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Everything I Believe about Religion, Part I: Fun Is Epistemologically Dangerous

In this series of posts, I will attempt to state what I really believe about religion. I have been inspired to do so by a peculiar ceremony of my own sect, the Unitarian Universalists. At the UU Church of Annapolis, where I attend — and teach Sunday School — the eighth graders are asked to spend a year reflecting on what they personally believe. They then report their credo to the congregation in a short presentation of their own design.[1]

I infer that the exercise is calculated to produce epistemic humility. In this it differs from the rituals of nearly every other western religion. The nearest analogue I can find is the Zen koan, which likewise asks the impossible — and apparently it also gets results.

I understand if you want to tune out. I will be offensive along the way. If it’s any consolation, I suspect that we all are, hereabouts.

The_Hill_Cumorah_by_C.C.A._Christensen

When believers speak of their religious convictions, it almost always comes across to me as poorly argued nonsense. I don’t know if the message originated that way, or if it is that way in some objective sense, but that’s certainly how it sounds when you’re wearing my ears.

Above all, I hear it as poorly argued nonsense whenever someone says: “Ah yes, Jason, I feel just like you do about all the other religions. But let me tell you about mine. It’s different, I promise.” That too — that especially — sounds like poorly argued nonsense. To say nothing of what follows.

(See? I’m being offensive already. But at least I’m somewhat aware about it. Here’s some more self-awareness: What I give to you, instead of a religious belief, will probably strike you too as poorly argued nonsense.[2])

If that were all there were to religion, this wouldn’t be a series of blog posts. It probably wouldn’t even be one blog post. But here’s the complicated part: Believing a religion is probably impossible for me. Doing a religion, though, strikes me as almost always quite powerful, and sometimes it’s even a force for good. There are solid reasons to want to study religion, and I have, at least a bit. The reasons for studying religion go to the heart of what it means to be human. Likewise, there are reasons that one might want to perform religious practices. At least I think.[3]

And yet: I wouldn’t advise anyone to be more religious than I am. I still think many religious practices are likely either wasteful or actively harmful. I understand that they all purportedly give comfort. I am (mostly) unmoved. (Offensive? You bet!)

How’d I get here? I didn’t start with David Hume, but I do think he said it best:

A wise man… proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other…

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

In matters of eyewitness testimony, either an error or a deceit are more likely to occur than, say, a resurrection of the dead. Here’s what they look like when we are not otherwise able to disentangle the three of them:

p(error) + p(deceit) > p(resurrection of the dead)

I judge that the inequality stands for either of the two left-hand terms considered alone as well.

People err a lot. People also tell lies a lot. Neither of these is at all outside the common experience. Resurrection is another matter — say what you like about its frequency, but resurrection clearly doesn’t happen thousands or millions of times a day. In this it’s quite unlike either telling giant lies or getting some really important facts wrong. Both of those certainly do happen thousands or millions of times a day.

Could it be that I’m wrong? Yes, of course. But the odds are that I’m not. There was (probably) no Resurrection. Likewise, there is probably no God, to the extent that our assessed likelihood of God’s existence depends on the truth of eyewitness testimony.

Like all empirical claims, I am happy to update this belief in the presence of new evidence, but it must be new evidence of a kind very different from that which has been advanced so far. What Christian apologists typically offer has always been subject either to error, or to deceit on the part of eyewitnesses, or to deceit on the part of those who transmitted their testimony.

Christians have sometimes made efforts at showing how unlikely each of these things are; these efforts are both well-intentioned and within the canons of reasoned argument. Yet I judge that all of them have failed at making the sum total of naturalistic explanations’ probabilities less than the probability of an actual resurrection: I still think it vastly more likely that a saint would lie than that a corpse would stand up.

Now, one may still choose to believe in the resurrection of a particular dead person, but this choice will not be made on the basis of the sort of favorable probability calculation that we otherwise make for most of our other inferences from testimony. Opting for the lesser probability here will necessarily be on the basis of something else — something I cannot even imagine.

There is also the pesky matter of the testimonies of other religions. Hume, once again:

[I]n matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary; and that it is impossible the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.

Other religions had miracles too. When we assign any credence at all to them, no matter how low, we take away some probability that the Christian God is up there doing miracles for his faithful. Repeat as necessary, and the whole enterprise begins to look decidedly shady.

I do wish David Hume had lived to see Mormonism. I think he would have found it a fascinating example of the power of testimony, and of its shortcomings: If a non-Mormon American Christian believes based on the ancient testimony of the Apostles and the Evangelists, why does he not immediately come to Mormonism? The religion of the Latter-Day Saints rests on multiple eyewitness testimony that is (a) much more recent (b) given by Americans, in directly accessible English (c) reasonably harmonious with Christianity and (d) offered by the very founders of the sect, rather than propagandists from decades later.

If testimonial evidence really drove matters of religion, Mormonism should be where it’s at. But for nearly everyone, it isn’t. Hume would not have been swayed by Mormonism, of course, and neither am I, but it would certainly stand for him as a rebuke to those who claim to believe on the basis of testimony: They clearly do no such thing.

Hume’s arguments on miracles, which contain within them the germ of Bayesian probability, are incredibly useful in all sorts of situations. And yet miracles — and stories about miracles — are fun. Says Hume:

The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others.

Fun is epistemologically dangerous. It tempts, but it doesn’t inform. In my next posts, I’ll talk about why this is so, and why fun — or, what I’m calling fun, at least — is nonetheless worth studying. And worth incorporating into life. Carefully.

Notes

[1] Yes, I teach Sunday School. (“Religious exploration,” as we call it.) I teach the Neighboring Faiths curriculum, in which I get to put to use my degree in European intellectual history, discussing post-Reformation Christianity and Judaism, their beliefs and practices. The fact that I am an atheist who is permitted and even encouraged to teach Sunday School is just one of the many, many reasons why I love my church.

[2] Does a religious belief have to be well argued, as well as well believed, in order to be salvific? I’m obviously talking about a particular subset of Christianity here, and not of religion as a whole. But imagine the plight of a Christian who believed that belief was important for salvation, and who believed based on, say, an argument that affirmed the consequent? How should God grade that person? (If we say that we ought not to judge, or ought not to presume to stand in God’s place — that just settles the argument in favor of the logically fallacious side. If the believer-based-on-fallacy could be made aware of his error, it wouldn’t be much comfort!)

One might be tempted to say that God is merciful, and more than likely He is merciful when it comes to a logical fallacy that most people can’t even define correctly, let alone recognize in the wild. But this presents the intelligent believer with a dilemma: Arguments that affirm the consequent are very often persuasive, particularly in the history of religion. (“If it looks like it had a designer, then it must have had a designer…”) What if spreading these arguments — knowingly — is the most effective way to bring people to God, who will after all be merciful about the ways and means of belief? The intelligent believer must then either knowingly spread bad arguments for the sake of his faith, or refrain from giving others the gift of salvation. Both seem morally atrocious.

How smart does one have to be, in order to be saved? What if being smart, and recognizing bad arguments, makes getting saved much harder? Can that possibly be? I mean, I may be considered smart, but I can’t possibly get behind that kind of self-dealing.

[3] I am an atheist, hard or soft, with respect to most definitions of God, including — probably — whichever one you are thinking of right now. I am an agnostic about certain highly abstract notions of God, around which no religion ever seems to have coalesced, and which are not terribly promising in that direction. (More on that in a future post, I suppose.) I can’t rule out the possibility that even the more plausible notions of God are tricks of the language, or of the mind, rather than accounts of a Supreme Being. And, despite all the foregoing, I repeat that I find considerable value to some aspects of religion as it is actually practiced.

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218 thoughts on “Everything I Believe about Religion, Part I: Fun Is Epistemologically Dangerous

  1. Yes, I teach Sunday School. . . The fact that I am an atheist who is permitted and even encouraged to teach Sunday School is just one of the many, many reasons why I love my church.

    I did this, too; but second/third grade, at a Congregational Church. The class didn’t have a name, as such, and the curriculum was provided. The co-pastors encouraged me to just tell the stories and guide the children in discussions of moral behavior. I enjoyed it very much, and just the other day, had one of my students (a squirrelly boy), tell me how much I’d helped him by helping him to understand the importance of remembering to stop and look and think about what he was doing.

    I very much enjoyed this, Jason. I look forward to the discussions that follow, and the future postings.

    My pastors knew I did not believe. But I could not be a member of the congregation without belief, though I was always welcomed to attend services, to teach Sunday School, to participate in most Church activities. But the tension of not believing in a community where sworn belief was essential to full membership discomforted me; I did not feel my non-belief would be welcomed by the members, and so always felt something of a fraud, it was a closet. Atheism often is closeted, I suppose. I’m amazed you’ve found a niche where it’s openly accepted and comfortable. (I also wonder if there’s a ‘belief zone,’ where the presumption is that if you go through the motions long enough, you’ll eventually subscribe to the system, like that dude in the friend zone might eventually have her fall in love with him.)

    The market-test failure of Mormonism cracks me up. Thank you for that bit of humor. But it’s problem is the living-person record; while it’s still prone to propagandists, there’s some proof of original intent which is troublesome. See US Constitution for examples.

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    • Which of the people at the church actually said, to you, “you don’t believe and therefore you are not ever going to be truly welcomed by this community”?

      Please don’t give an answer based on what you felt or what you thought or what you thought you felt others might think they should feel. Tell us what people actually did.

      “I could not be a member of the congregation without belief, though I was always welcomed to attend services, to teach Sunday School, to participate in most Church activities. ”

      See, what activities were you specifically told you could not participate in? You say “it was a closet”, but that implies an involuntary hiding, a public facade based on external pressure. You make it sound like you had to lie about your belief in order to not be kicked out of the community, but the way you describe it sounds like they were perfectly willing to have you be a part of their family. A weirdo sister-in-law maybe, but no less welcome at the picnic than anyone else.

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      • Every church I’ve ever so much as visited was happy to have visitors of any faith (or none), but to join — and being a member of the church or another, similar one they approved of was required for leading church classes — had a ceremony.

        Wherein one was required to affirm your faith.

        There was not, as far as I recall, a written “Thou Shalt Not Teach Sunday School Unless Thou Art a Member” but, well, if you weren’t one you didn’t teach Sunday School.

        Communion was, quite formally via the Apostles or Nicene Creed, “members of the Christian only” club as well. (Quite naturally so).

        Christian churchs are generally fairly welcoming, because they’d like you to join. But they’re not, you know, gonna have a Muslim or Jew teaching catechism.

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      • Attending services, etc., did not require being a member. Being a member was a sacred thing, and involved a ceremony in front of the congregation. Watching others go through it was where I confronted my discomfort. Nobody made me feel uncomfortable because, other then the pastors, I didn’t reveal my lack of belief. I’d gone to services regularly to deal with that very thing, to test it, if you will. In part, because though I hadn’t logically believed since childhood, I still prayed and called out to god in moments of despair, pain, and fear. To this day, I’ll recite the Lord’s Prayer repeatedly in moments of great stress to help focus myself.

        But I also knew, after several years, that I could not get up and swear to belief in Christ as the son of God, that these people and I were using the same words but did not have the same meanings for those words. I could accept the bible as metaphor and story, but not literally, and that literal commitment was very important to membership. I’d been there long enough that membership was a growing expectation. And I think mentally reaching out for guidance in moments of stress and trauma a normal and natural thing, one of the things that helps enable us to religious belief; but I think it not very different then a child calling for her parent after a bruised knee.

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      • There are churches that don’t require belief in Jesus as Son Of God (in any interesting sense of the term), or require belief in God at all, really.

        Of course, the music and food are not as good and the sermons are on the short side but what can you do?

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      • My denomination does require a couple of faith statements for membership, but the pastors make it clear to prospective members that they don’t enforce any particular interpretation of those statements (e.g. you can think of God as a metaphor and Jesus as a teacher of wisdom). I don’t know how typical this is, though — I go to a very liberal New England church.

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      • Well, I haven’t stepped near a church in forever and that is unlikely to change, so these comments will have to be general. But like , I know what it is like to kinda-sorta have to hide. And as an response to ’s challenges, yes indeed sometimes this is self-imposed, and a change in my own attitude will help. But then, not always. And even if a change in my attitude helps, that does not mean I was not sensing something real. Which is to say, if I am the perfect happy, attractive, outgoing, socially graceful woman, then yes I might be accepted in any crowd.

        But I cannot be that woman all the time. Sometimes I’m just a messed up tranny desperate for someone who will love me as my entire broken self.

        There are plenty of places where I am welcome when I laugh and smile with grace. There are very few places where I can just fucking break.

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      • I found organizations of open non believers, which offer the fellowship and group acceptance and sometimes a pretty good meal. Not quite the same, though. And the anti-theism gets old fast.

        You can roughly divide atheists into two groups on how they deal with religious people.

        On the one hand, you have the argumentative, sometimes insulting, often deeply bitter ‘in your face’ sort. They’re not just atheists, they’re very much anti-religion. In my personal experience, these are often people who were raised religious (often in fundamentalist or evangelical sects).

        These are people who either felt deeply screwed by a religion in specific or in general. They have the fervor of a convert, basically — one who has a beef against his former beliefs.

        Sometimes it’s more general, less personal — Dawkins and Hitchens and such, who view religion itself as a superstition that weighs down humanity and creates more conflict. But really, 90% or more of the angry sort I’ve met are basically unhappy they’ve wasted so much of their time and effort believing — or trying to believe, or had a bad experience with religious family or friends when becoming open about their lack of religion, or just grew up in a fundamentalist sect and realized they could have been masturbating guilt free for decades.

        On the bright side, most of them grow out of it. The pain or disillusionment fades, and they tend to transition to the second type. (Dawkins and Hitchens types, not so much).

        The second type is the invisible type. You won’t know they’re one unless you ask — and they choose to answer. They’re not anti-religious, they’re just…not religious. Their sum total of “anti religion” is generally limited to an annoyance that profession in Christianity, for instance, is pretty much required for public office and the irritation that atheists are generally viewed as either inherently untrustworthy, troublemakers (why can’t you just say ‘under god’ or swear on a bible?), or basically people who just somehow have lived in, say, America all their life but haven’t heard of Jesus.

        They care about religion only as far as living in a very religious country impacts their lives. Other than that, they give exactly zero craps what you believe if you’re not hurting anyone, and generally don’t think about God, religion, or the like.

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      • Their sum total of “anti religion” is generally limited to an annoyance that profession in Christianity, for instance, is pretty much required for public office and the irritation that atheists are generally viewed as either inherently untrustworthy, troublemakers

        That last bit, irritation that atheists are viewed as untrustworthy troublemakers is typically where the atheist closet builds its walls.

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    • At my previous church, I was very active. At the time I joined, I thought I believed. Over time, that wavered. However, I continued going. I had friends. I enjoyed the discussion in Sunday School. I was in the choir, I co-taught my Sunday School class, and I was teaching a bible study on Wednesday nights, and I helped run the computer during the service. I did not share my lack of faith. I did have strong ideas about what I thought the bible taught, and I gladly shared those.

      As time went on, I found myself wondering how many other people in church are in the same boat. How many non-believers attend and participate fully, for whatever reasons. I am sure I was not the only one. However, there is no easy way to find those people. If they were there, they were hiding as much as I was.

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    • Ditto.

      I mean, it’s all the rantings of a heretic and all, but in the interest of being ecumenical, we ought to hear him out, the delusional old sod :)

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  2. My oh my! I’ve followed enough of your writing, Mr. K., to know that we reside on different ideological planets, but on this issue you have written what I would if were capable of expressing it. I, too, generally regard religious practices as [almost certainly] either wasteful or actively harmful, yet also understand – or at least acknowledge – the transformative power of belief, and can experience the sense of spiritual “wholeness” that can come from music, the natural world, or the collective human spirit. (Or maybe from the Buffalo Bills winning the Super Bowl, but let’s not engage in pure fantasy.) I have long admired – indeed felt a sense of deep understanding from – a line in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop: “[Miracles] . . . seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made fine, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears hear what is there about us always.”

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    • This is a good comment. And this

      “[Miracles] . . . seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made fine, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears hear what is there about us always.”

      is a fine quote. IF there are such things as miracles I’d say they are uncaused events within human consciousness which result in (or are, really, if you think about it for a second) a shift towards something far grander than we could have previously imagined.

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  3. Not all human experience is the result of the Bayes-lite assessment of evidence calculus that Hume describes. One falls in love or falls in hate, or comes to dislike a particular kind of food or to like a particular sort of music, for reasons that are at least in part irrational. Irrationality is hardly the equivalent of evil or even bad. So why not acknowledge the experience of religious belief also as within the realm of acceptable irrationalities? So long as it does not lead one to make decisions that cause harm to oneself or others, an irrationality may be a perfectly acceptable facet of one’s personality.

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    • Hume’s proto-Bayesian argument concerns the comparison of arguments for Nature vs arguments for Miracles. Hume is well aware that emotions often guide our decisions. That’s sorta his thing.

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      • Yeah, he’s got ya coming and going and everywhich wise. What did Russell say about Hume?, something like “there is a special section of hell reserved for those who try to refute Hume”?

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      • I kinda like Hume most of the time. I mean, he is tedious as fuck to read, but he was a clever old bastard. I bet I would have liked him, had we met.

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      • I don’t know that this is true, . There is at least a suggestion that some preferences are the result of a rational process, viz., the preference of one religion to another, atheism over religion or vice versa.

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      • Whether or not a god (or gods) exists is a matter of fact, not preference. A thing being uncertain doesn’t mean it becomes a matter of preference – to suggest otherwise would dissolve all knowledge.

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      • Preferences are neither rational nor irrational, being subjective they are orthogonal to fact.

        Everything after the comma makes no sense, or if it does, and it is true, is a horrible thing.

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      • That’s not what I’m saying at all, . Choosing to believe in a God may be a preferential act. Just ask the philosopher Blaise Pascal if you don’t believe me. I’ll wager he has a rationalization to support the proposition.

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      • Chris,

        Everything after the comma makes no sense, or if it does, and it is true, is a horrible thing.

        For gods sake why? Preference is an emotional response. I may emotionally prefer a universe where relativity is false but if I allow my preferences to dictate I’m no longer searching for the truth. I’m simply attempting to impose my dogma on the universe.

        Scientists often have strong preferences to theories. Einstein hated quantum mechanics despite the fact that he was the first to quantize things. Schrodinger laid down the mathematical foundation of of QM yet famously said “I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.”

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      • PPNL, we can argue about whether emotions are important for our making true, or at least good judgments (they are), but that’s not all that James said. He said that anything subjective, because it is subjective, is orthogonal to fact. Think about that for a minute, and imagine what judgment, emotional or not, does not contain subjective components, and then tell me which of them are not, then, orthogonal to fact. Think about what this means for the relationship between thought and the world. Think about what it means for the very statement that James made.

        Personally, I think the subjective-objective distinction is largely illusory, but if it is a real thing, and we think the subjective is, by virtue of its subjectivity, unrelated to objective facts, then we have not merely opened ourselves to the possibility of radical skepticism, but have in fact condemned ourselves to it.

        I imagine what’s happening here is James is trying to find a principled reason for excluding certain subjective things from the realm of fact, and in doing so, he’s divorced us from the realm of fact altogether.

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      • You may be misunderstanding what “orthogonal” means here. Orthogonal, does not mean untrue or unimportant. It only means that there is no necessary connection between the truth of something and an the emotional response to it.

        I can say that I much prefer string theory to loop quantum gravity but that is not an argument for or against either. My preference is orthogonal.

        Now the reason I prefer string theory may be because there is more evidence. But maybe not. I may simply prefer string theory because it is beautiful while admitting that there is more evidence for loop quantum gravity. My preference is not necessarily bound by logic or reason. My preference is orthogonal and I will have to actually make the case for a theory based on evidence and reason regardless of preference.

        The problem is that people confuse their emotional response with a logical response. This is especially true in the religious realm. Yes all of our judgments do contain emotional components. But if those emotional components remain unexamined and are allowed to be entered as evidence then you are in serious danger of error. You have to dig the logical component out and how you feel about it is irrelevant. Sometimes you find that there is no logical component to emotional responses.

        Einstein never had a good argument against quantum mechanics. The indeterminism simply violated his sense of propriety. But that is a preference and not an argument. In the absence of evidence preferences are irrelevant because the universe didn’t consult him. Einstein confused his preference with a logical necessity and so could not move past it.

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      • Yeah, I know exactly what he means by orthogonal. The problem here is that you are ignoring the full extension of the word “subjective.” It is not limited to emotion.

        I assume what he would argue is that subjective states are related to facts only insofar as they have non-subjective content, but I think you’ll find pretty quickly that any means of justifying that becomes circular. That is, a subjective state has non-subjective content if and only if it is related to facts, and it is related to facts only insofar as it has non-subjective content.

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      • I assume what he would argue is that subjective states are related to facts only insofar as they have non-subjective content,..

        Anything in the brain is related to facts only insofar as it accurately encodes that fact somehow. That’s true even if you are unconscious. That is true of a computer or even a book.

        Physically I don’t know what a subjective state is.

        But all that is irrelevant since simply reporting a preference can never be an argument for anything. I need an actual argument.

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      • Anything in the brain is related to facts only insofar as it accurately encodes that fact somehow.

        This is going to make the facticity of brain states themselves somewhat weird and paradoxical, huh? They only become factual when another brain state accurately encodes them? Again, we see how weirdly absurd this epistemology is.

        But all that is irrelevant since simply reporting a preference can never be an argument for anything. I need an actual argument.

        While I love how you’ve put the finishing touches on your position by stating your preference for it(!), I’m still thoroughly befuddled by the position you (and James) are taking. If “simply reporting a preference” for something can never, under any circumstance, be an argument for anything, then how the hell can we talk about preferences, and what does it mean when we do? Are preferences something metaphysically distinct from “facts,” such that we can not say anything true about them, even that they are, their valence, and what they express? That is, are preferences themselves not, in fact, states of the world? I repeat myself, but at every step this epistemology reveals its absurdity.

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      • This is going to make the facticity of brain states themselves somewhat weird and paradoxical, huh? They only become factual when another brain state accurately encodes them? Again, we see how weirdly absurd this epistemology is.

        What?

        Look, I know which pocket my wallet is in. It is encoded in my brain. You do not know which pocket it is in. There is no encoding there. The encoding does not cause the fact it only contains it. You may have a strong opinion of which pocket my wallet is in but unless you have a strong basis for that opinion that preference is useless.

        Where did you get me claiming that encoding caused reality?

        If “simply reporting a preference” for something can never, under any circumstance, be an argument for anything, then how the hell can we talk about preferences,…

        I don’t even understand what you are getting at. First preferences can have a correlation with reality it is just that there is no logical necessity of any such connection. That means they cannot be a logical argument.

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      • Ah, you misunderstand me. I am saying that under your view preferences, which are brain states, do not, using your terminology, “encode a reality.” And I think they work quite well in certain logical arguments, say about my the reality of my preferences, which are real things, existing in the world.

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      • Ah, you misunderstand me. I am saying that under your view preferences, which are brain states, do not, using your terminology, “encode a reality.” And I think they work quite well in certain logical arguments, say about my the reality of my preferences, which are real things, existing in the world.

        Yes, your preferences are subjective but there can be facts about your preferences.

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      • Chris,

        Ah, you misunderstand me. I am saying that under your view preferences, which are brain states, do not, using your terminology, “encode a reality.” And I think they work quite well in certain logical arguments, say about my the reality of my preferences, which are real things, existing in the world.

        Ah, you seem to be going into the mind body problem. I think that is something of a change of subject as I don’t think James K. intended to say anything about the mind brain problem.

        Anyway I’m not sure you can say that subjective experiences are brain states. It isn’t that this statement is wrong it is just that it contains no information. I still don’t know what a subjective experience is physically, I don’t know how to cause them or detect them and I have no theory that predicts their existence. It simply expresses a metaphysical commitment. You should be careful about letting your metaphysics get in the way.

        It seems as insolvable as the something vs nothing problem.

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      • No, I’m not getting into the mind-body problem. I’m pointing out that all subjective states can (and perhaps all do) represent the world to some extent, that there are no purely subjective states. What’s more, there are no purely objective propositions, otherwise there would just be propositions out there in the world, existing independently. Without subjectivity, we can’t talk about matters of fact, and without matters of fact, there is no subjectivity. From there it’s a pretty easy step to point out that our arguments reveal things about our subjective states, and that our subjective states both influence and reveal things about both our arguments and our acceptance of them.

        This is also good reading.

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      • choosing to believe is! or might be, a preferential act

        You shouldn’t be “choosing to believe” anything. A god either exists or it doesn’t and that fact isn’t going to be related to your feelings on the matter.

        A choice implies some kind of control – that you have the ability to make a god exist, or not. But if there are any gods their existence is independent of any atheists wishing they didn’t, and gods that don’t exist won’t pop into being because people want them to.

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      • I’d certainly rather my beliefs be chosen rather than forced upon me! This includes the beliefs I choose because I further believe, as a matter of choice, rather than because I’m forced to, that the arguments for those beliefs are stronger than the arguments against them.

        The world is messy, particularly when we’re talking about things as complicated, as abstract, and as remote as its basic facts, the facts upon which all others rest, which is what we’re doing here. There is always going to be a fair amount of choice involved in determining what we believe. Going back to Hume, it’s no accident that in the very passages from which Jason is quoting, he talks about the force, by which he means the psychological, not the strictly “rational” in some vaguely Platonic sense, force of the arguments. None of this implies that our choices determine the “objective” truth of our beliefs.

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      • Come on, , I cannot believe that you’ve not heard of Pascal’s Wager. Personally, I think it’s b.s., but it’s out there. But I also don’t understand how you’re glossing over the possibility that belief might be erroneous — one might believe in the existence of something that doesn’t exist (which is what atheists think of theists), or fail to believe in something that does exist (which is what theists think of atheists).

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      • Pascal’s Wager fails to account for the possibility that God is capricious and only delivers salvation to professional jugglers and people with six fingers.

        Given the ever-so-very-slight chance of this, I suggest one take up juggling immediately.

        (I’m being silly and serious at the same time. Point is, before I take Pascal’s Wager seriously I have to take god-belief seriously. Which I do not.)

        (In the next life, we transsexuals weird enormous cosmic power. We get points for each cis person we toss into eternal flame. Seems fair.)

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      • I cannot believe that you’ve not heard of Pascal’s Wager.

        Of course I have, but I don’t see the relevance.

        But I also don’t understand how you’re glossing over the possibility that belief might be erroneous — one might believe in the existence of something that doesn’t exist (which is what atheists think of theists), or fail to believe in something that does exist (which is what theists think of atheists).

        What does any of that have to do with the idea that belief can be considered a choice?

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      • I’d certainly rather my beliefs be chosen rather than forced upon me!

        Freedom to believe, baby!

        THat’s the thing about P’s W that’s always seemed like a decisive refutation. The argument is an invitation: suppose you’ll be punished for failing to affirmatively believe in some Divine Being Y. Question: given the supposition, is it better to believe or not believe in Y? Well, only a fool would say that it’s better to not believe in Y. But the answer is conditional, yet most people fall for that trap. The mere logical possibility of such a being compels people to believe out of fear.

        My response is a little different: only a dick would punish me for failing to believe in him, or pledge allegiance to him, or whatever. And dick’s don’t deserve my obeisance. It’s especially diskish, however, for a being who gave humans free will in order to ensure that their love of him was freely given to punish them for failing to believe. I mean, it just seems obvious to me that a being who gave me free will won’t punish me for freely determining my own beliefs, even if that free exercise means I don’t affirmatively believe in its existence.

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      • Because you keep referring to an issue of fact — do gods exist? — where I’m focusing on the issue of belief — do I believe that gods exist — and we agree that these are different phenomena, whether gods exist is irrelevant to whether I believe they exist, thus my belief in them (or disbelief) may be a matter of preference.

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  4. I’m an agnostic, but I think your argument, though expertly put, doesn’t begin to address the arguments of theists. Not only is it unlikely to convert (as of course you recognize), it isn’t even likely to offend! On the terms of believers, this post isn’t even wrong.

    In this entire post about the foundation of religious belief, you don’t even mention “faith.” Religious people don’t start from the empirical evidence of, say, the Gospel and reason from there (OK, a few do, but only in misguided attempts to convert the faithless). They start from a belief in, say, the Christian God, and use the evidence available (the Bible, church doctrine) to discover more about God’s nature and will.

    You say that you “cannot even imagine” the reason to opt for what you call the “lesser probability.” Believers don’t think that they are choosing the statement with lesser probability of being true—they think that God’s existence has a higher probability than his non-existence. You seem to be really denying that you can comprehend faith—believing something without empirical evidence.

    But you can! I think you have to take some propositions on faith, and you do so in this very argument. The portion of Hume you quote relies on the principle of induction (the belief that the future will be like the past). But earlier in the Enquiry, Hume writes a damning explanation showing that this principle cannot be derived using reason. Why do you believe that the future will be like the past? Only because in the past, the future has been like the past, so you expect that to continue. But that’s a circular argument.

    What makes you think the principle of induction is true and not some other principle? You have to take it on faith. There’s no rational reason.

    You might say (as Hume more or less does) that we need to believe in the principle of induction to live our everyday lives. Well, some people say they need to believe in God to live their lives.

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    • What makes you think the principle of induction is true and not some other principle? You have to take it on faith. There’s no rational reason.

      I find — trying to stay true to Hume here — that the inference that things won’t be as they have been (but will be in some other way, call it x) to be much more unreasonable than the inference that things will continue, in general, to be as they have been.

      I don’t agree that that’s faith. It strikes me as the less crazy of the two, anyway.

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      • As Hume says, though, there’s no sound argument that uses reason to derive that principle, so I think “unreasonable” isn’t the right word.

        This is a narrow instance of the broader paradoxes of justification—at some point, you have to believe some facts a priori. And religious people generally find that theism strikes them as “less crazy,” so that’s where they start from. You think that empiricism is less crazy, but that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

        (Descartes managed to start without a God axiom and putatively prove His existence from first principles anyway, but it’s not like he was engaging in the kind of empiricism you’re describing above, so my point stands that you’re not addressing your arguments against the common modes of religious epistemology).

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      • I don’t agree that that’s faith. It strikes me as the less crazy of the two, anyway.

        Man, I wish Hume was fresher in my mind, but didn’t he say, in response to the type of issue Dan brings up here, something to the effect that that’s how we act? Eg., it’s not a matter of faith that I don’t question whether the floor I’m walking on extends to the other side of the door I open and walk thru.

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      • Still, not only does he say, in essence, that it’s what we do, but he says that what we do will, by and large, lead us to truth, because that is the function of our reasoning or mental capacity in general. And its worth noting that we are closing in on 300 years post-Treatise work on induction, and that work, while it may not have “solved” the problem of induction outright, has furthered what Hume was trying to do in his discussion of this type of reasoning, which is to ground it in something more firm than mere “faith.” That’s not to say that any specific induction, universal or particular, allows 100% certainty, but we have a strange model of belief if anything less than 100% certainty requires faith, rather than appropriate doubt (and whatever behavioral adjustments that requires).

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    • honestly this strikes me as silly word games. Induction may not be provable to a logical standard, but so what? No one’s calling for 100% proof, this is a question of probability and there’s no question that induction is more likely to be true than guessing at random, which is what faith amounts to. If that weren’t true then the computer we are having this conversation on wouldn’t work – the difference between science and faith is that science’s miracles actually work.

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      • I agree with Jake. I’m not talking about 100% certainty. I’m asking why you would have any reason to think that the future being similar to the past is any more likely than it being different. Science’s miracles have worked in the past, but only if you assume induction can you think that it’s likely they will work again. Your argument is circular.

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      • Dan,

        I’m asking why you would have any reason to think that the future being similar to the past is any more likely than it being different.

        From a philosophical pov – by that I mean, from a justificatory pov – induction suffers from problems, no doubt. But they strike me as the same type of problems that the “brain in a vat” presents, or any other issue that reduces to the epistemic limits of human knowledge. That is, certainty vs. logical possibilities. But as James points out, induction is a proven method of inference in practice even tho it suffers from a lack of proof.

        The flip side of this argument always hits me as a confusion, tho, one that I think it worth getting clear on (for me, anyway). Folks who argue from a lack of “proof” – which in most cases that word (or a corollary) is used to mean something like the emotional/intellectual state of certainty – regarding empirically justified beliefs also tend to view that as evidence for an a priori (or otherwise non-empirical) belief. But that always strikes me as a confusion. The absence of certainty is part and parcel of empiricism, for one thing, but the absence of “proof” for belief X isn’t evidence that competing belief Y is correct (especially if the only other compelling evidence is that it’s logically possible that Y).

        Those two things strike me as entirely disconnected, actually, to such a degree that I can’t help but think folks who argue this way are confused.

        Or that I am. :)

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      • Well, I agree with Quine that even the rules for formal logic rest on empirical foundations. After all, while it is impressive that our brains can play a little game called “turing machine” (or “lambda reductions” or “term rewriting system” or whatever), these things are themselves articles of faith, held with an annoying level of sanctimony.

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      • Yeah, I think that’s probably right, tho I disagree about the “articles of faith” part. I think Quine would probably say that we’re justified in using certain principles (even in logic) just so long as they keep giving the right answers and are consistent with our justificatory methods (probably contingent as well). He’d also say that some beliefs are so close to the center of the web that it would take extremely compelling and persuasive evidence to alter them.

        But that doesn’t seem like faith to me. Does it to you? Maybe something more like “immovability” or something?

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      • Stillwater,

        Yes, you’re right that this is about the epistemic limits of knowledge. But to be clear, again, I’m not talking about a lack of certainty. I’m talking about a lack of any reason to believe in empiricism over any other justificatory system.

        But let’s put that aside. It would obviously be obtuse for me to use this argument if we were talking about whether we should have a universal health care system. (“How can you make the case for a health care system when you can’t rationally make any predictions!”). But when we’re arguing about faith vs. empiricism, we’re already talking about epistemology! So I think the “epistemic limits of human knowledge” are quite relevant.

        Yes, the brain in a vat problem is also relevant to the question of God’s existence. You have faith in the existence of the world, even though your experience is perfectly consistent with being a brain in a vat. In fact, some scientific theories imply that it is vastly more likely that you are a Boltzmann brain, which popped into existence in a nearly empty tiny universe for a few moments before disappearing, than that the entire universe exists. If you reject that theory based on your intuitions, then you arguably do so on the basis of faith!

        I happen to be a Pyrrhonian skeptic; I do not believe that I am justified in believing that the universe exists. Any argument that you make to me to try to convince me that the universe exists will precisely mirror an argument that a theist could make to try to convince an atheist that God exists!

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      • — Nope, you have it right. And that is almost precisely what Quine says. The “faith” I was referring to are from the “logic-worshipers,” which are usually dudes who read some maybe Intro to Logic text, but usually not even that, but who pontificate endlessly about “a priori” this and “necessary truth” that until I wanna puke, as if they have even a sketchy knowledge of the subject.

        I usually ask them to state their case in a Fregian syntax and then get on with my life.

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      • Dan

        You have faith in the existence of the world, even though your experience is perfectly consistent with being a brain in a vat.

        See, this is where you lose me. (Or I get lost.) The way I view things, there is no reason to think I’m a brain in a vat other than the logical possibility that the hypothesis is true. But that gets us back to certainty and what counts as evidence of a belief an all. I’d say this: the mere logical possibility that a state of affairs isn’t evidence that it’s true. Logical possibility refutes only one type of claim: that it’s necessary that X is the case. But refuting the necessity of X doesn’t refute X, especially (and uniquely!) if X is offered as a contingent truth.

        I mean, this gets very confused, very quickly, it seems to me. It’s all wrapped up in a priority, and self-evidentness and necessity. Surely there’s no reason to think that a world without God is logically impossible. Therefore, according to one view of these things, God is not a necessary being. That thing either exists or not in our world as a matter of contingency. Do we live in a God-inhabited world? What would decide the issue except for empirical evidence? I mean, by hypothesis that being does not exist in all worlds, right?

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      • Dan,

        I actually got a little side tracked in that comment. What I meant to respond to was the idea that my belief in the external world relies on faith. That’s the confusion that I just don’t understand. THe mere logical possibility that I’m a brain in a vat doesn’t imply that my belief in the external world rests on faith. A logical possibility alone isn’t evidence for an affirmative belief that I am, in fact, a brain in a vat.

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      • This thread has come dangerously close to the “we can’t definitively prove anything, therefore any claim is as valid as any other” fallacy. (This fallacy must have a name. What is it?)

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      • Yes, I never said you should have an affirmative belief that you are a brain in a vat. But you have no evidence to believe that the world exists, so you shouldn’t believe that either. Every single piece of evidence you have (basically, sensory experience) is equally good evidence of being a brain in a vat as it is of being a living being. I think you shouldn’t have any affirmative beliefs. (I don’t, at least when I’m trying to be philosophically honest). But more to the point of our conversation, the reason that atheists have such logically powerful skeptical arguments against theists is that ALL skeptical arguments are powerful, and atheists are only using them against one proposition. If they used skeptical arguments on their own beliefs, I suspect they would realize that they too hold unjustified beliefs.

        I don’t think we’re that close to that fallacy. I’m not saying we’re not CERTAIN of anything so everything is equally likely (which I guess is a certain kind of balance fallacy?) I’m saying that we have literally no rational reason to prefer one belief (that the future will be like the past) over another (that it won’t). It’s a paradox, not a fallacy.

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      • Dan,

        It’s a paradox, not a fallacy.

        I’m not seeing the paradox part of it. Actually, I think it’s a reductio, if anything. Given that, as Ken said, there’s no proof for any belief, they’re all equally valid. Or invalid, of course.

        But I reject the presupposition that the only way anything can’t count as “belief”, or justified belief, is something that passes the logical possibly not test. There’s just no reason to think that a logical possibility is the case without further evidence.

        THink about it this way: there are two hypotheses, one is that we are brains in a vat, the other is that we aren’t. Both are logically possible. Given that we’re all square at that point, what’s the evidence in favor of each possibility? As far as I can tell, there is zero evidence that we’re brains in a vat, but plenty of evidence that we aren’t. Not decisive evidence mind you – not a proof – but evidence nonetheless.

        As I’ve said, the mere logical possibility of X isn’t evidence in favor of X. All it does is refute the necessity of some not-X hypothesis. But empiricists aren’t talking about necessity to begin with, so I fail to see how a logical possibility refutes empiricism. We’re talking about the best explanation given – ideally – the totality of evidence when we talk about justified belief. And as Jason has said, it’s a probabalistic endeavor all the way down.

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      • Induction as it is used here isn’t a logical principle at all. It is simply a pattern detector. I can show you countless cases in math where a pattern holds for as far as anyone can calculate but that fact can be no part of the proof that the pattern always holds. In fact it would be hard to make the case that it even probably holds.

        Pattern detectors are useful in science more than math or logic. In science induction is useful even when it is wrong. Newtons law of gravity describes a pattern but ultimately it was shown to be wrong. Yet it is useful because it does describe a pattern. Science deals in contingent truth. Only the Sith and mathematicians deal in absolutes.

        And seriously dude you need to learn how to be offensive.

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      • This is where you invoke the principle of parsimony.All else being equal, you prefer the explanation with the fewest moving parts. Why? Because there are fewer reasons for the simpler hypothesis to fail.

        For instance, we have no assurance that the brain-in-a-vat is even actually possible. It assumes facts not in evidence. It also assumes a motive for someone or something to actually want to do it. That’s where the Matrix movies fell down. The proffered reason for the machines to do all that was thermodynamic horse poop. The Spock’s Brain episode of TOS at least sorta made sense (kinda, not really, but whatever) on that score.

        Honestly, this flavor of navel-gazing seems particularly pointless to me. Just like religion.

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      • is right to invoke parsimony, but I think it’s even simpler than his suggestions. For us to actually exist, we need posit only our level of intelligence and technology. For us to be brains in a vat, we have to posit a higher level of intelligence and technology, which is at least marginally less likely.

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      • And riffing off ’s link, I wonder the value of repeating these same arguments that have been repeated 3490238409238409380939499595949394 times on every forum ever — since before we humans started calling these things “forums,” since before we started calling them “agoras,” probably since before we called them “that patch of grass outside of Ugggh’s cave” — and instead each of us go read (perhaps re-read) the epistemology series over on Lesswrong.

        http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Highly_Advanced_Epistemology_101_for_Beginners

        ’Cause, really, seriously, like — OMG — nothing new is being said here.

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      • @james-k
        is right.

        Brain- in- vat is merely a place holder for a whole class of theories in which we are systematically deceived by some mechanism. By eliminating narrative details, we can posit two worlds. W1 describes a possible world (or a class of possible worlds) in which we are not systematically deceived in some serious way. W2 represents a possible world (or a class of worlds) in which we are systematically deceived*. Let us now consider how many more moving parts are necessary for W2. Logically, we do not need to posit anything else in this world other than the content of the deception, the mechanism of deception and the person being deceived. This is at most two or three more moving parts. W2 is thus negligibly more complex than W1. Let me grant that the mechanism of deception must have at least as many moving parts as the content of deception. If I grant this, W2 has just twice as many moving parts as W1. Since it is the case that we are either systematically deceived or we are not, we get two equations

        p(W1) + p (W2) = 1 …………………… (1)
        p(W2) = p(W1) x p(W1) …………….. (2)

        solving for p, p(W1) = 0.62

        So while we have more reason to think that we are not systematically deceived than to think that we are, the reasons are not so strong as to warrant the near certainty with which we attribute to the “external world is real” proposition.

        *it is irrelevant whether this deception is caused by some agent. All that is relevant is that the mismatch between reality and perception exists.

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      • Murali,

        Near certaintu, perhaps not. But,
        1) a good engineer know not to double the number of moving pieces unnecessarily, and
        2) I’ll take your 3-2 odds and wager you repeatedly, and we’ll see how big that difference really is.

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      • 1. There’s no way we could verify the bet, short of Morpheus appearing with a red pill.

        2. Suppose we could verify, since I’m the one who is saying that the ratio is closer to 3:2 and you are the guy saying that it is closer to 99:1, I’m willing to take the bet if I get more than $1.50 for each dollar I bet. While you should be willing to take the bet as long as you get more than a dollar for every $99 you bet. I’m pretty sure that we could negotiate some rate we could mutually agree to.

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      • Murlai,

        I don’t think you can justify your probability calculations. A more complex theory has exponentially more ways to be wrong. Yet paradoxically the more true theory is likely to be more complex. For example Aristotelian gravity was replaced by Galilean, then Newtonian, then General relativity and in the future will be replaced by a quantum version. The complexity has increased.

        You start with a simple theory because the more complex more true theory is lost in an exponentially large set of possibilities whose empirical justification may be beyond your ability to observe anyway. String theory anyone?

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      • But your assessment of the probability of induction being correct is rooted in induction. I really don’t think you’re getting Hume’s argument.

        If I may, I’d suggest the following. Rather than proving induction by induction, which would be fallacious, let us consider what inference would be like if we proceeded by anti-induction.

        For Ys in the past, we have observed X. Induction is where, for future Ys, we infer X.

        Anti-induction says that for future Ys, we infer not-X. But what exactly is not-X? Not-X could be absolutely anything at all. Which among the various not-X scenarios do we choose? And why?

        Anti-induction provides no basis to think anything in particular. Choosing among all the various scenarios that are not-X will inevitably mean resorting to the forbidden rule of inductive inference, albeit referencing some other inferred causal chain. (“For all Ys that are also M, infer Z.”)

        Predictions, I conclude, absolutely have to be based on induction. That’s — I’m not sure which — either a necessary feature of our minds, or possibly a necessary feature of language.

        I can live with that, I think.

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      • True, anti-induction wouldn’t give us any reason to believe anything at all. Also, we have no reason to believe the principle of anti-induction.

        I guess I’m just willing to impale myself on the other horn of the dilemma and say that all predictions are fallacious. But my point is that if you apply your skeptical argument against the existence of God to something like the existence of the universe, or the validity of science, it is equally powerful. When we’re talking about foundational questions like these, ordinary principles of reason and science break down. At some point, as you say, you just have to pick something you can “live with.” Some people think that belief in God is as necessary for them to live in the world as you think that belief in induction and the physical reality of the universe is for you.

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      • Jason Kuznicki

        I think the problem is that you are still trying to think of induction as a principle of mathematical logic. It isn’t. In fact as a mathematical argument it is pretty stupid.

        (Note: There is a mathematical induction that works but has no connection to induction as it is used here.)

        Given any possible set of rational physical laws and given that we don’t know what those laws are then induction will be a useful way of approximating what those laws are. Induction isn’t a logical principle. It is only patten recognition. It cannot prove anything it can only help you reduce observations to a model. That model can be useful even if it is wrong. For example even if I am a disembodied head connected to a computer my model of the world is still useful in that it approximates my situation and helps me determine the consequences of my actions. It would just be untrue in some absolute sense.

        Thus I would never use empiricism as an argument against god since an all powerful being could hide from the empirical process. I just don’t need an argument against god any more than I need an argument against Zeus or the flying spaghetti monster.

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      • I just don’t need an argument against god any more than I need an argument against Zeus or the flying spaghetti monster.

        I imagine you don’t need an argument against anything, but if your metaphysics is rich enough to get an ordered universe without the existence of the sorts of agents argued for by most traditional arguments for a God, then you already have one anyway.

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      • I imagine you don’t need an argument against anything, but if your metaphysics is rich enough to get an ordered universe without the existence of the sorts of agents argued for by most traditional arguments for a God, then you already have one anyway

        Actually there are many things that I would need an argument against. You for example. I don’t know where you are going here.

        I do not need an argument against Russel’s tea pot. There is nothing that it explains.

        Actually I have no idea how the universe was formed so my metaphysics isn’t rich enough. But if I added a god it still wouldn’t be rich enough since now I have to ask what caused god. Somehow that seems like a harder problem.

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      • But if I added a god it still wouldn’t be rich enough since now I have to ask what caused god.

        See, your metaphysics is much richer than you admit, because you’ve already determined that everything needs a cause, and there can be no first cause. That’s a pretty good argument against most conceptions of God, don’t you think? A sufficiently justified metaphysics that doesn’t admit first causes? I don’t need an argument for that position, but I wouldn’t mind one.

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      • See, your metaphysics is much richer than you admit, because you’ve already determined that everything needs a cause, and there can be no first cause. That’s a pretty good argument against most conceptions of God, don’t you think? A sufficiently justified metaphysics that doesn’t admit first causes? I don’t need an argument for that position, but I wouldn’t mind one.

        This is one thing I’m personally agnostic about: I can’t decide which is more likely, a first cause or an infinite regress. They both seem to present imponderable difficulties.

        But then, if I say I’m agnostic about the existence of a first cause, I get accused of being agnostic about capital-G God. Which would entail being agnostic about many other subsidiary claims, most of which I reject.

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      • This is one thing I’m personally agnostic about: I can’t decide which is more likely, a first cause or an infinite regress. They both seem to present imponderable difficulties.

        You’re not alone. It was, of course, one of Kant’s antimonies of reason (or really, it is part of two of the antimonies, the first and the fourth).

        I don’t think one needs to have a rich and certain metaphysics to be an atheist. That is, I think it’s possible to say, “I don’t know the fundamental nature of causality and time,” but to choose to reject any conception of God or a higher power either as irrelevant to your life or, more narrowly, as irrelevant to the way you understand the world, and therefore be an atheist. I think it’s possible to go the other direction as well, of course, but it’s ultimately a matter of preference or choice.

        I think one of the things that a lot of people get wrong about atheism is that it implies a certainty about everything. I assume this is because atheism involves rejecting so much of what theists feel so certain about.

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      • — Yeah, you’re saying kinda what I precisely believe. To me the “god question” seems an entirely silly waste of time, like (not to be insulting) arguments over the tooth fairy. On the other hand, “why is there something rather than nothing” is a real question, since clearly there is something.

        But here is the rub: I am a pretty committed physicalist, which to my view implies: 1) no mind-independent teleology, 2) no mind-independent moral truth, and 3) certainly no afterlife or anything like that. These facts matter. If they were otherwise, I would want to know. If there was a transcendent lawgiver, I would want to know her opinions, especially if she had a penchant for eternal punishment.

        But absent those things, I assert this: it does not actually matter that much if there is a first cause or infinite regress, not to me, not given our present state of knowledge.

        We might imagine some time far in humanity’s future, after you and I are long gone, when humans will have left this solar system, in fact left our galaxy, and where our physical bodies have been thoroughly been transformed, when we construct of a device to harness the energy of an entire galaxy, consumed in a cosmic explosion far beyond any gamma ray burst, which we induce, that will then launch us outside of this universe into a “metaverse,” perhaps birthing an infinitude of new universes, to avoid the heat death of ours.

        To such people, these questions will perhaps be pertinent. But to us? Why? What difference does it make?

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      • See, your metaphysics is much richer than you admit, because you’ve already determined that everything needs a cause, and there can be no first cause. That’s a pretty good argument against most conceptions of God, don’t you think? A sufficiently justified metaphysics that doesn’t admit first causes? I don’t need an argument for that position, but I wouldn’t mind one.

        No I deny that I believe that everything needs a first cause. I don’t know. I was just following your argument and showing that it does not lead where you expect. God does not resolve the orderly universe problem.

        One reason Einstein had a problem with quantum mechanics is exactly that things seem to happen without a cause. So empirically at least it seems things can be without cause. Metaphysically I don’t know what to make of this but I refuse to let my metaphysics get in the way. Einstein would have done well to do the same.

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      • Perhaps I’m missing your point. Suppose that the ratio had instead been 501:500, enough successive bets would make the difference very large, that says nothing about how we are supposed to apportion our belief.

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      • “Yes, you’re right that this is about the epistemic limits of knowledge. But to be clear, again, I’m not talking about a lack of certainty. I’m talking about a lack of any reason to believe in empiricism over any other justificatory system.”

        Well, Dan, let’s try a little experiment. Just meet with me at an appointed time and place. I will begin bashing you in the skull with a rock. You can call upon all the non-empirical systems you can think of, along with any of the deities of humanity, to protect you. I will call upon the empirical power of what happens when a rock repeatedly bashes into your skull. Tell me: who do you think will win? My money is on the rock.

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    • Just want to say that this sub thread started by , though short, is one of the most lucid and thought-provoking I’ve seen in Internet philosophizing, or at this website in general, in a while. It doesn’t really break new ground for anyone who’s done any reading in this area, but it states some basic questions really, really well. The basic dispute between Dan and Jason definitely clarified very distinctly some of the questions around these topics that go back centuries, and also to the beginning of this site to when a guy names Chris Dierkes still posted here, that I’ve been periodically mulling since at least that latter period. The longer subthread below is useful as well, but I don’t find it as clarifying or elegant as this one. So kudos to the participants, namely @stillwater & .

      To me at this juncture the issue looks to me to be better framed not as a choice in what to believe, but a choice about how to determine what to believe – I.e, whether to rely primarily on faith, on logic and/or intuition, on some form of empirical judgement, or on some combination of those in deciding what to believe. Another fascinating question that is possibly more cultural and political than epistemological is what is it about this question – that of “God” – that gets us so tied up in knots when the same doesn’t happen wrt figuring out what (or how) to believe about, say, the existence of Santa Claus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the distance from New York to London? It seems to me we could get this fastidious about what we really know about those things and how, and especially whether, we really ought to say we know it as we do about whether God exists; we just tend not to. Exactly why is an interesting question to me.

      But in any case, again, kudos to the participants in this short subthread.

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  5. did you see this post by Dreher?

    Submitted for your consideration, because I’m intrigued by the weirdness of Santa/Tooth Fairy/Easter Bunny teachings (all in the name of fun, too), to their children. This awakening is something nearly everyone brought up in a nominally Christian home seems to go through; the exception being evangelicals who think it idolatry.

    I wonder at it, at the message of believe in this thing that’s false over here, it’s child’s play and believe in this set of things over here, it’s eternal grace or damnation.

    So if you’ve a mind, I’d love to talk about Santa.

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    • True story:

      When our youngest was about 4, he was getting conflicting messages from his older brother vs. his friends regarding the tooth fairy. (Knittingniki and I had always used the classic agnostic response of, “well, what do *you* believe?” when asked about the Tooth Fairy and Santa.)

      One morning our son woke us up at the crack of dawn, jumping up and down on the foot of our bed, holding up a tooth with one hand and pointing at us with the other.

      “HA!!! It was YOU! I knew it!!!”

      He’d lost his tooth the day before and performed an experiment, not telling anyone it had come out and then putting it under his pillow to see what would happen. Unlike Dreher’s little girl, he was grinning and triumphant.

      “I’ll take my dollar now,” he said after we admitted it.

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      • That’s awesome. He’ll be a good skeptic, I think. (Did someone, by chance, teach him that if he had a question, he could devise an experiment to test it out?)

        I do wonder about the underlying message of ‘believe this,’ (but you’ll soon find out it’s a myth) vs. believe that, which is religion. I don’t know the proper words for what I see, but some room to create plausible motions of beliefs while, underneath, you know it’s all tooth fairies and santa clause.

        It’s very different from suspending disbelief, as we do, to read a novel or watch a movie or TV show. It almost seems like it’s intended to do the opposite, give the doubter/non-believer reason to keep playing the game so as not to be locked out of the fun.

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      • My 4 year old encounter turned out differently.

        Mine was a precocious child. She had an imitation of grown-up talk down pat by the time she was 4. One night in December, as we drove somewhere, looking at pretty Christmas lights and decorations en route, from the back seat, strapped into her car seat came the following:

        “I’ve heard a lot of talk from my friends at school, and I’ve seen some stuff on TV, and I’ve done a lot of thinking…there really is no Santa, is there?”

        My wife and I looked at each other and shrugged, and I said “No, honey, there really isn’t>”

        beat

        WAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

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    • Our answer about Santa Claus is very simple: He is the spirit of Christmas.

      And, just like the pagan deities with whom he shares a very close kinship, everyone can join in the spirit. Everyone can be Santa Claus, if they want.

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      • And, just like the pagan deities with whom he shares a very close kinship

        that might actually be the answer I’ve been searching for. Because I’ve wondered at the reinforcement of the belief that will, inevitably, be destroyed, and how that sets one up for embracing religious belief beyond childhood.

        Perhaps the revelation of the myth that is Santa is the slaying of belief in the pagan deities?

        I struggle with the formational message of the myths of Santa/Easter Bunny around religious holidays and how ongoing religious belief builds on that foundation. For me, setting aside childish things included God, not just Santa, even as I learned to embrace the spirit of goodness, sharing, caring and giving as wonderful human impulses worth celebrating.

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      • I like that story about Santa’ durability in culturally Christian celebrations, but I think it’s insufficient. To a large extent I think we sustain the Santa myth just to avoid disappointing a generation of young ones who will hear about the tradition and notice not being indulged in it. but I also see a commonality among the Santa/Bunny/Tooth Fairy traditions: it looks to me very much like these are or started as mechanisms used by parents to give gifts to kids in a way that manages their expectations. It’s easier to say to a child that it’s because Santa comes only once a year that she only gets a new doll every year rather than twice or six times a year than it is to say it’s because Mom doesn’t make enough money for a new doll every other month, or even that it’s because she’d be spoiled if she did get one that often. Obviously, it’s also fun and not unpleasant on it’s own terms (these myths), but I think they clearly play communication and socialization roles as well.

        Clearly, parents do go ahead and spoil their kids anyway, to be sure. I would be interested to see survey data about whether there is a (negative) correlation between family wealth ( or disposable income) and how likely, and for how long into childhood, parents work to maintain the Santa myth. anecdotally, I’d say it’s less emphasized in families of greater means that give gifts more freely (obviously some families of great means are quite restrained in their gift-giving).

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  6. A fellow UU. How lovely!

    I’m curious, did your interest in UUism take root after having kids? Because that’s when a lot of us atheists slash ex-religionists get hooked. (Seven principles, each one a keeper.)

    Once upon a time, I taught the same Sunday School curriculum that you teach now- except when I taught it, it was called, “Church Across The Street.”

    Heh. Wait until they ask you to teach OWL.

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    • My (really our) interest goes way back. Boegiboe’s grandfather was a devoted member and a founder of a new UU church in rural North Carolina. We were married by a UU chaplain as well, and we have always had an affinity for the denomination.

      As to teaching OWL (Our Whole Lives – the UU curriculum on gender and sexuality, for those who don’t know), I don’t think I’m at all qualified. I’ve been a visitor in the class, and I’ve answered questions about growing up gay, which I can speak to from experience, but I wouldn’t want to talk about sex in general as if I were an expert. That class can get very frank and detailed, which is just as it should be. It’s great work they do, but it’s not the place where I can help out the most.

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  7. To the first Hume quote (or actually, to your comments about it): the idea that 11 people would lie and then 10 of them would go to horrible deaths as a result of that lie, refusing to recant it, strikes me as very low probability. The Gospels mention a lot of other witnesses as well, which diminished the probability of both deception and error.

    To the second quote: I don’t know of any other religion which puts an emphasis on its claims of a miracle. The religion of Rome had its stories, the religion of Turkey has a book, the religions of Siam and China don’t claim to be literal or physically miraculous. There’s a difference. There is no equivalent among the major religions to “if Jesus did not rise, we are the most pitiable of men”.

    To the third quote: all due respect, Dave, but that’s poisoning the well.

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    • The second quote seems to me to reference any of a number of miraculous claims that appear in all three Abrahamic monotheistic religions. The Plagues in Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the gift of the manna, even Sarah’s fertility, these are all miracles that appear in Jewish tradition, shared with Christianity. Islamic tradition, if not the Koran itself, associates a number of miraculous events with the life of Mohammed-peacebeuntohisname, including his interaction with the archangel Gabriel, the gift of the Ka’aba, and the Prophet’s ascent to heaven from Jerusalem.

      I take the second quote as a more expanded version of the modern argument: “You are already an atheist as to all gods save one. It just happens that I don’t believe in exactly one more god than you don’t believe in.”

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      • There’s also the possibility that they sincerely believed in the resurrection. Or closer along your lines of fiction, that they believed he was god but didn’t believe in the resurrection, and the resurrection belief was imputed to them years later in retellings. Or it was meant to be metaphorical in the sense of “he was resurrected in their hearts.”

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      • Very low probability. There’s no evidence of a break, of a point when people hadn’t taken it as literal and true (outside of small groups of Gnostics). We can see the changes in, say, Hinduism over time, as different myths spread and different teachings were emphasized or de-emphasized. A better example: we can see where the “Washington and the Cherry Tree” story first became public, but there doesn’t seem to be any time when “Washington Crossing the Delaware” wasn’t accepted as true (after, of course, he crossed the Delaware).

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      • Yeah.

        There was a book I read a long time ago called “Who Moved The Stone?”. It was written by a lawyer who, when he sat down to write it, was a non-believer. He was determined to find out what actually happened that Passover by applying the rules of witness testimony. He drew a couple of conclusions that struck me as goofy, but basically he found that all the accounts were reconcilable and they persuaded him of their authenticity.

        So what we’ve got here is the statement of a falsifiable theory on a Thursday, a theory about life, death, and resurrection. None of the hearers believed it. By Sunday, they reluctantly did, based on the theory’s unlikely prediction coming true. When Newton saw the prismatic effect of a telescope, he said that the telescope isn’t working wrong; light is. Pretty low probability. Then he supported it. In dealing with the resurrection of a particular person, it’s not a repeatable event, but it was predicted beforehand based on the accounts we have, and we don’t have any accounts that it didn’t happen.

        And this is where I have a problem with Hume. He’s generalizing. Hume knows better than to do that. But he’s saying that so many people make so many different claims that he’s not going to bother investigating each of them. That’s lazy. A particular claim was made about Jesus. If every other claim that’s been investigate had been proven wrong, the empiricist Hume knows that he wouldn’t be able to deny the claim about Jesus.

        Burt presents the argument that a monotheist is just one denial away from being an atheist. But of course that’s facetious. A Christian monotheist is accepting a theory, one of the finite number of theories that have been presented about God. It doesn’t matter how many of the others have been disproven or denied. The question at hand is this one theory, that Jesus was and is God and defeated death. A billion filled tombs don’t disprove one empty one.

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      • what is the time gap between the original events and the gospels being committed to paper?

        And during that time, there was this telling and re-telling going on. Memories that were accessed and re-accessed so that the new versions replace the originals. There’s a whole lot known about how that changes and shades events.

        I have little doubt that Jesus lived as a real man; that he was a radical, he had followers, and he was crucified for the threat that he presented to the powers of the day.

        But any retelling of those events we now have seems dubious as actual detail of what happened. I’d have stronger belief in what we know about Socrates from the writings of Plato, who at least seems to have written close to the time of Socrates death, despite the many, many dialogues that are obviously not actual conversations Socrates actually had. And at least what I can read are all translations, often political documents subject to politics (King James Bible). Over time, words that we think we know changed meaning and what was meant at one time is not what was meant at another; so there are linguistic problems, too.

        From my perspective, the stories of Jesus we have are a great game of telephone; perhaps accurate in some broad brush strokes, but the details seem to subject to manipulation and the innate process of memory modification to be trustworthy, and (excuse the pun) the devil’s in the details when it comes to there actually having been a reincarnation.

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      • Now you’re speaking my language. Is the probability lower than that of a corpse rising from the grave?

        See that’s just the thing. I’ve always said to folks who want to hear that the entire story is so improbable that it takes a really concerted amount of indoctrination to get people to believe it.

        THere’s also the fact that from a psychological pov lots of people seem to find the idea of another person (or whoever) dying for their sins and expunging the record and granting them eternal life in a bizarrely constructed kingdom of heaven as emotionally appealing.

        I find the whole story to be nonsense and evidence of something other than a dead guy rising from the grave. Given my interpretation of Jesus stuff, I find that an unfortunate way of looking at things.

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      • Zic – You’re saying that thirty, forty years and people will start spreading the story that you were divine? Let’s make it 51: JFK is still pretty popular, but you don’t hear people going around saying that he rose from the dead. We don’t have accounts of McNamara and Rusk giving their lives in testimony that he was God. The degree of distortion that would require is phenomenal.

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      • I find the whole story to be nonsense and evidence of something other than a dead guy rising from the grave. Given my interpretation of Jesus stuff, I find that an unfortunate way of looking at things.

        Following up on that point…

        My view is that if there were a god, and there were this thing called “eternal life in the kingdom of heaven” and if that god made acceptance into that kingdom contingent on internalizing some self-serving belief about him/his son, then that god’s a fucking dick.

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      • Don’t think so Plinky. I was raised in a Christian house, in a Christian neighborhood, in a Christian country. At least, that’s what conservatives tell me. I think I know perfectly well what Christianity is gettin on about regarding these issues.

        You can massage the Catholic Church’s views on gays for me again if you want to. I don’t mind, tho I think they’re bullshit as well. You can even go on about the whole trinity thing or the virgin birth. I’ll listen. Bt don’t expect me to agree or even sympathize, since that’s what conveying those stories really amounts to when expressed to a non-believer.

        No, I have very little patience for the explanations regarding all this nonsense. Better to just say that we disagree. And maybe – maybe – agree to disagree.

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  8. I am an atheist, hard or soft, with respect to most definitions of God, including — probably — whichever one you are thinking of right now. I am an agnostic about certain highly abstract notions of God, around which no religion ever seems to have coalesced, and which are not terribly promising in that direction.

    This also describes me, to some extent. When I happen to mention that I’m an atheist to my theist friends, they always express surprise and try to get me to admit belief in *SOMETHING* vaguely godish.

    If I say that I do believe in an organizing principle that is better compared to the laws of gravity or Force equaling Mass times Acceleration, they seem to see that as vindication… and it doesn’t matter that I point out that the organizing principle doesn’t have intelligence, let alone something we might call awareness, let alone something we might analogize to a personality, let alone someone that has something akin to awareness of us here on this particular planet, let alone someone that has something akin to awareness of each person on the planet individually, let alone someone that has something akin to affection for each person on the planet, let alone someone who requires (or required) blood sacrifices, let alone someone who sent his only son to die that I may enjoy life eternal.

    But it seems to make them feel better, for some reason, when I agree that there probably is something like an organizing principle to the universe.

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    • I always get “admit atheist is a religion” or “you have faith in [no god] or [science]” which always seemed to me to be something of a slam against religion and faith. An own goal, as it were.

      I mean, if simply not believing in a God is a faith or even a religion (which is weird, because if atheism is a religion what’s the word for ‘no religion’?), what the heck is Catholicism? Or Islam?

      And if not believing is somehow faith, what do you call the deep, spiritual certainty that religious people have? Because I don’t have that with my no god feeling.

      Religion is more than a God/no God statement. And faith, in a religious context? It’s big and important, and it’s weird that the atheist is trying to explain that calling what I believe “Faith” is a deep insult to the faith of those who believe.

      Which is one reason I only discuss my atheism on the internet (well, my wife knows). It just gets people all upset, like they’ve found out I have a third arm.

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      • Given the response I get from believers, the “how can you be moral?” response, at some level I suspect people who call themselves religious are putting their philosophical examinations of morality into the structure they think of as ‘religious,’ church is where I go to examine right vs. wrong, etc.; and people who don’t go to church are missing this very important exercise in self-examination. It’s as if religious belief is the signifier for moral education and struggle.

        To me, it seems rather obvious that this is not necessarily the case; there are many people who think they’re moral because they’re religious, people who sin on Saturday night and ask forgiveness Sunday, rinse and repeat, for instance. And most people I know who are atheist arrive there via moral education and struggle.

        So it’s often the tribal dress that matters, not the shape of the real humans underneath.

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      • Jaybird,

        Perhaps some are, but in general the thrust of the arguments I’ve received says it’s something else.

        Some people are just struggling to fit atheists into their mental framework. If religion — God — is this central, unquestioning tenet of your world, trying to fit in an atheist is like, I dunno, coming to grips with a man who insists that the terrier he owns is, in fact, a lizard.

        Sometimes it’s this weird defensiveness. Yeah, some atheists are judgmental little snots (although, to be fair, a lot of them come from religious backgrounds that did a number on them and are understandably bitter), but it’s more that….like somehow if I get through the day without religion, it’s calling into question the validity of religion itself. It’s like atheists, just by existing, are a threat to the whole religious concept.

        But there’s this common, persistent type that wants to make atheism a religion for what appears to be no other reason than to be able to say “you’re just another religion”. Which is weird. (And it’s common enough that there’s a cliche’d rejoinder: If atheism is a religion, bald is a hair color”)

        Most people are frankly just curious, I’d imagine, but living in Texas I get a bit more of the Bible Belt responses than I’d imagine a guy in California would.

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      • the “how can you be moral?” response

        I have an entire speech on this that discusses how good and evil could be measured in an atheistic morality.

        When I’m feeling feisty, I can explain how morality needs to be independent of “doing what one is told” and when I’m feeling tired, I can explain the importance of moral agency to any moral system. When it’s one of those odd situations where it’s not about me, I can tailor the speech to the person listening because, hey, maybe they’re honestly curious about how someone might have a morality without a god and maybe I can plant a seed.

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      • Some people are just struggling to fit atheists into their mental framework.

        I suppose it could be that too. A lot of times people seem to want me to say “technically, I’m an agnostic” or something (at the very least, they push me to see if I’m willing to weaken my stance to that).

        Maybe it’s because they are freaked out about meeting a for-real atheist in the flesh and they’re surprised that I’m not flipping butterfly knives around while giving faux-Nietzsche quotations. Or they think, augh! He’s an atheist! HE MUST BE A MORAL NIHILIST!!! WHICH MEANS HE MIGHT MUG ME! Or maybe it’s like meeting someone gay and they don’t know if they need to use a different handshake or something (my christian acquaintances make a huge show out of saying “GOD BLESS YOU” when I sneeze while I make a big show out of saying “GESUNDHEIT” when they do).

        When it’s established that I’m every bit as culturally Christian as they are, they tend to relax except when they feel feisty enough to tease me about being different.

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    • Part of the reason why theists are so eager to argue that atheism is a faith, is because of the confusion between God and Goodness.
      When an atheist rejects the existence of a sentient supreme being, most people assume it is a rejection of any organizing principle which can be given privilege and held as a universal norm.

      But if there is one thing the comments here have demonstrated (to me at least) is that virtually everyone here holds that there does exist a set of norms that CAN be known, and which are legitimate as a basis for authority.

      Regardless of whether they are the product of a sentient being or merely the result of induction and observation, there are things which can be agreed upon as more or less desirable and coercively imposed universally. These things can’t be “proven”, by which I mean there doesn’t exist an argument which is so powerful, so irrefutable as to admit no possible objection.

      As a theist, I think that’s really what most of us would like to hear acknowledged, that while the particulars of any faith as absurd, all organizing principles are, at some point, predicated on leaps of faith.

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      • That’s largely my take on the matter.

        I also get annoyed when people claim there’s “no evidence” for theism, when there’s obviously “some” evidence. (It might be crappy evidence, but it’s there.) But my getting annoyed probably says more about me than about the issue.

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      • Atheism is a faith because it insists on the truth of conclusions drawn from insufficient evidence. If it said “I really, really doubt” rather than “No way”, it would cease to be a faith (and would become agnosticism.)

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      • I think ‘s point (and mine) is slightly different. It’s more that some atheists who insist that they’re free from faith adopt certain positions based on something that really resembles faith. Their exact position on the existence of god might not necessarily count, because, as you say, any given atheist might “really, really doubt” the existence but acknowledges that it can’t be conclusively disproved.

        All the same, I think it’s easy for people like lwa and me to fall into the trap of using this point as a gotcha. It’s really only serviceable as a reminder to that subset of atheists who believe they are free from all prejudice and from all a priori assumptions about the good. Otherwise, our point doesn’t really do much of anything.

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      • Schilling, I’m sure you’re familiar with Russell’s (the other one’s) teapot.

        My problem is not with the argument that I cannot know that there isn’t a teapot out there. My problem is with the uncanny familiarity that others have with this teapot, its contents, its chinaware pattern, and so on… and, of course, the fact that a whole bunch of the folks convinced of the teapot’s existence’s reasonability do not agree with each other on its contents, its chinaware pattern, and so on.

        But they see the fact that they all agree that the teapot is there as proof (or, at least, evidence) of the teapot.

        And it’s not. I’m content with saying “you know what, there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that the teapot is there and, on top of that, your certainty that it’s got peppermint tea in it is helping me reach my conclusion, not yours.”

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      • — “But if there is one thing the comments here have demonstrated (to me at least) is that virtually everyone here holds that there does exist a set of norms that CAN be known, and which are legitimate as a basis for authority.”

        I do not believe in a universal norm. In fact, I believe in no mind-independent moral or teleological reality. I believe the basis of authority always rests ultimately on some form of power.

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      • Yeah, my problem with the whole “there does exist a set of norms that CAN be known, and which are legitimate as a basis for authority” issue is how often it leads to “and therefore you need to change your life” rather than “and therefore I need to change *MY* life”.

        “We agree that there is a set of knowable norms… therefore do as I say!” kinda gives the game away.

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      • How do you reconcile your meta-ethical view (that there is no mind independent morality) with the claim that I think you make (or at least could legitimately make) that we are morally required to respect, for instance, your self identification as female.

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      • virtually everyone here holds that there does exist a set of norms that CAN be known, and which are legitimate as a basis for authority

        Just as virtual reality isn’t real reality, your virtual everyone isn’t really everyone.

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      • — I don’t make that claim. Instead what I claim is this: for me to thrive I need to be seen as a woman. Thus a society that recognizes the validity of trans experience is one in which I can thrive. One that does not is one in which I cannot thrive.

        My primary goal is to help people understand the truth of transsexuality, that we really experience what we say we do, that we are not delusional, and that this is (most likely) an organic fact of our brains. Also, I want people to understand how their notions of sex/gender are based on unscientific prejudice.

        Furthermore, I will point out the political implications of a person’s belief. If their prejudice against me rests on the idea that a woman is defined by her reproductive capacity, I will point out how this relates to modern feminism. The reason for this is simple. Many woman have discovered that, for them to thrive, they must control and own their reproductive capacity, and that women who do not have children, by choice or from a lack of capacity, are fully women in every important sense. Likewise, our critique of sex/gender illustrates the arbitrary and hurtful nature of traditional forms of sexism. This makes trans people and (most) feminists natural allies.

        This is important since there are not enough trans folks to do much on our own.

        Likewise obvious alliances exist between us and the broad LGBT movement. Likewise with people of color, who like us are misunderstood and abused. Likewise with sex workers, who are objects of stigma and fetishization. On and on.

        This is politics, which requires no moral absolutes.

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      • Would it change anyone’s response if I said that one of those universal norms was “all humans possess rights”?

        I mean, rights are not amenable to some form of objective proof- that much is established.

        So where does legitimate authority come from, if not from norms which are asserted to be universally applicable?

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      • I’d phrase what I believe on this score a little differently. I’d say it’s not that the norms themselves are universal, but that the fact that people accept, on some level, certain norms is universal. Or might be. I suppose it’s possible that there truly is such a thing as an “amoral” person. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t have some sense of right and wrong, even if how they arrive at that sense differed from how I did, or if the content of that sense differed from my own.

        I’d also add that this universality, if it’s true, helps us very little in the discussion. At most–and this is why I do think it’s worth mentioning–it helps people realize that we all (or most of us?….I don’t want to assume too much) accept certain things on something that is very akin to what some theists would call faith.

        None of that, I insist, is a proof of god or of religion. But it can answer some of what I believe to be the more extreme claims to the effect that a certain kind of non-theist is entirely free from such prior views while theists are almost pathologically susceptible to them. As a riposte, then, it works when talking about someone like Hitchens (and maybe Dawkins and Harris, whose work I’m less familiar with). But it doesn’t work against most of the people here.

        As you can see, I hedge a bit on the “universality” aspect of all this. Maybe I’m imposing something and claiming that because I don’t know how to test it, it must be true? I don’t know. But again, I think a useful exercise is to start from the assumption that the claim we all observe norms on some level is true, and then inquire how that (stipulated true) claim helps us or doesn’t help us advance the discussion.

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      • Would it change anyone’s response if I said that one of those universal norms was “all humans possess rights”?

        It wouldn’t change mine.

        My problem is not with your assertion of the existence of human rights.

        It’s with your assertion that you have authority over me.

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      • If you’re asserting that the right of a human being not to work in a death trap exceeds the rights of capital to seek its maximum profit, then, no, you’re not going to find universal agreement.

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      • Would it change anyone’s response if I said that one of those universal norms was “all humans possess rights”?

        Universal as in it has an objective truth value independent of whether any humans believe it or not? No, I wouldn’t buy that anymore than I’d buy the claim that it’s an objective truth that all naked mole rats possess rights.

        Universal as in all humans hold the belief that all humans possess rights (or less restrictively, that it’s a general norm in all human societies that all humans possess rights)? Then it’s an empirical question about what humans believe, but also it becomes something of a self-fulfilling belief. Since rights are human institutions, if all human societies believe all humans have rights, and act on that belief, then all humans will have rights.

        I take a more game theoretic approach. A set of rules that treat all humans as having rights is far more likely to be advantageous to me than a set of rules that posits differently.

        There does seem, though, to be something of an innate moral sense in humans. Rather than being a product of godly creation, though, it’s more parsimonious to attribute that to natural selection.

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      • The evopsych crowd, of course, has all kinds of elaborate stories about how humans are moral, and I suspect some version of this is correct.

        (Although I really have to hold my nose with the evopsych crowd. Assertion: as soon as someone uses the phrase “hunter/gatherer” in any conversation about gender, you are about to hear something pig-ignorant.)

        Anyway, the way I see it humans evolved three faculties that are the basis of our moral sense:

        1. Empathy, the ability to truly feel what others feel

        2. A general sense of fairness, which is the dual understanding that “this could have been me” and “I would want such and such in their position”

        3. A sense of revulsion, which probably is a cultural repurposing of our general notions of bodily integrity.

        To me, the first two seem like things I would encourage in a healthy, productive society; in other words a society where people can broadly thrive. The latter is, I think, nothing but trouble, especially combined with the murky areas of human sexuality. (The word murky has been chosen for all its connotations.)

        Anyway, I have this book on kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Braintrust-Neuroscience-Tells-about-Morality/dp/0691156344/ . Someday I should read it.

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      • — On rights, I believe in what manifestly exists in the world. Do I have rights? Yes, I am an American citizen and our governmental and legal systems include things called rights. To varying degrees these things protect me. Likewise, my culture has a generalized notion of rights, that goes beyond the merely legal. When in conflict with another person, we can discuss rights and perhaps that will guide our behavior. Furthermore, I am a 21st century human, and these notions have filtered into international law and global society, to certain degrees, so rights can be appealed to trans-nationally.

        To my view, these are what rights are, and that is the whole of it, a set of beliefs and practices that exist in human minds are and expressed in human behavior. Thus they are socially constructed and could perhaps be constructed differently. Certainly other cultures have conceptualized such things differently. Future generations might as well. There is no outside, abstract fact-of-nature we can appeal to and say, “Look, right now we finally have the concept of rights exactly correct. Here is a list of rights that must exist unchanging.”

        I mean, we can say that, exactly as one can say, “This circle is a square” or “God exists.”

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      • Does anyone have the legitimate moral authority to take away your slaves?

        Can we liberate your pets?

        What I am challenging is the notion that there exists a bright shining line between respecting rights and imposing moral norms.

        Its NOT to say that there is no difference- its just that legitimate moral authority- to do anything- is not something thats easily discovered, and never so self evident that dissent is impossible. It can only be found through dialogue and consensus.

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      • There does seem, though, to be something of an innate moral sense in humans. Rather than being a product of godly creation, though, it’s more parsimonious to attribute that to natural selection.

        I agree with the first sentence.

        I agree with the second sentence, too, as far as it goes, especially the part about the apparently innate moral sense not necessarily being proof of a godly creation.

        But I hedge a bit on the natural selection part. It is a reasonable and perhaps the most reasonable (and the most parsimonious) explanation. But I suspect people who believe in that explanation don’t seem to believe it fully, in that if you posit something that they believe is really wrong, like boiling babies for the fun of it, they’ll say it would be wrong even if we hadn’t evolved to believe it’s wrong.

        Even if my suspicion is well-founded, that doesn’t mean that natural selection isn’t why we have that moral sense. All it really necessarily means is that the sense is so strong that we tend to feel it as deeper than what the imperatives of reproductive success and natural selection* entail.

        *I know I’m throwing words like “natural selection” and “reproductive success” around as if I knew what I’m talking about. However, whenever this subject comes up, someone who knows much more about it than I usually tells me why my chosen terms are wrong, by saying, for example, “Darwin never said that….that was Spencer or Huxley.” I just beg a certain indulgence to try to meet me halfway about what I meant rather than my grasping of all the terms. That doesn’t mean I deserve an immunity bath from being wrong. By all means correct me if I am wrong. I just don’t want to get too tied up on terminology.

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      • Does anyone have the legitimate moral authority to take away your slaves?

        If I have slaves, there’s an issue where I am asserting authority over other people that I do not have in the first place.

        So, essentially, you’d be saying (and perhaps acting out) “QUIT SAYING YOU HAVE AUTHORITY OVER OTHER PEOPLE!”

        I know that it can be somewhat confusing to distinguish between “telling people how to live” and “telling other people to stop telling other people how to live” if you don’t grasp the fundamental right of people not being told how to live.

        You could easily jump to the rights of slave owners to own slaves and feel like you’ve made a good point.

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      • Does anyone have the legitimate moral authority to take away your slaves?

        Huck Finn didn’t think so, which is why he had to decide that he was willing to suffer eternal damnation before he could help Jim escape.

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      • Does someone have the authority to take away your pets because they dislike the idea of pets?

        Does someone have the authority to take away your pets because you torture them for fun?

        If your answers differ, explain how the only principle is “People have no authority over other people.”

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      • OK, so we won’t assert authority over you- we will just tell you to stop asserting authority over your non-human companions.

        I mean, seriously, what I am trying to tease out here is some notion of how to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate coercion, beyond “Jaybird sez”.

        And like Shilling points out, our society grants a set of rights – coercively enforced- to dogs, cats, and hamsters, which don’t apply to chickens, veal calves, or pigs.

        How this is legitimacy is arrived at is a mystery. Yet I don’t see anyone here arguing against it.

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      • — But legitimate to whom, for there is no free floating legitimacy that exists without a human mind, or a collection of mind. When you recognize you question is relative to people, the mystery goes away.

        For example, what seems legitimate to veronica dire differs (it seems) from what seems legitimate to , although I suspect we would agree on many things. Likewise you might ask if a thing seems legitimate to the majority of voters in greater Duluth, who might differ from folks in Cambridge, MA.

        You are seeking legitimate everywhere for everyone. You will not find it.

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  9. One of the big questions in Judaism is whether or not Jews have an obligation. Maimonides, the great Rabbi of the Middle Ages, wrote a thirteen point creed for Jews as an attempt to distinguish our beliefs from those of Christianity and Islam. This was and remains very controversial. Many Rabbis maintain that following Halakha is much more important than believing that Moses received the Torah at Sinai or that God exists. They argued that Judaism is about actions rather than beliefs.

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    • There does seem to be a discontinuity here, especially among the Orthodox and the Ultra-Orthodox. The focus on orthopraxy seems to forget that behaviors arise out of belief, otherwise there is no reason for carrying them out. Why it should be important to dress in 17th century Polish clothing, but unimportant to think about how segregating men and women at services dehumanizes women comes down to a question of belief and tradition, not necessarily the behavior alone.

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  10. I’m also not a fan of organized religion, or belief in the supernatural in general, but I find religion and people’s justifications for believing in it fascinating. I find the claim that religion teaches, promotes, or advances morality to be dubious at best and a blatant falsehood at worst. Many advances in moral thinking seem to come in spite of, rather than because of religion, although some notable moral thinkers are religious.

    I know that Dawkins and Hitchens are viewed by many as “militant” because of their high visibility and the confidence in their arguments, but they are correct about one key part of religion that I find difficult to get around — your religious belief is most likely an accident of the place and culture of your birth.

    I wish more people would realize the need to reevaluate beliefs on the basis of evidence instead of gut feeling or tradition. We have a lot of nasty traditions bound up in religion and in culture that have far too much staying power for the modern world.

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      • I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think he has some important points, namely, that religion often asks people to accept ideas that are spiteful and lack merit as moral teachings. You can’t realistically expect to capture every belief or every religion, but a lot of what he says has value.

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      • One of my problems is that what he says of value is not new. I think anyone of good faith who has thought about the issue would have come up or encountered the valuable part of his critiques before. And if that person is honest with him/herself, then he/she would have acknowledged there’s a lot of truth to those points.

        I have, however, been rethinking my position on the “New Atheists” in general. Perhaps Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris aren’t really the best representatives of a robust atheism. But it’s also possible that the “New Atheism” is more than just the strawman that that crowd seems to represent for me.

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      • I can identify with the frustration that if people examined these things and understood his points, we should see more people abandoning religion in its traditional forms. The fact that these conclusions are not as bothersome to believers as they should be is something worth discussing.

        I don’t have many problems with the “New Atheism,” and I think it adds something needed in the discussion. The fact that many people blindly accept religion and its authority is troubling, especially when that overlaps to a large degree with science deniers and anti-intellectualism in our country.

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      • I think Hitchens’s brand of new atheism is somehow implicated in his brand of neo-imperial apologetics (i.e., his support for the Iraq war).

        However, even if the connection is true, that’s no refutation of your point about some people blindly accepting religion and its authority. Where I differ from you on that score is probably more on my own bias than anything that I can prove. Where you see “many people blindly accepting religion and its authority,” I probably see fewer, or I see that those who are so unreflectively accepting to be more complicated creatures, at some times professing atrocious and damaging things, and at other times doing kindhearted and generous things, and religion being somehow implicated in the bad and the good.

        You could argue that that’s what I want to see, and in a sense you’d be right. And yet I do think my biggest problem with the Hitchensite outlook is that it’s so reductionist and refuses to look for what I look for. And again, that’s in some ways a question of bias. I’m biased toward seeing it, and I do, and he’s biased toward not seeing it, and he didn’t.

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    • What does the phrase organized religion mean? As far as I can tell its a way to say I hate all religion without being explicit about it. To me organized religion means something like the Catholic Church not something like Hinduism.

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      • I can’t speak for Brooke, but I’ve always understood “organized religion” to be whatever happens when people tell other people what God wants of us, as opposed to someone feeling God’s presence, or believing that She exists but is unknowable, or just feels really, really spiritual. Hinduism would* be an organized religion, therefore… but maybe not Zen-Buddhism.

        * I believe, anyway.**

        ** HA!

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      • I tend to use it to mean a body of commonly understood doctrine or canon that provides authoritative guidance on how one’s life should be lived. That doesn’t mean there can’t be arguments about how to interpret the canon, but it does mean that teachings accepted and passed on as authoritative are referenced for “correct” beliefs and behavior.

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    • Like many people before or after them, the New Atheists believe that everybody will be happier if everybody believed as they do. I’m sure a Muslim or Hindu perceives them with the same disdain that they reserve for Christian missionaries.

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  11. Regarding Hume’s second quote (and I haven’t read Hume), does he ever consider the possibility that there may be one overarching religion or god or whatever, and all the other religions are just approximations of it, so that when they claim to be exclusively true, they are in error?

    I imagine Hume may still be disinclined to believe the miracles for the other reasons you state, but to me the objection “they can’t all be right” ought to take account of the possibility I’m raising. (Again, maybe Hume raises it, too. I’ve never read him.)

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    • Hume is famously cagey on his own religious beliefs. At a time when atheists were subject to social censure if not outright persecution, that’s understandable.

      I think personally that he must have been an atheist, though. He makes all the arguments one would need to become an atheist, including the ones given here.

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  12. Given your background in Enlightenment Philosophy and more quasi-modern philosophy, what do you think of Adolf von Harnack’s view that a lot of the classical baggage of Western Christianity comes from the baggage associated with using a Koine language explicitly built on the foundation of Greek philosophical traditions.

    I’ve always found, say, the heterodox Christianities from non-Hellenistic cultures and the adaptations made by Buddhism as it spread into Asia to be fascinating, because in a way you also can reverse that imagery to get a sense of how the Enlightenment basically evolved -> As disentangling the classical entanglement of philosophy and faith. In a way Mormonism is meant to go in the opposite direction, as many of the more evangelical movements in the US.

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    • I’m not familiar with Adolf von Harnack, unfortunately. It sounds like he’s making a sort of Sapir-Whorf argument, isn’t he? But I don’t know enough about him even to know what consequences he thought followed from thinking in Greek. I’m generally skeptical of strong Sapir-Whorf claims, particularly in cultures that are as cosmopolitan as ancient Greece and Rome, though. Both were very happy to borrow and loan ideas to those around them.

      I really, really wish I knew enough to respond to this question better, but I don’t.

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    • Actually here you make the same point made in the Cave and the Light, that Christianity adopted and modified Platonism to fit, In particular Neo-Platonism. Augustine was the leading exponent of Platonised Christianity. One must also recall that the New Testament was written in an Hellenic society, in Hellenic Greek. To make the Jewish offshoot Christianity palatable to the non Jewish masses of the Hellenic society, it was modified, as Christianity changed from a jewish sect (1st century) to a separate religion. (See Thomas Cahill).

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  13. “If a non-Mormon American Christian believes based on the ancient testimony of the Apostles and the Evangelists, why does he not immediately come to Mormonism? The religion of the Latter-Day Saints rests on multiple eyewitness testimony that is (a) much more recent (b) given by Americans, in directly accessible English (c) reasonably harmonious with Christianity and (d) offered by the very founders of the sect, rather than propagandists from decades later.”

    That may be one of the most well-argued statements on Christianity that I have ever read. That has always been my problem. I am inclined towards belief in a higher power but Christianity has always struck me as implausible. The problem is resisting the billions of people who make me feel like I am just not trying hard enough and a Catholic upbringing that was very effective (I still identify as culturally Catholic).

    Sheepishly I admit that John McCain uttered the statement that most closely matches my own ‘faith’ : “I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.”

    Loved the post from start to finish Jason.

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    • I’ll confess I’m a little bothered by the casual use of “belief” there to signal an acknowledgement of scientific information, as if it was on the same level of credibility as faith in a god.

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      • If you hang out long enough where people debate religion and not religion, you’ll find “belief”, “faith”, and a half-dozen other words are used commonly with multiple meanings and people struggle to differentiate.

        And some, of course, exploit that.

        “You believe in science! Science is your religion!”. Way to cheapen belief in God AND religion there, guy. You wanna compare my deeply seated belief that dropping this rock will cause it to fall at a specific rate with your faith in God?

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  14. I sorely wish there were an UU congregation near my home. I miss religion not at all but I pine for that kind of community.

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    • I’ve been pondering your statement above. I might not ADVISE anyone to be more religious than I am, but I definitely APPRECIATE the religious belief/expression of (many) people who are more religious than I am. The world would be a poorer place without them, in many cases. Just because I’m whatever kind of borderline agnostic/heretic/whatever it is, with a strong splash of “intellectually the odds are against it,” doesn’t mean I want everyone else to be that way. I actively wallow in many of my friends’ religious enthusiasms. It would make me sad if the people I know with rich spiritual and communal relationships to their chosen religion(s) suddenly had the bottoms drop out of those things, or just gradually pulled away from them. Not, like, seriously sad, but I’d be wistful for a while.

      (I will admit that sometimes it seems like my friends’ religions make them unhappy – that they experience them as a negative force – those ones I’d be as happy as not to see go. But they are far from the majority.)

      And I think historically you are flat out wrong. How many Catholic parents sent a son to the church to be a priest, or a daughter to be a nun??? MANY, that’s how many. :D

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      • “The world would be a poorer place without them, in many cases.” – When I say “them,” I mean the religious beliefs/expressions. OBVIOUSLY I think the world would be poorer without my friends. Like, duh.

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  15. Most 19th century American Protestants saw Mormonism like the Jews of Antiquity perceived the Early Christians. They recognized some of their religion in the new faith was so out there in other regards that it had to be rejected.

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  16. Of course what is really interesting to me is the development of reform Judaism and the fact that many people call themselves “cultural Jews”, “ethical Jews”, “philosophical Jews”, and want to raise Jewish children but are not really religious and many would say they are atheist but still do practice and observe the major holidays at least. Of course Judaism is rather decentralized as a religion in many ways.

    And I am one of the reform Jews as mentioned above.

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    • That’s because Jewishness combines is both an ethnic or national community and a religious community. Secular Jewish culture is not an oxy moron but Secular Christian culture is. It’s possible to create stories about being a Jew without dealing with Judaism at all.

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      • I do think there can be such a thing as a “cultural Catholic” or even a “cultural evangelical,” although I have to admit both of those are pushing the envelope in the way that calling oneself a “secular Jew” does not. Those (cultural Catholic and cultural evangelical) are still linked to religion in a way that Jewishness is not (or at least not necessarily).

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      • , yes and no. People raised in certain religious communities usually keep some of the religious culture they are raised with as grown ups even if you leave the community. If your raised Amish or Mormon than its going to be kind of difficult to leave all of your childhood behind even if you become completely secular or a militant atheist as a grown up. The difference between being culturally Catholic or Evangelical and Jewishness is that its perfectly possible to be completely part of the Jewish community and not be religious at all. You also have a definite secular Jewish culture that is Jewish but not religious. Authors like Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, or I.B. Singer are Jewish authors writing about Jewish themes but not explicitly religious.

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  17. As a former Cathlic turned Episcopal, I was explaining the Catholic mindset today to a non-Catholic.

    She was wondering at cradle Catholics who observe the rote rituals, but don’t pray a lot, or read the Bible. Who insist on observing the life rituals like marriage an baptism, but rarely go to Mass.
    Its not necessarily hypocisy, I explained.
    Most Catholic cultures were such that no one needed to choose a church- it was chosen for you, it surrounded you, your every scrap of culture- music, art, history, literature- were steeped in the mindset of the Church.
    Further, the Church benignly discourages the lay reading of the Bible- they beleive that it is best left to trained experts, the clergy, to mediate between Scripture and the individual. So for most of history, very few Catholics ever even read the miraculous stories firsthand- they heard about it in catechism, or saw the pictures in the stained glass windows.

    I thought of this, when reading the passages from Hume, about miracles. I haven’t read Hume either, but it sounds an awfully lot like he assumes that faith springs from wonder at miracles, and belief in testimony. I doubt that it does.
    Oh, theologically is is supposed to, but the notion that we hear the Creation story, and the Resurrection story, and beleive it because it sounds plausible, and that belief in plausibility explains the tenacious faith in religion seems unlikely to me.

    My experience has been that the faithful I know start with an intuitive revelation about the human condition, and see- or select- the truth of that in the religion we hear. In other words, we start with our belief, and seek out justification.

    So posing the “probability” question about Creation or miraculous healing seems like attacking the part of faith that no one really cares about.

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    • So posing the “probability” question about Creation or miraculous healing seems like attacking the part of faith that no one really cares about.

      Maybe people don’t care so much about the miracles these days, but a post above quoted John McCain’s rationale for believing in god, and it very much seemed wonder-based. This is still anecdotal evidence, but the idea that something beautiful or complex could exist without a creator is pretty common in American Christianity.

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    • Considering some of the more out there interpretations of the Bible that Protestsnts come up with, the Catholic Church might have a point about the dangers of lay people reading the Bible.

      The problem isn’t necessarily lay people reading the Bible but doing so without a proper methodology. How you read the Bible is also important.

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  18. I think I’ve told this story before but this seems like an appropriate time to retell it.

    I was raised attending a very conservative Protestant church (Dutch Reformed). Like the account of cradle Catholics above, it sort of infused the atmosphere of our community. But unlike Catholicism, as I perceive it from a distance, it lacked the…I’m not sure how to put it… beauty? Awe and wonder? Spirituality? Basically, you went to church for the same reason you paid taxes. I can’t say I ever really got anything from it–comfort, hope, mystery–really nothing. And I can’t say I ever remember feeling that it was real, that it even could be real.

    What really cemented it for me was an incident in my college years. I was home for a weekend and went to services with the rents, cuz, you know, taxes. I was with my first wife at the time, and were driving up in our own car and we decide to smoke up a bit on the way. Not baked, just a buzz.

    So then there I am during the service and we get to the part where the congregation stands to recite the Apostles Creed. And for my whole life really, this has been like the church version of the Pledge of Allegiance, this thing you recite by rote while your mind wanders elsewhere. But this time was different. I was stoned and it was like hearing an old familiar tune for the first time in that state.

    It blew my mind.

    I remember thinking this is some crazy bullshit sci-fi. And then looking around at all the old farmers and such, and thinking and these people all really, literally, believe this shit!

    I think that’s when I moved from sorta, kinda, maybe halfway believe firmly into actual atheism. When I really, I mean really, thought good and hard about what I was being expected to swallow.

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    • One reason why I find Orthodox Judaism more moving than the Reform Judaidm I grew up with is that you feel more spirit in Orthodox congregations. Reform and Conservative services are dry even when they are trying to be lively. The Orthodox and the Ultra-Orthodox are really living a Jewish life. I have a lot of respect for them.

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      • Lee,
        yeah, you say that until you see the rabbi ogling his (male) partner in the back.
        or until you see the naked bribery and armtwisting that’s needed to live a “jewish life”.

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    • Its funny, when I read your passage, I honestly thought the part after “it blew my mind” was going to be a conversion story, towards faith.

      Because you are correct, the Bible stories ARE freaky weird. Unlike Mormons, traditional Christians have the advantage of our freaky stuff being embedded within the weave of the larger culture- its weird for Joseph Smith to find tablets and talk to an angel, but its perfectly reasonable for us to eat the flesh of a living God.

      But life, and our existence is freaky weird, innit? When physicists delve deeper and deeper into the truth of the universe, the stranger and more improbable it becomes. The more we search for an ultimate truth, the more elusive it becomes.

      I think that really that’s what the struggle is about- how to come to terms with an existence that doesn’t present us with neat clearly delineated purpose, or a framework of unobjectionable reality, save one- we are mortal and our existence here will inevitably come to an end.

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    • One crucial thing here: the move from thinking of oneself as religious (because that’s what everyone around you does) to atheist is often a profound and spiritual experience; a revelation; and akin to the revelations the religious claim to experience.

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      • To some. Honestly, I think there’s a switch in the human brain that allows such belief in the first place. As far as I can tell, I never believed. I hoped, at times. Wished, at times.

        But whatever allows people to believe? I don’t have it.

        I’ve seen real faith, real belief in God. I lack the capacity for that. I didn’t fall away from my Lutheran upbringing — even as a kid, I was just following the forms.

        Makes me really curious about those experiments that can stimulate such feelings (can’t recall if it was a certain drug or electrical stimulation or what). I wonder what it’s like to feel a connection to something divine. Then I wonder if that’ll change who I am, you know?

        And while I have tons of faults, I am happy with who I am.

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  19. I’m skeptical of your offhand grouping of miracles and God in the same epistemological category:
    A) Miracles are absurd, while the existence of God is at worse an unknowable question
    B) Many believers (eg, me) believe because they do have personal experiences of God, not because of 2nd hand testimony

    I suggest some William James as a useful counterpoint to Hume.

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  20. p(error) + p(deceit) > p(resurrection of the dead)

    I have severe reservations about the instrumental applicability of this pseduo-Bayseian formulation to the question of supernatural phenomena. It seems more like a rhetorical tool that has a fixed outcome than a neutral epistemological device where the outcome is uncertain.

    Presumably, within the formula, the probability of a miracle occurring at any given time(or p(M) as I’ll designate it), is very low. p(M) is low due to the assumption of a naturalistic, mechanistic universe where supernatural phenomena cannot occur. (If this is wrong, or there are other priors that I’m missing, please let me know.) However, if naturalism is your prior, p(M) shouldn’t be low – it should be zero. If p(M) isn’t zero, then the prior of naturalism shouldn’t hold.

    If p(M) is zero, then what reason is there in comparing its relative probability to p(error) + p(deceit) +p(any other confounding variables)? The probability of all these factors could themselves be extremely low, and yet the outcome would be the same. Isn’t it a better, clearer, and more honest argument to simply state that your prior excludes the possibility of supernatural phenomena and be done with it?

    If p(M) isn’t zero, then what is informing that number? If the naturalism prior doesn’t hold, then it shouldn’t inform p(M) to be low. What else goes into it? What set of logically consistent priors allows p(M) to be very low, but not zero?

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    • It is possible to believe that the natural world is ordered and consistent, that it is in fact so ordered and consistent that there is no reason to believe that any particular observed phenomena does not have a natural explanation unless that phenomenon is so inconsistent with the order and consistence of the natural world as to make a natural explanation less likely than a miraculous one. This is in essence what Hume himself is arguing (as is made clear in the text missing in the ellipsis in the OP’s quote).

      Metaphysical naturalism, held with certainty, definitely says that miracles are impossible, if they are defined to be extra-naturally caused phenomena, but you don’t see miracles to be the explanation for everything in very many other metaphysical theories either, do you? Once you admit an ordered world, then the probability of miracles is entirely relative to the level of orderedness.

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      • …unless that phenomenon is so inconsistent with the order and consistence of the natural world as to make a natural explanation less likely than a miraculous one.

        It’s this part of the equation I’m trying to unpack. It seems that p(M) in Jason’s application of the equation is so low that it is always outweighed by [p(sum of naturalistic explanations) or p(N)] in every conceivable case. Even in cases where p(N) (for every given N) is itself incredibly low, p(M) is deemed lower. Thus p(M) is functionally, if not epistemically, zero.

        If I’m wrong, then there must be a hard floor below which p(N) can fall and where p(M) is more plausible. I’m having a hard time populating this set with any conceivable phenomena. Even ridiculous occurrences (a Voice rings out in the heavens, declaring in every language that God Exists and the Bible is True) would still receive the presumption that p(N) outweighs p(M). (The aliens finally found us and are screwing with us; Our programmers are screwing with us; it’s a currently unknown atmospheric phenomena, and some Evangelical Christians got their hands on aHAARP; ect, ect, ect…) Despite the low probabilities of each of these explanations, the sum of them and their kin would be favored over p(M).

        Once you admit an ordered world, then the probability of miracles is entirely relative to the level of orderedness.

        I don’t think that follows. If you define miracles as phenomena whose origin exist outside the ordered world, then the orderdness of the world itself has no relevant information on the likeness of phenomena which originate completely outside its ken. (A corollary: just because a computer program is functional, well-ordered, non-contradictory, and bug-free doesn’t mean an admin can’t come in and start mucking about. Furthermore, the causes and reasons for said mucking about may exist well outside the functional parameters of the program.)

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  21. It is a truism among folklorists that no story is retold for no reason.
    So too, we can come to the tale of Resurrection, and see it told and retold.
    In the vast wastes of ignorance that were the mainstay of the human condition,
    Resurrections have occurred time and time again — mostly through medical ignorance.

    So we have the story of the Vampire, an altogether more likely tale (not the least for its lack of specificity) than a Messianic Jew in Palestine being Resurrected.

    There are many brands of miracles — some tricks, some treachery, and some that are merely ignorance.

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