Pharyngula

Miscellaneous Dawkinsiana

I sat down and watched both episodes of Dawkins’ series, The Root of All Evil? this weekend (because I can!), and I have to say…I liked it very much. I’ve already commented on the first episode, and if you want to know what’s in the second, Dawkins himself has an editorial that summarizes the main points: the pattern of indoctrination of children, the kneejerk rejection of honest criticism, the spreading corruption of education by dogma. It was marvelous to see it all laid out lucidly, in a tidy 50 minute spot. (Hmmm, just the right length that if I wanted to “infuse religion in student learning”, it would fit perfectly in a lecture hour…)

I’ve heard a few complaints about the show. Some point out that Ted Haggard and that Muslim bucket o’ hate on the first episode aren’t really representative of the religious; I have to disagree. They are common enough that they represent many millions of assertive, politically active religious people, and Haggard is regarded as a leader by a large community—Dawkins did not seek out outré Theodore Kaczynski types and prop them up to stand for a majority that detests them. In the second episode, we also meet some other religious types who aren’t as pathologically vile as the fellows in the first, but are more foolishly ignorant—and that’s appropriate to the message that the religious are not evil, but are victims of a pernicious cultural atmosphere that perpetuates ignorance.

I’ve also heard the show dismissed as “preaching to the converted”…which I think is roughly 180° misdirected. If I have any complaints, it is that I am not the audience for the show—what he said was nothing I haven’t thought myself for years. The target audience is actually that great mass of people out there who have never heard a peep of that great body of secular criticism of religion. Seriously, most Americans can go through their lives hearing nothing but repetitive paeans of praise for the virtues of religious life; The Root of All Evil? is one of those too-rare attempts to reach out to the uninformed and explain the freethinker’s argument against religion (unfortunately, the devout seem to be too enraptured with this ‘faith’ nonsense to understand—we just need to repeat our message loudly and with more variations, I hope, and it will sink in). I think it is also prompting some interesting discussion among infamous atheists, so the show is doing its job…don’t judge it by the thickheadedness of the blinkered god-botherers.

I hope the show picks up a sponsor willing to show it here in the states. The hue and cry it would elicit would be extremely entertaining, and I’m sure it would get tremendous amounts of publicity, denunciations, shouts of “Heresy!”, etc., etc., etc. But it would also expose a great many people to a point of view that has been closed off to them.

Oh, and by the way, Dawkins has a diary online. It’s not clear whether this is a one-shot deal or not, and it has a rather stream-of-consciousness feel to it. I was thinking that if it were broken up into a couple of entries, it would look just like a weblog. Somebody get Dawkins a blog, quick! Hey, Seed Media, have you considered approaching Richard Dawkins to see if he’d like some space here?

Comments

  1. #1 Mary Kay
    January 30, 2006

    But it would also expose a great many people to a point of view that has been closed off to them.

    Sadly, no. Their pastors would tell them it was evil and they would never watch. I speak with some knowledge having grown up in the Bible Belt and having most of my relatives still living there…

    MKK

  2. #2 Steve LaBonne
    January 30, 2006

    Obviously most of the fundies are unreachable (though it’s not all that uncommon for their kids to see the light) but I think PZ’s point has some validity for the “mushy middle”, the huge number of folks who have some vague attachment to the religion they grew up in but have never really thought much about it because, well, everybody has some religion, except those evil green pointy-eared atheists. There might be some hope of introducing a few of those to a new world.

  3. #3 fwiffo
    January 30, 2006

    I also saw both episodes this weekend and do have one complaint – Dawkins seemed to let himself get flustered when talking to the megachurch guy to the point where he let himself get bullied. He was spouting the same old nonsense that we’ve all heard a thousand times about “the eye spontaneously forming itself,” etc. and Dawkins got all flabbergasted like he’d never heard that one before.

    I mean, seriously, what sort of things did he expect him to say? Careful, rational arguments that demonstrate a real understanding of biology?

    I’m not saying he shouldn’t be fiercely critical – just that if he had kept his cool, the fundie guy would have been the one sounding defensive and short tempered.

  4. #4 Patrick
    January 30, 2006

    I downloaded both episodes (I know, bad me, but I had to see it, if Dawkins wishes, I’ll send him the 4 bucks it would it have cost to get it off itunes).

    I thought the show was done really well. I think it was aimed at the religios, the people that need to hear it. Whether it will get through to them, I dunno. I think it might. They’ll get that rotten feeling in their gut b/c the only response they can generate is a quick emotional one equivelent, “uh uh, you’re wrong…”

    As the converted, it was great to hear the arguments well put and on TV where anyone can watch. It was a great feeling to see my viewpoint in the mass media.

    To the point about the religios whackos (Haggard and the lunatic muslim from NY), I agree with PZ, those guys represent a large population of people. Being an hour Colorado Springs, I know that Haggard speaks for more than he doesn’t down there. That place is insane. It’s the home of Focus on the Family and a whole host of similar bigotted organizations.

    I hope this gets shown in the US. I wonder what channel would have the balls to show it? It could set off a storm here like no episode of the Sopranos or Ellen kiss ever could…

  5. #5 SA
    January 30, 2006

    Dawkins’ programme was a polemic. It was fine as far as polemics go, and indeed nice to see the arguments against religion laid out for once, but I’d like to see another programme that addresses the concerns of some of his critics who said that he wasn’t approaching the issue in the scientific way. They’re right, he wasn’t, but he didn’t have to for a polemic.

    I’d like to see him approach seriously the issue that there are some top scientists who are religious. I’m a researcher (I’m also an atheist, and not fond of religion) and there are some people in my field who are both AMAZINGLY intelligent, highly logical, and in their fields not just demanding of evidence, they need more, they need proof, and yet they are Christians, and it just blows my mind how that can be so?!

    Also there’s scope for programmes that set out to convince, not entrench sides with a polemic. Where’s the programmes that show us why the earth is so old? Where’s the programmes that show us how amazing evolution is and how/why/when it happens? There are some amazing visuals to be had with those topics, it surely can’t make bad TV. Yet I have to find out about this stuff from books alone? (ok you guessed it my science background is not in biology or geology 🙂 )

  6. #6 Ed Darrell
    January 30, 2006

    Howls of protest?

    You mean, showing these videos would be teaching some sort of controversy?

    If the school officials dictate that “controversy be taught,” they won’t expect the Dawkins show. But it would fit, in some cases. Oh, my.

  7. #7 Mark Paris
    January 30, 2006

    SA, it’s called compartmentalization. A lot of people do not examine their religious beliefs because they know that those beliefs cannot stand the light of reason. I have said that people believe what they have to believe; even scientists can fear the end of personality and memory that death brings. Even scientists can find it hard to accept that they will never see a dead loved one again. That kind of belief is purely emotional. It has nothing to do with rationality.

  8. #8 malcolm
    January 30, 2006

    For those of us who dream of convincing those parasitized by religious memes about the folly of their ways, depressing news comes from a study about to be presented to the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology by Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. It shows that political partisans on both sides of the political spectrum do not use logic to arrive at conclusions. Presumably this carries over to any kind of partisan.
    “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones… None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged.”
    I got this from http://msnbc.msn.com/id/11009379/

  9. #9 squeaky
    January 30, 2006

    SA–I agree–it would be interesting for Dawkins to address honest to goodness scientists “who are both AMAZINGLY intelligent, highly logical, and in their fields not just demanding of evidence, they need more, they need proof, and yet they are Christians” reconcile their faith with science.

    I am sure that in some cases Mark Paris is correct–“it’s called compartmentalization.” And this is in a couple of senses: In one sense, it is compartmentalized such that they put faith in one box and science in another box, and never ever mix the contents of the boxes. In another sense, they compartmentalize when their branch of science doesn’t deal with evolution or the age of the earth.

    However, in another sense, to say “it’s called compartmentalization” is also a sweeping generalization.

    There truly do exist Christians who have done the kind of thought and investigation into science and into their faith and have come out with science and faith reconciled. Kenneth Miller’s “Finding Darwin’s God” is a good example. The recent PBS series on Evolution had a nicely done episode of science vs. evolution, particularly how geology professors and geology majors at Wheaton College deal with the issue. Hugh Ross reconciles age of the Earth issues quite well (although most here would disagree with his take on evolution…) So they DO exist!

    I am disappointed that Dawkins chose Ted Haggard as the representative of evangelical Christians. Finding extremes of fundamentalism as an argument against religion strikes me as stacking the deck.

  10. #10 Glen Davidson
    January 30, 2006

    Well I can’t imagine that Dawkins’ shows were any worse than, say, religious programming, political programming, or for that matter, most any TV program (other than the few good science programs). Otoh, I can’t really imagine what anyone thinks they’re going to do taking the merely negative position on just about anything, including religion. It’s good for a jolt at best, and any real work toward increasing secularism is going to have to take other tacks.

    Imagine, for instance, that we fought ID and creationism simply on philosophical grounds, bringing up the solid and incontrovertible fact that these “hypotheses” have no positive evidence for them which means that they say nothing. This would work among some scientists and some philosophers, and it will do almost nothing among the populace at large. What is more, the scientists and philosophers who agree (as they did with Hume prior to Darwin) are already in the choir, and presumably don’t need revivalist preaching. The positive claims made by IDists in the past and present trump simple negative attacks on ID, something that should be remembered when we fight “intelligent design” (that is to say, the positive evidence for evolution needs to be brought out more than it is).

    Only a good positive position will ever have much impact, as indeed evolution does, no matter how tenuous its grip on the American public is (likely it would be more effective if it related to what people do and know, but unfortunately it is not directly relevant to the thinking of most people). That is to say, secularism can probably make inroads against religion, but it has to put forth its strengths and abilities for providing good solid answers to questions and human needs, and not use its strengths to “fight religion” (at least not for the most part).

    It is not particularly attractive in the latter role (why would one wish Santa Claus to go away? And don’t tell me about the vengeful God, He’s not the one people want to have around), as all it really does is to tell people that they are wrong. Get people to subscribe to the methods and language of secularism and you are no longer telling them that they are wrong, you just point out where they are right to use empiricism and skepticism in their lives, and suggest that they extend this to questions of God.

    What is more, this is not going to work with any number of people no matter what. We have to recognize this fact. Besides that, for many in our society the power of secular methods is not particularly helpful to them in any direct way. In Animal Farm Orwell noted that the crows (preachers) came back when it was clear that the ruling pigs weren’t giving much of a share to the other animals. This could as easily apply within a capitalist society where little is given to many people, other than the hopes peddled by the crows. That Orwell was overly simplistic in his tale of the crows doesn’t change the fact that he almost certainly was partly correct about the return of the crows in communist societies.

    Displacing religion was long the goal of past secularists. Marx had religion fading away, and didn’t really trouble much with trying to “counter religion”. What is this “countering religion” anyway? How does one argue against beliefs which are already held without evidence (yes, I know that there are “evidences” held out to many people, but these are generally quite unconvincing to anyone who knows how to deal with evidence)? No, you either have to give people something better, or what’s the point of telling them to accept aporia into their lives?

    Even Nietzsche, no matter how harsh he was toward religion, really didn’t attempt to argue against religion in his writings. Rather he used psychology, sociology (embryonic sociology, anyway), history, and philosophy, to explain the origins of religions, particularly Xianity (not that he was always right, however much of his critique remains sound). This again is displacement of the inadequacies of religion, not merely telling people that their worldviews are wrong (they have access to other worldviews?). Unfortunately for many people, though, explanation of religion such as we find in Nietzsche are really not accessible to their understanding, yet one should be able to reach a many by educating them, as well as by simplifying the secular explanations of religion.

    I have mentioned the following before on Pharyngula, and I think it’s worth repeating again. Language in our society has not been critiqued and stripped of its magical meanings in the same way as it has in continental Europe (partly this is because modern English is more varied, problematic, and with less precise than other European languages in normal speech and writing, yet the metaphysical magic that remains in English has thereby escaped much criticism). To paraphrase Nietzsche, we have not gotten rid of God because we still believe in grammer. The very language we use, often even when discussing evolution, typically is teleological and suggestive of some kind of designer existing behind everything. Behe exploits this fact by saying that we are made up of “machines”, which to most people already suggests “designer”.

    Naturally we respond by noting that when we say “machines” in biology we don’t mean anything other than that functional objects exist within bodies. I would add further that we speak of “machines” because there is nothing that categorically sets off functional evolved biological objects from functional “designed” objects created by humans and operating in an organism. The very fact that we could make biological machines, much as evolution can, shows that there is nothing that automatically sets off “intelligently designed” objects from evolved objects, that vitalism is dead, and we may either copy biology as much as we want, or even introduce novelties into organisms.

    Behe is oblivious that scientific usage “machine” for all functional objects exists precisely because there is no categorical difference between design and evolution (though there are numerous practical differences). Instead he focuses on the teleological aspect of the term “machines”, and he uses this to persuade others who only know the teleological meanings built into our language.

    Of course it works. Our language actually evolved during the understanding that God (or the gods) warrants the meaning of language, and the creationist/theological beliefs of many people simply agrees with the form of our language. The “purpose” of body parts is what concerns many people (we seem to be born to think in terms of purpose, however our language prolongs this stage beyond what is necessary), “why” things are as they are is what people wish to know, and the “reasons” that we are “built the way we are” become the questions people ask. We have conceptually detoxified the languages of science and of philosophy (well, only partly in philosophy) in our own usage of scientific language, but this has not happened in the schools and in the discourse of the public at large, so that many IDCists and creationists don’t even understand how we can think of biological purpose as having been fulfilled by “accident” (and yes, accident can apply to many of the particulars, and more properly to the whole).

    God remains built into our language. This is not so much the Biblical God as the Platonic God who gives telos to organisms and to their parts. Dawkins is going against the linguistic understandings of people, apparently without really even noticing how difficult it is to root out the one “religion meme” from the constellation of “memes” supporting God in our language (I hate the “meme” concept, as it seems a sledge hammer among more nuanced understandings of language and conception, nevertheless it seems appropriate to use “meme” terminology here).

    Nietzsche noticed that God was not fading away when it seemed that such a dead, despiritualized God really ought to go away. Nietzsche was the one who recognized that this was due to the metaphysics written into our language (probably he wasn’t the first to recognize this, still he appears to have considered it properly into philosophy, perhaps the first to do this), and that railing against God and religion wasn’t going to change things much, even if language-bound people turned into atheists (Nietzsche’s famous madman faults run-of-the-mill atheists, after all).

    All of Dawkins complaints about religion are not going to have much effect, particularly since he seems not to recognize the dangers that remain within our metaphysical language no matter how irreligious people become. Secularization has to occur through means other than railing against religion. In fact it may not be bad if Dawkins wishes to fault religion like he does (the jolt, anyhow), as long as most secularists don’t follow his lead. The latter must instead promote the positive aspects of secularism, notably its ability to conceptually remove teleology from language even as its teleological form remains.

    English still asks for purpose and reason for what is simply found in nature. IDists supply “purpose and reason” to answer this “question”, and somehow the mystery of why religion maintains its hold on so many people is still not resolved on our side. Dawkins thinks he can simply use the values of science to show how inadequate religion is, when science cannot answer the questions that exist within the very fabric of our language (until our language is reinterpreted, that is). So long as the fight remains as ill-informed as it is at preset, expect religion to continue to do well, while we have to continually fight even for the small spaces within school in which evidence can be presented without the overt intrusion of religion.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  11. #11 george cauldron
    January 30, 2006

    modern English is more varied, problematic, and with less precise than other European languages in normal speech and writing,

    What’s your evidence for this?

  12. #12 Caledonian
    January 30, 2006

    The spelling rules for English are absolutely horrible, particularly as it’s absorbed words from other European languages, often in their original form. Massive inconsistencies everywhere you look, whole complexes of letters that are silent, or produce a sound that can’t be derived from the phonetic values of the individual symbols.

    What shall we compare? English to German? German is extremely predictable and standardized. To French? Spanish?

    Celtic’s transliteration into the Roman alphabet is even worse than English, but it’s a relatively obscure tongue.

  13. #13 Glen Davidson
    January 30, 2006

    The evidence is to be found in the study of language, naturally. Caledonian mentioned what tips us off about the odd melange, yet very rich in possibilities, that the English language is.

    There is more to it than that, however. France and much of the Continent remained Catholic, while England went Protestant and more inclined to the empirical, for several centuries prior to French efforts to rid themselves of the clutches of metaphysics in its language. I’m not altogether sure just how the latter went, but French philosophy (never mind how bad it has been in many instances) took head-on the religious, metaphysics of language, and the God-assumptions permeating their society in a way that has never happened in Anglo-American society.

    But the Catholics had a more detached view of religion anyhow, with the community taking care of religion much more than we find in Protestant society. So I think the French were not as tied to literalism and language as Ango-Americans have been, so that God and teleology could collapse more readily than in the more literal-minded English-style societies. God may have vouch-safed the meaning of words in France, but that left metaphysics more in the heavens, while metaphysics ground into the language of the English, even though the English could not be unaware of the problems of their language, so dealt with the problems within a societal acceptance of the metaphysics of language.

    The only one I could think of who at least alludes to the differences between the French and English languages was this bit from Camille Paglia:

    I hear you. I do think post-structuralism had its place — in France. I do know about French culture, and I admire it. The French really did need deconstruction, but that style is not needed in Anglo-American literature. We have this phenomenal poetry that goes all the way back to Shakespeare and beyond, back to Chaucer, and thats not true deconstruction, this incredible line. What Im trying to do in my work is to open up the reader to the artwork. I want the artwork to retain its mystery. These are really my aims. I have a really 60s feeling for the magic of art, a magic hair-raising. I feel very akin to Robert Gravess book, he had this very strange book that came out…

    Found at:

    http://www.bookslut.com/features/2005_04_005030.php

    She does not, however, admit that English retains some of the metaphysics of language of which the French philosophers tried to rid their language (I believe to considerable effect, at least at the top end of their society). What she does is to point out that the French language did need deconstruction in a way that English does not. I largely agree with her (though I’m not sure anyone deserves Derrida, but at least he drove home the problems of language in a manner that Nietzsche had not done in France), and I think that America does not at all need deconstruction itself, but could certainly use the criticisms of language produced by Nietzsche and implied in Hume (the latter was English, and Nietzsche was consciously following British Empiricism in aspects of his philosophy).

    At least many educated French guard themselves from the teleological nature of their language, while this tends to be something that happens in English mostly in the specialties. One always runs into IDists and creationists who simply take for granted that explaining the purpose of organs and of organisms is the proper role of biology, and there is little reason for them to do this except that within both language and society teleology remains largely intact and unthreatened by the empirical point of view.

    Evidence is not required to demonstrate telos according to common usage of English, instead the notion of telos is that starting position, the default. Our own philosophical tradition has served us poorly in not challenging the assumptions existing in our language and society, and part of the reason is that we have learned how to deal with our particular language problems without first questioning the (reduced in comparison with older and less problematic languages, yet powerful) teleological strain within our language.

    Large portions of our society believes in grammar, and implicitly in the God needed to safeguard stand-alone meaning, and it is unlikely that fighting against religion will change this. More likely, we might be able to reduce religion if we could reduce the teleological force residing in our language. At least it would be well to note the problem, though it is still a question of what could be done about it.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  14. #14 Timothy Chase
    January 30, 2006

    Obviously most of the fundies are unreachable (though it’s not all that uncommon for their kids to see the light) but I think PZ’s point has some validity for the “mushy middle”, the huge number of folks who have some vague attachment to the religion they grew up in but have never really thought much about it because, well, everybody has some religion, except those evil green pointy-eared atheists. There might be some hope of introducing a few of those to a new world.

    Hey — just remember, without the fundies there never would have been any Trent Reznor or NIN!

    Honestly, at age thirteen, for me it was just the realization that someone (Einstein) didn’t believe in a personal god which was enough. I thought about it for perhaps a day or two, realized that I had no rational reason for my position, then decided that I didn’t believe in a personal god, either.

  15. #15 Ian B Gibson
    January 30, 2006

    Yeah, Ted Haggard is a Baptist, which is the second-largest (and the fastest growing) religious group in the US, after Catholicism. Hardly marginal. Let’s face it, any atheist TV show is going to get a ton of flack, no matter how moderate and restrained it is. We’re supposed to leave them to their dogmatic slumbers, you know..

  16. #16 Timothy Chase
    January 30, 2006

    malcolm quoted the following:

    “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones… None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged.”

    (see above)

    Part of the problem, I believe, is that complementary schismogenesis sets in — a very widespread phenomena in human behavior. People have a real tendency to define themselves in terms of who they are against rather than what they are for. They develop an “Us vs. Them”-type mentality through which they automatically view all issues, and tend to think that no “compromise” is possible on any issue. The extremism of one side will drive the other side to the opposite extreme, and then positive feedback sets in. This sort of thing happens even in technical philosophy — e.g., foundationalism vs. coherentialism being a particularly good recent example.

    But when it happens in politics, it can get especially bad. For one thing, both extreme sides will wish to reinforce their position that no kind of compromise is possible and will then attempt to eliminate those who see things differently. For example, French Algeria during the 1950s, or for something much more recent, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Oddly enough, when Yitzchak Rabin was assisinated by an extremist on “the Israeli side,” this pushed the Israelis further towards extremism rather than resulting in its repudiation.

  17. #17 miko
    January 31, 2006

    I would add further that we speak of “machines” because there is nothing that categorically sets off functional evolved biological objects from functional “designed” objects created by humans and operating in an organism.

    So what? I don’t use a different word for a “chicken” running down the road and one batter fried, but I can keep straight which one to eat. Or between a “channel” that conducts potassium and chloride ions and a “channel” on the TV or a “channel” between England and France. Do you think calling ATP synthase a “biochine” instead of a “machine” would change one person’s mind? Just because you use the same word doesn’t mean there is no distinction or difference in meaning.

    I am curious about this linguistic explanation for the tenacity of religious beliefs. Because at first glance it sounds like such silly shit to me that I feel I must be missing something… yeah, languages vary in terms of vocabularly size and (to a much lesser extent) grammatical complexity. But are you seriously suggesting that this in any way correlates to the prevalence of religious beliefs?

    I mean, maybe you could cherry pick examples of the U.S. and a few modern socialist European states with secular governments, but expand your sample to the rest of the world and my feeling is you’d get nothing. Millions of Canadians and Americans speak pretty much the same North American English as fundamentalists yet don’t seem to have any particular problem using it to express or understand non-supernatural or non-teleological concepts.

    Words don’t have built in meanings, they’re entirely conventional symbol systems. “Design” only implies “designer” if you’ve never been exposed to other usages or contrary examples, at which point the word ceases to have that connotation. “Beauty” doesn’t imply “beautifier” because we are comfortable considering it an innate quality. It requres no difficult mental or linguistic gymnastics to think the same way of design, structure, purpose, or function in a biological context. The problem is ignorance, not language.

    Belief in magical beings influences the way you use and understand language I’m sure; I doubt very much that language influences how likely you are to believe in magical beings.

  18. #18 Torris
    January 31, 2006

    I would love to see the Dawkins show broadcast on television in the United States. Does anyone have any ideas of how we can get it shown? Who would we need to contact?

  19. #19 keiths
    January 31, 2006

    Congratulations on the gift from Dawkins. You deserve it for writing “Planet of the Hats”:

    http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/planet_of_the_hats

  20. #20 Anonymous
    January 31, 2006

    Speaking as a typical liberal atheist and one of the “lucky Brits” who were able to see the programmes when they were first broadcast I was disappointed. There seems to be a fashion for atheist broadcasting here at the moment and this was the weakest contribution. (The best was Jonathan Miller’s history of atheism). It came across as a sort of voyeurist look at extremists – a bit like a programme on mutants – did you see that extraordinary …. on TV last night – wasn’t it just horrible. And it managed to confuse two issues:

    1) Is religion true? I believe not – but you have to take on the issue of faith to discuss this usefully. Just to say “people believe in miracles, aren’t they silly” adds very little.

    2) Is religion harmful? He was really one-sided on this. If it comes to doing harm the atheists have an almost unassailable lead through Stalin, Mao and Pol-pot to name but a few.

    I think it might backfire if this was broadcast in the US. It is too crude. And I would be slightly embarrassed that this might be considerd as the best the UK can do in the way of presenting the case for atheism.

  21. #21 guthrie
    January 31, 2006

    This might not be the right place for it, but anyway…

    THe British Gvt are doing what politicians do best, trying ot use laws to solve problems. THe lastest is the religious hatred bill, which many comedians think could be used to stop them making fun of religion and its adherents.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4664820.stm

  22. #22 John Faughnan
    January 31, 2006

    As a teen I was an agressive proselytizer (terrible spelling word) for atheism. I stopped doing it because I was disturbingly effective — and my victims were not happy.

    Let’s look around a bit. We live in a universe where we sentient life is exceedingly rare (www.faughnan.com/setifail.html). We live a very brief life and often die in great pain and misery. Most of the human beings that have ever lived have had a vastly more miserable death than my dog (ok, so she had a perfect death). The universe itself is in advanced middle age and is likely to tear itself apart leaving utterly nothing forever.

    Even the wealthiest and most powerful of us may be reduced to bitter sorrow and the taste of ashes in a moment. For many humans such pain is a daily event.

    Now, I must say I like my life. I’m even reasonably happy (hard to believe, eh?) — but evolution has programmed us to find our situation acceptable. Absent such programming, any rational entity would run screaming for the nearest exist. Except there isn’t one. We’re stuck.

    This universe, frankly, sucks.

    Now Pharyngula and Dawkins may be fine with the above. Evolution has given them just the right set of genes to face reality and be perfectly fine about it. I don’t think everyone has these genes. If people need religion (and they do, they do) to get by, then yes, let them have their religion. If you are compassionate, encourage them. Support this. Have mercy.

    Has religion, en-masse, made humanity more miserable? Maybe, but we’re genus Pan you know. We’re just not very nice to begin with. If we didn’t have religion, we’d invent another reason to kill “the Other”. In any case, it’s only adding a bit to a much greater burden we can’t change.

    Bottom line — let religion be.

    PS. Don’t expect tolerance to be reciprocated. Remember, the very existence of your atheism is a terrible threat to those who’s very sanity depends on not questioning what keeps the dark at bay. Live with it.

  23. #23 Keith Douglas
    January 31, 2006

    Frankly, as someone whose French is pretty good and who has studied philosophy the notion that French is somehow less metaphysical than English is crazy. Both languages are full of metaphysical concepts like time, space, cause, god, determination, part, whole, etc. some useful, some not.

    As for the Dawkins video, talk to someone like George Soros to finance putting it on somewhere. 🙂

  24. #24 Corkscrew
    January 31, 2006

    Glen D: interesting post. I’d note that Dawkins does indeed provide a leavening of “positive secularism” in his shows – for example the story of his former instructor who, on having his life’s work proven wrong by a guest lecturer, walks up to the stage and shakes the guy warmly by the hand with the words “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.”

    He also chats to a bunch of atheists around the US. This is all in the first show – haven’t seen the second one yet (it’s waiting for me when I get back from uni in 7 weeks or so 😀 )

  25. #25 AC
    January 31, 2006

    This line stands out for me in the Dawkins editorial:

    “The human brain is a consummate hallucinator”

    I think this can be expanded beyond the specific example of hallucination. Between self-deception by religious followers and deception of followers by religious authorities, the dark heart of religion is easy to see.

    John F. thinks we should leave people to their deceptions. I disagree. I am not responsible for the existential dilemmas of others. The human condition, harsh as it may be, is not and cannot be improved by us all crawling under the covers and playing with our imaginary friends, or by surrendering to nature. Our minds allow us better solutions – but only if we use them.

  26. #26 pdf23ds
    January 31, 2006

    John, your equation of nihilism and atheism is disingenuous to those of us atheists who have no difficulty living very positive lives with no contradictions with our beliefs. Please stop. If you want to be a nihilist, call it as it is. Don’t tar the rest of us atheists with your dysphoric brush.

  27. #27 Timothy Chase
    January 31, 2006

    Glenn Davidson wrote:

    The very language we use, often even when discussing evolution, typically is teleological and suggestive of some kind of designer existing behind everything. Behe exploits this fact by saying that we are made up of “machines”, which to most people already suggests “designer”.

    (see above)

    Miko responded:

    So what? I don’t use a different word for a “chicken” running down the road and one batter fried, but I can keep straight which one to eat. Or between a “channel” that conducts potassium and chloride ions and a “channel” on the TV or a “channel” between England and France.

    (see above)

    Actually, I have grown rather fond of the argument from design. You might enjoy the following:
    Thoughts on the Intelligent Design Inference. It was inspired by Kent Hovind’s use of an electronic watch as his example of something which implies a creator.

  28. #28 Paul W.
    January 31, 2006

    I don’t use a different word for a “chicken” running down the road and one batter fried, but I can keep straight which one to eat. Or between a “channel” that conducts potassium and chloride ions and a “channel” on the TV or a “channel” between England and France. Do you think calling ATP synthase a “biochine” instead of a “machine” would change one person’s mind? Just because you use the same word doesn’t mean there is no distinction or difference in meaning.

    I’m with Miko in being very skeptical about the supposed effects of language, particularly grammar. This sounds like warmed-over Sapir-Whorf stuff that was all the rage in certain quarters a few decades ago, but which has been pretty well debunked by careful linguistics, linguistic anthropology, and philosophy of language.

    Pretty much all human languages are mostly equivalent for the purposes we’re talking about; there’s not a lot of language-dependent semantics encoded in grammar. At least, not a lot that native speakers don’t intuitively strip back out again once they’ve parsed and understood a sentence.

    Certainly, languages vary a lot in certain details of grammatical categories and constructions, which tend to be correlated with certain crude aspects of semantics (meaning). But native speakers are pretty good at seeing through the language-dependent aspects of grammar, which are pretty superficial, and communicating more sophisticated meanings.

    In all human languages, there’s a lot of lexical ambiguity, i.e., different senses of words that are disambiguated by context and background knowledge. The problems with communication across diverging world views are not primarily grammatical, or even lexical. They are mainly conceptual.

    Certainly, if you want people to “get” an idea, it helps if exactly the right, unambiguous word is available. But if they don’t already “get it,” such a word is probably not available anyway. (In any culture where the idea is not already prevalent, there’s likely no unambiguous term for it; even where an idea is common, there’s likely only an ambiguous term, with various senses derived metaphorically from earlier senses. And if the individual hasn’t acquired that sense of the word yet, you have to teach it to them.) This makes communication of big, novel ideas difficult in every language.

    (I’m not saying that linguistic constructions don’t introduce biases, e.g., that saying “he” won’t evoke an image of a male exemplar of a category. But we are not trapped in a well of grammar, unable to think foreign thoughts, to anywhere near the extent certain people claimed a few decades ago; the differences between human languages are not that deep or basic.)

    If people are going to bring up Nietsche and grammar and deconstruction, it’d be good to write excruciatingly clearly. E.g., if you don’t really mean grammar don’t say “grammar,” even if Nietzsche did. And if you’re going to talk about structuralism and poststructuralism, please be clear what aspects of those ill-defined things you’re talking about. I used to be pretty familiar with this kind of stuff—more so than most readers of this blog, I’m guessing—and I’m a bit lost.

    For example, I don’t know what it really means to say that the French especially needed deconstruction; does that just mean that some/many/most French intellectuals got carried away with structuralism, and deconstruction was an antidote to the superficiality of some/most/all structuralism, even if it was partly/largely/wholly wrong too? And if we’re talking about the broader culture, did the French populace need that more because they actually listened to their intellectuals, which Americans (for example) typically didn’t? (Such that we were blissfully ignorant of the problems with structuralism?)

    I’m not just picking geeky nits here; I can’t follow the argument. When I resolve the ambiguities in what’s being said, “my way,” I come to different conclusions. In particular, the critiquing and secularizing of “language” in France doesn’t seem to me to be basically about linguistic things like grammar or morphology; it’s about semantic things like particular concepts, and cultural things like intellectualism. (In contrast to American ignorance of certain concepts, and an underlying widespread anti-intellectualism.)

    So I conclude that the problem is not mostly about critiques of “language,” except in the humdrum sense of critiques of ideas, through the normal working of language. (The contrast mostly falls apart for me.) And instead of concluding that it’s hopeless to talk to people about this, because language gets in the way, I conclude that we’re in the absolutely usual position of people with minority views—we have to tell people what we think, and why we don’t agree with them, and our language is both sufficient and necessary for doing that.

  29. #29 Kurt
    January 31, 2006

    I find it somewhat strange that fundamentalists are bothered so much by biology; it seems to me that the real threat to religion comes from a quite different direction. I can remember as a grade school student studying ancient history, there was always this subtext that, yes class, the Romans and Greeks believed some pretty weird stuff about the gods controlling nature, but they didn’t have the benefit of our modern knowledge of how things actually work. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, but it never did. When looked at through the lens of, say, cultural anthropology, it ought to be quite obvious that religion was created by people to serve human needs, that god was created in man’s image and not the other way around. But the fields of anthropology, and sociology and psychology for that matter, seem to have avoided confronting this issue head on. I think eventually this will change.

    I can imagine that a generation from now, everyone will accept evolution as a given, but the anthropologists will be tarred and feathered by the fundamentalists.

  30. #30 clvrmnky
    January 31, 2006

    “we just need to repeat our message loudly and with more variations, I hope, and it will sink in”

    Really? It seems to me that this technique is not working. I’ll join the chorus in suggesting that the dicussions around religion and rationality are drive by messages proclaimed ever more loudly by increasingly polarized and static views.

    That is, there is a major disconnect between “free-thinkers” and “religious types” that cannot be bridged by speaking more loudly and slowly. It just causes people to stop their ears.

    I suppose it depends on your field of expertise, but I tend to support one of the views held by the congnitive sciences that people, when confronted with something that challenges their fundamentals, will fall back onto those comfortable and easy positions even when it is completely nutty to do so. This holds for violent rationalists as it does for bible-thumpers.

    We are not interested in rational (remember what that word used to mean?) discourse that allowed for individual expression of the inevitable paradox of life. We seem to have no room in our modern discourses for truly complex philosophies. Blame lack of education or lack of imagination, but we have done a terrible job teaching science *or* metaphysics such that folks can recognize which one is which. Both are open for criticism in a free and open society.

    And this is the reason that ID can even be entertained as a “science” — most of the people we are shouting at can’t tell the difference, and we’ve done an awful job of explaining that difference.

  31. #31 Paul W.
    January 31, 2006

    I find it somewhat strange that fundamentalists are bothered so much by biology; it seems to me that the real threat to religion comes from a quite different direction. I can remember as a grade school student studying ancient history, there was always this subtext that, yes class, the Romans and Greeks believed some pretty weird stuff about the gods controlling nature, but they didn’t have the benefit of our modern knowledge of how things actually work. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, but it never did. […]

    When looked at through the lens of, say, cultural anthropology, it ought to be quite obvious that religion was created by people to serve human needs, that god was created in man’s image and not the other way around. But the fields of anthropology, and sociology and psychology for that matter, seem to have avoided confronting this issue head on. I think eventually this will change.

    You are right, there is a big conflict between the social sciences and religion; a lot of fundamentalists do know that, and some do rail against psychology, etc. They see psychology as undermining the traditional notions of free will, guilt, sin, etc., and they are quite right. They think psychology and related sciences are dangerous bullshit and part of the problem with “liberals,” who excuse too much, and don’t blame and punish enough. They often think that to explain something—e.g., why many poor people turn to crime—is just excusing it, undermining the crucial notion of personal responsibility, and missing the fundamental issue of sin.

    I think one reason this doesn’t get nearly the attention that biology does is that serious psychology courses are not required in most public school curricula. Most students do have to take biology, or should if they want to go to college, and this leads to resistance from parents about antireligious stuff being forced on their children.

    Among right-wing and more-or-less fundamentalist Christians, it’s common to pooh-pooh psychotherapy, and/or to think it’s only appropriate for raving lunatics— psychology is for crazy people, and psychologists are out of line if they start analyzing “normal” people. Those kinds of Christians typically don’t go in for psychotherapy; that’s what prayer, pastoral counseling, and religious boot camps are for. And among the kookier types, which are not rare, psychological problems are often attributed to Satan or demons or whatever. People who need antipsychotics or mood stabilizers are likely to get prayed over, or even exorcised.

    There are now organizations of “Christian psychotherapists” who try to do psychotherapy while reinforcing orthodox Christianity, rather than undermining it.
    (That was partly spurred by some studies showing that fundamentalists are at least as crazy and unhappy as other people, on average. Not surprising to me, but an awkward shock for a lot of fundies.)

    Some conservative Christians rail against even that because they see psychology and Christian theology as fundamentally incompatible. (And, from the other side, I have to agree; “Christian psychology” is largely neither; if you want to be that “Christian,” you can’t be a very good psychologist.)

    Another thing that defuses the tension between psychology and Christianity is that most clinical psychologists and social workers are trained not to treat religion as the irrationality that most experimental/theoretical psychologists believe it is. I think there are several reasons for that. One is that there is obvious pressure to downplay the conflicts in a commercial fee-for-services situation. Another is that clinical psychologists tend to worry more about the individual patient, and whether their thoughts and behavior are maladaptive, rather than about whether they’re true or irrational, or moderately harmful to others. (You can be religiously nutty and your therapist is likely not to call you on it if it doesn’t make you hurt yourself too much.) And sadly, psychology tends to attract moderately bright people, but not the brightest people, with the more intellectual types tending toward experimental psychology and the less intellectual “people people” going into clinical training programs. So therapists tend to be less intellectual and rigorous, better at compartmentalizing, and more tolerant of religious nuttiness.

  32. #32 squeaky
    January 31, 2006

    clvrmnky–I think you make a lot of great points here. In fact, I think you hit the nail right on the head.

    The voices on both ends of the spectrum are loud, uncompromising, and unwilling to even try to see or understand their opponents point of view. The voices who have attempted to bring about understanding to either side are often seen as compromisers by both sides, even when, in many cases, they really aren’t compromising.

    “most of the people we are shouting at can’t tell the difference” between non-science and science…and this is a critique on the general population, not just those who claim belief in God. It is in part due to lack of education, but also due to the fact people have different ways of thinking about and approaching the world–which is why I have often observed conflicts between humanities and science as well as religion and science. Artistic people tend to value what they feel and sense whereas science people tend to value logic more highly. It’s yet another aspect of diversity…

  33. #33 Glen Davidson
    January 31, 2006

    I’m with Miko in being very skeptical about the supposed effects of language, particularly grammar. This sounds like warmed-over Sapir-Whorf stuff that was all the rage in certain quarters a few decades ago, but which has been pretty well debunked by careful linguistics, linguistic anthropology, and philosophy of language.

    Maybe Sapir-Whorf has been debunked, but I fail to understand what you would suppose has obviated the problem of the teleological bias in language. I, of course, wasn’t discussing Sapir-Whorf, or any other system of thought that doesn’t allow for sensory qualities to exist apart from language.

    As far as Miko goes, he seems not to even notice that I approve of calling cellular machines “machines” because nothing categorically sets off evolved machines from designed machines. At the point that he’s huffing and puffing about, I was pointing out that it is Behe’s argument, and that it works. Neither of you have shown otherwise in the least, but apparently you have some strawmen to attack.

    “Grammar” can mean a variety of things, and there is little reason for you to cavil at my usage of Nietzsche’s term. Grammar tells us about “nouns”, the “concrete” the “objective” and the “subjective”, all of which may be convenient for discussing language, yet have little correspondence with “perceptual reality”. If you really were conversent in this area I think you’d have gotten the point, particularly as I favor Nietzsche who quite explicitly criticized the assumptions that language is an adequate mirror of “perceptual reality”. One of the comments he makes repeatedly is that “subject” and “object” refer to nothing existing in our perceptions, but are merely linguistic categories assumed to be meaningful.

    Pretty much all human languages are mostly equivalent for the purposes we’re talking about; there’s not a lot of language-dependent semantics encoded in grammar. At least, not a lot that native speakers don’t intuitively strip back out again once they’ve parsed and understood a sentence.

    One problem in the communication between you and myself is that you hardly paid attention to the Nietzsche references, and/or you don’t know Nietzsche. I wasn’t complaining about the possibilities of language, I was mostly discussing the Western metaphysics that has played a role in language and concept evolution. In the second post I made that rather explicit. I don’t have a problem with language just so long as its biases are known and detoxified.

    But native speakers are pretty good at seeing through the language-dependent aspects of grammar, which are pretty superficial, and communicating more sophisticated meanings.

    And upon what would you base this claim? I am aware that humans see through many language biases, but you’re avoiding the actual area in which evidently this is not the case, areas of religion, metaphysics, and origination. You write about anything except the areas that I was actually discussing, and which at least arguably are partly responsible for the lack of secularization of this society (and I made it plain that I think other factors are important).

    You wrote:

    In all human languages, there’s a lot of lexical ambiguity, i.e., different senses of words that are disambiguated by context and background knowledge. The problems with communication across diverging world views are not primarily grammatical, or even lexical. They are mainly conceptual.

    I had written:

    We have conceptually detoxified the languages of science and of philosophy (well, only partly in philosophy) in our own usage of scientific language, but this has not happened in the schools and in the discourse of the public at large, so that many IDCists and creationists don’t even understand how we can think of biological purpose as having been fulfilled by “accident” (and yes, accident can apply to many of the particulars, and more properly to the whole).

    And:

    Our own philosophical tradition has served us poorly in not challenging the assumptions existing in our language and society, and part of the reason is that we have learned how to deal with our particular language problems without first questioning the (reduced in comparison with older and less problematic languages, yet powerful) teleological strain within our language.

    You’re stuck on the “grammar” remark I paraphrased from Nietzsche, and ignoring what I actually wrote about the conceptual problems. Do you suppose that Nietzsche wanted to change language? One of the reasons for appealing to Nietzsche is that knowledgeable persons should note that it isn’t the words used that are the problem (except in rare but important instances, like “materialism” and “natural”), it is the meaning attached to them. And still you must “point out” the matter I was actually discussing. Why is the “grammar” word such a sticking point?

    If people are going to bring up Nietsche and grammar and deconstruction, it’d be good to write excruciatingly clearly. E.g., if you don’t really mean grammar don’t say “grammar,” even if Nietzsche did.

    You seem to have a narrow and set view of what Nietzsche meant about our still having God because we have faith in grammar. Sorry, Nietzsche’s comment was perfectly fine, and I’m not going to change it to fit your preconceptions. You’re going to have to learn what is meant by discourse in these areas if you are going to participate, and not demand that the discussion follow what you already believe.

    And if you’re going to talk about structuralism and poststructuralism, please be clear what aspects of those ill-defined things you’re talking about. I used to be pretty familiar with this kind of stuff—more so than most readers of this blog, I’m guessing—and I’m a bit lost.

    There is nothing clear about structuralism and poststructuralism. The very fact that proponents of these systems fail to understand biology and evolution, as well as recurring cultural currents, means that they have little merit to them. Nietzsche was no biologist either, but at least he didn’t pretend that aggression and dominance were due simply to language or social constructs.

    I think I just figured something out here: You really are interpreting all of this on the structuralist/post-structuralist line of thought, while I’m on the scientific/Nietzschean side. I have never adhered to the structuralist point of view, as should be discernable in my posts. I believe that psychology and history are enormous determinants, while words themselves are of malleable meaning, open to reinterpretation and re-conceptualization. This is the only reason I can suggest that deconstruction might be useful in France after so many years of metaphysics, and do not care in the least to invent new words as in the strawman suggested by Miko.

    For example, I don’t know what it really means to say that the French especially needed deconstruction; does that just mean that some/many/most French intellectuals got carried away with structuralism, and deconstruction was an antidote to the superficiality of some/most/all structuralism, even if it was partly/largely/wholly wrong too? And if we’re talking about the broader culture, did the French populace need that more because they actually listened to their intellectuals, which Americans (for example) typically didn’t? (Such that we were blissfully ignorant of the problems with structuralism?)

    I could easily get bogged down in details that I can’t really claim to know. What does seem to be the case is that the French (intellectuals at least) have attacked metaphysical biases in their language much more than has occurred in Anglo-American society. An increased secularism appears to have resulted at least in part because of this, and probably also because distancing themselves from Catholicism is easier to do because of its Platonic structure. And they needed to break away from metaphysics more so than Anglo-American cultures did. Case in poinst: Outside of Paris biology reportedly remained non-Darwinian through the middle of last century, while versions of Larmarckianism remained a part of biology as taught.

    The French have been more willing to dethrone beliefs and systems than we have been, no doubt for quite a variety of reasons (better education probably plays a role). I am not especially attached to what I have written about the French versus ourselves, but mostly would note that secularization in France has tended to go hand-in-hand with assaults on the metaphysical conceptions existing in the French language.

    In particular, the critiquing and secularizing of “language” in France doesn’t seem to me to be basically about linguistic things like grammar or morphology; it’s about semantic things like particular concepts, and cultural things like intellectualism. (In contrast to American ignorance of certain concepts, and an underlying widespread anti-intellectualism.)

    Once again, I am surprised that you suppose that I was discussing “grammar” in the way that you do. The mention of Nietzsche should have suggested otherwise, and especially my second post should have cleared things up for you if you didn’t pick up on the reasons why I brought up Nietzsche in the first place. It may be that I used post-structuralist terms a bit more than I perhaps should have, but then the words we use are also part of the problem (why I claimed that God is written into language). The “purposive” nature of common English is a problem, and it will remain a problem until people understand that any purpose we know about comes from ourselves, and not from God.

    So I conclude that the problem is not mostly about critiques of “language,” except in the humdrum sense of critiques of ideas, through the normal working of language. (The contrast mostly falls apart for me.) And instead of concluding that it’s hopeless to talk to people about this, because language gets in the way, I conclude that we’re in the absolutely usual position of people with minority views—we have to tell people what we think, and why we don’t agree with them, and our language is both sufficient and necessary for doing that.

    Again the straw man, plus the lack of recognition of the actual problems introduced by linguistic “subject” and “object”. Of course our language is adequate to critique language and ideas, and I would never suggest otherwise. Did Nietzsche propose that we need a new language?

    In my second post on this thread I noted what I perceive to be the inadequacy of Anglo-American philosophy in addressing the problems of language and ideas. Obviously that is much of the point I was making, not only there, but also in bringing up the Nietzschean criticisms of language and meaning.

    One reason our society is not as secular as it might be is that we have a philosophical tradition that is not radical and which does not question meanings to their core, thus even evolutionary scientists in our society end up in pointless discussions about “naturalism” and “materialism”, when the only issue that matters in the battles with ID is epistemology. Were scientists to appeal to Kantian philosophy, or even just positivism as it was outlined originally, there would be no problems in gutting IDist beliefs about our “materialism” or our commitment to “methodological naturalism”. Neither of those has any real meaning to science, and it is precisely because we haven’t critiqued language properly that such inane attacks on science are possible during debates.

    Yet even bastard words like “materialism” and “nature” or “natural” are not inherently the problem. They only need to be detoxified, as I originally suggested. I don’t know why such straightforward statements evoke the responses I received from you and Miko (thanks to all who have commented on my post). If not all of what I wrote was so straightforward, deliberate mentions of “detoxification”, “metaphysics of language”, and “conceptions”, along with the non-deconstructionist Nietzsche, were included to indicate what I was discussing (to be sure, much of this is not well-understood by many people, but how can I even discuss the issue at all if I don’t use shorthand, like the mention of Nietzsche?).

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  34. #34 Pierce R. Butler
    January 31, 2006

    Anonymous: Speaking as … one of the “lucky Brits” … the programmes … came across as a sort of voyeurist look at extremists…

    Speaking as an American: you don’t know how lucky you are. Haggard & his ilk are clearly extremists (though not as much as others), but they also represent a major and growing political trend here in the Sole Superpower. Though comprising perhaps a quarter of the population, they have captured the political machine which has captured the government, and are systematically expanding their power in every vulnerable area.

    Today’s failure of the Senate to block the Alito nomination shows that both Congress and the Supreme Court have succumbed to the Bushevik alliance of megacorporate & christocratic string-pullers. Perhaps Bush’s speech tonight will show us which domino is next in line.

    Dawkins is not playing the voyeur: he is warning of a serious and growing danger.

  35. #35 miko
    January 31, 2006

    Hi Glen,

    I was being sincere in my post that I felt I must be missing something. What jumped out at me in your post was this: “The very language we use, often even when discussing evolution, typically is teleological and suggestive of some kind of designer existing behind everything.”

    And my reaction was [huff] “so what?” [puff] because we know evolution is not purposeful or teleological. If someone believes that it is or isn’t, these words/phrases aren’t going confuse them or alter their thinking. Syntax, semantics, and grammar are not the same thing as meaning, and this is a distinction humans make intuitively on a constant basis. For a local example, Indonesians say “mau hujan” (literally “it wants to rain”) when it clouds up; no one seriously thinks the sky or the weather has desires, and I doubt this usage has prevented any Indonesian meteorology students from learning about why it rains.

    Anyone could come up with endless examples where we use intentional/teleological language to talk about things or processes we know are not intentional or purposeful. It’s just a handy way of talking about things that do something.

    I’ve reread your posts, I still don’t get it. Let’s maybe leave Nietzsche out of it: Are you really saying there is something peculiar about the English language that prevents people from understanding evolution, or that predisposes them to supernatural explanations for natural phenomena? This would be a stunning statement for which I’d like to see some evidence. But again, I’m not sure I get you.

    -Miko

  36. #36 Glen Davidson
    January 31, 2006

    I’ve reread your posts, I still don’t get it. Let’s maybe leave Nietzsche out of it: Are you really saying there is something peculiar about the English language that prevents people from understanding evolution, or that predisposes them to supernatural explanations for natural phenomena? This would be a stunning statement for which I’d like to see some evidence. But again, I’m not sure I get you.

    I didn’t and wouldn’t say there was anything peculiar about the English language that prevents people from getting evolution. I really believe that languages and humans tend to think in teleological ways, but that the Platonic/Christian influence has increased the sense that things exist or happen “for a reason” (with variations from culture to culture and from time to time). Many of the more ancient myths give reasons that depend upon past accidents and misunderstandings instead of suffocating us with an overall Plan and Purpose.

    Anglo-American philosophy (roughly, analytic philosophy) has not tended to focus on the problems of the metaphysical and teleological biases of language and conception in Western society, and indeed a number of such philosophers buy into metaphysics to a certain degree (Kripke and others threw out lifelines to analytic philosophy, however poor these lifelines were). While one may readily overblow the influence of the philosophical environment in the US, I do not think that we have these dreary discussions about “methodological naturalism” for any good reason at all, rather “naturalism” of any kind is simply a metaphysical holdover that creationists and IDCists are able to exploit among the populace and among at least a few intellectuals.

    Whatever the excesses of continental philosophy (and Derrida is mostly an American phenomenon now, probably because Americans typically don’t understand deconstructionism in its phenomenological and continental context), at least it struck directly at the conceptions/language that still reflect metaphysics. This did not happen in the US (except via the poorly understood deconstructionism in the literary departments), and I believe not in England much either. The continent has moved on to better than deconstructionism, such as Deleuze, the latter of which incorporates the Nietzschean critique of language without the epiphenomenological relativism underlying deconstruction.

    And we still have to speak in terms of “subjective” and “objective”. That is to say, I use “subjective” and “objective” in discussions, and I don’t in the least think that these terms refer to much other than aspects of a continuum, and generally aspects not very far apart from each other. “Materialism” is a term used as if it has metaphysical meaning, and not in reference to the scientific conception of “matter”. “Natural” is still thought to mean something beyond the convenient (if deceptive) division between human-made objects and processes and those made by the rest of the living and inanimate universe (this is to say that the “supernatural” is treated as if it can be contrasted to “the natural”, as if the “natural” in the broader sense is not simply all that we know and experience).

    I did allude to these issues in my first post, and the trouble with such mere allusion is that in Anglo-American society these metaphysical leftovers do not sound as if they belong to the earlier theistic period (leftism barely exists in the US, for one reason). The problem is that they really do belong to the Platonic (and/or neo-Platonic if one wishes to split hairs)/Christian worldview, they are readily exploited by religionists to “convert” and manipulate the masses, and they are one of the the largely invisible thorns in the side of secularism. Economic exploitation is another such thorn, increasingly invisible to secularists (or at least so it seems), and if we put these and other factors all together it might actually be surprising that secularism prevails to the extent that it does.

    I don’t know how to say it otherwise. My non-science (post science) education has followed leftist critiques of metaphysics and economics, and also what is sometimes considered to be the more “rightist” criticisms of metaphysics, language, and power found in Nietzsche and some of the post-modernists who listened to Nietzsche (of course Nietzsche had a number of influences and influence many, however one may get by with simply invoking Nietzsche in most cases). Leftist philosophers and Nietzsche both have often criticized the structural predispositions toward theism that exist in society and in language (or conception, if Paul insists) as very considerable reasons for theism’s continued power in society, yet it seems that saying so in America largely falls on deaf ears.

    The old direct attacks on religion that have never worked welll in the past, particularly not in Anglo-American societies, continue to be pursued as if they will do much more than strengthen religion by providing it with a “manifestation of the devil”, along with the effects on a few folk who might be jolted out of theistic complacency. I don’t think that there is much point in making these attacks, or at least no more than a bare minimum of these village atheist saber-rattlings. Rather the endemic forces of language and conception that have never really been attacked competently in our society are what really need to be destroyed, or at least weakened.

    It is Nietzsche, but it is also Marx and Weber, Pareto, old Commentary, the old New Republic, well you get the picture. Most people didn’t understand, fewer cared, and most everyone got tired of it all, found the joys of money and the establishment, and went bourgeois–if they weren’t already. The end of most intelligent progressivism, and even of intelligent “rightist” critiques, came. Now there is railing against religion and reaction, but little in-depth analysis, let alone in-depth analysis that accurately criticizes the biases of the partisans. Rattling the sabers might keep the party faithful in line, however it certainly isn’t going to change anything.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  37. #37 Christopher
    January 31, 2006

    Commenting on that butterflies and wheels post, the reason I focus on the bad in religion is philosophical.

    Actually, this only really applies to the three YHWH-worshiping religions, but here goes:

    If the YHWH religions are true, then god is all-powerful and all-knowing, or at least as close to these things as it is possible to be.

    This means that the horrible things about religion, the genocides, tortures, and ignorance, were invented by god because he wants them to exist.

    In other words, he left the Americans in the dark about his son for 1500 years, knowing full well that the result would be the weakening of American souls and genocidal behavior on the part of Europeans.

    To methis makes him such an asshole he’s not worth worshipping.

    Conversely, if these results are unintended, if god didn’t know that this would happen or couldn’t stop it, then the religion itself is wrong.

    Thus, the bad parts of the YHWHist faiths pretty much demonstrate their philosophical vacuity. The good parts, I’m afraid, don’t really matter.

  38. #38 Christopher
    February 1, 2006

    also, speaking as an atheist, I don’t want to eliminate religion. Frankly, I have no argument with folks like Martin Gardner who admit outright that they are theists solely because the idea makes them feel better.

    What I really want is religions that are

    1. Philosophically sensical

    2. Able to recognize their own deficiencies.

    See, Christianity makes no damn sense. I want it to be retooled so that it can at least attempt to address, say, the very issues I brought up above, and if it can’t do that, to at east recognize that such a nonsensical philosophy shouldn’t be the guiding priciple for all behavior and thinking everywhere.

    I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

  39. #39 Samnell
    February 1, 2006

    “John F. thinks we should leave people to their deceptions. I disagree. I am not responsible for the existential dilemmas of others. The human condition, harsh as it may be, is not and cannot be improved by us all crawling under the covers and playing with our imaginary friends, or by surrendering to nature. Our minds allow us better solutions – but only if we use them.”

    I’m with you. I’d rather be right than delusionally happy.

  40. #40 Paul W.
    February 1, 2006

    Glen,

    I apologize if I gave too much of what you were saying short shrift—which I think maybe I did. I didn’t mean to come off as disagreeing with the general thrust of what you were saying. There are certainly parts I think I more or less agree with, whether or not I agree with the “prescriptions.” What I have problems with is the vagueness and ambiguity; I don’t think what you wrote is as clear as you probably think it is.

    And I’m sorry if I latched onto the “grammar” thing too much. I realized at the time, but maybe didn’t make it clear enough, that you didn’t mostly seem to be taking a Whorfian stance; it did seem to me that you might be running together different aspects of “language” in way that made things unclear and unconvincing to me. That’s why I made the distinction between lexical-and-conceptual vs. grammatical. (And for what it’s worth, I didn’t think you were on the “structuralist side,” much less anti-scientific.)

    But I (still) don’t know if you’re really talking anything interestingly grammatical.

    When you mention my alleged lack of recognition of the actual problems introduced by linguistic “subject” and “object” I literally don’t know what you’re talking about. Not that I don’t know what the “linguistic subject and object” are; I think I do. I think I even get what Nietzche said about linguistic subjects and objects not corresponding to our perceptions. (I’m pretty sure I disagree with a strong reading that they really correspond to nothing in our perceptions—there’s a systematic relationship there, with important exceptions—but it’s not clear why we should get off into the cognitive linguistics of all that; I don’t see the point.)

    I just don’t understand clearly how this relate to your argument, especially when it comes to contrasting French and English with regard to the “detoxification” of language. (I always thought that French had essentially the same deep grammatical regularities as English, for the purposes we’re talking about, even if certain phrase orderings are systematically reversed, etc. And I don’t see how the linguistic subject and object are the big problem for detoxifying language; a single clear example might help.)

    I’d said: If people are going to bring up Nietsche and grammar and deconstruction, it’d be good to write excruciatingly clearly. E.g., if you don’t really mean grammar don’t say “grammar,” even if Nietzsche did.

    You responded: You seem to have a narrow and set view of what Nietzsche meant about our still having God because we have faith in grammar. Sorry, Nietzsche’s comment was perfectly fine, and I’m not going to change it to fit your preconceptions. You’re going to have to learn what is meant by discourse in these areas if you are going to participate, and not demand that the discussion follow what you already believe.

    I don’t have a narrow view of what Nietsche meant; it’s been over 20 years since I read the relevant Nietzche, and I’ve forgotten it. And while I have considerable respect for Nietzche, he was prone to vivid aphorisms that weren’t quite right. If you expect people who read this blog to know and care and remember exactly what Nietzche really meant by “grammar,” without you telling them clearly, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. I am about as philosophically and linguistically literate and Nietzche-friendly as you can expect anybody here to be.

    A few months ago I was explaining Kant, in cognitive science terms, on an atheist mailing list. The conversation got bogged down over Kant’s confusing use of the word “object.” On an academic philosophy mailing list, it might have been reasonable to tell people they were “going have to learn” what “object” means in Kant-speak, and not apply that term in the obvious way to things-in-the-world, when discussing Kant. On an atheist list, it simply wasn’t a good idea to use Kantian terminology. But at least I was willing to clarify that Kantian “objects” are generally not objects, rather than simply leaving my audience baffled by Kant allusions.

    You’re “going to have to learn” to judge your audience and pitch your ideas clearly.
    And if you disagree, I’m happy not to participate in the discourse any further.

  41. #41 Christopher
    February 2, 2006

    I find it ironic that a person who says that we need to radically rethink our approach to converting ordinary people feels fine to throw around words like “teleologic” and concepts like Nietzche’s idea of grammar.

    First thing you have to understand about ordinary joes: We didn’t even know Nietzche had used the word grammar. We don’t even know how to spell “Nietzche”.

    Just something to keep in mind.

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