Sunday, October 17, 2010

Friends and foes

Julian Baggini says that atheists and believers can get along:
Dividing the world up into believers and non-believers, while accurate in many ways, doesn’t draw the distinction between friends and foes. I see my allies as being the community of the reasonable, and my enemies as the community of blind faith and dogmatism. Any religion that is not unreasonable and not dogmatic should likewise recognise that it has a kinship with atheists who hold those same values. And it should realise that it has more to fear from other people of faith who deny those values than it does from reasonable atheists like myself.
Sounds reasonable, n'est pas? But let's unpack it a little bit.

First, what might Baggini mean by "friends" and "foes"? Why are "reasonable" atheists the friends of the religious who are "not unreasonable" and "not dogmatic"? Observe especially the distinction between reasonable and not unreasonable: is this just a rhetorical device to avoid repetition — i.e. is reasonable the same as not unreasonable — or is there a subtle difference between the two? If there is a difference, then we should examine more closely whether the difference really does allow us to be friends. It is not always the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

To examine the consequences of this difference, let's look at our (more or less) agreed upon common enemy, "the community of blind faith and dogmatism." Why is this particular community an enemy? Note that Baggini does not (as I do not) predicate enmity on the content of the dogma, but on dogmatism itself. But even here we must ask: why do we consider someone who dogmatically holds to the exact same values that I as a humanist rationally (or so I think) hold? Why should I consider how we hold the values to be more important than the the values themselves? Why not consider someone who rationally and flexibly holds contrary values to be more of an enemy than someone who dogmatically holds compatible values?

There are two possible answers. The first might be that rational, flexible people can hold only one sort of values just by virtue of being rational and flexible. In just the same sense, rational, flexible people can hold only one notion of science. (There may be some disagreement in the details, but we've found that rational, flexible people have always converged on one notion of scientific truth, regardless of their initial biases.*) Alternatively, rationality and flexibility are themselves core values; irrationality and dogmatism are inherently contrary, in just the same sense that indifference to or approval of the suffering of others is inherently contrary to concern for and disapproval of the suffering of others.

This statement is definitely controversial; many postmodernists have in fact strenuously and fundamentally disagreed. But that's a debate for another day.

I think I'm entitled to use a philosophically stricter reading of "not unreasonable": Baggini is a professional philosopher, he is speaking in public and on the record. Regardless of of Baggini's specific intentions, however, the characterization of the "moderate" religious as "not unreasonable" in a different sense than "reasonable" is the core of the Gnu Atheist critique of the "moderate" religious. I think the distinction is substantive and accurate: there really is a difference between "not unreasonable" and "reasonable", and one essential difference between atheism and the moderate religion really is that the former is reasonable and the latter not unreasonable.

Ethical philosophy often tends to three-valued logic: required, prohibited, and optional; or in psychological terms: approval, disapproval and indifference. Furthermore, our basic beliefs (beliefs about actions or outcomes) do not always match our ethical meta-beliefs (beliefs about others' beliefs). For example, one might positively approve of eating healthy food, but one might be indifferent to others' beliefs about eating healthy food. On the other hand, one might disapprove of others' suffering and disapprove of another's belief that he approves of or is even indifferent to others' suffering. So a rigorous ethical analysis of Baggini's position will be complicated.

One can be rational, irrational or not irrational*. Therefore there must be three corresponding classes of ideas: ideas that are rationally compelled (in the descriptive sense), ideas that are rationally prohibited, and ideas that are neither rationally compelled nor prohibited. We can define a rational person, therefore, as someone who believes (holds as true) every rational idea**, disbelieves (holds as false) every irrational idea, and most importantly has no belief about ideas that are neither rational nor irrational***. The "rational" person thus considers ideas that are neither rationally compelled nor prohibited to be noncognitive. An irrational person believes some rationally prohibited ideas and/or disbelieves some rationally compelled ideas. The "not irrational" person, therefore, believes all compelled ideas, disbelieves all prohibited ideas; he however believes as true (or disbelieves as false) some ideas neither rationally compelled nor prohibited.

*"Rational" is more easily adapted grammatically than "reasonable" to different word forms.
**More precisely: those ideas that she knows about and knows are rational.
***She is also
agnostic about those ideas — and only
those ideas — that appear susceptible to rational analysis but for which insufficient information is presently available to perform the analysis.

These "middle ground" ideas, these "not irrational" ideas, still have propositional character: they contradict other "not irrational" ideas. One cannot, for example, believe (hold as true) that God loves us and wants us to be happy and simultaneously believe that God hates us and wants us to be miserable. So one cannot simply believe or disbelieve all "not irrational" ideas*. Therefore, the "not irrational" person must have some methodology for choosing between not irrational ideas, and that methodology ex hypothesi cannot be rationality.

*We can also see by this analysis that rationality consists of more than just logical consistency. A person can be logically consistent and "not irrational"; it might even be possible to be both logically consistent and irrational.

I'll arbitrarily label this alternative methodology "not-irrational epistemic methodology" or NIREM. It is either the case that NIREM by definition cannot apply to or by definition can apply to ideas susceptible to rational analysis. If it can apply to rational ideas, either it always gives the same answer to those rationally-analytical ideas that NIREM also applies to, or it gives different answers to some of them. If it gives different answers, then the answers that conflict with rational analysis must be "specially" excluded.

To make a long story short (too late!), an important Gnu Atheist "confrontationalist" position is that all known forms of NIREM do apply to some rationally-analytical ideas, and they all give different answers to some of those ideas. The difference between the moderate "not unreasonable" religious and the unreasonable "dogmatic" religious is that the former specially exclude rationally-analytical ideas from consideration by their alternative methodology. Indeed it is our position that the "not unreasonable" religious are sometimes actually unreasonable (especially about women, homosexuals and sexuality in general); they're just not as outrageously or egregiously unreasonable as fundamentalists.

It would of course be an adequate rebuttal of this position to construct some NIREM that by definition could not apply to rational-analytical ideas, a NIREM without a "special" exception for the domain of rationality. In my investigations, however, I have not yet seen any such construction.

The most obvious problem is that everyone agrees (or at least Baggini appears to and I definitely take for granted that we all agree*) on what rationality is, and therefore on what ideas ideas are true and false according to rationality. But there is no agreement on what constitutes the "correct" NIREM, and many millennia of history have shown no progress whatsoever on developing a consistent NIREM. Furthermore, if it is the case that every NIREM applies to and gives different answers to rationally-analytical statements, there cannot be a feature within any NIREM that justifies the exclusion of those statements; the exclusion has to be external and special. Thus the insistence of the moderate religious that the fundamentalists should adopt this special exclusion has no influence. Similarly without influence is the Islamic insistence that I should adopt Islam because without it, I would have no reason to not eat pork. The rational atheist position has at least some influence: the fundamentalists' NIREM should be abandoned because it conflicts with rationality.

*Suitably constructed, even the fundamentalists agree on what constitutes rationality. They just think rationality so constructed is irrelevant or wrong.

Another problem is that almost any idea can be moved to the domain of "not irrational" by adding a qualifier. The idea that God created the entire physical universe ~6,000 years ago is definitely irrational: we know rationally that the physical universe is ~14 billion years old and the Earth ~4+ billion years old. The idea, however, can be "moved" to the domain of "not irrational" by qualifying it, for example, with the omphalos hypothesis.

Let me hammer the point home. It is rational to believe, "The universe is ~14 billion years old." It is irrational to believe, "The universe is ~6,000 years old." It is not irrational to believe, "The universe is ~6,000 years old and it was created to appear ~14 billion years old." Rational analysis is not capable of distinguishing one way or the other between a universe that actually is old, and a young universe created to appear old.

If it really is the case that all (or even many) rational ideas can be qualified into the "not irrational" category, then those who admit some NIREM have a severe epistemic problem: how do you determine when a rational idea should or should be qualified to move it into the domain of NIREM? More importantly, how do we differentiate between competing methodologies for qualifying these ideas? Different NIREMs thus introduce confusion not just in how to evaluate individual ideas that outside the domain of rationality, but collections of ideas with components that fall inside the domain of rationality. In short, just admitting any sort of NIREM potentially introduces confusion about all ideas, not just those outside the domain of rationality.

In conclusion, the Gnu Atheist position against moderate religion is that even though the moderate religious are the enemy of our enemy (the fundamentalists), they are still not our friends. Rational atheists criticize both the moderates and the fundamentalists for being religious, for adopting a NIREM in the first place; we are not particularly impressed that the moderates (sometimes) specially exclude rational ideas from consideration. The moderates criticize the fundamentalists for doing religion wrong, but there's no consistent account — and I fail to see how there can be any consistent account — of how we determine the "right" and "wrong" way to do religion. Better to just dismiss the middle ground as being noncognitive: either meaningless or (suitably constructed) a matter of pure preference.


  1. Man, this is a good essay. A great essay, even. The best synopsis of the whole thing I have ever read. (There's a typo, though, or shall we say "at least one typo" since I lay to claim to being a perfect proofreader: in the paragraph beginning "The most obvious problem" has "ideas ideas" in it where "ideas" is meant.)

    Interestingly, the question of whether one may be "rational" and "self-consistent" actually has a history within mathematics. Forgive me for telling you stuff you may already know (it may be of interest to other commenters who do not already know it):

    Until around Newton's time, mathematics was considered self-evidently true, (potentially) complete, and self-consistent. (Notice the combination of the three.) However, the original formulations of calculus used language which, though "user-friendly" to learners, led to contradictions if followed to its apparent logical conclusions (mostly, but not exclusively, in the process of taking limits).

    For this reason, mathematicians began to frame questions of proof as a reduction (ultimately) to arithmetic and logical rules, because arithmetic was viewed as "safe". In practice, this became (A) the use of set theory, (B) the expression of arithmetic via set theory, and (C) the assumption that set theory was self-consistent.

    Eventually, (B) led to the examination of (C). Once questions were asked, it was discovered that the axiom of choice as formulated (and often used implicitly) led to contradiction. ("The barber of Seville lives in Seville and shaves all residents of Seville who do not shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself?") This led to two discoveries:

    1. It is not possible to create a finite description of mathematics which is demonstrably true, self-consistent, AND complete. (It was later shown that it is possible to create finite rules for constructing infinite sets of axioms which will then lead to a true, self-consistent, and complete description.)

    2. Certain apparently proveable statements are unprovable from finite basic set theory and therefore must be axiomatic. (For example, one cannot prove or disprove the "continuum hypothesis" -- that there is no infinite set larger than the set of integers and yet smaller than the set of real numbers, which is demonstrably larger -- from standard set theory alone, but "the continuum hypothesis is true" and "the continuum hypothesis is false" can both be added to standard set theory as axioms without causing contradiction.)

    So, in short, even within the realm of the purely logical, one can draw precisely the same division into three groups as you have drawn: there are statements which are provably true from standard axioms ("any two line segments which contain both end points contain the same number of points"), statements which are provably false ("there are more fractions than integers"), and also statements which can neither be proven true nor false, but which may be assumed. And, as in your construction, one can alter the foundational axioms and rearrange the groups, although there is usually sound practical reason for doing so. (Non-Euclidean geometry, anyone?)

    Of course, the world of formal logic also includes statements which cannot be either true or false because being so would immediately introduce contradiction, such as "this statement is false". Are there any beliefs in philosophy/religion which would fall into this category which are not immediately a part of formal logic? (That is, is there a significant category like this in your taxonomy, beyond simply importing statements from formal logic?)

  2. An entire comment on consistency and completeness and you fail to mention Godel AND Church/Turing? For shame! ;)

    Of course, the world of formal logic also includes statements which cannot be either true or false because being so would immediately introduce contradiction, such as "this statement is false". Are there any beliefs in philosophy/religion which would fall into this category which are not immediately a part of formal logic?

    I'm not precisely sure what you mean. Philosophers, are, however, still amazed and confused by paradoxes of self-reference (as well as counter-intuitive implications of transfinite arithmetic).

  3. I did mention Godel's most famous result (I'm afraid to put in the umlaut, in case the blog software doesn't support it... let me try it and we'll find out: Gödel) as part of #1 above, but I had to do some severe pruning and names were the first bit to get cut, as being less important than ideas. The comment was originally going to be 4300+ characters, but Blogspot won't accept more than 4096, and does some sort of expansion which forced me to cut the raw character count down below 3950 before it would actually accept the comment. You have an unfair advantage on word count. :)

    That final question got gutted as well, although I can't claim my original writeup was particularly lucid, so that's no great tragedy. Let me try again:

    In your taxonomy, statements and their negations are usually symmetrical: if "X is true" is rational, then "X is false" is necessarily irrational. ("One plus one equals two" is rational, "one plus one does not equal two" is irrational.) And if a statement is irrational, then its negation is USUALLY rational -- although its negation may, strictly speaking, be trivial. ("It is exactly forty miles from Chicago to New York" is irrational, but "it is not exactly forty miles from Chicago to New York" is rational, but trivial; we'd much rather know the actual distance.)

    But there exist statements in formal logic which are irrational, whose negations are likewise irrational. "The statement 'this statement is false' is true in a Boolean logical system" and "The statement 'this statement is false' is not true in a Boolean logical system" are both irrational.

    My question is: are there beliefs about the nature of the universe, other than ones imported from formal logic (such as anything based on "this statement is false"), which are irrational, and whose negations are also irrational? (Or are there any statements which are irrational, whose negations are "not irrational" -- I suspect it might be easier to look for "not irrational" statements whose negations are irrational, but it's much the same thing.)

  4. I was teasing you about Godel.

    [A]re there beliefs about the nature of the universe... which are irrational, and whose negations are also irrational?

    There is Nils Bohr's (IIRC) observation, "The opposite of a profound truth is also a profound truth," but Nils may have been bullshitting us.

    In general, philosophers do talk a lot about self-referential paradoxes: How do we know we actually know what we think we know? Does existence exist? But I'm just a simple engineer and aspiring economist; I'll leave that kind of stuff to the theoretical mathematicians.

  5. Not bullshitting, exactly, but using a definition of "profound truth" which does not mesh well with your taxonomy. I seem to recall that there was a prototypical example of what whoever it was who said that (and I seem to recall that it was someone else, not Bohr) meant, and it was a statement which is true, whose opposite is metaphorically also true, but which would technically be irrational.

    Now for some answers:

    How do we know we actually know what we think we know: in scientific terms, if we don't know something, it becomes apparent when we attempt to apply the knowledge.

    Does existence exist: no. Not the way philosophers and theologians think about it, anyway.

    S'like this: imagine a "universe" which follows some set of mathematical rules. We can build a simulator of that world, and write out a "book" (a very, very long, boring, and specifically-encoded book) telling everything that happens in its history. Does that universe contain randomness? No problem -- our book becomes a (hideously large and complex) "Choose Your Own Adventure" book. (Obviously, we aren't talking about a real book here, because the physics of randomness would be impossible to describe on paper: "Does this muon decay in 0.204156742 seconds? Go to page 5378379071840573834952. Does it decay in 0.204156743 seconds? Go to page 5378379071840573834953. Does...") Do the rules governing that universe require us to specify a set of opening conditions? Likewise no problem -- we now have a (potentially infinite) library of such books. The fact that these universes are essentially static viewed from the "outside" makes no difference to the inhabitants (if any), because their time is embedded in their universe and has nothing to do with our time, or indeed any dimension of ours.

    Now: the content of these "books" is deterministic, even if the universes they describe are not from the standpoint of the inhabitants. Each "book" records all the possible outcomes of every random process. Given the set of mathematical rules, anyone could build exactly the same "library" as us. The inhabitants (if any) of these universes would never know whether there are multiple copies of their "book", or even whether there are no copies at all! But that means we don't have to come up with a set of mathematical rules in the first place; any set of universes we could describe will, from the inside, be unchanged whether there is anything "writing it down" or not. In fact, it doesn't even matter whether we build a simulator or not, or even whether we think of doing so, or even whether we have any existence ourselves.

    In short: from the standpoint of the inhabitants, ANY universe governed by mathematical rules appears to have valid existence, regardless of whether there is anything "outside" -- in fact, there is no way to say, given two such universes, which one is "outside" the other; the concept does not even make sense.

    And notice: it doesn't take a god or other figure to "create" these universes, because from the inside, they have existence even if nobody thinks of them.

    Fun stuff, eh? (Admittedly, this argument was constructed mostly so I could give a pat answer to the question "does existence exist?" but I don't see anything actually wrong with it.)


Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.