Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Atheist Opposition to PZ Myers

For quite awhile now, I've been following with interest the conflict that exists within the secular humanist/atheist community--a conflict over how to engage with religious believers. In this debate, there seems to be something of a continuum between "friendly atheists" on one end and "hostile atheists" on the other.

That is, there are atheists who think reasonable, decent people can honestly disagree about the existence of God; and there are atheists who think that anyone who believes in God is a willfully blind, selectively irrational, dangerously misguided threat to all that is good and true. And there are atheists who fall at various places in between.

Those on the "friendly" end generally disapprove of the kind of polarization and animosity generated by those on the hostile end. Those on the "hostile" end, by contrast, are inclined to call their atheist opponents "accomodationists."

The authors of the new atheist bestsellers--most notably Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens--seem to be clustered towards the "hostile" end of the spectrum (although sometimes they are more hostile than at other times). But the epitome of the hostile atheist is, without much doubt, PZ Myers.

And some atheists are fed up with him.

Their objections are sometimes strategic (a minority group won't make much progress in changing hearts and minds by engaging in endless bellicose attacks on the religious majority), sometimes principled (religious believers as a class just don't warrant, at least not uniformly, the kind of assault that Myers directs towards them). Some, I'm sure, are worried that reason and truth aren't served by someone who puts together so-called "take-downs" of his opponents that, as was the case with the one blog post he devoted to attacking me, are almost nothing but fallacy and pseudoreasoning.

But in a recent Secular Perspectives essay, "General Myers and His Endless War on Error," Sarah Hippolitus may offer the most comprehensive expression of these complaints. If the other essay by Hippolitus that I've discussed on this blog is any indication, she isn't at the opposite extreme from Myers on the atheist spectrum. To argue that Christian belief is damaging to phsychological health, as she does, may not be precisely hostile, but it's not exactly friendly either. I'd put her somewhere in the middle.

But this is significant. Atheists in the middle of this spectrum--who are not afraid to make rather stinging critiques of religion--are less than happy with Myers.

I'm curious what readers of this blog think of Hippolitus's arguments.


  1. I suppose my question is at least in part, what is the appropriate stance to take when confronted with viewpoints different to your own. I agree with Hippolitus when she argues that unnecessary aggression tends to close down the dialogue. Against this, undue politeness can be a way of ensuring the dialogue leaves the important points of disagreement unexamined.

    Somehow, and I think this is a strength of yours Eric, there needs to be a way of respectfully engaging. Perhaps the trick here is that genuine respect requires us to be open to the possibility that we are in error, while the point of view we are attacking is sound.

    There's also the question of what such engagement is about in the first place. Why enter into these discussions? Perhaps, if the end game is winning the argument, or even converting the opposition, as seems to be the case with both Myers and Hippolitus, then respect and curiosity will always struggle for a place at the table.

    And that raises the question of why people would be uncomfortable with a range of views co-existing. Unless one can show the alternative world view is harmful, isn't the sane response to let people explore any beliefs that work for them? It seems to me the instinct that says 'I need others to see things the way I do' is the real danger.


  2. Thanks for the link- I thought Hippolitus's essay was superb. Let me make just a minor critique. A shared value that is clearly implicit in any philosophical and even intellectual discussion is that of truth, honesty, and integrity. And those who cut their teeth in a scientific culture are habitually oriented to cut right to the chase, without a lot of political fat-chewing and buttering-up. Life is too short, and neither facts nor logic give much ground. And they expect those caught on the short end of an argument to promptly give up and change their minds. (Or perhaps scientific fields attract those sorts of temperaments.)

    So it is rather culturally shocking to get caught up in, for example, the creationism debate, where shameless sophistry and non-reasoning were served up as "deeply held", etc. beliefs and positions. The advice to deal with all this with forebearance and magnanimity is, frankly, more than is bearable. Likewise with the whole religion issue in general, whose emptiness was seen so long ago. The shared values that should be there turn out not to be there at all, or to be hopelessly submerged under other emotional baggage, as Hippolitus notes.

    So fine, I realize that when met with the immovable object of religious imagination+power, dues must be paid to the findings of psychology, and that it might profit to pay respect where little is due, and try mightily to show politeness to obduracy. But such diplomatic subterfuge impairs all the original values that I mentioned above, as so many stock scientist characters in the arts have portrayed. Even so, PZ goes way over the edge into jerk-dom, bless his heart. That is hardly necessary to anyone's integrity. A little Spock would be enough.

    One answer is to tend to our own affairs and create better humanist communities (i.e. the vast secular world) to lead by example, as Hippolitus recommends, (impolitic as we are!). And also pursue the psychological investigations of human irrationality which are developing so richly. Knowledge is power, after all ... one would think.

    cont ...

  3. Speaking of which, a particularly maddening aspect of the topic is the fact that knowledge is not power. Power is power. Which is to say, if you meet two people coming down the trail, they have more power than you do, whatever their ideas ... groups have enormous power. So irrationally bonded groups win every time- they win in school boards, in political party discipline, in network faux-news, in terrorism, in war. That is highly likely evolutionary rationale of religion, and the person who devised the word (re-ligare) was making a very deep point.

    The population genetics might be inferred to favor majorities who bond readily in (religious) ideologies, and small minorities who stay outside to provide critical commentary(!). But with vastly increased population sizes, this relationship doesn't scale so well, since the critique doesn't get any more accurate or effective with increased numbers, while the groups get far more powerful. The bottom line is that religiosity, seen in this light, is seriously maladaptive in the modern world, and wasn't even such a great idea in earlier times. It is a miracle, indeed, that the enlightenment ever happened.

    It is worth noting that the issues Hippolitus brings up are substantively minor- political, social, and tone issues that don't touch the core philosophical topics. There is hardly a big schism or reformation brewing here in the atheist community. On the contrary, the community (such as it is!) is remarkably consistent & stable through time and space on philosophical grounds. That is probably because it isn't making stuff up.

    Incidentally, I don't think that atheists of any stripe would put it quite as you did: "reasonable, decent people can honestly disagree about the existence of God". They might say something more like.. reasonable, decent, and intelligent people believe in god, curiously enough and in an oddly insecure, but mostly honest way, so if we are truly human-ist, we should continue to deal with them politely, as we at the same time work as hard as we can to figure out the truth of what is going on with that, whether cosmically or psychologically.

  4. I prefer to label myself an agnostic mostly because I find many atheists so arrogant.

    My biggest problem with the angry atheists is that they are so certain that the world would be better off without religion and I have never seen this claim substantiated in any empirical way. It is simply asserted as an axiomatic fact. I think that it is entirely possible that religion in its less obnoxious forms meets a basic psychological need which has been hard-wired into man's psyche by natural selection and that it does it with fewer side effects for psychological well being than anything that the angry atheists can offer in its stead. I think that our understanding of the workings of the human mind is a long way from being able to determine whether this is so or not. Until psychology can answer this with some certainty, I think claims that we would all be better off without religion are little more than wishful thinking.

  5. "...groups have enormous power. So irrationally bonded groups win every time- they win in school boards, in political party discipline, in network faux-news, in terrorism, in war. That is highly likely evolutionary rationale of religion, and the person who devised the word (re-ligare) was making a very deep point."

    This remark (and associated ones in the two linked comments) seems to put all religion into the same box. I don't think anyone can deny there is a social phenomenon of communal bonding around a shared set of doctrines and/or practices--doctrines/practices that operate as criteria of group membership, distinguishing insiders from outsiders and thus imposing an impediment to critical and open thinking (one risks exclusion from the community if one challenges the organizing beliefs or ways of doing things).

    But although we should acknowledge this, we shouldn't make the mistake (and it IS the mistake) of uncritically identifying this group-think phenomenon with religion in every meaningful and important sense. First of all, there is group-think that isn't organized around "supernatural" beliefs or practices of appeasing/pleasing supernatural beings. Second, and more significantly, there are people who have beliefs about transcendent realities and/or engage in spiritual practices aimed at forging connection with the divine...but whose "religious" lives are not only disconnected from group think but whose beliefs/practices seem ill-suited to serving as the basis for such group-think.

    That doesn't mean the human impulse towards establishing powerful, unified groups through such group-think won't inspire ways to distort or reshape even those religious visions ill-suited to this end--but it does mean that the result of such distortion WILL be a distortion of something that is "religious" in important ways AND at odds with group-think.

  6. Eric- Yes, absolutely. I have far fewer problems with personal seeking, searching, spirituality, and piety of all sorts. It is really the social ramifications that create all the conflict on this topic. And I am genuinely curious how the evolutionary mechanisms (if that is how one best explains all this) knit together the individual spirituality and the group-ish-ness that seems associated. And they do seem to be strongly associated. You yourself seek out a community to be religious within, and there seems to be a general need to propagate one's beliefs on this topic, unlike many other mundane beliefs, which is why the viral analogy is often employed.

  7. More on Myers here:


  8. Hi, Anonymous-

    In his usual jerky fashion, PZ focuses on a perfectly valid issue- what is wrong with psi research? Thanks for the interesting discussion.

    I think we all pretty much appreciate that the ESP folks are pursuing a pipe dream, in the hallowed tradition of alchemists and astrologers. Indeed, if there were anything to it, the casinos, poker contests, and lotteries wouldn't be able to operate. But I think PZ took, as usual, the lazy way of name-calling rather than analysis.

    What is really going wrong with psi? They follow the forms of science, posing hypotheses, doing experiments, getting results, and here even going through some kind of peer review. What is missing?

    I would say that the missing ingredient (putting aside methodological issues that are very hard to expose or judge, even for peer reviewers) is simple productivity- they never really find anything and have in essence never gotten past first base. They are still trying to prove the very first result of their field- that people have some kind of perception outside of the normal physical senses and theories. For all the work and all the statistics, they have fooled only a very few people, mostly themselves.

    Other sciences are progressive. They find things, then build on those findings to find some more things, and pretty soon it all gels into causal network that we call a real science rather than a crackpot endeavor. Whether it is the sedimentary record in geology, or the elements of chemistry, processes are found that really cause other things and provide explanatory accounts that are more logically rich than the old final causes and essences of Aristotle and Aquinas.

    This brings up a comparison to philosophy/theology, asking the same questions for centuries on end, never progressing in a significant way on those questions, and tending to never take no for an answer, preferring to bang its head on persistent intuitions.

  9. Hi Burk

    I'm sure about the claim that philosophy isn't progressive. To measure progress, we'd need first to define the output, so to speak. One possible output against which philosophy might be measured is its ability to deepen our understanding of our personal systems of thought. So, for example, I'm interested in how science derives the progressive power you highlight, and what this progress in itself tells us about the nature of the underlying reality.

    Although philosophy can't answer this question exactly, it seems to me it's getting better and better at teasing out the implications of competing explanations. So, as an interested lay person, I have access to arguments and discoveries that I would not have had were I doing my reading a hundred years ago. The thinking I can engage in as a result is far richer, the conclusions I might reach are hopefully more subtle, and involve a greater awareness of the assumptions and weaknesses at the heart of them.

    It's a gentle sort of progress, I suppose, compared to the case in science where old models are replaced by more effective ones, but it's progress nonetheless, and for those not much interested in dogma, very valuable progress, I think.


  10. Bernard-

    Yes, I am sensitive to your points, and was being a bit extreme. Firstly, it is an important role for philosophy to keep alive the existential questions that most people go through in adolescence as a formal cultural institution, keeping records of many of the more compelling answers or approaches we have come up with over the years. Even worse than never coming up with definitive answers would be perpetually coming up with the same questions without any cognizance that they had been asked in various eloquent ways before. And sometimes there are compelling answers, and a field hives off into economics, or psychology, etc.

    Mostly I was referring to theology, and its reliance on intuition as the be-all and end-all of questions posed and answers given, having forsaken (or been forsaken by) the other sciences such as astronomy and biology which used to be such strong philosophical supports. It turns into the circular logic of ... we believe in god, thus god exists, and thus we can believe in god.

    Particularly, one might ask what kind of progress is represented by books such as Eric's God's final victory and the like. They work from the internal premises of the tradition- scripture, prior theology- to draw out implications of these views, as you say. But most of these implications are hardly news to anyone involved, even given that scriptures are a veritable rorschach blot to be read any way one desires. The implications and arguments are, in short, not compelled by scriptures, let alone by other objective sources or logic, but express the author's opinions about the core philosophical questions of morals, utility, what-is-good, etc.

    I guess that I would posit that the excercise is in fact far more polemical/expressive than it is analytical, and what is analytical is based on hopelessly involuted materials that don't lead to any non-subjective answers anyhow. I mean, the fact that Sufis and others can make a rather positive and benign religion of Islam is testament to the extreme flexibility of the interpretive "tools".

  11. Let me add with respect to PZ that one could accuse him of magical thinking. He seems to think that if he utters his magical (swear) words, the external world will actually change in accordance with his wishes. Obviously it isn't going to work that way. It may change some unsophisticated minds, but we all respect reason more.

  12. Burk, I would love to address your comments on psi research with more depth (because I think you're very mistaken on several points), but I don't want to stray off topic. My point was that Myers was being both unfair and disrespectful in that particular case, which is a clear pattern with him.

  13. Hi Burk

    I think the counter argument to this is that the very problems you see theology suffering from (circularity, undue reliance upon intuition) are those which exercise philosophers interested in the philosophy of science.

    The question becomes, how do those of us drawn to this distinction between scientific fact and narrative establish this without falling prey to a kind of intellectual hypocrisy? I think it is the difficulty of this question that leads many to conclude that reasonable people can indeed disagree on matters of God's existence. It's not always clear to me, much as I often find myself agreeing with you, what your answer to this question is.


  14. Bernard-

    I am not sure that I fully get what you are driving at. Yes, science is far from its own ideal, but over time, given basic commitments to empiricism and integrity, the good drives out the bad, paradigms shift, and models get closer to reality. The problems that philosophers of science tend to point out are deviations from the ideal situation- self delusion, biased research programs, long-term authority-ism, etc. Those are all valid complaints. But obviously they apply to theology as well, in those terms.

    But my argument is that there is zero saving grace, as it were, for theology, unmoored as it is from any empiricism or rigorous logic. It is an art of the human heart, not a science of reality, though swathed in pseudoscientific paraphernalia in most cases- souls, supernaturalism, god-made-everything, life-after-death, etc..

    My amendment of the "reasonable people can indeed disagree on matters of God's existence" was partly directed at the linguistic issue that it cleverly puts the existence of god as the default position. And also that it makes of the topic something about reason at all, which it is not. It is like saying reasonable people can disagree on matters of Democratic vs Republican politics. Reason isn't the issue, (though sometimes we wonder), rather intution, values, self expression, narratives, and other entirely humanistic characteristics. There is no scientific case to be made, really, so reason can and should be left out of this particular issue, as far as I can see.

    Theology and religion generally may progress in this respect that horrible practices of the past (inquisiton, torture, totalitarianism) might, due to their bad fruits, be recognized as bad and de-rationalized, as it were, via theology, whether that takes the form of doing away with hell, or just not talking about the issue again. But that should be seen as more of a historical, humanistic process than a theological one.

    Likewise, the strong points of a teaching, -love, tolerance, etc.- also may come to be recognized through long experience, and have little to do with theology per se, though it can again post-ex rationalize and aid their propagation in believing communities. I guess my point is that theology has no particular strength in analyzing physical reality, and in social reality tends to follow rather than lead, except in very rare, charismatic instances that again are not the logical deduction from some theology, but stem from the leadership and inspiration of an individual or group.

  15. Hi Burk

    I may well be the wrong person to make this case, but from what I've read, some of the more interesting questions within the philosophy of science are:

    How is consensus (and hence progress) in science generated? What are the features (both in ideal terms and in practice) that generate consensus?

    For any such features (elegance, consistency, predictive power) how can we reason that the preferred theory is also the better description of reality? This usually seems to require dealing in some way with the problem of induction.

    Does this form of reasoning then lend legitimacy to other non-scientific methods of gathering knowledge? If so, can the demarcation line still be maintained?

    If we argue there is no necessary link between scientific success and the accurate modelling of reality, what does this mean for our attitude towards non-scientific knowledge?

    Given science restricts itself to that aspect of the world for which intersubjective measurements are possible, what are we to do with areas where the data is purely subjective/intuitive? Is this answer consistent with the way we use our own intuition to defend scientific realism (should we choose to do so?)

    Can science make any contribution to the essentially religious question, do we believe existence itself benign, malign, indifferent? If we choose not to answer any such questions, is this stance consistent with the basis of our faith in scientific realism?

    What do we mean when we speak of an outcome being more or less probable, when we are not referring to observable long-run averages? Is probabilistic reasoning of this type a valid approach to forming beliefs, or is rather a way of misrepresenting our intuitions?

    There are clearly many more, but as I don't have an adequate, or even consistent set of
    answers to these questions myself, I'm reluctant to dismiss all religious belief as unreasonable.


  16. Bernard-

    These are interesting questions- I will take a shot, though none of these views will be news to anyone here.

    How is consensus (and hence progress) in science generated? What are the features (both in ideal terms and in practice) that generate consensus?

    Data, in a word, after being carefully constructed in an interpretive framework that logically decides between alternative models. This is the same as your intersubjective criteria below.

    For any such features (elegance, consistency, predictive power) how can we reason that the preferred theory is also the better description of reality? This usually seems to require dealing in some way with the problem of induction.

    Not always. Some models are retrodictive, fitting data from the past. The key is not necessarily predicting the future, per se, but predicting what kind of data will logically differentiate between two models, which may prompt to a search to go find that data. I would suggest that we can mostly ignore the problem of induction, since even in the best science, we are just making models that approximate reality, and may be superceded by better ones. It is a probabilistic pursuit.

    Does this form of reasoning then lend legitimacy to other non-scientific methods of gathering knowledge? If so, can the demarcation line still be maintained?

    No... yes. If a field doesn't have data in any objective sense, then it doesn't gain progress and legitimacy by these mechanisms. Pure logic can lead to math, but that math is then not guaranteed to be emirically applicable. Sometimes it is, sometimes not. Other imaginative pursuits like theology have a far lesser claim on logic, let alone empirical validity, which I would equate with reality-descriptive-ability (outside of social / subjective reality).

    If we argue there is no necessary link between scientific success and the accurate modelling of reality, what does this mean for our attitude towards non-scientific knowledge?

    That is up to you. I wouldn't argue from such a premise. I wouldn't call non-scientific whatever it is "knowledge". For instance, there is an article today at salon on near death experiences and the possibilities of souls, etc. From a very pro-soul perspective. And they calim that NDE's are "explained. That is not true in the least. They are not explained, and what they have is not knowledge. They have evidence that the materialist explanation is not sufficient, and they have an alternate (extremely hazy) model of "transcendence", souls, etc. that they drag in, deus ex machina-like, to account for it. I honestly don't know what is going on, but none of us have "knowledge' on the issue.

    ... cont ...

  17. Given science restricts itself to that aspect of the world for which intersubjective measurements are possible, what are we to do with areas where the data is purely subjective/intuitive? Is this answer consistent with the way we use our own intuition to defend scientific realism (should we choose to do so?)

    Firstly, lots of subjective data can be corroborated in other ways. If I feel ill, my doctor may find an infection or other problem that "explains" it. Or if I feel lonely, it may be because I live alone. Much of this data can be accounted for on perfectly rational basis.

    Secondly, other aspects of the "data" can be wholly imaginative, like the entire theological corpus of Christianity (in my view). This may be shared or unshared between people, but may be entirely made-up all the same. We share all kinds of imaginative experiences and ideas, and telling which are true and which are not has got to be put to empirical tests, not just popularity tests.

    Conceptually, suppose the NDE issue above were to be even better documented- people are seeing completely otherwise unsee-able, yet true, things while totally knocked out, reproducibly shown. Then we would have empirical evidence that there is more than simple material reality going on. That is it.. people may associate this with angels, god, prayer, and all the rest, but those extra conclusions remain unwarranted. They are part of the common mythical furniture of our intuitions that militate against materialism, but that is all.

    I guess my main problem is that the track record of intution is poor. Gods have come and gone, as have countless other crappy hypotheses about how reality works, inside and out. So to think that some sketchy data not only validates the immediate anti-materialist NDE case, but a whole train of other super-natural intuitions, is the worst form of jumping to conclusions. It would be a classic case of bad philosophy, at least in its pseudoscientific guise.

    Can science make any contribution to the essentially religious question, do we believe existence itself benign, malign, indifferent?

    Not really- that seems to be a subjective question, even after Darwin introduced us to the eons of suffering that preceded us. Even the prior theological rendering has to be given credit for sensing both sides of this question- the awe and tragedy of existence.

    .. cont ..

  18. If we choose not to answer any such questions, is this stance consistent with the basis of our faith in scientific realism?

    I don't think it has anything to do with scientific realism, since the answer will be subjective in any case. At best, one could instruct oneself to be optimistic and happy for purely utilitarian reasons, even evolutionary reasons!

    What do we mean when we speak of an outcome being more or less probable, when we are not referring to observable long-run averages? Is probabilistic reasoning of this type a valid approach to forming beliefs, or is rather a way of misrepresenting our intuitions?

    Absolutely. The idea of positing fine tuning of the universe, based on an n of 1, as it were, is not rational. I am not sure what other instances of probability you are referring to. In the general case of induction, a long run of past events, like the sun coming up, does give us logical reason to believe in a model that it will come up again, quite apart from our mechanistic understanding of its causes. Cognitively, we have that kind of Bayesian reasoning deeply encoded in our brains.

    When not working from collected data, we might still be working from a model of reality, implicit or explicit, which might enable some reasoned probability. But that is the crux- if we are working from a fully intuitive model, then it is garbage in, garbage out.

    There are clearly many more, but as I don't have an adequate, or even consistent set of
    answers to these questions myself, I'm reluctant to dismiss all religious belief as unreasonable.

    Clearly, I am biassed. But I don't see the reason in it. And frankly, if one takes our social and cognitive fixations into account, and accepts that our intutions have been, and may continue to be seriously waylaid by such influences, than it should be clear that the skeptical case is the proper default case, and that all the popularity and intution in the world doesn't make up for the illogic and lack of evidence for the religious model of reality.

    That isn't to say that reasonable people believe in such things, just that reason wouldn't lead to such beliefs, even now after so much straining and effort to develop the relevant evidence ... the invention of evidence being frowned upon in our current epoch.

  19. Burk: You have just endeavored to explicate, in part, your philosophy of science. Rather than evaluate its adequacy (it's "dead week" here--the week before finals when term papers come due, so I don't have a lot of time), I'll simply ask how we would go about doing so. It seems to me that any approach to assessing the merits of your views ABOUT science would, in the end, look more like what philosophers do than what scientists do.

  20. Right, and how much good will it do? None. You will continue explicating your intuition, scientists will continue using their common sense and experiments, and the world will go on as before. It seems a post-hoc, rationalizing or descriptive pursuit, not prescriptive or leading. And when it does lead, it is typically to disaster, from Plato, through the neoplatonists, to Christianity, to Hegel and the Marxists, just naming movements that come to mind. The professionalization and abstraction of what is otherwise considered shooting the breeze seems to me to be a fine retrospective field of humanities, (perhaps as well handled by historians, novelists and other artists), but the presumption that it is some kind of home of logic and sense, parent to all that is true and good, including the sciences ... is strongly belied by history and by its current state.

    Indeed, there are few fields of human endeavor where the gulf between presumption and accomplishment is so wide. The attempt to raise shooting-the-breeze into a science of logic and morals is largely a disaster, making homes for any "system" and any crackpot ideas we can come up with. Our powers of rationlization and polemic are on full display in philosophy, especially in fields with no empirical interactions, such as theology.

    Whew. Now, you might ask, what of Locke, Hume, Diderot, Voltaire, and the other enlightenment philosophers? I find them more congenial, for sure. One is tempted to set up a (possibly fatuous) dichotomy of good ideas vs bad ideas, where bad ideas are called philosophy and good ideas are all common sense and skepticism defensively deployed against bad ideas. The accomplishments of the enlightenement were mostly negative- to question to the point of evaporation the divine right of kings, the legitimacy of clerical political power, and other oppressive political, economic, and social traditions which traditional philosophy had done so much to defend.

    Today we have swung over in the other direction, with post-modernism, deconstructionism and other philosophical disasters. The problem, I guess, is not that all philosophy is necessarily bad or invalid, it is that so little of it is good (perhaps for professional reasons of novelty-seeking, etc.). The modus operandi of defending whatever your intuition tells you to defend is fundamentally flawed, perhaps because logic is simply not enough of a bulwark against crack-pottery. If you start with a premise like supernaturalism, no logic can lead you elsewhere. Nor can "progress" be claimed, since the intuitive premise is perennial and unmoving. Philosophy as a field then becomes a continuing conversation about our mutually more-or-less acceptable intuitions, expounded on various fronts where they have little traction or accuracy, uncomfortably hemmed in by the growing outside zones of empiricism which have over time denied numerous intuitive ideas and their derivative philosophies, while supporting a few others.

    So, perhaps the way I would propose to view philosophy is as a speculative romper room, a sort of DARPA of ideas, where most go awry and astray, and deserve no presumptive respect for being "philosophical". Some succeed in one of two ways, either by being empirically correct (say, atomism), or by being intuitively congenial and properly about intuitions (say, liberty, equality, fraternity; Rawls), in which case the formal philosophical virtures of logic, etc. played relatively little role anyhow. Most remain unvalidated and speculative.

    Lastly, consistent with all this would be a practice of more critically investigating the premises that philosophers bring to the table, so that their intuitions don't get a pass as axioms, but are identified and criticized, as much as the logic they build upon them, such as it is. I am sure that you would claim that is being done, but from the gentle discussion methods you relate, and the tenacity with which you hold to your own intutions, it seems this is not done quite sufficiently.

    Sorry to go on again..

  21. Hi Burk

    I'd argue against that. Philosophy, whether of the formal or breeze shooting variety, seems to me to set the scene in which our humanity plays out, and to that end, the more careful, critical and open-minded the process, the better for those of us who inevitably move about its stage.

    So, to return to the philosophy of science, if I have you correctly then your criticism of philosophy/theology stems from the standpoint of scientific realism. The difficulty with constructing such an argument may be that scientific realism is only one possible response to the success of science, and there are strong arguments both for and against it. Personally, I find some of the anti-realism cases (dervided from Kant, from evolution, or from Hume's challenge to inductive reasoning) pretty hard to refute. And other times a third option, the pragmatic case, is more appealling to me.

    If I have it right, it's much harder to shoot down religious thought from the anti-realist and pragmatist stand points, and so in order to make your stance consistently, perhaps you need first to indulge in a little philosophy and build a defence around your brand of realism. Trouble might come if this defence ends up having an intuitive/cultural basis, as most seem to do.

    To be specific, I don't think data itself can be the criteria by which we choose between theories, on the grounds that a range of theories can be mathced to the same data set. I would highlight (following people like Putnam and Musgrave) the crucial role novel predictions play in deciding disputes.

    The argument then becomes, does the ability to generate novel predictions in itself guarantee a closer fit to reality? We can certainly say science is becoming more powerful, but the leap from here to saying it is becoming more accurate in its description of the world, while intuitively appealling, is difficult to sustain. We appear to be able to imagine states of underlying reality such that this is not the case, and how are we, by logical means, to dismiss them?

    Often people choose to dismiss these imagininigs as 'unlikely' but, like you, I am suspicious of attempts to allocate probabilities to complete unknowns. Many ahteists, while also technically agnostic, dismiss God as highly unlikely. Because I don't think probability works in these situations (either for or against, I have little time for the fine tuning argument) I prefer the non-committal brand of agnosticism because it's more consistent with my rather piecemeal philosophy.


  22. Bernard-

    I think I basically agree on your first points. I mentioned retrodiction as a form of non-future prediction, and you are right that the ability to point to data, whenever it happens, that would support or refute a theory is an important element that makes science work.

    What happens in fields where there is no data at all, whether difficult to interpret or not? Or where the interpretation is so loose as to be useless ... like fine tuning, or the wonderfulness of everything, I feel one-ness, etc.? Whatever the difficulties, data beats no data. The question of what kind of data feelings are, we have discussed previously, and intrinsically deserve the highest skepticism.

    I doubt that scientific realism/non-realism is the critical issue here. The success of empiricism speaks for itself as a way to increased knowledge, whether we are progressing to further unknowns, (strings!, gravitons!), or to knowns, like DNA and chemical elements. To get to the point of dealing with string theory, we have passed though a tremendous amount of absolutely validated *knowledge* about reality at more proximate levels, even if we never learn about the ultimate underlying whatever-it-is. That is different from a speculative theory that begins with the unprovable (supernature) and builds on that- i.e. castles in the air.

    "The argument then becomes, does the ability to generate novel predictions in itself guarantee a closer fit to reality? "

    Guarantee is a strong word, but it raises the probability of accuracy tremendously. Just think of all the prayers for rain that one positive result can do so much to validate, psychologically. Now repeat that process systematically via a scientific method and we pretty much have a guarantee of better knowledge.

    "We appear to be able to imagine states of underlying reality such that this is not the case, and how are we, by logical means, to dismiss them?"

    I may not understand entirely what you are getting at here. If something like, say, god underpins what we know of cosmology, that is fine.. that is not something seen or needed as far as the science yet goes, but it might be the case. We don't know and I am agnostic, as you say. But here's the thing. We really, really, really don't know. No one knows. The idea that some shaman beating his drum has figured all this out is contrary to everything we do know, both about the science and about the psychology of speculative belief. Call my assertion probability if you like, but I would call it something more- an appreciation of human psychology which interprets flagrant lack of data and predicitve ability as, in this case, a con job.

    The outlandish boldness of such propositions is what is so deeply offensive to anything calling itself reason. It is, as usual, an epistemological point. If there were a truce where atheists all say... we don't know; and religious people all say.. we don't know - then perhaps we could lay down arms. But that is never going to happen because the atheists already pretty much agree with that point, while believers can't help themselves from thinking, on their good days, they are mystical conduits to the creator of the universe.

  23. Hi Burk

    Let's say, for the sake of argument, we lived in the world in which you and I are both missing an essential element, namely that existence itself is God-like, that we owe our being here to a benevolent force, beyond our understanding, and hence not appearing in any simple intersubjective observations. Let's say, for argument's sake, we are capable of glimpsing such a reality, albeit hazily, through a process that feels very much like the subconscious processes of appreciation and imagination, and that for those who succeed in this, the individual experience of being alive is enhanced.

    Now, under the gaze of science, such a universe would appear identical to the mechanistic, chance driven, and indifferent existence of some atheistic narratives.

    Given science can't distinguish between these two backdrops, are we more reasonable to say:

    There's no reliable way of telling the difference, so to believe in either is unreasonable?

    There's no reliable way of telling the difference, so to believe either is equally reasonable?

    There exists nevertheless a reliable method of establishing that one of these outcomes is more likely than the other. Hence one deserves, in the absence of slam dunk evidence, to be thought of as the default position?

    Because science can't distinguish, it is reasonable to turn to other tools (personal experience, narrative appeal) to assist us in choosing between these beliefs.

    There will be other options, I'm sure. My contention is that choosing between the above is going to require some sort of prior philosophical commitment, which is why, for example, the scientific realism debate feels important to me. Anyway, interested to know which of these four views you would intuitively endorse.


  24. Bernard-

    Here is the argument I see you making ... my daughter believes in unicorns. There is no evidence one way or the other on the matter, (we are talking about invisible or extraterrestrial unicorns), but she really, really likes them. Let us suppose that unicorns exist. Thus she has a reasonable belief in unicorns.

    Narrative is a great thing, and tells us a great deal about .. ourselves. It does not tell us about anything else, because we are making it up. If it makes us feel more alive, that is great.. it still is not telling us about anything other than ourselves.

    For your alternatives, the mechanistic, indifferent existence reflects what is going on per our observations of physical reality, including the evolutionary path leading to ourselves. Our feelings can be explained on plenty of other rationales that don't require them to be veridical about physics. So the default position on physics should be to stick with what is observed and not make up excess hypotheses, insofar as we want to engage in *belief* rather than speculation.

    It is definitely *not* OK to turn to narrative and personal experience to buttress a (physics) belief that can not be otherwise supported. That way lies regression to childhood/unreason. This is not an intutive position- it follows from the way empiricism and reason interact to supercede naive speculative hypotheses with knowledge, while at the same time providing boundaries for what is known and what is just imagined.

  25. Hi Burk

    Like you, I would tend to shy away from the unicorn belief. Nevertheless, the grounds given, that the story floats free of the evidence, can't be the whole argument. Were this so, not only would believing in unicorns be off the table, so would believing that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow (there is nothing in the evidence to assure us regularities will continue, that bit we need to make up).

    So, we do indeed use narrative all the time to buttress otherwise unsupportable beliefs. The question with regard to religion may then be, is religious always like unicorns, or in some forms is it more like regularity, time, continuous self, other minds etc?

    This is why I'm interested in which of the options I offered you'd intuitively support. I suspect the grounds we use for accepting some unsupported intuitions and not others leads to the rationale we use when assessing the validity of various religious beliefs.


  26. Maybe this is an apt post to point out that Greta Christina (whose work you've discussed before) has a new book out called Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless (well, it's now out in ebook format -- apparently the print version is still forthcoming). Without agreeing with all of it, I think it's the best reasoned case for atheist anger that I've seen. (Certainly more nuanced and thoughtful, I'd say, that what I've read of Myers on this point.) I hope you find time to read & review it -- I'd be extremely curious as to your response.

  27. Bernard-

    Wow- those are just such unlike beliefs. Induction may not be perfect, but it beats no (decent) evidence.

    We call agree on many levels and to a high degree of certainty that the sun came up in the past. So this induction is not based on some sketchy, wavy-gravy narrative.

    Since you ask again about your options. I think that a good deal turns on your definition of "belief". The only thing warranted to *believe* in is what we can observe and reliably infer- the mechanistic story.

    If we want to speculate and feel great about a more meaningful narrative, we can do so, but I would say that this does not philosophically deserve the term "belief", because it would be conjured from your subconscious processes, etc, and not be compelled by the object at issue in rational terms. It would be a speculative hypothetical. This was the whole deal with Christianity in the first place- the weight was placed on belief of the unbelievable- Jesus said believe in me and you will be saved, etc. and so forth. The psychology may well be compelling. But the philosophy certainly is not.

    Lastly, it is worth saying that the universes you posit are not the same at all- not scientifically identical, and certainly not socially/politically identical. Hypothesizing a loving benevolence behind everything puts evolution for one thing in a totally different light than one would understand otherwise. It lends credibility to all the supernatural-psycho stories of ESP, prayers, spoon-bending, providence, .. the list goes on and on. I hate to make slippery slope arguments, but our host believes in souls and mystical union with whatever, for crying out loud. None of that is observationally identical with the observed universe, unless all these dispensations are, in actuality, null and void, which they seem to be, indeed.

    Science can't distinguish between these backdrops solely because the "glimpsed" reality has no scientific evidence behind it, every prediction and differentiating observation it makes having come to naught. With every possible test of the "glimpsed" world view, it retreats to unobservability. Why is that? They make of it the mystery of the "hidden-ness" of god. Not much of a mystery, in my book.

  28. Hi Burk

    I think, if we disagree here, it's more about methodology than anything. So, when you start with 'wow, those are just such unlike beliefs' I immediately wonder if that isn't question begging. Yes, they feel, intuitively, like very very different beliefs indeed, to non-believers such as you and I. The challenge philosophy puts to us, I think, is can we justify this intuition, and does the form of justification we use also allow others to justify beliefs of which we are instinctively disapproving? I find it an interesting question.

    For my part, I think consensus is an important marker of justified belief, a necessary complement to evidence, if you like. On these terms, induction can be justified as reasonable in that there's nobody betting against it. We believe alternative A in the absence of alternative B. It's the pragmatist argument that any proposition that is accepted by all informed participants should hold.

    My hesitancy with religious, and indeed atheistic belief, is that in neither of these cases can we speak confidently of a best guess. Can an intuitive belief be warranted when the potential defeater of very many people reporting the opposite intuition is known to us?

    That's my very tentative solution, anyhow. It will change in time, I'm sure.


  29. Bernard-

    I attempted to provide some logic to my distinction, in that sunrises actually happen in a critically uncontested way, while theism never has, and thus can not be extended the benefit of the doubt, as it were.

    Nor is popularity the relevant metric. It has to be joined with critically rigorous forms of evidence. I think the real issue is about our models of human understanding and psychology. It is historically and empirically evident that people can make up all sorts of compelling and popular ideas that are wrong. Even scientists fall into that trap now and again. We just assume, say, that a light-conducting ether pervades the universe, because it just makes intuitive sense, by analogy with what else is known about waves.

    So all I am urging is a sense of proportion and skepticism. Science is always tentative, since even with its methods, bad intuitions and other human defects can cause error, which can only be evaluated once the frontier has moved well beyond some particular piece of "knowledge".

    But how much more wayward are fields going to be that rely on nothing but intution? Here we encounter "beliefs", "knowledge" and the like that are guaranteed to be congenial and popular, by way of natural (cultural) selection. What they don't have any particular claim to is to be right, in any scientific sense, which is the sense of all the claims about super-nature, etc.

    So by all means, be a skeptic of atheism and theism equally. But look in the right places for your data, which is into the nature of intuition and its social propagation, not in cosmology, which is a red herring.

  30. Hi Burk

    I absolutely agree that better understanding the business of intuition is crucial. And I agree with you that we have certain habits of mind (I would say have evolved certian habits of mind) that, while helpful overall, often lead us into error. We see patterns where none exist, display a hopeless degree of confirmation bias, and view the world through an egocentric lens, favouring those narratives that exaggerate our own importance.

    So, what to do about these weaknesses? Well, as you say, we attempt to impose chaecks and balances on ourselves. Aware that our own perception may be less than rigorous, we give greater weight to those observations which can be verified by others. This, in essence is what we mean by data, and in this way, data is consensus. We may be collectively mismeasuring, but as there's no obvious way around this problem, we respect collective data over one-off sightings, personal hunches, etc. Embedded in this preference is of course an assumption about the consistency of nature.

    Another safe-guard is insisting upon consistency in our reasoning. Because of the well documented tendency to be more vigorous in the examination of opposing views than we are of our own, we use activities like philosophy to tease out the implications of our beliefs, and ensure that our definition of what is reasonable, for example, doesn't conveniently fade in and out of focus.

    This, I would claim, is where the philosophy of science is important. Inductive reasoning is necessary to get us beyond observation and into theory. The observation is that the sun rises in the east. The theory is that it will continue to do so. There are many offered explanations as to why trusting our inductive intuition is reasonable, and in the name of consistency, it's a useful intelectual check to wonder whether the rationale we choose is then applied evenly to those who hold opposing views.


  31. That sounds great... so how would a philosophy of theology differ from a philosophy of science?

  32. Burk

    Not sure I get the question. At some level, they're the same thing, aren't they? Ideally, for a careful individual, they rest on the same assumptions. So, if a person's philosophy of religion is based upon the rule 'we mustn't rely upon intuition as our guide to truth' and then they realise their philosophy of science relies upon intuition in some crucial respect, they might be motivated to modify the rule in both cases, perhaps to 'we mustn't rely upon intuition except in those cases where everybody's intuition leads in the same direction' or some such thing. Then the critic points out that this rule is also being applied inconsistently, with respect to some other foundational view we hold, and so it's re-examined, or that view is modified etc etc

    That's how I see the two fitting together, anyway. Often, those who accuse naturalists of scientism are essentially arguing that naturalists are applying one set of truth criteria to science, and a different set to religion. And when that is the case, it's a fair criticism, I think.


  33. Bernard-

    What I was getting at was that they are not, in practice, the same thing at all. Science is held and holds itself to far higher standards than theology, among other philosophical fields. I mean, politicians use logic as well- that doesn't make them intellectual queens of any sort. There is something else going on.

    On your point about intuition, it is what you have been trying to get at, and one we have discussed frequently. I freely accept that intution is the seedbed of scientific thought, as all other forms of knowledge and inquiry. That is fine. But what happens next? What is the test of intuition? That is where the distinction can be drawn, between fields based on nothing but intution, and those that leave intuition behind to test their ideas against external reality.

    Do those tests ultimately depend on intuition? I don't think so- we can, in many cases, encode models mathematically or computationally and then objectively test their fit to observation. Intuition always comes into the mix as critique and a casting about for weaknesses in the models, assumptions, and biases of those doing the proposing, but at some point scientists take facts to have their say in this cyclic/dialectic/hermeneutic/etc. process.

    In moral philosophy, for instance, the best we can do is to propose ideas and draw out their practical, even empirical consequences, asking whether those consequences fly against our intuitive moral senses in some way that we had not seen in the original naive formulation. That is perfectly fine, though it is firmly in the humanities, not the sciences.

    In theology, intuitions appear to be the test as well as the seedbed of the enterprise, not to mention taking the sheerest myth as data. And not even practical consequences are relevant. We may abhor a sect that is either militant or pacifist, or practices some other extreme doctrine, but theology alone can have no effect, since each person or group can come up with their own intutitive interpretation of their religious experience and traditions. The Catholic church has struggled mightily to delegitimate ex-cathedra and heretical thoughts, but it is only using social levers- intuitions, indeed- to combat other intuitions. There is no reason at work, fundamentally, other than the brute reason of social consistency, hierarchy and authority.

    If everyone's intutions lead to the same place, then the field, as a humanity, has achieved unity and consistency, which is great. But it says nothing about its scientific propositions, such as perhaps, of a soul. Everyone can be wrong and the world be different from our intutions, as has been shown many times over. We have to carefully ask where intutions have relevance and traction, and where they don't. Introspection into our physical basis is one place they don't, for instance. Molecular biology is one of the weirdest fields there is, completely counter- or non-intuitive.


    On scientism, if theology were actually held to the same standards as other fields, we would be far, far, better off. We do use different standards- far lower ones for religion. But I would certainly agree that there are category differences, in that intution is the fair standard for humanities and arts- that is what they exist to investigate, cultivate, and satisfy, ultimately.

  34. Burk

    In many ways, we don't disagree. The arguments you make against religion flow naturaly from the materialist position. To assess, however, the claim that reasonable people can differ on matters of religious belief (I think they can, and this is where we disagree)we need to be able to establish not that religion, viewed from the materialist perspective, is suspect, but that the materialist position is itself the more reasonable position to take.

    I argue that a commitment to the materialist position (either as true, or simply as the most reasonable stance), when fully examined, opens the door for this very disagreement between reasonable people. In other words, I think we can show materialism is a reasonable point of view, but not that it is the most reasonable point of view.

    This is why I'm interested in the foundations of your materialist stance. It's not that I don't share your instinct for it, I have religious instinct whatsoever, no matter how honestly I look for it, but the way I justify my materialist preferences doesn't appear to exclude alternative views being reasonable.

    Sometimes, your distaste for philosophy appears to give you a way to avoid putting the foundational basis for your materialism up for examination and debate. Were I religious participant in this debate, I'd wonder if this wasn't just a touch too convenient.


  35. Bernard-

    Thanks for clarifying what you mean. I am not really defending the materialist position here. I am simply defending a skeptical position that displays an awareness of our epistemological limitations. The only contribution of materialism is to be part of the history that documents the extreme fallibility, indeed absurdity, of all religious claims of a scientific character that have ever been subject to any kind of empirical test.

    Other than that, a person doesn't need to believe in materialism at all. Indeed, there were plenty of ancients who had essentially zero understanding of what we would term science, but still knew enough to know that the gods were man-made - the Epicureans, Carvakans, etc.

    Religious belief, in its scientific claims and character, is an affront to any kind of reason, whatever else one believes. The problem seems to be that we must have some kind of story, and the more drama, the more convenient, and the more archetypal, the better. So people naturally fall back to plain materialism in the absence of religious stories. But sometimes the humble thing to do is not say anything. That is all a psychological issue, not a scientific one.

    One can view this as a stepwise hierarchy of models of reality in terms of complexity and value-added, as it were, with total skepticism at the bottom (the ancient Skeptics), and above that, materialists who take on board only what they can observe in some rigorous way, (where an epistemologically proper approach stops), and beyond that the whole flowering of religions and other doctrines that infer vast realms, pleromas, heavens, deieties, etc.

  36. Hi Burk

    I certainly agree that any theology that makes empirical claims can and should be challenged. Recently a billboard appeared in our largest city, proclaiming Jesus Cures Cancer. My seventeen year old nephew, having just completed three years of torturous but ultimately successful cancer treatment, wrote the group behind the message a polite but forceful letter, suggesting they may have confused Jesus with oncologists. I was rather proud of him. (The billboard was removed.)

    Thanks for your patience with this conversation.


  37. Bernard-

    And thanks for drawing me out.. I think one big issue here is one's attitude towards faith. Eric clearly values faith highly, as the wellspring of hope, togetherness, and other psychological/social goods (but not group-ishness!). He is willing to square it with the philosophical search for truth in several ways ... as part of the what-is-good arm of philosophy, despite a wee conflict with the what-is-true arm, by making intuition conveniently veridical about things it has no business being veridical about, and by hiding behind a "search" for a "truth" that never seems to accept no for an answer, despite not finding anything ... among other methods.

    I could take potshots at the basic position- the whininess and aggrandizement of saying that I can't deal with life unless I am immortal and have life after death. Indeed, unless I go to heaven eternally. Otherwise, I will lose all hope and may just as well shoot myself in the head. (Me again) I mean sheesh, here we are, with the most incredible gift ever- life, and human conciousness, but I guess it is not enough.