is identified with something other than our innate self-awareness, then we begin to fall into trouble. So it is important that even our self-image correspond to our self-awareness, rather than to objects outside ourselves.

    Regarding your general dislike of the excessive use of concepts in our culture, I hope you see the irony that your complaint, which you argue and try to convince other people of, is itself a concept. The moment you sit down at your computer and start typing away to convey your thoughts, you are conceptualizing. It is simply a prerequisite for any form of communication, since we can not directly access the consciousness of other people.

    Yes, this is one of the ironies of my arguments. There is no getting around the fact that all words are concepts, even the words ?intrinsic self-awareness?. In Advaita Vedanta, this has been addressed quite well. As Ramana Maharshi described it, the dualistic mind, living as it does in concepts, must be addressed by concepts. He compared the teachings about self-awareness to stirring a fire with a wooden stick ? yes, the wooden stick is also made of the very fuel the fire is meant to burn, but in the process of stirring the fire, the stick itself is also burned up. So in the end, even the concepts that are used to stimulate the grasping of our own self-awareness are themselves burned up, and none of them remain. This is similar to the use of koans in Zen, conceptual puzzles that engage the mind, but which end up bringing the mind to an end through paradox.

    An atheist can only define his atheism in response to certain concepts (there we go again) of God. If one considers certain types of god-believe superficial, one can not blame the atheist who does not believe in them and explains why for this superficiality.

    I would agree. My purpose is not to blame atheists. I am simply pointing out that by focusing on certain superficial religious notions, atheism itself tends towards superficiality. This reminds me of Nietzsche’s warning: ?Choose your enemies wisely, because you tend to become like what you oppose?. I think at the very least that public atheism would do better to choose more sophisticated opponents, if only to raise itself to a higher level of thought and discourse. Unfortunately, some atheists would rather win facile arguments against easy opponents than face opposition not so easily dispatched. In the context of the ?culture wars? of our time this is somewhat understandable, but in terms of intellectual development in serious quarters, it’s a bad strategy that makes atheism only appear marginally better than its enemies.

    Furthermore, I have made the experience that the “sophistication” of many modern versions of God consists of not much more than the equivocation of “God” with terms that are normally used in quite different contexts, e.g. “Love”, “Consciousness”, “Self” etc. If one chooses such amorphous notions, it certainly has the advantage of making it hard to be an atheist in the conventional sense about them. However, I think that it also stretches and dilutes the term “God” beyond breaking point, where the concept becomes unintelligible and/or superfluous.

    As if equating God with ?love? and ?consciousness? were some modern debating device developed solely for the purpose of making it harder for atheists to denounce belief in God! Please, read a book or two at least before saying demonstrably ignorant things like this. It doesn’t ?stretch? the concept of God to the point of unintelligibility, unless you lack the ability to think in a complex manner about these things. These kinds of concepts and approaches to God have been around literally for thousands of years, from the dawn of civilization, and even before that most likely. Are you familiar with the Vedas, with Dzogchen, with Taoism, etc? Was Jesus arguing with atheists when he declared that ?God is love?? Were the ancient rishis of India trying to put down some atheistic revolt when they wrote the Upanishads? Please, until very recently atheism has never driven the debate about the nature of God, and now that it is, it’s not going very deep into the actual historical debate about the nature of God that religion itself has been engaged in for milennia. It’s focusing only on the most superficial aspects of that debate, the ones related to material causes and effects. That’s barely scratching the surface of religion, and not addressing anything at the core at all.

    Anyway, don’t take my criticism too personally. I’ve enjoyed this, and I’ve enjoyed you. Wish you well.

  213. #213 windy
    March 9, 2008

    Right, because there are no objects we are aware of while in deep sleep. And yet, awareness remains. This is true of everyone. Pay more attention to your own self-awareness, and you will begin to notice this, even in deep sleep. It’s not a personal anomaly.

    How do you know this, since you have been expounding on how it’s impossible to know something about others’ consciousness?

    Can I get a show of hands? Who considers themselves “aware” their entire sleeping period? Not me, anyway.

    First, I wish you would actually read my posts, and acknowledge that it was not I who brought up this question of whether science of astrology was more important to mankind’s survival, but another poster here, I can’t even recall who, and you have been berating me ever since as if I was being sneaky.

    Please read carefully yourself. I haven’t been “berating you”, I pointed out that the specific contrast of ASTROLOGY and science was sneaky, and previously I pointed that your blaming of science while using it was hypocritical.

    I think the facts speak for themselves: the human race has survived for millions of years, and astrology is not a threat to that survival. Science, in a few hundred years, has already threatened that survival in numerous ways that are so serious there’s good reason to think we may not get through the next thousand years, when otherwise we would most certainly survive for many hundreds of thousands more, barring some kind of truly enormous natural catastrophe. So I understand why you are trying to change the subject: the facts just don’t support your position at all.

    I pointed out that this is not the whole story, you dishonest asshole. It’s hard to have a reasonable discussion with you, since you constantly project your own inability to consider others’ points onto everyone else. Go blow your God-Self somewhere else.

  214. #214 windy
    March 9, 2008
    And science didn’t create smallpox, it eradicated it from the wild. Whereas plagues created by science are still in the realm of science fiction.

    Ah, then you haven’t heard of ‘mousepox’? It’s not science fiction.

    Obviously I meant plagues as in actual epidemics on the loose. You know, like smallpox used to be.

    If you really care about the survival of the human race, I suggest you stop directing all your ire at astrologers, and begin to think about your highly rational friends in the scientific community as perhaps not being quite so benign as you thought.

    Where have I directed “ire” at astrologers? But fine, let’s do away with science altogether and go all live in mud huts. Since it’s the lifespan of the species that matters, not the individual humans’ quality of life or intellectual achievements.

    ps. sorry to mar the mutual back-patting here, but the smarm finally broke this camel’s back.

  215. #215 Leni
    March 9, 2008

    CTW,

    OT to leni:

    On the Dispatches thread a while back I posed a question re the “foot washing for shoes” establishment clause case to which you (I assume you’re the same “leni”) responded. Unfortunately, I had already given up on getting a substantive response and happened upon yours after the thread had died. Just a belated “thank you” for the response, which I appreciated – despite disagreeing with it.

    Yes that’s me. I went back and read it again because I did not recall what I had said.

    No problem, I guess. That must have been one of my better days. But ask JJ. I’m not usually that nice. There is a snark monster of Lovecraftian proportion inside of me. It’s usually all I can do to keep it at bay :)

  216. #216 ctw
    March 9, 2008

    EA:

    I infer from your comment that you think there is some disagreement between the quote from my comment and your response. To repeat yet again, it’s because there is no widespread agreement on the meaning that I try to avoid using “atheist” and challenge those who use it in ways I consider to be careless, or worse, insulting*. As I did in other comments, if necessary I use “a-theist” to mean essentially what I gather you have in mind by the passage “Any god that fits in the expression ‘god did that’ … etc”.

    I agree that it doesn’t seem to make any difference whether or not a non-theistic “god” exists since by my (and I infer, your) definition of a theistic god, there would be no detectable consequence that would follow from the existence of a non-theistic one.

    Where we may disagree is that if someone has an abstract concept of “god” that I can’t even imagine, then I’m willing to concede that that god “exists” for that person. But I certainly won’t waste any time arguing that anyone else should make that concession.

    Or perhaps I missed your point.

    - Charles

    * – conradg faithfully provides yet another example:

    “by focusing on certain superficial religious notions, atheism itself tends towards superficiality”

    This idea could be conveyed with perfect fidelity by saying instead:

    “arguments which focus on certain superficial religious notions tend toward superficiality”

    This would avoid offending us a-theists who for the most part not only don’t focus on superficial religious notions but consider most time spent addressing even supposedly non-superficial western religious notions to be wasted. (Not to mention avoiding the illogicality of attributing the ability to “focus” to a concept.)

    - Charles

  217. #217 386sx
    March 9, 2008

    “by focusing on certain superficial religious notions, atheism itself tends towards superficiality”

    Nah not really. All that god stuff is just stupid that’s all. If you want to call god a peanut butter sandwich, then I guess that god stuff isn’t so stupid after all. I guess!!

  218. #218 ctw
    March 10, 2008

    leni:

    Don’t mean to hi-jack the thread, but since it’s apparently dying anyway, I will for one last comment.

    Altho I didn’t go back and re-read your response, I do remember its being mildly snarky – not unheard of in blog-land! IIRC, it started with something about my feeling that my question didn’t “get the respect I thought it deserved”. My reply would have been that I wasn’t after respect, just an answer based on legal analysis rather than personal opinion. Even an insulting reply with some legal analysis would have been fine; but “I know an EC violation when I see it” – the essence of replies prior to yours – wasn’t. Despite being a layman, I know that in EC cases, the devil is in the details, which my question addressed.

    I’ll be interested in seeing if that case goes anywhere. It seemed potentially interesting.

    - Charles

  219. #219 conradg
    March 10, 2008

    Windy,

    This may be an example of the squeaky wheel getting oiled, since there are a lot better posts out there to reply to, but I couldn’t help myself.

    Please read carefully yourself. I haven’t been “berating you”, I pointed out that the specific contrast of ASTROLOGY and science was sneaky, and previously I pointed that your blaming of science while using it was hypocritical.

    First, for about the 10th time, the specific contrast of astrology to science in relation to human survival was not brought up by me, but by another poster, and your continual berating of me about that is just incredibly annoying. How on earth is it ?sneaky? of me to respond to what someone else here says by actually addressing the specific issue they raised? Or is it only sneaky to actually make a stronger point in the process than either they, or you, can handle? And yes, you are indeed berating me on this point, which is pretty evident in your resorting to such wonderful arguments as the standard ?go blow yourself? response.

    I pointed out that this is not the whole story, you dishonest asshole. It’s hard to have a reasonable discussion with you, since you constantly project your own inability to consider others’ points onto everyone else. Go blow your God-Self somewhere else.

    Well, of course it’s not the whole story, only the potential end of the story. And what on earth is dishonest about pointing out the very real risks of science in our day and age? I’m not advocating that we end science altogether, but it’s not as if the risks of astrology are something I think we need to worry about all that much.

    Now, what’s genuinely interesting to me is that in your effort to turn the discussion into a contrast between the risks of rationality versus those of irrationality, it is you who have ended up exploding in an utterly irrational, angry, delusional manner, and have abandoned all pretense of rational argumentation. I would say that you are kind of proving my point, that those who think they have a monopoly on rationality are often just fooling themselves, and in the end, are a greater risk to peace and stability than those who favor things you might consider “irrational”.

  220. #220 conradg
    March 10, 2008

    I couldn’t post last night, for some reason. Thought the board had reached its limit or something. Anyway, will try to respond to posts over the coming week.

  221. #221 clarence
    March 10, 2008

    The core innate value of self-awareness naturally gives rise to these values in a fashion that is not hard to comprehend if one has any first hand experience of it, or of the religious traditions…And anyone familiar with these traditions would know immediately what I was talking about without it having to be explained or justified.

    Emphasis mine.

    This, even more than his slippery tendency to redefine all of the relevant terms as he sees fit, explains why engaging conradg is futile. He does not seem to understand that justifying these concepts is exactly the burden that he has taken up. That’s what argument is–presenting justifications for your conclusions. Perhaps if more effort were spent building effective justifications and less time wasted on windbaggery about how deep and sophisticated he is, his audience would be won over to his flaky god-is-another-word-for-self-awareness philosophy.

    Or not. His statements are not functionally different than any of the usual tripe that atheists hear–from the least sophisticated Southern Baptist preacher types, no less–about how we would instantly agree with their irrational beliefs if we had experienced Christ’s healing touch on our hearts and were born again, blah blah. Corndog’s statements are just longer and have that touch of yellow-fever-induced mysticism what makes ‘em classy.

  222. #222 clarence
    March 10, 2008

    Shit. That “corndog” slip was entirely unintentional, and I’m sorry. I’m dyslexic and very hungry.

  223. #223 windy
    March 10, 2008

    First, for about the 10th time, the specific contrast of astrology to science in relation to human survival was not brought up by me, but by another poster, and your continual berating of me about that is just incredibly annoying.

    OK, in retrospect I admit I was unfair, I didn’t make it clear that I considered Leni’s and your questions to be different. Leni clearly wasn’t talking about astrology causing the extinction of the human race. You did blow my words completely out of proportion, too, so I assumed you were looking for a fight. I assure you that “a bit sneakily” was not so sinisterly meant as you seemed to interpret.

    Now, what’s genuinely interesting to me is that in your effort to turn the discussion into a contrast between the risks of rationality versus those of irrationality, it is you who have ended up exploding in an utterly irrational, angry, delusional manner, and have abandoned all pretense of rational argumentation.

    Insults are not argumentation anyway, and using them does not mean one “abandons all pretense of rational argumentation”, it is just a sign of frustration, fuckhead! :)

    And what on earth is dishonest about pointing out the very real risks of science in our day and age? I’m not advocating that we end science altogether, but it’s not as if the risks of astrology are something I think we need to worry about all that much.

    What are you advocating, then? Some tools are dangerous, but we need them anyway to be “better off”. After your going on about the nihilism and pathology of science it did sound like you were serious about humanity being “better off” without science, not just pointing out that science can be dangerous.

    I forgot to address this from before:

    I think the facts speak for themselves: the human race has survived for millions of years

    Actually, the “human race” hasn’t survived for millions of years, unless your definition is so broad as to include australopithecines; and countless species have emerged and died since the human lineage split from other apes. Neanderthals weren’t killed by science (nor astrology, I’ll grant you that). A non-science-using species doesn’t face great prospects either. Maybe it’s worth to try to break the cycle, or “die trying” :)

  224. #224 windy
    March 10, 2008

    Are you familiar with the Vedas, with Dzogchen, with Taoism, etc? Was Jesus arguing with atheists when he declared that ‘God is love’? Were the ancient rishis of India trying to put down some atheistic revolt when they wrote the Upanishads?

    From the ‘Macrohistory’ website:

    “Intellectual unrest continued in India through the 500s. A few writers in India challenged Hinduism by proclaiming that the universe was essentially inanimate and functioned other than by the magic of gods. They claimed that when a person dies he dissolves back into primary elements, that after death there is neither pain nor pleasure, that there is no afterlife or reincarnation, that soul and god are only words and that Hindu sacrifices accomplish nothing. The materialist point of view found its way into the Upanishads, and Brahmin authorities responded by removing the offending entries, and they destroyed other materialist writings. No writings expressing the materialist point of view were to survive. They were to be known only through those who argued against them.”

  225. #225 Leni
    March 10, 2008

    Conradg wrote:

    And what on earth is dishonest about pointing out the very real risks of science in our day and age? I’m not advocating that we end science altogether, but it’s not as if the risks of astrology are something I think we need to worry about all that much.

    I brought it up to point out how utterly ineffectual and irrelevant it really is, not to expound upon the dangers of it.

    Here’s what I said:

    And something tells me that the survival of the human species and our ultimate happiness does not depend on astrology. I think we could get by just fine, and probably even better, without it.

    To which you responded:

    Something tells me that if the human race becomes extinct relatively soon, it won’t be because of astrology, but it will be because of science.

    You made it a “science versus the human race” argument. Not me, not windy. You.

    Aside from all this, in all of this I have yet to see you explain why criticizing the linchpins of astrology is “superficial”. Those are the things it relies on and criticizing those faulty claims is exactly what we should do.

  226. #226 windy
    March 10, 2008

    I brought it up to point out how utterly ineffectual and irrelevant it really is, not to expound upon the dangers of it.

    But on the other hand, astrology may seem ineffectual and harmless, but give it a few thousand years and where does it lead? Attempts to predict celestial events, the rise of a class of professionals to interpret them, curiosity about the heavens, the development of new ever more accurate instruments to observe them, overturning of previous ideas, and ultimately theories that attempt to explain the whole cosmos… how can you call astrology safe, if it may cause *gasp* science? ;)

  227. #227 conradg
    March 10, 2008

    Windy,

    Thanks for backing away from the ad hominems. I understand your frustration, in that you somehow feel you are in the position of having to defend science in its entirety, which is simply not the case. I think it’s fine if you simply acknowledge that there are some very good things about science, and some very bad things. For my part, I think there are some good things and bad things about astrology as well, but they are nowhere near as extreme on either end. Astrology could never have wiped out smallpox, but it could never invent mousepox either. Which is more important for the survival of the human race remains to be seen.

    I do wish you would address the more important points I raised, which is that the dangers of rationality are also very great. The incentives to act out of ?rational self-interest? do indeed seem to propel science in a direction of profoundly destructive development, as the arms race and concern about WMDs amply demonstrates. Rationally speaking, the pursuit of dominance and the destruction of one’s enemies makes perfect sense. It’s in the genes even. Looking at oneself purely as a creature of evolutionary instincts, why shouldn’t we rationally pursue such ends? I’d suggest that there’s some serious benefit to be had by looking at these matters, and life itself, a little less rationally, and a little more irrationally.

    Leni clearly wasn’t talking about astrology causing the extinction of the human race. You did blow my words completely out of proportion, too, so I assumed you were looking for a fight.

    Leni was of course trying to suggest that the survival of the species (his phrase) was more likely to be furthered by the positive benefits of science, than by the dubious benefits of astrology. What I pointed out was that he was looking at science through rose-colored glasses, and ignoring the truly horrific threats that science has created, and that weighed in that way, the cost/benefit analysis is not so clear. What I also should have pointed out is that the question is simply silly, in that the two are not comparable activities. One might as well compare the benefits of structural steel to those of Picasso’s cubist paintings. They aren’t intended to benefit people in any remotely similar way. A more apt comparison would be to ask whether astrology or anti-depressant drug therapy is more useful for helping people resolve a mid-life crisis. Astrology is simply not directed at solving the same kinds of problems that science is directed at solving. But I was simply trying to answer the direct question that Leni put, and that you kept alive, which doesn’t really flatter science as much as you would like to think.

    In other words, astrology doesn’t claim that it will enhance the survival of the human race, so why compare it to anything else in that manner? Science does, however, so its claims need to be critically examined.

    What are you advocating, then? Some tools are dangerous, but we need them anyway to be “better off”. After your going on about the nihilism and pathology of science it did sound like you were serious about humanity being “better off” without science, not just pointing out that science can be dangerous.

    I don’t think it’s all that hard to figure out what I’m advocating. I’m not advocating the end of science, nor am I advocating an end to religion. I’m advocating an understanding that sees the intelligence in both, and does not see them in conflict. I consider the conflict between science and religion to essentially be a conceptual problem, not a real one, and I see the problem to be perpetuated in roughly equal measures on both sides. I’m hardly an opponent of science. I’ve studied it all my life, though not professionally. My two sons are both physics majors at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, per my own lifelong encouragement of science. They aren’t atheists however, and somehow don’t see a conflict in the two either. And they both find astrology to have some genuine basis, though not a scientific one, which pretty much summarizes my own views.

    I think that finding a harmonious and inclusive understanding which allows one to see what is valuable and profound in both science and religion is essential to anyone growing up in today’s world, and that being the exclusive devotee of one or the other is what is dangerous. So I find religious fundamentalists to be dangerous people, in that they exclude science from their mind and psyche. But I also find scientific materialists to be dangerous also, in that they exclude the religious and ?irrational? side of life from their minds and psyches. And to be honest, it is the scientists who have no ?soul? who I find to be the far more dangerous of the two. I had the misfortune to once work in a private-sector organization with a guy who was a Ph.D in Nuclear Physics, former military, former head of security at Las Alamos Nuclear Lab, who was frankly one of the scariest dudes I ever met. Scary because his whole world was built on fear. He was head of security in this organization, and I clashed severely with him over a number of issues, including his threat to take away my own security clearance, which fortunately was shot down as outrageous by others. The mindset of guys like this, all utterly rational and clear, is outrageously insane, and if allowed to dominate our world, will indeed destroy it in short order. So if I seem a little sensitive about the issue of scientific destruction of the world, it’s because I have some first hand experience of the kind of people who are seeking the power to do just that.

    Actually, the “human race” hasn’t survived for millions of years, unless your definition is so broad as to include australopithecines; and countless species have emerged and died since the human lineage split from other apes. Neanderthals weren’t killed by science (nor astrology, I’ll grant you that). A non-science-using species doesn’t face great prospects either. Maybe it’s worth to try to break the cycle, or “die trying” :)

    Really, don’t be specious (pun intended). The human species is generally agreed to have come into its own about 2.5 million years ago, which the last time I checked amounted to ?millions of years?. What would you call it? Tens of hundreds of thousands of years? Neanderthals are not a separate species, only a sub species. They are Homo Sapiens Neanderthalis, we are Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Can’t you at least get your science right, when arguing on the side of science? And, yes, I did acknowledge that our species could indeed go extinct by natural means. But most likely it would only do so after evolving into a more fit sub-species, exactly as happened with the Neanderthals. You may have noticed that even though the Neanderthals died out, human beings did not. So that’s not really the same thing. Who knows, maybe the next evolutionary step will be Homo Sapiens Astrologicus.

  228. #228 conradg
    March 10, 2008

    Leni,

    Are you one of those people who have a hard time seeing the nose on your own face? As you openly admit, you said,

    And something tells me that the survival of the human species and our ultimate happiness does not depend on astrology. I think we could get by just fine, and probably even better, without it.

    This in the midst of an argument contrasting the utility of science and astrology. Yes, I know that your point was that astrology doesn’t matter and is irrelevant, but I think my counter, that on the issue of what our survival as a species depends on, astrology has far few negatives than science, is quite relevant.

    Now, I could also have brought up the sheer stupidity of the analogy, and I apologize for not doing so. I’m sure the survival of the human species doesn’t depend on vacuum cleaners either, but this does not mean that vacuum cleaners are ineffectual and irrelevant either. It depends on what you use them for. Astrology is quite useful for a number of things, just as vacuum cleaners are. They are also useless for a number of things as well. And neither will likely affect the survival of our species. Which is an utterly ineffectual and irrelevant point to make, by the way.

    You made it a “science versus the human race” argument. Not me, not windy. You.

    Excuse me, but the whole topic was already a ?science versus astrology? argument, from beginning to end, so I hardly see how continuing the contrast is some crazy twist on my part. When you were trying to make the point that astrology isn’t relevant to the survival of the species, are you honestly telling me you weren’t thinking ?…but science is?, and implying it in the context of our argument?

    Aside from all this, in all of this I have yet to see you explain why criticizing the linchpins of astrology is “superficial”. Those are the things it relies on and criticizing those faulty claims is exactly what we should do.

    I don’t think criticizing the linchpins of astrology is superficial. I think it’s necessary. Unfortunately, to do that you’d actually have to know something about astrology, and be able to understand what it’s approach is, which you clearly don’t. You’d have to have actually studied the subject with some kind of depth. Let me just ask you honestly, how many books of astrology have you actually read? Which astrologers do you think best understand the subject? Which texts would you point to as definitive?How extensive is your knowledge of the subject? I’m guessing the answers to these questions is somewhere in the vicinity of a null set. But go ahead, make my day, surprise me.

  229. #229 conradg
    March 10, 2008

    Windy,

    But on the other hand, astrology may seem ineffectual and harmless, but give it a few thousand years and where does it lead? Attempts to predict celestial events, the rise of a class of professionals to interpret them, curiosity about the heavens, the development of new ever more accurate instruments to observe them, overturning of previous ideas, and ultimately theories that attempt to explain the whole cosmos… how can you call astrology safe, if it may cause *gasp* science? ;)

    Well, finally, you make a good point, if you don’t quite appreciate it. This is an issue I meant to bring up a while back in response to some posts on astrology I haven’t had time to answer. The point being, that astrology is the source of the sciences, historically speaking, and even the source of ?rationalism? and ?empiricism? as actual disciplines. It is also in many respects the source of religion as well. It’s certainly the oldest known form of religion. Astrological symbols for Taurus date back at least 16,000 years, possibly as much as 29,000 years, and are thought by many to be part of the meanings of the ancient cave paintings in France. It appears from many accounts, including the Vedas, that astrology was the first religion, and remained intimately connected to religion throughout the ages.

    There’s a wonderful little book called, I think, ?Jesus Christ, Sun of God?, which points to the hundreds of astrological connections in the New Testament, which clearly suggest that much of what is in the accounts of Jesus’ life there are in fact derived from astrological myth and practice. From the very notion of Jesus’ association with the Sun, to the twelve disciples being representative of the twelve signs of the zodiac, to the birth of Jesus and death of Jesus being associated with the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, to the connections between the myth of Jesus and that of the Egyptian’s myths about Sirius and the timings of their celebrations, there’s more than enough to drive a modern fundamentalist crazy. Maybe you already know some of that.

    Likewise, with science. Without astrology, it’s fair to say that there would be no such thing as science. Astrology was the driving force behind the observation of the stars, of course, but also behind the development of mathematics and geometry, and the capacity to chart and predict the positions of the stars and planets over time, with remarkable accuracy. Astrology even drove the construction of monumental architecture with tremendous precision, such as the pyramids, which are designed according to astrological specifications in order to reflect specific patterns and cycles in the stars as they relate to specific religious myths they held.

    So the idea that astrology is somehow ?irrational? is quite strange, in that it gave birth to rationalistic science in the first place. Obviously, astrology was a hybrid creation, and unless you understand its origins, you are not going to be able to properly criticize its functions, its purposes, and its uses, then or now. Obviously there’s been a divergence in the practice of astrology, with its empirical side branching off into what we now call the ?sciences?, and its mythic and religious side simply going by the name ?astrology?, but one cannot divide the two into ?rational? and ?irrational? or useful and useless. Obviously, each side of astrology had uses, and I’d suggest that each side continues to have uses, just not of the same nature, but not truly separable either.

    Now, you are right, in a sense, that because astrology gave birth to science, it is responsible for the destruction science might wreck. But that ignores the historical separation that has occurred, in that astrologers are no longer involved in science, but are of course considered anathema to most scientists. I would suggest that it is this hostile separation of the two that is the source of greatest danger, that science divorced from the psyche is a terrible threat to mankind, and that re-integrating the two is crucial to our survival. This does not mean mixing the two in an incenstuous manner, but seeing each of the two in the proper perspective as meaningful perspectives on life and existence. From this dialog here, I wouldn’t be holding my breath, but it’s still a valid point to bring up.

    So thinking about this issue more, I’d actually have to say that in a broad sense, yes, astrology is indeed crucial to the survival of the human race, because without taking the psyche into account, and the relationship of the psyche to science, the world is probably going downhill very fast. So thanks for bringing that point up, Windy.

  230. #230 windy
    March 10, 2008

    Really, don’t be specious (pun intended). The human species is generally agreed to have come into its own about 2.5 million years ago, which the last time I checked amounted to ‘millions of years’. What would you call it?

    As a biologist, I would call it “wrong”. From a person fond of telling others how superficial their knowledge of various matters is, this is rather ironic. Of course the age of the human species is tangential to the discussion, but really, you should read up on this a bit before telling people that they can’t “get the science right”.

    But most likely it would only do so after evolving into a more fit sub-species, exactly as happened with the Neanderthals. You may have noticed that even though the Neanderthals died out, human beings did not.

    However you classify them, they represented a separate taxon from us, they didn’t evolve “into” us. The classification of neanderthals as a full species or not may be debated, but right now the biological community is a bit more on the “species” than the “subspecies” side (there is the possibility that n.s and modern humans may have interbred a bit, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be separate species). Anyways there are dozens of other side branches of the hominid tree that have died out.

  231. #231 Leni
    March 11, 2008

    conradg wrote:

    Leni was of course trying to suggest that the survival of the species (his phrase) was more likely to be furthered by the positive benefits of science, than by the dubious benefits of astrology.

    First of all Mr. Perceptive, I’m a she. Hence the female name.

    Second, all I said was that astrology was ineffectual, trivial bullshit.

  232. #232 Leni
    March 11, 2008

    Conradg wrote:

    Unfortunately, to do that you’d actually have to know something about astrology…

    You mean like knowing that Aristotle’s prime mover argument is causal as opposed to… artistic?

  233. #233 Leni
    March 11, 2008

    Astrology is quite useful for a number of things, just as vacuum cleaners are…

    No. Vacuum cleaners clean things. They don’t need lame excuses, they have “reasons”.

  234. #234 conradg
    March 11, 2008

    Leni,

    What’s with all the lame excuses? Why can’t you just have an honest conversation? Obviously you don’t know squat about astrology, and that’s fine with me. Not many people do, certainly not at places like this. Why don’t you just admit it, and move on, acknowledging that limitation? Why can’t you just be a little humble about things, and admit you don’t know much, but have certain prejudices that you think are probably well founded, and maybe we could talk them over? If you don’t know much about astrology it not only means you can’t argue against it very well, it also means I can’t expect you to see much positive about it either. And I don’t. But I do expect a little common curtesy and human kindness. Or is that something you think people who believe in astrology are undeserving of?

    As for you being a female, no, it’s not clear from the name “Leni” what sex you are. I’ve never met anyone who spelled their name that way, and all the other Lenny’s I’ve known are male. But sorry for the confusion. This is the internet, you know.

    And yes, I understand that you think astrology is ineffective, trivial bullshit, but then again, you don’t know anything about it either, so your opinion really doesn’t count for much. In fact, in my experience people who offer conclusive dismissals of things they know nothing about are not very wise, whatever their sex, or IQ. It doesn’t flatter you to talk this way, I hope you realize. So if you want to talk about astrology, fine, but do so with a little awareness that you don’t know much about the subject, and you might actually learn something.

  235. #235 conradg
    March 11, 2008

    Windy,

    As a biologist, you should know that Homo Habilis, considered by most anthropologists the first true human (hence the name ?homo?, lived from approximately 2.4-1.6 million years ago. Here’s the Wikipedia entry:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_habilis

    Now, is the human race 2.5 million years old, give or take, or not? Don’t play these silly games, please, trying to somehow prove your ?depth? or dispute mine, by trying to split hairs over some petty taxonomic issue, and being wrong to boot.

    As for Neanderthals, yes, they are a separate taxon, but only behaviorally. They could certainly interbreed with us, and there’s some evidence that they did, but it appears to have been quite rare. And you’re right, Neanderthals did not evolve into modern humans, I mispoke there. They had a common ancestor some 500-800,000 years ago, and the point is that Neanderthals dying out did not mean the end of the human race, since the probable reason they died out was from competition from us. The point is that when Homo Sapiens Sapiens eventually dies out, it will probably be from competition by a new sub-species of Homo, and thus it will not represent the end of the human race any more than the dying out of the Neanderthals did. Which means that even if that happens, which previous natural history suggests is likely, it won’t mean ?our extinction?, it will mean our ongoing evolution.

    Of course, all that is probably meaningless now, due to science. Human evolution is likely to change more in the next 1,000 years than it has in the last million. And it is highly unlikely that homo sapiens sapiens will be the most dominant species on the planet by then. Either some fascinating set of new homos will be bred in laboratories and petri dishes, or an entirely new species will evolve from silicone, or God (literally) knows what will happen. It could be that the dominant species on the planet in 1,000 years will be the cockroach.

    Anyway, could we quit playing Mr. Smartypants and grow up just a little here?

  236. #236 conradg
    March 11, 2008

    This thread is devolving into petty squabbles, and I’d like to get back to the main subject ? viewpoints on the existence of God – and make a fairly simple set of propositions, based on what we’ve discussed so far:

    1.A great many human beings have a fundamental, innate, intuitive feeling-conviction that there is an all-pervading power, presence, being and consciousness that is the higher truth and reality of this world, and this life, that they call by various names, but which we can simply refer to as ?God?.
    2.This sense of ?God? that many human beings have reflects a deeper reality that is real and true. Therefore, ?God? does exist, even if human beings don’t know precisely what the nature of God is.
    3.Human beings have a powerful tendency to anthropomorphize whatever they see or experience, particularly powerful manifestations of nature.
    4.Human beings often anthropomorphize this feeling-conviction of ?God?, and thus often conceive of ?God? as a human-like entity, yet infinitely higher than them, whose power is all-pervasive and metaphysical in nature, and who has personal control over human beings, and all of life for that matter.
    5.This anthropomorphized God does not exist, at least as conceived of by human beings.
    6.God is actually our own fundamental and innate being and Self.

    I’m sure many will disagree with many of these propositions, particularly 2 and 6. Anyway, this probably comes close to summarizing my basic views, at least as of tonight. I reserve the right to greatly modify these propositions as needs be, which is likely to be much needed.

  237. #237 windy
    March 11, 2008

    Now, is the human race 2.5 million years old, give or take, or not? Don’t play these silly games, please, trying to somehow prove your ?depth? or dispute mine, by trying to split hairs over some petty taxonomic issue, and being wrong to boot.

    Wow, you are really persisting with this. Funny. I said it was tangential, but really, the human race as in our species is NOT 2.5 millions years old. This was something different from “us”.

    I’m not trying to prove anything, just thought that you’d like to get things right as someone who’s “knowledge of science is pretty broad, and even deep, at least compared to most laymen”

  238. #238 conradg
    March 11, 2008

    Clarence,

    This, even more than his slippery tendency to redefine all of the relevant terms as he sees fit, explains why engaging conradg is futile. He does not seem to understand that justifying these concepts is exactly the burden that he has taken up. That’s what argument is–presenting justifications for your conclusions. Perhaps if more effort were spent building effective justifications and less time wasted on windbaggery about how deep and sophisticated he is, his audience would be won over to his flaky god-is-another-word-for-self-awareness philosophy.

    Or not. His statements are not functionally different than any of the usual tripe that atheists hear–from the least sophisticated Southern Baptist preacher types, no less–about how we would instantly agree with their irrational beliefs if we had experienced Christ’s healing touch on our hearts and were born again, blah blah. Corndog’s statements are just longer and have that touch of yellow-fever-induced mysticism what makes ‘em classy.

    Really, what on earth are you talking about? I haven’t spent any time proclaiming my own depth and sophistication, I’ve merely pointed out that most atheists, including most people here, have very superficial knowledge of religion, and for that reason alone can’t seem to make anything but superficial arguments. Your own reply here is just one more example of this. Yes, I’m sure you can’t tell the difference between what I’ve been saying here and a Southern Baptist preacher, because you don’t really know what either of us are talking about, and anything referring to ?God? sounds the same to you. This is not our fault, but yours. Religious people have been arguing vigorously with one another for milennia, disagreeing about almost everything, and yet you somehow think it’s all the same. You might as well say all the chemical elements are the same, because all they’re made of is protons, neutrons and electrons.

    As for my having to ?justify? these notions of innate values, yes, I could spend more time on that. I could also spend a lot of time re-inventing the wheel. If you are really so dense that I have got to do that point by point, I’m willing to make at least an honest effort there, but please, tell me what it is that you don’t understand, and where I should begin. Or, we could save a lot of time, and you could actually read up on the subject before shooting your mouth off on matters you don’t seem to have a clue about.

    I have no expectation whatsoever that anyone here will simply agree with me because I’ve made some fancy argument. Obviously, if this is the first time you’ve heard this kind of thing, you’re going to need lots and lots of time to consider these things, and lots more voices than mine to listen to. I’ve merely tried to point out that there are many approaches to ?God?, and that most of them are not addressed by your arguments here. You can call me all kinds of names if you like, but this isn’t telling anyone you’ve really thought this stuff through, quite the opposite. And by the way, that’s some massive dyslexia you’ve got. You really ought to see an astrologer about that.

  239. #239 conradg
    March 11, 2008

    Windy,

    Please, please look it up in a biology book. Homo Habilis is a human species. There have been many human species, Homo Sapiens is just one of them. I mean honestly, first you claim that Homo Sapies Neanderthalis is a separate species from Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and not you claim that Homo Habilis is not a human species at all. How someone who actually claims to be a biologist could make these claims is simply not explicable except by a sheer desire to win arguments at all costs, even when the obvious truth is the victim.

    Yes, this is surely tangental, and your persistence in arguing on the wrong side of what every biologist in the world knows is just astonishing to me.

  240. #240 Oran Kelley
    March 11, 2008

    And so what are we to think of the existentialists, who seemed to think that the loss of God was a big deal? A bunch of ignorami?

    The “look at Sweden” argument is really tired. High levels of atheism, but what else? How strong is social cohesion in Sweden? What is it composed of? Do widespread irrational beliefs play a role in Swedish social cohesion? How far are they away from the sort of social strife we can see just under the surface in places like Copenhagen or East Germany?

    And how about looking at America: how many of the supposedly religious people in our country really believe in God? (Just saying you believe doesn’t really mean a whole lot.) Can we design an experiment that would demonstrate the operative power of a fictive God in people’s lives?

    Personally, I would argue that the religious revival in the US, and all that consumerism and fecklessness are, in fact, evidence of widespread effective atheism in America. That is, relatively few professed believers believe strongly enough to take any real comfort from their notions of God.

    Equally shallow are all the unexamined questions beneath the Sweden example. If we are really the better thinkers here, let’s try for better–let’s think along with the existentialists rather than blithely dismissing their concerns with our imaginary secularist playlands.

  241. #241 windy
    March 11, 2008

    Homo Habilis is a human species. There have been many human species, Homo Sapiens is just one of them.

    Exactly, “a” human species. You were talking about when THE human species was “generally agreed” to have originated. When you are talking about “the” human species, it is generally understood to mean our species, which is not 2.5 million years old.

    For instance, in this interview of anthropologist Barbara King, she says:

    First of all, I should say we now know that our species, Homo sapiens, is 200,000 years old.

    Also to get back on topic, King talks about religion in our ancestors and takes the view that it’s an adaptation.

  242. #242 windy
    March 11, 2008

    The “look at Sweden” argument is really tired.

    Not if one is simply trying to counter hyperbole about non-theism as an “intolerable burden” on people. The more subtle effects and comparisons about what is ‘better’ for society are a different matter.

  243. #243 conradg
    March 11, 2008

    Exactly, “a” human species. You were talking about when THE human species was “generally agreed” to have originated. When you are talking about “the” human species, it is generally understood to mean our species, which is not 2.5 million years old.

    I was talking about how long human beings have been on this earth. Every idiot knows that human beings have been around for about 2.5 million years. That’s the lifespan of “mankind”, dude. No one that I know of splits the meaning of the word “a” like this for no purpose whatsoever, except idiots who want to fight about nothing. The whole point of our argument was the survival of human beings, not some taxonomic battle over which the various branchings of humanity over the last 2.5 million years. There have been many human species during that time, many branching, and the natural course of evolution would suggest the process would continue in the same fashion for quite a long time to come. Except, of course, for the development of science, which seems that it will alter that course forever, one way or another, in the very near future.

    But evolution aside, the personal issue is what I find disturbing here. Am I wrong to conclude that you are targetting me in a very petty way, looking for some tiny opening with which to drive a knife into my arguments by making the ad hominem accusation that I’m some ignoramus about science, that I don’t know what I’m talking about, when in fact my scientific knowledge is plenty good enough for these discussions, whereas it is your knowledge of religion and astrology that is lacking? I mean, in your book it seems you have to imagine that anyone who supports religion or astrology must be totally ignorant of science, and thus you keep trying to trip me up on some petty issue like this, just to demonstrate that I’m not up to the conversation. It’s pretty petty and stupid, and ends up making you look worse than you did at the start.

    The notion that religious people must be ignorant of science is well refuted by the significant number of religious people who are in the highest levels of science, Nobel Prize winners, etc. Kepler, for example, was an astrologer, Newton an alchemist, and Einstein a vocal believer in God (though not a sectarian beleiver). Was there knowledge and understanding of science lacking? Well then, what exactly are you trying to prove? Why can’t you simply argue the actual issues I’ve raised, rather than trying to attack me personally on these utterly tangental issues which require you to stretch the meaning of the word “a” to get an outcome that makes you look “correct” – when in fact we both know that I know the difference between homo habilis and homo sapiens, and their relative lifespans, and thus you would know immediately that when I put out the 2.5 million number, you would know that I was talking about homohabilis and the whole human family, and not merely homo sapiens sapiens. Any biologist would immediately recognize that and understand what I’m talking about, unless they are determined not to for purely hostile reasons.

    So what’s with all the hostility, why not just talk rationally and without all this emotional wierdness?

  244. #244 386sx
    March 12, 2008

    The “look at Sweden” argument is really tired.

    Other tired arguments:

    2 + 2 = 4.

    Grass is green.

    Clouds are way up there in the sky.

  245. #245 windy
    March 12, 2008

    But evolution aside, the personal issue is what I find disturbing here. Am I wrong to conclude that you are targetting me in a very petty way

    Yes you are. Obviously it’s perfectly valid to assume when someone’s talking about “the human race coming into its own” or similar that they are talking about goddamn HOMO SAPIENS.

    But still, examining your boundless arrogance is enlightening.

    when in fact we both know that I know the difference between homo habilis and homo sapiens, and their relative lifespans, and thus you would know immediately that when I put out the 2.5 million number, you would know that I was talking about homohabilis and the whole human family, and not merely homo sapiens sapiens.

    You wrote:

    “The human species is generally agreed to have come into its own about 2.5 million years ago, which the last time I checked amounted to ‘millions of years’. What would you call it? Tens of hundreds of thousands of years? Neanderthals are not a separate species, only a sub species. They are Homo Sapiens Neanderthalis, we are Homo Sapiens Sapiens.”

    which gives the distinct impression that you are talking about a single species. By the way, are these researchers ignorant too for talking about two separate species? Maybe Svante Pääbo should go read a science book sometime!

    looking for some tiny opening with which to drive a knife into my arguments by making the ad hominem accusation that I’m some ignoramus about science, that I don’t know what I’m talking about, when in fact my scientific knowledge is plenty good enough for these discussions, whereas it is your knowledge of religion and astrology that is lacking?

    Apparently your scientific knowledge isn’t so good if you take minor corrections to your terminology so personally (like the electrons and charge thing).

    And yes, about that knowledge of religion. Why were you seemingly unaware of the effects of atheism on religious discourse in ancient India, pooh-poohing the possibility as you did? And ignored it when your statement was questioned? Your estimate of your superior expertise in religion is probably as inflated as your estimates of your scientific knowledge.

  246. #246 Oran Kelley
    March 12, 2008

    The “look at Sweden” argument is really tired.

    Not if one is simply trying to counter hyperbole about non-theism as an “intolerable burden” on people. The more subtle effects and comparisons about what is ‘better’ for society are a different matter.

    Yeah, that language is a bit much. But I still think that the basic point–that Nietzsche et al were on to something worth thinking about and that it’s a shame folks like Dawkins apparently don’t read thing like Nietzsche (or for that matter the best modern scientific work on the psychology and sociology of religion) before spouting off about religion, the role of religion, and the end of religion.

  247. #247 Iapetus
    March 12, 2008

    Must…resist…posting…

    CAN NOT!!

    Okay, I see that conradg has broken his word and continued posting, which leads me to steal valuable time from my real life duties to add my comments. Talk about addiction.

    Btw, I see that since I left you folks the verbal barbs have flown pretty fiercely. Come on, relax people! After all, we are just sitting cosily together in this little corner of the Internet exchanging ideas, right?

    Conradg,

    “For example, to address your innate values question, I could indeed get more detailed. I could talk about compassion, harmony, clarity of mind, enlightenment, love, happiness, self-confidence, simplicity, strength of mind, peace, self-knowledge, intelligence, surrender, relaxation, renunciation, transcendence, tolerance, empathy, universalism, inclusiveness, non-separation, absence of conflict, oneness, etc. The core innate value of self-awareness naturally gives rise to these values in a fashion that is not hard to comprehend if one has any first hand experience of it, or of the religious traditions which make this central to their understanding of “God” and the practice of religion on that basis. And anyone familiar with these traditions would know immediately what I was talking about without it having to be explained or justified.”

    Then I guess we just have to leave it at that, since I am not intimately familiar with every school of Eastern philosophy and religion and lack the time at the moment to immerse myself in any depth in the teachings and doctrines of Advaita Vedanta and the works of his proponents. Anyway my feeling is that the discussion on different definitions of nihilism and innate values and what falls under them or not is more or less exhausted, so let us move on to more interesting topics.

    “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that atheism is in no way connected to nihilism. I think it certainly has a kinship with nihilism, but the key is to understand atheism as merely a transitional stage, from belief in one thing to belief in something else. The key is what that something else is. One can transition from belief in the Christian Gods to belief in the Scientific Gods, without much actually changing, in the same way that one can transition from being a heroin addict to a meth addict.”

    I really think you are making a mistake when you phrase it that way. God-belief in the classical, western theistic sense as I understand it entails an existence proposition, mostly accompanied by e.g. the hope/expectation that addressing or pleasing the entity defined by said proposition will achieve certain desirable effects. I have no idea how one can transfer this concept to science. As I stated before, the scientific method is a tool for gathering knowledge. It is no entity in itself that can be addressed or even prayed to for guidance, salvation or whatever.

    I would also question your somewhat watered-down argument that people who have given up their god-believe try to substitute it with science to reach a solid foundation without which we allegedly can not exist. I reckon that this probably sounds alien to someone with your mindset and worldview, but the notion that I and others have tried to convey to you is that being a skeptic and fallibilist does manifestly NOT imply that everything is equally questionable, uncertain, etc and that such a person, while silently longing for a solid ground, is tragically unable to find it due to his pathological, corrosive skepticism. An atheist and skeptic can have values and ideals that he is utterly convinced of as well as goals to strive for. He just recognizes both the unreliability of human reason as well as the lack of a transcendent grounding and the resulting provisional nature of even his core beliefs and therefore always allows for the possibility of change and adaptation. Actually I find the skeptical attitude very liberating and relaxed, as it gives one the freedom and flexibility of adjusting the worldview to new insights and absolves one from having to defend the core beliefs at all costs lest the whole worldview crumbles to dust. My impression is that you somehow see this as an unhealthy attitude, but as others have already pointed out, it was the absolute certainty of the correctness of a core belief, be it of the religious or secular variety, that repeatedly resulted in the death of a considerable number of people in the course of human history. We should be wary of any attempt to repeat it, just because the proponents of this or that religion/philosophy/ideology claim that this time they have REALLY found the unshakable, self-evidently true base to build on.

    On the other hand, that does not mean that science plays no role in how one arrives at his values or worldview. I think science can and must inform us about certain facts pertaining to our universe, our origins, our place on earth and in the cosmos etc. that must be taken into account when arriving at one´s moral/political/personal convictions and decisions. But the kind of scientism you apparently have in mind is not advocated or adopted by me nor by anyone I know.

    “One of the discoveries that occurs in examining our intrinsic self-awareness is that all problems are self-created, the result of concepts turned upon themselves, and operating under the illusion that the concepts are themselves self-existing, rather than that we are. In the first place, notice that while the ďż˝imageďż˝ of a conscious self may be an illusion, the conscious self which observes this is not. Whatever concept we may have of ourselves, we are observing even that. We are conscious prior to any image we may create, and our own consciousness is not in the least bit changed or altered by that conceptual self-image. The attitude of doubting all self-images is, indeed, a rather healthy one, but we must come to see that none of those doubts apply to our actual, intrinsic self-awareness, which cannot be in doubt, because we must be self-aware first before we can possibly doubt anything. If doubt is dependent on self-awareness, then doubt itself means nothing if we take self-awareness away, so it would only negate its own existence and functionality. But that is not really possible, since self-awareness cannot actually be doubted, only our self-image can be doubted.”

    I do not know if you are aware of it, but this argumentation resembles the attempt of Descartes to create a solid, indisputable base for his philosophical system. He tried to apply the outmost doubt to destroy anything that can possibly be doubted and see what remains. His conclusion was that everything can be doubted but for the fact that I, the conscious individual, am the one who is doubting, therefore “Ego cogito, ergo sum.” But of course this is not necessarily true, as later critics, with whom I happen to agree, have pointed out. Truly rigorous doubt HAS to apply to the existence of a conscious individual as well. The only thing we can say with relative certainty is “Thinking is occurring”. Whether this thinking then sort of coalesces into our conscious self or the other way around or even whether something completely different is going on, we do not know and can not decide by introspection alone.

    Furthermore, a (albeit admittedly cursory) glance at the Buddhist notion of non-self seems to indicate that there are also traditions in the culture you draw on for your religion/worldview that dispute your basic certainty of consciousness. However, I am sure the proponents of Advaita Vedanta have had time enough till now to come up with some compelling counter-arguments…(-;

    “As if equating God with “love” and “consciousness” were some modern debating device developed solely for the purpose of making it harder for atheists to denounce belief in God! Please, read a book or two at least before saying demonstrably ignorant things like this. It doesn’t “stretch” the concept of God to the point of unintelligibility, unless you lack the ability to think in a complex manner about these things. These kinds of concepts and approaches to God have been around literally for thousands of years, from the dawn of civilization, and even before that most likely. Are you familiar with the Vedas, with Dzogchen, with Taoism, etc? Was Jesus arguing with atheists when he declared that “God is love”? Were the ancient rishis of India trying to put down some atheistic revolt when they wrote the Upanishads?”

    After writing my rather flippant and (due to lack of time) short remark I expected a reaction like this. So let me elaborate some more: the god-concept of the three great western monotheisms as depicted in their respective holy books as well as their mainstream traditions, clearly indicates a personal god with attributes that we would normally associate with personhood. Furthermore, this god is reported to have intervened in the history of the world through physical acts, e.g. destroying cities, parting seas, flooding the earth, walking on water, healing blind people, impregnating a woman etc. When it is pointed out that these reports are very unlikely to be based on fact and further that many of said acts would be seen as amoral, cruel and vindictive by the standards of today, religious proponents often try to dismiss these arguments as unsophisticated and based on a simplistic, caricatured notion of their god. We are told that their god must be seen as an ephemeral, intangible First Cause, or as an impersonal, universal consciousness, or as being equivalent with “Love”. Now while I acknowledge that there exist mystical schools of thought in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they are mostly on the fringes of their faiths and were frequently shunned and even persecuted as heretical. Therefore I believe it really IS a form of obfuscation when the absurd and amoral, but concrete aspects of their faiths are swept under the rug and it is pretended that the mystical, amorphous elements are actually at the core and this is what their faith is really about. In this regard I found your Jesus quote a little too neat and simplistic. IMO it is simply impossible to equate the Christian god, who is inconceivable without having at least SOME aspects of personhood, with strictly impersonal Eastern concepts like Dao or Nirvana.

    This brings me to your complaint that atheism is superficial and not dealing with sophisticated versions of god-belief. However, as charles already pointed out, if you abstract your concept of “God” beyond a certain point or equivocate it with something that already possesses a distinct, defined meaning in our normal use of language, the notion of atheism becomes senseless. So if you want to label your consciousness god, I am happily conceding that I am no atheist about it, just as I am no atheist vis a vis a Spinozan god, since I can see no discernible difference whether these kinds of god exist or not. Maybe my stance in this regard could be labeled agnostic or apathetic.

    Finally, since this post has already become too long, I will briefly touch on the six points that you listed as a summary of your beliefs. I think the crucial point is number 2, since this is a claim about the ultimate nature of reality, so we are talking ontology/metaphysics here. However, we know since Kant that we do not have the ability to directly observe the “thing in and of itself”, which means that we must concede any ontological/metaphysical model as potentially viable. Therefore I remain agnostic to your claim of an ultimate reality based in a god, just like you must remain agnostic with regard to materialism. You may believe this if you wish, but there is no reason why other people should share this belief. I also do not see how this situation could be decided one way or the other, so the quarreling between religious people that has been going on for the last millennia looks set to continue.

    I will not have access to a computer for the next couple of days (and this post has again taken up way too much of my time), so I will try to really abstain from further posting.

    Wish you all well.

  248. #248 conradg
    March 12, 2008

    Windy,

    The word ?species? is both singular and plural, but in common usage it is more often plural. When Darwin wrote ?On the Origin of Species?, do you take him to being talking about the origin of a single species? Apparently you would, and would have to write many letters correcting him. And if Darwin was so stupid as to make so basic an error in not seeing that ?species? was singular, doesn’t that suggest that the whole of evolutionary theory is based on the work of an ignoramus like me? I guess it makes all of Darwin’s work ?suspect?. Well then, I’m in pretty good company.

    Well, it’s obvious from Darwin’s example that ?The human species? can refer to any and all of the human species. Figuring out whether I meant one species, or all its many species is not hard to do, since I gave the time frame of 2.5 million years. And yes, the human species ?coming into it’s own? also clearing means differentiating itself from other branches of the primate tree. The recent development of homo sapiens sapiens does not involve the human species coming into its own, in other words, differentiating itself from it’s non-human ancestors, it merely involves the recent development of modern humans. What’s so hard for you to figure out? But if it wasn’t clear to you, then the 2.5 million year time frame should have given you the proper context to figure that out. Why didn’t you? You claim to be a smart scientist who can figure things out. Why couldn’t you figure this out? Is it because you are just trying to be as superficial and mean-spirited as possible, trying to use this to denigrate my understanding of the science of evolution? I don’t think you can do that, since I understand science and evolution pretty well for a layman.

    In any case, it’s not my lack of knowledge and understanding of science that is limiting this dialog. It is your lack of knowledge and understanding of religion and astrology that limits us. If only your knowledge of religion and astrology was comparable to my knowledge of science, we wouldn’t have this problem. But it isn’t. If we were arguing some comparable issue in astrology, it would more than demonstrate that you have a good working knowledge of astrology. But you don’t.

    Apparently your scientific knowledge isn’t so good if you take minor corrections to your terminology so personally (like the electrons and charge thing).

    I’m taking it personally because it was clearly meant personally. As you just stated, your intention in drawing this issue out is to show that my scientific knowledge isn’t very good. And the electron charge thing is just another example of someone else on this forum trying to do the exact same thing in order to denigrate my intelligence and knowledge for the purpose of undermining my arguments. That too was a baseless, idiotic ?charge?, since we clearly do know that electrons are the sub-atomic article that imparts charge from one place to another (not by emitting charge, but just by moving). In other words, when a battery imparts a charge, it does so by the movement of electrons (usually). What is so hard to figure out about that? Fer chrissakes, I was studying sub-atomic physics in junior high back in the early 1970s, I think I know how electrons and charge works.

    And yes, about that knowledge of religion. Why were you seemingly unaware of the effects of atheism on religious discourse in ancient India, pooh-poohing the possibility as you did? And ignored it when your statement was questioned? Your estimate of your superior expertise in religion is probably as inflated as your estimates of your scientific knowledge.

    Well, because atheism had nothing to do with the original development of the language and teachings of the Self, of Atman, of non-dualism, etc. These arguments were developed in relation to both theistic Vedism and pre-dated even Buddhism, which later developed its own arguments and language for transcendentalism. Atheism was simply not a factor, and is simply a sideshow in the history of Vedanta. As was materialism.

    In other words, the point still stands that these arguments about the nature of God are not attempts to mess with the heads of atheists, but to develop a more sophisticated understanding of God, and represent arguments within Vedanta, not with those outside of Vedanta. There is indeed an atheistic branch within Vedanta, but it’s not comparable to modern atheism. One could even call Advaita itself ?atheistic? in some sense, since it considers all Gods to be illusory projections of the Self. But then again, it also considers the world and all beings to be of the same nature, so it’s clearly not being ?atheistic? in any sense you or modern atheists are arguing about. And again, you raise this argument as an attempt to personally denigrate my own arguments, charging me with coming up with these arguments as a specious way to evade atheism, which is not in any way the reason I have a lifelong attraction to this particular religious approach, among the many out there. As I’ve said a thousand times by now, religion has many, many manifestations, philosophies, cosmologies, teachings and practices, and that complex proliferation was not generated to confuse atheists, and make it hard for them to dispute the existence of Gods. Those were created by human beings trying to figure life out as best they could. For most of human history, out and out atheists have been rare and seldom taken into account in religious debate. The issue of whether God is a theistic deity or not has not been an issue of atheism, either in Vedanta or elsewhere, but an issue about the nature of God, reality, and transcendentalism. Now, if you have something interesting to say about all that, fine, but trying to suggest that the whole teaching of the Self is somehow a response to atheism doesn’t wash. What are your sources and what is your evidence? Is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, circa 700-800 BCE, some kind of counter-argument to atheism? Are any of them? When Krishna advocates to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita that he fight his enemies, is there any suggestion that these enemies are atheists? Is Guadapada’s famous karika (you must know of it, given your wide knowledge of the subject) an answer to atheistic criticisms of Vedantic teachings? Please, give me an example of this in the development of the Vedantic philosophy.

    Now, as I’ve said, I’m not an expert on religion, but if your knowledge of religion were as good as mine, or if your knowledge of religion were as good as my knowledge of science, we’d be having a much more interesting conversation, rather than trying to play one-ups-manship games. As I’ve said, I don’t hold your obvious shortcomings against you, except when you make sweepingly ignorant claims, as unfortunately is your inclination. As I’ve also said, you might just learn something here. I’ve always learned a lot from internet forums where I often encounter people who know things I don’t. It’s one of the great advantages of the medium. Unless, of course, your objective has nothing to do with learning, and is instead motivated purely by a desire to show people how much smarter you are than them, and reject any knowledge that might change your views about anything.

  249. #249 conradg
    March 12, 2008

    Iapetus,

    I’m doing fine, thanks – except for this same damned posting addiction you are suffering from. We’ll see how long it lasts. An intervention may be required at some point.

    Anyway, you make too many good points to answer all at once. As for the innate values debate, yes, it’s a bit hard to know how to describe these derivations simply, maybe it’s just enough to say that there are several traditions which try to do just that, and have been doing so for thousands of years, with literally thousands of variations. It’s not as if these things are universally agreed upon, but there’s enough commonality to discern that certain innate values do seem to follow from transcendentalist approaches.

    As for the notion that the more sophisticated notions of religion aren’t necessarily in conflict with atheism, I’d agree. That doesn’t make them atheistic themselves, however, or forms of atheism. It depends what kind of atheism we are talking about even. The kind of atheism that denies the significance of this very basic, feeling-intuitive sense of transcendental self-awareness certainly isn’t comparable with many, or maybe any, forms of religion. But if atheism is merely defined as disbelief in the reality of a separate deity, but is “agnostic” on more sophisticated views, then yes, there’s more common ground. Except that in many of these traditions, from Buddhism to Advaita, these more sophisticated approaches are not used to deny the existence of deities, but merely to place them in a greater context, a greater understanding. I’m reminded of a questioner asking Ramana Maharshi (probably the most famous Advaitic of the last century) if Gods like Indra really existed, and his reply was that they were simply manifestations of mind, which seemed to satisfy the questioner, until he added, “But so are you, and so is this earth, and the whole cosmos. Indra is just as real as you are.” (I’m paraphrasing). The notion within Advaita is that such deities do indeed “exist”, in higher planes, as metaphysical realities, but are illusory nonetheless. As an example, another famous 20th century Advaitic, Poonja Swami, said that from the time he was about eight years old he was visited almost nightly by various Gods and Goddesses, who kept him up playing at all hours of the night, and that this went on well into his adulthood, until he achieved “non-dual realization”. Even then, he still saw them occasionally, but understood them from a greater perspective.

    The point being that in Advaita deism is entirely consistent with these more sophisticated notions of ultimate reality, and that even standard atheism isn’t fully compatible on a practical level with their views. You would have to acknowledge the metaphyical existence of “higher places” of consciousness in your atheism to find a fuller consistency, and by then your atheism is hardly atheism at all. Now, one could still say that monotheism is bullshit, because that is one form of deism that isn’t compatible with the more sophisticated forms of religion I am pointing to. But aside from the huge political success of the big three middle eastern religions, monotheism isn’t really a very widespread phenomena in the history of religion. Most of religion is polytheistic, and even the monism of some forms of religion, as in Vedanta, is not monotheistic at all. Personally, I consider monotheism to be a hugely destructive cult phenomena that creates tremendous hostility and depravity, and if we talk about the history of violence in religion, we are mostly talking about monotheism, not religion as a whole. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, shamanism, etc., are not violent religions for the most part. And while there are plenty of pagan people who are religion, seldom is their religion the reason why, nor are the conflicts of most such people religious in nature.

    But that doesn’t mean that even all monotheists subscribe to the full tenets of those faiths, or even relate to “God” as the classic external deity. Many of the politically active monotheists do, and they get all the press, but a sizeable number simply don’t really think about things in that way. Most of them don’t really think at all – and I don’t mean that as a criticism, merely as a description of their religious motivations. Thought is not what’s behind their religious involvement.

    I’m reminded of a time when I was living in Somerville MA in my early twenties, spending most of my time buried in books. On some Sunday mornings, however, I’d take a break and stroll down the street to the local black Gospel Church. I can’t remember if it was Baptist or what, but they had the most rollicking services you can imagine, a classic black gospel choir, singers who could have made it in the recording industry, a preacher who was as wild and thumping as James Brown in the Blues Brothers, and a crowd of mostly black congregationists who loved every minute of it. People would come up to the preacher during the service, get blessed, and fall into ecstasy, dancing and singing and screaming out, shouting in tongues, the whole nine yards. You expected snakes to be brought out at any minute. Now, I didn’t get the impression that these people were somehow conceiving of a separate God up in the sky while practicing their religion. God was right down there in the pews. They didn’t have a lot of “mind” about God period, it was just something they clearly felt in their bones. So I don’t think belief in God, even in the fundamentalist churches, is so neatly packaged as you’d like to think.

    I’ve also had friends who were monks in Catholic monasteries, and the kind of religious views these guys had were far from the classic “God in white robes sitting up in the clouds judging humanity”. Even the Catholic teachings are much more sophisticated than you are giving credit for. I spent a far amount of time studying Cathlolic mysticism, and it’s not outside the mainstream of the Church at all. It’s just not as “popular”. But what Christians actually believe about God isn’t so neat and pretty as the public preachers would like you to think. I know plenty of Christians who don’t buy the generalized notion of God as separate deity, and don’t even know if they buy the whole historical Jesus thing or all the teachings of the Bible, but they do have some basic feeling-intuition of God, and when they go to Church it helps them connect with this basic feeling-intuition, and they like what that does for them. And I’d suspect that this is far more widespread than you’d think, that many, many people who belong to standard monotheistic religions do so simply because it helps reinforce this basic feeling-intuition of a transcendent God, and that not so many are dogmatically fixated on deistic beliefs as you’d think.

    So while I’d agree in general about monotheistic religions, I wouldn’t agree about all the individuals who are members of monotheistic religions. But I would say that, when confronted by atheists, such people do tend to fall back on silly and even false arguments, in a defensive crouch, and try to justify beliefs that really don’t hold much water. This doesn’t mean they are wrong about God in the basic sense, but it does mean they have been led into habits of thinking and talking about God, when pressed, that don’t make a lot of sense in the context of realism. However, if you talk and listen to these same people from a different perspective, it’s possible to understand what they mean in a different sense entirely, and it’s not all bullshit.

    Now, as for nihilism, yes, I think that science is one of the belief systems that people might move into if they leave religious belief systems. And while I sympathize greatly with the notion that science is just a tool and skepticism is just a healthy attitude, it’s simply the case that a great many atheists do fall back on science as something more than a tool, but make it into their whole world-view, not only of themselves but of human culture and the cosmos. This is just a human fact of life, don’t you agree? One doesn’t have to be the classic follower of “scientism” doesn’t mean the phenomenon doesn’t exist. And saying you don’t know anyone who is follower of “scientism” is like saying you don’t know anyone who thinks they are a yuppie. Of course not, no one thinks of themselves as a stereotype. But beyond the stereotype, there are indeed yuppies and followers of scientism, and there are plenty of both on this forum alone. Following scientism doesn’t mean that one has ceased to be a human being who can’t love their children or enjoy Bach, it simply means that their basic viewpoint about reality is governed by the simple precepts and findings of science. Now, there are tons of variations possible there, and one can even be both a scientist and a religious person, but there’s forms of scientism which see science as the exclusive method for finding truth. Others do not. I for instance would use science to determine the origins the human race, but I would not use science to determine the origin of consciousness. Or even the origin of the material world altogether. In fact, I wouldn’t even discount the role of the metaphysical in such things as evolution.

    In other words, one doesn’t have to fully give up one’s innate feeling-sense of God to become an atheist in the conventional manner. There’s a lot of “soft atheism” out there that simply rejects the conventional religious notions of God. One could say, for example, that Einstein was an atheist in respect to the conventions of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. But he wasn’t an atheist altogether, in that he believed quite firmly in a transcendent God whose nature has not been fully understood by such traditions, which have tried to claim exclusive knowledge and affinity with God. Einstein was certainly a more “sophisticated” believer than some, but one can’t call him an atheist either, or someone who was trying to baffle atheists by clinging to vague notions of God. He was simply honestly expressing his basic views about God as best he could, which were rooted in a basic feeling-intuition about the nature of reality. And I might add, his whole theory of relativity also came from his basic feeling-intuition about the nature of reality, so it’s not as if he’s unscientific in his intuitions. Some of them are just amenable to mathematical equations, and some are not.

    What I would argue is that basing one’s world-view on science, and scientific materialism in particular, is probably not the best idea. As I said, it’s rather philosophically nihilistic, and I don’t think it gives human beings sufficient ground on which to build a real culture, or even a real personal cosmology. That doesn’t mean that individuals can’t espouse such views and live otherwise healthy lives. I would suggest that they are merely being “self-reliant”, in a sense that they don’t fully recognize, and that if they did, they’d begin to see that “self-awareness” is in fact what they are relying on, not science itself. That they disagree with the dogmas of religion is not significant, if they are substituting a sense of self-reliance in its place, even if that sense of self-reliance manifests on the level of dogma as scientism, materialism, etc. My sense is that such people will, over time, come to a wider understanding of themselves and the “self” they are relying on.

    As for Descartes, yes, I’m aware of some similarities in our arguments. However, I think Descartes made a mistake in identifying the “I” with cognito, with conceptual thinking. If he’d phrased it “I am self-aware, therefore I am,” he would have been a bit closer to the mark. The emphasis on conceptual thought as a basis for our identity is, as I said earlier, a profound error that has had serious consequences for western culture and science – which is of course based to a great deal on the Cartesian approach. It has helped create a monumental edifice of conceptual thinking that has much value in it, but it has also created a terrific identity problem that is not soluable within its own concepts. The modern problem of nihilism and alienation is not merely a leftover from Christian nihilism, but is the product of the scientific Cartesian approach of conceiving of our own identity in conceptual terms, which creates a vicious and even narcissistic circle. Much of the problems of scientism spring from this pattern of overt identification with conceptual thinking, rather than with our intuitive and sensual, feeling life. Of course, many scientists and atheists, at least on a personal level, have strong sensual and feeling natures, so it isn’t necessarily the case the such people are suffering severe alienation from that side of life. Yet it remains a serious problem nonetheless with the scientific atheistic approach.

    Truly rigorous doubt HAS to apply to the existence of a conscious individual as well. The only thing we can say with relative certainty is “Thinking is occurring”. Whether this thinking then sort of coalesces into our conscious self or the other way around or even whether something completely different is going on, we do not know and can not decide by introspection alone.

    Again, I’m not sure how one would begin to actually doubt the existence of our own self-awareness. We cannot be sure that thinking has occurred unless we are aware that thinking has occurred, and the only way we can be aware of thinking is if we are aware, first and foremost. So the observation of thinking, or anything else for that matter, necessitates the a prior existence of awareness itself.

    Now, if you are talking about the existence of a “conscious individual”, you can always doubt the “individual” portion of the equation, but I don’t see how you can doubt the “conscious” portion. As you note, there are Buddhist notions of non-self which are perfectly legitimate ways of doubting or even negating the notion of the individual, and even negating the notion of consciousness as a “thing” or “substance”, but none of them actually negate self-awareness. In fact, it is in Buddhism that the term “intrinsic self-awareness” is most commonly used. The Advaitic approach likewise uses a method of inspection and questioning to see if there is in fact an individual “self” at the root of our awareness, and this leads to the finding that no, there isn’t, that the individual self is in fact merely a conceptual illusion, that our consciousness is in reality not separate at all, but is “Brahman”, which means both “empty” and “absolute and infinite Divine Consciousness and Being,” or “Sat-Chit-Ananda”, meaning truth-consciousness-bliss. So the negation of the individual self in these approaches does not lead to the negation of self-awareness, but to the infinite expansion of the understanding of the individual consciousness to the point where it becomes, in a famous aphorism, “like a salt-doll thrown into the ocean”.

    We are told that their god must be seen as an ephemeral, intangible First Cause, or as an impersonal, universal consciousness, or as being equivalent with “Love”. Now while I acknowledge that there exist mystical schools of thought in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they are mostly on the fringes of their faiths and were frequently shunned and even persecuted as heretical. Therefore I believe it really IS a form of obfuscation when the absurd and amoral, but concrete aspects of their faiths are swept under the rug and it is pretended that the mystical, amorphous elements are actually at the core and this is what their faith is really about. In this regard I found your Jesus quote a little too neat and simplistic. IMO it is simply impossible to equate the Christian god, who is inconceivable without having at least SOME aspects of personhood, with strictly impersonal Eastern concepts like Dao or Nirvana.

    As I’ve said, the eastern concepts of God are not necessarily impersonal at all, they just include both the personal and impersonal without seeing the two as mutually exclusive. In fact, most of them are extremely personal, on both the theistic level and the intimate level. They are complex, and not easily reduced to some simple dichotomy, as the atheists like to do, such that we can say “this God exists, or doesn’t exist”. And that frustrates many atheists, because they would like to reduce all truth-statements to true/false dichotomies, which simply isn’t how most of religion operates. As said, monotheism does tend to operate that way, because it sets up a situation in which only one God can be true, and thus all other Gods are false. In fact, culturally speaking it’s no mere coincidence that science has arisen largely within the monotheistic cultures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, since they are already inclined to think in exclusive dichotomies. And modern science has tended to retain the aggressively “doubting” mode of these religious traditions, which of course are terribly doubting of any religious belief other than their own. So science can often to promote itself as the one and true path, not even a faith anymore, but the only “self-evident” system for determining what is true. And in that respect, it is simply following the same thought pattern of the exclusivist monotheistic religious cultures it arose in.

    What I’m arguing for isn’t some exclusion of science, but an inclusive approach that doesn’t try to divide the world into hostile dichotomies, in which one thing is true, and it’s opposite necessarily false. One of my favorite maxims is from Heisenberg, who said (I’m paraphrasing again), “the opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a great truth is another great truth”. It’s that kind of thinking in modern science that makes it possible to understand that even religion represents a great truth, even if it appears to be the opposite of science, and being able to grasp that is the kind of thing that will help relieve atheists of whatever superficiality they suffer from.

    Wishing you well too. Maybe we can break this addiction soon.

  250. #250 windy
    March 13, 2008

    The word ‘species’ is both singular and plural, but in common usage it is more often plural. When Darwin wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’, do you take him to being talking about the origin of a single species?

    *sigh* if he had written a book called “The Origin of the Species”, your objection would be relevant, and yes, we would wonder why Darwin used the definite article.

    And I see you ignored the link about neanderthals and humans being called separate species by experts, having insulted me for saying the same thing previously.

    trying to suggest that the whole teaching of the Self is somehow a response to atheism doesn’t wash

    No, but you commit the opposite error in stating categorically that atheism or materialism was always philosophically insignificant until now.

    Is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, circa 700-800 BCE, some kind of counter-argument to atheism? Are any of them?

    Svetasvatara Upanishad: “Some deluded thinkers speak of Nature, and others of time, as the force that revolves this wheel of Brahman. But really all this is only the glory of God manifested in the world.”

  251. #251 conradg
    March 13, 2008

    *sigh* if he had written a book called “The Origin of the Species”, your objection would be relevant, and yes, we would wonder why Darwin used the definite article.

    No, we would not. Is English your second language? Does the phrase ?the origin of animals? differ from the phrase, ?the origin of the animals?? Of course not. Plurality is not changed by the definite article ?the?, which can be used with both plural and singular nouns. Likewise, there is no difference in meaning between ?the origin of species? and ?the origin of the species? in regards to whether ?species? refers to singular or plural. I think in both cases it’s obvious from both the standard usage and the context that it refers to the plural. The definite article ?the? does not change the meaning of a plural noun. The meaning would only be different if the definite article were ?a?, which is used to denote a singular noun when the noun has any ambiguity. Thus, if Darwin had written about ?the origin of a species,? we would know he was using ?species? in the singular. But since he didn’t, it’s clear that he’s using ?species? in the plural. Since I wrote about the age of ?the human species?, rather than the age of ?a human species?, it’s pretty obvious to anyone that I’m talking about the collection of human species, not singling out one particular species. And as I’ve said, the time frame I gave answers any ambiguity you might have thought was there, unless you are simply desperate to find some kind of contradiction. You might like to take some time off from trolling to learn to how English is spoken and written.

    After all, the issue I raised was ?how long have human beings been on the earth, and how much longer could they be expected to survive on earth?, not ?how long have modern homo sapiens sapiens been on earth, and how much longer could they be expected to survive?? Clearly Homo Habilis was human, Homo Erectus was human, Neanderthals were humans, and so were about twenty or more various branches of the human species. (Notice how natural it is to say ?the human species? there, when referring to them in plural? Were you confused by that usage in any way?) So the answer to the issue we were both discussing is ?humans have been around as their own species (remember the issue of ?coming into their own??) for about 2.5 million years, and absent technological developments would probably be around for a few million more before either evolving into an entirely different taxon, or becoming an extinct branch of the animal kingdom.? Any real disagreement with that not involving petty grammatical issues?

    And I see you ignored the link about neanderthals and humans being called separate species by experts, having insulted me for saying the same thing previously.

    Some experts do call them separate species. But here’s a clue ? when the official name of the two taxons includes exactly the same genus and species names, and is differentiated only by a third qualifer we are not talking about a truly differentiated species. If Neanderthals are ever renamed ?Homo Neanderthalis?, rather than ?Homo Sapiens Neanderthalis?, then you will have the weight of critical opinion on your side. Until then, it’s not considered a genuinely separate species. That could change, of course, based on new evidence, but right now Neanderthalis is just a sub-species of Homo Sapiens ? as is Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

    trying to suggest that the whole teaching of the Self is somehow a response to atheism doesn’t wash

    No, but you commit the opposite error in stating categorically that atheism or materialism was always philosophically insignificant until now.

    Yes, in terms of the development of the whole teaching on Atman, atheism and materialism were simply not a factor, and thus insignificant in the movement from theism to monism. In other words, it’s not that Vedic theism was taking such big hits from atheistic philosophers that the Vedics said to themselves, ?shit, we can’t defend ourselves against these prominent atheists and their arguments, got any other ideas for God that are more plausible than theism?? And then, of course, coming up with this whole notion of Atman. Atheism simply was not a factor in the development of the monistic philosophies of Vedanta. In fact, it was hardly an issue in relation to theism itself. It’s simply the plain historical truth that atheism never garnered enough support, in any classical culture that I can think of, to be a serious factor in the development of religious philosophy. Maybe ancient Greece, but even there it was suppressed, as in Socrates’ death sentence, and I don’t think it seriously shaped the development of Greek Religion per se. The Greeks who did influence religious development, in themselves or in others, were religious themselves, such as Plotinus. I’m trying to remember what Aristotle’s religious views were, but he wasn’t an atheist. I can’t think of any culture in the world, prior basically to the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, in which atheism had any great influence on religious philosophy itself, and somehow shaped it in response to atheistic criticisms. Most religions dealt with atheists as heretics unworthy of philosophical response, and did not think they had to evolve any new philosophical positiosn to respond to them. Even the medieval Christian attempts to logically prove the existence of God were not a response to atheistic challenges, but merely part of an evolutionary process within Christianity itself. They knew how to deal with actual atheists ? burning them at the stake was all the rage.

    But, getting back to Vedantic monism, no, atheism just wasn’t a factor in the development of that philosophy and tradition. It’s not that atheism wasn’t ever addressed ? the Hindus were very tolerant people, and didn’t even have a concept of heresy, much less burn people at the stake for it ? but it wasn’t taken seriously or widely considered in need of logical refutation.

    Svetasvatara Upanishad: “Some deluded thinkers speak of Nature, and others of time, as the force that revolves this wheel of Brahman. But really all this is only the glory of God manifested in the world.”

    No, this doesn’t demonstrate much of anything. In the first place, this quote doesn’t even mention philosophical monism at all. It counters ?naturalism? with theism, and it doesn’t even bother to make an argument against naturalism, it merely asserts that God is behind the workings of nature. In any case, naturalism isn’t the same as atheism. There are plenty of naturalistic theists, who suggest that while God created the universe, he isn’t involved in running the show. Likewise, there were other philosophical views, such as Buddhism and Jainism, which weren’t theistic or atheistic, but which did argue in the philosophical bent of naturalism. Buddhism, for example, does not argue that there is no ?wheel of Brahman?. They merely argue that the turning of the wheel is due to ignorance, desire, and unenlightenment, rather than the actions of a theistic being or force like Brahman, and that the purpose of human life is to get off the wheel, end the cycle of birth and death, and achieve nirvana. That’s not atheistic naturalism, however you want to describe it. Responding to Buddhist and Jain arguments did indeed factor into the philosophical development of Vedantic monism, but that’s quite a different thing than responding to actual atheism. In other words, they were not concerned that because atheistic remarks were so strong and hard to counter, that they had to come up with something more sophisticated. Quite the contrary. The only threats they felt they had to counter were coming from Buddhism or Jainism and the like, and this did indeed spur Upanishadic monism to develop its ideas even further. But even then, Upanishadic monism preceded these critiques, and even inspired them to a large degree. This remained the case throughout the development of both Buddhism and Vedic Monism. Both have evolved hand in hand with one another, each building on the other’s ideas and criticisms. But atheism was not part of that development, certainly not in the ways of non-religious atheism. Transcendentalism yes, but atheism no.

    So in this quote, while the author is clearly arguing against naturalism, it’s not clear at all that he’s arguing against naturalistic atheism. In fact, I would generally assume that not to be the case, though I’m not sure what the scholarly consensus is on this particular quote. You only assume that it is responding to atheism because in our day and age naturalism to you suggest atheism, but this wasn’t the case back in the Upanishadic era. In fact, my guess would be that the author is actually arguing against various ideas within the Upanishadic monistic tradition itself, which includes both emanationist schools and non-emantionist schools. This may be a response to a non-emanationist argument within the Vedantic tradition, advocating instead an emanationist view. Hard for me to say precisely without more context. In any case, it’s not as if there’s any suggestion here that the teachings on Atman itself are being used to counter this argument, whatever its nature and origin. So what’s the point you’re trying to make?

    As a further note, don’t you think you should be using your intellect here to make substantive arguments, rather than fishing around for inconsistencies in my posts? The grammatical stuff is just way silly of you. This issue at least touches on something of substance, and the fact that you don’t know much about the history or the language references here doesn’t bother me much. But you really are grasping at straws. The main point remains that Vedantic monism was not developed in response to atheism, but was a natural development within the religious tradition of Hinduism, and not in response to atheism.

    There is indeed a school within Hindu philosophy that is ?nastika?, which could be translated as ?atheistic? but which really just means ?doesn’t believe in the Vedas?. These Hindus, generally associated with the Samkhya philosophical school, don’t believe in a creator God. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in a transcendental God-reality, only that they don’t believe the universe is his creation, nor do they believe in a personal God (Ishvara). Jainism and Buddhism are also considered ?nastika?, since they reject the Vedic Gods. The only genuinely atheistic school I can think of in Hinduism is the Carvakas (I think that’s the spelling), which was about the closest one comes to a genuinely modern, pagan attitude in that whole culture, but they had very little influence (though lots of good parties from what I hear) and eventually died out.

  252. #252 Bunny
    March 15, 2008

    The fact is that tens of millions of atheists and agnostics the world over find little trouble getting through their daily activities without even a whiff of existential crisis.

    I went through that when I was 14. I got better.

  253. #253 Amy Alkon
    March 21, 2008

    I’m an atheist because I requite evidence before I believe in something. I see no evidence there’s a god or “heaven” or “hell” (although religions do a good job of creating hell on earth, of course). So, I don’t waste my time or have bad lunch or boring friends, as it seems I’ll be dinner for worms in a bunch of decades.

    My life has meaning because I give it meaning.

    And humans appear to have an evolved set of behaviors (reciprocal altruism, cheater detection, etc.) that work out into what we would consider morality. I find that it’s in my self-interest to behave morally, so I do.

    People always try to make this so complicated. Perhaps I’m just simplistic thinker, or perhaps it really is as simple as I put it above.

  254. #254 John
    July 16, 2008

    It is certainly true that any sort of rational justification of anything requires that you start from certain assumptions that are themselves left unproved.

  255. #255 samuel welsh
    August 5, 2009

    Without a faith in God science proclaims human pride not wisdom
    athesism is for cowards who gave up the serach for absoulate truth.

  256. #256 samuel welsh
    August 5, 2009

    Jason grow up you are smart yet empety ,
    science can not have a realationship with us.

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