Mixing Memory

Discussion of a paper titled “Respect and Religion,” by Simon Blackburn, is making its way through the blogosphere, and sparking some interesting discussion (particularly over at Crooked Timber, but this is a good read too). The key quote from Blackburn’s article is this:

We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs.
We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a
liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are
convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any
thicker sense those who hold it–not on account of their holding it. We may respect them
for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their
minds. Or, if it is to our advantage that they have false beliefs, as in a game of poker, and
we am poised to profit from them, we may be wickedly pleased that they are taken in.
But that is not a symptom of special substantial respect, but quite the reverse. It is one up
to us, and one down to them.

This quote seems like a good context within which to revisit some of the discussions we’ve had about religion here, particularly since much of what we’ve discussed in the past hinges on the concept of respect. The “New Atheists,” for example, feel that they have a justified lack of respect for all things religious, at least qua religious, precisely because they see religious belief as false, and not only false, but absurdly so. I suspect that this is the reason some religious people feel a lack of respect for atheists as well — atheists, to them, are denying obvious truths. And those of us labeled “appeasers” by the more zealous “New Atheists” are stuck in the middle, potentially disrespected by the religious for our lack of belief, and disrespected by our positivist brethren for showing the religious too much respect. Given the disdain with which “New Atheists” treat religious topics, even going so far as to claim, in some cases, that studying religion from a psychological perspective is pointless, as (many of them seem to believe) is any scholarly study of religion whatsoever, and given the generally derogatory tone of the discussions between Christians, “New Atheists,” and we Chamberlains, then, respect seems like one of the more important issues we should be discussing. So I thought I’d say a little bit about my own views on the topic.

Let’s start here. Everyone has false beliefs — a bunch of them, in fact. I’d even venture to guess that if we audited any random individual, atheist, theist, or whatever, we’d find that most of their beliefs are false. Most of us, I assume, would change our beliefs if we could figure out which ones were false and which weren’t, but in most cases, it’s just not possible to figure out which of our beliefs are false. Either there’s not enough information available (the history of science is a good analogy here), or we’ll just never come across any good reason to change a false belief, and it simply doesn’t matter one way or the other in our lives whether we change the belief. So the truth or falsity of a person’s beliefs seems, to me, pretty shaky ground on which to rest respect.

Of course, religious beliefs aren’t just any old beliefs, for theists or atheists. Religious beliefs guide lives, cultures, laws, etc., in deeper and broader ways than just about any other set of potentially contested beliefs. But their truth and falsity is, still, hardly certain in any objective sense on either side, no matter how certain particular individuals may feel about their own beliefs. It’s not as though most of us can’t imagine (at least logically) possible situations in which our beliefs change, and those of us who are being honest with ourselves can also admit that there are rational, even potentially convincing lines of argument that lead to beliefs other than our own. So even with beliefs as important as religious beliefs, perceived truth or falsity seems like a poor basis for assigning or denying respect.

It seems to me, then, that Lindsey of Regardant les Nuages is on the right track when she writes:

That’s the type of respect that is important to have. It’s about appreciating how a person came to have her set of beliefs, and how she lives out those beliefs. Is she being honest with herself? Is she living out her beliefs with integrity? That is what counts.

Of course, there’s a lot that needs to be explained in that quote. What I appreciate about “how a person came to have her set of beliefs, and how she lives out those beliefs,” and what others appreciate about those things, can differ pretty widely. For example, it’s trivially true that most people arrive at their religious belief — as most people arrive at most beliefs — without a great deal of reflection. This may be one place where at least first-generation atheists have a leg up on most theists. We’ve arrived at our religious beliefs, or our beliefs about religion, through shedding previous beliefs, and that offers at least an easy opportunity for thinking beliefs out a bit. And I have to admit that the religious people I respect the most are people who’ve spent much of their lives studying their religion. Still, arriving at one’s beliefs through careful thought doesn’t quite do it for me as a criterion for respect. I can still respect people’s religious beliefs even if they haven’t attended Bible study once or twice a week for years, for example.

It’s important, then, to add some other factor related to the reasons for believing what one believes. The people I respect the most, theists and atheists, are those who promote their beliefs, and criticize the beliefs of others, only to the extent that they’ve actually thought things through. One of the reasons I have so little respect for most “New Atheists” is because it’s quite clear that they haven’t thought a whole hell of a lot about religion, but they still spend much of their time attacking it. When they justify their lack of intellectual attention to religion by saying that it’s absurd on its face and doesn’t warrant careful thought, my respect for them drops even further. And I feel the same way about the “New Atheist’s” Christian equivalent, the rabid evangelical who has never considered alternatives. So I suppose my formulation for respect begins, I suppose, with the consistency between how far one takes one’s beliefs and how deeply one’s reflected on them.

The second part of Lindsey’s formula is “how she lives out those beliefs,” and I suppose what I’ve just said touches on that. But there’s another part of it. Most people have beliefs that guide their behavior and determine their values. And to be honest, I couldn’t care less whether people’s behavior and values, at least as they practice them, are consistent with their religious beliefs. Because when I am deciding whether I respect a person, I default to my own values. Do they behave in a way that’s consistent with my own core values, things like tolerance, empathy, and equality? Again, this is one of the reasons I have so little respect for “New Atheists” in general — they tend not to exhibit any of those three things, and their anti-intellectualism, at least with respect to religion, is inconsistent with another of my core values. And it’s also why I have so little respect for many religious people — their intolerance and lack of empathy for women, gays and lesbians, people of other cultures, etc. makes it damn near impossible for me to respect them or their beliefs. In the end, I guess, it’s the products of people’s beliefs, and not their truth and falsity, that determines whether I respect them. If the products of your belief are fundamentally inconsistent with my values, then I can’t and won’t respect you, and I won’t apologize for that. It seems to me a much better reason to respect someone or not than tentative and elusive things like perceived truth and falsity.

Comments

  1. #1 Rille
    March 11, 2008

    I guess I would be labelled “New Atheist” by you (although I don’t use that “New” part myself). I do not attack religion because it is merely a false belief. As you say, people have lots of false beliefs. My problem with religion is that it always finds its way into politics (at a more profound level than standard false beliefs), and I cannot accept that. If we are suppose to organize ourselves into collectives such as states/countries, then we need some very basic core assumptions which everybody should agree on. One core assumption for me would be that the life we live today is what matters. Then it is problematic if religious influences start propagating the idea that the eternity in afterlife is what matters, because ultimately that may lead to policies which forsake well-being in the present for the hypothetical well-being in some imagined eternity.

    I also believe that starting a good argument going once in a while keeps religious statements/memes in check and provides a healthy alternative for susceptible people. These arguments don’t get the attention the topic deserves unless you “provoke” to healthy extent. (I don’t know what you consider over the top, but I have limits to the religion-bashing as well. Smart arguments win over flaming everyday).

    I would have no problem with, say, dividing up the world into opinions/religions/politics and then have people move wherever they feel at home the most. Better than people constantly protesting and voting concerning other people’s rights. Too bad its never going to happen.

    (Sorry for the grammar – not my first language)
    /R, Sweden

  2. #2 Hugh Miller
    March 11, 2008

    Chris, I agree with your assessment of the state of things in terms of the intolerance that is being shown on both sides of this issue. I am religious but I try to totally respect other’s in their beliefs. The reality is that both atheists and religious individuals have a set of core beliefs that should be tolerated by both sides. The atheists are basically humanists at their core while those inclined to be religious use a belief system based in tradition as their core. I think that what should be happening in this country is that we all recognize that we can tolerate each other’s core but we do not have to try to convert each other. The real issue that we have is how to handle the extremist on each side of the equation.
    What bothers me the most is that we are losing our tolerance for each other, something that was very important to our founders! Many have forgotten that the first european settlers that survived in the “new world” were people driven from their home land by intolerance!
    Hugh Miller

  3. #3 Dan S.
    March 11, 2008

    . . . even going so far as to claim, in some cases, that studying religion from a psychological perspective is pointless, as (many of them seem to believe) is any scholarly study of religion whatsoever . . .

    Oh, hang on! – I agree with much of what you’re saying in the post, but is this bit actually true in a meaningful sense? I mean, I’m sure one can find some cases of (as with virtually anything, esp. online), but how common is this? Especially given all the recent work on the cognitive and evolutionary foundations of religion . . . .

    Now, there’s certainly the argument that studying theology is utterly pointless, which I’d argue can be based in an incomplete understanding of what theology can be, albeit often also on the part of those complaining that those icky New Atheists don’t know nuthin’ ’bout theology. (That is, as a source of arguments for the existence of God as part of non-human reality, it’s just as useful as as the ancient classical idea of the elements is for understanding modern chemistry. However, as both Philip Ball (in his little book on The Ingredients) and Carl Zimmer (in the wonderful Soul Made Flesh) point out, that concept’s immensely important in understanding the history of science as it developed, and (Ball argues) even some of how we think today. Additionally, theology – besides being a human thing, and as such inherently of interest, however academic and obscure – also deals with ethical, social, and personal matters that might, having been reached by using God as a kind of psychological scaffold, turn out to stand on their own and be nontheistically useful without that scaffolding. Etc.)

  4. #4 Mitchbert
    March 11, 2008

    Let’s say that Joe Smith writes a book. Joe is strong in his faith. The first chapter describes how Zeus prefers His sacrifices to be presented. The second chapter is all about the proper and improper ways of petitioning Chronos. Followed by a very detailed list of the ways Aphrodite can and cannot assist in your quest to attain happiness.

    Unless I misunderstand(entirely possible), you are suggesting that I must not only read the entire book, but also follow all the footnotes, study Joe’s previous works and attempt to put it all into context before dismissing it?

    I should attempt to understand how Zeus, Chronos and Aphrodite influence Joe’s life, and how he lives in accordance to their wishes before dismissing him as a fool?

  5. #5 csbmonkey
    March 11, 2008

    I always find discussions of belief very strange largely due to this weird assumption that “belief” is and ok thing for human beings to be doing. “Believing” itself seems to be the source of a great deal of misery as well as joy, but so is taking drugs, so it’s hard to assume it’s a normal thing that people should just “do” without calling into question WHY they are doing it. Not arriving at a belief mind, but the actually action of believing. If you ask people “Why do you believe?” they often assume you are talking about religious beliefs, not about why the “believe” anything at all. That is a significantly more interesting question to me.

  6. #6 GrayGaffer
    March 12, 2008

    What follows is a bit of a rant. I, of course, think it to be highly relevant yet mostly ignored.

    One thing that seems to be universally omitted from discussions such as this is the mechanism(s) of belief, at the most fundamental psycho-neurological levels. Which leads to an understanding of why logic and reason are such weak tools when it comes to confronting firmly entrenched belief systems such as the Evangelicals. And the “New Atheist” too. And not just in the arena of religion.

    Ever heard the phrase “gut feeling”? Expressive of the sensations in that area associated with “knowing” when something is “wrong” or “right”. It is emerging that this is not just a saying, but has actual relevance to what we are discussing. There is an old structure in the brain called the Amygdala. Early evolutionary function seems to be evaluation of chemical signatures and nutritional or poisonous effects once in the body; in other words, it controlled tropisms.. Over the eons it has become embroiled in increasingly higher brain functions, until today when it is also part of the learning/evaluating tryptich, the part that decides on the desirability or correctness of a higher brain statelet. And it retains its connections to the digestive system.

    One clear sign of its avoidance evaluation is the pain and nausea felt when ones most prized beliefs are challenged. Have you ever been in love but had your loved one engage in contradictory behavior? Especially painful when that is accompanied by “I love you but ..”? Immediate thoughts or cries along the lines of “If you loved me then …” pour out. What is happening is that ones axiomatic beliefs about love are being challenged – reality is not agreeing with the inner model of what it should be. Such moments are actually really crucial to emotional and mental development – at these times, one has all the needed reward chemicals floating around in the brain to choose a modification to the belief system that will reduce the pain. In the example, either accept reality (well sorry, dude, but we’re not that compatible after all) to rejecting reality (she’s an evil person who has betrayed me).

    Similar actions and reactions accompany challenging of any belief system laid down in early life by repetitive induction or by high emotions or trauma not accompanied by prompt analysis, and it is rare that these unexamined systems include methods for correcting them when they prove inadequate to accommodate reality. Typical of religious communities – typified by catechisms of one sort or another – but also a trap for very bright children who managed internalize the belief that reason is all that is required. When these two face off, the religious get the extreme reaction that their beliefs about reality (being wrong, but then, scripted in such a way that if they stay within their community they will never be challenged) including “God” are challenged by the Atheist or heretic, while the “New Atheist” has similar reactions to the apparent refusal of the religious to accept that Reason will lead them out of Error. Equally religious, in that is is driven by deep beliefs, even though the reality of “God” is denied vs asserted.

    Only being forced into a situation where the belief supported by Reason can be the only way out that retains sanity, and that being appallingly clear, can change such deep beliefs. Not arguments. Not dispassionate (or passionate) appeals to Reason. And since all sides feel such aversion to each others’ company, the only humane social construct that accepts both involves separation of Church and State, and a societal meme that each is entitled to their own opinions, just don’t push it in my face. Focus on the school system and emphasize the tools of realistic thinking rather than the tools of repetition. Then maybe in a couple of generations it will not be an issue any more.

    end rant

    Rille – sorry for what exactly? The most lucid use of language? lack of typos? Nothing to be sorry for…

  7. #7 King Solomon
    March 12, 2008

    I see that atheists now have to JUSTIFY their atheism to be accepted by the intelligentsia. Blessed are they that disbelieve and yet have no reason to do so. For theirs is the kingdom of freedom. Let me light my lantern and go about the streets seeking an atheist who can JUSTIFY his nonbelief. We of little faith take thy nonrespect and plant it in the place where if the good lord did not make it open or close, we could not stand before ye!

  8. #8 Kevembuangga
    March 12, 2008

    Sorry but there is no such thing as an agnostic or even a “Neville Chamberlain atheist”.
    If you don’t see evidence that religious creeds are total nonsense you are entangled in monkeys’ paranoia about hidden agency (brought about by evolution quirks, yes, but…)
    Look at that trash: Hair prayer ad judged ‘offensive’!

  9. #9 Chris
    March 12, 2008

    Gray, your points won’t really get any argument from me. I’ve argued in the past that one of the reasons I’m not the sort of atheist that “New Athiests” are and would like others to be is because I have a deep sense of the basic fallibility of human reasoning, and realize that few of our beliefs are arrived at through anything like careful reasoning. Instead, our beliefs are arrived at through accident and heuristic, bias and personality, and perhaps most of all, culture. I see no reason to fight over their truth and falsity with everything that can undercut them. Instead, talk about where they lead, and if they lead to values that one can live by and respect, and to actions consistent with those, or actions that further their causes, then I couldn’t care less whether the beliefs are true or false, and I won’t argue with evangelicals or New Atheists about their truth and falsity, given that.

  10. #10 jeffk
    March 12, 2008

    A couple of thoughts. First, from the quoted part of the paper:

    We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them.

    I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Some beliefs are directly harmful (“my religion tells me to stone homosexuals”) and some are indirectly harmful (eg, lead to a ignorant society that is incapable of using science to make intelligent collective decisions). I want to see these beliefs suppressed and eventually silenced. A statement like this brings tends to get one labeled as a fascist or anti-free speech, but I don’t think that needs to be the case, since the question is about HOW you want them silenced. I want too see them silenced because rational beliefs wins out in the end, through education, formally and informally, and discussion.

    Chris goes on to spew a bunch of relativistic, feel-good bullshit and basically ends up equating everything. All of these arguments can be paraphrased the same way: “people seem to disagree, and I don’t want to make anyone sad, so let’s just decide all of their beliefs are compatible and equally valuable and hold hands and be happy”. An example: “The “New Atheists,” for example, feel that they have a justified lack of respect for all things religious, at least qua religious, precisely because they see religious belief as false, and not only false, but absurdly so.”

    Note the language. They “see religious belief as false.” Rather than, “they point out that not only is there no evidence that religious belief is not based in falsehood, but all existing religious make empirical claims that are demonstratively false.”

    This post, which is based on a thousand models before it, wouldn’t be complete with this: “Everyone has false beliefs — a bunch of them, in fact. I’d even venture to guess that if we audited any random individual, atheist, theist, or whatever, we’d find that most of their beliefs are false”

    I don’t know what false beliefs Chris imagines atheists as holding. Does he think we believe in fairies? Even if we did, would that have the same bearing on the rest of the world as believing the infidel must die? I would say a rational person holds three kinds of beliefs: true, substantiated ones (“the earth revolves around the sun”), and ones conjectured from substantiated ones (“if we look carefully at these energy levels, we might find WIMPS”). These beliefs – and I actually hate to use this word – come with reasoned levels of likelihood. The final kind of belief an atheist might hold is a mistaken belief (“Sally likes me.”) The crux is here, though: when Sally issues a cold rejection, the rational person changes the belief.

    Summary: first, when did the truth stop mattering? When did all beliefs all of the sudden become equal? And second, what are all these false beliefs atheists hold, that presumably are as significant as, “I believe God’s son was murdered by Jews 2000 years ago and wrote a book, and I’m going to live my life by that book”.

  11. #11 Chris
    March 12, 2008

    Jeff, see, that’s the tone I’m talking about. I hope you know, deep down, that dismissing what I’ve said as relativism (it’s not) and an attempt to make everyone feel good (it’s quite obviously not) doesn’t help your case.

  12. #12 Chris
    March 12, 2008

    Mitchbert, sorry, missed your comment. No, I wouldn’t expect you to take that sort of thing seriously, but I haven’t asked you to take any such thing seriously and study it at length. The very analogy, however, demonstrates the attitude I’m talking about. The fact is, there are long cultural histories, philosophical and theological traditions, psychological reality, etc., that need to be studied to comment intelligently on religions specifically and religion in general, because they aren’t so simple as anthropomorphic gods running amok.

  13. #13 jeffk
    March 12, 2008

    How is it not relativism? You equate rational beliefs with irrational ones, and make no attempt to assign value (or lack thereof) to any of them. I don’t think that you literally think to yourself, “I want to make everyone feel good,” but in my experience inability to make judgments about beliefs or opinions stems from an inner fear of offending anyone.

  14. #14 gort
    March 12, 2008

    Chris,

    In your reply to Mitchbert, you seem to be saying that one doesn’t need to delve deep into theology in order to dismiss someone who believes in an anthromorphic god as a fool. Is that really your position? If so, how does that differ from the position of a new atheist who routinely holds up specific religious opinions or actions for ridicule (e.g., PZ)?

  15. #15 Tulse
    March 12, 2008

    Religious beliefs guide lives, cultures, laws, etc., in deeper and broader ways than just about any other set of potentially contested beliefs. But their truth and falsity is, still, hardly certain in any objective sense on either side, no matter how certain particular individuals may feel about their own beliefs

    In a word, bullshit. The belief that the earth was created 6000 years ago is simply false, as we use that term for other beliefs (such as “there are elephants living in my refrigerator”). The belief that humans did not evolve from other organisms is simply false. The belief that the earth was at one time covered by a huge flood is simply false. Those are truth claims that some religions make, and they are simply false. It is nothing but rank relativism to suggest that their truth is “uncertain” or cannot be evaluated.

    I am happy for people to believe whatever the heck they want, however contradictory to modern science and rationality, as long as it doesn’t impact on me. But once these beliefs enter the public realm, once they have potential impact on public policy, there is every reason to question their veracity and rationality. Unfortunately, some people seem to think that the mere act of questioning is somehow “disrespectful”. That is also simply false.

  16. #16 Chris
    March 12, 2008

    Jeff, did I equate them? Can you point me to where I equated “rational” and “irrational” beliefs? The precise sentence or paragraph would be great.

    gort, It’s different precisely because of the factors I mentioned in my response to Mitchbert.

    Tulse, If someone wants to develop scientific hypotheses, such as hypotheses about the age of the earth, then I expect him or her to adhere to the evidentiary standards of science. If they believe in the face of obvious counter-evidence, then it’s hard to respect that belief. But in most cases, that’s not what happens. In most cases, with respect to religious truth, the evidence is ambiguous and open to interpretation, which is part of why so many smart people disagree.

  17. #17 Tulse
    March 12, 2008

    Tulse, If someone wants to develop scientific hypotheses, such as hypotheses about the age of the earth, then I expect him or her to adhere to the evidentiary standards of science. If they believe in the face of obvious counter-evidence, then it’s hard to respect that belief. But in most cases, that’s not what happens. In most cases, with respect to religious truth, the evidence is ambiguous and open to interpretation, which is part of why so many smart people disagree.

    So you don’t respect some of the religious beliefs of fundamentalist Christians? Or fundamentalist Muslims and Hindus? What precisely are you claiming here? As I see it, the reason that this has become such a live issue in the US is precisely because some politically powerful religious groups want to create public policy based on truth claims that are by no means “ambiguous and open to interpretation”, but are simply false. Are you referring to something different?

  18. #18 Kevembuangga
    March 12, 2008

    But in most cases, that’s not what happens. In most cases, with respect to religious truth, the evidence is ambiguous and open to interpretation, which is part of why so many smart people disagree.

    re: “the belief that the earth was created 6000 years ago”?
    (etc…)

    Chris you are plainly dishonest here, or may be the words you use don’t have the “ordinary” meaning every one knows about?
    A “religious” meaning may be?
    Could you explain?

  19. #19 Chris
    March 12, 2008

    Kevem, I’m not being dishonest at all. I’m saying that the 6000 years case is a pretty specific one, but doesn’t generalize. I don’t respect people who are blatantly dishonest, and believing something in the face of overwhelming and unequivocal evidence (e.g., the evidence for an old earth) would qualify. So, of course, would believing that science tells us anything about the existence or non-existence of supernatural beings.

    Tulse, I don’t respect fundamentalism of pretty much any sort, and that includes the “New Atheists” breed. But it’s not so much because of the truth or falsity of their ideas — in some cases, fundamentalism avoids making factual claims of the sort that young earth creationists make, for example. Instead, it’s because fundamentalism requires a level of zealous promotion of one’s beliefs that extends well beyond the certainty associated with them.

  20. #20 Tulse
    March 12, 2008

    So, of course, would believing that science tells us anything about the existence or non-existence of supernatural beings.

    Science certainly tells us that there is no evidence for such beings, as we generally conceive of evidence.

    Tulse, I don’t respect fundamentalism of pretty much any sort, and that includes the “New Atheists” breed.

    Oh please — let’s not trot out that canard. You can disagree with the approach, but let’s not equate forceful atheism with religious fundamentalism.

    But it’s not so much because of the truth or falsity of their ideas — in some cases, fundamentalism avoids making factual claims of the sort that young earth creationists make, for example.

    Sure, but that isn’t generally where the public policy conflicts are — it is instead over evolution, and global warming, etc. etc. etc.

    Again, as I said above, no atheist would care about religious belief, beyond intellectual interest, if said beliefs were not involved in forming public policy. But when they are, and they are demonstrably false, then they are rightfully opposed by those in favour of using rationality to structure our public society. Are you suggesting that such should not be the case?

    You’ve created a straw man. No one “disrespects” the Unitarians, and no “New Atheist” writes vigorous screeds against the Quakers. In other words, although most “New Atheists” might think believing in the supernatural is silly and irrational, it is not just the silliness and irrationality that is the problem. Rather, it is precisely the religions that you say you don’t respect, namely fundamentalist brands of Christianity and Islam, that are the focus of most “New Atheist” attention. And since you don’t respect them, why should those writers?

  21. #21 GrayGaffer
    March 12, 2008

    Folks, the word “belief” is as overloaded and unsafe for this discussion as is the word “theory” as used by Creationists. I will enumerate its uses as applied (not necessarily dictionary):

    1: == hypothesis, in the Scientific sense, i.e. represents a statement about a personal opinion of the validity of some assertion for which there is not yet factual evidence or operational Theory (again, Scientific sense). Amenable to reason.

    2: == conjecture, as in “I do believe the Sun is up”.

    3: == assertion of faith. Superficially similar to #1, something accessible to conscious cogitation, but not susceptible to inspection as is #1. “I believe in Jesus Christ Our Savior”.

    4: == underlying subconscious axiomatic organizing principles. Drilled in during childhood (mostly), not easily accessible to conscious cogitation, along the lines of Knowing – this level of belief is automatically and unquestioningly held to be True. A product of evolution, not choice, i.e. we _must_ believe at this level or we cannot function at all. But the details are learned, not inherited. And hence the ray of light is that they can be changed.

    The belief that the Earth is 6000 years old is spoken from #3, but even if inside the speaker understands that there is evidence to the contrary, they cannot seriously look at that evidence because their #4 fundamentals both forbid it, and require that they consciously assert 6000, because that is what The Bible says, and The Bible is installed as the expression of their #4 belief layer. Challenging their assertions invokes the physiological distress that accompanies Amygdalic rejection and, if they are allowed to evade the challenge, reinforces their system; if not, they fight. Details differ, but we all, without exception, have to deal with this in some aspect of our lives.

  22. #22 King Solomon
    March 12, 2008

    One thing I know is that I don’t know much. BUT I DO know that I live in America and the last time I looked, people were entitled to believe or disbelieve. I was brought up to respect people for their humanity – not for what faith they possess or do not possess. Let me tell you that what this person wrote smacks of religious arrogance. We Jews don’t judge people on what they believe but on what they do. Disrespecting people for how they believe is fascism. I know
    fundamentalists who live their lives practicing acts of kindness and I know atheists who live their lives as assholes. This is still America. As long as the religious respect me by not forcing their beliefs down my throat; as long as they don’t force law-makers to make laws that restrict my freedom, as long as they behave like MENTSCHEN, they have my respect.
    Lindsey of Regardant les Nuages represents, not atheists, but the worst kind of elitist intellectual. She wants everyone to think as she does. She comes across as a religious fascist.

    Israel is Real!

  23. #23 Chris
    March 12, 2008

    Tulse, only under scientific standards of evidence, which is precisely what I’m talking about.

    Also, I’m not calling New Atheists fundamentalists because they’re forceful. I think I’ve outlined the reasons I think they’re fundamentalist, and the anti-intellectualism is one of them, as is the black-or-white thinking, positivism, etc.

    And since I’ve already said that if people do things that are practically problematic, respect is a problem, so I’m not sure why you keep bringing up the public policy stuff.

  24. #24 Tulse
    March 12, 2008

    I’ve already said that if people do things that are practically problematic, respect is a problem, so I’m not sure why you keep bringing up the public policy stuff.

    Because that is the issue! Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett and Harris wouldn’t have bothered to write books if religious beliefs weren’t intruding on public policy. Very few atheists get worked up about the Quakers or Buddhists or Unitarians. My point is that you and the “New Atheists” actually have a lot of common ground — you both essentially are worried about, and have a problem respecting, the same people and beliefs. So I’m not sure what your objection actually is.

  25. #25 jeffk
    March 12, 2008

    Jeff, did I equate them? Can you point me to where I equated “rational” and “irrational” beliefs? The precise sentence or paragraph would be great.

    Well, it’s pretty much the point of the post (and following comments) so far as I can read them but I’ll find examples:

    I don’t respect fundamentalism of pretty much any sort
    Atheism here has been recast as religious fundamentalism.

    The entire paragraph about Everyone has false beliefs…So even with beliefs as important as religious beliefs, perceived truth or falsity seems like a poor basis for assigning or denying respect. Here, the about of respect deserved by a flat-earther and someone who has some other common atheist false belief (no examples have been given) are equated.

    most people arrive at their religious belief — as most people arrive at most beliefs — without a great deal of reflection. This may be one place where at least first-generation atheists have a leg up on most theists.
    So that’s our only “leg up”? Empiricism and virgin births would be equal except that we’ve “reflected” on it more?

    Then there’s this But their truth and falsity is, still, hardly certain in any objective sense on either side, no matter how certain particular individuals may feel about their own beliefs.

    How is the truth or falsity of virgin births and talking gods “hardly certain”?

    And I feel the same way about the “New Atheist’s” Christian equivalent, the rabid evangelical who has never considered alternatives.
    Ah, now the dreaded “New Atheists”, who simply speak logically and write tame books, are equated with the bible thumping, screaming moron by my bus stop.

    Need I go on? Like I said, it’s the point of the post. It’s all part of this post-modern conspiracy to abandon all judgmental faculties to avoid offense.

  26. #26 lindsey
    March 13, 2008

    To King Solomon who writes: Lindsey of Regardant les Nuages represents, not atheists, but the worst kind of elitist intellectual. She wants everyone to think as she does. She comes across as a religious fascist.

    This made me laugh, of course, because if you knew me at all you’d know I’m neither an elite nor much of an “intellectual” (unless all undergrads can be classified as such). But I’m wondering what on earth you are so upset about? The question is not, and I’ll say this as much as I have to, whether you can respect that person (for other reasons, or as a whole). The questions is whether you can respect that belief, or the part of the person that holds that belief. Maybe you don’t think individual beliefs warrant respect or disrespect, but I (and I’m not alone in this) think they do. How did it come across that I want everyone to believe what I do if my conclusion was that I can, and often do, respect beliefs that I disagree with? The interesting discussion is whether you can find value in what you disagree with, and more importantly how that value affects your actions. If I value your atheism, for whatever reason, then I will do the respectful act of engaging it and giving it due consideration (regardless of my stance towards it). If you don’t respect a belief, then you don’t do that. It’s not about making others belief what I do, but it is about discussing where we differ and trying to make sense of why we disagree. That is important in that it teaches you to be responsible with your own beliefs, but it also keeps you from easily dismissing opposing beliefs.

    You also write: We Jews don’t judge people on what they believe but on what they do. Disrespecting people for how they believe is fascism.

    Again, I don’t necessarily judge the person for that belief, but rather the belief itself and how/why it’s held. And it does matter how a belief is lived out. If you say you believe that women and men are equals, but then discriminate women in practice, then I no longer respect your belief because it wasn’t consistent with your life. Call it fascism if you will (though I don’t know why), but I won’t respect a professed belief that you don’t actually live by.

  27. #27 harry b
    March 13, 2008

    Not clear to me that King Solomon read either Lindsey’s post or mine. Its pretty clear if you read what we both wrote that what is at issue is respecting someone’s holding a belief that one thinks is false. You may well respect the person, but not respect their holding a particular belief; there’s no contradiction there. Do you, King Solomon, respect racists and anti-semites? And if you do, do you respect their holding of their racist and anti-semitic beliefs? I don’t, and not doing so hardly amounts to be an intellectual elitist. Lindsey’s post is all about being a theist but nevertheless respecting atheists who hold their beliefs in a certain way.

    BTW, your practice of calling someone a fascist for writing what Lindsey did is in tension with your principle of respecting people for what they do, not what they believe.

  28. #28 Chris Schoen (nontheist)
    March 13, 2008

    I should attempt to understand how Zeus, Chronos and Aphrodite influence Joe’s life, and how he lives in accordance to their wishes before dismissing him as a fool?

    Mitchbert, why shouldn’t you?

    You’ve chosen what you clearly believe is an absurd example, and perhaps it is. But merely namedropping Zeus and Aphrodite does not make a rational argument. It’s just an appeal to normatives.

    Your words: dismissing him as a fool. What’s so scientific about that?

  29. #29 Chris
    March 13, 2008

    Tulse, that’s not the issue. Several people, including Dawkins (I dunno about Hitchens), Myers, and many commenters on ScienceBlogs, have explicitly stated that religion doesn’t deserve respect because it’s false. That’s also Blackburn’s point. So it’s the one I’m addressing. Since I explicitly state that I judge beliefs by how people get to them (in line with Lindsey’s post — that is, first and foremost, if they’re honest with themselves and others), and more importantly, how they act on them (in relation to their certainty, and in relation to my values), then harping on the public policy consequences of a belief as the determinant of respect seems to imply that you actually agree with me. And I don’t think you do.

    Jeff, you’re forgetting, then, the part where I discuss Lindsey’s points about how people arrive at their beliefs. To be a flat-earther, for example, you’d have to be blind or blatantly dishonest, and it’s hard to respect beliefs arrived at from either of those directions.

    As for talk of certainty and the virgin birth, good luck giving me scientific evidence on that one. I won’t take induction from normal births as evidence, since we’re not talking about a normal birth. I, of course, don’t believe in the virgin birth (despite being raised Catholic, I never really did), and subjectively, I’m pretty certain it’s a bullshit idea, but I’m not willing to judge someone else’s belief in it based on my subjective certainty. Then again, if you’ve got evidence I haven’t seen, feel free to offer it up. Perhaps some eye witnesses? DNA? The same problem exists for most historical claims of religions like Christianity. It’s certainly true that we can use science to show that some are false (e.g., the global flood or the formation of the universe in a literal 6 days), but for the most part, these stories are unverifiable. There’s no evidence either way bearing on Moses’ conversation with a bush that was on fire, or Jesus’ creating a bunch of bread and fish out of a little of each. And simply saying that these things are scientifically impossible won’t do, because they’re supposed to be so. Sure, you and I don’t like to believe these sorts of things without evidence, and if I were a betting man, I’d say you’re a bit of a verificationist (if you are, I suggest you think about the falsity of the beliefs associated with that failed philosophy), but certain is something we’re not about these things. At least not in any objective sense.

  30. #30 Chris Schoen
    March 13, 2008

    Unlike Chris, I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on whether the virgin birth or burning bush were “true” or not. It’s hard for modern rationalists to take in, but these stories are not in the same cognitive category as scientific propositions. Granted, it’s been a trend among fundamentalists over the last century to make them so, but for most of the history of religion this conflation does not obtain, and that includes most contemporary religious adherents.

    Mythic thinking is an intransigent thing, and not restricted to so-called “faith heads.” The whole conceit of rationalist truth squads going around busting everyone else’s bubbles of delusion is itself a myth, not a logical fact. Like other foundational myths, it sets its proponents apart as heroes with an important purpose. What it obscures is the profound degree to which the uber-rationalist is prone to his or her own deceptions, interpretations, and fabulations.

    What is ultimately respectable about many (by no means all) religious adherents is that they reject the neurotic need to be certain of everything; and quite often they are fully aware that their religious myths are just that. Not facts, subject to verification, but ways of engaging the world meaningfully and morally. Not your cup of tea? Then maybe you should decline dinner invitations on the sabbath.

  31. #31 Chris
    March 13, 2008

    Chris Schoen, I don’t mean to place too much emphasis on the truth of things like the virgin birth. My point is that the truth of them is too elusive, from any objective standpoint, to be the measure of much of anything, much less respect (where respect determines how you treat a person). In fact, I’m trying to criticize the people on my side of the theistic divide — atheists, that is — who do try to treat them as scientific propositions, or at least as propositions that can and should be judged by the evidentiary standards of science. I call them fundamentalists in part because they share that approach with their theistic analogs. Their rationalism is a belief or set of beliefs that I consider blatantly false, to the point that one has to be dishonest, most often in the form of anti-intellectualism that causes them to be unwilling, if not incapable, of actually learning about positions that differ from their own, or about the possibility that there might be rational reasons for adopting those positions, and to actually decry any attempts to learn about different positions.

  32. #32 Tulse
    March 13, 2008

    Several people, including Dawkins (I dunno about Hitchens), Myers, and many commenters on ScienceBlogs, have explicitly stated that religion doesn’t deserve respect because it’s false.

    But again, Chris, I think you’re missing the context of this entire debate, which is the rise of fundamentalism and its political force in the US. Dawkins et al. wouldn’t care enough about religion to not respect it were it not for its impact. Lots of people believe lots of silly, irrational things, and for the most part rationalists don’t give a damn. The only reason this is at all an issue is because religion has had a resurgence as a force for determining public policy. You can talk about how “disrespectful” the New Atheists are all you want, but to ignore the context is to miss the entire reason why this is an issue in the first place.

    don’t mean to place too much emphasis on the truth of things like the virgin birth. My point is that the truth of them is too elusive, from any objective standpoint, to be the measure of much of anything, much less respect

    And that sounds precisely like the kind of handwaving relativism that drives rationalists nuts. Surely it is a truth claim as to whether the human being called “Jesus” was conceived without human sperm. I have no idea what you mean by this claim being “elusive” — it may undecidable, but surely it has a truth value. If not, how should such claims be evaluated? What other, non-religious claims might have a similar “elusive” relationship with truth?

  33. #33 Chris Schoen
    March 13, 2008

    Chris,

    It sounds like we’re in agreement, especially on the intellectual dishonesty bit. It’s exceedingly sad that what’s left of the best minds of our generation are so unequipped to explore the logical ramifications of their own belief systems.

    Tulse,

    What you write here is false:

    Dawkins et al. wouldn’t care enough about religion to not respect it were it not for its impact. Lots of people believe lots of silly, irrational things, and for the most part rationalists don’t give a damn.

    Dawkins is quite explicitly uncomfortable with various non-religious “new age” beliefs, to the point of focusing on them almost exclusively in his last TV series.

    Many of Dawkins’ critics have asked why he doesn’t restrict his argument to fundamentalist intolerance, and live in peaceful coexistence with the many millions of theists (and billions of religious nontheists) who don’t stand in opposition to science. His response, astoundingly, is that moderate religious adherents lack the courage of their convictions, and anyway they just “give cover” to the extremists.

    The only way to pass muster, it seems, is to adopt Dawkins’ own brand of atheist rationalism. But this itself is not a factual proposition, but a metaphysical standpoint, requiring its own articles of faith (there’s no logical explanation, for example, for the origin of “something from nothing” or the “first cause” that set the laws of nature into being, but we accept them all the same, until we can find a more satisfying way to understand things).

    Yes, this drives rationalists “nuts,” but not because it is relativism. Relativism implies that we have no basis on which to make judgments, leading one inexorably to existentialism. Any of us is free to come up with a multitude of criteria to make judgments upon: happiness, peace, sustainability, exploration, among others. But to hide behind a chimerical objective “truth” as one’s only yardstick is just an abdication of our responsibility as human beings.

  34. #34 Chris
    March 13, 2008

    Tulse, I’m not missing the context. I fully understand it, and if Dawkins et al. attacked fundamentalists on the grounds I’ve mentioned in this discussion, I’d be happy with that. But instead, they’ve attacked all religion, as if it could all be lumped together, and they’ve done so while avoiding actually engaging religion intellectually (in some cases, explicitly saying it’s not worth engaging). Further, they’ve done so on grounds that I consider to be blatantly false (blatant scientism in most cases, and at the very least a naive verificationism). The problem is that Dawkins et al. have used the context to attack things well beyond the scope of the motivating context, and well beyond the scope of their knowledge base.

  35. #35 Tulse
    March 13, 2008

    they’ve done so while avoiding actually engaging religion intellectually

    Can you clarify what you mean by this? And is this just a variant of the Courtier’s Reply?

  36. #36 Chris
    March 13, 2008

    Tulse, the basic attitude is that religion is not worth studying because it’s obvious that it’s irrational and absurd (I think I’ve said this a few dozen times now). A great example from the comments sections on this blog comes from the people who decry studying religion scientifically because already know that it’s just a product of irrational thinking (as if that were an explanation). Then there are the people who write long books, even mentioning (and sometimes addressing) theological arguments without actually having researched those arguments enough to know what they actually say. But most of all, it’s the people who argue that religion is so obviously wrong that there’s no reason to actually think about it, so they don’t. Is that the Courtier’s reply? I don’t think so, but it’s a response I hear to my accusations of anti-intellectualism all the time.

  37. #37 Tulse
    March 13, 2008

    Chris:

    A great example from the comments sections on this blog comes from the people who decry studying religion scientifically because already know that it’s just a product of irrational thinking (as if that were an explanation).

    From what I can see, the scientific study of religion is actually becoming quite a hot topic, led largely by the attitude of the New Atheists that religion is essentially no different from any other human behaviour, and can thus have the same tools (e.g., evolutionary theory, neurobiology, sociology, anthropology) applied to it. Dennett has written extensively on the scientific approach to understanding religion, Dawkins has touched on the topic, and there are plenty of folks who offer other accounts. The notion that the New Atheists somehow decry the scientific study of religion is absurd.

    I agree that most vocal atheists say that arguing points of theology is often a waste of time, but that is completely different that suggesting they say it should be studied scientifically. And yes, saying one should understand the finer points of theology before one can attack the foundational premises of religion as a whole is the Courtier’s Reply, and is itself anti-intellectual, because it refuses to engage the actual arguments made.

    Chris Schoen:

    Dawkins is quite explicitly uncomfortable with various non-religious “new age” beliefs, to the point of focusing on them almost exclusively in his last TV series.

    Right, and why did he focus on them? Because, for example, the UK government funds, with public money, homeopathic hospitals. In other words, it is the impact these beliefs have on the world at large that is his issue. I agree he thinks that everyone should be rational. But the reason his attacks are so vigorous is not because people have irrational beliefs, but because some of those beliefs actually matter.

    But to hide behind a chimerical objective “truth” as one’s only yardstick is just an abdication of our responsibility as human beings.

    Perhaps it is already obvious to you, but I have no idea what the hell that is supposed to mean. Sure, there are values other that “truth” that we can hold and aspire to. But that doesn’t mean that truth itself gets dumped out the window when it conflicts with those values. Just because someone values certain religious beliefs doesn’t mean that it no longer matters whether the world is 6000 years old or not, or whether humans evolved from other species or not. More to the point, just because someone values those beliefs does not change their truth value. Some beliefs are just empirically wrong. (And can I just say that I find it bizarre that the defenders of religion seem to have retreated to relativism, when the very foundation of religion is a belief in the absolute?)

  38. #38 Chris
    March 13, 2008

    Tulse, From what I can tell, and I know a few of the big psychology of religion researchers, this started before Dawkins started going off. And in fact, they’ve argued that the psychological study of religion undermines some of Dawkins’ claims. And I’m not asking anyone to study anything scientifically — I think science is limited, here. But if you’re going to present arguments against the ontological argument, say, it would certainly help to know what the ontological argument actually says (Hitchens doesn’t, for example), and what counterarguments have already been addressed (Dawkins doesn’t). It might also help not to use parodies as your main counterargument (as Dawkins does). It would also help, in discussing the historical and contemporary behavior of the religious, to actually study the history and contemporary behavior of the religious (e.g., Harris’ mistaken belief that there are no Christian terrorist groups, or the claim, made by many “New Atheists,” that most wars have had religious origins, which are difficult to defend historically). Then there’s the psychology of religion. Almost all “New Atheists” impute motives for religious belief, but even a quick look at the study of the psychology of religion would show the picture to be much more complex. Then, of course, there’s the philosophy of religion, and the concepts of evidence and faith, both of which most “New Atheists” conceive in an extremely over-simplistic, or in some cases Straw Man-like way.

  39. #39 King Solomon
    March 14, 2008

    I’ll attempt to answer Lindsey and Harry.
    Having learned something about you, Lindsey, I understand why we come across so differently in our opinions. Probably it’s our age difference. Really I’m old enough to be your grandfather. And both you and Harry are right about me using names such as fascist. So accept my apology.
    Harry, no I don’t respect antisemites, especially ones who act out, and that’s because I judge them on their actions.
    I think the people who engage in conversations such as this are in the minority so I don’t expect a lot of critical thinking from most people. I make this remark based on my experience in dealing with people. Most people are not into thinking about what they believe or don’t believe. I became an atheist twice in my life and in both instances, it had nothing to do with sitting down and thinking about it. The first time I became an atheist was after seeing so-called religious people act like pigs, and the second time had to do with a realization that I wanted to create my own meaning in life. So in both cases, it was visceral, not cerebral. I didn’t give it much thought. It was only after reaching a conclusion that the world really can’t be run the way most people say it is run, that is, by a human god, that I began to read books to backup my own [dis]belief. Nothing in life persists in homeostasis.
    The more I moved away from religion, the more I noticed that many religious people act like pigs. My attachment to atheism has in large part to do with people’s attempts to use a ridiculous set of myths to impose a pre-modern worldview on America. I don’t usually philosophize about my atheism as much as I used to about my religious beliefs.
    There is no TALMUD for atheists as far as I know.
    However, if a person is decent and yet is a believer, I will respect her. If a person is not a deep thinker yet says she doesn’t believe in gods because it just seems like a load of crap, why should I not respect her? Most people are not intellectuals but as Anne Frank said, most people are good, believers or not. The good do not impose their beliefs on others, and they do not need to JUSTIFY their beliefs or lack thereof.

  40. #40 SDyuaa
    March 14, 2008

    jeffk:

    The entire paragraph about Everyone has false beliefs…So even with beliefs as important as religious beliefs, perceived truth or falsity seems like a poor basis for assigning or denying respect. Here, the about of respect deserved by a flat-earther and someone who has some other common atheist false belief (no examples have been given) are equated.

    Beliefs I have which may be false: We should drink eight glasses of water per day (I don’t know what the most recent research says, but there seems to be some dispute, and I’m going to look that up today). There are eight planets and three dwarf planets in the solar system (can be changed by finding more or redefining planets). The Lord of the Rings trilogy was the best single movie ever made (subjective opinion, can’t be argued with, although I might change my mind as my tastes change, but could have a truth or falsity value).

    most people arrive at their religious belief — as most people arrive at most beliefs — without a great deal of reflection. This may be one place where at least first-generation atheists have a leg up on most theists.
    So that’s our only “leg up”? Empiricism and virgin births would be equal except that we’ve “reflected” on it more?

    Are most atheists empiricists? It would indeed be good if most people were more empirical, but I don’t think empiricism can be considered a quality posessed by all atheists or lacked by all religiousists.

    Then there’s this But their truth and falsity is, still, hardly certain in any objective sense on either side, no matter how certain particular individuals may feel about their own beliefs.

    How is the truth or falsity of virgin births and talking gods “hardly certain”?

    What about the truth or falisty that “Eating pork is immoral”? Or the truth or falsity of a statement such as, “A person named Jesus of Nazareth did exist in the beginning of the first century CE, and he did make some progress in morality over that morality propounded in the Old Testament of the Bible”?

    And I feel the same way about the “New Atheist’s” Christian equivalent, the rabid evangelical who has never considered alternatives.
    Ah, now the dreaded “New Atheists”, who simply speak logically and write tame books, are equated with the bible thumping, screaming moron by my bus stop.

    And you’re equating all religiousists with the screaming moron by your bus stop. A number of religious people can be quite sensical (in areas not related to their religious beliefs) and empirical, because of the marvelous human ability to compartmentalize.

  41. #41 Chris Schoen
    March 14, 2008

    Tules writes:

    Right, and why did he focus on them? Because, for example, the UK government funds, with public money, homeopathic hospitals. In other words, it is the impact these beliefs have on the world at large that is his issue.

    If this is the case, then his proper target should be government subsidies, not the practitioners themselves. Public policy is an appropriate place to debate where the energies of a society should be directed. But this is not the way Dawkins makes the case. He asserts there are right and wrong ways to think and believe, based not on any argument, but on his own moral preference for certainty. He presents this, of course, as self-evident, but it is not. For rationalism to be valued over other modes of thought, one must set the virtues of certainty, knowledge, and mastery above all others. Certainty, knowledge and mastery have their place, but it is a matter for debate whether they should be placed above, below, or alongside other virtues. Dawkins will not engage this debate (which is, again, part of why he gets branded a fundamentalist.)

    This is one hazard of a scientist without philosophical training engaging in a debate whose scope exceeds his understanding, for Dawkins, like most “realist” scientists, cannot see the suppositions which underlie his thinking, and thus can’t defend them.

    But to hide behind a chimerical objective “truth” as one’s only yardstick is just an abdication of our responsibility as human beings.

    Perhaps it is already obvious to you, but I have no idea what the hell that is supposed to mean.

    It means, firstly, that objective truth is a fantasy. A superstition, if you will, though surely a comforting one.

    Secondly, it means that by asserting truth as the master virtue, we get to pretend that the way things are is just “the way things are” rather than something we can change our perspective on. Again, I’m not making a relativist argument here. That the universe is 6,000 years old, and that it is 12 billion years old are not interchangeable statements. I can’t imagine an argument that would persuade me I should accept the former. But the point is that they are both evaluable; they both arrive in our consciousnesses with a lot of semantic baggage from which they are inseparable.

    Here’s a more subtle field of debate than the age of the earth. Does the world consist of things, or of interactions between things? It’s not just an idle philosophical musing, but rather a metaphysical question with important social policy implications. We humans are part of the universe, after all, and subject to whatever side of this argument we come down on. If we think of ourselves primarily as objects, our language, psychology, statecraft, and science will reflect this with emphases on separation, division, alienation, otherness, and the like. Indeed we can see this in language like Steven Weinberg’s when he talks of a “pointless” universe.

    Alternatively we can see ourselves in our connections to other selves, organisms, and objects in the universe, which immediately brings ramifications to mind we might not otherwise consider. For example, it changes the nature of the argument for animal experimentation.

    I’m not trying to make the case here for one side of this debate over the other. I just want to show that even “truth” is a matter of perspective, and one of the glories of being such a highly developed species is being able to participate in what that perspective might be, rather than passive obsequiousness to the the worldviews of generations past.

  42. #42 Chris Schoen
    March 14, 2008

    Tulse, I forgot to respond to one more of your statements:

    (And can I just say that I find it bizarre that the defenders of religion seem to have retreated to relativism, when the very foundation of religion is a belief in the absolute?)

    I still hold out hope that some of the “New Atheists” will one day trouble themselves to actually read some history of religious thought. Absolutism is a feature of a lot of religious thought, but by no means a majority, and by no means was it the “foundation” of religion.

  43. #43 Tulse
    March 15, 2008

    He asserts there are right and wrong ways to think and believe, based not on any argument, but on his own moral preference for certainty.

    Well, in the case of homeopathy, he says there are beliefs that will help keep you healthy based on empirical evidence — you can argue that he’s wrong to say those beliefs are “right, but that doesn’t change the facts. You can choose to be all warm and fuzzy about beliefs in homeopathy, but if you do that when you have cancer (or a gunshot wound), you’re far more likely to be dead, because the actual universe doesn’t give a damn about “other modes of thought”.

    And, just to flag an issue here that also comes up below, I am presuming from your tone that you thing Dawkins is actually objectively wrong to think and believe that there are right and wrong ways to think and believe, no? How is that not self-refuting?

    For rationalism to be valued over other modes of thought, one must set the virtues of certainty, knowledge, and mastery above all others. Certainty, knowledge and mastery have their place, but it is a matter for debate whether they should be placed above, below, or alongside other virtues.

    Advocating rationalism does not mean believing that it is the only value or virtue to hold — all it suggests is that claims about the world should, when possible, be evaluated by reason and evidence. It does not claim that social relations do not involve other, non-scientific values, or that cultures do not assert claims that cannot be evaluated by rational means.

    It means, firstly, that objective truth is a fantasy.

    You seem awfully “certain” of that statement. What is the truth value of that objective claim? You’re being rather dismissive of those who hold worldviews in which there is objective truth — do you not respect such views? Just as with Dawkins, you seem certain that there is no certainty, that it is objectively true that there is no objective truth.

    See, that’s the problem with asserting relativism — it eats itself.

    Secondly, it means that by asserting truth as the master virtue, we get to pretend that the way things are is just “the way things are” rather than something we can change our perspective on.

    What utter nonsense. The physical world is the way it is — no amount of “changing your perspective” when falling off a skyscraper is going to keep you from splattering on the pavement. Science has certainly changed its perspective about the nature of the physical quite often, and many times that change in perspective have been profound (Galileo, Freud, Einstein, to name a few on the standard list of perspective-changers). But the physical universe itself didn’t change, merely our understanding of it (if you want to talk about the socio-cultural domain, that is an entirely different kettle of fish). Changing perspective is a psychological feature that has no relation to the actual physics/metaphysics of the world.

    That the universe is 6,000 years old, and that it is 12 billion years old are not interchangeable statements. I can’t imagine an argument that would persuade me I should accept the former. But the point is that they are both evaluable; they both arrive in our consciousnesses with a lot of semantic baggage from which they are inseparable.

    Of course both statements are evaluable, and one is simply wrong, based on the evidence we currently have. Speaking of “inseparable semantic baggage” is simply bafflegab — I’m sure one could wax poetic about the cultural embeddedness of the claim that elephants live in my refrigerator, but no amount of “semantic baggage” will change the truth value of the statement itself and suddenly make pachyderms trod in the butter.

    Does the world consist of things, or of interactions between things? It’s not just an idle philosophical musing, but rather a metaphysical question with important social policy implications.

    First off, that question is silly — the universe is made of what it is made of (generally speaking, “things” at various levels that “interact” in various ways, including to make other “things”), and no amount of metaphysical speculation will change that (although I do note that you seem to think there is an absolute answer to that statement…). Second, the metaphysics of the physical world has absolutely no implications about social policy, any more than the truth of evolution demands Social Darwinism. You seem to be endorsing the Naturalistic (or should it be “Metaphysical”) Fallacy, and that’s just silly.

    Alternatively we can see ourselves in our connections to other selves, organisms, and objects in the universe, which immediately brings ramifications to mind we might not otherwise consider. For example, it changes the nature of the argument for animal experimentation.

    Again, completely and utter bollocks. In the specific case you mention, what changes the nature of the argument for animal experimentation is an understanding that humans are evolved from other animals, that there is no inherent and fundamental divide between us and other creatures, that the same qualities we value in humans (arguably, the ability to experience) are also present in non-humans to varying degrees. In other words, what changes the nature of the argument is understanding the nature of the physical world and our history in it. (As an existence proof, I’m a vegetarian for ethical reasons.)

    Your metaphysics won’t get you anywhere in terms of ethics. I am more “connected” in many real ways with the chair I’m sitting on that I am with my retriever, but I’m only willing to put the former in a fire. Without specifying what “connections” count in advance, just saying that stuff is “connected” is meaningless. And if you’re specifying in advance, your metaphysics isn’t the thing doing the heavy lifting, it is that prior specification.

    And if you talking about “bringing ramifications to mind we might not otherwise consider”, that’s the domain of psychology, and not metaphysics. We can, and do, choose to view the world in a variety of ways depending on the utility of those views (e.g., the Periodic Table is only one way to order the elements — we could also order them by their colour at room temperature and pressure, or by their hardness if they were on Pluto, but those latter ordering aren’t particularly useful). But prompting alternative views is not the role of metaphysics — elements are what they are, regardless of how we choose to order them.

    I honestly think we’re talking past each other, as I really don’t understand most of your argument (as I suppose is obvious). I really do want to understand, and engage in genuine dialogue, but I’m really at sea as to your claims. I’m happy to be enlightened, though.

  44. #44 J. J. Ramsey
    March 15, 2008

    I don’t think that you and Blackburn are that far apart. Both of you gauge respect for beliefs in part based on how much thought was put into them. Blackburn, for example, is far harder on someone whose beliefs seem to involve willfully bad reasoning, and so are you. I notice that one of the reasons you find fault with the New Atheists is that they are sloppy in their criticisms of religion. Blackburn explicitly notes, “As epistemologists all know, it is not easy to locate the various vices of belief formation, nor to defend the view that they are vices,” and you hold a similar view. The main difference between the two of you is that he is more apt to call religious belief false. Neither of you, though, are inclined to automatically regard believers as fools on account of their religion.

  45. #45 Chris Schoen
    March 15, 2008

    I am presuming from your tone that you thing Dawkins is actually objectively wrong to think and believe that there are right and wrong ways to think and believe, no? How is that not self-refuting?

    Not quite. Right and wrong are moral terms, whereas true and false are terms which appeal to objectivity (at least the way we commonly use them). To an extent I do think there are right and wrong ways to think and believe, but they are judgments, not axioms. They’re also not absolutes; that is, they’re subject to persuasion. It’s an is/ought thing, and if I’m asked for what sort of justification I have for these judgments, I think I can make a pretty good case that our dominant way of looking at things in this era is pretty crappy. I won’t make that case now, because you didn’t ask, but I’m happy to if you’re interested.

    Advocating rationalism does not mean believing that it is the only value or virtue to hold — all it suggests is that claims about the world should, when possible, be evaluated by reason and evidence.

    I never said that anyone was advocating rationality as the only virtue, just that it was often held as the supreme virtue, as I think you do here.

    There are different categories of claims about the world, implicit and explicit, dispositional and evidentiary. I just wrote about this in a response to Windy on the other Mixing Memory thread, and I don’t want to repeat myself, so I hope if you’re still curious about this you’ll check it out, and we can follow up here.

    It means, firstly, that objective truth is a fantasy.

    You seem awfully “certain” of that statement. What is the truth value of that objective claim? … you seem certain that there is no certainty, that it is objectively true that there is no objective truth.

    See, that’s the problem with asserting relativism — it eats itself.

    I’m not appealing to objective truth. I am appealing to logical persuasion, which you are free to reject, though it keeps things interesting if your rejection is also persuasive. I say that objectivity is a fantasy, because logically there is no such animal as an objective point of view. It’s a construct–a very useful one, no denying that. But to extend it to a standard to which all the facts of our lives are measured tends to encrust our thinking.

    Changing perspective is a psychological feature that has no relation to the actual physics/metaphysics of the world.

    Well, not no relation, surely! Right? Can’t have one without the other.

    Of course people who fall off skyscrapers go splat. AFAIK that’s a regularity that won’t change anytime soon, if ever. Perspective is not an infinitely mutable thing, and to say that we interpret information about the world is not to say we can interpret into anything we want. Perhaps someone out there wants to assert a non-splat skyscraper alternative (or elephants in your fridge), and we can all evaluate it, but I don’t.

    You don’t say why “semantic baggage” is bafflegab. If you want to make that case I think you would have to begin by arguing that Enlightenment rationalism was able to completely unshackle itself from the worldview that preceded it. If you don’t want to make that case, I’m going to be very tempted to attribute your rejection of “semantic baggage” to anti-intellectualism.

    First off, that question is silly — the universe is made of what it is made of (generally speaking, “things” at various levels that “interact” in various ways, including to make other “things”), and no amount of metaphysical speculation will change that (although I do note that you seem to think there is an absolute answer to that statement…)

    Putting aside for one moment the question of whether there is an absolute answer to that question, what are these things “made of”? Atomism, as a “truth proposition” has failed. There’s no “stuff” at the bottom of it all, just form. Our so-called elementary particles have none of the properties we ascribe to matter–mass, location, etc. The appearance of world as made of some-thing is just that, an appearance. That does not mean “anything goes” and we can teleport ourselves to wherever we like or turn straw into gold. It just means that atomism as a proposition about nature is no longer scientifically supportable, though it clearly persists as a metaphysics.

    Regarding the naturalistic fallacy, I don’t mean to suggest that believing in Darwinism requires us to advocate social Darwinism. Obviously most scientists do not do so (though there is an unresolved problem among the more deterministic biologists over what means might make it possible for humans to transcend the forces that drive biological Darwinism, in their social affairs. Memetics doesn’t cut it.)

    Having said that, there is a relationship between our metaphysical (not physical) concepts about the natural world, and our concepts about the moral world. Animal experimentation is ethically permissible in our culture because animals are considered as separate from us. That seems obvious, right? After all, rabbits and monkeys and fruit flies don’t exist inside us, but outside, and our skins present a convenient boundary to make this distinction. But there are other metaphysical foundations that quite literally consider all beings to be the same; not just ethically connected, but actually the same entity. Consequentially, people of these cultures tend to treat (on their best days) their entire environment with reverence. (I’m not arguing that’s better than our way, at the moment, just trying to contrast some of the more unexamined aspects of our thought.)

    Part of the reason why we see the world as a series of separate objects goes back to the desert Abrahamic beliefs of a few millennia ago. Remember that all of the great names of the scientific revolution up until the 19th century–Copernicus, Newton, Boyle, Bacon, Harvey, Descartes, Galileo, among others did not reject theism, and for most of them their scientific work was done in a way that was deeply integrated in their religious belief. So we should not be surprised that the model they helped shape shared many of the features of the Judeo-Christian metaphysics, in which the world was essentially a construction, ruled by a boss. Over time that construction was construed as automatic, following laws, which made Deism, and ultimately atheism possible. But the notion of nature as essentially an inert passive media obeying unchangeable laws owes a lot to desert monotheism, though the gods have long since died away.

    By contrast, Chinese and Indian metaphysics (before colonialization) did not employ a metaphor of construction, or of the authority structure of a boss. Chinese metaphysics supposed a spontaneous order, arising from itself, and Indian metaphysics suggested an enormous self deception, where the godhead plays or dreams the phenomenon we know as the universe, essentially for self-entertainment.

    We could also talk about tribal animism, pre-Christian paganism in Europe, and others, but I hope by now you are seeing the point I am trying to make: that Enlightment rationalism and the modern materialist worldview has a history, and did not spring up ab novo, clearing the deck so that we could finally see reality as it is.

    I’ve gone on enough. If what I’m arguing is still opaque to you, then perhaps we’re not ready to be communicating about this. Let me know.

  46. #46 Tulse
    March 16, 2008

    I never said that anyone was advocating rationality as the only virtue, just that it was often held as the supreme virtue, as I think you do here.

    I think that consistency and logical thought are virtues, and that in the case when we make claims about the physical world, evidence and reason should be the arbiters, so if that means I hold rationality as “the supreme virtue”, then guilty as charged. However, I don’t see how one can even debate these issues if one does not similarly hold rationality as the supreme virtue, since surely what we are engaging in is rational debate (you aren’t, for example, trying to convince me by physical violence, or by subterfuge, or by sheer political power, but presumably by rational argument). Again, I don’t see how a denial of rationality and objective truth can be anything but self-undermining.

    Perspective is not an infinitely mutable thing, and to say that we interpret information about the world is not to say we can interpret into anything we want. Perhaps someone out there wants to assert a non-splat skyscraper alternative (or elephants in your fridge), and we can all evaluate it, but I don’t.

    Right, so you agree that the religious belief that the world is 6000 years old is not an interpretation that is supportable? That is really all I need for the position I’m advocating.

    You don’t say why “semantic baggage” is bafflegab.

    Because in the context of the claims I was evaluating, such made no difference. “Semantic baggage” has no impact on the truth of whether humans evolved from other species or not. Do you argue otherwise?

    atomism as a proposition about nature is no longer scientifically supportable, though it clearly persists as a metaphysics.

    You place a lot of import on metaphysics, whereas my concern is with physics itself. Whether the world is atomistic or not is, as you seem to acknowledge, a matter of scientific understanding (although you here seem to place more faith in science and rationality than you do elsewhere). I frankly don’t think that metaphysics is relevant to the issues I am interested in pursuing here (although I don’t think that metaphysics is itself a meaningless domain).

    there is a relationship between our metaphysical (not physical) concepts about the natural world, and our concepts about the moral world

    And that is a matter for our psychology, and not for our metaphysics. In other words, the world is as it is, and considerations about how that impacts on our psychology are not considerations in that.

    You outline various ways that we could view other organisms, but don’t argue a) whether those views are actually correct or not, and more importantly b) why those views should have any relation at all to ethics. Again, linking metaphysics with ethics to me smacks of the naturalistic fallacy, and is just silly. It’s also demonstrably false that this is the way we reason about ethics, since it is not only the case that “rabbits and monkeys and fruit flies don’t exist inside us”, but it is also true that other people don’t as well, yet we seem to include (at least some of) them in our ethical ambit.

    I hope by now you are seeing the point I am trying to make: that Enlightment rationalism and the modern materialist worldview has a history, and did not spring up ab novo, clearing the deck so that we could finally see reality as it is.

    And yet those worldviews that thought disease was caused by possession of evil spirits were less successful at treating disease than those that thought they were caused biologically. Again, as you seem to acknowledge above, some worldviews simply work better than others (e.g., those that recognize falls from skyscrapers will cause you to splat on the pavement). All I am arguing that is that, when it comes to the physical world, rationality is the worldview that tends to work best. That is not to say that all human questions can be resolved solely through rationality. But it is to say that worldviews that do not privilege rationality when discussing the physical universe, such as many religions, simply will not reflect that universe as accurately. And that is all I am claiming.

  47. #47 Chris Schoen
    March 16, 2008

    Tulse,

    I’m going to reply to your comments on both threads here.

    First, on the question of self-refuting. Before I answer I want to note that you seem to be veering toward a scorched earth policy. Whether or not my argument is self-refuting doesn’t relieve your argument from the illogical burden of asserting a true objectivity.

    I have not phrased my argument in the syllogistic terms you suggest, where “relativism is objectively true,” because as you point out, that would be paradoxical. I appeal instead to the Socratic, or rhetorical, question, “what exists that has no relation to anything?” I think it follows from that relations–context, perspective–are something we need to take into account, whatever the subject.

    I other words I don’t claim that “objectivity is objectively false” but rather that it is illusionary, a figment of our language. “Not even wrong” as the kids say these days. In our conversation it has not been I who has couched things in terms of formal logic. This is because formal logic, though immensely valuable and sublime, is nevertheless a closed system, and no closed system can speak about itself. The point is not to tear down rationalism, but to recall that it has confines.

    On the other thread, you wrote:

    “Semantic baggage” has no impact on the truth of whether humans evolved from other species or not. Do you argue otherwise?

    Of course I do. While I agree that humans evolved from other species, that doesn’t mean that words like ‘evolve’ and ‘species’ don’t have a history that affects what we mean when we say that.

    I don’t have much fruitful to say about this specific example (though what a species “is” is something that is presently under discussion by philosophers of science). But to return to my earlier example of atoms, what do we mean by atoms? I argue that this is an important question, because there is no mental firewall that separates our thinking about physics and metaphysics. Literally, an atom is an indivisible bit of matter, with specific properties you can trace through the history of atomistic thought back to the Greeks. The most important aspects of (literal) atoms is that they are hard, impenetrable, indestructible, passive, and isolate.

    We now know that what we have been calling atoms all this time actually have none of these properties. They are essentially constellations of form whose constituent parts have nothing we could call substance. In physics, atomism has been refuted. Nevertheless, the way we think about the world accords much more with the earlier model, because we have not revised our metaphysics. This is what I mean by semantic baggage, and the impact is real even in the sciences, because the kinds of questions being asked in the social and life sciences still arise from the earlier causal, material picture of the world.

  48. #48 Tulse
    March 16, 2008

    I don’t claim that “objectivity is objectively false” but rather that it is illusionary, a figment of our language. “Not even wrong” as the kids say these days.

    That’s a nice turn of phrase the kids have, although ironically it was originally said by a physicist. And frankly I’m not sure that a nice turn of phrase gets you out of the dilemma I’ve suggested, since just by asserting that there is “illusion”, that something is “not even wrong”, it is implied that there are things that are “real” and “right” (or at least things that do have truth values). If not, if there is nothing but illusion and no truth values, then again, there is nothing to attack objectivity on, since it is presumably just as legitimate as any other view.

    In any case, I don’t think I need to give a foundational account of objectivity in order to get to my primary goal, which is a demonstration that rationality as usually practiced, however lacking in philosophical justification you might find it to be, works. Again, it is objectively true (however philosophically unjustified) that a fall from the Sears Tower will kill you, and no amount of semantic baggage will change that. That is all I need, as I see it, to argue against non-rational belief, at least as regards the physical world.

    While I agree that humans evolved from other species, that doesn’t mean that words like ‘evolve’ and ‘species’ don’t have a history that affects what we mean when we say that.

    But that history itself has no impact on the question at hand (and neither do the completely within-science debates about how best to define a species). Just because scientific concepts may be fuzzy doesn’t mean that anything goes. “Humans evolved from other species” is a more accurate reflection of the world than “God created people 6000 years ago completely separately from other creatures”, and none of the minor definitional issues you raise would change that.

    In physics, atomism has been refuted. Nevertheless, the way we think about the world accords much more with the earlier model, because we have not revised our metaphysics. This is what I mean by semantic baggage, and the impact is real even in the sciences, because the kinds of questions being asked in the social and life sciences still arise from the earlier causal, material picture of the world.

    Right, but as I have insisted several times, that is a matter of personal human psychology, and not a matter of science, or even metaphysics. Again, it looks to me as if you’re courting the naturalistic fallacy. If our own psychology is still stuck using an outdated metaphysics, that is not the fault of metaphysics. More to the point, there is no justification to connect metaphysics to our view of social and life sciences. The metaphysics you talk about is indeed metaphysics, and has nothing to say about higher orders of organization of the universe, or the phenomena we see in the social and life sciences.

  49. #49 Chris Schoen
    March 16, 2008

    Tulse,

    Yes, “illusion” implies that there is a reality that is not illusory. I’m afraid I am at the limit of what our language can express, which refers back directly to my point. I’m of the belief that all language is ultimately metaphorical. If you know a way out of this conundrum, I hope you’ll share it with me.

    I take from the nature of your argument that you agree with me, because you don’t appeal to absolutes, but to a utilitarian “success.” I don’t wish to be flip, but: some success! We have ravaged this planet. I am not coming down against medical advances and lifespan extension, but in the scheme of things I don’t see how a coherent quality of life argument can be made in light of our present level of ecological devastation and the general poorness of quality of life for vast numbers of humans living today. What are your metrics?

    The “success” you point to refers, as far as I can tell, to predictability, not to quality of life, which depends not just upon present quantifiables such as life span and freedom from disease, but also a sustainable order, which rationality alone, to my mind, seems inequipped to deal with. If you have studied other cultures, I’m sure you are aware that when it comes to meaningfulness, we have nothing on many cultures whose technological achievements we have long ago dwarfed. The ancient Greeks are a good case study, but there are many more.

    Just because scientific concepts may be fuzzy doesn’t mean that anything goes.

    And I have stated, more than once, that I don’t believe “anything goes.” As I wrote earlier, who argues that a fall from the Sears Tower is deadly? Neither do I defend the YEC assertion of the age of the earth.

    as I have insisted several times, that is a matter of personal human psychology, and not a matter of science, or even metaphysics.

    You have. But insistence is not argument. How do you delineate between psychology and metaphysics? Where do you propose that metaphysics comes from if not a psychological disposition? We have already discussed how it can’t be rationally derived.

    I have argued that what we consider as facts arise as possibilities determined by predispositions we call metaphysics. You have not argued against this, so I am unclear about what your basis might be for a firewall between facts and metaphysics.

    Why do you argue that the history of language and its relations have no impact on scientific notions such as species? Or atoms? You make a number of claims here about what doesn’t obtain from metaphysics, but what is your argument? On what grounds shouldn’t our conceptions of things generally impact our conceptions of things specifically?

  50. #50 Tulse
    March 17, 2008

    I’m of the belief that all language is ultimately metaphorical.

    How is that even possible? If all language is literally metaphorical, then there is nothing to ground the metaphors, and you end up with no actual reference. Do you really mean metaphorical? As in “Love is a rose”? Because if that’s true, then what’s a rose? “A rose is an angel’s kiss”? If language is purely metaphorical, then “angels” and “kisses” would also be defined via metaphorical reference, and round and round it goes — nothing ends up being grounded, and your semantic system only has, at best, coherence, but no actual reference to the real world.

    Saying that objectivity is an “illusion” and “all language is metaphorical” seems like just so much loose talk to me. Without actually providing clear arguments for these claims, they appear as warm and fuzzy handwaving.

    some success! We have ravaged this planet.

    That is a profound conflation of the issues under discussion. Again you seem to be confusing what we know in the scientific realm with what we do with technology (which should not be conflated with science) in the socio-political realm. Those things are completely separate. Science may make certain social, cultural, and political acts possible, or more (or less) effective, but it is certainly not the fault of science itself if the acts chosen are less than ideal. And, much more importantly, just because we don’t like how scientific knowledge is used does not mean such knowledge isn’t true, which, to remind you, is the issue under discussion. Indeed, I would think that the fact that science has, according to you, been so effective in its destructive force would actually indicate that it is a very effective model of reality, and thus is more “true” than a model that posits supernatural entities.

    The “success” you point to refers, as far as I can tell, to predictability, not to quality of life

    Yes, absolutely, precisely, definitely…I’m not sure how I can be clearer on this point. “Quality of life” has absolutely nothing to do with whether science discovers truths about the world. An evil totalitarian government could have the world’s most advanced research program, and an egalitarian culture could reject technology, and I have no doubt that the citizens of the latter could be happier and more fulfilled than the citizens of the former. But that says nothing about the truth value of the scientific claims that both societies might make. Debating the relatively societal utility of science is indeed an interesting topic, but it is far afield from how this discussion started, which is whether rationality produces true observations of the world (or at least whether it does a better job than religion).

    I have argued that what we consider as facts arise as possibilities determined by predispositions we call metaphysics.

    Sure, the “context of discovery” for scientific knowledge may be affected by our individual metaphysical commitments. But that is separate from how the knowledge gets justified (the “context of justification”). You yourself have pointed out that even though individuals might have a naive atomistic metaphysics, our actual physics does not use this metaphysical framework. I don’t see how this is even possible if it is actually the case that our metaphysics fully determines our worldview.

    Why do you argue that the history of language and its relations have no impact on scientific notions such as species?

    I don’t argue such — you’ve confusing several things here. First off, the history of language is not the same as metaphysics. Second, language can indeed impact on our scientific notions, as many folks have argued, but that impact is blunted, if not completely erased, when our notions come up against reality, as your example of quantum physics and the rejection of naive atomism makes abundantly clear (and ditto for our notion of species).

    I’ve enjoyed wrestling with these issues with you, but I really get the sense at this point that at best we are talking past each other. I’m not sure it is all that fruitful to continue our back-and-forth, especially since I get the feeling we’re the only ones here really interested.

  51. #51 Chris Schoen
    March 17, 2008

    Well, Tulse, I wish I’d done a better job explicating these ideas. I hate failing to reach an understanding.

    I’m noticing a sort of attenuation in your argument: when I argue against the “truth” value of science, you gather together the pragmatism defense: that science is successful. When I argue against the success-value of science, you return back to the affirmation of science’s truth. Our conversation would go easier if you could pick a position and stick to it for a round or two.

    I continue to maintain that what we call facts emerge out of and are conditioned by mythic, imaginative, or metaphysical frames of mind. I’ll have to find a new tack to argue it, I suppose, since I apparently haven’t been clear. It’s true, I agree, that the facts of science themselves don’t dictate what our moral choices are. But if we neglect to look at the relationship between factual and metaphysical beliefs, we shut out an enormous wealth of possible choices we can make.

    In the case of the environment, for example, one of the reasons our planet is in the state it is in is because of our historical attitudes about nature. Re-read the prominent writers of the scientific revolution (Bacon in particular), and you will find very explicit attributions of nature as feminine, and in need of being “conquered” and “subdued” by the masculine hand of science. Even in our present day science is touted as the best way to “control” nature. Clearly this is not a tenable attitude, though we may have come to this realization too late.

    Consider, too, how respectable it is to use harsh, cruel, or hostile metaphors in regard to nature, and how we expose ourselves to ridicule if we attempt to use respectful or benevolent ones. Why would that be? Again, the tacit beleif that we are at war with nature is borne out in the way we have treated the natural world over the last five centuries.

    We have to face the fact that modern scientific education instills an enormous amount of unacknowledged content that is deeply intertwined with the way we look at the world and our relationship to it.

    Returning back to atomism, I was not arguing that the development of quantum physics had erased or even blunted the metaphysical understanding that we inherited from the atomists of the scientific revolution. Even though physicists know that atomism is no longer tenable, the repercussions have not been felt by the culture at large, which is, for the most part, still operating under the old frames. That includes many scientists working outside particle physics, and it’s especially bad in the life sciences. Consider the derision the scientific community (yes, an over-generalization) directs towards attempts to re-infuse new scientific models back into our general understanding. Without specifically defending a book like the Tao of Physics, which I haven’t read in years, we can still ask if it’s beneficial to be so unwelcoming to an attempt to update our common sense about the world based on what we observe in the lab?

    I’ve written a lot; let me just respond to your question about metaphor and language. You write:

    If language is purely metaphorical, then “angels” and “kisses” would also be defined via metaphorical reference, and round and round it goes — nothing ends up being grounded, and your semantic system only has, at best, coherence, but no actual reference to the real world.

    I disagree that at best such a semantic system has coherence and not reference. What it does not have is literal correspondence, which I think is easy enough to demonstrate. But reference is real enough. We’re not shut up inside fleshly prisons; we do interact with something that is not ourselves. Describing the world is relational, a negotiation between observer and observed, but it is not solipsistic.

  52. #52 Sela
    March 18, 2008

    When I argue against the success-value of science, you return back to the affirmation of science’s truth.

    Is that what’s happening? Because I think Tulse is defining both “success” and “truth” as reliability: science is true and successful because it produces a model of the world that provides reliable, trustworthy data. You, Chris Schoen, started using an alternate definition of “success” as humanitarian success. But that’s not really relevant to what was being discussed, is it? The topic of discussion was science’s efficacy in providing a model of reality–not whether the information provided by that model was used for good or for ill. I don’t think Tulse or anyone but you defined “success” in utilitarian, humanitarian terms.

  53. #53 Tulse
    March 20, 2008

    Chris, I appreciate your honest attempt to bridge the gaps between our understanding. I’m really not certain if they are in fact bridgeable, but since you have made a game effort, I will respond in kind.

    As Sela suggests, I see “success” in science as intimately connected with “truth” — success is the way we determine truth in science. So I don’t see this as moving the goalposts at all, just as a way of restating things that might be more clear, especially since “truth” is such an abstract and notoriously slippery concept. But for science, as Sela rightly notes, success is purely about predictability and reliability, and not whether it helps to organize society in a manner that we would like.

    It’s true, I agree, that the facts of science themselves don’t dictate what our moral choices are. But if we neglect to look at the relationship between factual and metaphysical beliefs, we shut out an enormous wealth of possible choices we can make.

    I don’t disagree with the last statement, I just disagree that it is a problem of the practice of science, rather than individual psychology. As I see it (and as you seem to often agree about basic facts), the world simply is what it is. Science is about determining what precisely that “is” is, in as “true” a way as possible. Now it may very well be that science has, through the nature of human sociology, psychology, and politics, ramifications on how we order our social lives. But that really has nothing to do with science qua science.

    Re-read the prominent writers of the scientific revolution (Bacon in particular), and you will find very explicit attributions of nature as feminine, and in need of being “conquered” and “subdued” by the masculine hand of science.

    That’s true, but so what? What you are arguing about the is the attitudes of scientists, and not the practice of science. (If instead feminist scientists had emphasized the inclusive, embracing nature of science, would you think they are likewise shutting out possibilities?) Scientists are humans, and certainly their attitudes and biases get reflected in their work, just as it does in the case of any intellectual endeavour (do you think literary critics somehow avoid their own prejudices in their analyses?). But what you are missing is that such biases in science hinder access to the truth — they are not part of science itself. Nature is not feminine, or masculine, or any other human trait. Nature simply is. The attitudes you cite make one a poorer scientist. In its ideal form, the practice of science would avoid such biases — that it doesn’t says a lot about our humanity, but nothing about whether science itself is the best way (even when not ideally practiced) to uncover how the physical world works.

    I disagree that at best such a semantic system has coherence and not reference. What it does not have is literal correspondence, which I think is easy enough to demonstrate. But reference is real enough.

    If all language is literally metaphorical (if that is not an oxymoron), then there really is no reference. Without some sort of literal correspondence to ground the metaphors, there is no reference — if we have no literal conception of “red” and “roses”, how can “love is a red rose” have reference?

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