Thursday, July 05, 2007

Scriptural authority

As I mentioned in my earlier essay on atheism and metaphysics, one problem that theistic metaphysics have is providing an epistemic basis for statements about God: How do we know God exists? How do we know true statements about God?

One method that many religions use is to privilege a specific text, such as the Torah, (some version of) the Christian Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Koran, the Upanishads, the writings of the Buddha, or even Dianetics as having some privileged epistemic authority, i.e. promoting a specific text to scripture.

There are three problems with this tactic. First, why pick a scripture at all? Second, which scripture to pick? The first two problems are severe, requiring the adoption of arbitrary metaphysical principles which one adopts only to justify the choice of scripture and choosing some scripture in the first place. No logical contradiction or false-to-fact observation is entailed by adopting any competing scripture (or the principles necessary to choose one) or not adopting any text at all as scripture. Adopting a text as scripture is arbitrary, gratuitous and unnecessary.

Leaving these two severe problems aside, there's a third problem: All of the texts currently employed by the major religions (with the possible exception of Buddhism) contain passages absurd and ridiculous by any rational, scientific standard. Jeremy notes this atheist objection to Christianity:
Criticizing Christianity — or any other organized religion — is very easy, no doubt about it. There are far too many details, dramatic events, and literary flourishes to not strain even the most forgiving reader at some point.
Jeremy's inept dismissal aside[1], the usual rebuttal to the charge of absurdity is the assertion that the scripture requires a multi-layered metaphorical interpretation, but this tactic raises a huge philosophical problem.

Determining the univocal literal meaning of a text is very difficult: Determining, for instance, what our laws and Constitution literally mean requires an enormous institutional edifice of lawyers, law schools and a hierarchy of courts. And this edifice pertains to documents that usually were written with great pains to be explicit, univocal, and literally comprehensible. One would expect even a very powerful—much less a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient—deity, a deity apparently capable of crafting the laws of physics with mathematical precision, to be at least as clear in its literal meaning as we ourselves are capable of in our law. It boggles the mind that one would even have to apply metaphor in the first place to the supposedly authoritative pronouncements of a deity.

Worse yet, it becomes entirely unclear what the theist means by "authority" at all once metaphor is admitted. Once we explicitly abandon the authority of the literal meaning, how are we supposed to decide what is metaphorical? How are we supposed to decide which metaphor or metaphors to consider? We can arbitrarily decide what is metaphor, or we can privilege some arbitrary principles to decide what is metaphor, but both of those tactics require exercising some authority higher than the text itself. Something cannot be both authoritative and subject to a higher authority. For instance, State and Federal law (in the United States) is not authoritative: Only the Constitution[2] is legally authoritative; the validity of State and Federal Law (as well as ratified treaties) derives directly from the authority of the Constitution.

To interpret a text as both scripture and metaphor is logically contradictory: the text becomes both authoritative and not authoritative.

[1] "[U]nless the religion's assertions can be disproved empirically, the atheist's ridicule is nothing more than an appeal to 'common sense.'" The whole point is that the assertions are disproved empirically (i.e. scientifically): One cannot believe accounts of resurrections, virgins births, talking snakes and donkeys, a 6,000 year-old universe, and other purported miracles without rejecting empirical, scientific knowledge.

[2] And, perhaps, the pronouncements of the Supreme Court.


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  3. All of the texts currently employed by the major religions (with the possible exception of Buddhism) contain passages absurd and ridiculous by any rational, scientific standard.

    Please don't except Buddhism. Pfft! They aren't any less absurd for enjoying the somewhat false-to-fact reputation of peacefulness.

  4. I don't know much about the actual Buddhist scriptures themselves. I know a lot of people have said a lot of stupid shit about Buddhism, though.

  5. if all this is true, than in the eyes of the world, and in athiests alike, wouldn't the simple truth of buddhism be the proper path to happiness? it simply states that to obtain a life without desire, rid yourself of desire. simple, no? have we not seen enough examples of one man's desire turning into the pain and loss of many men, including the man who desired in the first place? we are currently at war right now... coincidence? I think not. rid the ego of desire and you know peace. rid the body of lust and you know serenity. I hold these truths to be self-evident, to re-wash an old chestnut from one Dr. Martin Luther King jr., civil rights activist, and affluent christian. I suppose even if the ends justify the means, a wrong idea is still a wrong idea, and people will always have desire clouding their better ambitions. strive for a world where we've reigned in the chaos a bit, that's what I say, no matter what religion, beliefs, or confidences you follow PEACEFULLY to obtain.

  6. There are three issues here.

    This is a post about scriptural authority. If the truths of Buddhism are "self-evident", or at least rationally supportable, then we do not need to grant any authority to core Buddhist writings, and they are not specifically scripture, and Buddhism is not properly termed a religion, just a rational way of life.

    Second, I'm not at all convinced that to rid one's self of desire is itself a desirable endeavor. I do think that one should be sensible about one's desires, but desire is what separates us from plants. I'm a specifically libertarian humanist precisely because I value desire for its own sake.

    Third, as your father, I'm appalled at the poor grammar and punctuation of your comment. I know you can do better. And self-evident truths come from the Declaration of Independence, not from Dr. King.

  7. Regarding my inept dismissal, your presumed empirical falsifications of the examples you gave are insufficient.

    That animals do not talk, bushes do not spontaneously burn, and virgins do not give bith NOW, is not to logically -- and therefore scientifically -- disprove that they happened then, given that you work within the theists' assumptions of an all-powerful, interfering God. If you DON'T work within those assumptions (and you're not), then comparing empirical claims stemming from them isn't valid: You have to compare the assumptions themselves.

    Which, in the end, is your problem. Until you can disprove the existence of the God a theist describes, no science is reliable, since "God" can clearly alter the world, its physics, and its biology at his whim. That intrinsic non-falsifiability is grating, sure. But it logically is what it logically is. Metaphysics is no picnic.

    The only claims you CAN disprove, at least within certain theistic contexts, are the historical ones: We can tell if Earth is older than 6000; we can tell if there was a great flood; we can tell if dinosaurs existed; we can see evidence of human evolution. And even then, once the theist comes up with "God is just hiding the evidence," you're back to square one -- relying on common sense, but never the science that you might claim.

  8. Oh, and sorry for my typo on "birth" -- I knew I should've previewed. But then, I'm assuming I'm somewhat off the hook, since I'm not your son. :)

  9. Jeremy: We cannot disprove biblical claims according to your moronic, straw-man versions of "empiricism", but that's strictly your own problem, not a problem for sensible people who live in the real world of empirical science.

    I don't have to disprove your ludicrous, ridiculous claims about genocidal magical sky fairies; I need merely note that to any sensible, intelligent person—i.e. other than idiotic nutjobs such as yourself—these ideas are so ridiculous on their face that, absent any evidence stronger than the superstitious mythologies of goat-fucking iron-age savage, any sensible person should be embarrassed to give them any attention whatsoever.

    No, metaphysics is no picnic. It requires more than one brain cell, and if you showed evidence of a second brain cell, I'd give you a pregnancy test.

    You don't understand empiricism, you don't understand science, you don't understand philosophy, you don't understand logic. It is not my responsibility to correct these intellectual failings, but it is certainly my pleasure to point them out.

  10. You're right: You're not my son, your education is not my responsibility, and I have better things to do than to correct my commenters' typographical solecisms.

  11. on the subject of Dr. M.L.K. jr. (abbreviation-gasm) he too roasted that oldie-but-goodie in his "I have a dream address." I was simply using the most recent and topical example. all men are created equal, (not really if you want to get into the technicalities of it all,) and he held that if men really are equal, they deserve the equal share that they are entitled to. not to point a finger, but that's all I meant. I of course know that it came from the Desecration of Independant Thought. I just prefer not to quote works that have been so destroyed and hypocritically protected. that's all.

    Buddhism; not a religion. Not a way of life. Not a fad diet. just one man's personal beliefs that were never intended to cause worship, deitism, (not sure if that's actually a word) he believed that by following a path of meditation, body and mind cleansing, and deep connection with one's self, that a greater peace could be obtained, not with the people around him, or with the universe, but with the whole three card monte game we have going here. he became at peace with his own choices, and there for, even if he didn't choose the queen, he was at peace with finding the jack. simple. he chose a very rational way to go about it as well. Find that which causes misery, (desires, unfufilling and empty)and find a way to rid yourself of it. feel free to pick apart my grammar and spelling, I really don't care. when it matters, my grammar can be spell-checked, and I tend to put more effort into it. this is just for fun for me. I'd rather not be taken too seriously either way, or i'd have a more proffesional blog like you, as opposed the simple poetry and rants I put on my own. cheers!

  12. Jeremy,

    Which, in the end, is your problem. Until you can disprove the existence of the God a theist describes, no science is reliable, since "God" can clearly alter the world, its physics, and its biology at his whim.

    You're asking Larry to prove a negative, which is dirty pool. Your further justifying your request with an ontological definition that's little more than a house of cards on a breezy day. As Colin McGinn is fond of saying, just because something is valid (i.e. "logical") as constructed doesn't mean it's also true.

  13. @james:

    Good, you get what I'm saying he needs to do. *I'M* not asking him to do it, though; I'm impartial. I realize he can't prove the negative, and he needs to realize that, too. Sad fact, but true. All of this right now could have been created by God, and there is no logical or scientific way to disprove it. And that's that.

    That confers no information about the actual truth, of course. But as far as God's existence goes, theism and atheism are on equal logical and scientific grounds (if you said not by "common sense," I would agree with you).

    The civility is appreciated, all the more so thanks to a counterexample.

  14. Jeremy,

    I'm sorry, but that simply doesn't hold up. Based on your logic, I demand you prove to me that Firbolgs didn't exist in Ireland. Further, I want to know where all the dragons went to.

    We have a definition of a dragon: big scaly lizard with wings who breathes fire. Therefore, since we can imagine a dragon, it must exist! You will have to prove to me that dragons don't exist. After all, we have much scriptural authority on this subject. Or was St. Peter a liar?

    The "tie" doesn't go to the person asserting existence with equal unproof. By asserting the positive -- "god exists" -- basic logic and argumentation require evidentiary support instead of bald assertion. Holding the negative is simply a basic assumption in any form of inquiry.

    For example, I conducted a research study with the hypothesis that preschool age children at risk for or diagnosed with developmental delays can benefit just as much from like-disabled peers as typically developing peer models. The null hypothesis -- that they benefit more from typically developing peers -- is the de facto assumption until I proved otherwise. In order to test my hypothesis, I had to marshal established analytical measures and methods, design and pursue a rigorous form of inquiry, marshal my evidence, and construct a rational, convincing argument that confirmed my hypothesis. I then had to subject that argument to review by peers and authorities and convince them that not only was my hypothesis correct, but that my arguments (my research results) and the manner in which I constructed them (my methods and analytical tools) were also convincing and valid. (I did, by the way, prove my hypothesis.)

    Rhetoric (be it philosophical, theological, or simple argumentation) and scientific inquiry both follow these simple premises. By asserting a positive belief, you are taking upon yourself the hypothesis. All an atheist is doing is holding the null-hypothesis until convincing evidence and argumentation are marshaled.

  15. It is one thing to say that empirical inquiry cannot prove or disprove anything by deductive standards of proof, this is a philosophical bullet the empiricist must bite to—as I discuss in my essays on The Scientific Method; it is inept, as Jeremy argues in his post, to say that these assertions are not decisively controverted according to the standards of empirical inquiry as defined by empiricists, as opposed to Jeremy's vague straw-man version of empiricism.

    In real life, nothing about the world can be proven or disproven with deductive certainty; all we can do with deduction is create internally consistent language games. A useful endeavor, to be sure, but not scientific knowledge.

    Christianity is one such example. Throw two thousand years of the finest human minds at the problem, and you can make any fantasy internally consistent. But internal consistency is not alethic. Just because some language game is consistent doesn't mean it's true.

  16. ... this is a philosophical bullet the empiricist must bite to—as I discuss in my essays on The Scientific Method—have any knowledge of the world at all...

  17. Will: I know what you meant, and it's a good point. Generally, though, when citing a phrase, one cites the original, not the most recent usage. I was criticizing your style on this point, not the substance of your comments. And I apologize, I didn't mean to embarrass you.

    Your comments on Buddhist writings are interesting and seem plausible. I suspect the Buddha, if he really was an historical person, did not intend his thoughts to be taken scripturally.

  18. indeed! he stated quite flatly that he was not to be placed above anybody, any thing, any time. that's what makes me think maybe he might be worth his salted jevohs, maybe.

  19. @Jeremy
    Not to jump to the aid of a bible nut or anything, but we do have proof of a great flood; It is evident in the Greenland and Canadian ice tracks. As the polar ice cap re-froze, (after the flood,) it contracted North, creating large gouges in the Earth which can still be observed today.
    Essentially, we know that at some point that the polar ice cap was in a liquid state, which froze, causing the ice age, then melted and retracted back north and reformed the cap again.
    As for Noah's Ark, however, that's a load of hooey. Animals would;

    A.)Eat each other.

    B.)Not propagate prolifically enough to create enough offspring to have second generation mating.

    C.)Become so inbred that they would make cousin-loving, semi-sentient, Nascar-with-a-beer-and-a-shotgun, stereotype enforcers of the redneck persuasion seem like good conversation material. (whew!)

    D.)All be confined to one land mass, where the Ark was beached.

    E.)EAT EACH OTHER (did I already mention the mass carnivore buffet?

    F.)Certain species would not exist anymore. Chinchillas, specifically, can die if you get them wet and don't immediately and thoroughly dry them, (due to high absorbency in their fur, causing a choice environment for fungal growth.) A bit of a hard sell to stay dry... on a boat... in a flood... isn't it?

    G.)There are currently between an estimated 2 million and 100 million recognized species on the planet.

    DAMN! That must have been one big ass yacht to accommodate all those different animals... Unless they EVOLVED to those different varieties after the fact... But wait, you wouldn't want to believe anything as crazy as evolution, right? It is much more logical that all the animals on the planet are descendants of those 200-million animals on a big boat in the middle of the ocean, right?

    There are many other examples, but I have the need for sleep. Bring it up again and we'll talk some more about the Ark/Titanic of biblical improbability.

  20. @Will:
    I think I've heard of that kind of evidence off and on through the years, but I haven't looked into it. There's clearly no way the Ark would work (for at least all the reasons you list), so that's a non-issue.

    As for the Bible nut comment, don't make rash assumptions. Nothing I've said has supported the Bible or any of its claims. Nor, in fact, have I tried to support the existence of God.

    "Ad hominemism" evidently run in the family.

  21. @James:
    Obviously dragons, burning bushes, virgin births, etc. can't be directly looked at, so you proceed based on knowledge of analogous entities (e.g. current goats and bushes). Otherwise, no scientific experiment would hold, since someone could say, "But look, THIS cadmium atom acted *differently* than all the others! It has magical properties!"

    Empiricism isn't logic, though. Shedding all Christian baggage and focusing on an "intelligent" or non-intelligent birth of the universe, each explanation is equally illogical (or alogical, logical can't make the metaphysical leap). Logical consistency, as you say, is not proof; but my original gripe is that many atheists CLAIM logic, when all they have is empiricism, and even that applies only to peripheral concerns.

    In science (as in your study), you assume the absence of your hypothesis, and then you experiment and compare. The problem with this is the analogy to metaphysical claims, which have no empirical process with which to address them. In the case of the strong atheist, who affirmatively assumes the LACK of a God, we're not talking about a hypothesis, but rather a preemptive conclusion. They have no intentions of following an objective scientific process to find the answers -- they can't. Rather, they proceed through their lives with this assumed answer, backing it up with ludicrous claims of both logic AND empiricism (which simply don't apply), and in more cases than not ridiculing theists for their also-unfounded beliefs, and trying to convert them.

    And in many cases, they laughably erect entire BLOGS dedicated to the advocacy of atheism -- wasting weeks or months of their lives -- when even in the case of the weak atheist it boils down to nothing more than "Ehh, don't think so...where's your proof?" -- something with which even a child is familiar the second time his jokester friend tells him the electric fence is off, so hop on over.

    Which, really, was the point of my original post, cited in Barefoot's. He seems to have misinterpreted virtually all of it in the haze of his apoplectic knee-jerk defensiveness (how you get defensive about atheism is beyond me). I have not claimed that atheism is wrong; I HAVE claimed that plenty of atheists make unfounded claims regarding their ideologies; and I HAVE claimed that atheism at the core has virtually nothing to recommend it as a bastion of intellectualism. It should be summed up in maybe two sentences, and left alone. Books, blogs, speeches -- all of these oversell its unfortunately shallow grounding.

    Focusing exclusively on the multitude of "failings" in other people's beliefs -- the place where atheists draw nearly all their conversation and credibility -- becomes pathological at some point; and it has NEVER been admirable.

  22. Jeremy,

    It should be summed up in maybe two sentences, and left alone. Books, blogs, speeches -- all of these oversell its unfortunately shallow grounding.

    You can't have it both ways. Either "strong" atheism is a faith and as such is as metaphysically, logically, and empirically shallow as other types of faith, or it isn't. If it is, then there is -- as some of us might say -- no value in discussing any type of faith beyond "two sentences."

    ...something with which even a child is familiar...

    Which is why I refer to this general phenomenon in "religious" conversations as "The Child Effect." Children are perfect philosophers: They ask "why" incessantly, revealing that theism (and many other ideologies) has no real grounding. you get defensive about atheism is beyond me...

    This seems like a lazy conclusion. Why get defensive about anything then? Certainly, if that holds true, then one must never get defensive about religion!

    Ultimately, your opinion rests on empty ontology: the metaphysical must be unknowable, only intuitive; and because it is intuitive, any epistemology cannot by the nature of either work upon it. This is hardly a solid bedrock upon which to rest any form of belief that impacts one's cognitive schema and ethical formulations.

  23. "Determining, for instance, what our laws and Constitution literally mean requires an enormous institutional edifice of lawyers, law schools and a hierarchy of courts."

    Good so far....

    "And this edifice pertains to documents that usually were written with great pains to be explicit, univocal, and literally comprehensible."

    Please refer to John Hasnas, "The Myth of the Rule of Law" for an excellent dissection of the intentions of the founders. He argues very persuasively that a strictly deterministic legal system would be a nightmare. The system was purposely left open to interpretation. What the motives of the founders were is anybody's guess. An optimist would argue that they wanted decentralized power. A cynic would argue they were leaving loopholes for Mack trucks of economic powers to drive through.

  24. Jimi: I didn't say deterministic, I said "literal" and "univocal": There's no doubt the sentence, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." is meant to be taken literally, and there's a very narrow range of meaning we can read into the sentence; at least vastly narrower than the range of meanings we permit in religious scripture.

    Basically, I'm saying that Legislators don't write in parable and metaphors.

  25. James,

    You can't have it both ways.

    Sorry, I was being unclear here. My assertion is indeed what you say, regarding strong atheism (that is, it's unfounded metaphysics). What I mean by "atheism at its core" is weak atheism's assertion that there's no evidence of God -- which underlies the stronger forms. As an agnostic, that has merit to me; but not nearly enough to justify the onslaught of ruminations about it.

    This seems like a lazy conclusion. Why get defensive about anything then?

    People generally get defensive about personal topics. Theists tend to have very personal notions of their religions (it certainly isn't objective); as such, they're likely to get defensive in the face of scrutiny.

    Given that atheism is stated to be an objective stance, founded on empirical observation and fact (or lack thereof), it shouldn't be personal at all. If one isn't emotionally attached to it for other, unstated reasons, it shouldn't engender any more defensiveness than someone arguing that 2+2=5. If they can't be convinced otherwise, their loss; move on.

    Not sure what you mean about my having an empty ontology. Mind clarifying that part? A lot was inferred from my OP and follow-up comments that wasn't true, regarding my beliefs. Pointing out certain logical problems manifest in one ideology doesn't mean embracing its opposite.

    I agree that empirical evidence doesn't support the existence of God; beyond that, I simply think that strong atheism has as little founding as theism, and that much atheistic chest-thumping is beyond the pale.

    I learn more about branches of atheism all the time -- I'm not indicting them all. But the varieties I did cite are very real, are embraced by many of the shallower, faddish followers, and need to be called out.

  26. Jeremy: The phrase "unsupported metaphysics" is misleading: A metaphysical system is the support; it is by definition the part of philosophy that is the basic level of rational support.

    Logical Positivism, which purported to eliminate metaphysics, was abandoned by serious philosophers more than a half-century ago.

    The "defensiveness" of atheism is a political position, directly caused by theists attempting to impose their ridiculous beliefs by the power of government.

    I agree that empirical evidence doesn't support the existence of God; beyond that, I simply think that strong atheism has as little founding as theism...

    Lack of empirical evidence is by itself an enormously strong foundation for an ontological proposition, i.e. a statement about the existence of God.

    But the varieties I did cite are very real, are embraced by many of the shallower, faddish followers, and need to be called out.

    If you're going to do so, you need to call them out by name and cite the actual arguments.

  27. Additionally, the truth is the truth, and deserves understanding. Calling someone "defensive" for trying to know the truth seems unwarranted.

  28. BB - don't know if you have read the comments to Jeremy's original post recently, but I don't think you and he are, in fact, all that far apart in what you believe in relation to the non-existence of God. You difference possibly lies in what you consider should be done about it (which as you say is essentially a political issue).

    Jeremy, I think it would be helpful were you to link one or two examples of the sort of strong atheism which you decry - as indeed you say in your comments was your original intent. Also, the title of your OP was somewhat (unnecessarily IMHO)provocative for those who are easily provoked, which I think BB might agree is a category into which he falls. (And being easily moved to anger is not, IMHO, a moral failing.)

  29. @Barefoot:

    I used "unfounded" not as a modifier of "metaphysics," but as a redundancy. (Hmm, there's a grammar term for that usage, but I'm blanking on it.)

    As for defensiveness, only you know if you were being defensive -- but based on what you say here about politics, it sounds like you're giving that notion credence.

    Either way, if we're talking about things unfounded, refer to the invective you hurled at me in that comment. As a libertarian, I wouldn't allow any theistic teachings within a public school setting; but by the same token, I wouldn't HAVE any public schools in the first place.

    Within private schools, they can teach what they want, including religion. Unlike Dawkins, I don't consider it child abuse, particularly since it won't stand up to examination by the logic and reason with which you should have been inculcating your kids all along (and at which public schools fail miserably, but which would solve the problem tidily).

    Give that you were defensive toward ME, and given that I hold the above views and said nothing to the contrary, it seems improbable that your defensiveness is based only on political advocacy. I know how easy it is to pigeonhole opponents, particularly when they share some of the same foundational arguments; but in this case, it was a mistake.

    As for citations: You have accepted the term "strong atheist," which is the main type I rail against; it would seem you therefore need no citations for those. I said weak atheists have little claim to critical thought by virtue of that label alone; we know agnostics exist, so you don't need citations for them, either. The final category consists of those people who will, in an argument or on their own, suggest the big bang was the start of everything; or that it was just like quantum mechanics; or some other vague physical proposition. Are you honestly telling me you don't think these people exist?

    Many, many strong atheists I've talked to have tried very hard to offer a plausible scientific alternative to the universe's origins when pushed -- whether or not they can lucidly qualify it themselves. Perhaps it's just that they need to be told they don't HAVE to have an alternative, and leave it at that. Either way, I've heard it countless times; but unfortunately, I don't keep a journal.

  30. Jeremy: I'm surprised, but not at all displeased, that you've chosen to continue to comment here. I'm not going to apologize for my earlier invective, but I will say that it's not the only arrow in my quiver. I'll also note it's not an arrow that I think can be effectively fired more than once.

    And just so you know, I consider big-ell Libertarianism of the no public schools variety to be as absurd and incoherent as Christianity. But that's a topic for another day.

    The notion of "unfounded metaphysics" (I think you're looking for the grammatical term "intensifier") as a pejorative is straight out of Logical Positivism, now abandoned. Metaphysics is the logical foundation of philosophy; as such, the notion of unfounded metaphysics is akin to the notion of a foundation without a foundation of its own.

    My main point is that by attacking "metaphysics", you're attacking not atheism but the fundamentals of philosophy and discourse. Worthy targets, perhaps, but atheism is beside the point.

    I am myself a strong atheist: I believe that no God exists, for nontrivial and meaningful definitions of "God". My published work is freely available for citation and criticism.

    "Atheist" is a term of self-identification. Since you yourself are not a strong atheist, what you think "strong atheism" means is irrelevant. And, in fact, besides the bare-bones definition cited above (and some self-identified strong atheists would quibble) there is no singular meaning of the term, especially with regards to the philosophical foundation. At best you can only say that my own or some other published writer's definition or philosophical foundation is without merit, unless you justify formal or informal statistical properties.

    It is important to note that no atheist is required to offer an alternative to theistic accounts for the origin of the universe: The theistic accounts are deficient on its own merits. Without exception, the detailed accounts I've studied have rarely risen even to the level of "just-so stories"; they are usually entirely vacuous exercises relabeling our ignorance. If you have any particular account you'd like me to discuss in more detail, feel free to email me.

  31. The sort of strong atheist that I would like Jeremy to link to is that sort that leaves no room at all for doubt. BB, IIRC, you agreed before that you are a 6 point something on Dawkins' scale (in TGD) but not a 7 - is that right? There is, of course, an important difference.

  32. I might be classified as a 6.99, but only after years of study: I don't see much possibility of me changing my mind unless God herself were to actually force belief into my mind.

    It seems highly unlikely that a rationally persuasive argument for the existence of God has escaped my attention.

  33. "Basically, I'm saying that Legislators don't write in parable and metaphors."

    Acknowledging that we are more in agreement than disagreement, my only addition is that judges, who are at least as important to the law as legislators, often do write in parable and metaphors; otherwise, there would be unanimity in judicial decisions, we could let computers run the whole shebang.

    That's all folks.

  34. I was thinking, not of you finding a new argument in the world as it is now, but of evidence arising that was new to everybody, like the sun (unpredictbly and inexplicably) not rising, or a big finger pointing down out of the clouds. Or yes, personal revelation!

  35. Does anyone else find it interesting that the "original atheists" were the Christians?

  36. @Barefoot:

    You're missing my point about "unfounded metaphysics." There's a term for the entire clause/phrase that indicates that it's internally redundant. Unfounded isn't meant as an intensifier there: strong atheism is unfounded because it's metaphysics. By unfounded I mean empirically unfounded, which strikes me as a peculiar stance to take for an ideology that puts such a strong emphasis on empiricism. Must you try so hard to have a definitive answer? Why not just admit you have no clue (for, truly, you don't -- human powers of perception and logic are woefully inadequate for the task under discussion)?

    Your surprise that I continue to comment derives from...what, exactly? A presumption that anyone not of your opinion would be driven into craven hiding? Either way, I have to admit that it's making an impact on my own rather pathetic blogging pace. ;)

    I haven't asked you to apologize for anything you said; don't apologize if it's a valid part of your character. Unlike Potentilla, however, I do consider it a failing, if not of morals then of control; and to me it belies an emotional attachment to the topic that atheists often deny. I'd also note that it stands strongly in contrast to your otherwise well-reasoned and level comments -- some arrows just shouldn't be used, even if they're the first your hand finds.

    Since you yourself are not a strong atheist, what you think "strong atheism" means is irrelevant.

    Not to render this entire paragraph of yours meaningless or anything, but it should be understood that I'm criticizing based on stated definitions, as set forth in my OP. To presume the statement above as the default, no one would be able to talk about anyone else's beliefs, including your own about Christians.

    I agree that theism fails on its own account, and I said so in my previous comment. Atheists need only leave it at that, and not try to offer alternatives; they'd be infinitely better off for it.

  37. @potentilla:

    It appears that Barefoot has saved me the trouble of Googling for my first example, at least, since a 6.99 certainly passes my test.

    It's not true that I require absolutely no doubt, however (and exactly how you would ever truly determine that for a person is unclear). Strong atheism is the belief that there is no God, and I critiqued that assertion on its own merit; so to the extent that an atheist holds that position, that atheist's beliefs are empirically unfounded. Since that assertion is unfounded, it's absurd to then espouse that view publicly, and particularly to try to convert the religious, all the while standing on an ostentatious platform of empiricism.

    You're somewhat right when you say that my post title was inflammatory -- I could have qualified it a number of different ways to precisely state the extent to which different possible atheistic beliefs are "intellectually bankrupt" (as clumsy as that would be). But in fact, I defined some varying stances in the body, and handled them individually. Strong atheism is what I said above in this comment; to then assert a scientific explanation for the birth of the universe is even worse; and even weak atheism -- to which I myself adhere -- has a very minimal level of merit.

    (The one point on which I'll contend true hyperbole is condemning even weak atheism as intellectually bankrupt, since it's founded on the intellect rather than emotion. I obviously believe it to be of some merit myself. So while it' not bankrupt in the literal sense, I nevertheless believe it to be so, relative both to atheistic crowing and to achievements like, say, the steam engine.)

    So, in short, atheism at its most minimal is barely laudable from the perspective of thinking individuals; and as its affirmative beliefs strengthen, its merits erase themselves, culminating at its outer reaches in an ideology little better than theism.

  38. Jeremy: You'll have to be more precise about what you mean by "unfounded". Since a metaphysical position is itself the foundation of a philosophy, it is, at least in a logical sense, "unfounded".

    Strong atheism is not typically a metaphysical position; it is founded usually on the metaphysics of scientific materialism (a.k.a. naturalistic physicalism) which includes an empirical epistemology.

    Human powers of reason and observation are all we have; anything not available through these powers are not available, at least not to any human.

    I'm not saying you don't have the right to comment about atheism, I'm saying you're not privileged in establishing definitions of atheism. You're welcome to criticizing stated definitions, but you should quote and cite those definitions.

    The problem with your original essay is that the versions of "strong atheism" you cite as "intellectually bankrupt" are at best marginal definitions or completely phony straw men.

  39. @Barefoot:

    My "straw man" definitions of atheism were given in my post. In fact, you said those were the one part I got right, so I wonder why you're assailing them now.

    When I said "unfounded," I clarified that I meant empirically unfounded. Which is to say, we can empirically say that bushes don't talk and virgins don't give birth (the "peripheral concerns" of theism I talked about in my post), but we can't in the same way empirically disprove the existence of God. Such a question is, by its nature, metaphysical -- as is that of the origin of the universe -- and can't be addressed by empiricism. Therefore, my conclusion is that of the weak atheist's: no evidence for, no evidence against.

    You've clearly got a stronger background in philosophy than I do -- and one consequence is a lacking lexicon. So, for scientific naturalism, Wikipedia says:

    ...the long standing convention in science of the scientific method, which makes the methodological assumption that observable effects in nature are best explainable only by natural causes, without reference to, or an assumption of, the existence or non-existence of supernatural notions.

    That works fine for the aforementioned burning bushes. In fact, it works wonderfully for everything except for one: the birth of the universe itself. There is no possible "natural" explanation for that event, because there was no "nature" in existence before it. And more to the point, it violates the axiom of causality, meaning that it penetrates to the core of logic, not merely known science.

    So what fills the void? God? Not for me. Nature? Certainly not as we know it. Science? Can't even begin to answer that question.

    Therefore, if you state with certainty that there is no God (and you are a 6.99/7.0 on the scale), you haven't an empirical leg to stand on, contrary to the classic atheistic claims. You've made an affirmative assertion -- as opposed to the weak atheist's "I see no evidence of God." And given that this position is NOT a hypothesis; given that you are NOT conducting a scientific experiment; and particularly given your emphasis on scientific naturalism, the burden of evidence falls on YOU, the strong atheist, for that affirmative assertion.

  40. If the non-existence of God is proven in any sense, then it is by definition a founded, not unfounded, belief.

    However, I think you're hung up on the notion that atheists somehow believe that the existence of God is disproven in a logical sense. Empiricism admits also of evidentiary disproof: Absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

    Causality is not a metaphysical axiom; it's a scientific hypothesis.

    The only background in philosophy I have is reading books and essays on the net; I don't have any unusual philosophical education. Any moderately well-motivated amateur could duplicate my efforts.


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