Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The New Atheism

Let's talk about what the New Atheism is really all about.

The New Atheism does indeed assert that it is just as simple (and considerably more useful) to drop God like we drop Santa Claus when we're eight. We would indeed, as John Haught claims, offend the "old" atheists, Sarte, Nietzsche, Camus, etc. with our flippancy. So much the worse for the old boys. They're pretentious, deeply vain and fearful, and, like many philosophers, mostly full of shit. There are hundreds of millions of atheists living without a shred of existential angst. Millions who realize that existential angst is just the fear of the newly-freed slave, so conditioned to obedience that the prospect of simple choice fills him with dread.

But atheism is easy: It's rational to simply do what you want, for no other reason than that you want it. You do of course have to understand how the real world works: If you want to fly to the Moon, you must do some complicated, expensive things to get there, but the only reason you need to do those complicated things is that you want to. You'll also have to keep in mind that there are six billion other people, many of them with fists, sticks, rocks, guns, and some with nuclear weapons, and all of them want things of their own. I advise everyone to consider their reaction before acting on their own desires.

Reality — and many other people — are utterly indifferent to your happiness or suffering. If you're going to find happiness and avoid suffering, you need to take personal responsibility and act sensibly and rationally, or the universe will use you harshly. If you wait around for a just and loving God to make you happy, you're just buying a lottery ticket: A few people get lucky, but everyone else dies unhappy. And once you're dead, that's it. Worm food. Sucks to be mortal, eh?

The New Atheism is pro-science. It's not that The Scientific Method is by definition the only way to knowledge. It's just that it's the only method we've ever discovered that does give us actual knowledge. The theists can bullshit all they please about different "layers" of meaning, but our demand is straightforward: By what method can we reliably and publicly differentiate between true and false statements? More importantly, what do we have to accept uncritically to make that determination?

Science demands only three things: That we look for ourselves, that we think in some sort of deterministic manner (e.g. canonical logic) and that we can count. That's all you have to accept "uncritically" to use science. There is no such thing as "scientific" evidence as distinguished from "unscientific" evidence. There's only evidence. (There are certain kinds of evidence, certain ways of collecting evidence, that makes it more efficient to draw scientific conclusions.) The word "evidence" labels "statements uncontroversially accepted as true." It is a contradiction to deny any evidence: If you deny a statement, it is no longer uncontroversially accepted as true; evidence is that which cannot be and is not denied.

(In theory one could deny evidentiary statements about ordinary perception. Most people simply agree on statements about perception, so such denial is of interest to only philosophers. In this larger sense, calling a statement evidentiary means that one must consider a denier non-sentient, irretrievably insane, or a member of an incompatible linguistic community. If the theists wish to call atheists insane for denying what they call "unscientific evidence", there's nothing I can do except note that we cannot then be reasonably assured of the mutual good will necessary to civil society, and we will act accordingly.)

It's a bullshit excuse to say that religion is fuzzy and elusive, chthonic, mysterious, occult. Fuzzy is fine for literature, but the value of literature doesn't depend on its factual truthfulness. It would be great if people were willing to say that the value of their scripture doesn't depend on whether God really exists, or if statements about God are somehow factually true, or if the universe really does have some sort of sapience, intention or love. As far as I'm concerned, once you drop the truthfulness of the underlying statements, you cease having any sort of religion, and you can go talk to the literary critics, not the scientists, philosophers and politicians.

The New Atheism is anti-religion. Not because religion is always bad, or because everything bad comes from religion, but you can use religion to "prove" anything, good, bad or indifferent. It denies and actively erodes the skepticism and criticality that is each person's only fundamental protection against being exploited and oppressed by lies and bullshit.

We realize that there are "good" theologies, but we don't talk about them much. Religious fundamentalists at least have some meat to their theology, there is enough there to be at least wrong. But the "good" theologians are not even wrong; their work is nothing but vacuous nonsense. If there is a warmed-over half-assed humanism, it is so buried under metaphysical bullshit that the search for a few nuggets of obvious truth is not worth the effort.

And even good theology is dangerous, as Diderot observes:
The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.
It is worth noting that Christianity, originally conceived as (to some extent) a pacifistic religion of universal love, has for the last fifteen centuries — even before Constantine conferred political power on the religion — motivated its adherents to torture and slaughter each other with savage ferocity. The slaughter only even began to abate once natural reason, humanism, science, individual liberty and democracy arose in the Enlightenment.

Anything that requires supernatural justification cannot be considered good. Anything that we can rationally agree is good does not need supernatural justification. Worse yet, supplying a supernatural justification to what appears today to be rationally justifiable undermines the self-correcting mechanisms of rational thought. Once we supply a supernatural justification, we go from reasonably confident to absolutely certain. And one cannot correct a mistake one has become absolutely certain of.

The worst excesses of religion are bad, very bad. Worse than child sexual abuse? Maybe, maybe not: I'm not in the business of drawing fine distinctions of really bad shit. But the worst excesses are certainly in the same ballpark as childhood sexual abuse. And religion even at its best disarms the believer from using her critical faculties to protect herself.

But, bad as religion is, it cannot be eliminated by force. Religion is, in a sense, self-slavery, and you cannot free a person who has enslaved himself. American atheists typically endorse the Free Exercise clause not because it is in the Constitution; we endorse free exercise because it is a good idea and is thus in the Constitution. We're not going to put religious believers or even their clergy in prison. Nor will we ever, even if atheists were to become a majority. We would be punishing only the victims. There is no "perpetrator" to religion: It is a self-sustaining circle of victimization. Atheism, rationality, common sense, critical thought, none of these can be enforced. They have to be freely chosen, and we atheists will promulgate our beliefs the hard way: By rational persuasion, even to the very last believer. We will not choose the easy way of the religious: By the sword, or by the indoctrination of defenseless children.

Yes, we do insist that religion not be taught to indoctrinated into defenseless children, children who have not yet developed the skills of critical thinking, children under the coercive authority of their parents and teachers. What sort of intellectual respectability can you demand for a belief system that cannot be taught to a rational, more-or-less unbiased adult, that requires the coercive indoctrination of defenseless children?

We are willing to also refrain from indoctrinating atheism in children. We are confident that mature, rational adults, raised without superstitious indoctrination, will have the best chance of coming to the truth. Whether that truth is theistic or atheistic, so be it. We insist only that humanity have a fair chance at coming to the truth. It is irresponsible and indefensible to teach as the absolute, unquestionable truth either side of a legitimate* controversy to children lacking intellectual defense.

*i.e. a controversy where neither side depends almost exclusively on transparent lies of both commission and omission, as does creationism and Intelligent Design

The New Atheism is about nothing more or less than promoting freedom and condemning intellectual and moral slavery. Fundamentally, it's about freedom from exploitative and oppressive lies and bullshit in general, but religion has pretty much cornered the market. "Religion is," as Carlin puts it, "the greatest bullshit story ever sold." As hard as Stalin worked on it, not even Marxism has come close.

The conservatives hate us because they embrace religion as a tool of oppression and exploitation. It's much easier to convince someone to be a slave in the physical sense if you can convince him that God will take care of him in the afterlife (a.k.a. There's a sucker born every minute, and two to take him). The liberals hate us because we do not tolerate lies and bullshit, no matter how many pious words you wrap it in, and liberalism is, of course, all about pluralism. (Indeed criticizing any idea, regardless of its nature or consequences, should be seen as intolerant and against pluralism.) And we make no apologies whatsoever: We are no more tolerant of religious lies and bullshit than we are of neoconservative bullshit, of racist bullshit, of homophobic bullshit, of sexist bullshit, of Marxist bullshit, of Deepak Chopra crystal healing woo-woo bullshit, of politically correct bullshit, or any other kind of lies and bullshit you care to name used to oppress and exploit actual human beings.

We're not going to sit down and shut up. Call us fascists, totalitarians, traitors. If caring about the truth and its critical importance to the well-being of myself and my fellow human beings is fascist, totalitarian or treasonous, well then, I'm proud to be a fascist, totalitarian traitor. Arrest us, imprison us, assault us, kill us: we will not sit down and shut up. We'll resist as best we can — we're neither pacifists or stupid — but we have no illusions of being able to win in a stand-up fight.

We know we're a tiny minority and that's OK. The abolitionists were once a tiny minority, reviled, dismissed, hated and sometimes murdered. The scientists were once a tiny minority. The secularists and democrats were once a tiny minority. It might take ten years or a hundred years, maybe a thousand years, but that's OK. We're still not going to sit down and shut up, however long it takes.

Because we're right, we know we're right, and we know you're spouting nothing but bullshit. And the truth will win in the end, because reality is the final arbiter of belief, and reality has no sympathy or pity for falsehood or error. We will stand up and speak our piece, time and again, and when one falls another will stand up. Because, unlike reality, we do have sympathy and pity for our fellow human beings, mired in lies and bullshit, and no matter how much you hate us for it, we're going to do all we can to pull you out.

And we will continue to do so until you come to your senses and agree or you prove us wrong.


Update: Commenter Chris Lowe of PDX Peace weighs in with some substantive interesting criticism, to which I respond (and emend).

Update 2: I've changed "we do insist that religion not be taught to defenseless children" to "...indoctrinated into..." to more precisely represent my viewd on the matter. It's definitely a fact about the world that people are religious, and skeptical atheists do not oppose teaching facts.

46 comments:

  1. The liberals hate us because we do not tolerate lies and bullshit, no matter how many pious words you wrap it in, and liberalism is, of course, all about pluralism. (Indeed criticizing any idea, regardless of its nature or consequences, should be seen as intolerant and against pluralism.)

    I think it's important to note that this kind of liberalism is a distinctly modern form. Pluralism in the original sense was a political accommodation: in order to avoid becoming oppressive, government (and by extension civic participation) had to accept variety. It's only in the last century or so that tolerance itself has become a social virtue -- a view that I agree is mistaken.

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  2. After the bullshit at LGM yesterday, I think we finally have to admit that this sort of bullshit tolerance has become mainstream, and the liberals not willing to tolerate bullshit have become the fringe.

    Hey, since we're now marginalized, doesn't that make our views correct by definition!?

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  3. ubercheesehead12/27/07, 7:54 PM

    Wow! For such a rational, reality-basedguy you sure do commit a lot of categorical and logical errors.

    E.g. Don't let children be exposed to any religious thought until they have been armed with "critical thinking skills" and can "rationally" examine them. Hmmm...who's going to equip them with these skills? Do you really believe that it would be possible for one adult to so equip one child in this way without any bias of the adult's seeping through to the child, whether theistic or atheistic? And even if that were possible, do you really think you could do that on a nationwide scale? All you're really asking for here is to have first crack at indoctrinating children.

    You have a great deal of epistemological self confidence. You know what is true because your "bull$hite" meter is so finely calibrated. The only problem is that the things you regard as brute facts will be viewed as unsupported and maybe even unsupportable assertions by others with equally finely calibrated meters.

    Finally, your demand that those that disagree with you must "prove" you wrong betrays an obvious ignorance of the fact that no one can prove a negative.

    Perhaps a little more epistemic humility and a little less inflammatory language would help to lift you from the ranks of "tiny minority." On the other hand, while it's lonely at the top, it is comforting looking down on all those below you.

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  4. Do you really believe that it would be possible for one adult to so equip one child in this way without any bias of the adult's seeping through to the child, whether theistic or atheistic?

    I don't really believe that would be possible, therefore I don't want it. I for for children to not be taught religion, not to be protected from the merest waft of bias.

    ... no one can prove a negative.

    This is not the case: You have proven that you lack both a sense of irony as well as that crucial second functioning brain cell.

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  5. "This is not the case: You have proven that you lack both a sense of irony as well as that crucial second functioning brain cell."

    That was hardly necessary, particularly following a generally very well-stated manifesto that did become a tad shrill at the end. The right answer to ubercheesehead's point, I think, is that because atheism is the denial of a positive assertion-- i.e., the existence of a deity-- disproving atheism doesn't require proving a negative, it simply requires proving the existence of God.

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  6. Necessary? Perhaps not. A cheap shot? Absolutely. Fun? Definitely. And I'm here for no greater reason than to have fun.

    Am I shrill? Perhaps. But I'm quite up-front about not only what the issues are, but how I feel about them. Dawkins is as sweet and mild as an an avowed atheist can be, and he's called a totalitarian. I've been called an advocate of torture. I'm not particularly worried about being called shrill, or taking unnecessary cheap shots.

    I've said this before and I'll say it again: If the issue of atheism vs. theism and rationalism vs. supernaturalism could be solved simply by making good logical arguments, humans would have settled the whole issue a couple hundred years after Aristotle first codified logic. It's not rocket science, and many people — even under severe brainwashing — figure it out before their teens.

    It's not a matter of argument, it's a fight. So I fight, as best I can. It's not like I'm any sort of leader; I don't particularly want to be a leader, and even if I did I doubt I would have an opportunity. If I'm wrong, I'm just one guy being wrong; If I'm right, it doesn't matter that I'm all alone.

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  7. Let me first say that I'm an atheist and agree with 90% of what you wrote. But there's a couple of key points:

    "Fundamentally, it's about freedom from exploitative and oppressive lies and bullshit in general, but religion has pretty much cornered the market."

    It's important to remember that religion is just one kind of ideology. And ideologies are what imprison people.

    Or put another way, ideology is just one component of religion. It is the part which gives birth to all the bad stuff. There are many other bad ideologies out there.

    --------------

    Also

    "The slaughter only even began to abate once natural reason, humanism, science, individual liberty and democracy arose in the Enlightenment."

    I don't even know if this is true. Nazi Germany, USSR, WW2, imperialism, the fate of native america. All these horrible atrocities happened after what you're talking about. WW2 and all its resultant revolutions (think China for example) have been the worst violence ever. Maybe some things are better--slavery is nearly gone, there are many democracies now. But I think my point still stands to some extent. All the worst atrocities at least numerically are after all that supposed good stuff. Some of the worst of it committed by relatively secular governors. I think ultimately atheists need to realize that religion in of itself is not the ultimate enemy that needs crushing. Ideology, serious ideology--the absurd notion that we can solve all human problems or bring everyone under one philosophy--if only we follow this one plan is what needs to go more than any religion or faith.

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  8. Cokane: I'm not sure I agree with you, but you may well be right.

    In any event your fundamental point is uncontroversially correct: You don't need a god per se to create a violently oppressive ideology.

    What you do need, however, is some sort of supernatural authority, some person (Hitler) who or Scripture (Marx) which establishes truth.

    I would quibble back: I think "ideology" is too broad a word to condemn universally and without qualifiers. I think I pretty much understand the restrictive meaning you prefer, but other readers might not be so discriminating.

    An ideology can, in its broadest sense, refer to any set of written-down ideas or well-defined program, especially concerning ethics, to doctrine as well as dogma. One could, without doing violence to the language, construe humanism (secular and religious), the scientific method, and even the U.S. Constitution and federal law to be ideologies.

    Again, I don't think this is the sense you intend, but I suspect you and I share enthymemes that restrict the meaning; other readers might not, and could misconstrue your intention.

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  9. Although I'm also an atheist I disagree with a great deal of what you say. Partly that's because I'm not an evangelical atheist as you seem to be.

    Perhaps it is also because I am a historian as well as a scientist & was the former before the latter. History relies on evidence too, but does not share your illusion that evidence speaks for itself, much less clearly or univocally.

    Evidence always requires interpretation. It requires to be reasoned about. Real, or at any rate good, scientists understand that too. Moreover, both evidence and human consciousness are incomplete, so even good reasoning often requires revision or even abandonment in light of new evidence or new ways of thinking.

    Although you throw around the terms rationality and critical thinking a good deal, you don't much put them into practice, at least in this piece. You apparently lack the basic capacity for self-criticism to recognize something this piece puts in plain sight: the complex relationship between reason and emotion -- how you feel, what you want to do, to use your expressions. To put this another way, you ignore the plain fact of unreason as a central human condition even in a materialistic world.

    Nietzsche actually has a lot of quite interesting things to say about that, whatever you may think about his "existential angst." And in fact your pose of embattlement and assertion of a right to act on your feelings heedless of the consequences for other people is quite Nietzschean.

    It also looks from the outside rather like existential angst -- you feel, apparently, that you are in a fight for existence. At one point you threaten the existence of others, at least metaphorically, if they refuse to enter into your presuppositions & therefore, you claim, deny the conditions for reasoned civil relationships. These rather dire pronouncements are redolent of existential conflict.

    Your treatment of "bullshit" in various categories of thought is likewise anti-rationalist, as well as unreasonable. You uncritically equate the whole categories with "bullshit" when in fact what is called for in most cases is a more subtle effort at understanding where the "bullshit" elements enter in, in order to distinguish useful elements.

    So, for instance, there is indeed a great deal of Marxist bullshit, particularly in the practical political schools of Marxism that look also to Lenin (Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism etc).

    But Marx also laid out a number of ideas for reasoning about social relations and history that retain value, provided we treat his "historical materialism" as an open intellectual field and do not treat his or any other ideas in the field as secular holy writ.

    Similar points could be made about other wide areas of thought that you dismiss with a broad brush rather than taking on with critical thought. The ones about liberalism and tolerance are perhaps most important here, because they bear on your anti-rationalist agonistic and antagonistic attitudes and postures.

    james f. elliott has it wrong in a couple of respects. Toleration as a (relatively) liberal ideal did not come into being so that governments could avoid becoming oppressive. Rather it arose to bring to an end the religion-driven civil wars, repressions & mass murders, inquisitions and literal witch-hunts that wracked Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

    The ideas of civil rights and civil liberties originated with respect to restricting religious power and distinguishing it from state power. The related idea of a public secular civil society of markets and state distinct likewise distinguished civil society from the private domestic realm and from to a lesser degree from the realm of religion.

    As such, tolerance has always been in essence a "social virtue" -- a virtue pertaining to the reasoned ordering of a (relatively) free, egalitarian and democratic society. The extensions of it to areas beyond its original rather limited creation of spaces for freedom of conscience (including "free thought" atheism, universalism etc.) to attack other forms of unreasoning prejudice, particularly as related to ethno-racial nationalist ideologies much elaborated by mistaken science and scientized versions of received sex/gender ideologies. That extension is completely consistent with the original social goals of a reasoned ordering of a relatively free, egalitarian and democratic society.

    Your statements about pluralism are caricatures and also just wrong, since they actually appear to refer to certain very poorly thought-out versions of ideological and cultural relativism rather than pluralism. Other versions of such relativism, limited to particular circumstances and purposes, are quite defensible and indeed desirable for critical thinking.

    The ersatz nostalgia expressed by Mr. Elliott for implicit and often imaginary older virtues can only exist through unreasoning refusal to face historical facts about cultural prejudices underwritten by both religious and scientific authority (treated as quasi-religious) in varying degrees.

    Finally, your alignment of yourself with abolitionists is wonderfully humorous, since a) abolitionism was above all a movement driven by religious morality -- you know "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the Coming of the Lord ... " and all that) and b) in their battles against early forms of scientistic racialism, black and white Christian abolitionists together developed defensive counter narratives ancestral to parts of what gets labeled "political correctness" by right-wingers these days ("p.c.", itself being idea carrying substantial amounts of bullshit, deserves much more critical scrutiny than you give it btw).

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  10. ubercheesehead12/29/07, 6:54 AM

    "I for for children to not be taught religion, not to be protected from the merest waft of bias."

    I'm sure that somewhere in there is a complete sentence struggling to see the light of day.

    "This is not the case: You have proven that you lack both a sense of irony as well as that crucial second functioning brain cell."

    Excuse me. I mistook you for someone who wanted to have an intellectually stimulating debate.

    "If I'm right, it doesn't matter that I'm all alone."

    This statement is truer than you realize. If you are "right", then all of your "thoughts" are merely deterministically inevitable outcomes of random interactions of matter. There is no truth or falsehood or beauty or even a "you" beyond the random aggregation of matter exhibiting the properties of matter that cannot be otherwise. And what you think of as "death" is really just the unraveling of the temporary coalescence of matter that creates the illusion of thought, personality and free will.

    "Comments are moderated. If your comment is idiotic, it won't appear. If you don't like it, get your own blog."

    Since this is likely to be deleted anyway, I'll just note in passing that whether you delete this post or allow it to stand, you really have no choice in the matter. Your "decision" will be determined by the interaction of electro-chemical reactions which give the appearance of "freewill" and "thought", but are really nothing of the sort.

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  11. Chris Lowe: An interesting comment.

    Let me first clear up a couple of clear misconceptions. First, I am not an atheist "evangelist" in the sense of someone out to convince people of a specific position.

    Second, I do not assume in general that "evidence speaks for itself", presumably in the sense that the correct conclusion can easily or trivially be drawn from evidence. However I am convinced that specifically atheism can be easily, almost trivially concluded from the evidence.

    I think Haught is not quite correct in lumping Nietzsche in with Sartre and Camus; Nietzsche does not dwell on anxiety, anomie or nausea as do Sartre and Camu. Still, there is a whiff of desperation in Nietzsche's response

    But I think that you are blatantly misreading Sartre and Camus to conflate the struggle for existence with the "angst", the anxiety, depression, anomie, and nausea that these writers describe at the fact of extrinsically purposeless existence. (It might be said with some justice that Kierkegaard exhibits or at least responds to much the same sort of angst at the absurdity and incomprehensibility of divine purpose as do Sartre and Camus at the supposed absurdity and incomprehensibility of a purposeless existence.)

    I think the charge that I

    threaten the existence of others, at least metaphorically, if they refuse to enter into your presuppositions & therefore, you claim, deny the conditions for reasoned civil relationships

    is a canard, without any merit and rather insulting. I said:

    If the theists wish to call atheists insane for denying what they call "unscientific evidence", there's nothing I can do except note that we cannot then be reasonably assured of the mutual good will necessary to civil society, and we will act accordingly.)

    The condition is calling atheists insane, not refusing to enter into my presuppositions. It seems obvious that you cannot have a civil discourse with someone you consider insane. I don't see how you can construe the vague "act accordingly" as a "wipe everyone I cannot communicate with off the face of the earth" existential threat. Indeed I leave the consequent vague precisely because I consider the antecedent implausible: many theists consider atheists to be mistaken, but few, I think, would construct atheism to be on the same level of insanity as we ascribe to the schizophrenically deluded.

    I think it is dogma, not "plain fact" to assert that the complex interplay between reason and emotion demonstrates the fact of unreason is central to the human condition. Nor do I ignore this dogma. I offer in this post the schematic of an argument (elaborated at greater length in my work on meta-ethical subjective relativism). You are free to rebut or simply disagree with my position, but it is again a canard to claim I ignore competing views.

    Yes, I say that religion is categorically bullshit. But only religion (and I try to be clear in my other writing precisely what I mean by "religion" in the categorical sense). I say that philosophy is mostly bullshit, and I put in "mostly" precisely to deny a specifically categorical interpretation. Simple charity (and that you recognize that there is indeed such a thing as Marxist bullshit) would seem to make the interpretation plausible that I oppose bullshit within the categories; I will make explicit that this interpretation is indeed my intention.

    I will skip over your criticism of James' comments; he is well-able to defend himself. I will say only that I concur at least that the notion of "tolerance", especially religious tolerance, is both complex and historically contingent; both concepts argue at least against a simplistic, over-broad interpretation of tolerance as a social norm.

    I must apologize for omitting the <satire> tags in my description of pluralism; it was intended satirically. Again, I speak at greater length elsewhere about pluralism in a serious, coherent sense as well as multiculturalism and relativism.

    I do not, however, believe I am caricaturing anything: I think the (wrongheaded) notion of pluralism, relativism and multiculturalism as that no one (or at least not straight white Western middle- and upper-class men) shouldn't ever criticize or deprecate anything ever has sufficient currency to be addressed directly.

    Lastly, I am well aware of the religious component in nineteenth century abolitionism. The comparison was explicitly political, not ideological: It is not a priori wrong for a small minority to take a strong, even uncompromising moral stance.

    I might add here that it is not at all settled that the origins of abolitionism were specifically religious: The alternative hypothesis that abolitionists retrojected a fundamentally naturally humanistic ideal into their religious beliefs has real currency. Furthermore, it can be said that abolitionism was propagated by humanizing black people, a fundamentally naturalistic position that does not depend on supernatural support. And, of course, the actual abolition of slavery required an army of soldiers, not of priests.

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  12. Sigh... too many no's. Let me say it properly:

    I think the (wrongheaded) notion of pluralism, relativism and multiculturalism as that no one (or at least not straight white Western middle- and upper-class men) should criticize or deprecate anything ever has sufficient currency to be addressed directly.

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  13. ubercheesehead: Sorry for the delay in publishing your latest comment; for some reason I was not notified it was awaiting moderation.

    I'm sure that somewhere in there is a complete sentence struggling to see the light of day.

    Yes. You must supply one of the relatively obvious verb choices: ask, request, demand, something like that. Obvious, I suppose

    I mistook you for someone who wanted to have an intellectually stimulating debate.

    And I mistook you for someone offering an intellectually stimulating debate.

    If you are "right", then all of your "thoughts" are merely deterministically inevitable outcomes of random interactions of matter. There is no truth or falsehood or beauty or even a "you" beyond the random aggregation of matter exhibiting the properties of matter that cannot be otherwise. And what you think of as "death" is really just the unraveling of the temporary coalescence of matter that creates the illusion of thought, personality and free will.

    This is a fairly dogmatic and unsophisticated position. No, sorry, I mean it's a stupid position ignorant of even the basics of philosophy. From which fundamentalist propaganda site did you crib the notion?

    Just because I don't conceive myself as the slave of or sacrifice to a cannibalistic, bloodthirsty supernatural deity such as Jehovah, just because I conceive of myself as a wholly material being, doesn't mean I don't have emotions, desires, preferences, or experiences.

    If you define things like thoughts, beauty, truth or even life to be a priori supernatural, then mirabile dictu! you can easily "prove" that naturalism denies them in a tour de force of circular mental masturbation.

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  14. Barefoot,

    Your comment about ungenerous reading has something to it, at points anyway, for which I apologize. Also I guess I should have scattered "here" (a al Lemony Snicket) before or after I say "you" do this or that, since I'm not familiar with your other writings, having arrived via the good offices of Chuck Butcher's recommendation of Jon Swift's recent large act of intellectual generosity.

    Conversely, I think if you reread you'll find that I stipulated up front substantial "bullshit" in Marxism & agree with you that treating Marx's writings like holy books is intellectually unacceptably. To extend it back explicitly to Marx himself, his historicism provides a major example, which in turn carries significant responsibility for underwriting Leninist crimes with spurious justifications.

    Thanks for your interesting response re Haught (whose work I don't know), Nietszche et al., Kierkegaard, & existential angst vs. struggle. I'm not sure struggle can be completely divorced from anxiety, and certainly struggle was an important theme for Camus and perhaps a political posture for Sartre. But I take your point that there is a meaningful distinction that I should think about more.

    Satire and irony I guess present problems about good faith in e-communication between persons who don't know one another -- how 'bout I trade you an "evangelical" for bad pluralist/relativist absurdities? Though I do stand by the equivocality of my intended irony there, based on this:

    "Because, unlike reality, we do have sympathy and pity for our fellow human beings, mired in lies and bullshit, and no matter how much you hate us for it, we're going to do all we can to pull you out."

    Holy Redemption, Batman! And from moral slavery, no less. I mean really, doesn't that ring any bells?

    Do you have kids? An aspect of their early openness to their parents' views ("vulnerability to indoctrination"), apart from limited information & experience, the sheer difficulty of grasping and navigating the world, and psychological needs for approval, is that cognitively they are oriented to story and narrative more than logic.

    My experience is that not indoctrinating my child becomes very complex as a result. Religious stories have an intrinsic power even when not presented in a context of parental belief. Yet keeping a child in ignorance hardly seems a good answer.

    This view is reinforced by the experience of having taught history at a college where students have long had as their ironic school epigram "atheism, communism, free love" & the bookstore sells t-shirts bearing that slogan. A study conducted by the administration when I taught there found that the student body was comparable to students at "peer" schools, with the exception that 60% gave their religious "preference" as none or atheist, compared to ca. 10% at other schools. This seems to arise from self-selection & a high proportion of academic brats.

    While associated with strengths in critical thinking, and paradoxical patterns of tolerance and intolerance, it raised some serious problems for historical thinking and capacity to understand the actions of people in the past. There were challenges of deep incomprehension based substantially on ignorance.

    It seems irresponsible to send a child into the world unequipped to interpret what many around him or her say about why they act as they do. This is not to mention the manifold religiously derived cultural idioms layered into the culture (e.g. moral slavery) that I'd like my child to understand.

    As to "insanity," I'm not sure you can get off the hook with your argument. You set up the bit you quote thus:

    "calling a statement evidentiary means that one must consider a denier non-sentient, irretrievably insane, or a member of an incompatible linguistic community. If the theists wish to call atheists insane..."

    This is a bit of a rhetorical trick, an inversion and projection, isn't it?

    The "one" in the first sentence conventionally is an abstraction of self. It occurs in a context in which you repeatedly claim not only that religion is bunk, but that that it is transparently so based on strong perceptual evidence and related evidentiary statements.

    If that is so, it is the theists who really are the "deniers" who are "non-sentient, irretrievably insane or [members] of an incompatible linguistic community." Concommitantly it is really the atheists (or one atheist) who is adopting that judgment against the the theists.

    My own view is that there is an undistributed middle here, involving interpretive communities, broader and less precise than linguistic ones, that are not entirely closed off from one another. The differences seem better described by perceptions of irrationality and faulty thought than "irretrievable insanity."

    The extremity of the latter phrase makes an extreme gloss on your ambiguous statement about "acting accordingly" plausible, especially in the wider context of your fighting talk. I accept that you didn't intend it to be definitive, but your intentional choice to leave it ambiguous was in effect a choice to leave the extreme gloss as a prominent potential, even if you didn't intend that either.

    Also I stand by my view that common cause evidence is stongly on the side of emotion and irrationality as an irreducible element of the human condition. The very fact that children have emotions and feelings and irrational perceptions of the world from the beginning, but develop capacities for reason only later and gradually tells us as much. So do various aspects of scientific psychology.

    It actually is quite hard for me to understand how you can deny this [half a joke, but only half]. Possibly you are making an Aristotelian move of treating only that which is distinctively human as human-defining? Such an approach does not seem to me to be compatible with materialism or biological science.

    Historically abolitionism clearly is religious in origins. The earliest abolitionist writing in the British North American colonies was made by Samuel Sewall, a deeply religious Massachusetts puritan judge, who couched his case against slavery in a language of sin based on the biblical story of Joseph. The earliest practical abolitionists (apart from self-liberating slaves) were mostly Quakers and included an ex-slave ship captain who had an evangelical Protestant religious conversion (Methodist I think). The moral fervor and motivational power of abolitionism derived from discourses of national and personal sin & the construction of Christian redemption ideas around the metaphor of sinfulness as moral enslavement.

    One could perhaps make a case for Sewall representing a retreat from certain heights of religious irrationalism. He was one of the judges who condemned the accused witches of Salem, and later made a public confession (in church) of having sinned grievously in so doing; his public abolitionism followed a few years later.

    It also is important to be clear that religious justifications of slavery were rife and became increasingly elaborate in the face of abolitionism -- not least because of the religious claims of abolitionists.

    But on the whole it was religion that "humanized" slaves, by focus on their putative souls, while Enlightenment rationalism tended to dehumanize them, from John Locke's sophistries justifying enslavement by virtue of a war victor choosing not to kill a captive, creating the slave as a human tool owed no moral obligations (Locke was secretary to the Royal Africa Company, the official British slave-trade monopoly) to the early forms of scientistic racialism related to Linnaean classification schemes & embodied in the writings of e.g. Thomas Jefferson.

    By the end of the 18th century some of the deists, unitarians and free-thinkers in the Quaker milieu around Philadelphia were developing relatively rationalist counter-narratives & in later life Jefferson retreated from the racialisms of Notes on Virginia. But this rationalist stream of thought was distinctly secondary in time and prominence in the history of abolitionism. (David Brion Davis' intellectual history The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution remains the most comprehensive, detailed and nuanced account of the interplay of ideas and development of ideologies about slavery in this period; Winthrop Jordan's White over Black is useful on early scientistic racialism).

    And, of course, erroneous and ultimately irrationalist scientistic racialisms only gained strength with the rationalist apotheosis of science, progress and misinterpratations of evolution up to about the 1920s. They possibly are having a revival today (viz. the assertions in the name of spurious science around the recent pieces on race and intelligence by William Saletan at Slate), though perhaps it's only a minor flair-up.

    Along the same lines, and far from unrelatedly, earlier I should have agreed strongly with James Elliott about the (non-eclusive) Enlightenment rationalist roots of late 19th and 20th century mass murderousness. Stalin's or Mao's cults of personality cannot efface the reality of their atheisms, even if they are not your atheism or mine, while Hitler in part illustrates the non-isolation of scientific from irrationalist ideologies, much as one might wish it otherwise. It is such phenomena which render claims of transparency for the truth of atheism unpersuasive to me.

    Well, I should shut up now. I hope this response is less unfair in your view than my original comment, and I appreciate your engagement with that one.

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  15. Chris Lowe:

    Your comment about ungenerous reading has something to it, at points anyway, for which I apologize.

    Apology accepted. Bygones.

    And from moral slavery, no less. I mean really, doesn't that ring any bells?

    But of course. I do think that atheism in particular and anti-supernaturalism in general do have similarities in moral dimensions with the struggle against chattel slavery. I also think that the struggle against chattel slavery can be justified in naturalistic terms.

    (I should note again that a key component of the philosophical case against religion is that religion can be used to "justify" anything, not just evil.)

    I don't see religion as insanity in the sense of a schizophrenic perceptual delusion: I think atheists and religious people have and report the same set of perceptual experiences. These perceptual experiences provide a sufficient common ground for civilized discourse.

    The problem with religion is cognitive: seriously problematic, and not directly resolvable by rational discourse. (Indeed the skeptical atheist disagrees with the theist about what constitutes rational discourse in the first place.) Still, this problem does not absolutely preclude civilized coexistence in the same way that disagreement over a foundation would.

    I am a parent (adoptive). I have more to say about the "indoctrination" of children, but I think I'll save it for more careful thought, and probably put it on the blog itself. I think what you've written here is interesting: If you'd like, I'd very much like to consider a more formal write-up for publication on the blog.

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  16. Certainly the struggle against chattel slavery can be justified in naturalistic terms, didn't mean nor I think say otherwise. And the historical struggles for and against slavery illustrate your point about the capacity of religion to justify anything, since it was used to justify all positions in that debate.

    However, the "bell" I had in mind actually wasn't literal slavery, but the centrality of redemption from moral slavery to the Christian accounts and metaphorical constructions of the meaning of Christian faith.

    I've sent you an e-mail, thanks for provoking interesting thoughts.

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  17. Christianity wouldn't be successful if it hadn't referenced, co-opted, or parasitized deep (natural) emotional needs in the human psyche.

    Christianity bills itself as redemptive in some sense; I would, however, contest that Christianity Christianity redeems the believer from moral slavery per se. It would seem to me that Christianity redeems the believer from sin.

    I do not mean "moral slavery" in the metaphorical sense of "the moral equivalent of slavery." I mean it in the literal sense: submitting one's moral judgment to other people. Theism isn't the only road to moral slavery, but it seems to me that historically, a supernatural God with supernatural rewards and punishments, has proven by far the most effective way to implement moral slavery, especially in the medium- to long-term.

    Even the supposedly "atheistic" mass movements of the 20th century, Nazism and Stalinism, employed many religious tropes; if they failed to actually deify their leaders, it wasn't from lack of trying.

    One might even argue that Chinese Communism is showing more success than Soviet Communism precisely because they have taken atheist-style skepticism more seriously; e.g. the Chinese (AFAIK) no longer venerate Mao. It's also arguable that the quality of life in present-day China is no worse than it was in the 19th century West after four hundred years of the Enlightenment.

    (It's not that I'm a huge fan of Chinese Communism. But I don't have to live there, and I'm hesitant to dismiss their society as irredeemably bad in the same sense that Nazism and Stalinism was bad. And one has to be proportionate even about those evils: put the Holocaust next to evils such as colonialism and the genocide of the American Indians, and the high moral ground from which we thunderingly denounce Nazism no longer seems quite so towering.)

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  18. ubercheesehead12/30/07, 8:47 AM

    Chris Lowe

    Although we line up on opposite sides of the fence regarding worldviews, you are very well spoken. What makes your writing interesting to me is that I agree with pretty much every observation and interpretation you have made but we arrive at very different conclusions. I suspect that if we interacted long enough we would find the point of divergence that takes us in opposite directions, but suffice it say that you make a very respectable case for your views.

    Barefoot Bum


    This is a fairly dogmatic and unsophisticated position. No, sorry, I mean it's a stupid position ignorant of even the basics of philosophy. From which fundamentalist propaganda site did you crib the notion?

    Oooo...what a great smackdown! Even though I am still smarting from it I can recognize an unanswerable rhetorical thrashing when I see one. Even though I recognize this statement as equivalent to checkmate, I will try to stagger on so you can keeping demonstrating the irrefutability of your unsupported assertions.
    /sarc off


    just because I conceive of myself as a wholly material being, doesn't mean I don't have emotions, desires, preferences, or experiences.

    I totally agree that you have emotions, desires, preferences and experiences. The problem for you is that while you intuitively know that you possess all these and free will to boot, you cannot explain the root of all these within the materialistic framework you adhere to, or if you can, you will accomplish something no other materialist has been able to do. As information theory develops, the possibility of something as complex as you arising spontaneously becomes even more remote.

    The basic problem involved in a purely materialistic view of the universe is that there is no evidence that the complexity represented in the simplest living organism, say nothing of a human being, is an inherent property of the matter of which it is composed. Since human beings are not the inevitable result of the properties of the matter of which they are composed (unlike, say, ice crystals, which cannot help but form when water is cooled sufficiently), the only option of which I am aware left open to you is the atheistic trinity of matter, time and chance. However, this is a awfully weak peg on which to hang your whole worldview.

    Let me explain why: The observed universe contains 10^80 elementary particles. Any given particle can undergo up to 10^45 alterations in quantum states per second. The theoretical total lifespan of the universe from singularity to heat death or collapse back on itself is 10^25 seconds. This yields a total number of quantum events possible in the universe of 10^150 events. Anything with a probability of less than one in 10^150 can be said with certainty to not have a chance of happening.

    Let's take for a coding set only the capital letters of the English alphabet and the space bar (27 characters). If you read:

    THE BAREFOOT BUM ROCKS

    you immediately recognize this as the product of intelligent agency, even if that intelligence has strange tastes. Why do you attribute this to intelligent agency rather than a random output of a random code generator? Because even if you do not pause to calculate that a string of code 22 characters long with 27 choices for each character has a one in 10^31 chance of being randomly generated; and even if you do not go on to calculate that if you had a random code generator run one trillion sequences a second for 20 billion years the odds would still be against this particular sequence appearing; you would recognize that this string of code has a functional specificity to a predetermined function (the English language). (If this sounds familiar, Dan Peterson has laid this out before.)

    DNA is contingent--the four possible base pairs can be arranged in any random sequence. For a string of DNA n base pairs long, the probability of any given sequence emerging is one in 4^n. Thus the probability of any given string of DNA of 250 base pairs occuring is roughly 10^150, the outer limit of probability given the number quantum states possible in the universe in 10^25 seconds.

    Even a very simple bacterium has something like 5,000,000 base pairs. While it is reasonable to assume that we might find isolated islands and archipelagoes of functional DNA in a prebiotic soup of 250-500 base pairs, moving up to the 5,000,000 base pairs takes us four orders of magnitude away from plausibility. Even if we posit that the first life could have existed with only 500,000 base pairs (as some very simple cells which cannot survive independent of the organism which produces them have) you are still three orders of magnitude into Lala Land assuming that this came about purely by chance. When you start getting into the 180,000,000 or so base pairs in a fruit fly you are really moving into the realm of blind, unsupportable faith in your religion of materialism.

    Summary: The materialistic worldview appears to require deterministic properties which are not supportable by observation to account for the complexity of even the simplest organisms, say nothing of organisms which possess intelligence, emotion, reason, or will. In every case where the cause of functionally specified complex information can be directly observed it is always the product of intelligent agency. It does not arise by chance and if it is a contingency drawn from a pool of more than 10^150 possibilities it can be categorically said that intelligent agency is the only possible cause for it.

    If you can grapple with this and admit that it provides a real and substantial challenge to your purely materialistic worldview you will get high marks for intellectual honesty. If you dismiss it as just more religious bulls***, then I will be free to assert that there is no "I" you have been corresponding with. All the characters that mysteriously showed up on your blog headed by "ubercheesehead" are really just the product of lucky noise generated by a random code generator which was (whoops!) ummm...er...designed by a tech-savvy kid with nothing better to do with his time. Hmmm...just to be consistent let's say it is all just static in the lines that looks like functional code but is really just lucky noise.

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  19. I totally agree that you have emotions, desires, preferences and experiences. The problem for you is that while you intuitively know that you possess all these and free will to boot, you cannot explain the root of all these within the materialistic framework you adhere to ...

    The basic problem involved in a purely materialistic view of the universe is that there is no evidence that the complexity represented in the simplest living organism, say nothing of a human being, is an inherent property of the matter of which it is composed.


    This is a fallacy of composition. As an analogy, none of the parts of a bus is inherently capable of carrying passengers, but the bus as a whole is capable of carrying passengers. Emergent properties have been recognized by philosophers and scientists for two thousand years.

    Furthermore, theism can't explain these phenomena. Just shouting "goddidit" and "fallofman" does not constitute an actual explanation. An explanation must show how what is to be explained is entailed by the explanation, and why that particular explanation is to be preferred over alternatives.

    Indeed, if your reasoning were not fallacious, we would have to conclude some sort of pantheism; Your objection applies equally to Christian theism, which definitely does not entail that that complexity is an inherent property of matter.

    Scientific reasoning can of course explain these phenomena. Read up on neurobiology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

    And of course there's...

    As information theory develops, the possibility of something as complex as you arising spontaneously becomes even more remote. ...

    Let me explain why. [blah blah blah]


    ... Evolution.

    You obviously have no clue about what the science of evolution actually says. Your comments are at the very least gross negligence and at worst intentional misrepresentation. Since you are obviously not stupid, I must therefore conclude that you are intentionally misrepresenting the facts.

    You sir, are a liar.

    Worse yet, you are bearing false witness: If you are indeed a Christian, you are not just a liar, you are, by your own lights, a sinner.

    I'm happy to publish comments that question or argue against my position, but I do not tolerate lies. I published this comment to demonstrate that you are in fact a liar; further proof is not necessary.

    If you would like to learn about what the various sciences under the umbrella of evolution actually have to say, I suggest you start with Talk.Orgins, especially An Index to Creationist Claims. You can also read Charles Darwin's seminal works, including The Origin of Species.

    I have much better things to do than deconstruct lies. I will not publish any further comments containing lies. Let me note that I am not in any way "silencing" you: You are free to start your own blog and say anything you please. There are as well any number of venues, such as the Evolution/Creation forum at IIDB where people take great pleasure in deconstructing cretinist bullshit.

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  20. ubercheesehead12/30/07, 12:18 PM

    Good show. Rather than actually interact with an opposing viewpoint, plead better things to do with your time than to "deconstruct lies". For good measure throw in a link to Talk Origins and IIDB, reference Origin of the Species, declare victory and shut off the pesky poster from making further posts. I've never, ever, heard of or read anything at Talk Origins. I'm sure when I go there I will get all straightened out, and sheepishly return, begging your pardon for wasting your time and take up my rightful position sitting at your feet listening (or reading) in fittingly worshipful awe.

    But let me respond to the wee bits of substance in your reply.

    This is a fallacy of composition. As an analogy, none of the parts of a bus is inherently capable of carrying passengers, but the bus as a whole is capable of carrying passengers. Emergent properties have been recognized by philosophers and scientists for two thousand years.

    Whoops! There you go with intelligent agency again. I don't know about the buses where you live, but all the buses by me were designed by engineers. The individual parts were designed by engineers and the assembly of those parts was designed. Could you come up with an example of an emergent property that was not superintended by an intelligent agency?

    As a side note to this, it should also be noted that the similarities between a 1990 Honda Civic and a '91,'92 and so on in no way prove that the '92 Honda evolved from the 1990 Honda. It only demonstrates that an intelligent design was modified to create a similar but different design.

    Scientific reasoning can of course explain these phenomena. Read up on neurobiology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

    *Say, I know how we can stymie this kook. Let's flood the stage. That's what they do at Talk Origins and IIDB*

    Do you have anything in particular in mind, or is this just another way of saying, "My mind is made up. Don't confuse me with the facts!"

    You sir, are a liar.

    Why thank you. Coming from you I will take that as high praise. Rather than refute the argument, poison the well. No brains, no headaches!

    Feel free to hit the delete button on this post. You will not be the first atheist, nor I suspect, the last who finds it easier to hurl invective and storm off than to actually interact with what I'm saying. If you are really interested in dragging us benighted theists out of the slough of our despond, I gotta say you're just not reachin' me with this approach. However, I understand that your delicate understanding of the world requires you to be able to pigeonhole all theists into one of three categories: stupid, insane or mendacious. Clearly no one could intelligently and in good conscience hold to any view save your own.

    Anyway, nice blog you have here. If I can get banned from it without using profanity, threats or anything more than good natured paybacks to insults, that in itself tells me everything I need to know.

    Cheers!

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  21. Here's the thing, my fine fromaged friend: This is not a matter of opposing "viewpoints", it's a matter of different ethical beliefs around contradicting provable facts. The content of evolutionary science is a matter of fact. To misrepresent the content of the science is not an opposing viewpoint, it's not just a straw man fallacy, it is a blatant lie, a lie we can easily catch you out on.

    Furthermore, although I'm scientifically literate I'm not a professional scientist of any kind, much less one working in a field which relies on the evolutionary paradigm. Since atheism does not depend in the least on the truth or falsity of modern theories of evolution. Even if Intelligent Design were 100% true, (instead of 100% stupid, which Hume recognized in the 18th century), it still wouldn't be any sort of justification for supernaturalism or theism. So whatever your viewpoint opposes, it is not the typical content of this blog.

    If you want to talk about biology or other sciences with scientists, I have directed you to appropriate forums.

    I have not mentioned banning. I have said I will not publish lies. You will be "banned" accordingly if and only if you are incapable of posting comments which do not contain provable lies.

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  22. This is a fallacy of composition. As an analogy ...

    Whoops! There you go with intelligent agency again.


    Jumpin' Jesus on a pogo stick. How stupid are you, son? Do you know what "analogy" means? Do you understand that the fallacy of composition pertains to logic, and has nothing directly to do with the details of any particular scientific theory or pseudo-scientific bullshit?

    Could you come up with an example of an emergent property that was not superintended by an intelligent agency?

    This is nonsense. You're switching horses in mid-stream. Your original statement, in case you've forgotten:

    [T]here is no evidence that the complexity represented in the simplest living organism, say nothing of a human being, is an inherent property of the matter of which it is composed.

    The impossibility of emergent properties falsifies materialism out of one side of your mouth;, out their actuality verifies intelligent design out of the other. Brilliant!

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  23. One last thing: Get down off your cross, we need the wood. Stop complaining about censorship and banning when I've published each and every one of your comments.

    So long as you don't lie, you stay more or less on-topic, and you at least try — even in your amusing inept manner — to make an argument, I'll publish you.

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  24. Don't know if this will go through. I don't understand "Choose an Identity" and such. Just want to send you a link Churchofreality.com I think you will find like minded friends & great discussion. Peace to you & yours. Rio

    ReplyDelete
  25. ubercheesehead12/31/07, 4:43 PM

    Here's the thing, my fine fromaged friend...
    Say, now that really is cute. Do you mind if I appropriate it for my own use in other settings?

    The content of evolutionary science is a matter of fact. To misrepresent the content of the science is not an opposing viewpoint, it's not just a straw man fallacy, it is a blatant lie, a lie we can easily catch you out on.

    Sorry, this is a sloppy line of reasoning relying on categorical errors. There are two components to any scientific theory: observations and interpretations. While I wholeheartedly agree that it is disingenuous and ethically wrong to misrepresent or fabricate the observations, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to continually scrutinize the interpretations of the observations to see how well they fit. To engage in a prolonged screechfest demanding fealty to an interpretation of the evidence and accuse anyone who questions that interpretation of intellectual dishonesty is to leave the field of scientific inquiry and enter the realm of religion.

    Furthermore your talk of "the science of evolution" as if it were a monolithic and immutable unity glosses over the reality that almost all of the interpretations of the observed data which my elderly father was taught vis a vis evolution when he was in high school and college have long since been abandoned in favor of other interpretations which say very different things, yet are all pressed into service of supporting the same theory. In fact, one of the weaknesses of evolutionary theory is that it has been stretched in so many directions over the last 1.5C that any observation in nature is touted as "proof" of evolution. And don't even get me started on that laughable canard of "evolutionary psychology." Talk about a theory of everything which explains nothing...

    Finally, you keep saying I am putting forth lies. Could you please just pick one and point out why it is a lie? If I took you more seriously I would be more vigorous in defending my honor, but if you could pick just one, I would be glad to recant.

    Furthermore, although I'm scientifically literate I'm not a professional scientist of any kind, much less one working in a field which relies on the evolutionary paradigm.

    Two points:

    1) I'm not going into any great technical detail with anything I'm pointing out here. You do not need to be conversant with the relativistic boundary states of quarks in mesons and be able to do linear algebra to interact with this stuff. In fact I have deliberately avoided referencing anything overly technical, which I could narrowcast in on in my own field.

    2)There is no field of operational science which relies on the evolutionary paradigm. Any field of endeavor which deals with real, live organisms or their constituent parts operates independent of how they came into their current form. The only fields of "science" which rely on the evolutionary paradigm are the speculative, nonrepeatable interpretations of data which resemble nothing so much as etiology. Real, operational science involving observation, hypothesizing, testing, and repeating is quite agnostic about the origins of life.

    Since atheism does not depend in the least on the truth or falsity of modern theories of evolution.

    Once again, I'm sure that there is a complete sentence struggling to escape into daylight here, but I think I know what you mean. Actually while atheism does not depend upon the veracity of the current evolutionary theory, it would be quite impossible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist without it. Now before you spew invective at me for saying that, just remember, it's your buddy Dawkins I am cribbing here.

    So whatever your viewpoint opposes, it is not the typical content of this blog.

    I thought perhaps the origins of life issue might be fairly considered a core issue to atheism as it is to theism. And if it isn't I can only plead that I continue to pursue the topic because it's so much fun to watch smoke and steam come out of your ears. :-)

    If you want to talk about biology or other sciences with scientists, I have directed you to appropriate forums.

    Yeah, been there, done that. Wasn't able to get any more of a real back and forth going with any of your more scientifically literate coreligionists than with you. Mostly it's a game of repeated claims that this or that has been thoroughly debunked elsewhere, and the links never quite reach there, rather than just taking the argument and really showing the false assumptions or gaps in the logic. When that fails then it is the usual flood the stage tactic: biology, physics, sociology, blah, blah, blah supports evolution. Go read up.

    I have not mentioned banning. I have said I will not publish lies. You will be "banned" accordingly if and only if you are incapable of posting comments which do not contain provable lies.

    This reads like a distinction without a difference to me, but whatever. As long as I get some spare moments to post and you post 'em and respond, let's roll! Huzzah!

    Do you know what "analogy" means? Do you understand that the fallacy of composition pertains to logic, and has nothing directly to do with the details of any particular scientific theory or pseudo-scientific bullshit?

    Ummm...yeah. I think I know what "analogy" means, but perhaps in my last wrestling match with the Neananderthals over in the cave next door that understanding got knocked out of my head when Thag hit me over the head with that big rock. (He's such a bully--just because he has a larger cranial capacity than mine he thinks he better than me or something...but I digress.)

    I just found it interesting that your analogy relied upon a system which could not exist without intelligent agency. When I asked the question I could not off handedly come up with any example of emergent properties which are not associated with systems that are the product of intelligent agency. If you can come up with an example of an emergent property in a system which is unambiguously not superintended by intelligent design I will be in your debt for the education. If you cannot, this will not prove that no such systems exist; it will merely mean that for me (and for you also, if you are honest) emergent properties exist only in systems which are superintended by intelligent agency, and therefore may serve as a marker of intelligent design.

    This is nonsense. You're switching horses in mid-stream.

    So, are you gonna answer the question or not?

    The impossibility of emergent properties falsifies materialism out of one side of your mouth;, out their actuality verifies intelligent design out of the other. Brilliant!

    You have misunderstood the argument. The fact that the order observed in living organism does not appear to be an inherent property of the matter composing those living organisms, coupled with the complexity of those organisms strongly suggests intelligent agency in their assembly.

    The fact that there are emergent properties from assembling the components of you and me into living beings is actually quite immaterial to the argument, except that if emergent properties do indeed serve as a marker for intelligent design in any other system where the origins of that system can actually be observed, then this poses a problem for materialism.

    So long as you don't lie, you stay more or less on-topic, and you at least try — even in your amusing inept manner — to make an argument, I'll publish you.

    And so long as you keep publishing and make any response at all that does not consist entirely of screeching at me that I am lying when I either make a statement or ask a question I'll keep coming back at least until I get bored.

    Cheers!

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  26. Do you mind if I appropriate it for my own use in other settings?

    Feel free to use it as you please.

    The content of evolutionary science is a matter of fact.

    Sorry, this is a sloppy line of reasoning relying on categorical errors.


    Let me be even more specific: What scientific theories actually say is a matter of fact. The theories might be true or false, but they are what they are.

    Could you please just pick one and point out why it is a lie?

    Your exposition on probability is fundamentally mendacious, since no theory in any of the sciences employing the evolutionary paradigm asserts that the features of modern organisms arose by chance alone.

    And don't even get me started on that laughable canard of "evolutionary psychology." Talk about a theory of everything which explains nothing...

    Amazingly enough, I have to (mostly) agree with you here. Many of the evo-psych folks have latched on to the adaptationist fallacy in a big way.

    In fact, one of the weaknesses of evolutionary theory is that it has been stretched in so many directions over the last 1.5C that any observation in nature is touted as "proof" of evolution.

    I call bullshit. Provide evidence.

    Any field of endeavor which deals with real, live organisms or their constituent parts operates independent of how they came into their current form.

    I call bullshit. Provide evidence. PZ Myers, for instance, a professional biologist, states unconditionally and with some frequency that evolution is critical to understanding biology.

    Real, operational science involving observation, hypothesizing, testing, and repeating is quite agnostic about the origins of life.

    What precisely constitutes "real science" is an issue of contention even among secular and atheist philosophers. I've written my own thoughts on the matter in my series on the Scientific Method. I reject the notion that "real" science is a search for universals; I say etiology, history and forensics are just as scientific as universal sciences.

    [I]t would be quite impossible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist without it. Now before you spew invective at me for saying that, just remember, it's your buddy Dawkins I am cribbing here.

    I'm quite familiar with Dawkins statement. I disagree with it. The "intellectual fulfillment" of atheism rests only on the vacuity, incoherence and falsity of theism. As Hume showed, an affirmative scientific theory of the historical origins of modern organisms is not required to decisively reject an intelligent, much less supernatural, designer.

    It must be said, however, that every scientific advance, including evolution, is yet another item of evidence supporting the utility of methodological naturalism and the plausibility of metaphysical naturalism.

    I thought perhaps the origins of life issue might be fairly considered a core issue to atheism as it is to theism.

    The evidence for the origins of life is buried under billions of years of history: It is entirely possible that we never will figure out precisely how terrestrial life arose. And, absent a time machine, we will certainly never have positivistic evidence of any particular mechanism.

    It's worth repeating, thought, that even if we don't figure out the precise scientific explanation, "goddidit" is not any explanation at all.

    Mostly it's a game of repeated claims that this or that has been thoroughly debunked elsewhere, and the links never quite reach there, rather than just taking the argument and really showing the false assumptions or gaps in the logic.

    The fault, cabeza de queso, might well be in yourself.

    When I asked the question I could not off handedly come up with any example of emergent properties which are not associated with systems that are the product of intelligent agency.

    Much depends on whether you consider emergent properties to prove intelligent agency. Shape and color in physics, for instance, are often emergent properties: An aggregate such as a rock can have a shape or color that none of its constituents have. An individual atom of silver is not reflective in the image-preserving sense, but a flat layer. Individual molecules do not have a property of "hardness", but objects composed of molecules do. Likewise tensile and compressive strength.

    The fact that the order observed in living organism does not appear to be an inherent property of the matter composing those living organisms, coupled with the complexity of those organisms strongly suggests intelligent agency in their assembly.

    You're conflating order and complexity. Order, i.e. physical law, is an inherent property of the physical universe, of which matter is a part. Complexity is not an inherent property of matter, but complexity is obviously an emergent property, and the existence of emergent properties is routine.

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  27. Oops... An individual atom of silver is not reflective in the image-preserving sense, but a flat layer is.

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  28. ubercheesehead12/31/07, 9:38 PM

    Let me be even more specific: What scientific theories actually say is a matter of fact. The theories might be true or false, but they are what they are.

    That statement will get you a jacuzi king suite at the Tautology Hotel.


    Your exposition on probability is fundamentally mendacious, since no theory in any of the sciences employing the evolutionary paradigm asserts that the features of modern organisms arose by chance alone.

    Au contraire. I think Talk Origins attempt at refuting the probability conundrum is fairly typical of what I have seen advanced to refute this pretty much everywhere I have investigated. They attempt to reduce the really big probability problem into a bunch of bite sized steps, each one of which lies well within the realm of plausibility, with selective filters in place at each step to help the process along. This is an oblique admission of the problem involved, but does not constitute a real solution. Here's why: It is fine to hypothesize that if there are selective filters in place to select, preserve and aggregate beneficial events, but I have yet to see any actual natural selection mechanisms proposed that could do this in the real world. It is one thing, for instance, to say that if we select for the words of Hamlet (Talk Origins example) that we can generate Hamlet in a relatively short time using the combination of randomly generated code and a selective filter. It is another thing altogether to come up with a sorting filter which does not rely on a preexisting template (in this case the text of Hamlet). As it turns out the selective filter is entirely dependent upon intelligent agency to be meaningful.

    Just one example of the problem referenced here is the need to have all the amino acids in any given protein be either all L-chiral or R-chiral, with the overwhelming majority of all proteins being L-chiral. Although you can tilt the balance slightly using cosmic radiation, this mechanism comes nowhere near being an efficient enough filter to accomplish the job that needs to be done.

    I'll come back and finish responding to your post sometime in the next four days (maybe sooner, maybe later), but right now I am finished with my duties for the evening and am going home to get some lovin'. Happy New Year!

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  29. That statement will get you a jacuzi king suite at the Tautology Hotel.

    If you're going to be obtuse, don't blame me for being over-specific.

    Here's why: It is fine to hypothesize that if there are selective filters in place to select, preserve and aggregate beneficial events, but I have yet to see any actual natural selection mechanisms proposed that could do this in the real world.

    That's an argument from ignorance. Even a cursory reading of the literature will show specific mechanisms, such as predation, escaping predation, finding and utilizing food sources, sexual selection, etc.

    It is one thing, for instance, to say that if we select for the words of Hamlet...

    Hamlet is a pedagogic analogy, not a proof.

    blah blah blah L-chiral or R-chiral, blah blah blah

    Without a search on the scientific literature, you're just talking out your ass here.

    I'm guessing you're some sort of engineer. You've trolled a few cretinist websites and copied & pasted a few points about which you have no actual understanding.

    I'm not a biochemist. I don't know doodley squat about protein chirality. And neither do you. You're pretending to have a lot of knowledge you can't actually back up.

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  30. Just one example of the problem referenced here is the need to have all the amino acids in any given protein be either all L-chiral or R-chiral, with the overwhelming majority of all proteins being L-chiral. Although you can tilt the balance slightly using cosmic radiation, this mechanism comes nowhere near being an efficient enough filter to accomplish the job that needs to be done.

    This is a positive assertion that demands scientific evidence. Please prove it, referencing either peer-reviewed published scientific literature or your own research. And no, the Institute for Creation Research is not a scientific source.

    I'm not interested in anything else you have to say until you substantiate this assertion with evidence.

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  31. Actually there are several assertions in the referenced passage, all of which require evidentiary support.

    1: All the amino acids in any given protein need to be either all L-chiral or R-chiral

    2: The overwhelming majority of all proteins need to be L-chiral.

    3: What precisely is the "job" that needs to be done?

    4: Demonstrate precisely that actual theories of natural selection proposed by scientists entail that we should see heterochirality different from that which is observed.

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  32. Also, I almost forgot the most important examples of emergent properties in physics: temperature, pressure and entropy.

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  33. ubercheesehead, you write:


    The observed universe contains 10^80 elementary particles. Any given particle can undergo up to 10^45 alterations in quantum states per second. The theoretical total lifespan of the universe from singularity to heat death or collapse back on itself is 10^25 seconds. This yields a total number of quantum events possible in the universe of 10^150 events. Anything with a probability of less than one in 10^150 can be said with certainty to not have a chance of happening.


    Let us take the maths/physics as correct therefore giving an upper bound of 10^150 individual quantum events in the lifetime of the universe. But that only means that any quantum event with a probability less than 10^-150 is unlikely (noting that such an event is by definition here restricted to involving one particle only - because that's what has been counted).


    Let's take for a coding set only the capital letters of the English alphabet and the space bar (27 characters). If you read:

    THE BAREFOOT BUM ROCKS

    you immediately recognize this as the product of intelligent agency...[you can] calculate that a string of code 22 characters long with 27 choices for each character has a one in 10^31 chance of being randomly generated; and even if you do not go on to calculate that if you had a random code generator run one trillion sequences a second for 20 billion years the odds would still be against this particular sequence appearing.


    Firstly, try reading up on "a priori" vs "a posteriori" probabilities. Consider the following string:

    XUD THDELWQN FTJ OWNCD

    Using your logic, one might calculate that ... if you had a random code generator run one trillion sequences a second for 20 billion years the odds would still be against this particular sequence appearing. This would apparently ALSO be evidence that it's designed by an intelligent agency.

    Secondly, note that now you're counting combinations of (character) states in your probabilistic analysis, not individual (quantum) states. I suspect you're implicitly arguing above that the universe can only experience 10^70 possible states in its lifetime - but you haven't tried to tackle how many small local substates can be experienced within that set of universe-wide states.

    For example, in a universe of 10^80 particles, how many different states are experienced at any one instant involving (say) k neighbouring particles? The answer also depends on HOW MANY states each particle can take (something entirely left out of your universe analysis above). Let that number be represented by N.

    You can select at least 10^80 different initial particles and therefore at least 10^80 different sets of k (actually quite a few more as you may have a lot of choice as to how you construct the local set once the first particle is chosen). Each set of particles may take any one of N^k states, so for large enough N and k there can be more than 10^80 * N^k local substates at any one instant, and thus more than 10^150 * N^k local substates during the lifetime of the universe.

    You might then argue that any local k-particle substate with a probability of much less than 1 in (10^150 * N^k) has a poor chance of occurring, but even then you might want to estimate N and k for a DNA base pair before you go down that track - and think about the fact that for n base pairs, (N^k)^n grows much faster than 2^n.

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  34. It's just that [the scientific method is] the only method we've ever discovered that does give us actual knowledge.

    Of course, strictly speaking, this is false. I can know that I am hungry simply by introspection; I can know the square root of 9 by mathematical inquiry; I can know that "I am here now" is always true when sincerely uttered; and so on and so forth.

    By what method can we reliably and publicly differentiate between true and false statements?

    Of course this presumes an uncontroversial understanding of "truth", which isn't really available. And what counts as "reliable"? And so on and so forth.

    Science demands only three things: That we look for ourselves, that we think in some sort of deterministic manner (e.g. canonical logic) and that we can count. That's all you have to accept "uncritically" to use science.

    Let's break this down a bit:

    That we look for ourselves: Not really. Scientific progress depends heavily on testimonial evidence; to do science is to "stand on the shoulders of giants".

    That we think in some sort of deterministic manner (e.g. canonical logic): Canonical logic has nothing to do with determinism, so I'm not really sure what you mean here. Any logic is just a formal system that exhibits certain interesting behaviors.

    That we can count: It would be more accurate to say that we must be able to do a fair amount of math.

    Have I misconstrued your claims?

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  35. Eril: To a certain extent, yes, you have misconstrued my claims. It's not possible to provide complete philosophical disambiguation of every sentence in a single post; the principle of charity entails that the assertions that I make be read at least in such a way that they make sense in the overall context. At best, the assertions should be read in the context of my own body of work, available in the archives.

    While philosophical esoterica such as phenomenalism are important topics of discussion, the obvious reading of the scientific method as the "sole" means of knowledge in a post title "The New Atheism" can be charitably read as specifying an level of epistemic abstraction where the competing claim of theistic revelation becomes relevant.

    Additionally, the scientific method comprises just those epistemic building blocks you mention: deductive logic and subjective apprehension of experience. Please read the link supplied in the text for my arguments regarding the scientific method for more information.

    Of course this presumes an uncontroversial understanding of "truth", which isn't really available. And what counts as "reliable"? And so on and so forth.

    I will simply refer you to this essay. I'll also note that Philosophical Skepticism (the idea that we can't know anything) undermines not only science and theism, but also my ability to understand your criticism in any sense.

    Scientific progress depends heavily on testimonial evidence; to do science is to "stand on the shoulders of giants".

    This objection is not, strictly speaking, true, or even coherent. You are first of all conflating testimonial evidence with reliance on previous results.

    Reliance on a previous result is an act of pure intellectual laziness, excusable only when the truth or falsity of the previous result is not particularly important. A good scientist will skeptically examine previous results critical to her own investigations.

    Testimonial evidence, on the other hand, is purely phenomenal: I accept uncritically only that I actually hear or read some particular words. That the content of the speech is veridical is a particular, falsifiable hypothesis which requires the same sort of scientific analysis to determine as does drawing larger conclusions once the veracity of the words has been established.

    Canonical logic has nothing to do with determinism

    What I mean is that deduction is a deterministic endeavor. The outcome of deduction is entirely determined by the axioms, the inference rules, and the order those rules are applied. Two people applying the same inference rules to the same axioms in the same order will always have the same result.

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  36. "Finally, your demand that those that disagree with you must "prove" you wrong betrays an obvious ignorance of the fact that no one can prove a negative."

    How did this "fact" become so widespread? An introductory logic course would show that you can prove a negative, by assuming the positive and finding a contradiction. An example:

    Claim: The Earth's atmosphere is not contained by a glass sphere.

    Assumptions:
    1. If there was a glass sphere containing the Earth's atmosphere, when someone left the atmosphere, he would run into the glass sphere.
    2. People have left the Earth's atmosphere.
    3. They did not run into a glass sphere.

    Assume the opposite of the claim, that there is a glass sphere holding in the atmosphere. However, since 2 is true, 3 should not be true, because of 1. We've made a contradiction. Therefore, the original claim is true.

    While proving God is much more difficult than this (no one can agree on the assumptions), it's not because you can't prove a negative.

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  37. It's not possible to provide complete philosophical disambiguation of every sentence in a single post; the principle of charity entails that the assertions that I make be read at least in such a way that they make sense in the overall context.

    Certainly. But "making sense" is not the same thing as "expressing truth". And, as written, your claims make perfect sense, but are false.

    the obvious reading of the scientific method as the "sole" means of knowledge in a post title "The New Atheism" can be charitably read as specifying an level of epistemic abstraction where the competing claim of theistic revelation becomes relevant.

    Indeed. But if theistic revelation stories about knowledge are relevant, so are all the examples I originally listed - and indeed, these examples are even less controversial than claims to knowledge about scientific particulars. So you should not have claimed, in any context, that the scientific method is the sole route to knowledge.

    I'll also note that Philosophical Skepticism (the idea that we can't know anything) undermines not only science and theism, but also my ability to understand your criticism in any sense.

    I never claimed that we can't know anything. I'm not sure why you bring up philosophical scepticism. I merely claim that science is not the unique route to knowledge. This claim is, in fact, the opposite of controversial.

    This objection is not, strictly speaking, true, or even coherent. You are first of all conflating testimonial evidence with reliance on previous results.

    You would be hard-pressed to demonstrate this, since in fact I am not. No practicing scientist works from first principles. Certainly it is true that experimental results are replicable - that's an important feature, after all - but honestly, it would be a waste of time and energy for every practicing scientist to re-do every relevant experimental exercise.

    The outcome of deduction is entirely determined by the axioms, the inference rules, and the order those rules are applied.

    This is, of course, true. But what do you mean by "canonical logic"?

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  38. And, as written, your claims make perfect sense, but are false.

    I disagree. First, at the level of public knowledge, the level implied by the context, the epistemic methods you note are not applicable. Private experience is not a public epistemic method.

    I would also argue that pure deduction is not an epistemic method. You can conclude from deduction only that "2+2=4" is a valid theorem of arithmetic; you still have to relate the theorem to the real world using the scientific method to conclude that it's true.

    And I will repeat yet again that the "epistemic methods" you name — phenomenalism and deductivism — actually comprise the scientific method, so you have not proven my statement false. It is hardly surprising that the components of a working epistemic system themselves have some epistemic value.

    But if theistic revelation stories about knowledge are relevant

    Theistic revelation stories are relevant, as stories, just as any stories about any sort of experience are relevant as stories. We can and should evaluate all stories — theistic or prosaic — in the same scientific manner.

    You would be hard-pressed to demonstrate [the conflation between testimonial evidence with reliance on previous results], since in fact I am not.

    You might not have intended such, but your statement does indeed conflate testimonial evidence with reliance on previous results.

    Scientific progress depends heavily on testimonial evidence; to do science is to "stand on the shoulders of giants".

    Testimonial evidence are spoken words where the fact that someone said something is taken as fact.

    "Standing on the shoulders of giants" is some sort of reliance on previous results. Previous results in science are not taken as fact in the same as evidence is taken as fact.

    it would be a waste of time and energy for every practicing scientist to re-do every relevant experimental exercise.

    The fallacy of the undistributed middle. To not replicate every prior result is not to take previous results as foundational facts in the same sense that evidence is fact.

    But what do you mean by "canonical logic"?

    I mean all the various flavors of symbol manipulation rules that are deterministic in the sense I describe, and which we employ because we have scientifically determined their value in describing the real world.

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  39. I understand that my claim that the scientific method is the only useful epistemic method is controversial. I substantiate this claim at greater length in my other work.

    The connection between private (phenomenological) and public knowledge is interesting and subtle, but it is not relevant to this particular article. I've written some on this theme, but I'm sure I have more to say on the topic.

    It would be helpful to find a post where your points are more directly valid; I real all comments, and good comments (as well as spectacularly bad comments) often end up at least referenced, if not reproduced, on the blog, so your work would not be entirely buried.

    You could also wait until I write again directly on the topic of the connection between phenomenalism and public science.

    You could even submit your own essay. Subject to ordinary editorial standards, I'm always eager to publish on the blog alternative views on topics I find interesting.

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  40. It would be helpful to find a post where your points are more directly valid; I real all comments, and good comments (as well as spectacularly bad comments) often end up at least referenced, if not reproduced, on the blog, so your work would not be entirely buried.

    This does seem to be the case. I shall go a-hunting.

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  41. Erik, my new series, Justifying the scientific method is motivated in no small part by your comments on this post.

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  42. I understand that many of my readers are as frustrated and irritated as I am by certain commenters. Still and all, I don't think it's particularly productive to continue to fuel the controversy, especially since the commenter in question appears to have departed with, I'll admit, a bit of... encouragement... on my part.

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  43. I always thought of god-worship as the same as Elvis worship--the man (if he ever existed in the first place) is dead, so let him rest! That goes for Jesus, Vishnu, Mohamed, and any other deity.

    We humans just can't seem to let go--even after so many millennia. Worse, so many people seem to need this psychological safety net just to make it through each day. I pity the poor bastard (and bastardette) who refuse to make the simplest decisions without referencing a book of ancient tales first.

    It seems like they're so willing to follow anybody with a collar, a bible, and a microphone these days--just look at how many cast their caucus ballots for Mike Huckabee (the next Jimmy Carter, IMHO) looking for a pastor-in-chief.

    This is how close WE'RE getting to marrying religion with politics, just like the Middle East! If this does happen, where are we to go now for religious freedom (meaning freedom FROM religion)?

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  44. I love this one:

    "Don't let children be exposed to any religious thought until they have been armed with "critical thinking skills" and can "rationally" examine them."

    I am NOT an athiest and i do believe in a Supreme Being still strongly but what i don't understand is the blindness everyone has when it comes to religion! It divides humanity, it is the main cause of war and all other things that human being fight.

    I dont care whether i am christian, muslim or hindu or whatever. All I wish is for the world to be more understanding of each other, for freedom for peace to be of wider minds and not too 'limited' in their minds.

    Religion is man-made!

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  45. I respect athiests as I respect any being or any individual. We all have the right on what we believe and a right to co-exist with each other. Live and let live! I do hope the two main religions realize them...although I belong to one, i am not against the other. Religion is supposed to be for the order of human beings who are always 'afraid' and 'untrusting'. Religion was made to ule humans and lest to say, to brainwash them.

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