Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Atheist identity politics

The God Delusion: A philosophical and political investigation

Part 1: Atheist identity politics
Part 2: Contra-theistic philosophy
Part 3: Scientific speculation
Part 4: Anti-religious and anti-accommodationist polemics

Thanks to the Deacon at Subversive Christianity, I'm re-reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion now with my full attention. And I'm rediscovering just how really terrific a book it is.

Halfway through this careful reading, it's becoming clear that the book is about four things: Atheist identity politics[1], basic contra-theistic philosophy, scientific speculation about why—given the obvious falsity of the "God Hypothesis"—people still maintain religious belief, and anti-religious polemic.

Dawkins is explicit about what kind of book he's writing, and particularly for whom he's writing:
I suspect—well I am sure—that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don't believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents' religion and wish they could, but just don't realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. It is intended to raise consciousness—raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled. (p. 1)

It is the thread of identity politics, and a position on atheist identity I substantially agree with, which causes me to take offense when the book or the author is disparaged, either through direct insults such as "halfwit" or the sort of tendentious nitpicking that places a gossamer veneer of supposed "criticism" over insults.

It's not my intention here to rebut each such disparagement in detail; the intellectual bankruptcy of theistic criticism of this book is obvious, and reminiscent of historical attacks on the identity politics of other oppressed groups: especially women, racial minorities, and gay people.

Sidebar: It's worth noting that atheist politics are, while similar to, substantively different from other civil rights struggles where identity politics has played a substantial role. Other civil rights struggles were and are struggles for equality; atheist politics is explicitly a struggle for superiority, at least intellectual superiority: Atheism is better than theistic religion. One cannot be surprised when even religious moderates take umbrage at such a project.

Because all theology is entirely free of substance, criticism of religion must have at its core an attitude of mockery. Dawkins quotes Jefferson: "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus." It is not that even the most sophisticated theology is mistaken in some subtle sense, but that all theology is so blatantly ridiculous that it staggers the rational mind that anyone could even begin to take it seriously.

I'm coming around to the view that my own outrage is inappropriate, and more a reaction to my own expectation that theistic thinkers should respect the substance of atheist arguments; given the lack of substance in their own thought, I think my expectations are unrealistic and my outrage misplaced: It's foolish and unproductive to be outraged when one can expect no better.

Atheism has both a sense of self-identification and a descriptive sense. One task of any work in identity politics is to proffer a definition of the descriptive sense and encourage people who fit the description to also self-identify with the term. Dawkins presents his view of what atheism is, makes it intellectually and morally palatable, and makes the alternatives (specifically theistic religion, agnosticism, accommodationism and religious moderation) intellectually and morally unpalatable. This is exactly the sort of task we would expect from a work on identity politics, and Dawkins delivers superbly.

We can easily read a specific position about atheist identity from the book:
  1. If you reject the God Hypothesis, you can call yourself an atheist.
  2. If you reject the God Hypothesis, you should (in the polemic sense) call yourself an atheist.
  3. If you call yourself an atheist you should be uncompromisingly anti-religion

The first intellectual task for item 1—and the topic of the first chapter—is to separate out a collection of beliefs and traits that have been traditionally associated with theistic religion and appropriate them as rational beliefs not dependent on the God Hypothesis. Dawkins does so by reference to the atheist trope of "Einstein's 'God'". Wonder and awe of the universe, an appreciation of its myriad mysteries, a rational humility at the limitations of our tiny, finite minds in apprehending and solving these mysteries: All of these are rational, sensible, scientific attitudes; they do not at all depend on an acceptance of the God Hypothesis[2]. In later chapters, he covers more the more complicated notion of ethics without the God Hypothesis.

The second task (unsurprisingly covered by chapter 2) is to state the God Hypothesis:
[T]here exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.
Dawkins presents an alternative view:
[A]ny creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.

It's very important to understand Dawkins' God Hypothesis in the context of identity politics. The most severe criticism of The God Delusion is from H. Allen Orr. Orr asserts that Dawkins fails "to engage religious thought in any serious way." In one sense, this is a blatantly false charge. Dawkins does indeed engage religious thought in a serious way, substantively addressing the arguments of (among others) Aquinas, Anselm, and Pascal. These religious thinkers are, of course, not the whole of theology, but they ain't chopped liver either.

Orr's criticism is, however, in some sense accurate:
You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?).
But just because you're accurate doesn't mean you're right.

The question is not whether or not Dawkins does address these topics, but whether he should do so. If Dawkins were really, as Orr titles his review, on "A Mission to Convert"—especially those with "serious" (snort) theistic belief systems—then perhaps he should have. But Dawkins specifically disclaims this intention. Sure, Dawkins would like it if "religious readers who open [this book] will be atheists when they put it down." (p. 5) But he also recognizes that this intention is "presumptuous optimism."

Orr asks for too much, and he does so in the intellectually dishonest manner (so loved by creationists, Dawkins' personal nemeses) of tossing out sound-bite questions that require long substantive answers and then objecting to sound-bite responses as frivolous. No single book—indeed the life work of no single author—can address every form of religious bullshit ever promulgated. No single book can address in "serious" detail the "methods [of childhood indoctrination] that took centuries to mature." (p. 5)

And are these sound-bite questions even relevant? As Aloysius succinctly puts it:
Asking people to pay more attention to sophisticated theology is like asking them to spend an afternoon reading your Buffy fan fiction which finally and for all times works out a consistent theory of souls and dimensions in the Buffyverse.

Read as atheist identity politics, though, these issues are irrelevant: You can call yourself an atheist just by virtue of rejecting the God Hypothesis; if you're interested in learning about more "sophisticated" theology, well, Dawkins is happy to share his opinion of such theology with you (as expected, he has nothing kind to say), but it's not Dawkin's job to rebut them; it's up to such sophisticated theologians to actively persuade you.

Dawkins is
aware that critics of religion can be attacked for failing to credit the fertile diversity of traditions and world-views that have been called religious. Anthropologically informed works, from Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough to Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained or Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust, fascinatingly document the bizarre phenomenology of superstition and ritual. Read such books and marvel at the richness of human gullibility.

But that is not the way of this book. I decry supernaturalism in all its forms, and the most effective way to proceed will be to concentrate on the form most likely to be familiar to my readers—the form that impinges most threateningly on all our societies. (p. 36)

If a reader is unsatisfied that Dawkins has not disproved every conception labeled as "God" ever written by anyone anywhere, well, too bad. That's a task Dawkins disclaims. If you want to find out one way to call yourself an atheist, and one intellectually sound conception about what it means to be an atheist—to "decry supernaturalism in all its forms"—then this book will satisfy you.

[1] I'll have to write more on why identity politics are important. Stay tuned.

[2] It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that Einstein and other scientists, as well as more-or-less secular philosophers (notably Spinoza), use the word "God" to label beliefs that really have nothing to do with the God Hypothesis; the word has a strong hold on our language. For an interesting take on the hold that "God" has on our language and minds, see Greg Egan's notion of "The God Who Makes No Difference" in his novel Permutation City.

Dawkins' own application to Einstein of the label "pantheist" is, in this vein, a bit of a misnomer; many self-described pantheists not only label "everything" as "God", but also attribute typically theistic properties to this everything, notably a distinct consciousness and teleology. But this objection is just a semantic quibble: Dawkins is eminently clear about what he means.


  1. Hidden underneath the (fascinating and eminently enjoyable) narratives of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy fiction series is an incredibly complex and extended discussion of faith, tyranny, and culture. I haven't read such a clever melding of serious thought and rousing stories since Frank Herbert's first three books in the Dune series.

    I highly recommend Erikson's work to you, and any readers, as both fun, addictive reads and food for thought.

  2. James: Given that your previous recommendation (The True Believer) turned out to be a smashing success, Gardens of the Moon, the first book of this series, is now at the top of my Amazon queue. (Sadly, a purchase must await the resupply of my bank account, severely depleted by Uncle Sam and his merry band of tax collectors last Tuesday.)

  3. Given your comments on books about God, I thought you might be interested in this one:

    “Is God Poison?” asks “Maclean’s,” a prominent Canadian magazine, on it’s April cover. It referred to a long article worth discussing. But I’ll only talk about a statement in the article’s opening page, which quotes someone named Christopher Higgins. His new book discusses “…How Religion Poisons Everything.” Mr. Higgins, while heartened by the world’s newfound interest in disputing God’s existence, tells us, “We atheists never thought religion would die out because it comes from fear of death….”

    I agree, that’s one way to look at religion’s “origin and purpose.” But it certainly has never occurred to me, and I’ve been religious for ninety percent of my long life. If Mr. Higgins seriously thinks that “fear of death” drove me to God, his reasoning is severely flawed from the “git-go.” I am one of the many people who go through life without giving death more than occasional thought — though I’ve had much to do with it, including the death of my 23 year old son.

    Of course, if Mr. Higgins thinks that fear of death was what first prompted humans to conceive religious beliefs, that’s a plausible theory. But it is nothing more than an unproven, irrelevant theory, in company with numberless others.

    As I see it, religion sets mankind apart from all living creatures on earth, as the only beings on earth (as far as we know) who can seek to identify their Ultimate Creator and contemplate why they exist. In daily life, however, religion helps us live far more peacefully with ourselves and our fellowmen than we could live without it — even though, as nations and as individuals, our “peaceful” relations with others are endlessly and violently interrupted! And all those violent interruptions happen, while a huge portion of the world’s population embraces the Ten Commandments! Imagine how we’d behave if we’d never been told “Thou shall not murder” ? And why does “Mr. Higgins & Co.“ think we needed to be told that? It certainly wasn’t because humans seldom killed each other.

    For our ancestors to need to be Divinely ordered to abstain from killing their fellowmen tells us that murder was even more commonplace than it is today, throughout the world. Humans want to be rid of anyone who really “bothers” them. And it’s common for us to severely “bother” each other! Learning how to turn our hearts to each other, as the Prophet Malachi said we must do (Mal, 3:24/4:6) is now the urgently needed “uncommon” factor in human history.

    Thousands of years ago, societies worshiped more than 2,000 gods who, according to the tales concocted about them, often warred with each other — a direct reflection of human life. Yet, Abraham’s God told us not to murder, unless we were executing a person who had intentionally killed someone, “…having hated him in time past” (Deut. 4:42). To be sure, “unbelievers” describe Abraham’s God as a bloodthirsty deity, akin to most of the other “gods” people worshiped. But the Israelites, the first people to believe in Abraham’s God, were told to war with heathens, only to claim the needed homeland God promised them; murdering their fellowmen for “personal reasons” was forbidden. And that was a NEW concept in human history, which Mr. Higgins neglects to mention, while denouncing monotheism, in particular.

    I, too, can conjecture about Higgins as he does about me, a “believer.” So, perhaps Mr. Higgins has suffered a fear of death since childhood and finds no solace in religion, which makes his unrelieved fear/dread/resentment of dying feed his argument against all the religious beliefs that have failed him. Or, he has convinced himself there is nothing to fear about death; our flesh decays and that’s the end of us, so he is trying to get multiple people to agree with him to convince himself he is “right.” Whatever his reasoning, he didn’t create our universe and he cannot destroy it, so he is “overpowered” by unknown forces beyond his control — and hating his helplessness. If true, that theory would simply prove that when we harbor “hatred,” we become destructive! But trying to destroy faith in God condemns Higgins to fight a losing battle, which is a sad way to spend one’s life.

    So, Christopher Higgins, you appear to be a sad member of a species that is distinguished from all other creatures on earth by its ability to contemplate the Source of itself and all physical matter. You can “wait for science” to tell you how “the universe” happened, but the wait will exceed your lifetime. And that means you’ll go to your grave without ever “knowing faith” — a knowledge that appears to be exclusively “human.”

  4. jbd: I'll talk more about Dawkins' and my own ideas about why humans are religious in part 3 of this series.

    I assume you're talking about this article: Is God poison? (Although containing an embarrassing abundance of biased, slanted reporting and howling errors of fact, the author actually manages to get many atheist arguments and their supporting evidence correct.)

    I think you're leaping to enormous conclusions from Christopher Hitchens' single, seemingly offhand sentence.

    I suspect that religion may well have started from fear of death, but I think that religious institutions and belief systems have over millennia appropriated several other important social functions, notably group identification and the maintenance and propagation of social ethics.

    There are, of course, many features of humanity that set us off from the rest of terrestrial life, only one of which—one that many, including Dawkins, Harris and myself argue is the most trivial—is the tendency to talk about Gods and Ultimate Creators.

    Dawkins, Harris, et al. argue that religion doesn't help us live more peacefully than we would without it; indeed they argues the contrary: that we would live more peacefully without religion than with it. I'll explore this line of thought in part 4.

    The idea that a prohibition against murder—as well as a "divine" justification for the prohibition—was somehow new to proto-Jewish philosophy shows an appalling ignorance of basic history. The code of Hammurabi, preceding the Ten Commandments by 500 years, proscribes intentional murder. The code of Hammurabi has its origins in earlier Babylonian custom and judicial precedents and Other legal codes precede Hammurabi by yet another 500 years.

    This sort of ignorance, your sloppiness and lack of attention to detail and the myriad errors of reasoning in your comment provide stark evidence of the corrosive effect religion can have on the rational abilities of even such an articulate and presumably sincere person as yourself.

  5. Dawkins, Harris, et al. argue that religion doesn't help us live more peacefully than we would without it

    It would be very hard to verify this claim, wouldn't you agree, Herr BB? I mean, wouldn't you need to be able to compare theocracies to like societies/cultures that were not religious: well I guess you could, say Stalinist USSR or Mao. Compared to Stalinism (what are we up to 50 mil deaths??), even the Catholic church doesn't look that bad. But--according to your neo-Humean amoral code---who gives a F about peace vs. war, or theocracy vs. democracy or communims. A fascist society controlled by lying, murderous sadistic clerics--say like a De Sade if not Goerings--could well be your role model in HumeLand, as long as your par-tay material (or, perhaps a masochist). Zut.

  6. If one ever needed another reason to decry religion, I think the moral vacuousness of the Catholic Church speaks for itself.

    I've always had a soft spot for Christopher Hitchens, myself, and his new book, God is Not Great, just adds to the list of why. BTW, Larry, I should warn you that Gardens of the Moon, while a rollicking good read, is not as good as the other books in the series that are so far available in the U.S.

    It is Eric Hoffer (of The True Believer fame) -- whose own religious beliefs are difficult to suss out from his writings -- that puts religion (for me anyways) in its best perspective:

    "Take man's most fantastic invention -- God. Man invents God in the image of his longings, in the image of what he wants to be, then strives to imitate that image, vie with it, and strive to overcome it."

    "The opposite of a religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist, but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not."

    Count me in the latter category.

    Imagine how we’d behave if we’d never been told “Thou shall not murder”

    I imagine we'd behave much the way we do now. To conjecture that we murdered with far more frequency in the past is to pontificate without foundation. Prohibitions like the Ten Commandments are just impositions of authority with a divine veneer. Hoffer again: "The savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets."

    jbd contends that religion sets man apart from beast. Could religion not be a manifestation of an impulse Hoffer describes? "Man is the only creature that strives to surpass himself, and yearns for the impossible."

    The Jaynesian theory of the origin of consciousness and religion -- that gods were the psychotic manifestations of our unconscious -- is another theory, one often discounted. And yet, why? The more I work with people suffering from schizophrenia or other delusional disorders, the more credence is lent his theory. Why do schizophrenics manifest so many religiously-grounded command hallucinations? And yet, such a claim would be roundly rejected. Why?

    I'm telling you, Hoffer is where it's at. Forget Plato, Aquinas, and Dawkins. Hoffer finds the teleological drive within the Abrahamic religion (he was fascinated with the Hebrews) compelling. The Hebrews are the first recorded people with a creation myth that commanded them to force nature into submission, rather than live in harmony with or fear of it. That brilliant teleology is what makes the God of Abraham (that crazy, schizophrenic priest -- I've always felt bad for that guy who was caught gathering firewood on the Sabbath...) so compelling.

    jbd, rather than conjecture about Mr. Hitchens's motives, you can read his numerous writings on the subject, both collections (I recommend Love, Poverty, and War, as I have yet to read God is Not Great), books, and essays. While he is a rude, uncouth, crazy bastard, he is also scathingly intelligent and one of the best essayists working in English today. You will find, I believe, that Mr. Hitchens remains in consistent opposition to all forms of authority; religion, being a prominent and particularly nebulous form of authority, suffers his wrath frequently.

    Personally, I don't understand the "hating God" rebuttal to atheism. I don't hate "God." I find the Abrahamic God deeply offensive, nihilistic, and anti-human. But mostly, I just don't care: I have no void in my life requiring spirituality or a prime mover. I have my love for my wife, her love for me, and the opportunity to do what I can for my fellow man. That's all the meaning anyone should need.

  7. I suggest you read it again, closely. Hitchens is not a bad writer, but if we assume he is a Humean (and he has referred to Hume on occasion, and thus a skeptic in regards to ethics or values, then he, like BB, has no grounds to criticize any society, even a theocratic one. That is a rather obvious entailment of ethical subjectivism (add your meta if you want), which liberals continually overlook (nothing more amusing than Darwinist say "Bush is Evil"). Evil is merely a matter of personal taste for Humeans (and even if consensus says theocracy or fascism is wrong, one has no obligation to follow the majority view, as BB has said numerous times, or anyone's except whatever one defines as "Good" subjectively). TO be consistent, BB ought to let skinheads fly swastikas or rebel flags on the site (or hammer and sickles, Mao pics, what have you).

  8. jbd:

    The "fear of death" explanation of religion also extends beyond merely allowing each of us to alleviate fear of our i>own/i> death. You mentioned the death of your son. I would hazard a guess that your religious belief gives you a cherished hope that you will meet your son again in the afterlife - which is simply a round-about way of saying your religious belief gives hope that your son isn't truly dead. Our own death is certainly daunting - but the death of the people we love and the things we value can seem even more so. Religion gives reason to hope for both based on the basic notion that death is an illusion. It is not the only attractive offer made by religious thinking - but all others seem to pale in comparison.

  9. Perezoso,

    The point of a subjective ethical system is still to arrive at ethical conclusions - subjectivists are simply honest about the subjectivity of the evaluation.

    Like many people who can't seem to take a subjective ethical philosophy seriously, your criticism seems to be that subjective moral systems cannot lead to objective moral conclusions. As we say in programming, this is a feature of subjective ethics, not a bug.

    Subjective ethical conclusions can be just as weighty as objective ones - and they can give their expounders just as much justification for shunning neo-Nazis and rapists. Indeed, from the subjectivist point of view, these moral evaluations are as weighty as they can possibly be since objective moral claims cannot exist.

  10. your criticism seems to be that subjective moral systems cannot lead to objective moral conclusions. As we say in programming, this is a feature of subjective ethics, not a bug.

    I guess you've been busy with Tandy Corp manuals, man, and have overlooked Hume's Treatise, and the famous line regarding the absence of any moral facts. Master Hume says (paraphrasing) he would be more bothered by a prick on the finger that by the elimination of half the world's population. That is what subjective ethics--er, desire-based ethics from the perspective of the individual---entails (and one could put this in basic conditional, such as "if no objective values, then anything goes"; thus, "if Hume, then Goering.")

  11. """If you call yourself an atheist you should be uncompromisingly anti-religion""""

    This is another sort of bogus obligation that the pop-atheists like to suggest. The real atheist (and shall we say Humean skeptic) realizes that hypocrisy is no big deal, especially if no one catches you: so he is free to say join a church, and do whatever the F. he wants, and generally try to avoid the authorities (unless he decides he wants to be caught); or commit white-collar crime, defraud old people, rip off the Feds, if he can. And indeed the Catholic church has always had such people.

  12. Hey what's "kipp" mean, man? Interesting acronym. If it means what ah think it means, BB might not care for the entailment.

  13. Humean... Darwinist...

    Perezoso, I think I've identified what it is that's been making you seem so obstinate that I just want to scream. You keep identifying Larry, and myself, as "Humean." You also refer to "liberals" as though they are somehow monolithic in thought, or all prescribe to Larry's brand of thinking. Then there's your (and lots of other commenters') continued use of "Darwinist." You (and many, many others) use these terms as though they were catch-all identifiers, much the same as "Christian" or "Muslim" can be used.

    Your assumption -- related, I think, to the phenomenon I observed in Dinesh D'Souza -- is that belief in, say, evolution, has to be categorized in the same way a religionist might categorize his or her metaphysical underpinnings: Ascribe to the teachings of Christ? You're a Christian (well, until S/Paul sunk his teeth into the whole thing, but you get the gist, I'm sure...).

    Evolution, for example, isn't used in that way. It's explanatory, but not metaphysically explanatory. It makes no claims about the origin of life, as Darwin was very explicit in noting. To call someone a "Darwinist" is to say they place him on a pedestal similar to that of Christ, Moses, or Mohammed. That's a completely blinkered misunderstanding, and I'm beginning to wonder why it is religious people can't grasp it. I don't think it's deliberate, for the most part. I think it has to do with cognitive schema.

    You do the same thing with Hume. Some of us avow skepticism of metaphysical universal truths. We must be "Humeans!" Skepticism isn't a liberal trait; or, rather, it didn't used to be. Read your Oakeshott and Burke. Skepticism, as expressed by Hume, Oakeshott, Burke, and, yes, myself and Larry (not that I'm equating myself with Hume!), is about evaluating based on things you can be sure of. Skepticism is not indecision, however. Nor is it a prohibition against judgment; it is an acknowledgment that one might be wrong. You're a smart and eloquent person; this shouldn't be too hard to grasp.

    You clearly feel you've poked holes in Hume that no one has been able to adequately fill to your satisfaction. That's fine; Hume, while very, very smart, doesn't have answers for everything. I've poked holes in Aquinas, Anselm, and C.S. Lewis that no one has ever adequately filled to my satisfaction; while sufficient to lead me to discard "natural law" and theism, I don't pretend that they are sufficient to do so for all.

    Monotheism has had 3,000 years and three religious traditions to draw upon for its philosophical underpinnings. Despite choosing one central figure for each branch of the Abrahamic faiths, there have been literally thousands of smart thinkers, almost all of whom seem to have preceded from God as the supposition, not the conclusion. Atheism and alternative ethical thoughts have had, what, three or four hundred years? Just because someone pokes holes in one pillar of monotheistic thought, that doesn't lead many people to cast it aside. Why not give atheism and secular ethical thought those same courtesies? By your standards, since Aquinas is long past eviscerated, Christianity should fall. And yet, I am sure, if you are a Christian, you would deny such a thing. By ascribing the term "Humean" to Larry's writings, you can dismiss them semantically, out of hand, without ever actually addressing the whole of the substance.

    TO be consistent, BB ought to let skinheads fly swastikas or rebel flags on the site (or hammer and sickles, Mao pics, what have you).

    Really? Larry is free to find these things personally distasteful without any contradiction to anything he's previously written (or, indeed, any contradiction to Hume, unless one is preceding in a wholly semantic and context-free frame of evaluation). I think the ultimate problem is that you cannot divorce other people's thoughts from your own frame of reference. This is, on the whole, maddening. Kipp does an excellent job of explaining why.

    Master Hume says (paraphrasing) he would be more bothered by a prick on the finger that by the elimination of half the world's population.

    Perezoso, I need you to comprehend, not just read. This is base semantics. Hume isn't saying that only things that affect him personally are important; he's saying that, so long as he isn't in that other half and neither is anyone he knows, their deaths don't affect him -- they might as well be abstractions. I don't know if I have the ability to make this much clearer, but I can try.

    The real atheist (and shall we say Humean skeptic) realizes that hypocrisy is no big deal...

    I can't believe I just wasted all this time on you.

  14. No, you need to read. In fact memorize your code: that point on the fact/value distinction is precisely your POV, which you fail to understand. You are the one missing the point. No moral facts means no moral facts. Got it? There's no magic intuition, or sensitivity, or substituting in some psychological factor given purely desire-based ethics. You have no grounds to criticize Hitchens, or even D'Souza, except from the perspective of subjective aesthetics---the republicans are not to your taste, but they might be to someone else. You fail to understand that basic point. (and Darwin leads to the same conclusion, excepting perhaps some adaptationism, more or less). >

  15. Perezoso,

    From the subjectivist point of view, all ethical claims are desire based. People who claim to adhere to an objective ethics are either mistaken, deluded, or willfully dishonest.

    This does mean than an individual can "morally" choose to be a Goering in the sense that he may feel ethically justified based on his own desires. This does not mean that everyone else must agree with him nor that we cannot judge him to be immoral based on our own ethical standard. It is true that none of us can then plausibly appeal to an objective ethics to settle our difference of opinions - but again, that really is the point: Subjectivists believe that objective moral truths do not exist and hence we must deal with the thorny problem of ethical disagreements without recourse to argument-settling objective truths.

    And to your other question: "kipp" is the four letter term that denotes the first name of the author of this comment. It is an open question whether the Bum would like my entailments ;-)

  16. It is an open question whether the Bum would like my entailments ;-)

    ::chuckles:: My lovely wife would definitely object to me even considering the question, so we will have to leave the matter as an unsolvable mystery.

  17. From the subjectivist point of view, all ethical claims are desire based""

    No sh**t. That is what I have said about 10 times now, and Hume was one of the first to state that clearly (even Hobbes does not exactly put his secular ethics in those terms). Thus, in a very real sense, the pure subjectivist endorses anarchy, crime, fascism, communism, what have you. No it's NOT necessary that he endorse those positions, but no moral facts entails ....everything is permitted, in terms of human actions (and Russell noted this 100 years ago, when he criticized Wm James for his "cash theory of truth," which means, more or less, historical facts could themselves be altered if not falsified in hopes of bringing about some desired goal. And indeed BB could not object, except on subjective aesthetic grounds (meaningless as he himself grants, really, unless he wants to argue for some type of consensus of subjective, aesthetic, pseudo-values), to some super hacker who say, a few decades from now when everything is stored in data bases, who deleted 20th century history completely and replaced it with some kinder gentler PC version which made no mention of stalinism, fascism, etc.

  18. Is it acceptable to call Perezoso an ass yet? I'm really quite certain that he's arguing in bad faith at this point.

    No moral facts means no moral facts. Got it?

    Okay, one, you're being rude, and two, you're being pedantically semantic, and it's pissing me off because I have no patience for it. How can moral facts be "facts?" Gravity pulls on me -- I'm not free to abrogate it at will. I can, however, walk up to someone and stab them in the eye with my Leatherman without a natural force capable of intervening without human (i.e. mental) agency behind it. I think that you are rude and being rude is wrong. That's a fact. "You are being rude" is a perception you're free to dispute; indeed, you might find I am being rude, though that is not my intent, and ascribe to me hypocrisy or that I have "no grounds" to criticize your rudeness, all of which just further illustrate my point.

    Ultimately, we weren't discussing ethics, Perezoso; we were discussing atheism. You attempted to confuse the matter by conflating atheism with "moral relativism" and utilitarianism by invoking Hume via skepticism. As The Euthyphro pointed out a looooong time ago, the existence of morals as objective facts would not constitute evidence for a god or gods. Well and good, that's out of the way. You want to have a discussion about ethics, fine. But let's be clear on what we're discussing. An atheist states that, since there is no God, God is not the foundation for ethical thought. Full stop. But, for foundational ethics to be the rebuttal to atheism, one must needs proceed from an ontological -- and therefore entirely self-referential -- argument. That doesn't pass muster.

    Moral subjectivism is not "moral relativism" in the lazy sense characterized in popular culture. Moral relativism holds that "no ethics can be true, so they are all equal." That's most emphatically not what I (I do not presume to speak for Larry, whose many posts speak for themselves) have ever stated. Like Larry's "meta-ethical subjective relativism," I have always contended that how we arrive at certain moral and ethical conclusions are equally valid. It's a basic tenet of logic that an argument can be internally valid without being true. Look at it this way: Two people crossing a plain to arrive at the same destination needn't take the same track.

    A moral realist states that there are moral truths -- but are those truths real because they are objective facts or because they are universally agreed upon? There's an important distinction there.

    A moral objectivist, such as yourself, insists that there is an underlying, consistent basis for this, a law. Why should there be? All the objectivist does is project a need for certainty onto a question of internal systems.

    Indeed, my grounds for criticizing D'Souza in the comment above were not matters of aesthetics or even judgment: I criticized both him and yourself for errors in underlying assumptions, which is what I've been talking about. Moral subjectivism is an acknowledgment of those underlying assumptions. The objectivist chooses to elide that distinction. Just because we can arrive at answers that allow for constructive success (such as living together as social pack animals) doesn't make the underlying assumptions correct. I could be wrong in my assumption, but I have arrived at similar, successful conclusions.

    That's the difference between us: I'm happy to admit I could be wrong, and I don't let it paralyze me. Moral objectivism is more characteristic of a weakness of will and an inability to grapple with uncertainty than a bona fide system of laws.

  19. How about we call you an ass. You can't quite grasp that you, er, have no position to criticize anything anymore, whether in terms of ethics, aesthetics, politics, or even blog comments; yet of course yo uwill assume you have some priviledged perspective (like your continued unjustified disdain for who you take to be "conservatives"). Indeed one could extend the subjectivism and say a Doctor is not bound to say treat his patient in a normal or ethical way. So you go in for a checkup and Doc cuts off your arm. You go to file charges, but a group of citizens has banded
    together--and formed an No Rights to Barefoot Bum Commenters! group---and have put in effect a law saying you have no rights. You have to grant your own sense of outrage is itself misplaced. Someday you'll get it, I jus' knows it.

  20. Perezoso et al., I am going to finish with an example that I hope illustrates what I'm trying to say more clearly, and then I'm done, in order to avoid making a total ass (too late, perhaps) out of myself.

    A moral objectivist contends that moral quandaries pose binary resolutions: Something is moral, or it is not. Yes or no. On or off. 1 or 0. Fortunately, the real world gives us plenty of examples of competing ethics, where the answer is dependent upon personal preference and/or contextual information.

    For example, my wife believes that soldiers who go to war, when they have spouses and/or children, are not merely wrong to do so, but committing a profoundly immoral act by abandoning their families for a time and placing themselves in a position wherein their families may be left without them forever.

    This is not just a valid argument as constructed, but a true one, if you, like my wife, privilege responsibility to family as a primary good.

    When it comes to an elective war, like the occupation of Iraq, I agree with her. (This is further complicated in that there are those who do not believe the occupation of Iraq is an elective war; see how complex it can be?) However, I can hypothesize situations of existential threat (say, an invasion by giant space aliens, Communists, zombie hordes, or hordes of zombie Communist space aliens) wherein the risk of not acting outweighs the risk of acting. My wife, however, disagrees, and states that my responsibility should be to her and our hypothetical babies, since there are lots of single people to go and fight.

    Here's the crux of the matter: We're both correct. What we both say is both valid and objectively true. Without contextual and preferential information, the binary equation of the objectivist asks us to choose, not between 0 and 1, but 1 and 1. Even if these moral choices are facts (concrete, immutable truths), their existence as such does not help us make any decision between them.

    Is that any clearer?

  21. Perezoso, look, I've clearly hit a nerve, and I just don't get it. What am I missing? You say that as someone whom you would describe as a "Humean," I have to abide by utilitarian/hedonistic judgments and therefore have no objective or subjective grounds to criticize anything. I rather thought that I had addressed that, rather than flat out denied it, but clearly you feel I've missed something.

    You're very well read; I am not. But I just don't understand what you're trying to get at anymore, unless it is simply to avoid engagement with my responses by denying me the right or basis to respond in the first place as some sort of pre-emptive argumentation tactic.

    Are you saying that since I'm an atheist, I have to be an acolyte of Hume/utilitarianism/hedonism and therefore lack any standing to even discuss ethics? Because if so, I thought that's what I was addressing by pointing out that moral objectivism is no standard by which to judge atheism. So, what did I miss. You're an eloquent and thoughtful guy, when you don't devolve into faux-hick condescension, and I want to understand what you're getting at.

  22. I know all about subjectivism. Hume I read years ago. I never claimed justifying moral realism, especially that of the secular sort was an easy task. I might grant that there are no necessary arguments for objective values, but then there are no necessary arguments that you exist, or for many other things/events/processes. I do think Gewirth's argument, if not necessary, is strongly cogent ( even a transcendental platonic Justice is not implausible, say cognitively realized). People do value their own "rights" to obtain their economic goals; you might say a "right" doesn't seem defineable, but it is, as well as many other abstract nouns (it's as definable as most political/ethical terms). I don't care to wade into that argument again (tho' I am working towards a long post on Gewirth and Hooker that I may forward to BB), but suffice it say, the absurd situations that subjectivism leads to (i.e. no Due Process rights, no Hippocrates Rule, no duty to tell the truth, the possibility of tyranny of the majority, totalitarianism, etc., etc.) should make even the hard-core Humean skeptic pause.

  23. """A moral objectivist contends that moral quandaries pose binary resolutions: Something is moral, or it is not.Yes or no. On or off. 1 or 0""""

    Not sure I agree with that. I am not even sure we could say either morality is objective, or it is not. For that matter, some people might question whether "truth" should always be defined as a tautology: for instance, is "Mary loves Joe, or Mary does not love Joe" a tautology??? Ich denke nicht. Love is not an off/on switch, whatever it is. I agree it has form of tautology: either P or not P--but with certain predicates it is no longer tautologous (ie, the law of the excluded middle does not hold); or "he is bald or he is not bald"--he is 60% bald, etc.. Tautology/binaries/truth functions work nice with circuits or truth tables, not really with "ordinary language."

    But back to ethics. My own sense is that one while moral realism may be nearly impossible to prove in terms of a necessarily true deductive argument, it is a very important "given" (perhaps there are strong cogent reasons to accept it): especially in matters of justice, such as Due Process (ie, all the liberals protesting the "gitmo" situation, etc.). And not simply a matter of consensus, as the Founding Fathers realized as well.

  24. BB. Just curious. Is there anything that Dawkins says--anything at all--which you think is even just a little bit dubious? Even fellow atheists like Michael Ruse think his book is an embarrassment. Maybe that's swinging too far. (I, for one, think that Dawkins says some interesting things in God Delusion, and I think that his Blind Watchmaker is a brilliant--and nonpolemical--refutation of the design argument.) But your so far total endorsement of everything he says: this just seems swinging too far in the opposite direction from Ruse, and it makes your defense of Dawkins--well, not as credible as you want it to be.

  25. Deacon:

    Is there anything Dawkins says that I don't agree with? Sure. Stepping partially out of just this book, I think his "meme" metaphor trades far too much on the physical details of genes; his explanation of why religion persists as it does doesn't do the job.

    He completely misses the core criticism of "heavyweight" Swinburne's argument from simplicity (that Swinburne's account of an "explanation" does not include that an explanation should logically entail what is being explained).

    As far as his identity politics go I'm really have almost identical views. His (and my) politics are, however, controversial within the atheist community: It is in no small part because of my own more adversarial political views that I'm no longer a member of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board, the management of which tends to take a more accommodationist view.

    Michael Ruse, as you mention, seems also to lean towards accommodationism. I think too Ruse uses "religion" in a very different sense than Dawkins does. (It's interesting that both Dawkins and Ruse see the late S. J. Gould as belonging to the other side, and in fact both see his concept of non-overlapping magisteria to be an insincere sham.)

    I do agree with Ruse that it's absolutely insupportable that the scientific theory of evolution entails any ethical view at all. (And it's interesting to note that the example O'Hehir gives, "W.D. Hamilton's stuff about how we should permit infanticide in order to keep sick and disabled people out of the gene pool," actually contradicts evolution.)

    In any case, I don't see how agreeing with Dawkins to any extent makes defense or support of his views less credible any more than disagreeing with him would make criticism less credible. It would seem that the credibility of any argument should be based pretty much exclusively on how well one constructs that argument.

  26. Perezoso:

    The comments belong to my readers, including you yourself. To the extent, however, that you take my preferences into account, I prefer that the comments of any post relate at least somewhat directly to the content of the post.

    Since you clearly have something to say about my views on meta-ethical subjective relativism, I'll repeat my recommendation that you start a blog of your own to publish your views. Furthermore I invite you to write an essay on the subject, which I will seriously consider posting on the "front page" of the The Barefoot Bum.

  27. Given that theists attempt to justify moral realism, the relation of ethics to atheism applies here. I don't think there are convincing, ncessary (or even plausible) arguments for God, but again, there are no convincing arguments for many ideas, concepts, processes; but it's quite obvious that religions do attempt to account for objective values and Justice. (however I think it's possible to be a moral realist of some sort, and a Darwinist and secularist, without believing in religion, or God, or a soul).

    Consider lying from a somewhat Darwinist perspective:

    Say Guido ordered his boys to off some nosy-detective, and they do so, and then Guido lies about his guilt ("plead the fifth, paysano") when on trial (as of course many people accused of crimes do) and then goes to trial, but is acquitted, and in effect gets away with Moider, returns to his warehouse, and continues with his business, advances the gene pool a bit more via kids with Velma, etc. What does the strict Darwinian say? Guido succeeded, in a sense, by lying (a "don't get caught" meme, if you will), and many criminals who lie about their guilt (at least ones with the right defense attorneys) do succeed; thus lying could in many instances be a positive trait. We might assume that rational humans would object to Guido's lie, but those who hold to purely Darwinist or genetic determinism would appear to have no grounds for any such objections. So that oaths to tell the truth are really meaningless, or at best sort of pragmatic (and the same situation might apply to judges and prosecutors, as I think we discussed before)

  28. and of course a "Murder your rivals ASAP" another effective genetic strategy which Darwinism would seem to grant. And that might even apply to newborns: in a big family, another kid might mean much more competition (for food, resources, what have you). Obviously many animal species do this, even mammals: an alpha wolf will eat one or more newborn pups, etc. So why a law? IT would seem you, BB, should be campaigning for an infant cannibalism right.

  29. "Accommodationism": yes, another chiseled in stone Dawkins category which destroys the possibility of rational deep listening between people on different sides of this issue. Anyone who is an evolutionist and atheist and so just naturally *should* agree right down the line with Dawkins is dismissed as a peace in our time Neville Chamberlain. This is just so tiresome.

  30. "Chiseled in stone"? I think it's tendentious and unwarranted that decisiveness is taken for dogmatism or prejudice.

    We rationalists have been listening deeply to theists and theologians for hundreds of years, waiting with bated breath for the appearance of a rational, sensible argument. I personally have been listening for twenty years, very carefully for the last seven or eight. And all I've heard from the theists and theologians about "God" is lies and bullshit. If there's any truth buried in theology, y'all have successfully hidden it from me.

    The historical place of religion has earned theologians centuries of attention. The patience of the rationalists is not infinite, however, and it is growing very thin. For many of us, myself included, it has evaporated completely.

    No atheist* is arguing that theologians should be killed, imprisoned, silenced or censored. If you have something to say, rational or not, you have the same avenues as anyone else available to say it. If, by some miracle, a theologian writes something sensible and rational about "God", it will come to our attention sooner or later, and we'll deal with it then.

    You do not, however, have any sort of a priori or unconditional right to be taken seriously, any more than UFO cultists or conspiracy theorists do; you have only yourselves to blame if you are not taken seriously.

    *Well, perhaps a few might, but I haven't seen any outside the Soviet Union and China. The vast majority of Western atheists—myself included—disclaim them in general and, when brought to our attention disclaim them in particular.

  31. It occurs to me, Deacon, that you might be interpreting Dawkins in a "theistic" mode: Atheists typically do not take Dawkins a prophet or a religious-style authority. He's a smart guy, and many of us agree with him, and some of us are actually persuaded by him. Some atheists do not agree with him. You don't have to agree with Dawkins to be an atheist "in good standing".

    In fact, the quickest way to lose one's intellectual standing as an atheist is to insist on agreeing with Dawkins because of his "authority" as opposed to the persuasiveness of his arguments.

    Atheists, scientifically-minded people and rationalists do not chisel anything in stone... but we still make decisions. The only thing "chiseled in stone" is the past; the future is uncertain and decisions—at least the decisions of rational people—are susceptible to change.

    The rejection or acceptance of accommodationism is one such decision. Based on the information and arguments available now, I personally reject the concept. I don't think the religion and theology has any sort of place at the table of rational discourse, even in the area of ethics, where Humanism has appropriated everything good that religious ethicists might have stumbled upon. Say something rational about God, and I'll reconsider my position.

    My anti-accommodationism only goes so far, though: I personally promise always to oppose legal coercion against the holding and expression of your beliefs, regardless of my opinion of them, so long as you don't directly advocate violence or prosaic illegality. And, holding MESR, I have to admit that the source of your ethical beliefs are irrelevant to their existence: I would again always oppose any attempt to disenfranchise theists or deny them the moral right to vote their consciences, and bind myself to the decision of the majority, with a similar proviso of consistency with Constitutional law.

    Furthermore the things you or other theists say that aren't about God are not held in the same sort of disesteem: Just because you have some irrational ideas doesn't mean you aren't ordinary citizens in good standing.

  32. """No atheist* is arguing that theologians should be killed, imprisoned, silenced or censored."""

    Oh BB, when are you going to get around to reading say some material on the French Revolution? How about Bolsheviks? Or Mao? Or the atheists who made up most of nazi elite? The sans cullottes began by executing the nobles AND the clergy. The Bolsheviks liquidated 1000s of priests and clerics. So if your assertion is "theocracy" has always been tyrannical, and secularism has been good, you are really quite mistaken. Communism was predicated on materialist, atheist grounds (and really anti-democracy, anti-Lockean rights as well). That sort of implied historical argument simply doesn't work, given 20th century history of atheist societies.

    However, I grant that there are no convincing arguments for theological concepts--tho' I think the Design argument has quite a bit of force, even if read secularly, and Descartes' ideas on the Res Cogitans should not just be tossed aside (have brain scientists provided a convincing account of consciousness? hell no). Moreover the moral realist (theistic or not) does have quite a bit to work with: one, we do seem to have a sense of Justice (like Due Process rights) that is not based merely on consensus or subjective desire, and, two, subjectivism does seem to allow the possibility of crime, anarchy, totalitarianism more than moral realism might, tho' I grant it would be difficult to prove (if the bloody atheist societies of Stalin and Mao are any indication, perhaps the theists have a point).

    It might be noted that the Dawkins-style atheism also appeals to many conservatives, or corporate people. I suggest Dawkins is a contemporary Nietzsche--if not a pro-capitalist individualist and crypto-aristocrat such as Ayn Rand, for better or worse (tho' with more expertise in bio-chemistry, genetics, evolutionary theory, etc.) Atheism, even scientific atheism, functions in a political context; and the writings of a Dawkins, like Nietzsche or Aynnie Rand obviously will serve the purposes of corporate execs better than will the New Testament. A SJ Gould, who made some critical remarks about Dawkins, offered a different form of atheism, as did say Russell--or Karl Marx (Russell perhaps more skeptic than atheist). Gould or Russell's skepticism, however, does not serve the corp. execs.

  33. And your latest replies are exactly what I'm talking about. Why must you unfailingly turn this into an adversarial pissing-match: I win, you lose? Who said anything about apriori rights? Persecution? You, like Dawkins, philosophize with a hammer. But you shouldn't assume that everyone else is equally interested in whacking.

  34. Oh BB, when are you going to get around to reading say some material on the French Revolution? How about Bolsheviks? Or Mao? Or the atheists who made up most of nazi elite?

    Sigh. Have a look at a map and a calendar. This is the United States, not France, Russia, China or Germany. It is 2007, not 1789, 1911, 1949 or 1933.

    I think the Design argument has quite a bit of force, even if read secularly...

    Think what you like; I don't share your views. Darwin pretty much demolishes the design argument with regard to biology, and the Weak Anthropic Principle adequately rebuts the Fine Tuning argument.

    Descartes' ideas on the Res Cogitans should not just be tossed aside (have brain scientists provided a convincing account of consciousness? hell no)

    This is an argument from ignorance; even so we're not as ignorant about consciousness as you might suppose. See, for example, Dan Dennett's excellent book Consciousness Explained.

    [S]ubjectivism does seem to allow the possibility of crime, anarchy, totalitarianism more than moral realism might...

    Since you mention it, A good theory accounts for the facts in evidence. That crime, anarchy and totalitarianism do in fact occur suggests that a theory which accounts for their possibility would be superior to a theory that does not.

    Dawkins-style atheism also appeals to many conservatives, or corporate people.

    Perhaps you're right, but so what? The truth is the truth, and simply denying it won't make it go away. The Christian Church had a grip on Western ethical philosophy and law for a thousand years, and it's telling that this grip was labeled the "Dark Ages" and its relaxation labeled the "Enlightenment".

  35. Deacon: I'm sorry (but not particularly surprised) that you're unhappy with the tone of this discussion—a tone I believe I'm halfway responsible for. I'm not particularly thrilled with it either.

    I've offered you an olive branch several times, here and on your own blog, and I'll offer you yet another: I'm willing to unconditionally call everything acrimonious between us as bygones.

    You don't have to retract anything you say about Dawkins, you can say what you like about him on your own blog, and I will simply refrain from commenting there or referring here to your views even obliquely (Orr's review offers sufficient critical grist).

    I think you and I do have a basis for intellectual, philosophical and even political conversation; Dawkins and The God Delusion, though, seem outside that basis.

  36. To be more specific, I'll refrain from commenting on your blog about Dawkins; the point being to restore that part of our conversation that doesn't devolve into pissing matches.

  37. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  38. Exactly: to an atheist, the bloody events of the French or Russian revolutions are meaningless (even tho' they establish that secularists and atheists are every bit as capable as murder and tyranny as theists are, which disproves your point, which you overlooked again). That was Hume's point: no God, no justice, no tragedy, no history: atheism easily justifies perfect statist efficiency, either fascist or communist.

    No one demolished the Design argument; nor is it even "Christian" per se. It's a matter of competing inferences about randomness, complexity, order, etc. Even Darwin, hardly some great chemist or physicist, contemplated Design (in regards to the human eye). I do not think any specific theological conclusions may be drawn from Design: but there is something like an argument from analogy: if astronomers find something that looks a computer--or say clock--- on another planet, and it is quite different than all the rocks surrounding it, they will assume that some intelligent being created it. What's more likely: it came about purely randomly, or someone (or some things) shaped it, created it, designed it? Believe me, if the Cal Tech boys see signs of some machine or gear, everyone in the world will assume it was created. SO the argument is whether there are grounds for extending the analogy to nature, carbon-based molecules, etc. I dont care for the fundamentalists' use of Design, but there is a point, especially if initial conditions were as improbable as many scientists think (if you get 100 blackjacks in a row don't you think the game is rigged???? yeah).

    The consciousness game is not over. In fact, the AI people mostly failed to apply any computer like models to thinking. They have not begun to identify many brain processes, even as basic as forming a sentence. That's not an argument from ignorance; it's simply an observation that consciousness has not been explained. And really at some point, brain scientists should be able to duplicate consciousness (a fave theme of bad sci-fi) and that they have not done, at all.

  39. (note: Perezoso's latest comment was double posted; I've removed only the duplicate post.)

  40. Censor! Apparatchik! Comrade BB, purging the bourgeois lackey reactionaries.

  41. Perezoso:

    The argument from design fails because it only works for things humans have designed. Your own and every framing of this argument relies on finding a watch, computer, 747, kodak instamatic or some other artifact of human design in a context without an obvious designer. Yet you attempt to broaden this point to Nature which, we can all agree, was not in any part designed by man. We have no reason to think something like Nature could even be "designed" in the first place.

    Since Nature is not designed by man, the argument from design can only work if it still proceeds when a non-human artifact is used as the basis for the design intuition. Despite the seeming contraction, complex non-human artifacts abound in the world: termite mounds, beaverdams, and honeycombs are all non-human artifacts. But notice as well that all these items are not really designed by their builders and thus the design intuition doesn't work for these items anyway.

    Nature is full of complicated objects that had no designer. It's only the human-designed objects that validate the design argument and we're already presupposing that Nature was not designed by humans. The Design Argument has not really been demolished - it was never any good in the first place

  42. No you missed the point: it's a matter of dueling inferences. The probability of certain carbon based molecules resulting organic life is incredibly minute. Had parameters been very slightly shifted, there would be no organic life, hepcat. That is Dembski's point (and he's fairly respectable mathematician). That doesn't mean we have to agree to whatever theologians do with the arguments, and I am not a fundamentalist (but to the rabid reductionist, any religious person is now a "rabid fundamentalist"). It means that Darwin, for one, was not a biochemist, and that there are shortcomings to Darwinism (as even SJ Gould granted).

    You can say 100 blackjacks in a row is not rigged, sure. Others, slightly more rational, say it is. Or at least that it's not necessarily the case that organic life arose randomly (and many Darwinists want their cake and eat it too, as Berlinski has noted. They say that at some point a regulartory mechanism sort of shapes evolution, via natural selection, adaptation, etc. Well, if there is some regulatory mechanisms (even DNA?) then what is the difference between that and Design? Not much. So I don't think one must grant that Design argument has been defeated. And there are even some people--rabid fundamentalists, of course--- who like think humans, capable of doing calculus or building cathedrals, are actually superior in intelligence to other animals.

    However, any sort of contra-Darwinist arguments make most "atheists" nervous, as does moral realism. They don't care to think they are being held accountable for their actions, for one.

  43. BB--Well said and fair enough. I accept the olive branch and thank you for extending it. I look forward to chatting with you and learning from you on nonDawkinsian topics. Peace.

  44. kipp:

    The Design Argument has not really been demolished - it was never any good in the first place

    I must beg to differ. Before Darwin, the argument from design was a real show-stopper. It's clear that the complexity and inter-relatedness of terrestrial life stands as much (really much more) in need of some sort of explanation as 100 consecutive spade royal flushes. Chance alone will not do.

    Before Darwin, the only known, reasonable explanation for the complexity of life was some sort of teleological intelligence. For this reason, non-Christian intellectuals were, before Darwin, typically Deists and very rarely "true" atheists.

    It really is only after Darwin that atheists can feel intellectually fulfilled.

  45. Perezoso: Just FYI: Dembski is not well respected within the academic mathematics community, but his Ph.D has given him at least enough status so that his mathematical work regarding evolution has been carefully investigated... and found wanting. He has done some decent work in general probability theory.

    Dembski' evolutionary work usually embeds the lack of natural selection into his assumptions; he's "proven" only that, absent natural selection, the development of terrestrial life would not be possible by pure chance, hardly a groundbreaking result.

    There are "shortcomings" in the "evolutionary" sciences—biology, biochemistry, ecology, geology, paleontology, cosmology, etc.—just as there are in any science: specific puzzles and mysteries which have not yet been adequately answered.

    However, a mystery alone does not invalidate a scientific paradigm such as biological evolution.

    Furthermore, there's quite a lot of evidence among the mysteries that have been solved under the evolutionary paradigm that the "intelligent design" hypothesis would entail a "designer" with, for example, both the staggering genius to design an eye and the unfathomable stupidity of taking millions of years to do the job, doing the job differently many times, and—most inexplicably—getting some details wrong in later attempts that were correctly done earlier.

    There are three completely distinct questions in this field, and it's important to understand that they are distinct and have completely different approaches to their answers.

    The first question is, of course, the nature and properties of contemporary terrestrial life, which absolutely demands a non-chance explanation, which has been provided by evolution and natural selection.

    The second is the origin of terrestrial life. This event, however, need have happened only once on Earth. Nobody knows the probability of having a suitable environment, and nobody knows the probability of the simplest selectable replicator arising by chance. However, it's a very very big universe, really big, and a probability of a single event does not have to be very large to entail that it will almost certainly happen somewhere. And, of course, if it does happen somewhere, that's precisely where the creatures (i.e. us) making inquiries will be.

    The third issue is the Fine Tuning argument. Frankly, we don't have the physics yet to be able to even pose the question precisely. Even so, an elementary understanding of probability mathematics shows that we can't draw any conclusions about supernatural fine-tuning from our observations.

  46. Lastly, "any sort of contra-Darwinist arguments make most "atheists" nervous" is true, simply because the success of the evolutionary paradigm in the biological sciences is so well established that to challenge the paradigm is to challenge scientific epistemology itself.

  47. To be honest, I think the Intelligent Design people are mostly quacks, especially the more biblethumping types. But there does seem to be an argument. The hysteria associated with the theism/atheism chat, however, distracts from other more important topics--politics, the environment, and yes, ethics. And I do think secularists (and I am a secularist) must grant that atheism can lead to anti-democratic politics, and sort of defeat their own stated principles, in a sense. So some secularists rightly criticize Dawkins and Co. for undermining their own attempts at economic justice, say. Yes, the subjectivist can say he feels economic justice (say raising taxes on wealthy, fighting white collar crime, excessive exec. salaries, etc.) is important, but that's just his own preference; but to others, those are very important concerns, if not nearly necessary in some sense. For instance, if you have the same IQ as Larry Ellison does, and are as educated and technologically adept ( I wager Larry doesn't know standard deviation from his SQL manuals) , why don't you make as much, or even close to what he makes? And so forth. That is why a Gewirth remains important: he offers a way to take on corporate or statist tyranny in some sense, rather than just emotional rhetoric and venting.

  48. Perezoso:

    And I do think secularists (and I am a secularist) must grant that atheism can lead to anti-democratic politics, and sort of defeat their own stated principles, in a sense.

    But of course. Atheism is only a denial of the existence of God; it says nothing at all about one's political or ethical beliefs other than that they are not grounded in the "divine".

    So some secularists rightly criticize Dawkins and Co. for undermining their own attempts at economic justice

    Understandably? Sure. Rightly? I'm not so sure. I'm a big fan of economic justice (being slightly to the left of Karl Marx), but I'm a bigger fan of the truth. If atheism or MESR are true but they undermine some attempts at economic justice, we have to make better attempts, not deny the truth.

    It should also be noted that ethical objectivism doesn't necessarily support economic justice: It might just as well support the worst sort of authoritarianism.

    I don't think it makes sense to try to second-guess the truth. Let's find the truth and then do the best we can with what we have.

  49. Question: WTF is a "strict Darwinian?" Also, what are "evolutionist[s]," "Darwinist[s]," and "Darwinian" supposed to mean?

    Since when is the theory of evolution an ethical system? And when did Charles Darwin become an ideological figure? Oh, right: It's not and he didn't!

    However, any sort of contra-Darwinist arguments make most "atheists" nervous, as does moral realism. They don't care to think they are being held accountable for their actions, for one.

    Being convinced of the efficacy of the theory of evolution does not require atheism, nor does atheism require a belief in evolution (I will grant that abiogenesis is a sticking point if one requires a creation mythos for all metaphysical systems, but, again, that's because people are generally uncomfortable with lack of certainty). And I think we've pretty clearly delineated how moral realism, meta-ethical subjectivism (the "how" of arriving at "truths"), and atheism are not at odds either.

  50. Larry,

    "It really is only after Darwin that atheists can feel intellectually fulfilled."

    Hume's analysis of the Argument from Design as question-begging pretty much gutted the force of the design argument a century before Darwin. I don't disagree that the argument had rheotical power before Darwin - and it still has that power now - but always and only for those who don't know any better. Darwin gave the definitive formulation of a robust alternative, but many pre-Darwinian thinkers (and I'm talking all the way back to ancient Greece) intuited a notion of accumulated gradual change that could lead, over time, to the complicated Nature we see today - specifically because the idea of a divine design/creation seemed outlandish to them.

    Darwin gave athiests a ready answer to arguments concerning a Christian God and Divine creation in a Christian context - but not all athiests focus their reaction on Christianity. Athiests have really had all the intellectual ammunition they needed since Xenophanes spoke of spiritual horses and their ungulate dieties.

  51. kipp:

    Hume's analysis of the Argument from Design as question-begging pretty much gutted the force of the design argument a century before Darwin.


  52. "Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning "punctuated evolution" and the unfilled gaps in post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication. (My own annoyance at Professor Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, for their cringe-making proposal that atheists should conceitedly nominate themselves to be called "brights," is a part of a continuous argument.) We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul. We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful. (In fact, if a proper statistical inquiry could ever be made, I am sure the evidence would be the other way.) We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room. We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse. We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true—that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow."

    --Christopher Hitchens, from God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in yesterday's "Fighting Words" column at Slate.

  53. It's always funny to hear cool scientific "objectivists" rage when someone dares to question Darwin. One, Darwin was no chemist: Chas. knew less about chemistry--certainly nothing about the periodic table, since it had not been established yet--- than the bright high school student. Evolution is about macro-events, species, taxonomy, not biochemistry. That's not to say that Darwin is necessarily wrong, but to point out the gaps of evolutionary theory (as Gould pointed out as well). That is a fairly important point raised by the more knowledgable Design people.

    The Design argument concerns an analogy. No one said it was some necessarily true proof (yet, then do you have a necessarily true proof that you exist? Or that say you existed 5 years ago). The question is whether the analogy (really an inference, ultimately) is warranted. If the "initial conditions"" were so improbable as to be nearly impossible (100 straight flushes in a row, etc.), then some might say that something other than randomness was involved. And the design people say the same about other complex events (tho' I think the initial conditions point is more plausible than say Behe's somewhat strange arguments about complexity---sand dunes look very complex but certainly that could arise randomly). At least at the level of analogy, the initial conditions argument has some force ---and I would agree that it is more Deistic than traditionally theology (Newton offered a deistic Design argument, as well).

    Hume simply says the watchmaker analogy is not relevant, since nature is not a clock (human artifact); but Hume was unaware of the initial conditions issue. It wasn't that the clerics were begging the question--- It was a claim that the analogy was not relevant, and that is the issue at stake; Hume doesn't really disprove the Design argument: it is conceivable that some Zeus-like (or JHVH like) entity was present at the big bang and intentionally set certain parameters . Unlikely, but not impossible.

  54. Perezoso,

    Hume simply says the watchmaker analogy is not relevant, since nature is not a clock (human artifact); but Hume was unaware of the initial conditions issue.

    Hume had more than one critique of the design argument. Hume's superior critique of the design argument was that it simply begs the question. If the clock or the ecosystem is so complex as to require a designer, then the designer itself entails a similar explanatory need. Every turn of the divine-designer crank ends with the same basic question just at a higher level: Who/what designed this complexity? The argument from design is incapable of answering this question - instead, it simply pushes the question off one more rhetorical step and hopes we don't follow.

  55. I don't think that's begging the question exactly: more like pointing to the problem of identifying a first cause---and astronomers themselves argue over this issue. That it seems very strange to point to a first cause doesn't mean there isn't one: and just as weird would be to claim there is no first cause (in terms of human intelligence or nature, it would seem), but infinite time. ;)

    However ah for one grant that the mysterious Master Hume usually wins these little spats. His real knock out argument (playing devil's advocate here) is really regarding perfection (Voltaire also understood this chestnut,as does Russell): one cannot infer anything like an omniscient, loving Creator via a posteriori arguments, that is, unless one wants to claim that dinosaurs, plagues, natural disasters, wars, villains, dictators are all part of His plan. Now that again is not a necessary argument---Gott could be some evil mad King sort---but there are some who might object to the idea that an omniscient, supposedly loving Creator planned the events of 20th century (knowing how it would unfold--including the acts of his human-bots), or say the tsunami of 12/04. And that argument usually will cause a fundie to twitch.

  56. perezoso,

    That it seems very strange to point to a first cause doesn't mean there isn't one: and just as weird would be to claim there is no first cause (in terms of human intelligence or nature, it would seem), but infinite time.

    What you formulate here as separate alternatives are actually the same. If a first cause exists, then that entails this this first cause was not caused itself. If there can be "causeless causers" then we have good reason to doubt our intuition that all things actually do require causes in the first place and hence we have no reason to assume nature requires a designer because nature could just as easily be a first cause.

    In my opinion, I think "perfection" is quirk of our linguistic & cognitive systems that isn't really sensical or worthy of much philosphical effort. I don't think it warrants a argument for or against because I think we don't know what we're even trying to talk about. I would feel the same way about the notion of infinity if it didn't have a rigorous mathematical history to help define it and was instead a naked semantic/metaphysical notion like "perfection." Hume thinks clearly even about as cognitively specious a concept as perfection - but that is the talent that makes Hume Hume and does not necessarily speak in perfection's favor...

  57. However ah for one...

    Perezoso, what's with alternating between faux-hick and English-as-second-language German accents? It's annoying, not distinctive or edgy. A good writer can convey their voice without relying upon idiomatic expression. It has, I'll admit, served a purpose, which was to distract me from the fact that most of your contentions are not grounded in philosophical substance but rhetorical device.

  58. Ah but it's a syntatic device meant to throw off sentimentalists who can't deal with the substance of the argument: moreover, if there ain't no obbleegations, thar r no obligayshuns to efen spel cerrectkly raht. Relax.

    Funny how both of you missed or ignored the sublimity of the argument against theological perfection--and by extension, to Design---described in Voltaire's Candide, also echoed by Ivan in the Bros. Karamazov, and Russell in the 30s when he was debating various clerics (and I believe Dawkins quote from some of these debates. Atheism didn't start like 3 or 4 years ago, tho on emigh think so given the hysteria over Doc Dawkins corporate-funded skepticism. One might cry reductionist, but I think you simply don't like discussion.

  59. perezoso,

    Funny how both of you missed or ignored the sublimity of the argument against theological perfection--and by extension, to Design---described in Voltaire's Candide

    Athiests, at least in my case, are more than just athiests about the western Christian conception of its deity. Ideas of divine perfection are only philosophical currency in Christian metaphysical thinking whereas creation/design stories are common across all kinds of religions. "Perfection" is as esoteric a notion as it is ill-defined - and it is the kind of thinking that could only arise in the rarified world of theological metaphysical debate - and in particular, debate in the context of a Christian belief system being rapidly stripped of tangible support by medicine, meteorology, biology and the rest of scientific progress. If, instead, one bases his arguments on a concept (perfection) as intangible as its conclusion (God), one can protect both from merciless scientific refutation - but one also risks having both dismissed as well. Since I don't think there's any theo in theology, I'm not so impressed by arguments that turn on assertion or refutation of theological perfection.

  60. IT was a big deal for Voltaire and the french encyclopedists, if not Galilleo--all of whom were taking on centuries of clerical oppression.

    Some biologists might grant superb Design to some degree, anyways: say to the human eye. Darwin himself speculated how something so complex as an eye could arise ex nihilo. Or say, planetary motion. Besides, your moral ranting about Christianity sounds rather fundamentalist itself; I for one enjoy Bach fugues. And old cathedrals--even knowing that the theist code cannot be established by "necessary" proofs (can the meaning of a fugue be established via necessary proofs either? Or for that matter, your own existence??). Really I would hang with an intelligent Padre before siding with apparatchiks (which is to say, atheism can be put to all sorts of uses)

  61. Ah but it's a syntatic device meant to throw off sentimentalists who can't deal with the substance of the argument:

    Oh, and here I thought we'd exhausted the substance of your argument around post 35 or so. Frankly, Perezoso, an argument that's framing becomes so confused that no one can accurately interpret it is a poorly constructed argument. Here's your problem: You don't actually have any substance, that I can see. You rely not on your own thoughts but argument from authority by citing other writers. That's an indication that, instead of comprehending and assimilating what you've read, you can only regurgitate and appeal to authority.

    I didn't miss the authorities you appeal to; I've never read them. The problem isn't that your argument has been reductionist, it's that it's ontological, and therefore entirely self-referential, making it little more than a house of cards. You write much but say little. You have little to go on but arguments from incredulity and condescension.

    You won't sway anyone so long as your argumentation is purely rhetorical.

  62. No you don't have any substance, and apparently don't know what a valid and sound argument is, Elliott. Point out the errors, instead of ranting like an idiot. Do you even know what Modus Ponens is? Or a truth table? Or tautology? I do.

    The argument contra-Design follows from "God's" supposed attributes--omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence (that theologians themselves grant), and is quoted nearly verbatim from some of Bertrand Russell debates with various clerics. But I doubt you know Russell from the Radio Shack catalog.

  63. Do you even know what Modus Ponens is? Or a truth table? Or tautology? I do.

    Hmm, a feedback loop in which you are rude, so I am rude, so you are rude back. Curious.

    I have explored some of the basics of philosophy through instructors like Colin McGinn, thank you very much. And I do know who Russell is -- you can't be interested in either Wittgenstein or Popper and not.

    Do you mean tautology in the logical sense, or in the sense that you've been using them: A rhetorical device wherein you keep repeating yourself over and over without adding anything substantive to the conversation?

    Also, note, that while you've asserted that moral subjectivism means no moral facts, you've yet to actually prove that is the case. Modus ponens, my entire behind. Or, lets put that to a few other tests: If atheism, then moral subjectivism. You're rather eliding the whole "meta" part of MESR (which I don't ascribe to, just so we're clear).

    But I doubt you know Russell from the Radio Shack catalog.

    Since you don't seem to be able to tell the rhetorical from the philosophical, I'd call that even.

  64. Shocking: You're wrong again.

    You've yet to understand Hume's point on the fact/value distinction: there are no moral facts. Thus, according to BB's own code: nihilism--say pro-war rightwingers--are as "correct" as Mother Theresaism: I know that's deep but you'll get it maybe someday. "Meta" has no necessary definition anyways.
    And I am quite sure you don't know Modus Ponens from Mr. Rogers. You don't know what logic is.

  65. Keep in mind that Perezoso by himself is 2% of my regular readership.

    I don't care what he says; I'm just happy he's reading the blog every day.

  66. Also, Perezoso, the invitation to submit your ideas for publication here remains open. It's easy enough to take potshots from the peanut gallery; it's something else entirely to submit your own work to critical scrutiny.

  67. The fact/value problem, for those needing a refresher, follows from Hume's claim that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is": in other words, prescriptive statements (you should do X), what ever they are, are quite different than descriptive (the earth is a sphere). I think that Hume is correct, tho' quite a few writers and ethicists--even secular ones-- dispute that there are no moral facts; and I believe both moral realists (like Gewirth) and, for lack of a better term, constructivists (or Hobbesians) have fairly strong if not exactly necessary counterarguments to Hume's skepticism.

  68. Perezoso:

    I believe both moral realists (like Gewirth) and, for lack of a better term, constructivists (or Hobbesians) have fairly strong if not exactly necessary counterarguments to Hume's skepticism.

    An interesting assertion. Why you think these arguments are strong would make an interesting topic for an essay.


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