Thursday, March 01, 2007

Discussions with theists

I'm having some interesting discussions about theism, evolution and the scientific method at Touchstone Magazine's blog, Mere Comments. If you'd like to follow along, read the comments to these posts:

Wired for Intelligence
Materialism

These guys are sending some traffic my way, so I want to return the favor.

16 comments:

  1. Regarding the Materialism thread:
    I think many of the opinions in the comments are reflected in parts of the last paragraph of the blog entry: "It's one thing, because of loss of faith or hope, to fall back upon materialism; I can understand that."

    It would seem atheists (the pitiable ones) are a group consisting mostly of those who have lost their faith, and so access to spiritual (i.e., "true" or "deeper") knowledge, and are now too discouraged by some cruelty of life to seek it again. According to some of the comments, the materialist "flatness of vision" is a prime symptom of this malady.

    However, your interest in philosophical inquiry into metaphysics and ethics, Bible knowledge, former church attendance, and years of discussing religious matters apparently makes you one of the much less pitiable (willfully ignorant) kind: "I cannot understand what would make somebody today want to believe that materialism is true, which today in our country means, for all practical purposes, wanting to believe that the man on the cross was wrong, that there is no Father, no ultimate Love, no abiding meaning to what we do, only a grave and dust and oblivion."

    As one of the second type of atheists you must be immoral, depressed, and, on the whole, leading a terribly unsatisfying life; what with nothing but all that dust and oblivion to think about all day long!

    Seriously, I understand that human beings are natural story tellers, and that we live and die by our stories (i.e., narratives of beliefs; true or not), but I sometimes find those who live an overly "poetic life" to be the ones who suffer the "flatness of vision." In that last sentence denying materialism (I also prefer naturalism, for clarity), Mr. Esolen also denies every theistic worldview other than his own. I'm not sure how he judges all other religions as incorrect, since they acquire their knowledge of the supernatural using the same methods of data gathering as his own. There's something about going "one god further" in all this.

    Regarding the Wired for Intelligence thread:
    Nothing like starting off a conversation by walking into someone else's home and crapping on the carpet (dastardly bit of God insulting there). But perhaps you're a regular houseguest, and they expected as much? Anyway, I liked that you pushed on the empirical aspects of determining intention by observing behavior; it has a number of implications. For one, how does one know that God loves them (vis-à-vis the Problem of Evil)? For another, how can the criminal justice system function if empirical observation of behavior, through evidence, cannot reasonably determine intentionality, and therefore assign culpability and just punishment?

    Beyond that, I find it humorous that you are accused of solipsism in your ethics by those whose best argument for the objective existence of good (God) is that of personal mystical experience.

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  2. Steelman:

    It would seem atheists (the pitiable ones) are a group consisting mostly of those who have lost their faith, and so access to spiritual (i.e., "true" or "deeper") knowledge, and are now too discouraged by some cruelty of life to seek it again. According to some of the comments, the materialist "flatness of vision" is a prime symptom of this malady.

    I know scores of atheists personally, and probably close to a thousand by online conversation, and the prevalence of "flatness of vision" seems to be relatively rare. Atheists get depressed too, though, so it's not completely unknown.

    Still, by and large, most of the atheists I know, including myself, live quite vibrant, colorful lives.

    I cannot understand what would make somebody today want to believe that materialism is true...

    The whole point of true is that it's true even if you don't want it to be true.

    As one of the second type of atheists you must be immoral, depressed, and, on the whole, leading a terribly unsatisfying life; what with nothing but all that dust and oblivion to think about all day long!

    I assure you, you're entirely mistaken, at least to the second two charges: I'm not at all depressed, and I find my life thoroughly satisfying. As to whether I am "moral", I'm obviously immoral in your eyes at least to the extent that it is immoral to not believe in God. Other than that, I'm probably about as moral even by any ordinary Christian's standards as anyone else. I live quite the moderate, tame and sedate life.

    There's something about going "one god further" in all this.

    Indeed there is.

    Nothing like starting off a conversation by walking into someone else's home and crapping on the carpet (dastardly bit of God insulting there).

    I did not insult God, only some believers' absurdly narrow conception of God.

    But perhaps you're a regular houseguest, and they expected as much?

    No, I'm relatively new, I think that was my first or second post. But there's nothing like a controversial statement for beginning a... vigorous... discussion.

    I'm glad you liked some of my points. I'm having a good time participating in the conversation.

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  3. Larry,

    I must confess real disappointment with Mere Comments. There is a real lack of intellectual integrity by the individuals there. Steelman lifted some very telling quotes about their various way of characterizing people who disagree with them. Atheists are not sad people who are trying to embrace a philosophy which indulges their grief.

    I noticed that it was suggested that God's hand somehow guides the process of evolution. As a Christian theist, this suggestion strikes me as utterly perverse. Natural selection is a brutal, nearly sinister, process that inflicts great pain and suffering onto the animal world. So, they seem to be comfortable with the suggestion that God is complicit with the gratuitous suffering in Nature. In particular, carnivorousness, which I touched on in The Remarks of a Fish, is evil.

    I hope that here at the Barefoot Bum I am not perceived to be on the same wavelength as them. I am making a plea for distinction!

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  4. Timmo,

    Without making any disparaging comparisons or distinctions, rest assured that I hold your intellectual and personal character in the highest regard, and I'm confident that the vast majority of my readers do so as well.

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  5. BB:" As to whether I am "moral", I'm obviously immoral in your eyes at least to the extent that it is immoral to not believe in God."

    Oops. I thought you might have gathered from my posts on Stephen Law's blog, or from my beginning the very next paragraph with, "Seriously...," that I'm not one who considers non-belief in a deity immoral. Maybe I should throw in an appropriate emoticon now and then?

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  6. Steelman: I really seem to have entirely missed the irony in your post. My sincere apologies. I can plead only that hyper-literalism is an occupational hazard of both engineering and philosophy; I'm doubly cursed.

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  7. Larry,

    So apparently you're rapidly working up an olde fashioned shunnin' over at mere comments. I am particularly amazed at people's problem with pr-f-n-ty being allowed on your blog.

    I'm reading through the Authoritarians now (at your suggestion). Methinks you are invading the "safe" circle of like-minded cohorts the people at mere comments have created for themselves. Some of them even seemed incensed you would include links to external content on your own blog as if hotlinking something is dirty pool.

    Fun to read, at least...

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  8. Steelman: It did take some reading for the irony to be apparent in your first comment, but that's a rather deep failing of my own; it'd be rather churlish to hold it against you, wouldn't it? It was an excellent observation overall. I hope you'll stick around.

    Timmo: Rest assured, your quality is far and above those I'm used to dealing with on these matters. An argument mounted with respect deserves respect in turn.

    One of my favorite contra-atheism arguments has been the accusation that I have something personally invested in there not being a god. I call this the "pathology problem," and it comes up in talking about morals as well. Hmm... a post maybe?

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  9. I am particularly amazed at people's problem with pr-f-n-ty being allowed on your blog.

    Concern with profanity appears to be a growing internet (meta-?) meme, with the authori... er... conservative bloggers apparently getting their knickers in quite the twist.

    I don't think words have magic powers, so the issue doesn't really concern me. On the other hand, I'm neither the Rude Pundit nor George Carlin (nor even Roy); the effective use of profanity requires considerable skill.

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  10. James:

    One of my favorite contra-atheism arguments has been the accusation that I have something personally invested in there not being a god. I call this the "pathology problem," and it comes up in talking about morals as well. Hmm... a post maybe?

    My response is usually quite terse: I want to know the truth; if it is true that any God exists, I want to know it. Full stop.

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  11. I've been reading the comment threads instead of doing my job (it was a busy week).

    To be a tiny bit fair, it seems you did rather pick a fight. But good for you. Anyone who steps foot onto someone else's territory and challenges their notions is doing them a service.

    I'm always tickled by people who argue against things they don't understand, like that idiot who thinks he's refuted Nietzche. Why is it always the theists who bring up the Nazis, and why blame Nietzche and atheists? We could just as easily blame Max Weber for the efficient corporate structure that made them possible!

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  12. It's astonishing to me how so many of those commenters can accuse you of starting from a priori assumptions of God's non-existence in bad faith and yet fail to even acknowledge their own presuppositions.

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  13. James,

    You ask, "Why is it always the theists who bring up the Nazis, and why blame Nietz[s]che and atheists?" The answer is simple: they have no qualms about strengthening their position in the eyes of onlookers by linking atheists' views to moral corruption. It is true that under the atheistic Nazi and Soviet more innocent people suffered and persecuted than under any other ideology in history. Thus, they decide to commit the fallacy of post hoc, ergo proper hoc (afterward, therefore because of) in order to win rhetorical points.

    Of course, intellectual serious viewpoints were not at all behind the third reich or the Soviet Union. Hunger for power, unbridled hatred, and moral callousness made possible their viscous, wicked existences. Atheists like Bertrand Russell are admirable witnesses to the possibility of upright character without a religious background. Indeed, Russell wrote, "Pleasure in the spectacle of cruelty horrifies me, and I am not ashamed of the fact that it does." (The pseudo-religious Ann Coulter might learn a lesson from him.)

    Nietzsche is an easy target because of his shocking literary style. All they need to do is lift a certain horrible sounding statement, and... BAM! But, Nietzsche, who advances a vision of self-affirmation and individual flourishing, attacks the ethics of pity and resentment inherent in certain religious currents. This strand of Christianity is something we might agree is "great innermost corruption." A close, charitable reading of Nietzsche would waken at least a few from their dogmatic slumbers.

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  14. Oops! Deleted words!

    It is true that under the atheistic Nazi and Soviet [regimes] more innocent people suffered and [were] persecuted than under any other ideology in history.

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  15. Timmo,

    You're mostly correct, but I have a few quibbles.

    Hitler's theism or atheism as well as the German people's theism or atheism is still a matter of considerable controversy. The question itself is not relevant, as you note, but it is still at least open (I personally am persuaded that Hitler and the Germans were in fact theists, but that's an issue for another day).

    I don't think it's at all controversial that Stalin was an atheist, atheism was an explicit part of Soviet Communist ideology, and no small few Russians and other Soviets were thereby persuaded.

    On the other hand, even we just remove Hitler's body count from either side, Medieval Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, pre-Communist Chinese authoritarianism (especially Confucianism and neo-Confucianism), 18-20th century European colonialism (especially Belgium's savage exploitation of the Congo), and American slavery and the genocide of the American Indians rack up an impressive score.

    I think the best we can say is that exploitation, oppression and other gross moral crimes are equal-opportunity sins and have more to do with pervasive human nature than any specific ideology or class of ideologies.

    There is, however, a substantial minority of atheists who do in fact argue that theism is pretty much exclusively responsible for humanity's moral crimes. Contra such assertions, atheistic Stalinist oppression is a devastating rebuttal.

    I think the exclusive attribution of moral crime to theism is false, and its falsity is rhetorically and politically damaging. It seems pretty obvious to me that theism by itself is neither necessary nor sufficient to entail moral crime.

    However, taking theism off the hook for exclusive responsibility for moral crime does not take theism off the hook for being the biggest and oldest proponent of moral authoritarianism and the bullshit epistemology which underlies moral authoritarianism.

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  16. Timmo,

    It warms my heart to see a principled theist such as yourself giving Nietzsche a fair shake. I recently discovered his work myself, and have found myself quite moved and enervated by his thoughts. Between Nietzche, Russell, and Sartre, I feel great hope for a moral, humanistic movement of thought that transcends the need for theism.

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