The Courtier’s Reply Revisited

A common response to the books by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris involved castigating them for the shallowness of their understanding of religion. In their incessant focus on fundamentalism and more extreme forms of religious belief, they proved themselves unwilling to consider seriously the nuance and subtlety of mainstream religious thought, it was argued.

P.Z. Myers brilliantly satirized this argument, referring to it as The Courtier’s Reply. I was moved to think about it once more in light of this exchange of editorials in the British newspaper The Guardian. Representing sunshine and goodness is Daniel Dennett. Preferring darkness and obscurantism is Lord Robert Winston.

I recommend both editorials, but I was struck by this paragraph, from early in Winston’s reply:

To some extent, he falls into a similar trap to Dawkins. He feels he knows about religions but seems to have done too little research; a number of his points – for example, about Jewish attitudes or Muslim practices – seem to show a lack of serious scholarship.

You will search Winston’s essay in vain for any indication of where serious scholarship into Judaism or Islam would challenge anything Dennett has said. Instead you will find some ruminations as to who is and is not an extremist, and a bizarre paragraph on the book of Job.

But it was Winston’s closing that really struck me:

The problem is that scientists now too frequently believe we have the answers to these questions, and hence the mysteries of life. But, oddly, the more we use science to explore nature, the more we find things we do not understand and cannot explain. In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man’s uncertainty. Perhaps the paradox is that certainty, whether it be in science or religion, is dangerous. The danger of Dennett’s relatively gentle brand of certainty is that it increases polarisation in our society. With inflexible positions on both sides, certainty surely is the biggest threat to rationality, and to science. (Emphasis Added)

Someone tell me, please, what that boldface sentence means. Science is an expression of man’s uncertainty? What? Science is what has transformed the world from a confusing and chaotic playground in which the simplest phenomena were chalked up to the supernatural, to a world that is predictable and orderly and bendable to the needs and wants of humanity. Sure, researchers probing the details of the atom or the origins of the universe have discovered many bizarre things. But it is ludicrous to say that the more we do science the more we find things we don’t understand. It used to be that everything in nature was confusing and arbitrary. Nowadays you need to go looking pretty hard and concern yourself with fundamental questions before you hit something really mysterious.

As for religion, I do not get the impression that the people filling the pews of the churches on Sunday are doing so for the sheer mystery of it all. I’ll make some allowances for cultural differences here (mainstream British Christianity is not the same thing as mainstream American Christianity), but the preachers I listen to seem very certain indeed about some very important issues. They know precisely what God wants, they know our fate in the afterlife, they know the cuases of natural disasters, and they know precisely the public policy positions that should be endorsed by anyone doing the Lord’s work, to pick just a few examples. If religion is not good for providing simple answers to fundamental questions, then what exactly is it good for?

In protesting the excess of certainty found on “both sides,” Winston is effectively conceding all of Dennett’s (and Dawkins’ and Harris’ and Hitchens’) main points. The sort of religion that is genuinely humble before the mysteries of life is not especially scary. That is why people like Dennett focus on the troubling, and far more common, dogmatic sort. If the only kind of defensible religion is the sort that eschews claims of fact regarding the workings of nature and the mind of God, then Dennett and the others have effectively won the debate.

Comments

  1. #1 Jim
    April 26, 2008

    It’s a meaningless phrase that gets it both a little wrong and massively wrong.

    Minor wrong: Religion is not an expression of uncertainty–it is perhaps a “refuge” from uncertainty. It feeds the deluded desire to have an “easy” answer to everything. (Instead of rolling up your sleeves and doing the really hard work of trying to find the ACTUAL answer).

    Major wrong: Science is not an expression of uncertainty–it is our BEST expression of knowledge and the process of expanding our knowledge. This is antithetical to religion which thrives on “mystery” rather than knowledge. Isn’t this why gnostism was banished as heretical 2000 years ago by the catholic church?

    Once again, apologists prove themselves unable to say something that is both meaningful AND accurate.

  2. #2 Anon
    April 26, 2008

    Hmmm…

    In Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”, his chapter (or episode) entitled “Knowledge or Certainty” makes a powerful (and beautiful) argument that could conceivably be twisted into claiming that science is “an expression of man’s uncertainty”, although in context this would be a very good thing. Science is, yes, “our best expression of knowledge and process of expanding our knowledge”, as your first commenter says, but it is also the recognition that this knowledge is and will always be incomplete. We simply cannot have absolute certainty about some matters. (Contrast with religion which, while giving lip service to god’s alleged “mysterious ways” that we cannot comprehend, does not hesitate to proclaim absolute standards of morality, absolute certainty that this incomprehensible god does exist, absolute certainty on many issues, bloody and deadly disagreements on which absolute standards are the real ones notwithstanding.)

    If I were to be charitable and rephrase Winston’s point as I hope he means, both science and religion are borne of our ignorance and uncertainty, and each works in its own way to replace ignorance with knowledge, with explanations for the previously unexplained. Of course, science must call the unknown unknown, and have evidence for what is, always tentatively, known. Religion is under no such constraints; it can (but does not always, despite stereotypes) simply say Goddiddit and be done. Religion can pronounce things, authoritatively, unknowable; Science must be content with unknown (well, there is Heisenberg…).

    Bronowski: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXsVKbHY_T0

  3. #3 Kaerion
    April 26, 2008

    It seems to me that it’s nothing more than (one of) the last refuge(s) of a desperate man, who knows he’s losing.

    “Well, okay, so religion doesn’t really give us any actual knowledge…but science doesn’t either! So there!!”

    It’s just a very roundabout way of saying “I know you are, but what am I??” with a lot more words, and it’s just as worthless for use in a serious discussion.

  4. #4 John S. Wilkins
    April 26, 2008

    Whenever one interprets an otherwise clever and cultured person as an idiot, it is always a good idea to think whether there is some more charitable interpretation of their words.

    In this case, it can be quite deep. Uncertainty implies that there are a number of possible solutions to a given conceptual problem. In that respect, science really is an expression of our uncertainty – we use science to seek to restrict the uncertainty to a small, and hopefully unique, set of solutions. That is, after all, what seeking to know means.

    It would be foolish to deny that religion also plays that role, at least psychologically, for a large number of people. In fact, the conflict between science and religion arises from the fact that both are attempts to deal with uncertainty. Now one may say that religion is unreliable or a host of other failings that science lacks, but they are at least both attempts to deal with uncertainty.

    Winston is no fool. The only difference between him and Dennett lies not in their acceptance of evolution or science, but the claim Winston makes that religion is something he finds useful to resolve some of that conflict and uncertainty, while Dennett does not. He has published books on the evolution of cognition, human psychology and the like – and in some ways his books are as good or better than Dennett’s (that’s a claim of my personal taste).

    So demonising Winston is just ad hominem.

  5. #5 John S. Wilkins
    April 26, 2008

    Oh, and expecting to find in an editorial documented evidence of what every religion scholar knows, that Dawkins and Dennett simply have not engaged with the traditions they so blithely attack, is even sillier. The Courtier’s Reply is a copout of monumental proportions. By all means criticise religion, but criticise the religion that actually exists broadly, not by overgeneralising a small contingent historically localised aspect of religion. Treating any pluralistic phenomenon as a single unified whole is very bad science and very bad philosophy. In my discipline it’s referred to as a category error, or the fallacy of division.

  6. #6 Tyler DiPietro
    April 26, 2008

    I don’t really have a particular position I want to defend here re: religion and “uncertainty”. But John, isn’t it a bit hyperbolic to accuse Jason of “demonising” Lord Winston?

  7. #7 Art
    April 26, 2008

    “In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man’s uncertainty.”

    In some sense this sounds true. Humanity looks out into the universe and finds it knows very little and both science and religion are both methods of dealing with this existential fact. But the similarity pretty much ends there because they come at this situation in completely different ways and with completely different results.

    Science seeks to observe and test reality and the areas we know little about and to draw evidence and logic based conclusions and inferences. Science seeks to make the unknown more known even as scientists know that we cannot know everything.

    Religion doesn’t seek to make the unknown known. It deals with the unknown by postulating that the unknown is unknown because of supernatural forces and largely advocates that their followers learn to accept the unknown as unknowable and to comfort any anxiety caused by living with this situation by offering a series of talismanic symbols, ceremonies. These offered by for-profit psuedo-experts who are so proud of their ignorance that they ensconce their ignorance as a virtue in and of by itself and call it ‘faith’.

    These spiritual leaders become leaders not because they know more but because they are more comfortable with and proud of their own ignorance. And their willingness to take advantage and profit from those less comfortable with their own ignorance.

  8. #8 Anon
    April 26, 2008

    I did a quick search for “idiot”; I only found it in the accusing comment, not in the accused post. Before I accuse John of attacking a strawman, I thought I’d offer a chance to explain.

    wha?

    I sincerely hope it is my misunderstanding.

  9. #9 natural cynic
    April 27, 2008

    In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man’s uncertainty.

    I think that Winston is alluding to what some have said about the progress of knowledge, that: The more we know, the more we realize what we don’t know. If one is looking at the limits of knowledge about the universe from a 17th century perspective, it was very circumscribed. With additional knowledge, the horizons expand along with the knowledge, but at a lesser rate. What changes is our ability to see the horizon. We know more about what there is *to know*. In this sense, Winston is at least partially correct.

  10. #10 Explicit Atheist
    April 27, 2008

    John S. Wilkins wrote “By all means criticise religion, but criticise the religion that actually exists broadly, not by overgeneralising a small contingent historically localised aspect of religion.”

    A late 2006 poll by CBS showed that 55% believe God created humans in [their] present form. 27% believe Humans evolved, [but] God guided the process.” 13% Humans evolved [but] God did not guide [the] process. So which religion “actually exists broadly”, the liberal, watered down religion of scientists like Winston, or the religion as depicted by those who you accuse of “overgeneralizing a small contingent historically localised aspect of religion”?

  11. #11 Pseudonym
    April 27, 2008

    I also thought of Jacob Bronowski when I read this. (I didn’t remember the section of Ascent, but I do have a book of essays which includes one of his, which covers similar themes.)

    I think it’s very Jewish. Judaism (at least the non-ultra-orthodox bits of it), like liberal Christianity, doesn’t rely on certainty, but on discovering stuff in the “here and now”. It would be hard not to draw parallels with science.

    Think of science as an expanding circle. The area of the circle is what we know, and the perimeter is what we’re currently working on. As the area of the circle increases, so does the perimeter. So as we learn more, we discover that there’s even more to learn.

    On the real “frontiers”, such as in particle physics and cosmology, it really does seem to be true that the more we learn, the more we realise that we don’t know. That’s one of the reasons why we do it!

  12. #12 pedlar
    April 27, 2008

    John S:

    Whenever one interprets an otherwise clever and cultured person as an idiot, it is always a good idea to think whether there is some more charitable interpretation of their words.

    And then:

    The Courtier’s Reply is a copout of monumental proportions.

    And now I am really trying hard to find some more charitable interpretation of that second statement …

    Nope. Haven’t found it yet …

  13. #13 heddle
    April 27, 2008

    John S. Wilkins,

    The Courtier’s Reply is a copout of monumental proportions.

    Spot-on.

    (Disclaimer: this reply grew to the point where I cross posted it on my blog.)

    I never understood the so-called brilliance of “The Courtier’s Reply.” In effect it was: there is no need to study the nuances or depths of something that is so obviously stupid (as theology). That’s how the new atheists saw it. I always saw it as “don’t bother doing any homework, just go ahead and make simplistic dumbass arguments, and we’ll cheer you on as if you are a genius.”

    Which is precisely what happened. Dawkins repeated primitive and worn out platitudes such as “if God made everything who made God?” and The Courtier’s Reply gave all Dawkinsdom license to declare that such unsophisticated, uniformed arguments were sufficient.

    In the past era of the first-rate intellectual atheist, say Camus or Russell, Dawkins’s arguments would have stood out for their inanity. Even the bizarre Ayn Rand made much more substantive arguments against religion. There is, for example, a bit more anti-religion thoughtfulness in The Fountainhead during the telling of Rand’s atheist-superman-protagonist’s architectural commission to build a temple that in Dawkins’s declaration of religion as child abuse. Intellectual atheists of the past paid no heed to the reasoning behind The Courtier’s Reply. They would have recognized it for what it is: a declaration of anti-intellectualism. Instead, as intellectuals rather than anti-intellectuals, they studied, looked for weakness, sometimes subtle, and they tried to exploit those weaknesses. When debating, I suspect they often knew more about theology than their opponents. With Dawkins that would never happen.

    The Courtier’s Reply is license to wallow in ignorance–in fact it justifies, rationalizes, condones, encourages, celebrates, and rewards ignorance, simply by declaring the subject at hand (theology) is not worthy of study. I see that as laziness, not brilliance.

  14. #14 David Marjanovi?
    April 27, 2008

    The Courtier’s Reply is a copout of monumental proportions. By all means criticise religion, but criticise the religion that actually exists broadly, not by overgeneralising a small contingent historically localised aspect of religion.

    What they attack is the religion that really exists in various Bible Belts (encompassing 55 % of the US population, as Explicit Atheist mentions above) and much of the Middle East.

    Every few days PZ posts a new outrageous example of religious stupidity. That’s his point. Sure, it’s not Lord Winston’s brand of religion, but there are nonetheless tens of millions of people out there who have such kinds of religions and use them to justify teaching ID, abstinence-only, oppression, American and other exceptionalisms, and war. It is real and dangerous, even though Lord Winston (or in fact anyone on his continent except for all three Jehovah’s Witnesses, all three Muslim extremists, and all three inhabitants of the Dutch Bible Belt!) doesn’t identify with it.

    ————————–

    I agree that both religion and science are attempts to cope with uncertainty. But religion does that by simply denying uncertainty in some areas and declaring it untouchable and holy in others. Science, on the other hand, embraces it. It relies on the insight that we cannot simply trust our intuition, our senses, or even our logic. (Well, OK, we can trust logic, but it is very, very easy to overlook faulty premises.)

  15. #15 Pseudonym
    April 27, 2008

    I never understood the so-called brilliance of “The Courtier’s Reply.”

    What I never understood is why everyone is so prudish about a bit of nudity, be it an emperor or otherwise.

    But yes, I agree with this:

    The Courtier’s Reply is license to wallow in ignorance [...]

    It never ceases to amaze me how proud some people are of their ignorance. It’s one thing not to know about some topic, and not to care that you don’t know, especially if you think there’s nothing in it for you. But it’s quite something else to do this and to also claim that it’s inherently worthless.

    Oh, one thing, though. Dawkins did not, to my knowledge, ever declare all religion to be child abuse.

    Here’s one thing he did say. As horrible as physical abuse by clergy is, some stuff taught in some churches as serious doctrine really does constitute emotional abuse.

    The second thing that he did say was that calling a child a “Protestant child” or a “Catholic child” is a form of abuse. The context in which he said it (and the context has sometimes been removed) was the way that terms like “Protestant” and “Catholic” have been used in Northern Island, even in fairly recent history. Religion was sometimes used like a gang symbol.

    I disagree with this second point in part. Surely, it’s the gang-like behaviour which is the problem, not the religious title.

    He may have also made other pronoucements (I didn’t catch them if he did), but I think the points were fairly reasonable in context. Specific behaviours, specific beliefs, specific indoctrinations associated with many religions may correctly be considered a form of child abuse.

    Personally, I think that the stuff that Ken Ham does with kids can be considered child abuse of sorts. Not the part where he tells them that the Earth is only 10,000 years old, but the part where he and his organisation encourages kids to believe in a bizarre conspiracy theory involving science, the media, the government and the spiritual forces of evil. That’s far more damaging than just telling them incorrect factoids.

  16. #16 David Marjanovi?
    April 27, 2008

    In effect it was: there is no need to study the nuances or depths of something that is so obviously stupid (as theology).

    No. It is “as long as the basic assumption of theology, the existence of God, isn’t even falsifiable, theology is useless waffle”.

    PZ made that point explicit once. I’ll see if I can find the post. He said explicitly that he is impressed with the enormous edifices of reason that theologies are — but he cannot overlook the fact that they all hang in the air because their fundamental premise is at best untestable.

    Dawkins repeated primitive and worn out platitudes such as “if God made everything who made God?”

    You are quote-mining (probably without knowing it). This argument has a context and is quite a bit more subtle than you think.

    It is a reply to the stupid creationist (but I repeat myself) “tornado in a junkyard” argument, which — in its most sophisticated form! — says that simple causes (mutation, selection, drift) cannot generate complex results, therefore there must be an ultimately complex Ultimate Cause, and from the capitalization you can see who that’s supposed to be. Dawkins laughs at it: the “tornado in a junkyard” “argument” doesn’t solve the problem, it merely moves it. Sure, you can cop out and simply declare that God is eternal and has no cause — but, if you already make the outdated* assumption that every effect has a cause, why declare God causeless and not the universe? Why make that extra assumption? Why go that extra step? Why run headfirst into Ockham’s Razor?

    The “Ultimate 747 argument” is comparable to Gaunilo’s Island: it’s so simple everyone should have noticed it, but few people actually did.

    * Heisenberg.

  17. #17 Physis
    April 27, 2008

    The trouble with the Courtier’s Argument isn’t the argument itself; rather, it is its use. Much of the time it is raised it is used to attack genuine sophistry – Terry Eagleton’s implication that God was a ‘condition of possibility’ that could feel love springs to mind. When your definiton of God is so incoherent, it doesn’t matter so much how you believe in it.

    I think the danger, however, comes when the Courtier’s Reply is used to avoid any substantive engagement with theological ideas. I see this on the RichardDawkins.net forums all the time – many of the people there have a saddeningly anti-philosophical bent, and anything even vaguely metaphysical will inevitably have the Courtier’s wheeled out against it.

  18. #18 Pseudonym
    April 27, 2008

    No. It is “as long as the basic assumption of theology, the existence of God, isn’t even falsifiable, theology is useless waffle”.

    Apart from being a fairly obvious example of the genetic fallacy, this argument also relies on a whole bunch of assumptions, not all of which are justified or justifiable. Even the phrase “the existence of God” assumes definitions of “existence” and “God” which don’t apply to everyone. Try applying it to the theology of John Shelby Spong and see how far you get.

    Naturally, if you try to point this out, you get “Courtier’s Reply!” as a response, making the whole thing quite circular.

  19. #19 J. J. Ramsey
    April 27, 2008

    Rosenhouse: “You will search Winston’s essay in vain for any indication of where serious scholarship into Judaism or Islam would challenge anything Dennett has said.”

    Funny, I can find something in the first paragraph that could potentially be challenged by serious scholarship:

    People are revered for their capacity to live in a dream world, to shield their minds from factual knowledge and make the major decisions of their lives by consulting voices in their heads that they call forth by rituals designed to intoxicate them.

    Dennett is not just talking about the existence of God, with which one can deal without knowing the fine details of religion, nor is he discussing whether the extraordinary claims about religion are probably true, which can be dealt with by using a bit of Hume. Instead, he is making a sweeping statement about religions in general, and that requires far more than a passing familiarity with religion, especially when compared with the other two topics mentioned.

  20. #20 Science Avenger
    April 27, 2008

    John Wilkins said: “Whenever one interprets an otherwise clever and cultured person as an idiot, it is always a good idea to think whether there is some more charitable interpretation of their words.”

    Indeed. In the arena of theology, that interpretation is of a mind desperate to rationalize a preordained conclusion, derived from desire and tradition, rather than sober reflection and evidence. That’s the only explanation I’ve found as to why laughable absurdities like Pascal’s Wager and the ontological argument can be presented by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people as arguments worthy of serious scrutiny and consideration.

    “More Wilkins: Oh, and expecting to find in an editorial documented evidence of what every religion scholar knows, that Dawkins and Dennett simply have not engaged with the traditions they so blithely attack, is even sillier.”

    No sir, refusing to back your claim, and hiding behind the schoolyard universal justification of “everybody knows” is the monumental copout. Threads like this one are so filled with offense at the dismissal of theology, so devoid of any substantive reason why that should change. Nothing new to see here.

  21. #21 MartinM
    April 27, 2008

    Even the phrase “the existence of God” assumes definitions of “existence” and “God” which don’t apply to everyone.

    That cuts both ways. If reasonable people can disagree on the definitions of ‘existence’ and ‘God,’ then one can no longer unambiguously define ‘atheist’ as one who does not believe in the ‘existence’ of ‘God.’ If one defines the internet as God, I, as an atheist, don’t have to suddenly stop believing in it. And if I make an argument against the ‘existence’ of ‘God,’ and a theist replies ‘ah! But that doesn’t apply to God #374!’ then perhaps the problem is not that I have failed to engage with the nuances of theological thought. Perhaps the problem is that, in assuming that I share his definitions of ‘existence’ and ‘God,’ the theist has failed to engage with the nuances of atheistic thought.

  22. #22 JimV
    April 27, 2008

    Re: “Apart from being a fairly obvious example of the genetic fallacy..” [Side note: I wish comments were numbered on this blog.]

    I looked up the genetic fallacy, and if I were the judge, your objection would be denied, as I think the unambiguous existence of some God is relevent to the importance of the study of same.

  23. #23 jeffk
    April 27, 2008

    Religious intellectuals, who I find to be intelligent but misguided people, are troubled by the arguments presented in the (sigh) “New Atheists’” books because, well, they’re good arguments and the religious intellectuals are reasonable people to a certain extent. They’ve discovered that their best card is that religion, created by billions of men over thousands of years, is monstrous enough that when someone tries to make an argument for its absurdity, you can always claim that they have to seek out every nook and cranny of religion (as opposed to simply using the religion that’s practiced by 90% of religious people) before any conclusion can be reached.

    But here’s the kicker. Religion is like the Sears tower built atop four upended two-by-fours. No matter how many layers of detail, “theology”, and culture you stack on top, you are still stuck with the underlying idiocy of it, which is a claim that there is simply no evidence for and is equally as likely as Dawkins’ blue teapot that orbits Jupiter and hears your prayers. You kick out those two-by-fours, the whole thing comes crashing down. This is why a fairly complete polemic on religion can be put into one book (actually one chapter is about all it takes).

    Science, on the other hand, is build on the strongest foundation: logic, rationality, and observation. Oh, it can be wrong. But you can only ever remove one brick of it at a time, because the foundation and the rest of the structure still stand when you find the rare intentional or dishonest misstep.

  24. #24 Lev
    April 27, 2008

    Gaunilo’s Island: it’s so simple everyone should have noticed it, but few people actually did.

    So simple it’s defeated by Anslem’s counterexample.

    “Existence is obviously not a real predicate” isn’t exactly rocket science either though and it’s immensely depressing that something as absurd as the ontological argument could go unchallanged for ~800 years.

  25. #25 negentropyeater
    April 27, 2008

    “which is a claim that there is simply no evidence for and is equally as likely as Dawkins’ blue teapot that orbits Jupiter and hears your prayers.”

    Here we have an example of the kind of “certainty” Winston is alluring to.

    Obviously, there must be some form of diagreement on what constitutes “evidence” if there is still a significant minority of intellectuals and scientists who believe in God.

    And then it’s not Dawkins’ teapot but Russell’s.

  26. #26 jeffk
    April 27, 2008

    I don’t recall it from Russell in college but I do remember Dawkins using the example. In any case, you have my most sincere apology for my misstep.

    there must be some form of diagreement on what constitutes “evidence” if there is still a significant minority of intellectuals and scientists who believe in God.

    The number of scientists can barely be called “significant” anymore (I think the number of believers in my field is about 10%). And yes, apparently this is the case. So what’s the evidence on the hands of the religious? You know, the “evidence” (if you can even use that word to describe a single book supposably influenced by God that gives no indication of such and has been translated a few dozen times) that is presented by a hundred different religions and all contradicts each other?

  27. #27 J. J. Ramsey
    April 27, 2008

    Lev: “‘Existence is obviously not a real predicate’ isn’t exactly rocket science”

    No, but it is very abstract and not that easy to explain. I remember in God: A Critical Enquiry, written by Antony Flew when he was still an atheist, that he noted that part of the reason why the ontological argument fooled so many bright people is that the language used to express it helped conceal its flaws. Quite literally, the twist in the ontological argument depends on what the meaning of “is” is.

  28. #28 negentropyeater
    April 27, 2008

    Well you know, all the usual stuff, the fact that nature obeys a set a beautiful laws, the fine tuning argument, the turtles all the way, the big bang had a begining (Lematre who first hypothised it felt it reinforced his faith, still at his death in 1966), the hard problem of consciousness, the complexity of abiogenesis, all the usual god of the gaps arguments, the usual “revelation”, some ethical paradoxes, philosophical arguments …
    Of course, each one can be individually debunked, but each time you do so, there is still an uncertainty, a cost, even if it is small, and a matter of interpretation. When you add all things up in the end, and look at the whole picture, you tip one way or another (I’m somewhere still oscillating in between…).
    But I don’t think it’s as trivial as Rusell’s teapot. Nor the foundations of the Sears towers.

  29. #29 AL
    April 27, 2008

    I never understood the so-called brilliance of “The Courtier’s Reply.” In effect it was: there is no need to study the nuances or depths of something that is so obviously stupid (as theology).

    That’s your (mis)understanding of The Courtier’s Reply? It’s not a difficult argument to grasp. The point is this: some people seem to think atheists shouldn’t be allowed to criticize any particular brand of theism unless they can criticize them all. We can’t laugh at Fred Phelps’ theo-meteorological belief that homosexuality causes hurricanes and tsunamis unless we’ve untangled the wordy verbiage of William Lane Craig or the evolutionary arguments by Alvin Plantinga.

    Aside from the fact that this is a non-sequitur (do I really need to point out that just because I haven’t read everything by Plantinga says nothing about what I know or don’t know about Phelps?), it would apply full well to you. If you really believe a broad field such as “theism” or “theology” can’t have specific interpretations criticized unless we know all the interpretations, then what about atheism? You just now criticized Dawkins’ argument that raising religious children is child abuse. Consistent with your Courtier’s principle, you ought to retract that criticism unless you can demonstrate to us that you’ve read the complete works of Bertrand Russell and have sufficient mastery over all his ideas that you can actually calculate teapot orbitals and can tell us when the next teapot eclipse will occur. Until then, you simply don’t understand sophisticated atheism and are engaging in intellectual laziness by picking on Dawkins’ off hand child abuse remarks.

  30. #30 Robert O'Brien
    April 27, 2008

    Indeed. In the arena of theology, that interpretation is of a mind desperate to rationalize a preordained conclusion, derived from desire and tradition, rather than sober reflection and evidence. That’s the only explanation I’ve found as to why laughable absurdities like Pascal’s Wager and the ontological argument can be presented by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people as arguments worthy of serious scrutiny and consideration.

    Your inability to apprehend them, hayseed, does not make them illegitimate.

  31. #31 Robert O'Brien
    April 27, 2008

    So simple it’s defeated by Anslem’s counterexample.

    Correct.

    “Existence is obviously not a real predicate” isn’t exactly rocket science either though and it’s immensely depressing that something as absurd as the ontological argument could go unchallanged for ~800 years.

    Anyway, the form of the ontological argument that we have used does not explicitly assume that existence is a predicate. It assumes that the modal status of an individual (the Eiffel tower, say, or the number 17) can be regarded as a property. A number between 16 and 18 exists necessarily, whereas the Eiffel tower exists contingently, and the distinction between the two can be regarded as a property of each.

    http://www.stats.uwaterloo.ca/~cgsmall/ontology1.html

  32. #32 negentropyeater
    April 27, 2008

    AL,

    you say, correctly,
    “That’s your (mis)understanding of The Courtier’s Reply? It’s not a difficult argument to grasp. The point is this: some people seem to think atheists shouldn’t be allowed to criticize any particular brand of theism unless they can criticize them all. We can’t laugh at Fred Phelps’ theo-meteorological belief that homosexuality causes hurricanes and tsunamis unless we’ve untangled the wordy verbiage of William Lane Craig or the evolutionary arguments by Alvin Plantinga.”

    That is precisely why, PZ’s little backstory, despite it’s wit, doesn’t apply for example, to Lord Winston’s critism of Dennett.
    Well it does if you only read that quote which Jason kindly, quoted :

    “To some extent, he falls into a similar trap to Dawkins. He feels he knows about religions but seems to have done too little research; a number of his points – for example, about Jewish attitudes or Muslim practices – seem to show a lack of serious scholarship.”

    But the next sentence (in the exchange from the Link) clearly shows that Wilson is talking about the moderate versions of these religions :
    “Dennett, like Dawkins, is affronted by the “fact” that moderate religious people have done little to curb the excesses of the extremists of their own traditions.”
    So Wilson is not questioning Dawkins’ scholarship in all theological matters, he’s questioning his ability to describe what moderate religion represents today in the world. Because he believes he has deliberately not looked at the way a much more moderate, progressive, pro-science, tolerant religion may be practiced in the world today.

    Now we can discuss if Wilson is correct or not, but it’s not the courtier’s reply…

  33. #33 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 27, 2008

    John Wilkins-

    The point of the Courtier’s reply was that the minutiae of Christian (or Jewish or Islamic) theology is mostly irrelevant to the points Dawkins et al are making. They are primarily addressing the reasonableness of believing in an all-powerful all-loving God, and on the doleful social consequences of excessive religious belief. You can dispute their arguments if you wish, but it is not adequate simply to gesture to various obscure theologians and say that the failure of Dawkins and the others to address them somehow undercuts their arguments. That is effectively what Winston did in the first paragraph I quoted above.

    As for Winston himself, it’s a pretty expansive reading of my post to suggest that I demonized him. I certainly never called him an idiot. But, your heroic efforts to argue otherwise, notwithstanding, I stand by my judgment that his description of science and religion as two different expressions of our uncertainty is standard issue high-minded argle-bargle. Neither science nor religion is well-described as an expression of our uncertainty. Religion in particular traffics in certainty on questions about which no one has any business being certain. Science, meanwhile, is a tool for reducing uncertainty to as close to zero as we are capable of attaining.

    As for your remark about the sort of religion that exists broadly, I’m afraid that you are simply refusing to address reality. The sort of religion attacked by Dennett, Dawkins and the others is the sort of religion that exists broadly. The high-minded version that is a private affair with no designs on anyone else’s business and which keeps its hands off public policy? That’s the aberration. In America, to pick just one example, fully half the population accepts the young-Earth creationist view of things. I could multiply such data points endlessly.

    And even laying that aside, saying that religion promotes irrationality does not mean that every single thing that goes under the name of religion is equally guilty of that sin. If I said that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, you would not reply with, “Fallacy of composition! My aunt smoked her whole life and died of natural causes at 97! If you are going to attack cigarette smoking you should do so based on problems afflicting smokers broadly.”

    Its perfectly acceptable to say that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer even though many people smoke without getting lung cancer. It is also acceptable to say that religion promotes irrationality even though there exist forms of religion that do not promote irrationality. (At least, I assume they exist because people keep telling me they do. Personally I have never encountered them.)

  34. #34 J. J. Ramsey
    April 27, 2008

    Jason Rosenhouse: “The point of the Courtier’s reply was that the minutiae of Christian (or Jewish or Islamic) theology is mostly irrelevant to the points Dawkins et al are making.”

    But we aren’t talking about theological scholarship, but rather the scholarship relating to “Jewish attitudes or Muslim practices.” Emphasis on the “practice” part. Winston could just as easily be appealing to Scott Atran or Robert A. Pape as Maimonides, and here he probably is referring more to the former two. Note that Dennett isn’t even talking much here about creationism, but rather more sweeping claims about religious having “a sort of hyperbolic confidence” and tendencies to fanatical violence. Dennett himself seems to be, um, hyperbolic.

  35. #35 J. J. Ramsey
    April 27, 2008

    John Wilkins: “The Courtier’s Reply is a copout of monumental proportions….”

    Physis: “I see this on the RichardDawkins.net forums all the time – many of the people there have a saddeningly anti-philosophical bent, and anything even vaguely metaphysical will inevitably have the Courtier’s wheeled out against it.”

    I’d say that the Courtier’s Reply is worse than a copout. It’s become a thought-terminating clich.

  36. #36 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 27, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey-

    You delight in splitting hairs. Give me some concrete example of where a more scholarly understanding of Jewish attitudes or Muslim practices would affect Dennett’s arguments and then we’ll talk.

    I’ve already replied to the rest of your comment. Nowhere does Dennett say that every single form of religion inspires violence. Instead he writes things like this:

    And – this is the worst of it – religious faith can give people a sort of hyperbolic confidence, an utter unconcern about whether they might be making a mistake, that enables acts of inhumanity that would otherwise be unthinkable.

    Note the “can.” I think the evidence both of history and of current world hot spots makes it plain that Dennett is not prosecuting a straw man, but is pointing to a very real tendency of some very common forms of religious belief.

    You are simply confused about the Courtier’s reply. It is a response to critics who have themselves chosen the route of copping out. The philosophers and theologians who have replied to Dennett and the others have been far more itnerested in establishing their own command of irrelevant esoterica than they have in seriously engaging their arguments.

  37. #37 Pseudonym
    April 27, 2008

    JimV:

    I looked up the genetic fallacy, and if I were the judge, your objection would be denied, as I think the unambiguous existence of some God is relevent to the importance of the study of same.

    This is precisely why I mentioned John Shelby Spong, to cut off this line of counter-objection. However, that’s not the main reason why I objected with the genetic fallacy.

    Take the Ontological Argument, which has been discussed above. What’s interesting about this argument, to me at least, is that it’s obviously wrong (in a reductio ad absurdum sense), but it’s not obvious exactly where the flaw in the reasoning is unless you look much deeper.

    One of the counter-arguments mentioned, that existence is not a predicate, was developed by a theologian doing theology. It was a very important development, because it was one of the ideas that fed into the recasting of existence as a “quantifier”, thanks to Frege. Mathematicians now routinely manipulate “for all” and “there exists” signs, and sometimes forget that someone had to make the breakthrough.

    Anyway, this development is a clear counter-example to the assertion that “theology is useless waffle”, with its implicit universal quantification. There are plenty more examples, but this is the one I’m most familiar with.

    With my Jungian/Campbellian hat on, I should also point out that the study of mythology and folk tales is an incredibly useful tool to (indirectly) study the human mind, but that’s another story.

  38. #38 J. J. Ramsey
    April 27, 2008

    Jason Rosenhouse: “Give me some concrete example of where a more scholarly understanding of Jewish attitudes or Muslim practices would affect Dennett’s arguments and then we’ll talk.”

    I already did. Now I do not know whether a scholar would actually contradict Dennett’s claim that “religion … doesn’t just disable, it honours the disability.” but it is a concrete claim that scholars can certainly say something about, and it is far from self-evident.

    FWIW, I also remember a post by Taner Edis remarking this about Dennett speaking at a conference about the evolution of religion:

    Dennett received some very critical questions, some of which pointed out that a number of features of “religion” he identified specifically had to do with contemporary conservative Christianity in the United States, and did not generalize to other traditions and other times.

    Dennett sort of defended Harris’s listing of disgustingly violent verses from the Quran, but I pointed out that most Muslims do not respond to the Quran the way a stereotypical Protestant fundamentalist responds to a Bible translation. He said he didn’t know that. Fair enough, but why on earth would he trust Harris’s non-existent expertise in the first place?

    That’s not too specific, unfortunately, and unlike the Beyond Belief conferences, there isn’t a video of it, or even a transcript. :( I do wonder whether Dennett’s assumptions about religion and rationality have their origins in Protestant Christian ideas of what “faith” means.

    Jason Rosenhouse: “Note the ‘can.’ I think the evidence both of history and of current world hot spots makes it plain that Dennett is not prosecuting a straw man, but is pointing to a very real tendency of some very common forms of religious belief.”

    Yet we go from “can” and “some” to a much broader statement about religion being the “greatest threat to rationality and scientific progress.”

  39. #39 Pseudonym
    April 27, 2008

    Yet we go from “can” and “some” to a much broader statement about religion being the “greatest threat to rationality and scientific progress.”

    Indeed. This is one reason why I think it’s wrong to lump the “New Atheists” in together, even thought they seem to want to be lumped in together sometimes.

    Dawkins’ “the Judeo-Christian God almost certainly does not exist” is one thing, but Hitchens’ “religion poisons everything” is in a completely different league.

  40. #40 Science Avenger
    April 27, 2008

    It’s not the vaguely metaphysical, but rather the metaphysically vague, that gets the Courtier’s reply wheeled out against it, and for good reason.

  41. #41 tomh
    April 27, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey wrote:
    Yet we go from “can” and “some” to a much broader statement about religion being the “greatest threat to rationality and scientific progress.”

    Can you name a greater one? Seems unlikely.

  42. #42 Russell Blackford
    April 27, 2008

    I thought that the Courtier’s reply was a perfectly good reply to Terry Eagleton (and maybe a few others). I don’t think it’s a reply in all contexts, and I do think that some atheists are too quick to scream, “Courtier’s reply!” every time an issue of nuance is raised.

    That said, it’s unclear what issue of nuance Winston is raising. He could at least offer a clue.

    The fact is that religion is, overall, currently operating as an extraordinarily powerful reactionary force in a wide range of societies including the most powerful and (arguably) culturally-influential one of all – the US. What happens in the US eventually affects everybody.

    That doesn’t mean that every sub-set of what comes under the broad rubric of “religion” does so. Some religious folks are secularist and are no threat to our liberties or to science. Some religious positions are very liberal. Some have minimal content beyond a kind of sacramental vision of God acting to sustain the world. And so on. We have little to fear from liberal Jews or sophisticated Buddhists, for example.

    Nor does it mean that all religious positions, or even all Christian and Muslim ones, will be menaces to science, reason, liberty, and so on, in the future.

    Detailed knowledge of various theological positions may well be relevant in considering these sorts of questions. However, they are not relevant to whether the traditional arguments for the existence of God are sound, whether traditional forms of Christianity as described in the creeds are at all plausible, whether powerful religious groupings and institutions are enemies of science, reason, and liberty, or the other kinds of questions that Dawkins wrote about in The God Delusion. They are not relevant to the question of whether historically dominant and/or currently popular religious images of the world are in conflict with the image of the world that most naturally arises from the well-corroborated findings of science. E.g., traditional religious images of the world – certainly in the Abrahamic tradition – have tended to include various kinds of human exceptionalism that are implausible from a scientific viewpoint.

    There is much that can be said about the implausibility of historically, and currently, popular religious positions and about the highly illiberal tendencies of powerful religious institutions and leaders, without needing to get into any finer points of theological discussion. The irony about Winston’s position is that it tends to be powerful religious leaders who promote particular doctrines as certain and immutable, whereas science is quite slow to accept a body of theory as well-corroborated, and treats even the best-corroborated theories as subject to revision. There is no concept of certainty in science, though it’s true that some findings are now so well-corroborated by the evidence that it’s difficult to imagine them ever being overturned completely.

    Yes, if Dawkins had written a book about whether or not a society dominated by the teachings of (say) sophisticated process theologians would be a good society or a bad one … he’d have to know a helluva lot of arcane theology. The Courtier’s reply would be a most inadequate defence if he were attacked for not knowing his stuff – if that had been the thesis of his book.

    In the actual context, however, Eagleton in particular looked more as if he were showing off his erudition than subjecting The God Delusion to a useful critique. IMNSHO, he looked rather foolish, and the Courtier’s reply was entirely appropriate.

  43. #43 Pseudonym
    April 28, 2008

    tomh:

    Can you name a greater one?

    You should follow the Denialism blog. Corporations with anti-science messages to push (e.g. climate change denialists) seem to have the edge these days.

  44. #44 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 28, 2008

    Russell Blackford –

    Well said!

    J.J. Ramsey –

    I’d be very surprised if Edis’ description of Dennett’s response is completely accurate. Dennett didn’t know that many Muslims do not take their Koran literally? Please. Harris, after all, never claimed otherwise. His point in listing those violent passages from the Koran was to show the contempt with which non-Muslims are routinely treated throughout its pages. His point was that the extremists find ample justification for their views in the pages of the Koran, while the moderates must depart from its clear teachings.

    You have not, in fact, given any examples of where a more scholarly understanding of Jewish or Muslim practices would affect anything Dennett has said. And, one more time, saying “Religion causes X” does not imply that every single thing that is described as a religion does, indeed, cause X, any more than saying “Smoking causes lung cancer” implies that everyone who smokes will get lung cancer. In his editorial Dennett is merely stating the obvious: That many very popular and common forms of religion have the harmful consequences he describes, and that we are quite right to feel threatened by that fact.

  45. #45 heddle
    April 28, 2008

    jeffk

    Religious intellectuals, who I find to be intelligent but misguided people, are troubled by the arguments presented in the (sigh) “New Atheists’” books because, well, they’re good arguments.

    Just the opposite. They are incredibly bad (at least for an adult to make) recycled arguments. We (theists) cannot use them for our advantage at all–because they are so mindless. Who made God? Religion kills! Religious people are irrational! These you call good arguments? We want intellectual atheists who have something substantive and troubling to say. Give us something to think about. The modern standard-bearers for intellectual atheism are such a disappointment.

    Russell Blackford,

    There is much that can be said about the implausibility of historically, and currently, popular religious positions and about the highly illiberal tendencies of powerful religious institutions and leaders, without needing to get into any finer points of theological discussion.

    Finer points? Nobody said Dawkins had to address the finer points. If he could achieve reasoned discourse on theology at, say, the level of a high school Sunday school class, that would be a huge improvement. But he doesn’t have to. because he has the get-out-of-jail-free Courtier’s Reply.

    Aside: By the way, many people misapply Russell’s teapot argument. It was not an argument against religion. It was not a Courtier’s Reply (which in my opinion Russell would have dismissed.) It was not an argument against God. It was a legitimate argument that it was not the atheist’s job to disprove God.

  46. #46 JimCH
    April 28, 2008

    heddle…
    Just out of curiosity, what was the last “good” atheist argument & where did it come from?

  47. #47 JimV
    April 28, 2008

    Pseudonym@April 27, 9:48 PM:

    Thanks for the interesting reply (and for not pointing out that I misspelled “relevant”).

    One of the counter-arguments mentioned, that existence is not a predicate, was developed by a theologian doing theology. It was a very important development, because it was one of the ideas that fed into the recasting of existence as a “quantifier”, thanks to Frege. Mathematicians now routinely manipulate “for all” and “there exists” signs, and sometimes forget that someone had to make the breakthrough.

    Obviously you know much more about this than I do, so I’ll have to take your word for it, but to a layman it sounds more like a logician or a mathematician or a semanticist at work, rather than someone in the process of studying a god. If there were no such thing as theology, would this principle never have been discovered?

  48. #48 J. J. Ramsey
    April 28, 2008

    Jason Rosenhouse: “Dennett didn’t know that many Muslims do not take their Koran literally? Please.”

    What Dennett didn’t know is that most Muslims have very mediated contact with the Qu’ran, rather than reading it directly the way Protestants do.

    Jason Rosenhouse: “You have not, in fact, given any examples of where a more scholarly understanding of Jewish or Muslim practices would affect anything Dennett has said.”

    What I have not done is shown that scholars have actually contradicted him. I have roughly as much familiarity as you do with them, so I’m not privy to what they’ve said. What I have tried to do is point out that Dennett is making assertions about religious beliefs and practices, and obviously those who have studied religious beliefs and practices can respond to those assertions. You write as if it has already been established that Dennett is correct in his broad outline and that all scholars can bring to the table here are minutiae that don’t affect the broad strokes. It doesn’t help that we’re both discussing a summary here, and that neither of us know what points Dennett had brought up in the actual debate about “Jewish attitudes or Muslim practices” which may have been contradicted by Winston.

    Jason Rosenhouse: “In his editorial Dennett is merely stating the obvious: That many very popular and common forms of religion have the harmful consequences he describes, and that we are quite right to feel threatened by that fact.”

    So, it’s obvious that popular and common forms of religious rituals are designed to intoxicate and call forth voices in one’s head? It’s obvious that most people make major decisions based on these voices? Funny, I thought it was obvious that the rituals, at least in church, were singing and listening to a sermon that may be more or less loosely based on the Bible. That can be fun or boring, but rarely intoxicating. And the stuff about a “still, small voice” is more of a rationalization of people not hearing voices in their heads, at least not the way schizophrenics do.

    Jason Rosenhouse: “It is also acceptable to say that religion promotes irrationality even though there exist forms of religion that do not promote irrationality.”

    There is, a vast difference between saying that religion promotes irrationality to some extent and saying that it is the “greatest threat to rationality,” especially when the tendency towards irrationality varies widely and depends a lot on circumstances.

  49. #49 g
    April 28, 2008

    I implore commenters here (and elsewhere) to distinguish between

    1. “the Courtier’s Reply”, which is what (e.g.) PZ Myers says Eagleton employed

    2. (let’s call it) “the Courtier’s Reply Reply”, which is what (e.g.) PZ Myers gave to Eagleton.

    Because the meaning of statements like “the Courtier’s Reply was entirely appropriate” is entirely reversed if you switch between the two :-).

    When Winston talks about science and religion both being expressions of uncertainty, it seems like he thinks the only important question is “certain or uncertain?”. In reality, the important question is “how does the degree of certainty match the degree of justification?”. Science is all about getting the two to match, and the result is that it provides a lot of well-justified certainty at its core and a lot of well-recognized uncertainty at the fringes. Some forms of religion offer unjustified certainty; they can be dangerous. Some avoid that by shrouding everything in a fog of universal uncertainty; they can be vacuous. Science does pretty well at avoiding both pitfalls.

  50. #50 heddle
    April 28, 2008

    JimCH,

    Just out of curiosity, what was the last “good” atheist argument & where did it come from?

    Do you mean anywhere or by someone famous? Because I get or come across good, though provoking comments from atheists all the time. For example, there has been a recent trend for atheists to comment on Christian inconsistencies in dealing with Old Testament law, and some great points have been made. A fully self-consistent reconciliation of the new covenant, grace, Paul’s teachings, and Jesus’ own statement concerning the law has never been achieved, in my opinion, and some atheists that I’ve interacted with have a good grasp of that problem and are able to exploit it.

    As for famous atheists, I’d have to go back to Russell. His comments on the delay of the Parousia, just to take one simple example, played a role in causing me to examine and then embrace partial preterism. Between Russell and the advent of the new atheists I have not read much, unless you count Ayn Rand who, while not of the caliber of Russell, and whose characters in her novels were, if such a things is possible, less than one dimensional, was still much more thought provoking to theists than Dawkins.

  51. #51 tomh
    April 28, 2008

    heddle wrote: Ayn Rand … was still much more thought provoking to theists than Dawkins.

    How nice to be able to speak for all theists. What true believers like this one can never seem to come to grips with is that it takes no evidence or sophisticated arguments to refute assertions made without evidence. At the bottom of all their sophistry is the specious, “I believe … so it must be true.”

  52. #52 JimCH
    April 28, 2008

    heddle…
    Sorry, but you’re not going to get a tangle out of me today. I just wanted to get a feel for your metric & you were gracious enough (or, all too willing) to oblige. It looks like tomh is ready to rumble though.

    But I can’t let this pass:

    …characters in her [Ayn Rand] novels were, if such a things is possible, less than one dimensional…

    This is the only statement of yours that I can remember ever sharing common ground with, so I’m marking my calender.

  53. #53 heddle
    April 28, 2008

    tomh,

    How nice to be able to speak for all theists. What true believers like this one can never seem to come to grips with is that it takes no evidence or sophisticated arguments to refute assertions made without evidence.

    Yes I understand, you are in fact superbly invoking the Courtier’s Reply–which paraphrased is: “I don’t need to think, I’ll just call you stupid and declare victory, and accept the back slaps from others who also don’t feel like taking the trouble to construct a cogent argument.”

  54. #54 Pseudonym
    April 28, 2008

    Obviously you know much more about this than I do, so I’ll have to take your word for it, but to a layman it sounds more like a logician or a mathematician or a semanticist at work, rather than someone in the process of studying a god.

    The gentleman in question was Pierre Gassendi, and he was a true polymath. This is back in the day when you really could be a polymath.

    He was, amongst other things, a philosopher, theologian, “natural philosopher” (i.e. scientist of all trades), astronomer and astrologer. Again, this was back in the day when you could be both an astronomer and an astrologer.

    So in a sense, you’re correct. In another sense, had you said this to an early-scientific-era polymath like Gassendi, Tycho Brahe, Descartes, Leibnitz or Newton, they’d have looked at you strangely and wondered why you thought the distinction was important.

    If there were no such thing as theology, would this principle never have been discovered?

    Of course it would. But it was discovered via theology, and this (plus other counter-examples) disprove the thesis that “theology is useless waffle”. If theologians make good discoveries, they’re still good discoveries, no matter who could have made them in principle.

    I might add that modern mainline/liberal theological research is largely concerned with issues like history and linguistics (which are, objectively, legitimate fields of research even if you think they apply their efforts a bit narrowly) and philosophy, particularly moral philosophy. And just because they study a philosophical school of thought that you think is wrong doesn’t mean that it’s not legitimate scholarship.

    On a final note, it’s hard for a scientist like myself to understand what constitutes a modern “discovery” in the more abstract humanities like philosophy. So if you want to know what’s been discovered lately of any importance, I really couldn’t tell you.

  55. #55 J. J. Ramsey
    April 28, 2008

    heddle: “you are in fact superbly invoking the Courtier’s Reply–which paraphrased is: ‘I don’t need to think, I’ll just call you stupid and declare victory’”

    That’s unfair. The point of the Courtier’s Reply is to ridicule supposedly irrelevant appeals to scholarship. Of course, the catch is whether the appeals really are irrelevant. Also, the conceit of the Courtier’s Reply is that Dawkins et al. have already proved their point (i.e. shown the emperor is naked), and it’s hard to have relevant objections to a point that is well-established.

    I notice that the main disagreement between Rosenhouse and me I is that he sees Dennett as stating something obvious, against which there can be no real objection, while I see Dennett as making disputable assertions that already set off my BS meter, leaving me suspicious that experts would corroborate him.

  56. #56 Ginger Yellow
    April 29, 2008

    ” By all means criticise religion, but criticise the religion that actually exists broadly, not by overgeneralising a small contingent historically localised aspect of religion.”

    The point of PZ’s riposte to the Courtier’s Reply was that “sophisticated theology”, in the sense of a theology designed to to preserve the concept of God in a world where empirical tests find only natural casues, is “a small, contingent, historically localised aspect of religion”. For most of monoetheism’s history, and for many if not most monotheists today, God was subject to empirical proof (as such a concept was understood) and did act in the world. It’s only in the last couple of centuries, really, that the idea that God’s existence is unproveable either way has carried any water. It doesn’t matter, says PZ, that you can construct elaborate justifications for a non-empirical God, because the vast majority of people throughout history, and probably most of them now, believe(d) in an empirical God, whether it’s natural disasters, intercessory prayer, or any other manifestation.

    I’m not going to speak to Dennett vs Winston and how it applies there, because I haven’t read their editorials. That said, I do think Winston is right about certainty being more dangerous to science than religion per se, but I’d counter with the argument that religion’s greatest attraction is certainty. That’s the danger of religion – it’s an immensely powerful structure which lures people to false certainty. Clearly there are those with unjustified certainty who are atheists or are driven by scientific zeal, but the very nature of the scientific method undermines certainty, whereas for the most part religion encourages and fosters it.

  57. #57 JimV
    April 29, 2008

    Psuedonym@April 28, 8:36 PM -

    Thanks for another good reply. We are getting into semantic distinctions, it seems to me, such as whether something done by a theologian in the field of theological history can be credited to the profession of theology or the profession of history. To see where I am coming from, substitute the word “astrology” for “theology” in our discussion (using Newton, say, as the exemplar instead of Gassendi). I would not claim astrology is useless twaddle because no astologer had ever made any valuable contributions, but because its central premise has never been substantiated (to my satisfaction).

    (Useless to me, that is. I do not deny that others may have taken comfort from the solacy of astology.)

  58. #58 Caledonian
    April 29, 2008

    What they attack is the religion that really exists in various Bible Belts (encompassing 55 % of the US population, as Explicit Atheist mentions above) and much of the Middle East.

    More importantly, what they attack is how religion was for thousands and thousands of years before the very recent present, which is pretty much the only time when numerous groups of people did not refer to deities and spirits to explain away various natural phenomena that they lacked the ability to otherwise explain.

  59. #59 J. J. Ramsey
    April 29, 2008

    Ginger Yellow: “… but I’d counter with the argument that religion’s greatest attraction is certainty.”

    In practice, I’m not so sure that’s true, at least if you are talking about certainty as to how the world works. A lot of the appeal of religion is that it provides a social network.

  60. #60 Pseudonym
    April 29, 2008

    JimV:

    And thank you for a very constructive discussion!

    I would not claim astrology is useless twaddle because no astologer had ever made any valuable contributions, but because its central premise has never been substantiated (to my satisfaction).

    I agree with you, though astrology is probably not a good modern example, because as far as I know, no astrologer has made any real contribution to anything in the last couple of hundred years at least. Probably very few if any modern astrologers even bother to look at the night sky!

    A better modern comparison is something like acupuncture. The premise of acupuncture has never been substantiated (i.e. chi and the flow thereof), but there may be something in the use of low-level rhythmic stimulation (i.e. “sham acupuncture”) as a form of analgesic, much like the theory behind TENS.

    So while the premise of acupuncture is almost certainly twaddle, studying it may not be useless.

  61. #61 windy
    April 29, 2008

    I don’t really have a particular position I want to defend here re: religion and “uncertainty”. But John, isn’t it a bit hyperbolic to accuse Jason of “demonising” Lord Winston?

    That’s just something he likes to do.

  62. #62 JimV
    April 30, 2008

    My final comments are probably not very interesting, but what the heck, this is the internet. Acupuncture is a good counter to astrology, but my viewpoint is that if its central, defining premise requires the flow of chi, then the most profitable studies of it will be by non-acupuncturists; whereas if the central premise is that sticking needles in people can relieve pain, then possibly an acupuncturist has something valid to study – depending on what the evidence shows.

    I agree that it is possible to reach useful results in spite of invalid premises, but I am reluctant to give such premises any credit for the results. I will admit that the historical process by which ideas develop necessarily involves a lot of good work by people who hold false premises, and that those people should not be disparaged, but I also see a danger in clinging to premises against which the evidence has mounted up over time.

    Anyway, thanks for your time and for some interesting information.

  63. #63 Ginger Yellow
    April 30, 2008

    “In practice, I’m not so sure that’s true, at least if you are talking about certainty as to how the world works. A lot of the appeal of religion is that it provides a social network.”

    You’re definitely right about the social network thing, but I didn’t really mean certainty about how the world works (at least not modern religion – that was clearly an attraction in previous eras and does still apply in certain modern variants). I was referring to certainty about things like whether there is a purpose to life, what happens after death, where we came from, what the self is, what is moral and so on. A lot of people don’t like to think hard about those questions, and are troubled by the prospect of making our own, uncertain meaning. Religion (again, for the most part) claims to offer definite answers and impose an external structure on meaning.

  64. #64 Ken
    April 30, 2008

    1. Lord Winston is a good egg who has been doing needed work answering the critics of the embryology bill in the UK which several bishops were seriously misrepresenting (they temporarily forgot that “not bearing false witness” thing).
    2. Their are many variants of the “sophistication defence”, but it tends to go like this:
    T: “you fail to take account of the more sophisticated version of this argument”
    A: “OK lets hear it”
    T: “it is really sophisticated”
    A: “fine – gone for it”
    T: “it is really really sophisticated”
    A: “this holds no fears for me – please explain”
    T: “it is really really really sophisticated”
    A: “so are we going to hear it?”
    T: “no – you just aren’t sophisticated enough as I can tell from your line of questioning – how sad”.
    T then goes away pleased that his sophisticated argument saw off that uncultured heathen A and claims that A is proud of his ignorance of that sophisticated argument. The beauty of this is that the sophisticated argument doesn’t actually have to exist.

  65. #65 conradg
    April 30, 2008

    Jeffk,

    But here’s the kicker. Religion is like the Sears tower built atop four upended two-by-fours. No matter how many layers of detail, “theology”, and culture you stack on top, you are still stuck with the underlying idiocy of it, which is a claim that there is simply no evidence for and is equally as likely as Dawkins’ blue teapot that orbits Jupiter and hears your prayers. You kick out those two-by-fours, the whole thing comes crashing down. This is why a fairly complete polemic on religion can be put into one book (actually one chapter is about all it takes).

    I think your analogy is apt, but there’s a serious problem with it that relates to the theme of this thread. If the skyscraper of religion really were built on a foundation of a few 2×4′s, it would have collapses long ago under its own weight. That it has not collapsed should lead the scientist to infer that even though he can only see 2×4′s at the foundation of religion, it must have something far sturdier and stronger holding it up, or it would have collapsed long ago.

    It’s not much different from modern theories of dark energy and dark matter. Even if one can’t see what is holding religion up, it must be there, because it hasn’t fallen. A real scientist would try to figure out what is holding it up, rather than ridicule people who insist there is something there holding it up that the scientist can’t see.

  66. #66 conradg
    April 30, 2008

    Re-edit with formatting:

    Jeffk,

    But here’s the kicker. Religion is like the Sears tower built atop four upended two-by-fours. No matter how many layers of detail, “theology”, and culture you stack on top, you are still stuck with the underlying idiocy of it, which is a claim that there is simply no evidence for and is equally as likely as Dawkins’ blue teapot that orbits Jupiter and hears your prayers. You kick out those two-by-fours, the whole thing comes crashing down. This is why a fairly complete polemic on religion can be put into one book (actually one chapter is about all it takes).

    I think your analogy is apt, but there’s a serious problem with it that relates to the theme of this thread. If the skyscraper of religion really were built on a foundation of a few 2×4′s, it would have collapses long ago under its own weight. That it has not collapsed should lead the scientist to infer that even though he can only see 2×4′s at the foundation of religion, it must have something far sturdier and stronger holding it up, or it would have collapsed long ago.

    It’s not much different from modern theories of dark energy and dark matter. Even if one can’t see what is holding religion up, it must be there, because it hasn’t fallen. A real scientist would try to figure out what is holding it up, rather than ridicule people who insist there is something there holding it up that the scientist can’t see.

  67. #67 JimCH
    April 30, 2008

    That it has not collapsed should lead the scientist to infer that even though he can only see 2×4′s at the foundation of religion, it must have something far sturdier and stronger holding it up, or it would have collapsed long ago.

    Every analogy breaks down somewhere & you’ve found it for this one. Mythology origin details are lost over time but building material does not forget stress-load. In fact, the effect is completely contrasted, as you pointed out. Time only makes it worse for the building structure.

    Even if one can’t see what is holding religion up, it must be there, because it hasn’t fallen. A real scientist would try to figure out what is holding it up, rather than ridicule people who insist there is something there holding it up that the scientist can’t see.

    Religion is “held up” by the solidarity provided by a shared sense of community & a willingness to suspend disbelief in order to maintain that sense of community. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that, just critical thinking & a tiny bit of courage.

  68. #68 AL
    April 30, 2008

    tomh,

    How nice to be able to speak for all theists. What true believers like this one can never seem to come to grips with is that it takes no evidence or sophisticated arguments to refute assertions made without evidence.

    Yes I understand, you are in fact superbly invoking the Courtier’s Reply–which paraphrased is: “I don’t need to think, I’ll just call you stupid and declare victory, and accept the back slaps from others who also don’t feel like taking the trouble to construct a cogent argument.”

    Uh, heddle, are you confused? Read g’s comment above about the difference between the Courtier’s Reply and the Reply to the Courtier’s Reply. It is you who, in fact, is invoking the Courtier’s Reply. You dismissed Dawkins and Rand without specifically addressing any of their arguments, only vaguely insinuating that they don’t deal with true sophisticated theology by asserting they are not really “thought provoking to theists.” THAT is the Courtier’s Reply and you are the one making it. You seem to think that pointing out the Courtier’s Reply is something atheists use to be dismissive, but in fact, it is atheists simply noting the dismissiveness of some theists.

  69. #69 conradg
    May 1, 2008

    JimCH,

    The analogy is bad only because religion has held up for a very long time. Thus, it isn’t built on shaky 2×4′s. That’s the point. It has also withstood the criticisms of science, and despite the withering ridicule of the Courtier’s argument, it still stands. Apparently, it must have very strong foundations that are not brought down by scientific arguments.

    Religion is “held up” by the solidarity provided by a shared sense of community & a willingness to suspend disbelief in order to maintain that sense of community. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that, just critical thinking & a tiny bit of courage.

    That’s an interesting theory for why religion has persisted for so long, but it doesn’t explain why many people are still religious even in the absence of a shared sense of community and the desire to maintain such community. I’m not part of any religious community, as just one example, and I’m not much interested in being a part of one, and yet I still believe in God and practice religion in my personal and private life.

    And it doesn’t explain why religion should be such a powerful way of maintaining community, and other tools, such as science, not so much. In general, this idea that there’s no strong foundation for religion is simply a confession of an inability to understand human beings except through condescension and ridicule, which of course is all the Courtier’s Reply amounts to.

  70. #70 heddle
    May 1, 2008

    AL,

    Are you telling me I have this wrong?

    1. Dawkins makes argument like “If God made everything, who made God?”

    2. Theists claim that is a lousy argument demonstrating Dawkins knows little or no theology.

    3. The Courtier’s Reply suggests he doesn’t need to do his homework because what he is arguing against is manifestly stupid. For example PZ writes, in his first self comment on his classic post, this explanation as to why a Dawkin’s critic (Orr) deserves to be summarily dismissed via The Courtier’s Reply:

    No, Orr falls squarely into the pigeonhole of the Courtier’s Reply. This is a perfect example:

    The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

    Why the hell should anyone have to take the frilly excuses of theology seriously?

    PZ says “Why the hell should anyone have to take the frilly excuses of theology seriously?” and AL says “You seem to think that pointing out the Courtier’s Reply is something atheists use to be dismissive, but in fact, it is atheists simply noting the dismissiveness of some theists.”

    No, I think PZ demonstrates the opposite of what you said. He is being a poster child on how to be dismissive. You are arguing tu quoque.

    PZ is saying, using the Courtier’s Reply, that the works of the great intellects over millennia (since many of the great intellects of the last two thousand years have been theologians) can be ignored. I’m saying that a single post from an internet blogger is anti-intellectual, and, unlike The Courtier’s Reply whose reasoning is “just because” I am giving legitimate reason–namely that The Courtier’s Reply is a blanket excuse to say nothing–it’s an argument stopper. Big difference. Tu quoque.

  71. #71 Ginger Yellow
    May 1, 2008

    “The analogy is bad only because religion has held up for a very long time. Thus, it isn’t built on shaky 2×4′s. That’s the point. It has also withstood the criticisms of science, and despite the withering ridicule of the Courtier’s argument, it still stands. Apparently, it must have very strong foundations that are not brought down by scientific arguments”

    Indeed. It’s called psychology.

  72. #72 JimCH
    May 1, 2008

    It has also withstood the criticisms of science, and despite the withering ridicule of the Courtier’s argument, it still stands. Apparently, it must have very strong foundations that are not brought down by scientific arguments.

    I’m afraid that somehow you’ve got this backwards. It has been science that has survived despite the attempts of religion. Science just goes about doing its business & sometimes the results are a problem for religion. That’s not science attacking religion, that’s religion being built on a weak foundation.

    I’m not part of any religious community, as just one example, and I’m not much interested in being a part of one, and yet I still believe in God and practice religion in my personal and private life.

    So, you’ve just broadened your sense of community to include anyone “not bound by formal religious traditions”, perhaps.* But the fact that you are attempting to argue your religious validity on a blog such as this one (or anywhere really) suggests that you are human –you are seeking solidarity to some degree– & that you do, in fact, care what people think. Informal conversations like this could easily substitute for religious ritual & instruction.

    *note: this shouldn’t be construed as an invitation to lay out the exhausting details of your belief scaffolding.

  73. #73 ctw
    May 1, 2008

    It’s probably too late in the life of the thread to matter, but a less awkward way of achieving the admirable goal set by “g” in an earlier comment – distinguishing “the Courtier’s reply” from the reply to it – would be to express the latter as “Courtier’s reply!” (with the quotes, since that’s literally the reply in question). It remains a bit confusing when they aren’t distinguished even though it’s typically discernible in context which is intended.

    Eg, in heddle’s last comment – the last paragraph (assuming I understood it correctly – it’s a bit muddled) would start:

    “By saying “Courtier’s reply!” PZ is suggesting that the works …”

    Or maybe only I am confused.

    - Charles

  74. #74 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 1, 2008

    Heddle-

    Your point one above is a ridiculous caricature of Dawkins’ argument. It is not the sort of thing you should be saying if you want to convince others that Dawkins is the one not taking his opponent seriously.

    As for point two, the replies that I have seen to Dawkins’ on this front have relied on claims like “Maybe God is simple,” or “God is eternal and therefore does not need an explanation.” Leaving aside the merits of those replies, the fact is they do not rest on subtle points of theology.

    And on point three, what I want from the critics is an explanation of where Dawkins’ lack of theological sophistication has caused him to go astray. Orr gives his litany about Augustine and church history, but he never gives any specifics regarding which of Dawkins’ arguments is refuted by a better understanding of these topics. That’s the point of the Courtier’s reply. Don’t just say, “Dawkins doesn’t disucss Augustine!” Tell me where a better understanding of Augustine reveals that something Dawkins’ said is not correct.

  75. #75 tomh
    May 1, 2008

    ctw wrote: Or maybe only I am confused.

    The only confusion comes because true believers like heddle would rather argue semantics than adress the context of the situation. No matter how many sophisticated conjectures they can spin out of whole cloth it all comes down to …I believe!

  76. #76 heddle
    May 1, 2008

    Jason,

    Not a carricature at all. It is, in fact, is spot-on accurate representation of Dawkins’s primary anti-ID argument. However, if you like, substitute any other of Dawkins’s pinheaded theological arguments, such as about terminal illness, which even children sense is wrongheaded.

    Dawkins does not “go astray” in the usual sense. You can can only go astray if you say something of substance. If I say “evolution sucks!” –which would be the equivalent of one of Dawkin’s theological arguments–I am so far out of the game it is impossible to couch it as having gone astray. When a small child (the usual source) makes Dakwins’s argument, he has not “gone astray”, he is asking a sensible question for a child.

    Now in fact many theologians have argued why God, if he exists, doesn’t need to have a cause, from the purely abstract metaphysical to discussions about the half-dimension of time and other compactified dimensions. Dawkins doesn’t adress any of those–and the reason is “The Courtier’s Reply.”

    tomh,

    No matter how many sophisticated conjectures they can spin out of whole cloth it all comes down to …I believe!

    Yes, good show, you have learned from the master, that’s precisiely the Courtier’s Reply, which is just “you are stupid, stupid, stupid!” in a cheap tuxedo.

  77. #77 tomh
    May 1, 2008

    heddle wrote: that’s precisiely the Courtier’s Reply

    Nope, sorry preacher, it has nothing to do with the Courtier’s Reply that you seem to find so devastating. It has everything to do with the “great intellects of the last two thousand years,” as you so fawningly put it, constructing elaborate intellectual fantasies, all based on nothing more than …I believe. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin was not a joke to them, it was a serious intellectual exercise. Amazingly, in this modern age, it still seems to be the same for you.

  78. #78 hedle
    May 1, 2008

    tomh,

    Nope, sorry preacher, it has nothing to do with the Courtier’s Reply that you seem to find so devastating. It has everything to do with the “great intellects of the last two thousand years,” as you so fawningly put it, constructing elaborate intellectual fantasies, all based on nothing more than …I believe. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin was not a joke to them, it was a serious intellectual exercise. Amazingly, in this modern age, it still seems to be the same for you.

    Yes, that’s the Courtier’s reply. Using PZ’s summary thereof:

    “Why the hell should anyone have to take the frilly excuses of theology seriously?”

    How is that not the manner in which you just argued?

    Since The Courtier’s Reply is brilliant, so I’m told, I don’t see why you don’t admit you are employing it, when it is clear that you are.

  79. #79 tomh
    May 1, 2008

    heddle wrote: I don’t see why you don’t admit you are employing it,

    Because it makes no difference what you call it, your feeble argument remains the same. Why don’t you address the content rather than the label? Explain why the idea of angels dancing on a pin is so important to you.

  80. #80 Jack
    May 1, 2008

    Thanks for the interesting reply (and for not pointing out that I misspelled “relevant”).

    One of the counter-arguments mentioned, that existence is not a predicate, was developed by a theologian doing theology. It was a very important development, because it was one of the ideas that fed into the recasting of existence as a “quantifier”, thanks to Frege. Mathematicians now routinely manipulate “for all” and “there exists” signs, and sometimes forget that someone had to make the breakthrough.

  81. #81 Melissaa
    May 1, 2008

    The trouble with the Courtier’s Argument isn’t the argument itself; rather, it is its use. Much of the time it is raised it is used to attack genuine sophistry – Terry Eagleton’s implication that God was a ‘condition of possibility’ that could feel love springs to mind. When your definiton of God is so incoherent, it doesn’t matter so much how you believe in it.

    I think the danger, however, comes when the Courtier’s Reply is used to avoid any substantive engagement with theological ideas. I see this on the RichardDawkins.net forums all the time – many of the people there have a saddeningly anti-philosophical bent, and anything even vaguely metaphysical will inevitably have the Courtier’s wheeled out against it.

  82. #82 Neck
    May 1, 2008

    Ginger Yellow: “… but I’d counter with the argument that religion’s greatest attraction is certainty.”

    In practice, I’m not so sure that’s true, at least if you are talking about certainty as to how the world works. A lot of the appeal of religion is that it provides a social network.

  83. #83 conradg
    May 1, 2008

    JimCh,

    Yes, science has withstood the criticisms of religion as well. So much the better for it. I’m not arguing an either/or position, however, or trying to undermine science. I’m merely suggesting that religion also has a strong foundation in human experience and civilization. In fact, without religion we wouldn’t have civilization, or science, to begin with. Not that this makes religion “right”, but it does suggest its foundations are much stronger than the Courtier’s Reply would have us believe. They are at the very least both deep and broad, and capable of building this immense civilization of ours.

    So, you’ve just broadened your sense of community to include anyone “not bound by formal religious traditions”, perhaps.* But the fact that you are attempting to argue your religious validity on a blog such as this one (or anywhere really) suggests that you are human –you are seeking solidarity to some degree– & that you do, in fact, care what people think. Informal conversations like this could easily substitute for religious ritual & instruction.

    Yes, I try to be a part of the community of humanity, and if that’s what you mean by religion creating community, then fair enough. It just seems an overly broad and thus circular definition. The point being that people are religious for reasons that have nothing to do with community, but being human, they also naturally create community out of their most deeply held feelings and intuitions about the world. Much as there is such a thing as a “scientific community” that is more than just the result of working in the lab together. Or are you saying that science too can be explained merely as a result of the human motive to “create community” of like-minded individuals?

    And yes, as a human being I enjoy talking with human beings about my thoughts. Thus, this discussion. I’m not sure what you think that proves, but I’m curious to know.

    *note: this shouldn’t be construed as an invitation to lay out the exhausting details of your belief scaffolding.

    Been there, done that. No need to repeat myself.

  84. #84 JimV
    May 1, 2008

    Heddle: Now in fact many theologians have argued why God, if he exists, doesn’t need to have a cause, from the purely abstract metaphysical to discussions about the half-dimension of time and other compactified dimensions. Dawkins doesn’t adress any of those–and the reason is “The Courtier’s Reply.

    Given the premise that some god must exist, which I would think would be a qualifier for a theologian, I can certainly see why theologians would want to consider the issue of how something could exist without a cause. As a non-theologian I am content to accept that it must be possible, otherwise either nothing could exist or we would have an infinite regression of causes, or be stuck in some kind of endless loop. However it works, which may be beyond my comprehension, I can as well apply the mechanism to nature directly, without having to go beyond the evidence as I see it and postulate a god.

    I haven’t read The God Delusion, but I am guessing that is Dawkins point – not so much that theologians are at a loss to account for the possible existence of their god, but that however they explain it, it could as well apply to the universe directly.

    The theological counter would be to show how it is okay for a god to exist without a cause but not the universe. If this has been done my hat is off to the theologians, but I haven’t heard of it. (It seems to me that it would be publishable in a peer-reviewed mathematical and/or scientific journal, if rigorous.)

  85. #85 shortie
    May 1, 2008

    Why would Dawkins need to ask a more sophisticated question of theists than who or what made God, when that is in fact the one question that they have found impossible to answer?

    Or if they have answered, it’s only to say, do you think that lopping off the head of our glorious pantheistic array of mythologies is the act of a gentlemen?

    Or to answer a la conradg that our mythologies over the millennia have always grown back their heads, so there.

  86. #86 heddle
    May 1, 2008

    tomh,

    Explain why the idea of angels dancing on a pin is so important to you.

    It’s not. Never has been, never will be. It is not relevant to any theological argument.

  87. #87 Pseudonym
    May 1, 2008

    Why would Dawkins need to ask a more sophisticated question of theists than who or what made God, when that is in fact the one question that they have found impossible to answer?

    I can’t speak for whether or not Dawkins should be asking such questions of theists, but theologians dealt with the philosophical question a thousand years ago, and essentially the same answer appears right up to the 20th century. You probably won’t be happy with the usual answer, but that’s because it’s a philosophical question, not a scientific one. If it’s any consolation, cdesign proponentsists will be even less happy for exactly the same reason.

    Here’s a reference in case you’re curious, but the position that Anselm of Canterbury took, when translated into modern language, is that a deity whose only purpose is to explain the origin of the universe is not a deity at all, precisely because it pushes the problem back one step. If you believe that, then as J.B. Phillips put it, “your god is too small”.

    (Incidentally, this seems to be a favourite passtime of a certain kind of philosopher: explaining what something isn’t. It’s not terribly helpful to a scientist, but for philosophers, it’s sometimes the only thing you can do. It’s like how it’s easier to recognise justice when it’s absent, than when it’s present.)

    Think, for a moment, where this puts ID. If the purpose of your deity is to explain things that natural selection can’t, then it’s not a deity at all. At most, it’s an alternate mechanism.

  88. #88 tomh
    May 2, 2008

    conradg wrote: In fact, without religion we wouldn’t have civilization, or science, to begin with.

    Pure speculation. One could just as easily speculate that we have civilization and especially science in spite of religion.

  89. #89 conradg
    May 2, 2008

    tomh wrote: “Pure speculation. One could just as easily speculate that we have civilization and especially science in spite of religion.”

    This is kind of what is meant when it’s suggested that atheists know almost nothing about religion. Anyone with any real knowledge of both religion and the history of civilization simply couldn’t say this. It is of course NOT speculation to describe how civilization has actually arisen. It is speculation to imagine a world in which civilization arose by some means other than religion.

  90. #90 tomh
    May 2, 2008

    This is what is meant when it’s suggested that religionists know nothing of logic, or common sense for that matter. It is pure speculation to declare that we wouldn’t have civilization without religion, as you did.

  91. #91 shortie
    May 2, 2008

    pseudonym, two pointers: One, the question is both a philosophical and a scientific question, and in fact it’s often impossible to separate the two. Second, the question has NOT been satisfactorily answered regardless of category – clever rationalization is not a sufficient answer in some circles in any case.

  92. #92 conradg
    May 2, 2008

    Okay, that was a little harsh. I see you’re responding to my own speculative statement a ways back. Still, point stands.

  93. #93 Pseudonym
    May 2, 2008

    shortie:

    One, the question is both a philosophical and a scientific question [...]

    While I’m not saying that I agree with what theologians do (and nobody can agree with everything that all of them do), I’m not sure I agree with that. In what way is this a scientific question?

    Incidentally, one of the problems that I have with Prof. Dawkins is that he insists that questions of the existence of “God” are scientific questions. I think he’s essentially correct for some definitions of “God”, such as those held by the most dangerous theists. If Pat Robertson calls for a hurricane to destroy San Francisco and it consistently doesn’t happen, then obviously Pat Robertson’s idea of God is wrong.

    But when you’re talking about Robert Winston’s idea of God, which is the topic under discussion, things get much trickier. Robert Winston isn’t sure he knows what “God” is. You might as well try to scientifically disprove the existence of “justice”, because you can’t see any of it in evolutionary history.

    But here’s the clincher for me: If you really think you have a scientific question that you think you know the answer to, you really should be writing scientific papers, not popular books. It’s usually cranks who try to settle scientific questions in the court of public opinion rather than the court of peer review. For a non-crank scientist like Richard Dawkins to do it is… odd.

  94. #94 tomh
    May 2, 2008

    conradg wrote: I see you’re responding to my own speculative statement a ways back. Still, point stands.

    I’m responding to your empty claims, which I quoted. You have no point. You’re trying to claim that without religion we wouldn’t have civilization or science. That must sound silly even to you.

  95. #95 shortie
    May 2, 2008

    pseudonym, if I’m not mistaken, the conflict was more about religious advocates questioning Dawkins’ science than vice versa. If their God supposedly trumps his science, he has every right to question the “science” behind their hypotheses.

  96. #96 shortie
    May 2, 2008

    I see that Conradg still believes the relationship between cause and effect is purely sequential.

  97. #97 conradg
    May 2, 2008

    In other words, in the world we live in, religion gave birth to civilization, and it’s hard to see how it could have worked out otherwise. Yes, some aspects of religion resisted the rise of science, but they also made science possible, and other aspects actually gave rise to science itself. Why science didn’t arise first and prevent religion from gaining ground is an interesting question that science needs to pay attention to.

  98. #98 Paul A
    May 2, 2008

    At work here so I apologise if I’m retreading what has been said elsewhere. Just wanted to add my 2 cents and say that those attacking the Courtier’s Reply don’t seem to understand what they are attacking. Essentially the argument is saying that there’s no need to read and understand every signle treatise on the aerodynamics of fairy wings in order to argue that fairies don’t exist.

    Yes, theology is filled with both complex and subtle study, some of it fascinating and other parts dull and even childish. However it’s not germane to the topics in question i.e. does god exist, is religious fundamentalism dangerous, is religion in general based on anything more substantial than stone-age mythology, etc.

    The Courtier’s Reply does not wallow in ignorance, rather it points out the irrelevance of the attacks on Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.

  99. #99 tomh
    May 2, 2008

    conradg wrote: religion gave birth to civilization

    A far more plausible theory is that agriculture made civilization possible.

  100. #100 Michael Kremer
    May 2, 2008

    What the “Courtier’s Reply” argument does is actually to explain why Dawkins produced the kind of book that he did: full of irrelevant asides, rants, and digressions, with an argumentative content that could easily be condensed into 20 pages. (As jeffk above intimates: “…a fairly complete polemic on religion can be put into one book (actually one chapter is about all it takes).”)

    If you really think that what you’re arguing against is the equivalent of belief in fairies or leprechauns, then what is the point of writing a whole book? Think of the analogy: the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes didn’t have to write a book, he just pointed and said “look, no clothes!” If that’s all Dawkins is doing, of course his book will be a bit light on content (as it is). After all, how many times can you say “look, no clothes?” After you’ve said that for a while, what will you fill your book with?

    Andrew Rilstone puts it very well, discussing Dawkins’s reply (which RD says is superseded by PZ Myers’s “Courtier’s Reply” reply), “Would you need to read learned volumes on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?”:

    “A stock response to Dawkins’ stock response to what he claims is a stock criticism would be “No: but if you are going to charge people twenty quid for 150,000 word demolition-job on leprechology, you probably ought to get your facts straight first.””

    (http://andrewrilstone.blogspot.com/2007/09/everything-you-never-wanted-to-know.html)

  101. #101 conradg
    May 2, 2008

    conradg wrote: religion gave birth to civilization

    tomh replied: A far more plausible theory is that agriculture made civilization possible.

    Two factors: one, agriculture was an essentially religious field of endeavor, filled with the worship of Gods and Goddesses, etc. The whole history of post-paleo religion is until relatively recently a history of agriculture, and vice-versa. The two were virtually inseparable. Although pre-history is hard to decipher, it seems that religion both preceded agriculture and was wedded to it from the inception. The agricultural myths of birth, death, and rebirth are themes that still pervade religion, and are even the source of such Christian notions of the death and ressurrection of Christ.

    What is quite clear is that agriculture was not the product of an atheistic, non-religious or scientific culture.

  102. #102 conradg
    May 2, 2008

    Paul A wrote:

    Essentially the argument is saying that there’s no need to read and understand every signle treatise on the aerodynamics of fairy wings in order to argue that fairies don’t exist.

    The problem here is analogizing the history of religion, which is for the most part the history of civilization itself, with “believing in fairies”. I know this is a popular way of framing the issue, but it’s fundamentally dishonest and virtually useless as an intellectual topic of discussion. It’s one thing to lampoon something that is unproven by objective methods – God – and another to talk about something that is so widespread as to be almost univeral, which is religion, and belief in God – something that has existed for thousands of years, and which has been instrumental in building this and every other culture in the world up to the present, as if it did not need to be taken seriously, and studied with some depth, before critiquing it.

    The Courtier’s Reply is the lazy man’s cop out.

  103. #103 shortie
    May 2, 2008

    Agriculture was an essentially religious field of endeavor? Makes about as much sense as saying religion was a form of agriculture. Or that without superstition, crops would have fallen fallow. Agriculture was facilitated more by the domestication of animals than by the fear of the fire and water demons. Although we do still have animal worship, whatever you will discover that proves.
    Strangely, the gods of the western wheat zones were made more prominent by the relative absence of gods in the eastern rice zones. Strange also that the gods of the equatorial zones didn’t care much for either wheat or rice.
    And conradg, all you seem to know about the Courtier’s Reply is that in some way it would be discourteous to aggravate the gods of the harvest.

  104. #104 conradg
    May 3, 2008

    Shortie,

    Agriculture rose in and as a part of a religious culture. It did not arise in and as a part of either an atheistic or scientific culture. Make fun of it as you will, that’s how it happened. The deficiency of the Courtier’s Reply is that even though this is how agriculture and civilization arose, somehow it isn’t worth studying at all, but can be flippantly dismissed with sophomoric ridicule. In that sense, it merely proves the criticism it is trying to satirize.

  105. #105 tomh
    May 3, 2008

    conradg wrote: …something that is so widespread as to be almost univeral, which is religion, and belief in God – something that has existed for thousands of years, and which has been instrumental in building this and every other culture in the world up to the present …

    First religion is responsible for agriculture, now it has built every culture in the world. Amazing. There’s a better argument to be made that slavery, which has been so widespread as to be almost universal, something that has existed for thousands of years, has done far more to build civilizations than religion ever did. From the ancient Greeks, and before, through the Romans, the Egyptians, in the Far East, in the Americas, in medieval Europe, England, right through the cotton empires of America, slavery has been the backbone of virtually every civilization that we know of. Of course, religion has always promoted and justified slavery, so in that way I guess you could say it contributed to the development of civilization. But it was far more of a tool for the power brokers of any particular time than it was a cause of anything. Christianity especially, with its promise of a better life after this one, was a particularly valuable tool. And religion today is still a tool, whether for enrichment or political gain, used by the power brokers of our own time.

  106. #106 shortie
    May 3, 2008

    conradg, I expect you will find that agriculture has benefitted perhaps a zillion times more through the application of scientific principles than it has through any religious considerations. Something that coincided with an era of relative ignorance may not have benefitted all that much from the juxtaposition.
    As to the import of the Courtier’s Reply, you have things almost exactly backwards. As usual.

  107. #107 ctw
    May 3, 2008

    “The problem here is analogizing the history of religion … with ‘believing in fairies’.”

    No rational person would suggest that it is inappropriate to study religion’s role in history; as far as I know, Dawkins – who seems quite rational – doesn’t. Dennett wrote a whole book arguing that religious belief should be seriously studied as a phenomenon. I haven’t read CH’s book, but my impression is that it addresses religion’s role in history.
    Studying theology – the point of the fairy/leprechaun ploy – seems a different issue entirely.

    Why might a critic conflate these studies?

    The Courtier’s reply wrt TGD ignores the book’s target audience (spelled out in the first few paragraphs of the preface – perhaps some critics didn’t get that far) and the objective of the section refuting various “existence proofs”. The former clearly did not include religious scholars, so the latter was to counter the kind of arguments that a typical believer might encounter, not every obscure argument any theologian has ever constructed.

    Why might a critic ignore this?

    - Charles

  108. #108 conradg
    May 3, 2008

    tomh,

    It’s just a simple fact that religious cultures created agriculture, and that religious cultures created civilization itself. And yes, religious cultures also created slavery as well, and much of human civilization has been built on the virtual enslavement of a great many people through agriculturally based religious systems of economics.

    I’d refer you to Ernst Becker’s sequel to his classic “Denial of Death”, “Escape From Evil”, in which he argues that the purpose of the original desire to create a surplus, which led to whole business of economics and capitalism through agricultural supply, was to create offerings that could be given to the Gods. It’s a rather exquisite argument worth taking a look at, especially as it comes from a guy who is both brilliant, and not that I can tell at all religious, but likely an athiest himself.

    You are mistaken if you think I am unaware of the great evils that have been perpetuated by religious culture, and religious civilization. Slavery is only one of them. There are many more. And yet, the fact remains that civilization has been the product of a religious impulse in so many ways, and in so many facets, that it’s hard to imagine that the religious impulse can be so caviliarly dismissed as the Courtier’s Reply would have us believe. As mentioned, the “scientific atheist” impulse did not create civilization. It did not even originally create science itself. The separation of science from religion is a very recent cultural phenomena. If scientific atheism is so rational and obvious, it needs to be explained why human beings didn’t adopt it naturally long ago, but instead opted for the religious impulse almost universally, and created science as part of that religious impulse, to know and understand God’s Creation, rather than the other way around.

    Also, the notion of there being a life after death did not originate with Christianity, nor did it originate as a tool for power brokers to manipulate and enslave their fellow humans. The evidence for a belief in the afterlife goes far back into the paleolithic, at least 50-100,000 years ago, long before the agricultural revolution. There’s even evidence for a belief in the afterlife among Neanderthals. During the agricultural revolution such beleifs did indeed evolve into tools that were used by power brokers, etc., to justify things like slavery, but they were manipulating an already long-existent belief, not creating it.

  109. #109 conradg
    May 3, 2008

    Charles,

    I understand that the Courtier’s Reply is intended for scholars and theologians of religion. However Jason, in posting it here, is using it to answer the general criticism that atheists simply don’t know much about or understand religion. One of the problems is that they identify arguments for God with some of the very abstract theological constructs of theologians, which is of course not the primary argument for God at all. The primary argument for God is that human beings feel a natural relationship with God, with a transcendent Power which they feel is responsible for their very being, their existence, and their life. This is not a theological phenomena. Theology is merely a way of trying to understand this basic human impulse. And it is only a small fraction of religious theology which concerns itself with such abstract “proofs” of God. Religion, and religious people in general, don’t require such proofs, and don’t base their religion on such ideas.

    Part of the dishonest of the Courtier’s Reply is the notion that critics of atheists are demanding that atheists study every last little theological treatise. They aren’t. They are simply demaninding that atheists actually understand religion itself, not merely some theological arguments about God. Religion encompasses a helluva lot more than the theological arguments for the existence of God (as does theology). Religious teachings are generally not theological treatises. They are highly hetergenous, not able to be broken down into the belief in “sky fairies”. They have a huge and complex history and morphology and methodology, and their are so intertwined with culture and civilization itself that one can’t even begin to separate the two. The attempt by some atheistic scientists to do just that is really nothing more than an attempt to turn science itself into a religion. Not different, in kind, from the attempt to substitute communism for religion. It’s just the creation of another, rival religious mindset geared towards power and control over others, one that is not theistic in nature, but is not greatly different in human terms as far as its ability to exploit and enslave other humans. It doesn’t have to turn out that way, just as religion doesn’t have to either, but all too often it does.

  110. #110 conradg
    May 3, 2008

    Shortie,

    Yes, agriculture has benefited from modern scientific methods – to some degree. But modern scientific agriculture has also been hugely damaging to the earth, and may be creating a highly unstable, unsustainable ecological disaster. Many scientists themselves are arguing as such.

    Whatever the case, it remains the fact that it was religious culture that created agriculture and made all the initial discoveries about it, and maintained it at a sustainable level that could allow religious civilization to develop around agriculture. Scientific agriculture as it has developed in recent times has much practical knowledge that is immensely useful, but has huge drawbacks and a general lack of wisdom about how to create anything but a rather unhealthy nihilistic consumer culture that is more and more divorced from nature and human reality, and even seems bent on self-destruction on a massive scale. Rather than treating our religious impulses as an evil to be separated from, science needs to understand that it needs those impulses to create a healthy world that people can actually live happily in.

  111. #111 shortie
    May 3, 2008

    conradg,
    What you don’t seem to get is that all cultures from the start of human history were and are religious to one extent or the other. So the culture at the time facilitated whatever was developed within that culture at that time. Duh.
    That says nothing about what the nature of the particular beliefs at the time had to do with the nature of the particular agricultural methods, etc., in use at the time. So your claim is essentially meaningless, especially in relation to the commentary on this post.

  112. #112 shortie
    May 3, 2008

    Did you ever notice that conradg is a bit like the Andy Rooney of this blog?
    He comes in at the end when everything of relevance has already been said, and proceeds to demonstrate, endlessly and unknowingly, that this was indeed the case.

  113. #113 Conradg
    May 3, 2008

    shortie,

    I don’t live here. I visit every couple of weeks to see what’s up. That’s why I often join in threads late. I see now that you’ve run out of anything meaningful to say, you’re back to ad hominem. Oh, well. Some people.

  114. #114 shortie
    May 3, 2008

    It’s proper to use ad hominem to point out when foolish consistency has become the hobgoblin of another simple mind.

    By the way, did anyone ever tell you agriculture was one of the original scientific endeavors of humans? It led humanity out of the superstitiousness that would still have been our basic cultural climate without it – and is still predominate in the hunter-gatherer areas of the planet.

  115. #115 conradg
    May 4, 2008

    Shortie,

    How did agriculture lead humanity out of superstition? Are you certain that our early agricultural communities were less superstitious than hunter-gatherers? All that praying for rain and good harvests, scapegoats, etc.? Do you have any knowledge of the history of ancient religion to back this up?

    As for agriculture being “science”, these dudes knew nothing of science. They were religious. They studied the heavens for signs, which was the beginnings of astrology (which existed in paleolithic times as well). Unless you are saying now that astrology is science.

    Oh, and whether you think ad hominems are justified, they only make you look stupid and immature, so it’s probably best for your own sake if you simply cut it out. If you can.

  116. #116 shortie
    May 4, 2008

    Conradg,
    You missed the whole point as usual. Scientific endeavor means one where men used methods comparable to a logical and experimental process as opposed to simply praying for help from the spirits, etc. They moved from the simpler superstitions to ones of more complicated structure – ones that tried to fathom the purposes of their gods rather than simply fear them.
    Clearly I do know more of religious history than you, as I understand it to be inseparable from cultures in general. Agriculture was a cultural phenomenon on equal status or better than the religious aspects of the culture. It introduced men to the concept that they had some control over their own destiny. (Never thought of that now did you?)
    The religious bias that prompts you to explain everything else in those terms has allowed you to remain ignorant of many other and more important factors that led to civilization’s progress.
    Actually I posed the previous question as a trap that I knew would expose your ignorance decisively. (Or stupidity, as that seems to be your term of preference.)
    .

  117. #117 conradg
    May 4, 2008

    Shortie,

    You are defining “science” in such a way that it includes learning to walk, such that every astrolopithecus was a scientist. This is of course absurd.

    And now you suggest that developing more complex religious systems was actually “science” also. So the Demeter-Persophone-Hades theory of the seasons was a scientific advancement? Somehow, I thought it was religious, but I guess you have me there.

    By this logic, creationism is indeed science, and should be taught in the schools as such.

    Look, shorty, it’s fun watching you contort these ideas in your desperate attempt to achieve the impossible, but all of agricultural “theory” up until the actual scientific revolution wasn’t science. It was entirely religious in nature. Gods gave good harvests if you obeyed their will. The methods of agriculture were seen as gifts of the Gods, which inspired humans to plant in accordance with the heavenly order. The agricultural myths of these peoples were the embodiment of this “knowledge”. All of it bound up in religious language and concepts about the universe, not scientific ones.

    Now, of course science did slowly eventually evolve out of these traditions and this way of knowledge. That’s a longer story, and it has its own relationship to religion as well. But the notion that agriculture was some kind of evolution away from religion and into “science” is sheer nonsense. You have fallen into your own trap, dude.

  118. #118 shortie
    May 4, 2008

    conradg,
    You’ve been had and may be too ignorant to know it. Agriculture was the turning point that introduced men to the methodology we now refer to as scientific, and I’m afraid the only contortions of meaning here are yours.

    Gods gave good harvests if you obeyed their will? Did you really just say that? Was it god that domesticated animals and wild grains? Agriculture was one of the first examples where men learned to plan, make predictions, and take actions that fit those plans and expectations. It was in essence the baby that grew from civilization’s cradle.
    Prattle on Andy, nobody now cares.

  119. #119 conradg
    May 4, 2008

    Shortie,

    You are way overchallenged. You are confusing technology with science. You apparently don’t even understand the difference. Religious cultures are capable of developing technologies without doing science. Their understanding of how technology works is religious in nature, not scientific. That’s why technology develops so bloody slowly in religious cultures, and why it develops so quickly in scientific cultures. Agriculture was not developed by a scientific process, not until way late in the game. Yes, over a long time, this aspect of religion developed into science, but in only one culture – Europe. Technology was around for a very long time before science was developed, and in most places it didn’t develop at all, except as an import from Europe.

    The original “method” of agriculture was anything but scientific. That’s why it took so long to develop at all. And why it hardly changed for thousands of years. People didn’t understand the mechanisms behind agriculture. They thought Gods made things grow. Slowly new methods came about, but not by any kind of scientifc process. If it had, science would have been invented thousands of years ago, and been applied systematically to everything in fairly short order – as was the case in Europe when it actually was developed.

    You problem is that you don’t understand what differentiates science from the ordinary methods of daily life. Planning, making predictions, etc., is not science. If it were, then astrology would be science. As would anything involving the frontal cortex. It takes much more than that to do science.

  120. #120 shortie
    May 4, 2008

    “Scientific endeavor,” is what I said, you idiot, not science, modern or otherwise. The only way you can even appear to present a valid response is to use deceit and pretense. This technique can’t make your initial errors go away. It simply makes you look dumber than ever.

    Scientific endeavors are informal, systematic; methodical. They are what led to modern science. You have, in everyone’s eyes but your own, conceded the fact by substituting “technology” as the result of scientific endeavor. But then where did your version of science spring from, if not through these technological advances?

    technology |tekˈn�ləjē|
    noun ( pl. -gies)
    the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry

    Precisely what I said, although to have you confirm something does little for its credibility.

    As to the development of the frontal cortex, it takes more than simply having one to use it to any advantage.

    By the way, the courtier just called. He said he was trying to contact your cortex, but got a reply that the subscriber was out of the area.

  121. #121 AL
    May 4, 2008

    AL,

    Are you telling me I have this wrong?

    1. Dawkins makes argument like “If God made everything, who made God?”

    2. Theists claim that is a lousy argument demonstrating Dawkins knows little or no theology.

    3. The Courtier’s Reply suggests he doesn’t need to do his homework because what he is arguing against is manifestly stupid.

    Questions like “if God made everything, who made God?” are not intended to be refutations of God’s existence. They are intended to show that certain kinds of cosmological arguments are non-sequiturs, and it’s time for theists to abandon them. That you and other theists interpret it as a refutation of God’s existence and then note that it fails to refute God’s existence is no fault of any atheist. Any time a theist blabs about existing things requiring an existence-granter, it is entirely appropriate for an atheist to ask who granted the existence of the existence-granter.

    Now of course, I’m well aware that so-called “sophisticated” theists have all kinds of linguistic legerdemain to weasel their way out of this. They’ll reword the premise into something else like “all things which began to be must have a cause,” and thousands of other variations of the cosmological argument. All of these can and have been dealt with. (e.g. did causality begin to be? does causality then require a cause? does that statement even make sense?). Atheists have not ignored these arguments at all. Rather, when an atheist chooses to address a specific form of the cosmological argument, he is accused of not knowing the “sophisticated”, better form known and understood by True Adherents™. IOW, you can’t address any argument for theism unless you know them all. That is the Courtier’s Reply, and it really is about theists being dismissive, not atheists.

    For example PZ writes, in his first self comment on his classic post, this explanation as to why a Dawkin’s critic (Orr) deserves to be summarily dismissed via The Courtier’s Reply:

    No, Orr falls squarely into the pigeonhole of the Courtier’s Reply. This is a perfect example:
    The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

    Why the hell should anyone have to take the frilly excuses of theology seriously?

    PZ says “Why the hell should anyone have to take the frilly excuses of theology seriously?” and AL says “You seem to think that pointing out the Courtier’s Reply is something atheists use to be dismissive, but in fact, it is atheists simply noting the dismissiveness of some theists.”

    PZ is not being dismissive. Did Orr have a substantial argument here? Orr says, for instance, Augustine was not a biblical literalist. OK, fine. And what exactly is this irrelevant tidbit supposed to imply? That when Dawkins criticizes a biblical literalist for biblical literalism, Dawkins is wrong? But why would that be if the subject of Orr’s appeal to authority rhetoric — Augustine — would AGREE with Dawkins that biblical literalism is wrong? Sorry but in order for PZ to be dismissive, there needs to be an actual argument to be dismissed. Orr hasn’t said anything other than bring up irrelevancies and vague generalizations, and YES, engage in the Courtier’s Reply. Apparently, Dawkins is not allowed to address biblical literalism unless he’s read Augustine, despite the fact that Augustine would agree with him on the issue. That is the Courtier’s Reply, and it is unfortunately for you exactly as I have characterized it: theists being dismissive, not atheists.

    (You say tu quoque, but it’s only tu quoque if we’re doing it too. Dismissing vague generalizations is not the same as dismissing specific, substantial arguments despite your forced equivocations.)

  122. #122 conradg
    May 4, 2008

    Shortie,

    You are just playing semantic games again. What is a “scientific endeavor” without science? Precisely “not scientific”.

    The definition of “technology” you give is based on the current, predominant basis for technology, which is science. It has nothing to do with what technology was before science came along. The technology of the agricultural revolution was not the result of a systematic, methodical, scientific investigation of the nature of plants and the deliberate invention of agricultural crops. It was a slow evolutionary process that occurred within a non-scientific culture, a religious culture, a religious mindset, geared not towards the scientific invention of new systematic methods for acheiving sustenance, but the non-scientific, non-systematic method of simply handing down a tradition. That tradition changed slowly, precisely because it was a systematic effort to change and grow new methods, but because the handing down of traditions, like the handing down of our DNA, always involves an evolutionary process of incorporating mutations that further survival of those groups which benefit from them, whatever the source of those mutations. Mostly these are accidental and unconscious. They are not scientific even in an informal sense.

    Out of that long process of handing down technological traditions, which was guided by what was virtually universally a religious mindset, the religious mindset itself changed and evolved along with the technology. What you refer to as a “systematic, methodical” approach did indeed evolve, as in such disciplines as astrology, alchemy, etc. And yet it was not a scientific system or method, but a religious and magical system and method. This is what you simply can’t seem to grasp. Not all systematic methods that the human mind evolves to develop technology are scientific. As I’ve said many times before, astrology and alchemy are two of the most important precursors to science (Kepler and Newton most prominently), but they are religious and magical systems of thought, even if they use a disciplined and methodical approach.

    In early agriculture, for example, the already existent discipline of astrology was highly important. Over the milennia, these new farmers had to learn and repeat patterns of planting and harvesting, and it was astrology that gave them the knowledge of these cycles. And yet, this was not a “scientific eadeavor” even in the informal sense, it was a patently religious endeavor. It occurred within a religious mindset and culture that governed everything these people did. The religion was not opposed to this technology, it was wedded to it, and enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the technology of agriculture.

    Your problem is that you simply can’t bring yourself to give any credit whatsoever to religion, or the notion that religion and technology can go hand and hand, or that the religious mindset can be an asset. You are trying to differentiate between those aspects of ancient culture which were precursors to science, and those aspects which were religious, as if this is a meaningful way to separate the two. It isn’t. Early agriculture was simply not a scientific endeavor even in the informal sense. It was an evolving religious ritual that produced slow technological advances. It happened to benefit humanity in some respects, and was detrimental in other respects (such as slavery, and an actual decrease in overall health). And in the long run it did evolve into an agricultural science, after science itself was invented and applied to the field. But even there, agriculture was not the avenue by which science itself was created, nor did it even inspire the scientific revolution in any way. Oddly enough, science did not evolve out ordinary, technological processes or guilds, but out of the religious and magical practices of astrology and alchemy, and various philosophical approaches to the natural world that for the most part were religious in nature. It took quite a lot of fortune and evolutionary diversification for all the elements to come together during the scientific revolution. Agriculture wasn’t one of them. If anything, the agricultural revolution merely solidified into a religious mindset of ritual methodology that hampered innovation and the actual development of science. Farmers were intensely religious and conservative about developing new methods. They operated out of tradition and religious conviction in the methods handed down by their forefathers, and the whole mindset of God’s blessing the harvest, and that human sin was the cause of agricultural disaster, not nature or poor methods.

    And personally, Shortie, you are continuing to dig a deeper and deeper hole for yourself. You seem not to notice. Do you think you’ll make it all the way to China this time?

  123. #123 conradg
    May 4, 2008

    Typo in the second paragraph should read:

    “That tradition changed slowly, precisely because it was NOT a systematic effort to change and grow new methods, but because the handing down of traditions, like the handing down of our DNA, always involves an evolutionary process of incorporating mutations that further survival of those groups which benefit from them, whatever the source of those mutations. Mostly these are accidental and unconscious.”

  124. #124 shortie
    May 4, 2008

    Conradg,
    Amazing how you have shifted your ground, and pretend you have always been standing in the same place.
    You separated religion from culture, and now you have adopted a stance where it is now I who have separated religion from culture while you have slyly put it back in as its prime component. And you haven’t a clue as to the part played by agriculture, which, as the very term implies, WAS the predominant part of human culture since we have been able to call ourselves civilized.
    Man fashioned religion to fit his purposes and needs, not the other way around. Only someone who actually believes there are gods out there could think otherwise.
    An earlier commentator of evident intelligence made use of the phrase “forced equivocations.” That describes your argumentation process to a T.
    All that effort to cut and paste what you then present as some form of analyses is ludicrous to behold.

    Here’s the way it looks to the beholder:

  125. #125 conradg
    May 4, 2008

    Shortie,

    I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about when you say I’ve shifted ground. I’ve been speaking about “religious culture” since the beginning of this thread, and pointedly NOT separating the two. Are you really doubting that the primary cultural element of the early neolithic was religion? Or that there was no religion until after the introduction of agriculture? I don’t know of a single anthropologist who would agree with you. Whatever the motives behind religion might be, it was the dominant view upon which early civilization was built, including agricultural civilization. The introduction of agriculture did not create some new, non-religious viewpoint that people suddenly grasped as contradicting belief in Gods and afterlife, etc. It merely magnified already existing religious views and expanded them into a far more complex religious culture.

    I don’t have a problem with looking upon the development of technologies such as agriculture as being precursors to the development of science. But they are religious-based precursors to science. They are not science itself in some informal mode. They are simply the result of people examining the natural world. I think you get messed up in your thinking by presuming the religion doesn’t examine the natural world, it only thinks about sky fairies in some other world. Not so. It does examine the natural world, and evolves theories about the natural world, religious theories, sometimes involving sky fairies, but based on observation of the natural world and making inferences about it. Some of those religious inferences involved technology, such as the Prometheus myth explaining where fire came from. Those theories were useful in working with fire, in that the myths were a way of preserving experience of fire and how to use it in a way people could relate to, but obviously they were not scientific theories, and that’s why they didn’t quickly evolve into scientific knowledge about fire that could be applied in the manner that science now does, to create new inventions, etc. It’s why technological progress under religion was so slow – technology itself was conceived of in religious terms, which is far from the best way to approach it in terms of practical development.

    You just need to start thinking about these things in a slightly different way, and it will make more sense, and you’ll be able to argue more intelligently.

  126. #126 shortie
    May 4, 2008

    conradg,
    My earlier comment still applies:
    “What you don’t seem to get is that all cultures from the start of human history were and are religious to one extent or the other. So the culture at the time facilitated whatever was developed within that culture at that time. Duh. That says nothing about what the nature of the particular beliefs at the time had to do with the nature of the particular agricultural methods, etc., in use at the time. So your claim is essentially meaningless, especially in relation to the commentary on this post.”

    All forced equivocations notwithstanding, agriculture grew to be one of the sciences, and unless culture itself is a science, what you refer to as religious culture did not. Period. End of story. Unequivocally. Bye bye

  127. #127 Pseudonym
    May 5, 2008

    shortie:

    pseudonym, if I’m not mistaken, the conflict was more about religious advocates questioning Dawkins’ science than vice versa. If their God supposedly trumps his science, he has every right to question the “science” behind their hypotheses.

    Dawkins has specifically said, many times, that he believes that the question of the existence of “God” is a scientific question, and that presumably includes the deity that Robert Winston believes in.

  128. #128 shortie
    May 5, 2008

    Pseudonym,
    So where do we disagree?

  129. #129 Pseudonym
    May 5, 2008

    shortie, looking back, this is what I took exception to:

    Why would Dawkins need to ask a more sophisticated question of theists than who or what made God, when that is in fact the one question that they have found impossible to answer?

    If you’re talking about deities whose job is to create the universe, then indeed, this is a pertinent question. Anselm of Canterbury would certainly have agreed with that.

    For theists who don’t have a creation myth, or have one one that doesn’t contradict the findings of science, or who interpret their myth figuratively, I don’t think this is a particularly relevant question.

    Perhaps we don’t actually have a point of disagreement, and the problem is that I misinterpreted your use of the word “theists” as being all-inclusive, when you didn’t mean it that way. Could that be it?

  130. #130 shortie
    May 5, 2008

    Pseudonym,
    That’s probably it, as I would have thought all theist’s did have a creation myth. The standard definition of theist and theism:
    theism |ˈθēˌizəm|
    noun
    belief in the existence of a god or gods, esp. belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures. Compare with deism.
    DERIVATIVES
    theist noun
    theistic |θēˈistik| adjective

    But I can see this definition is a bit broad. We can agree as to which variety was having the problem with Dawkins in any case.

  131. #131 conradg
    May 5, 2008

    Shortie:

    “What you don’t seem to get is that all cultures from the start of human history were and are religious to one extent or the other.”

    That’s exactly the point I started off this thread making. All culture was religious. It was not scientific. Never in the history fo the world, in all the little clans of hunter-gatherers, or agriculturalists, or whomever created “culture” and civilization, was there ever a scientific-based culture, or an atheist-based culture. This simple fact means a helluva lot. Why should that have been the case? Why is it that only religious cultures gave birth to civilizations and cultures, agricultural or otherwise? Why was it so natural for human beings to be religious, and so unnatural for them to be atheistic?

    Yes, of course the culture of the time facilitated whatever technologies they developed. That doesn’t explain why all these cultures were religious in nature, and why their approach to technology was religious, rather than scientific. You say that agriculture eventually became one of the sciences. Well, sure, after the Scientific Revolution of the 16-18th centuries (or whenever you want to date it) in Europe. But that’s exactly the point. Before then, agriculture was not a science. It was governed by religious and magical customs and technologies that were conceived of in that context, not a scientific context. It took many, many thousands of years for science to come into being, and for agriculture to develop into a science. Why should it have taken so long? Well, because virtually everyone was thinking in religious and magical terms. Virtually all the precursors to science come out of religion, and that fact is the inescapable truth that is not negated by saying that all culture was religious in the first place. Yes, indeed it was. That’s exactly the point. Science didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of religious culture, and very, very late in the game.

  132. #132 shortie
    May 5, 2008

    Conradg says: “Science didn’t come out of nowhere.” Even an idiot knows nothing comes out of nowhere. Science is not with us because of religion, it’s with us in spite of it. It represents man’s ascent from ignorance. Where religion is still strong, ignorance is strong, superstition is strong, and science is at its weakest.
    Stating that science took a long time to rise from ignorance merely speaks to the extreme persistence of that ignorance. If that wasn’t his point, then of course he has made none at all, and the truth he refers to has indeed escaped him.

  133. #133 shortie
    May 5, 2008

    conradg asked this question, which he seems to think contained it’s own answer:
    “Why was it so natural for human beings to be religious, and so unnatural for them to be atheistic?”

    But to hold that such belief is natural doesn’t tell us that it is rational. One of the best articles I’ve seen that might help conradg answer his rhetorical question was the one by Paul Bloom found here: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200512/god-accident

    Here’s the lead paragraph:
    “Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry. Which leads to the question … Is God an Accident?”

    Also he might want to read Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, or In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, by Scott Atran. And look up Hyperactive Agency Detection Device while he’s at it.

  134. #134 conradg
    May 5, 2008

    Shortie,

    I’m not claiming religion is “rational”. In reference to the Courtier’s Reply, I’m not even claiming that it is true. I’m merely claiming that it is deserving of a serious inquiry on all levels, and not the fatuous dismissal and refusal to bother with the subject that is the Courtier’s Reply. I’m aware of the arguments about cognitive evolution and religion as some kind of massive error in cognition. I’m not overly impressed with those arguments, but I do respect them. They are not a Courtier’s Reply, but a serious attempt to at least answer some of these questions intelligently.

    The fact that religion is so natural to us, and rational science is not, should give any atheist pause before condemning religion so universally. Any natural phenomena that appears so pervasively, and with such a history of producing great human benefit (a claim I know makes you cringe, but the facts of civilizations’ link to religion is simply unmistakable), must be taken seriously. I know you like to think Science arose in opposition to religion, but it simply did not. This is like saying that a fruit rises in opposition to the tree. Science is one of the many fruits of religion, and its fruit has fallen to the ground and grown into a tree of its own. Good for that. One can certainly argue that science is a better tree than religion. But one cannot argue that science didn’t come out of religion. Since it did, we can’t merely dismiss religion as some useless enterprise that only idiots would value. For one thing, it produced science as a consequence of its many philosophical variants. How that occurred is worth examining. The Courtier’s Reply tries to dismiss religion, however, as not even worth exploring and investigating in any depth at all. And thus, it renders answers to these questions impossible.

    Of course, the value of religion goes beyond merely producing science as one of its children. There is much more to it than that, including of course civilization itself. One can certainly argue that without religion civilization would have arisen on its own, but there’s not even a single instance of such a thing happening in all the generations of our human presence on earth to demonstrate this possibility. The lack of such a development certainly suggests that there is something very important about religion that we need to pay attention to. It would be irrational to think otherwise.

  135. #135 shortie
    May 5, 2008

    To ascribe purpose to an accidental series of events is the idiotic part. And if one wanted to find a culture that existed without religion, look to the cultural aspects of life forms that existed for eons before a species evolved that had the capacity for use of language. And to say that there were no cultures involved with other sentient beings that have shared our time on earth, such as dolphins, Bonobos, elephants, that could have had religious aspects but didn’t, would be idiotic as well.

    Science was no more the child of religion than it was of the ignorant void that religion had filled, and continues in part to fill by default. The courtier has said he has failed to see its rational basis. As has conradg at long last.

  136. #136 conradg
    May 5, 2008

    Shortie,

    Yes, it’s true that no other known species has religion. Likewise, no other known species has our level of intelligence, or has created an advanced culture and civilization, including of course science. What does the uniqueness of our religion tell you, that religion is worthless, or that it is a sign of a highly advanced, intelligent species?

    Look at when human being began to create an advanced culture. Approximately 50-100,000 years ago human beings, for whatever reasons, probably related to genetics of brain function, became significantly more developed than any previous species, including all of homo. This is precisely the same time that the first clear cut evidence of religion appears in the archeological record, of death ceremonies and burial practices that include clear belief in an afterlife. It would seem that religion went hand in hand with this leap in intelligence, creativity, and culture. So rather than all these facts about religion not appearing in other species or in many prior to this time only reinforces the notion that religion is a sign of increased intelligence, not a lack of intelligence. Religion is not some genetic holdover from our primitive evolutionary beginnings, but is itself a relatively new function related to our unprecedented human intelligence. The claim that it is related to some cognitive failure flies in the face of the fact that it is clearly related to a cognitive leap in ability, a leap that has made civilization possible, as well as the very creativity that has produced science – which as stated grew out of religious culture, and not other way around. THe notion tha religion is a sign of stupidity and ignorance flies in the face of our history as a species. The opposite argument is far more rational – that religion is related to a cognitive leap in ability which has great benefits to us as a species, which is why it has been selected for in both biological and cultural evolution. The facts pretty much speak for themselves there.

  137. #137 shortie
    May 5, 2008

    Nobody said religion is a sign of stupidity – this is an example of one of those things conradg always has to do – falsely allege something was said so he can have a straw-man’s argument to counter. Religion was superstitious reasoning’s step in the direction of filling in the blanks of ignorance – better than nothing but less than fully rational. Conradg isn’t aware that animals were and are superstitious as well – they had and have their own fears of what they felt as intentional threats from nature. (Animal scientists know this in case conradg wonders how I do.)

    A leap in cognitive ability allowed man to flesh out the superstitions in his inherited “lizard’ brain into more abstract forms. And it was that lizard brain that chose which forms to accept. So the process was still not up to what man’s newer brain was ultimately capable of doing – replacing superstitious solutions to questions with the more rational solutions offered by science. “Wrong” gave birth to “right” if you prefer the conradg form of analogy.
    And if anything allowed science to be born, it was the appearance of our rational brains – one could argue we evolved precisely to rid ourselves of the effects of superstitious fears that controlled our unconscious, that controlled the remnants of our animalistic apparatus.
    Religion wasn’t selected for as a concept – evolution doesn’t work that way. If a product of evolution, it would more aptly be described as an unintended consequence. Conradg hasn’t the foggiest of how evolution actually works, of course. He apparently thinks religion is a biological meme that came about by some happy accident of mutation.

    In short, conradg’s contention that religion is the sign of an intelligent species is further evidence that the counter-intuitive escapes him. It is in fact a sign that we remain a species with a cobbled together brain, still relying to a significant extent on the emotional reasoning of our animal past.

  138. #138 conradg
    May 6, 2008

    Shortie,

    The problem with your explanation is that the “lizard brain” was superceded by higher brain development tens of millions of years ago. The advances in intelligence that coincided with the development of religion in man occurred in the last 100,000 years, roughly, and had nothing to do with suddenly growing some whole new brain structure. The gross structure of the brain itself is largely unchanged. We can’t even tell what the changes were, but they were clearly quite subtle, and not related to structure itself.

    Now, it’s certainly possible to suggest that these new advances in intelligence produced “ghosts in the machine”. It’s a valid theory. However, the notion that religion is simply a negative glitch flies in the face of the sheer fact that religion was not merely some sideline abberation in the massive cultural advancement that ensued, but was front and center as the leading cognitive force that produced civilization.

    Regardless of what you call “superstition” among animals, until you attain Dr. Doolittle status and are able to actually talk to animals, these things show nothing about any religious capacity among animals, or that they have any real connection to the religious lives of human beings.

    When you suggest that science was the product of the sudden appearance of our rational brain, and that religion was not, your timeline is similarly off. Are you suggesting that we just evolved a rational-dominant brain in the last few hundred years? The fact is, the rational brain has been around for a very long time, long before science appeared within our culture. It appears that religion arose in coincidence with the rational mind, not in opposition to it, but as an integral aspect of it. It is the fantasy of scientific atheists that religion and rationality are in opposition to one another. The facts of our evolutionary and cultural development suggest otherwise.

    I’m not suggesting that evolution selects for the concept of religion. It selects for the underlying mechanism that makes religion not only possible but seemingly almost universal among human beings. If that mechanism were detrimental to survival, religion would have vanished, or at least diminished over time, whereas it has not only grown stronger, but produced a huge cultural leap into advanced civilization, including numerous technological advances. The fact is, religion is what makes the underlying mechanism behind religion a successful evolutionary development. This is what the rational mind tells us, regardless of whether we think religion itself is rational.

  139. #139 shortie
    May 6, 2008

    Conradg is completely wrong as usual. He thinks the brain stopped evolving once humans appeared as a separate species. He thinks the rational brain somehow took over at that time and immediately started to figure everything out that the lizard brain could not. He doesn’t know that to this day that part of our brain still dominates as our primary calculating apparatus for short term situations, and that even for the long term, the rational brain operates mainly in an advisory capacity. The emotional brain is the final arbiter in anything we do – we cannot act without its approval.
    Our hard-wired warnings as to the efficacy of supernatural agency came to us from our animal ancestors and has stayed with us since that time. And all that time we have never been able to see these workings of our emotional brain except through inference.
    The equivalent of these beliefs in the supernatural had survival value for animals, as it allowed them to see when acts of nature were dangerous without the need to first decide if they were intentional, and be killed in the process of assessing the unassessible.
    As humans evolved, that belief was less necessary for our survival and has since become more of a detriment, but contrary to what conradg suggests, evolution DOES NOT operate in reverse, and that part of our cognitive mechanism will likely stay with us as long as we remain a species.
    Conradg says the things he thinks he knows to the contrary are what the rational brain has told him. The rational brain, unfortunately, has only been able to guess at what motivates and moves us. It’s only through science that it has finally found ways to look behind the barrier between these separated regions. That science came about through that very struggle of the rational brain to understand the seemingly irrational needs of what was essentially its master. And the emotional need to satisfy the demands of our superstitions fought scientific development all the way, and the conradgs of the world are still its puppets in that fight.
    Conradg concedes that religion may well be irrational, but its influence on his thought processes is still pervasive. It supplies its hidden premises to every argument he makes that in any way could involve it.
    Note that he has moved to another thread in this blog and is babbling about reincarnation – another concept that can only involve the supernatural. I have no intention of taking the fight there however, as conradg is simply a hopeless case, and takes every opportunity to learn as a threat to the powers of his superstitions – without which he apparently cannot function.

  140. #140 conradg
    May 6, 2008

    Shortie,

    I’m continually surprised by your lack of basic scientific knowledge. You babble on about the “lizard brain” and the “rational brain”, as if there really are such things. THe anatomy of the brain is far more complex than that, and the notion that emotions are controlled by the “lizard brain” is sheer ignorance. Emotion is very complex, and involves many parts of the brain simultaneously. Likewise, rational thinking uses many parts of the brain also, not merely some little section called “the rational brain”. This kind of simplistic thinking gets people into trouble when trying to discuss matters that are over their heads, which seems to be the case here.

    Human evolution involves a lot more than some kind of development of the “rational brain”, which you imagine is somehow at war with the emotional “lizard brain”. Certain emotional states, such as fear, are indeed instinctual responses governed to some degree by the hindbrain, the mindbrain, and the autonomous nervous system. But higher, more complex emotions are more related to many aspects of the brain as a whole, and seem to involve the complex connections created by specialized neurons called spindle cells, which connect to many parts of the brain simultaneously. Spindle cells are also involved in advanced cognitive functions, indicating that some emotions are directly related to higher cognitive intelligence, and not merely to primitive instinctual reactions. Until recently spindle cells were found only in great Apes, but in human some 50 times more often than in other Apes. They have now found these cells in some large whales. They are also involved in certain brain disorders, such as autism, which might explain why some people have such limited emotional responses. Have you ever considered the possibility that you are one of those people with a minute or damaged supply of spindle cells? It would explain your limited emotional capacity.

    Nowhere have I suggested that the brain stopped evolving. I’m merely pointing out the fact the recent evolutionary changes in the brain are not in its structure, but in more subtle areas of functionality and development. We have not just recently grown some new “rational brain” that would account for the development of science. There is no scientific evidence to support such a claim, and much that flatly contradicts it.

    I did not say that religion is irrational, I merely declined to pass judgement on it in that respect. It’s way more complex than that simple dualism. The point I have been trying to make is that religion developed in tandem with our increased cognitive abilities, not in opposition to them. This lame attempt of yours to divide the mind into rational and irrational sections is part and parcel of the attempt to divide science from religion, as if they are at war with one another. Religion, much as you hate to admit it, is a product of our increased cognitive abilites over the last 100,000 years, and has been a benefit to the species in driving our cultural evolution up to this point. Religion is not located in the “lizard brain”. It’s coincident with very recent brain development, as history itself shows.

  141. #141 shortie
    May 6, 2008

    The emotional brain is a combination of many parts, all contributing to its function as our unconscious calculative mechanism. The rational brain is equivalent to our consciousness, also a function that relies on many physical areas of the brain to carry out that function. There is much disagreement as to the nature and placement of the line (if it can be called that) between these old and newer functions. There is little disagreement among neuroscientists of the various specialties that these separate functions exist. There is little disagreement with the labeling for these functional systems as “brains.”

    There are some (including those with a religious bias) who will argue that the rational brain has a plasticity that in a sense frees it from the rule of the subconscious or unconscious, but these are in a distinct minority. The fact that the conradgs of the world are largely unaware of any of this speaks volumes about the persistence of ignorance in that large segment of humanity.
    I have done what was in my view necessary to get this particular fool to lay out all that his kind must necessarily believe to support the inanity of their emotional belief systems.
    He has made a public record he will be unable to erase. My work here is done.

  142. #142 conradg
    May 6, 2008

    Shortie,

    You seem to be addicted to simplistic, false dualisms. Now you are trying to divide the brain up into conscious and unconscious elements, and assign emotion to the unconscious, and cognition to the conscious. This simply isn’t how the brain works. In both cognitive and emotional faculties, there are unconscious and conscious elements. Much of our cognitive thinking actually goes on in the unconscious, as does emotion. But clearly both also occur in the conscious mind as well. The brain simply doesn’t divide its functioning up into conscious and unconscious elements. That’s more of a psychological distinction.

    Likewise, it’s simply not credible to assign religion exclusively to the emotional faculties of the brain. It clearly involves both emotion and reasoning, as well as all kinds of other functions. In fact, one of the reasons religion doesn’t appear until very recently is because it uses so many of the higher faculties that have only recently become animated. These higher faculties are not located in any one part of the brain, but are, like spindle cells, more equated with the ability to use a broad spectrum of brain function at once, and creatively. Imgaination, creatively, being able to project oneself into the future, ability to form a self-image, ect., these are the faculties that go into religion.

    One of the primary theories about what occurred in brain function some 50-100,000 years ago is that it involved an increased ability to conceive of a future. This would exlain why evidence of beleif in life after death appeared around this time. People probably didn’t even have a conception of the future that they could extend to the prospect of death before then. Likewise, they didn’t have the full ability to make future plans, to conceive of a plan of attack, a hunt, etc., on the same level as modern humans do. So the religious capacity to think of life after death is related to a cognitive function, not a purely emotional one. It’s not that it’s unemotional, of course, but neither is cognition itself.

    And as for your personal dreams of grand victory in this debate, it must be kind of sad that a fool like me is still winning hands down against you. How will you face your friends after this humiliation?

  143. #143 shortie
    May 6, 2008

    Spindle cells (conradg’s new mantra) would appear to have similar functions in apes, whales and humans that support hard-wired mechanisms in the emotional and unconscious brain areas, and show the similarities rather than differences as to instinctive reliance on the shared survival strategies and assumptions that natural events are purposeful. This gets into philosophical considerations that have always been over conradg’s head – as we can note from the pummeling he has already taken elsewhere on this blog for injecting his simplistic views on reincarnation as a completely irrelevant response to the discussion at hand..

    Again note how he claims I assigned cognition to the conscious areas. He has had to separate emotional thinking from cognition is the process, not realizing that emotional thinking IS cognition, and is the dominant form of the cognitive processes. It IS the form that considers religion as a fact, and one that all those processes use as part of their hidden premises. Conradg uses the emotional cognitive process in almost everything he does, yet is completely unaware he’s doing it.
    This is also illustrative of the self-delusion necessary for advocates of religion to move forward in the face of attacks on their particular array of unconscious premises – any doubts as to their basic beliefs would otherwise prevent them from making any moves at all.
    We can get a lesson as to how rationalization functions as well in these people, when purely rational thought cannot be used with their essentially irrational religious mindset.

    Let’s have a laugh at this comment of his, for example:
    “The brain simply doesn’t divide its functioning up into conscious and unconscious elements. That’s more of a psychological distinction.”

    But what other kind of distinction are we making here? Nobody said the brain has divided these functions physically. I specifically said this: “The emotional brain is a combination of many parts, all contributing to its function as our unconscious calculative mechanism.”

    So conradg either can’t understand what he reads or he’s simply being his usual deceitful self – the equivalent of lying for Jesus as someone has put it. Talk about forced equivocation – this has taken that to the limit and beyond.

    I had intended no further comments would be made, as I thought his idiocy could not be exceeded, but i was wrong. He confirms on the one hand that psychologists see the brain’s functions much as I described, but apparently thinks they are wrong as these concepts are completely beyond his ken.

    The concept of winning apparently is beyond his ken as well – first, you don’t win if the rules are that you don’t lie in the process, and you don’t win if you are otherwise wrong about either the facts or the logic – or as in conradg’s case, both. Plus in this case, I’m essentially a commentator pointing out where he’s wrong, rather than where I’m right, as I’m only repeating things that better minds than his have already found credible. And he’s merely making up crap that better minds than his have found risible, or derisible.
    But if he’s going for laughs, then he wins hands down.

  144. #144 conradg
    May 7, 2008

    Shortie,

    You are becoming a caricature of the madmen that literature warns us about in those who become enamoured of their own concepts. You are winning a battle in your own mind, not in life. You can’t even engage me directly. Look at your own language. Rather than addressing me with the pronoun “you”, you insist on talking to me in the third person. I am always “conradg”. This shows a sad emotional incapacity on your part. You don’t know how to engage the emotional life, God knows why. This distorts everything you think and say.

    Yes, I use emotional-cognition in my life, and in my arguments about life. This I am not ashamed of. I have to. Anyone who wishes to remain sane must. That you do not is testimony to the sad state of your decayed sanity. You think this is a virtue somehow, but it is just the sign of weakness and failed development. In psychological terms, your emotion is utterly unconscious, and rules and distorts you from the unconscious. This is sometimes called narcissism. It leads to an inflated sense of self-importance and self-mastery. It is in reality a sign of the opposite. Whatever your problems may be in the physiological level, on the social and human level you are not anywhere near to becoming a man. Religion is above you, not below you.

    I think we have concluded this exchange.

  145. #145 shortie
    May 7, 2008

    conradg was at a loss as to how to deal with a person he couldn’t insult directly and at a further loss when forced to acknowledge he was writing to an audience instead of what he had hoped would be a gullible individual. He now uses that as an excuse for not being able to convince that audience he had not been caught again with his facts down and his ignorance exposed.
    He wasn’t bothered all that much when he thought he still had a chance of salvaging some measure of credibility. But he just doesn’t know when or how to shut up.
    Watch him on the other thread as he repeats the same process of trying to justify his reliance on the supernatural to satisfy his emotional brain’s need for constant reassurance.

  146. #146 conradg
    May 7, 2008

    Shortie,

    I’m quite amused at your projection. I’ve never written a single word in this or any other thread to any “audience” other than the actual posters here. I’ve only addressed you as you, and tried to engage you, without much luck. I could care less if anyone else is reading these posts, and I generally presume no one else is. It is you who seem to be posing for an imagined audience that exists only in your own mind. I find it hilarious when you do that. Who exactly are you trying to impress?

  147. #147 stewie
    May 7, 2008

    Both of you have declared at one time or another in this thread that you are “done” with the other one. Well, as someone who can’t seem to look away from this car wreck how about you both make good on this declaration.

  148. #148 shortie
    May 7, 2008

    I thought conradg had concluded the “exchange.” I guess he just can’t let go. It had actually seemed as if he were going to cry earlier, but now he’s having a fit of hilarity.
    If I had any emotions, I’d be relieved. No audience, he says? But look, they’ve sent in the clowns!

  149. #149 J. J. Ramsey
    May 7, 2008

    “And on point three, what I want from the critics is an explanation of where Dawkins’ lack of theological sophistication has caused him to go astray.”

    Actually, there are a couple examples from Chris Heard’s partial review of TGD where some sophistication would have done Dawkins’ arguments some good. Dawkins’ aside on omnipotence is naive at best, especially when theologians argue, for example, that it is nonsense for omnipotence to include the power to do the logically impossible. Dawkins’ treatment of several of Aquinas’ fourth way is misleading, and a commenter to the portion of the review to which I linked noted some other problems with Dawkins’ treatment of other parts of Aquinas’ arguments.

  150. #150 conradg
    May 7, 2008

    So people do read this. Well, hope you’ve been entertained. And yeah, I think we’re done here. Know any good body-shops that work on car wrecks?

  151. #151 A
    May 7, 2008

    JJ Ramsey says:”…Dawkins’ aside on omnipotence is naive at best, especially when theologians argue, for example, that it is nonsense for omnipotence to include the power to do the logically impossible….”
    So if omnipotence does not include the power to do the logically impossible, does that mean the goddess has to follow the laws of nature, as elucidated by science?
    So Zeus cannot make thunderbolts, unless the proper atmospheric conditions are in place?
    That really shakes my belief in Zeus. Oh well.
    I was just about to write a long post that the Greek civilization wouldn’t have come into existence without the contributions from Mt. Olympus.

  152. #152 ctw
    May 7, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey:

    From you I would have expected a pointer to a better-than-typical critique of TGD, and I was not disappointed. That was perhaps the fairest, most substantive analysis of TGD I’ve encountered.

    However, I think Prof Heard missed the most obvious (to me, anyway) criticism of Chapter 3. I am fond of answering “inadequate sophistication” criticisms of TGD by noting that the target audience, identified in the Preface, does not include the theologically sophisticated believer. But that same argument can be applied to Chapter 3 itself. Why refute arguments with which the identified target audience is most likely unfamiliar?

    IMO, the missing observation in much discussion about TGD is that most people – whether believers or not – simply don’t know that much about the religion they accept or deny (I may be projecting here – I am a non-believer who knows little about any religion).

    Put differently, it may be that TGD’s identified target audience effectively doesn’t exist (which, I should emphasize, is different from saying that a market for the book doesn’t exist, clearly false). Most people appear to just take their religious posture – existent or non-existent – for granted and course onward with their daily lives. The set of people in the identified TGD target audience – viz, those who are in a religion but are wavering in their commitment and might be swayed by a TGD-like book – may be quite sparsely populated. The subset of those who are familiar with Aquinas’s five arguments etc may
    well be near empty.

    Anyway, thanks for the pointer.

    - Charles

  153. #153 Pseudonym
    May 8, 2008

    A:

    So if omnipotence does not include the power to do the logically impossible, does that mean the goddess has to follow the laws of nature, as elucidated by science?

    Far be it from me to ruminate on the nature of the goddess, but I think I understood the distinction.

    To borrow an idea from Phil Wadler, there are things which are universally true, but there are other things where the word “universal” isn’t general enough.

    You can imagine a universe where the speed of light is different, right? So the “laws of nature” (as you put it) are “universal”, but that’s all.

    However, you can’t imagine a universe where modus ponens doesn’t apply, or where 1+1 does not equal 2. So when dealing with questions about what is logically possible or impossible, the word “universal” is far too limiting.

    Did that make sense?

  154. #154 shortie
    May 8, 2008

    Modus ponens is not a truth in and of itself, but a measure for determining it.
    The speed of light could well be different in a differently composed universe, but if you are calling it light, then apparently it is still true that it’s light.
    And you can take the goddess out of the universe, but you can’t take the universe out of the goddess.

  155. #155 ctw
    May 8, 2008

    “you can’t imagine a universe where … 1+1 does not equal 2.”

    Perhaps one can’t imagine being in such a universe, but one can imagine an uninhabited universe in which the concept of integer addition doesn’t even exist and 1+1=2 has no meaning. In fact some apparently do (and at least two definitely do – a friend much more mathematically savvy than I and I), and that imagining even has a name: see wikipedia, Philosophy of Mathematics, Embedded Mind Theories.

    Of course, if it turns out that man actually is made in the image of God, then presumably God does math in which case we are wrong.

    - Charles

  156. #156 shortie
    May 8, 2008

    I believe that embedded minds are often mistaken for the embodied variety. But if I understand the concept at all accurately, you can easily embed the body in most universes but can embody the bed in only one at the most.

  157. #157 ctw
    May 8, 2008

    shortie:

    The label “Embedded Mind Theories” is (at least from my perspective) not at all descriptive of the concept, which is simply that math is created, rather than found, by humans or other intelligent beings, eg, God. That’s why I gave the cite, which – I later realized – to be useful should have read:

    en.wikipedia.org: search for entry “Philosophy of Mathematics”, then scroll down to “Embedded Mind Theories”

    I don’t understand your comment, but I doubt that it is relevant to the content of that cite which has little if anything to do with “mind” as an entity and nothing at all to do with “body”.

    Or if you – like me – often make a comment as a humorous aside, I didn’t get it – sorry.

    - Charles

  158. #158 idahogie
    May 8, 2008

    This thread is old enough – I trust that Godwin’s law really doesn’t apply.

    In reading the arguments about whether Hitler was Christian or not (which have re-emerged in response to Expelled), one often runs into statements like this: “Obviously Hitler was not a Christian, because a Christian could not have done what he did.”

    I think almost everybody here, theists and atheists alike, would recognize the silliness of that argument. But it seems like a variant is at work here.

    The New Atheist says “faith is antithetical to reason and inhibits the progress of science.” The theist replies, “you have based your argument on an insufficient understanding of the subtleties of theological thought.”

    Theists have a personal stake in this argument. It must seem to them that their deepest beliefs are being written off based on generic characteristics – even if those generic characteristics are fairly widely shared (at least here in the US). They must feel “surely, Dennett doesn’t understand the depth and subtlety of my faith! My faith isn’t that simple to dismiss!”

    Well, maybe not. However, while you’re waiting for your personal, individual analysis from Dennett, taking into account all the subtle differences between your faith and the pedestrian faith of the simple-minded, perhaps you should consider the atheists’ point of view.

    It seems to us that you’ve set out an impossible task. How can our arguments about the problems with theism ever be sophisticated enough? Because at the heart of it, the theist has chosen to believe something that cannot be disproved, and that can always be justified because the entire concept of a deity is infinitely maleable.

    “Hitler wasn’t a Christian, because he did unChristian things.” Therefore, nothing bad can ever be attributed to a Christian.

    Likewise, no argument can be convincing to a theist, because, at it’s heart, the theist’s position is not based on logic.

  159. #159 shortie
    May 8, 2008

    The point was that the Wiki article was about “embodied,” not “embedded” mind theories.

  160. #160 ctw
    May 8, 2008

    Ooops! I have gone to that entry so many times that I didn’t bother to actually read the title or even much of the content – I just “remembered” it as “embedded”. Sorry, and thanks for the catch.

    - Charles

  161. #161 conradg
    May 8, 2008

    “if omnipotence does not include the power to do the logically impossible, does that mean the goddess has to follow the laws of nature, as elucidated by science?
    So Zeus cannot make thunderbolts, unless the proper atmospheric conditions are in place?
    That really shakes my belief in Zeus. Oh well.”

    The counter-notion, of course, is that Zeus or the Goddess created the universe in a particular fashion for a particular reason. Thus, if Zeus had intended to do something that is “impossible” in a particular universe, he would have made it in such as way for it to be possible (and yes, such that 1+1=3). So the question is self-contradicting, if God has created the universe according to his own whims/desires/plan. If God should decide to change his plan, he could either create a new universe, or change an existing universe such that these new actions would suddenly seem possible, rather than impossible. So the situation could never actually arise in which an omnipotent God needed to do something in a universe he created, but couldn’t because it was impossible.

  162. #162 shortie
    May 8, 2008

    The premise of the question was “IF omnipotence does NOT include the power to do the logically impossible – ” So someone missed the whole point and instead argues that if you want to believe in the impossible, just call it God.

  163. #163 conradg
    May 8, 2008

    The point is that omnipotence can get around the conundrum by changing what is logically possible.

  164. #164 shortie
    May 8, 2008

    The premise was that IF omnipotence DID’T have the power to change what was logically possible, etc. One doesn’t get around a conundrum by simply changing the conundrum to read that omnipotence DID have that power, so the hell with your conundrum. Unless of course that person believed they themselves had godlike powers of reason.

  165. #165 Caius
    May 8, 2008

    So what you’re saying, essentially, is that logic is contingent in our universe, and cannot be applied to God, who is outside the universe and transcends logic, so that any logical discussion about the nature of God is therefore meaningless.

    That also explodes theological ideas that suffering is required because God is bound by the logically possible.

  166. #166 conradg
    May 8, 2008

    Yes, I understand that it’s a conditional proposition. But placing conditions upon omnipotence renders it less than omnipotent, so it’s just a sly way of creating a logical fallacy.

    The real point of the conundrum is rhetorical: that reason and logic are more powerful than any God, because even God must obey reason. It’s a circular argument, however; hence the conundrum.

  167. #167 conradg
    May 8, 2008

    “So what you’re saying, essentially, is that logic is contingent in our universe, and cannot be applied to God, who is outside the universe and transcends logic, so that any logical discussion about the nature of God is therefore meaningless.

    That also explodes theological ideas that suffering is required because God is bound by the logically possible.”

    I’m just addressing this theoretorical issue of omnipotence. Personally, I’m not much attached to the idea of God being utterly omnipotent and infallible. Even if he were, how would you know? In fact, I would tend to reject the notion of God’s omnipotence and infallibility because it does in fact lead to self-destructing conclusions as you state.

    My own view of the ultimate nature of God is not that God is illogical, or anti-logical, or able to change logic at will, but that God transcends mind, which is the basis for logic. In other words, the mind and logic can try to describe God, but ultimately fail. This does not render theology meaningless, it merely puts limits on it: that it is a human enterprise, aimed at helping human beings understand God to the degree that the mind can be of help, but not ultimately. At some point, one has to set theology and scriptures aside, and even logic and reason, and deal directly with God, meaning directly with consciousness itself, within which everything else arises, including logic and reason.

  168. #168 conradg
    May 8, 2008

    “That also explodes theological ideas that suffering is required because God is bound by the logically possible.”

    By the way, I’m not sure I understand the meaning of this sentence. Could you elaborate?

  169. #169 shortie
    May 8, 2008

    That wasn’t the point at all, but if one doesn’t want to address it, or can’t, I suppose they could pretend they misunderstood it. (Having shown in fact an inability to understand it.)

  170. #170 Caius
    May 8, 2008

    Oh, I was referring to theodicies like Leibniz’s, which hold that this is the best of all possible (i.e. logically consistent) worlds. If God’s omnipotence is not bound by logical consistency (say, he can create a boulder he cannot lift, and lift it), then the argument is unsound.

  171. #171 Pseudonym
    May 8, 2008

    shortie:

    Modus ponens is not a truth in and of itself, but a measure for determining it.

    This is off-topic a bit, though when has that stopped us?

    I’d never come across embodied mind theories. Very interesting!

    I come at this, however, from the point of view of proof theory, which is one of my research interests. One of the interesting things is that in modern abstract mathematics, you sometimes see a kind of converging of evidence that is traditionally only seen in the “hard” sciences.

    Take the evidence for evolution, for example. It’s not just biology that you have to take into account. Yes, the fossil record, DNA analysis of extant species and so on all point to the correctness of evolution. But there’s also strong evidence from geology, geophysics, even computer science all of which points to the same conclusion. It’s the multiple converging lines of evidence which really, IMO, clinches the argument.

    Believe it or not, there’s a similar thing that goes on in abstract mathematics. Logic turns out to be connected in a very deep way with computer science, category theory, topology and modern physics.

    The Curry-Howard isomorphism, for example, shows that proving a theorem in intuitionistic logic is, in a very deep sense, the same thing as writing a computer program in simply-typed lambda calculus which, in turn, turns out to be the same thing as manipulating a certain common class of categories (Cartesian closed categories, to be precise).

    Haskell Curry (after whom the Haskell programming language is named) was a computer scientist, and William Howard was a logician. It’s named after both because two people, working in completely different areas, discovered the same thing. Phil Wadler, whom I’ve already mentioned, once quipped that the Curry-Howard double-barrelled name also predicts the existence of other double-barrelled names (e.g. Girard-Reynolds, Hindley-Milner).

    It goes deeper. The details are fascinating, but what gets me is how profound this is.

    Modus ponens does not exist in a vacuum. Being a piece of proof theory, it’s deeply connected with other parts of science, both theoretical and practical. You may not think of it as “truth”, but it’s a “fact” in the same sense that many scientific factoids are “facts”: There are multiple converging lines of evidence supporting it.

  172. #172 shortie
    May 9, 2008

    Pseudonym,
    Granted it’s a fact that it’s a very reliable tool, but it can get confusing when you want to differentiate a methodology from the product that results from its use. Can we call a syllogism a truth, for example, or restrict that label to the things it has helped us determine?
    I’m not convinced however, that this is not the exception that helps prove the rule, so in that sense you make a good point. By your description, it approaches the status of an axiom, and if so, it would be fair to label it a truth as well as a measurement system.
    My error would have been to make it sound like an either/or proposition.

  173. #173 conradg
    May 9, 2008

    Caius,

    I don’t find arguments such as Leibniz’s very convincing. I don’t think it’s necessary to presume God’s ability to change logic itself to find that it falls short. I think suffering is required not because logic requires it, or because the world somehow falls short, but because suffering has great advantages to it: it helps us feel into the very depth of our being. In many spiritual traditions, suffering is viewed as a form of grace. Greek, Hindu, etc. One of my favorite sayings is from Ramana Maharshi, an Advaitic teacher, who said (I’m paraphrasing) “The biggest mistake people make in spiritual life is to thank God when good things happen, but never to thank God when bad things happen that cause them suffering.”

  174. #174 ctw
    May 9, 2008

    pseudonym:

    Given your little discourse, you may find the following somewhat interesting.

    As a post-retirement “hobby” I got interested in some aspects of constitutional law which led to legal philosophy which led to general philosophy (all thanks to blogging – thank you Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andresson!!). I kept encountering assertions to the effect of “1+1=2 is a universal truth”, and though not in any meaningful sense a mathematician, I do know enough to have been suspicious that this wasn’t as obvious as many were assuming.

    Enter the friend to whom I alluded above who – and you’ll love this – does category theory as an outside-of-work hobby! (He is – as was I – a satcom system engineer, but with extensive math background). Although I’m neither smart nor energetic enough to tackle category theory, we had talked about it enough that I knew it had philosophical implications and suspected he would have an opinion. Which he did, expressed succinctly as something like “They don’t know what they’re talking about”. Encouraged that I wasn’t totally off-base, I searched my way through wikipedia to the “Embedded (sic) Mind Theories” entry referenced earlier.

    Talking about this and many other general topics through the years, we noticed a convergence phenomenon somewhat like those you describe, viz, that many life arenas have philosophical aspects which often seem to point to the same overarching word view – Zen. Neither of us do, nor ever have, practiced Zen, so we’re not devotees with a bias. But based only on reading about it, we find it resonates for us and seems to have support in convergence of a sort.

    I’ll direct my friend to the site you referenced. Not being addicted to blogging, he probably doesn’t know about it and may find it interesting – and maybe more. Doing something like category theory on your own must be a rather lonely endeavor.

    - Charles

  175. #175 tabuhan
    May 10, 2008

    thnks. thanks.. thankssssss

  176. #176 Pseudonym
    May 11, 2008

    shortie:

    Can we call a syllogism a truth, for example, or restrict that label to the things it has helped us determine?

    In proof theory, a proof (or syllogism) is itself an object of study. It is a truth in the sense that someone in a different universe would also recognise the proof as being true. This is something that you can’t say of “hard” sciences; there’s no guarantee that someone in a different universe would agree on our value of the fine structure constant, say.

    ctw:

    Your friend, assuming an interest in programming, might be interested in Haskell. This is probably the one place at the moment where category theory gets turned into cold, hard, practical usefulness.

  177. #177 shortie
    May 11, 2008

    Pseudonym,
    If the different universe had extra dimensions, one or more of which was a flexibility factor, so that our idea of similarity might, in that other universe, be a failure to flex, the syllogism would be laughable (if humor was a possibility of course).

  178. #178 shortie
    May 11, 2008

    And even in our universe, a syllogism can never allow for a perfect comparison of two objects that are necessarily always at a different place in space and time during whatever sub-millisecond it would theoretically take to observe and/or measure them. Not to mention that atomic structures are constantly in flux. Truth in our universe is always an approximate assessment.
    Which could also mean that if a maxim refers to a certainty, it fails to identify any material truths. Luckily we allow maxims to identify the highly approximate.

  179. #179 ctw
    May 11, 2008

    pseudonym:

    He is very deep into every aspect of category theory – both the practice (eg, Haskell) and the philosophy thereof.

    Thanks – Charles

  180. #180 pier
    June 9, 2008

    “That also explodes theological ideas that suffering is required because God is bound by the logically possible.”

    thank you…
    http://www.dumludernegi.com
    blog.

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