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Heaven's Not on His Mind
May 16, 2011 2:27 PM   Subscribe

Famous physicist Stephen Hawking calls the notion of heaven a "fairy story" in an interview with The Guardian newspaper published today. He made the comment in response to a question about his fears of death.
"'I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first,' he told the newspaper. 'I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.'"*

"The comments are seen as going beyond those in his 2010 book, 'The Grand Design,' which stirred up passions with the observation that science can explain the universe's origin without invoking God."*
posted by ericb (496 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Guardian interview has been published the day before Hawking is scheduled to address the question "Why are we here?" at the Google Zeitgeist meeting in London.
posted by ericb at 2:28 PM on May 16, 2011


One of his greatest achievements in physics is a theory that describes how black holes emit radiation.

I don't actually know much about Hawking's work-- can someone explain this to me in not-too-sciencey terms? I thought black holes were black because not even (electromagnetic) radiation can escape their gravitational pull.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:35 PM on May 16, 2011


That bit excerpted in the post was a fantastic quote. As an atheist, I'm very rarely militant enough to want to argue about the afterlife, but that was a great, if harsh, summation.
posted by immlass at 2:37 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


Hawking Radiation

Basically, quantum tunneling allows black holes to loose mass V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y, on a time scale far, far longer than the age of our universe so far.

Or so is my understanding.
posted by Avenger at 2:38 PM on May 16, 2011


The incurable illness was expected to kill Hawking within a few years of its symptoms arising, an outlook that turned the young scientist to Wagner...

What exactly is meant by that? Is it a common phrase, or just meant to juxtapose his life with a Wagner opera? The last thing I'd call Hawking is Wagnerian. I'm confused.
posted by hanoixan at 2:41 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Coincidentally, an MC Hawking track just came up in my music player a few minutes ago: What We Need More Of Is Science.
I'm a disciple of science
I know the universe is in full compliance with natural laws,
but many place reliance on the psuedo-science of
quacks and morons and fools because,
their educations deficient,
they put faith in omniscient,
make believe beings who control their fate,
but the Hawk ain't with it, dig it,
their Holy writ ain't the least bit legit,
its a bunch of bullshit.

They need to read a book that's not so damn old,
let reason take hold,
though truth to be told,
they're probably already too far gone,
withdrawn, the conclusion foregone.

But maybe there is still hope for the young,
if they reject the dung being slung from the tongues,
of the ignorant fools who call themselves preachers,
and listen instead to their science teachers.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:42 PM on May 16, 2011 [13 favorites]


The Guardian article is even better if you caption the accompanying photo of Hawking with "Since the beginning of time, mankind has yearned to destroy the sun!" Tell me he doesn't look like a supervillain.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:42 PM on May 16, 2011 [15 favorites]


Thanks Avenger.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:43 PM on May 16, 2011


As an atheist, I thought it was a rather unintellectual quote that I expect uttered by the likes of Jesse Ventura or Christopher Hitchens, not one of the greatest minds of our time. I'm rather disappointed.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 2:43 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


hanoixan: " What exactly is meant by that? Is it a common phrase, or just meant to juxtapose his life with a Wagner opera? The last thing I'd call Hawking is Wagnerian. I'm confused."
HAWKING: It was in 1963 that I first developed an interest in Wagner, or Wagner, as my speech synthesizer pronounces him. I had just been diagnosed as having ALS, or Motor Neuro Disease. and given a distinct impression I didn't have long to live. I regarded Wagner as music that was dark enough for my mood. My mother bought me tickets to go to the Wagner festival at Bayreuth in Germany, and I went with my sister, Philippa. It was magic. His personal use and conduct were pretty objectionable. But his music, though sometimes pompous and long-winded, reaches a level no one else does.

posted by zarq at 2:44 PM on May 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


He'll be delivering the mathematical proof of Carlisle's Heaven Is A Place On Earth theorem.
posted by The Whelk at 2:46 PM on May 16, 2011 [13 favorites]


Hawking's as qualified, or as unqualified, as anyone else to pronounce on the afterlife. The people you really need to ask are the dead people - they know!
posted by facetious at 2:46 PM on May 16, 2011 [13 favorites]


There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers;

But... where do the little calculators go when they die?
posted by atrazine at 2:48 PM on May 16, 2011 [15 favorites]


The people you really need to ask are the dead people - they know!
posted by facetious at 2:46 PM on May 16


Now you're just being facetious!
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:48 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers;

I'm pretty sure there is, and it's downstairs in the room that our tech guys use for storage. This only applies if your idea of heaven includes having your parts cannibalized for use in other machines.
posted by rtha at 2:49 PM on May 16, 2011 [13 favorites]


The people you really need to ask are the dead people - they know!

The Other Side. The only station broadcasting from the afterlife to the living world.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:49 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers;

There is that room where the robots scream at you however.
posted by The Whelk at 2:51 PM on May 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


This only applies if your idea of heaven includes having your parts cannibalized for use in other machines.

Yours doesn't?
posted by shakespeherian at 2:53 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


that is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark

Well that sort of talk is going to land someone in Hell.
posted by the noob at 2:53 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers;

I'm pretty sure there is, and it's downstairs in the room that our tech guys use for storage. This only applies if your idea of heaven includes having your parts cannibalized for use in other machines.


Amusingly, this is very much like the only "afterlife" living beings can expect...
posted by vorfeed at 2:54 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


This only applies if your idea of heaven includes having your parts cannibalized for use in other machines.

I believe that is called reincarnation

posted by Cranberry at 2:56 PM on May 16, 2011


As an atheist, I thought it was a rather unintellectual quote that I expect uttered by the likes of Jesse Ventura or Christopher Hitchens

One of these is not like the other.

But even if they were, just how erudite and nuanced do statements of non-belief have to be? It's a pretty simple matter.
posted by treepour at 2:56 PM on May 16, 2011 [25 favorites]


I believe that is called reincarnation

Or organ donation.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:58 PM on May 16, 2011 [12 favorites]


Um, is this really controversial? To whom?
posted by pjenks at 2:59 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Card Cheat: "Tell me he doesn't look like a supervillain."

Man, that's racist.
posted by boo_radley at 2:59 PM on May 16, 2011


Answer a question for me: how is he still alive? I know people who died of ALS within a few years of diagnosis, and one within months. He's near-totally paralyzed but keeps going. How?
posted by middleclasstool at 3:01 PM on May 16, 2011


pjenks, several billion people, unfortunately.
posted by stavrogin at 3:01 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Answer a question for me: how is he still alive? I know people who died of ALS within a few years of diagnosis, and one within months. He's near-totally paralyzed but keeps going. How?

Socialism!
posted by stavrogin at 3:03 PM on May 16, 2011 [48 favorites]


atrazine: "There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers;

But... where do the little calculators go when they die?
"

Heh - yeah, that was one of my thoughts when I read that. The other was "Imminent Death Syndrome" by Mr. Show...
posted by symbioid at 3:05 PM on May 16, 2011


I didn't think this was fair.

His statement seemed to disparage those of us that are afraid of the dark (near dark I'm fine with, total darkness is a bit unnerving).
posted by el io at 3:07 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


pjenks: "Um, is this really controversial? To whom?"

But, but... "GOD particle". "Dice..." All of that!
posted by symbioid at 3:09 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Amusingly, this is very much like the only "afterlife" living beings can expect...

Exactly!
posted by rtha at 3:10 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


el io: "I didn't think this was fair."

Soon we will be seeing demonstrations by "Nyctophobics Against Hawking".
posted by idiopath at 3:11 PM on May 16, 2011


stavrogin: "Answer a question for me: how is he still alive? I know people who died of ALS within a few years of diagnosis, and one within months. He's near-totally paralyzed but keeps going. How?

Socialism!
"

pretty much, yeah
posted by symbioid at 3:12 PM on May 16, 2011 [13 favorites]


"World's Smartest Man" Stephen Hawking!?!
posted by Ad hominem at 3:13 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


pjenks: "Um, is this really controversial? To whom?"

One of the planet's most brilliant scientists is disparaging people who believe in heaven or an afterlife. So yeah, it's no doubt going to be rather controversial.
posted by zarq at 3:14 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Calculators go to silicon heaven, of course.
posted by maxwelton at 3:19 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't actually know much about Hawking's work-- can someone explain this to me in not-too-sciencey terms? I thought black holes were black because not even (electromagnetic) radiation can escape their gravitational pull.

Let's see if I can remember how it goes without reading that link.

It's deeply weird. Basically particles appear in pairs (which is impossible) but they appear and disappear so fast that they kind of get away with it. And this is happening all over the place.

Now most of the time this just means they're there and gone in like one bazillionth of an eyeblink. But sometimes one particle ends up on inside the black hole and the other ends up outside the black hole. So then the particle that's inside the black hole is gone - zip - and the particle outside the black hole remains.

Add that up, and you get radiation (which is after all just a bunch of particles with time on their hands).
posted by Sebmojo at 3:21 PM on May 16, 2011 [12 favorites]


I'm not really surprised by his statements on "fairy tales" - although the macho "I'm strong and you're weak for believing this" adolescent boy posturing irritates me. Here's the Hawking quote from the Guardian article that creeps me out:

We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.

I've tried to be charitable, but I can't find a way to interpret this statement that doesn't make Hawking out to be a social Darwinist. Were the Celtic peoples of Britain "lower value" than the English? What about virtually all of the non-European cultures of Africa, Asia, and Latin America? What about the Native Americans? What about the lower classes of every society in human history? In Germany (and in many other places) in the middle of the last century, Hawking himself could easily have been considered unfit due to his disability.
posted by jhandey at 3:22 PM on May 16, 2011 [15 favorites]


But even if they were, just how erudite and nuanced do statements of non-belief have to be? It's a pretty simple matter.

Coming from Hawking, I expect quotes about religion to be more erudite than "heaven is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark". Considering what we know, and more so, what we don't know, about neurology and evolution, I just think it's a dumb statement.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 3:23 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]




One of the planet's most brilliant scientists is disparaging people who believe in heaven or an afterlife. So yeah, it's no doubt going to be rather controversial.


I don't see anything particularly shocking or deep about the statement, but it was well said.

There are always a host of responses to these things accusing the speaker of being boorish, simplistic, dogmatic, or overly aggressive. Apparently statements about the non-existence of religion should be made delicately and quietly, or preferably not at all.

I don't really get that, and it feels an awful lot like an attempt at silencing dissenting voices. What he said seems to sum up the question nicely, and I would point out that he's responding directly to a question asked in an interview, not ranting on some pulpit. This does not require a thesis or dissertation, it isn't a complex issue, and it's off the cuff and personal.

The statement is what it is, and it's elegant and to the point.
posted by Stagger Lee at 3:25 PM on May 16, 2011 [37 favorites]


"We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value."

So, not a sociologist then... gotchya
posted by Blasdelb at 3:29 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


This seems kind of weak for a post. He's a scientist, and he's British. It doesn't seem particularly surprising/interesting/anything that he doesn't believe in an afterlife.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:32 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Answer a question for me: how is he still alive? I know people who died of ALS within a few years of diagnosis, and one within months. He's near-totally paralyzed but keeps going. How?

I've read that there are some ppl who are somewhat skeptical of Hawking's diagnosis, given his longevity. I think there was a reference to it in a recent NYT interview. Hawkings didn't address the doubters--not that he needs to necessarily. For all I know they're the equivalent of birthers.

Can a medical professional comment? Is this kind of longevity with ALS uncommon?
posted by Zerowensboring at 3:35 PM on May 16, 2011


"There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers;

Okay. Hard drive melts down. It's gone. I don't doubt it. I've had the experience. But what about all the stuff that got backed up elsewhere? External drives? The Cloud?

Seems to me that, if you actually give it much thought, you couldn't come up with a sloppier analogy here than computers.
posted by philip-random at 3:36 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


The surprise would have been had he said the opposite.

He's a scientist, and he's British. It doesn't seem particularly surprising/interesting/anything that he doesn't believe in an afterlife.

Scientist + British means no belief in the afterlife? Would imply that changing either side of that equation means there is a belief?
posted by episodic at 3:37 PM on May 16, 2011


But even if they were, just how erudite and nuanced do statements of non-belief have to be? It's a pretty simple matter.

The original quote was:
There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.'

When trying to get your point across...especially if its a dissenting point, it would probably be a good thing to not call out the other side's viewpoint as a "fairy story". You can if you want...but people will question how bright you are if you say so.

It has nothing to do with who is right and who is wrong (good luck proving that, both sides), its that Stephen "the smartest pimp in the world" Hawking is using the same tactics that healing preachers and Sarah Palin use in addressing their opponents.

You believe in whatever you want, Dr. Hawking...but you're letting me down by letting me know you are watching Sarah Palin's reality tv show and taking notes from her on how to address people who don't agree with you.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:37 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Coming from Hawking, I expect quotes about religion to be more erudite than "heaven is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark".

He's exactly the sort of person I'd expect to be most blunt about the (lack of an) afterlife: an atheist who lives in the shadow of death from incurable illness in the near term. His condition is what makes the statement strong and compelling. There's a comfort in what (some)* religious people will tell you about the nobility of faithful suffering and storing up treasures in heaven and how things will be better in the afterlife. Good on him for resisting it.

* The mileage of other religions will, of course, vary.
posted by immlass at 3:38 PM on May 16, 2011 [18 favorites]


America is a lot more religious than most places, but even here, while it's not really spoken of very much, I'm always faintly surprised when someone who is smart and educated turns out to be religious. In all countries where I've been, religion has seemed strongest amongst the poorest.

Maybe I'm imagining a silent majority where there is actually just silence, but I suspect that even in the USA, quiet atheism is quite normal above a certain level of social status.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:40 PM on May 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


As an atheist, I thought it was a rather unintellectual quote that I expect uttered by the likes of Jesse Ventura or Christopher Hitchens, not one of the greatest minds of our time. I'm rather disappointed.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 10:43 PM on May 16


You think a more "intellectual" quote would have served... what purpose, exactly? To make Hawking look *smart*? I don't think he needs to do that, does he? What's good about him stating the obvious like this is that it's always nice when smart, respected people do so. It makes it hard for the god-botherers to say things like "Huh! And what makes you so clever?"

Oh, I like that snarky little coupling of Hitchens and Ventura, by the way. That was persuasive.
posted by Decani at 3:42 PM on May 16, 2011 [14 favorites]


Scientist + British means no belief in the afterlife?

No, it just makes it more likely. You know, because scientists tend to be less religious than non-scientists, and British people tend to be less religious than many other nationalities. What's the problem? It's just a remark based on statistics.
posted by Decani at 3:44 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hm. I was all ready to climb on my high horse and cheerlead for education of and respect for world religion as a diverse and meaningful pool of human culture and wave something sharp in the direction of any who believe that ignorance makes you superior, but...

This is a very sensationalist piece, and makes much more ado over Hawking's statements than is really fair or interesting. His wording is clumsy, and his reverence for "Science!" is increasingly uncomfortable-making for me to read, but he doesn't seem to be saying anything more pointed than, "I don't believe in an afterlife," which is totally fair. I agree with him. I just try to word it more nicely.
posted by byanyothername at 3:46 PM on May 16, 2011


There are always a host of responses to these things accusing the speaker of being boorish, simplistic, dogmatic, or overly aggressive. Apparently statements about the non-existence of religion should be made delicately and quietly, or preferably not at all.

Just ONE example that came to mind quickly:

Obama goes to church...so I'm guessing he believes in god. Now during his inaugural speech...he addressed america as people who believed...and didn't believe. How pimp was that? Everyone (including here) was popping boners. Its not about saying it delicately...you say whatever you want about god, thats your business. But when you go out and say "well people who don't agree with me are scared pussies", then you're insulting people and you may have a problem with holding the title of the undisputed smartest living guy of the world.

But then again, Hawking is not a politician who appeases people with words. He's a physicist...and physicists aren't really that suave with people. So...sigh...just another nerdy scientist who doesn't know how to talk to people...yeah he's still smart...but I kinda think perhaps my atheist artist friend who tells me that "we all have our own truths and we shouldn't disrespect others' truths" is a wee bit smarter than hawking in the communication area.

Et tu, stephen...
posted by hal_c_on at 3:47 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


hal_c_on: it would probably be a good thing to not call out the other side's viewpoint as a "fairy story". You can if you want...but people will question how bright you are if you say so.

But that's exactly what it is! He's not using "fairy story" as a rhetorical flourish, he's using it in a literal sense. He's saying that heaven is a folk tale, a thing of myth, like giants and unicorns. He's saying exactly what he means in plain language. It's hard to think of a better way to phrase it.

Also, I know you like to drag Sarah Palin into threads where she doesn't belong, but this is absurd even by your standards.
posted by nowonmai at 3:48 PM on May 16, 2011 [16 favorites]


I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

Mary Shelley would argue against this.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 3:50 PM on May 16, 2011


I hold to Earnest Becker's 'The Denial of Death' and Terror Management Theory. Everything we do is to mitigate the fear of death. The afterlife is just the most obvious.
I became an atheist at 12. I end most days screaming in terror at my own impending death. Oblivion is not a comfort.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:50 PM on May 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


I end most days screaming in terror at my own impending death.

I thought my neighbors were bad.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:52 PM on May 16, 2011 [21 favorites]


There are always a host of responses to these things accusing the speaker of being boorish, simplistic, dogmatic, or overly aggressive. Apparently statements about the non-existence of religion should be made delicately and quietly, or preferably not at all. I don't really get that, and it feels an awful lot like an attempt at silencing dissenting voices. What he said seems to sum up the question nicely, and I would point out that he's responding directly to a question asked in an interview, not ranting on some pulpit. This does not require a thesis or dissertation, it isn't a complex issue, and it's off the cuff and personal.

Please note that no one has made any of those accusations in this thread, nor is anyone attempting silence anyone here.
posted by zarq at 3:55 PM on May 16, 2011


Hawking may not be one of the greatest minds of our time, but there's no doubt that he's perceived as such by many Americans. His remarks about the non-existence of the Sky Fairy's Abode thus carry more impact than similar remarks by Richard Feynman -- who never had a chance to appear in Futurama episodes.
posted by fredludd at 3:55 PM on May 16, 2011


I don't actually know much about Hawking's work-- can someone explain this to me in not-too-sciencey terms? I thought black holes were black because not even (electromagnetic) radiation can escape their gravitational pull.
I read about this on wikipedia the other day. The overview section of the Hawking Radiation explains it, but basically particles and anti-particles pop in and out of existence in ordinary space (so particle and anti-particle) This happens 'inside' the black hole, but in some cases one of the particles will get outside the event horizon due to quantum tunneling.

Also, the smaller the black hole is the quicker this happens. Small black holes evaporate really quickly.

posted by delmoi at 3:57 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gah, that link was property closed in live preview!!!
posted by delmoi at 3:58 PM on May 16, 2011


we all have our own truths and we shouldn't disrespect others' truths

I think your atheist friend was just trying to be nice to you, maybe a little bit patronising too, but you probably didn't notice.

If we keep sticking to the pretense that the truth always lies between two extremes then everything (including reality) is just so much post-modernist gas-bagging
posted by JustAsItSounds at 3:58 PM on May 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


I think this hit on something quite good: how absolutely terrified are we of nothingness, being nothingness. Not existing and after a few decades (usually) never having been known to have existed in the first place? Oblivion, quite the ending.
posted by Slackermagee at 4:00 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Zerowensboring: "Hawkings didn't address the doubters--not that he needs to necessarily. For all I know they're the equivalent of birthers. Can a medical professional comment? Is this kind of longevity with ALS uncommon"

I've worked in an ALS clinic where, yeah, pretty much everyone there followed the same rapid, irreversible and utterly predictable course. Prognostication of lifespan remaining is usually calculated as a function of their pulmonary functionb test curves. I haven't done research on ALS, but I did help out in a lab where some research was being done on superoxide dismutase (SOD), an enzyme that neutralises superoxide radical produced within the body (if superoxide survives long enough to meet nitric oxide (NO) and create peroxynitrite then Bad Things Happen). ALS is a motor neuron disease often associated with deleterious mutations within SOD genes. The subject of Mr Hawking came up a few times. Some were of the opinion that he had been radically mis-diagnosed, that he does not have and never had ALS (mainly because of the effective non-progression of his disease), and that he had experienced some kind of inflammatory episode or episodic motor neuron disease that created symptoms resembling ALS, but that whatever the cause, his body has ceased destroying his motor neurons (perhaps the inflammatory agent was purged, or his body learned tolerance). Others were of the opinion that ALS exists as a spectrum disease within society but is radically under-diagnosed. That is, we see and diagnose only the very worst cases, but outside the ALS clinics there's 10-20x times as many people with "ALS", but because their clinical course is so atypical they are basically invisible. Mass genetic testing to correlate SOD mutations with clinical histories would go a long way to finding out it this was true or false, that what we call "ALS" incorrect in the same way that saying that only people who die from pertussis have "Whooping Cough" while ignoring all the rest (in fact, given how many adults in clinics with persistent coughs test positive for active pertussis, this may a rather apt analogy).

Although Mr Hawking is by all accounts rather tetchy and irascible, he does not seem to exhibit in public many of the other neuropsychiatric stigmata of ALS/MND. This might argue against the diagnosis, or it may be simply that he is good at beating the odds here as well.
posted by meehawl at 4:00 PM on May 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


Look, I really don't think his statement was newsworthy. Most of us knew already that he is an atheist, and by virtue of that fact does not believe in life after death.

However, his great learning does not in this case make him a greater expert on the afterlife than, well, me for instance. He looks at the universe and sees one thing; I see that same universe and see the glory of God.

I suppose Hawking gets quoted because he is Hawking; however his words have no greater standing than mine or any of our Mefite atheists or theists. There is a point beyond which our greatest science cannot reach and will not ever reach. To believe otherwise is in my opinion, hubris.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:01 PM on May 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


There is a point beyond which our greatest science cannot reach and will not ever reach.

Please prove this statement, showing all work.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:05 PM on May 16, 2011 [32 favorites]


I was curious about that social Darwinism comment so I went to go look it up in context, but there really isn't any.
Q: What is the value in knowing "Why are we here?"

A: The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can't solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.
Weird. Is he advocating some kind of social eugenics? The thing about evolution is that it's natural selection. Eugenicists actually had it backwards: The people most likely to pass on their genes are usually the poor, people with less education. The most "evolutionarily successful" society has been the Chinese, just in terms of pure numbers. And most of that growth took place while they were desperately poor and pre-modern. And now that they are modern they clamping down on birth rates.
posted by delmoi at 4:06 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I see that same universe and see the glory of God.

That's the beauty of fairy stories.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 4:07 PM on May 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


Hopefully "societies" was a typo - here's a comment from the Guardian article:

It looks like the word "Societies" is a typo or misinterpretation. If you replace it with "ideas" or "hypotheses", then this whole thing is just a restatement of what Sir Karl Popper said in "Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach".

If that's true, I'm not qualified to have much of an opinion on his statement. All I know is that "societies" sounded slightly Master Race-ish...
posted by jhandey at 4:07 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Please prove this statement, showing all work.
Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Modern science is clearly aware of it's own limits. Unless there is some unexpected breakthrough then it will definitely be the case that can't know everything.
posted by delmoi at 4:09 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Tell me he doesn't look like a supervillain."

Villain, or someone who's "ultimate goal is to elevate humanity to its "rightful place" in the galaxy."? The Illusive Man.
posted by Zack_Replica at 4:11 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I see that same universe and see the glory of God.

I look at the sky and it appears sun is revolving around a flat earth, does that make it so?

There is a point beyond which our greatest science cannot reach and will not ever reach

My guess is that science will one day prove, rather conclusively, that there is no god.
posted by gagglezoomer at 4:11 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


You think a more "intellectual" quote would have served... what purpose, exactly? To make Hawking look *smart*? I don't think he needs to do that, does he? What's good about him stating the obvious like this is that it's always nice when smart, respected people do so. It makes it hard for the god-botherers to say things like "Huh! And what makes you so clever?"

At one point describing the earth as flat was stating the obvious. I just think generalizing a population of people with religious proclivities and a belief in heaven as "being afraid of the dark", is just a negative and unintellectual statement. That's all. Sometimes it's best to not say anything at all.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 4:13 PM on May 16, 2011


There is a point beyond which our greatest science cannot reach and will not ever reach. To believe otherwise is in my opinion, hubris

Speaking as a theist, I have never understood this about Christianity.

Years ago, there was a column published in the Washington Post by Gene Weingarten. I posted it once in its entirety on MeFi. The column was written as a letter from G-d to the Kansas Board of Education on the subject of evolution.

The gist of the article was: "I gave you brains so that you would use them."

I fail to understand why anything in this universe has to be deliberately unknowable by design. I also don't understand why thinking that and believing that is either hubris or anti-religious.

Look, we are meant to learn and adapt as we grown and (hopefully) acquire wisdom through experience. As we get older, our comprehension of the universe and our place in it becomes fuller and more complex. So should our beliefs and understanding about religion. (Whether we choose to reject or embrace it.)

Every time I see someone who is Christian declare that something is inherently unknowable and to think otherwise is hubris, I wonder if there's an element of fear of having one's deeply-held beliefs challenged. Perhaps I'm wrong (it wouldn't be the first time!) but can you please explain why you believe science and religion can't complement each other?
posted by zarq at 4:15 PM on May 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


apparently statements about the non-existence of religion should be made delicately and quietly, or preferably not at all.

This is the main point/end goal of nearly religious argument we've ever had on the blue.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 4:16 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


"But then again, Hawking is not a politician who appeases people with words. He's a physicist...and physicists aren't really that suave with people. So...sigh...just another nerdy scientist who doesn't know how to talk to people.."
He's a lot better at it than most physicists, despite his difficulties getting words out. I think however, the key difference is that a politician has to appease people. It's not Hawking's job to say what people want to hear, it's basically his job to say what he thinks is right.
He's canny enough to know what he's saying and the impact it will have, anyway.
posted by edd at 4:17 PM on May 16, 2011


I end most days screaming in terror at my own impending death. Oblivion is not a comfort.

Death. It's something we all have in common. Hope - in the face of oblivion - is provided by a belief in an afterlife. The reason his words are having such impact - it's like the moment you are told that there is no Santa Claus. Telling millions of people that their core beliefs are nothing but a fairy tale... it's worse than telling them there is no god.

He's relegated the concept of heaven to Santa Claus status. Most of us have felt that moment. Christmas Day - gleeful tearing of wrapping paper. Dad takes you to the side - away from your younger brothers and sisters - he leans in and says "You know there is no Santa Claus right?". The words hit like a hammer but you maintain composure - you're older, you should know better. "Yea, dad. I know". He smiles at you. "Don't tell your brothers and sisters, OK". You solemnly nod. At that moment you realize that something wonderful is gone.

The next day at school a kid asks what Santa brought you. He looks so happy. The two of you swap mental lists of the gifts received. Never once did you think of telling him that Santa Claus is a fairy tale. He's the same age as you. You wonder if his dad told him the same thing. The school bell rings and you part ways. Inside, you feel happy. One last chance to live the moment... the days when fairy tales were reality.

We exist on fairy tales and dreams. Reality often isn't what people need to be happy.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 4:19 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


And to clarify, by "complement" I don't mean, "taught at equal levels in schools.". I mean, I do not understand why scientific thought, examination, hypotheses and conclusions seem to pose such a threat to those some Christians and Jews. To the extent that idiots like Ken Ham have to reinvent archaelogic findings in order to "prove" his version of the Christian bible's teachings on history.
posted by zarq at 4:23 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Zerowensboring: "Answer a question for me: how is he still alive? I know people who died of ALS within a few years of diagnosis, and one within months. He's near-totally paralyzed but keeps going. How?

I've read that there are some ppl who are somewhat skeptical of Hawking's diagnosis, given his longevity.
"

(wherein Hawking calls his PR firm):

"Stephen, baby... We got a great idea, check this out, you're gonna love it... Einstein, he had that crazy hair, yeah? What if... Now dig this... What if you had a wheelchair? I mean, what other famous physicist has a wheelchair? I mean you'll be rollin' with the ladies, if ya know what I mean....

But... I mean, that's only part of the equation, we gotta get you some future technology going up in this bizness... Like, you can't just be no boring old professor. Feynman, he had those bongos and he, too, was a ladies man. But you... You gotta turn it up a notch. Fuck bongos, we're talking computers. We're talking HAL 9000. We're talking TALKING COMPUTERS! Dig it. So, now we gotta make a backstory. Like, why do you need all this?"

And thus begins the story of Stephen Hawking and the myth of his ALS.
posted by symbioid at 4:25 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Death. It's something we all have in common.

pan over graveyard

Hope - in the face of oblivion - is provided by a belief in an afterlife.

b-roll of people praying

The reason his words are having such impact - it's like the moment you are told that there is no Santa Claus.

slo-mo of a kid looking balefully up at an understanding-looking parent figure, clearly explaining something sympathetically

if we can't get that, just use an exterior of the speaker walking towards the camera on a semi-busy street

Telling millions of people that their core beliefs are nothing but a fairy tale...

more b-roll of those people at revivals with their arms up and their eyes squeezed tightly shut

it's worse than telling them there is no god.

freeze as shot becomes b+w, bass note
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 4:27 PM on May 16, 2011 [13 favorites]


How is this one opinion important more important than anyone else's?

Faith is about what you believe in (that's unproven, no faith required for stuff you can prove) and how that makes you feel, not about I'm right and you're wrong.

I'm not meaning to be disrespectful to his beliefs, atheists deserve as much respect as anyone else. I just don't see how his intelligence (in the sciences) makes his opinion towards faith (or lack thereof) any more valid.
posted by Neekee at 4:29 PM on May 16, 2011


My guess is that science will one day prove, rather conclusively, that there is no god.

It has -- at least as much as the nonexistence of anything can be proven. The problem is that many people dislike that conclusion and substitute their own.
posted by LordSludge at 4:30 PM on May 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


OK, I'll bite:

Christopher Hitchens is unintellectual?
posted by Flunkie at 4:34 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


"we all have our own truths and we shouldn't disrespect others' truths"

Nah. More like: There is the truth and then there are fairy tales that cultures have used since the beginning of mankind to explain phenomenon that a bunch of primitives screwheads couldn't begin to wrap their barely human skulls around. Every race and culture had them, but the Isreali's decided to make things a little simpler with one god and a bad ass book of explanations combined with a family history about a prominent bunch of locals. The book had legs and when paired with a bit of a warmer, fuzzier and a lot more KUMBAYA-y (except for Revelations) sequel the world's smash hit was born. A second sequel is still blowing up (literally!) in theaters, discotechs and many other places where the unmarried are dumb enough to hold hands at. In the end though, they are as Hawkins describes them, fairy tales for the incurious. Easy answers to difficult questions. And who doesn't like those. Especially with some sex and violence thrown in.
posted by jake1 at 4:35 PM on May 16, 2011 [14 favorites]


Bighappyfunhouse: "Never once did you think of telling him that Santa Claus is a fairy tale."

And then the boy runs for school board and wins. He passes new rules: standards of morality and ethics, oversight committees, tighter restrictions, and so on, all so that more students might benefit by knowing the good gifts of Santa Claus.

And do you then decide to speak up about the reality or non-reality of Santa Claus?
posted by gilrain at 4:38 PM on May 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


zarq: I wonder if there's an element of fear of having one's deeply-held beliefs challenged.

There absolutely is a fear. But that doesn't mean all faithful have that fear.

I once had a philosophy prof who challenged just about every religious belief I ever had. Was he an atheist? Nope. He was a minister at a church, and he wanted to make sure people actually believed and not just recited what the sunday school teacher told them.
My faith became stronger AFTER meeting him.
Is what I believe in "correct"? I have no idea. Sure does make me feel good, though :)
posted by Neekee at 4:38 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Were the Celtic peoples of Britain "lower value" than the English?

Well....

But I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat [Irish Catholic] child,
posted by orthogonality at 4:39 PM on May 16, 2011


My guess is that science will one day prove, rather conclusively, that there is no god.

Well, the problem with that statement is that the God I worship is not just immanent but also transcendent. So how do you prove that a Being that by definition exists outside the universe-outside space and time-is or is not there, seeing as that you, as part of that universe, and of space, and of time, would be unable to access outside it?

You are free to disbelieve, of course. But we are discussing prove/disprove.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:42 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Anyway, my main point here is why is Hawking's opinion greater than anyone else's?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:42 PM on May 16, 2011


we all have our own truths and we shouldn't disrespect others' truths
Perhaps if you change "truths" to "beliefs", but either it's true that the Ganges flows from Shiva's hair, or it's not true. It can't be true for me and false for you.
posted by Flunkie at 4:44 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


If Hawkings had responded in any other way, he wouldn't be doing his job. People can't expect scientists to work exhaustively to better understand nature and then also expect them to back up unscientific fantasies. If the Pope had said something similar, that might be controversial and shocking.
posted by pjenks at 4:45 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Okay. Hard drive melts down. It's gone. I don't doubt it. I've had the experience. But what about all the stuff that got backed up elsewhere? External drives? The Cloud?

Seems to me that, if you actually give it much thought, you couldn't come up with a sloppier analogy here than computers.


Not really. Haven't you ever seen Ghost in the Shell?

Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Modern science is clearly aware of it's own limits. Unless there is some unexpected breakthrough then it will definitely be the case that can't know everything.

You would have a point if quantum physics was a GUT. It isn't. Either way the MWI of quantum mechanics leaves open the door for the possibility of knowing everything. We just have to figure out how to share information between universes, which David Deutsch argues will be possible once we perfect quantum computers. Quantum computers will probably also be very useful when designing artificial brains. If we can ever decode the electrical pathways of the brain and how memories and consciousness are embodied in the physical architecture of the brain then we will no longer have any reason to "be afraid of the dark" as Mr. Hawking puts it.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 4:45 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


OK, I'll bite:

Christopher Hitchens is unintellectual?


He supported the war in Iraq and he wasn't even a CEO of Halliburton. How intelligent can he be?
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 4:47 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


So how do you prove that a Being that by definition exists outside the universe-outside space and time-is or is not there, seeing as that you, as part of that universe, and of space, and of time, would be unable to access outside it?

You are free to disbelieve, of course. But we are discussing prove/disprove.


Proof and disproof are highly overrated, especially in these circumstances. I would argue one side is merely a lot more likely than another, and I would equally not expect to convince you I'm right. Simply put though, postulating entities by definition beyond our experience can't really amount to a lot.
posted by edd at 4:51 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


What of the "infinite universe" theory? Where if the universe is infinite, then all possibilities must exist? Wouldn't an afterlife fit in with that?

My bets are on reincarnation. The computer gets wiped and Linux gets installed on it, but sometimes it doesn't get wiped and the new owner keeps using a crappy install of Windows '98.
posted by pashdown at 4:53 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


What of the "infinite universe" theory? Where if the universe is infinite, then all possibilities must exist? Wouldn't an afterlife fit in with that?
When you prove that there is a nonzero probability of the afterlife, you may have a point.
posted by Flunkie at 4:54 PM on May 16, 2011


The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can't solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.

This is obviously trying to refer to something about physics and not eugenics, but even the person that conducted the interview didn't understand WTF this answer meant:
"On reading it I had one of those familiar, sinking moments of realisation that my brain is so spectacularly inferior to the interviewee's that all I can do is hold up my hands and say: "Huh?"...

To me, it feels as though he is referring to the idea that there are many possible universes and that we can use Darwinian ideas of natural selection to work out which might be most hospitable to life as we know it, and because they are habitable in some sense we value them more highly. That's my best guess, but I have minimal confidence in it being right."
posted by dgaicun at 4:57 PM on May 16, 2011


I actually just read 'A Brief History of Time' last week.

There's a great discussion in which he talks about a 'no-boundary hypothesis' for the shape of the universe. In essense, Einsteind' General relativity says there must be a singularity at the beginning of the universe. But in using some ideas from the quantum side, it makes sense to think of time as a complex rather than a real variable; this has the effect of turning space-time into a copmlex manifold (rather than a real manifold) which makes is possible to 'smooth out' the singularity in the imaginary direction.

Upshot: the Universe could then not have any real notion of beginning, instead being a closed, finite smooth complex manifold.

A very interesting cosomological effect of this line of thinking is that suddenly there isn't a God necessary to set things moving anymore; the universe is entirely self contained. There's still the question of why the laws are what they are, and why the universe should bother existing at all, but it removes the need for a creator to come along and set the ball rolling quite nicely.

And this is why Hawking's opinions matter; he's got some pretty serious knowledge of the shape and nature of our universe, and his conjectures carry weight. The more we learn about the universe, the further God goes into hiding, it seems... Last sighted in the caves near Tora Bora...
posted by kaibutsu at 4:58 PM on May 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


Yeah, describing the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as a limitation to science where something else can provide knowledge is wrong. The point of QM is not just that we don't know where something is and how it's moving, but that these qualities don't in fact exist simultaneously. So science is unable to describe something because it isn't there.

What Hawking (not Hawkings) says about Darwinian survival of societies doesn't have to have the racist taint of Social Darwinism. Francis Fukayama's book seems to be coming out in a similar vein, between anthropological relativism and the earlier naive Darwinism. The point being that some forms of social organization happen to survive more robustly.

Actually from the context of the interview, it's not clear to me what Hawking means... He says this in response to "why are we here?" And he could be answering why there is life in the universe with a kind of anthropic answer...
posted by Schmucko at 4:58 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is a point beyond which our greatest science cannot reach and will not ever reach.

That's been proven since Goedel and Turing.
posted by warbaby at 5:03 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


When Stephen Hawking solves an equation, he needs to assure everyone that all other possible values are equally valid, otherwise he's just being rude and disrespectful.
posted by Legomancer at 5:04 PM on May 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


Larry Flynt is right!
posted by ShutterBun at 5:07 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Anyway, my main point here is why is Hawking's opinion greater than anyone else's?

He's not only a great thinker but a man who has been near death for almost 50 years, strange as that seems to write. Many people also have such a high opinion of him, and that's why what he says is headlines and what you and I say are not.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:11 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


When trying to get your point across...especially if its a dissenting point, it would probably be a good thing to not call out the other side's viewpoint as a "fairy story". You can if you want...but people will question how bright you are if you say so.

I decided long ago that I would rather be honest about my beliefs than go out of my way to seem "bright", especially when it comes to dissenting points. The alternative means staying silent while people like you equate anti-religious ideas with stupidity and, um, Sarah Palin... and for what? So I can pat myself on the back for "not disrespecting others' truths" while denigrating my own through silence and shame? No, thank you.

Besides, the idea that we "shouldn't disrespect others' truths" collapses quickly when examined. Most religions (to say nothing of everyone else) teach that certain "truths" are very wrong -- if Hawking shouldn't tell people their beliefs are fairy tales, then surely churches shouldn't speak against idolatry or witchcraft, and Buddhists shouldn't speak against worldly attachment, right? If so, how can we have such truths in the first place? When most truths contradict other truths either explicitly or implicitly, how can we have any beliefs at all?

"We all have our own truths and we shouldn't disrespect others' truths" is really just a way of saying "all truths are equal, but some truths are more equal than others". I agree that we all have our own truths, but that does not mean that everyone else is obligated to respect them or agree with them.
posted by vorfeed at 5:11 PM on May 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


> > There is a point beyond which our greatest science cannot reach and will not ever reach.

> That's been proven since Goedel and Turing.

Say, what?! Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem proves that every formal omega-complete system has unprovable truths within that system. This is a statement about mathematics, not science - and more, in some sense it's empowering ("You can only do mathematics by doing mathematics, not by grinding a crank") rather than restricting.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:13 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


There is a point beyond which our greatest science cannot reach and will not ever reach.

It's obvious from the definition of science.
If it's not statistically qualified inference from systematically collected data, it's not science.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:27 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


When trying to get your point across...especially if its a dissenting point, it would probably be a good thing to not call out the other side's viewpoint as a "fairy story". You can if you want...but people will question how bright you are if you say so.

When one side makes assertations without evidence, and then consistently refuses to provide evidence, the dissenting voice is not the one that appears stupid.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:27 PM on May 16, 2011 [12 favorites]


What of the "infinite universe" theory? Where if the universe is infinite, then all possibilities must exist? Wouldn't an afterlife fit in with that?

Even if an afterlife is possible, that still doesn't follow. The Mandelbrot set is infinitely dense and infinitely complex, but there's tons of patterns that simply do not exist in it.
posted by aubilenon at 5:29 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but according to quantum mechanics, Heaven may well be a possibility.
posted by bwg at 5:32 PM on May 16, 2011


When trying to get your point across...especially if its a dissenting point, it would probably be a good thing to not call out the other side's viewpoint as a "fairy story". You can if you want...but people will question how bright you are if you say so.

I categorically reject tone arguments as long as it's the case that atheists are preemptively treated as rude for such things as saying "Merry Christmas" in a Christmas parade and asking for humanist pastoral care in the armed forces.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:34 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I suspect that despite whatever our pet beliefs are, people that actually truly and fundamentally accept and fully internalize their own mortality, finiteness and imminent annihilation are few and far between. Hawking may be one of those people, I dont know. I'm no evolutionary biologist, but I'd bet our brains aren't really wired to actually accept our demise as anything other than a notion. Then again, one doesn't have to accept one's own death, it happens anyway.

Why not just say existence in its entirety=god. Does existence have a personality? Goals? Desires? I dunno, how should I know? How should you know? Why should we even have an opinion on the subject? I don't think science needs to have an opinion about god.

I think that answer to the question is there a god or not is irrelevant. It is the question itself that matters. We are capable of imagining creation stories. Some simplistic and childlike, some very very complicated. To me, the fact that I am here and can even comprehend the question , 'where did I/we/all of this come from?' is far far more interesting than the answer ever could be. Does a dog wonder where it came from? A dolphin? I honestly don't know the answer to that. I suspect not but I don't know.

There is a lot of vitriolic e-ink spilled towards religion and the supposed imbicility of religious people. In a lot of ways, a good number of religious people have it coming for being annoying blowhards. But that doesn't describe all religious people. Glibly dismissing them won't win any converts (ha) but maybe converts aren't what we are looking for, just axes to grind because we are smarter than the church people down the street? (full disclosure, being smarter than annoying church people is fun as hell)

I've had my own encounters with the religious kind. I've had relatives gleefully tell me that I am going to hell and mock any notions I have with cackling scorn and derision, only to turn around and act like I am kicking their puppy when I dare suggest that xtianity is good old fashioned hocum.

my own personal beliefs? (smugly/ cobbled together from a smorgasbord of pop metaphysics) there is no afterlife...but there really isn't any now life either. we aren't here. you die and your consciousness falls apart and if you are lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) your last thought is you realizing that 'you' were never really there at all.one brief moment where the robot sees itself in the mirror)
posted by ian1977 at 5:37 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


more erudite than "heaven is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark"

Heaven is a word we use to describe a joy so profound as to be otherwise undescribable, a peace so deep as to be otherwise unthinkable, a gratitude so complete as to be otherwise unanswerable. Heaven exists, if only in answer to the limitations of poets.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:37 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


I agree with nowonmai. Hawking is using "fairy story" because he means "fairy story." It is a "fairy story." It's infuriating that people who believe in fairy stories (especially in America) are so accustomed to having everyone sugar-coat things around them that this is seen as outrageous.

Stephen Hawking's opinion on the subject is worth more than the layperson's. He understands how the universe works much better than most of us do. Attaching a bunch of fancy words like "immanent" and "transcendent" to God don't move Him out of Hawking's area of expertise -- they're just excuses for His obvious absence. I might as well say that the Santa I believe in is both immanent and transcendent. You can't prove he isn't, can you?
posted by callmejay at 5:39 PM on May 16, 2011 [18 favorites]


Christopher Hitchens is unintellectual?
He knows a lot of words but are his thoughts
The point of QM is not just that we don't know where something is and how it's moving, but that these qualities don't in fact exist simultaneously. So science is unable to describe something because it isn't there.
That is completely wrong. The reason you can't observe the two properties independently (position and momentum, by the way) is that in order to observe them you have to alter them. But they certainly exist. What you wrote is total nonsense.

Beyond that It certainly is a limitation on science. We're fundamentally limited in how finely detailed we can get in terms of our view of the universe. We have no way of knowing about the underlying structure or whether it exists or not. We also can't see objects so far away that their light hasn't reached us yet, so there's a limitation in that sense as well
That's been proven since Goedel and Turing.
Another good example, although that's more about math then science.
posted by delmoi at 5:41 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sure I can. You don't believe in Santa. QED.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:41 PM on May 16, 2011


I liked this thread better when people were being kind and explaining science to me rather than being rude to each other as if this is the first time it's come up. Everyone: leave it alone. Let's talk about stuff that's more fun to talk about.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:44 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


For the record, I don't believe in fairies.

Too bad, Tinkerbelle.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:45 PM on May 16, 2011


When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I killed Tinkerbelle.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:47 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


Going waaaaay back in this thread...

Basically, quantum tunneling allows black holes to loose mass V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y, on a time scale far, far longer than the age of our universe so far.

Or so is my understanding.


Close, Avenger, close.

Big black holes - the kind you find at the center of galaxies such as our own, for instance - loose mass ("evaporate") due to Hawking Radiation very slowly.

Little black holes may also exist, and in fact may pop into existence with some frequency. Being small - literally, their event horizons are microscopically small - they "evaporate" faster than we can notice their existence.

Hawking Radiation is based on the theory that pairs of symmetric particles are constantly popping into existence all around us. A quark and its antiquark, for instance. They pop in, strike each other, and annihilate each other in a matter/antimatter explosion (too small to be detected). Unless...

... unless there's something special about the region in which they exist. If they pop up on the verge of the event horizon of a black hole, and one happens to shoot towards the hole, then it is trapped - and can't meet up with its twin of doom.

The twin shoots off alone, and from the outside, appears to be generated energy (mass from nothing).

The likelihood of this bizarre event happening is based on the surface area of a black hole's event horizon, and is pretty small - but not immeasurably small.

I've probably mussed a point or two myself, but that should hold us until someone better versed pops up.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:47 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's still the question of why the laws are what they are, and why the universe should bother existing at all

Nothing was on television.
posted by weston at 5:49 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Has anyone on MetaFilter, either a religious or atheist MeFite, been convinced that the "other side" is right during one of these posts? I am seriously asking--because as much as I agree w/Hawking that heaven (and God and all religions) is a fairy-tale, and and love to engage in discussions during which I am a strong proponent of atheism--we seem to have this discussion over and over for no other reason than to state our opinions.

During other types of threads we've had here over the years (race, class, gender, etc.), I have seen people learn new things, and reconsider their way of thinking, and change their minds, and then comment about it. I don't think I've ever seen anyone say "This discussion has opened my eyes to (religion/atheism) and I think I'm now (religious/not religious), and I'm going to look into this further" in a thread about the veracity of religious beliefs.
posted by tzikeh at 5:49 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Considering what we know, and more so, what we don't know, about neurology and evolution, I just think it's a dumb statement.

I hope this isn't an example of what you consider erudition.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:50 PM on May 16, 2011


Yey, lovely quote! Go Carl & Steven! And Bill Maher's ain't bad either. :)

Yes, all the concrete restrictions discovered in mathematics, like Goedel and Turing, basically say that no formulaic or algorithmic solution exists. There are still many special cases solvable by our brains' algorithms when given the correct inputs.

In fact, our whole problem with proving P != NP has been all the damn easy cases and the "close enough" type approximate solutions. If we look back in time, the greeks were similarly mystified by the irrationality of √2 too.

If you take one step forward, two steps back, and the none step forwards again, you are not simultaneously both forwards and back, those movements cancelled out. I'd similarly assume that any terms in my wave function that same I'm on the moon are being completely cancelled out by other terms, bwg.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:52 PM on May 16, 2011


that should hold us until someone better versed pops up

Unfortunately, I popped up instead. Someone better versed appears to have been temporarily trapped in a black hole, and is therefore unable to anhilate me for now. Please stay tuned to an event horizon near you.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:52 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


delmoi: That is completely wrong. The reason you can't observe the two properties independently (position and momentum, by the way) is that in order to observe them you have to alter them. But they certainly exist. What you wrote is total nonsense.

Actually this is completely wrong, as demonstrated last month in a certain nuclear reactor in Japan or the monitor you're using to view this message, neither of which would be possible if electrons and neutrons actually had a classical position and momentum. (As a matter of fact, you can add your body to the list of things that are impossible applying classical mechanics to sub-atomic particles.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:53 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Has anyone on MetaFilter, either a religious or atheist MeFite, been convinced that the "other side" is right during one of these posts?

Actually, I think this thread may have turned me British.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:54 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


Has anyone on MetaFilter, either a religious or atheist MeFite, been convinced that the "other side" is right during one of these posts?

No, but I have sometimes learned that my conception of the other side is wrong, and that's valuable.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:56 PM on May 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


shakespeherian: "I liked this thread better when people were being kind and explaining science to me rather than being rude to each other as if this is the first time it's come up. Everyone: leave it alone. Let's talk about stuff that's more fun to talk about."

The FPP is about Hawking's comment that heaven is a fairy-story, and not about M theory or radiation. I don't think folks are going to leave it alone.

Also, some of us do find atheism fun to talk about.
posted by tzikeh at 5:56 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


An atheist and The Buddha walk into a bar. The Buddha says, "Make me one with everything." The atheist says, "There must be 100 different bottles in here. That much alcohol will surely kill you."
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:02 PM on May 16, 2011 [21 favorites]


KirkJobSluder: I have sometimes learned that my conception of the other side is wrong, and that's valuable.

I agree. I should have been more careful with the wording of my comment--I wasn't trying to say that these threads are pointless; I am honestly curious if anyone has had their mind changed.
posted by tzikeh at 6:05 PM on May 16, 2011


He looks at the universe and sees one thing; I see that same universe and see the glory of God.

I suspect that without your upbringing and the products of millennia of organized religious writings and argumentation, you would look at the universe and just see the universe. Religions and religious beliefs require a strong cultural support system to maintain. (And before you say, well, so does science, note that the structure of science contains the seeds of its own revolution because it prescribes how to undermine its own current beliefs; religions thrive on defending theirs at all costs).

It is not an accident that the vast majority of believers in religion X were raised in religion X. Cross-over is fairly rare. This would not be so if during development each individual coolly regarded the universe with unblinkered eyes and came up with their own theories of How Things Are.

On the other hand, reading the products of the scientific method and applying them yourself can pretty readily lead to the conclusion that there is little evidence for the specific claims of any particular religion regarding How Things Are (e.g., no hard evidence for "heaven"). This doesn't mean they are false or that you shouldn't believe them for whatever reasons you have, just that there isn't any, you know, real evidence.
posted by Mental Wimp at 6:08 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


Actually this is completely wrong, as demonstrated last month in a certain nuclear reactor in Japan or the monitor you're using to view this message, neither of which would be possible if electrons and neutrons actually had a classical position and momentum. (As a matter of fact, you can add your body to the list of things that are impossible applying classical mechanics to sub-atomic particles.)
Could you re-state that in a way that indicates you have any idea what you're talking about? Nuclear reactors, as far as I know, have nothing to do with the Uncertainty principle.
posted by delmoi at 6:12 PM on May 16, 2011


you can add your body to the list of things that are impossible applying classical mechanics to sub-atomic particles

That's what she said.

Oh, come on: Like you weren't thinking it!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:15 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


I suspect that despite whatever our pet beliefs are, people that actually truly and fundamentally accept and fully internalize their own mortality, finiteness and imminent annihilation are few and far between.

In the words of the great Philip J Fry, "Thanks to denial, I'm immortal!".
posted by wildcrdj at 6:22 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]



delmoi: That is completely wrong. The reason you can't observe the two properties independently (position and momentum, by the way) is that in order to observe them you have to alter them. But they certainly exist. What you wrote is total nonsense.


No, what I wrote was orthodox quantum mechanics. Position is the eigenvalue of the position operator. Momentum is the eigenvalue of the momentum operator. The two operators do not commute. They have no simultaneous eigenvalues. Therefore, a state vector represents a particle as NOT HAVING, simultaneously, both a definite position and momentum. There is not a position and momentum simultaneously "out there" that we are unable to measure. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle limits the definiteness of what is in the world. It does not say there is something in the world beyond science.
posted by Schmucko at 6:23 PM on May 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


> That's been proven since Goedel and Turing.

Yeah, quite a lot of mathematicians and physicists consider this argument to be nonsense. The incompleteness theorems say nothing about the universe itself, they only apply to axiomatic systems.

Which is kind of funny, because the people who proudly proclaim "science has limits, and I know them!" are also the first to rail against "reductionism" and the deterministic universe.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 6:24 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Ok, who has my Tang.

(I think he is having fun and that cannot be bad.)
posted by clavdivs at 6:25 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Position is the eigenvalue of the position operator. Momentum is the eigenvalue of the momentum operator. The two operators do not commute. They have no simultaneous eigenvalues. Therefore, a state vector represents a particle as NOT HAVING, simultaneously, both a definite position and momentum.
Hmm, interesting. What about this from the wikipedia article though:
The Uncertainty Principle is often misstated so as to imply that simultaneous measurements of both the position and momentum cannot be made. There is a simple Gedanken experiment that illustrates what physics does allow. Imagine a hollow evacuated sphere where the internal surface is covered by microscopic detectors that measure the position and time of contact of a He atom. Inside the sphere is one single He atom that bounces randomly from one point to another. Each time it contacts the wall, its position is measured to arbitrary accuracy, therefore its future momentum is uncertain. The time of the contact can be measured with arbitrary accuracy, therefore the future energy is uncertain. However, at the next contact with the inner surface of the sphere another accurate measurement of position and time can be made. Knowledge of those accurate times and positions allows us to compute a history of arbitrarily accurate simultaneous positions and momentums along with times and energies.
Which seems to imply that both position and momentum do exist, they just can't be measured simultaneously, but can be measured over time.
posted by delmoi at 6:32 PM on May 16, 2011


Yeah, quite a lot of mathematicians and physicists consider this argument to be nonsense. The incompleteness theorems say nothing about the universe itself, they only apply to axiomatic systems.
Do you think the universe is non-axiomatic?
posted by delmoi at 6:33 PM on May 16, 2011


But that's exactly what it is! He's not using "fairy story" as a rhetorical flourish, he's using it in a literal sense.

I understand. But I think what you're not understanding is that even if you believe someone else's belief system is a "fairy story", saying it might offend them.

Also, I know you like to drag Sarah Palin into threads where she doesn't belong, but this is absurd even by your standards.

Nothing is absurd in my standards.

I think your atheist friend was just trying to be nice to you, maybe a little bit patronising too, but you probably didn't notice.

I think the point of that story is that it doesn't take a genius to disagree respectfully.
posted by hal_c_on at 6:33 PM on May 16, 2011


I suspect that despite whatever our pet beliefs are, people that actually truly and fundamentally accept and fully internalize their own mortality, finiteness and imminent annihilation are few and far between. Hawking may be one of those people, I dont know. I'm no evolutionary biologist, but I'd bet our brains aren't really wired to actually accept our demise as anything other than a notion. Then again, one doesn't have to accept one's own death, it happens anyway.

I missed this earlier. I can tell you that as you grow older, watch more and more friends and family die, maybe have a few close brushes of your own, your imminent death becomes all too real. I welcome mine, when it comes. I consider it my greatest gift to the future, as well as to myself. Without death, there would be no cause for birth, no transfer of life for life. Nothing new and transitive and beautiful in the world. If I believed in a God, death is what I would thank Him for.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:33 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


delmoi: Could you re-state that in a way that indicates you have any idea what you're talking about? Nuclear reactors, as far as I know, have nothing to do with the Uncertainty principle.

Certainly. The uncertainty principle isn't a function of measurement error. It's central to the wave function of matter. If you constrain the momentum, you increase the uncertainty of the position. If you constrain the position, you increase the uncertainty of the momentum.

Nuclear reactors take advantage of this by using neutron-moderating materials to increase the positional uncertainty of neutrons, increasing the chances of interaction with a fissionable atomic nuclei. Transistors take advantage of this by constraining the momentum and position of electrons in their semiconductive interfaces.

And finally, organic chemistry doesn't make a lick of sense if you assume that the electron has a position within the orbital or bond. The atheist symbol with a solitary electron in orbit is poetic, and exactly wrong. The electron can't be localized in that manner.

For a more exotic application, see the Bose-Einstein condensates.

Or on preview, what Schmucko said.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:39 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


delmoi, that is an interesting thought experiment, but it seems to be playing a little fast and loose with the lingo, moving from "simultaneous" to "future" momentum. If you really knew the simultaneous position and momentum of the He atom, you would be able to predict where on the sphere it would bounce next and that is clearly not implied. Only that you can know the position at points A,B,C, etc. and the average momentum in the time between positions A and B, B and C, etc.
posted by Schmucko at 6:41 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's something that often gets passed over or ignored in most of these discussions about atheism vs. religion - and it's the logical reason at the root of why a lot of atheists (or agnostics) are extremely frustrated by religion of all sorts - and why it really is actually a huge social and political problem. And I actually mean problem, as in it's holding us back as a species and society, that it actually damages us and limits us.

It's not just an annoyance. It's not just a difference of beliefs. It's actually a major problem facing humanity.

That reason is this: When a majority of people in any political system believe in "fairy stories" of any kind, those beliefs deeply influence how they vote, how they behave and how they see the world. This is especially problematic when religious thinking is used to rationalize unethical and/or illogical behavior under the guise of morality. This unethical, illogical behavior manifests itself in things like systemic, institutional bigotry, in the justification of war, of ecclesiastical sexual abuse and much more.

This lack of belief in reality itself leads to very bad decision making, like ignoring climate change, or praying for someone sick or injured instead of taking them to the hospital, or failing to publish accurate, factual textbooks for schools, or non-scientific non-solutions to social problems like the drug war or sex education, or investing more in science and research.

This leads to things like cult-like thinking about things like the "end of the world" or eschatology - that the things we're doing here and now in reality are somehow less important than these fairy stories - as though reality isn't real. That we don't have to think or plan for the future because the world is going to end.

It allows people the ethical laxity to justify and rationalize insanity like nuclear war - or war in general - through the convenient mental flexibility of belief opposed to rationality - because under these religious rationalizations we're not actually threatening to kill off most of humanity, we're just sending them to "heaven" a little earlier. God will take care of it and sort it all out for us, and God apparently wanted it to happen otherwise he wouldn't have let us discover and invent nuclear weapons, because God is God they must have a plan. QED.

This is wrong and very much not ok.

Is that too harsh or clinical? Too much cold logic? I'm not sure if I care anymore. I'm really no longer interested in "respecting" someone's fairy stories whenever they feel like diverging from reality - especially when someone claims that those beliefs give them the right to behave unethically or otherwise a free pass at being a shitty human.

If there's one thing on this planet that I fear short of the easy brutality and cruelty of human kind - it's our innate ability to believe in fairy stories and make shit up when we can't handle or understand the truth.

This is especially annoying because the universe is huge and the more we learn about it, the larger, more complicated and fantastic we find it. It's much stranger and uncertain than any fiction we could invent, and this is a wonderful thing.

We are but motes. To assume that a God invented an entire universe just for us - a universe that is so large, so complex and so incredibly vast that it transcends the very idea of a God - is incredible hubris.
posted by loquacious at 6:49 PM on May 16, 2011 [96 favorites]


Hawking has obviously never taken a "heroic dose" of a good psychedelic drug.
posted by rmmcclay at 6:51 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can tell you that as you grow older, watch more and more friends and family die, maybe have a few close brushes of your own, your imminent death becomes all too real.

Well, yes...only a fool would think that they were exempt from regular old death. But what I was trying to convey is that (IMHO) most people can't/won't comprehend/accept the 'end' of their essential 'themness' despite what they may personally profess. I think there is a underlying part of our brain that just assumes it will keep on keepin' on, because that is all it knows. Intellectually we can certainly look around and realize, gulp, yep, we're all gonna die! But on a gut level, I think we betray ourselves internally and say 'but not realllllly die! mommy wouldnt let that happen!' This gut level feeling isn't automatically articulated as 'I am going to heaven.' or 'I am returning to cosmic consciousness' or 'I am going to the great disco in the sky'... but it lends itself towards bolstering those thoughts (picked up via culture), even if our rational brain sees no evidence supporting an afterlife.

For a more exotic application, see the Bose-Einstein condensates.

Nova did a really fun documentary that features these.

Hawking has obviously never taken a "heroic dose" of a good psychedelic drug.

Taking psychedelic drugs can only lead to belief in the afterlife?
posted by ian1977 at 6:57 PM on May 16, 2011


There is a point beyond which our greatest science cannot reach and will not ever reach.

I understand where you're coming from, but I sincerely believe you've got the order of your quantifiers slightly wrong here. If you allow me to paraphrase slightly, hopefully you'll understand where I'm coming from. It sounds like you're saying "There exist questions that will not be answered by science, no matter how far we progress." I have no reason to believe that there is some particular fixed limitation on what we can learn with science. However, if you move things around a bit, it becomes a bit more plausible to me: "No matter how far we progress, there will exists questions that have not been answered by science." There will always be questions to be asked, and there will never come a point when we've answered them all. But that does not mean that there's a particular question that cannot be answered.* And even if there were such a question, I think that the hubris belongs to those who think they know not only which questions are off-limits to scientific analysis, but what the answers to such questions are.


*Unless of course intelligent, curious minds cease to exist at some point in time. Which is quite probable, in all actuality, but the limitation there is not the nature of the question, but simply running out of time. (I'm also not counting those questions that cannot be answered because they do not actually make sense.)
posted by ErWenn at 6:59 PM on May 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


the God I worship is not just immanent but also transcendent. So how do you prove that a Being that by definition exists outside the universe-outside space and time-is or is not there, seeing as that you, as part of that universe, and of space, and of time, would be unable to access outside it?

So this being is literally outside of the universe, absolutely impossible to contact or detect with any tools we can ever possibly build, and whose mere existence cannot be suggested by any work done by those who have dedicated their lives to studying the universe, yet somehow little ol' you know all about this invisible man in the sky? Of all the people it might be useful to communicate with, he explained all of this to you, perhaps while you perhaps prayed really hard, or maybe while you were sleeping? That is simply amazing, and quite perplexing. Because it's either that, or you're trusting generations of telephone game with fallible people retelling old stories for a millennium or so about some random iron age people and what they believed.
posted by floam at 7:06 PM on May 16, 2011 [13 favorites]


Nuclear reactors take advantage of this by using neutron-moderating materials to increase the positional uncertainty of neutrons, increasing the chances of interaction with a fissionable atomic nuclei
That's not really true. Different atoms have different neutron cross sections, and it happens that U235 has a larger cross section for thermal neutrons, while U238 actually has a smaller cross section so a thermal neutron that's been slowed down in, for example, water will be more likely to hit a U235 atom and continue a chain reaction and less likely to be absorbed in a U238 atom. According to wikipedia anyway:
Most fission reactors are thermal reactors that use a neutron moderator to slow down, or thermalize the neutrons produced by nuclear fission. Moderation substantially increases the fission cross section for fissile nuclei such as uranium-235 or plutonium-239. In addition, uranium-238 also has a much lower capture cross section for thermal neutrons, allowing more neutrons to cause fission of fissile nuclei and continue the chain reaction, rather than being captured by 238U
How nuclear cross sections are derived from the standard model isn't made clear, but it doesn't seem to be as simple as you're making it out to be.
posted by delmoi at 7:10 PM on May 16, 2011


yeah loquacious has pretty much nailed it here, i think. i have no problem *whatsoever* with st. alia's defense of her belief, except that it implicitly defends religious sentiment as a purely contemplative, abstract affair: the true test of any belief is in its application. i've known loads of great religious people, and i've known loads of great non-religious people. i just don't have the data to say, for myself, that 'people + belief in god' is any better than just 'people.'
posted by facetious at 7:14 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


So this being is literally outside of the universe, absolutely impossible to contact or detect with any tools we can ever possibly build, and whose mere existence cannot be suggested by any work done by those who have dedicated their lives to studying the universe, yet somehow little ol' you know all about this invisible man in the sky? Of all the people it might be useful to communicate with, he explained all of this to you, perhaps while you perhaps prayed really hard, or maybe while you were sleeping? That is simply amazing, and quite perplexing. Because it's either that, or you're trusting generations of telephone game with fallible people retelling old stories for a millennium or so about some random iron age people and what they believed.

Well, He's not JUST transcendent. He is also immanent-which means here and involved in the Universe He created. But He is greater, much greater than His creation-a creation, truthfully, vast and glorious. The universe is pretty cool, after all. However, He has set it up that at least in this universe, it takes faith to notice He's around. I'm sure that is frustrating to some. For those of us with that faith, there is evidence of Him all around. But to people such as Hawking, they are unable to see it. They lack the organ of perception, so to speak.

Please understand I am not upset with people who don't have faith. I could wish they did have it, tho. It's way cool.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:19 PM on May 16, 2011


But that does not mean that there's a particular question that cannot be answered.

Of course there are. Science is dependent on data, and the universe is fond of obliterating and hiding data. It hides it behind singularities, transforms them through chaotic processes, and demands galaxy-sized instruments to test some hypotheses. We can't for example, determine the orbital dynamics of asteroids epochs into the past or future, because we don't know where they all are exactly, and even if we had that knowledge, calculating the solution would require a cosmic calculator longer than the heat death of the universe.

The myth that we could determine the order of the clockwork universe if we had a good enough telescope became implausible over a century ago.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:19 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


To assume that a God invented an entire universe just for us - a universe that is so large, so complex and so incredibly vast that it transcends the very idea of a God - is incredible hubris. Well, I don't see it as transcending the very idea of a God. I see it as a revelation of how totally mindblowing, vast and incredible the God who created it is. In fact, the Bible states specifically that the heavens declare the glory of God. They sure do to me.....
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:20 PM on May 16, 2011


Thanks; this was a fun read. I also enjoyed this quote by Richard Dawkins (from last week's Washington Post) on what his ‘tradition’ teaches about the end of the world:
"[…] Science is not a tradition, it is the organized use of evidence from the real world to make inferences about the real world – meaning the real universe, which is, in Carl Sagan’s words, all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Science knows approximately how, and when, our Earth will end. In about five billion years the sun will run out of hydrogen, which will upset its self-regulating equilibrium; in its death-throes it will swell, and this planet will vaporise. Before that, we can expect, at unpredictable intervals measured in tens of millions of years, bombardment by dangerously large meteors or comets. Any one of these impacts could be catastrophic enough to destroy all life, as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago nearly did. In the nearer future, it is pretty likely that human life will become extinct – the fate of almost all species that have ever lived.
[…]
However it happens, the end of the world will be a parochial little affair, unnoticed in the universe at large. The end of the universe itself is a matter of current debate among physicists, a debate that I recommend as providing a salutary, long-term, humbling perspective on human preoccupations and follies."
posted by hot soup girl at 7:21 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


loquacious - I'm no scholar in theory of mind, loq, but I've read enough to get the feeling that evolution of rationality - learning - may just be inextricably tied to intuition and creative thought. That in some ways, rationality as it relates to thought (as opposed to the discipline of logic), may actually depend on a capacity for irrationality. Hence, our thirst for the supernatural - being ironically natural in origin - may be nearly impossible to eliminate without losing the very things that make it worth eliminating.

ian1977 - I get what you mean. When I was younger, I did have trouble truly imagining the world without me in it, but as I got older, that slipped away, until now I have no trouble at all imagining the world continuing on with no me in it. I can imagine an end to my being quite easily. I think this is a combination of studying history, traveling, discovering just how much exists out there with no need of me, and waching the tiny patch of the world that I do live in change beyond belief in front of my eyes over the years until I can barely recognize the place I have lived in my whole life. Eventually, a self-aware person begins to internalize that the world does not require one's presence. That it moves on without you in a billion little ways every day.

It's rather comforting, honestly. Holding the world up was getting very tiring.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:21 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


St. Alia of the Bunnies: "To assume that a God invented an entire universe just for us - a universe that is so large, so complex and so incredibly vast that it transcends the very idea of a God - is incredible hubris. Well, I don't see it as transcending the very idea of a God. I see it as a revelation of how totally mindblowing, vast and incredible the God who created it is. In fact, the Bible states specifically that the heavens declare the glory of God. They sure do to me...."

Self-fulfilling religious prophecy fulfills self. FPP on its way.
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:22 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


During other types of threads we've had here over the years (race, class, gender, etc.), I have seen people learn new things, and reconsider their way of thinking, and change their minds, and then comment about it.

I think we could have wonderful threads discussing religious topics--MetaFilter is a community of very bright and interesting folks--but the initial posts have to be framed carefully. Most religious topics begin with an Us vs. Them premise, and the resulting discussions rarely move beyond knee-jerk proclamations and half-baked thoughts. It's something I've said before, and I wish there were a nicer way to say it, but these sorts of, "I (dis)believe X because I just do" statements just strike me as uneducated. I don't know why religion is the one topic where everyone is an expert regardless of their education or background, but please guys, at least add personal reasons supporting your positions or something. Otherwise, the discussion kind of stagnates.

I'd love to have religious topics covered on MetaFilter, specifically and in detail. Sometimes that happens, but usually only when the topic falls outside of many people's assumptions of what "religious topics" are.
posted by byanyothername at 7:23 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eventually, a self-aware person begins to internalize that the world does not require one's presence.

I agree. It was just my contention that this doesn't describe most people. :P
posted by ian1977 at 7:25 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


loquacious: I'm really no longer interested in "respecting" someone's fairy stories whenever they feel like diverging from reality - especially when someone claims that those beliefs give them the right to behave unethically or otherwise a free pass at being a shitty human.

Your whole comment is right on the money, but this, in particular, is something that has been on my mind. Especially now that there seems to be a groundswell happening, and there are incrementally more and more atheists who are no longer content to sit down and shut up, and suddenly we're "militants" and "angry."

Well, yeah, I'll concede angry, but I don't think that's unwarranted. As for militant, that seems to be code for "saying anything at all=burning down houses of worship and murdering babies of religious families."

Wish we had the image tag.
posted by tzikeh at 7:25 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ha! A hit, ian1977! A very palpable hit.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:31 PM on May 16, 2011


Hawking has obviously never taken a "heroic dose" of a good psychedelic drug.

The same could easily be said of the religious. If a simple chemical can make these "transcendent" feelings happen, sans ritual, prayer, belief, or anything else commonly associated with religion, then how transcendent are they? Doesn't that suggest that they're simply a reaction in the brain, just as most atheists would suppose?

At any rate, psychedelics seem like a moot point. Two people can have the same experience and take away vastly different meanings from it, even without drugs...
posted by vorfeed at 7:32 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


If a simple chemical can make these "transcendent" feelings happen, sans ritual, prayer, belief, or anything else commonly associated with religion, then how transcendent are they? Doesn't that suggest that they're simply a reaction in the brain, just as most atheists would suppose?

Let's test this theory!

At any rate, psychedelics seem like a moot point.

D'oh!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:34 PM on May 16, 2011


It's not just an annoyance. It's not just a difference of beliefs. It's actually a major problem facing humanity.

Nothing in your post applies whatsoever to, for example, your standard flavor of Buddhism. In fact, most Buddhisms feel similarly, but emphasize awareness and compassion in overcoming ignorance and suffering, rather than eradicating entire cultures.

I'm just saying. Talking about "religion" is really pretty pointless; "religion" is not an actual, singular thing at all. You aren't really opposing anything in your post except ignorance and "tribal thinking," which are deeper problems than "religion."
posted by byanyothername at 7:35 PM on May 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


The universe is pretty cool, after all.

.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:36 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]



Ha! A hit, ian1977! A very palpable hit.

You sunk my internetship!
posted by ian1977 at 7:36 PM on May 16, 2011


I had a drunken debate about this very thing last night. I told some guy that I thought it was conceivable that at some point in the far future the human mind could be "extracted" and could live forever in electronic form. The guy called me an asshole, it took me a while to realize that what he was objecting to was that my position is pretty much a denial of the soul. If he could be so easily replicated in electronic form, there is nothing special, no essential spark that makes him unique.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:38 PM on May 16, 2011


I'm no scholar in theory of mind, loq, but I've read enough to get the feeling that evolution of rationality - learning - may just be inextricably tied to intuition and creative thought. That in some ways, rationality as it relates to thought (as opposed to the discipline of logic), may actually depend on a capacity for irrationality. Hence, our thirst for the supernatural - being ironically natural in origin - may be nearly impossible to eliminate without losing the very things that make it worth eliminating.

You're conflating intuition and creative thought -- which are indeed an integral part of rationality -- with belief in the supernatural, which is not. Atheists are not emotionless robots without creativity or intuition, yet by all accounts they do not believe; this suggests that humans can in fact live without religion, without "losing the very things that make it worth eliminating."
posted by vorfeed at 7:40 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm not impressed with the reasoning behind his statement, but then again, I don't consider Einstein, Dawkins, or Newton an authority on theology either. It strikes me as a fairly Christian-centric discussion as well to talk about Heaven in those terms.

I am impressed in that the very mortal convictions of Hitchins and Hawking help to counter the pragmatic view of faith in salvation as a balm for the suffering and mortally ill.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:42 PM on May 16, 2011


I admit I've only read through about 50 of the 168 comments here. Does anyone in this thread actually disagree with Hawking's statement? It seems like all the criticisms are just saying: "OK, so he's right, but he's so super-smart that he should have come up with ... some super-smart way of saying it!" As if there's some rule against eminent physicists making blunt, down-to-earth statements.
posted by John Cohen at 7:45 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]



Let's test this theory!

At any rate, psychedelics seem like a moot point.

D'oh!


Well, yeah, that was my point. You can't "test this theory" with regards to psychedelics, because the meaning of psychedelic experiences is itself subjective. One person says "I saw God! I felt connected to His glory! My religion is true!" and another says "I I saw a big glowy light made of infinite warmth! I felt connected to everything around me! That was a fun trip, and I learned a lot about my mind!" What's to test?
posted by vorfeed at 7:46 PM on May 16, 2011


What's to test?

Electric acid kool aid, somehow.
posted by ian1977 at 7:47 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


IRFH: Hence, our thirst for the supernatural - being ironically natural in origin - may be nearly impossible to eliminate without losing the very things that make it worth eliminating.

Oh, sure. I'm certainly not suggesting eradicating irrationality, and it certainly has a place in creativity and thought. The universe itself isn't wholly rational, either. It's a big universe, and there's room in it for belief and even mysticism considering wild and crazy stuff like the multiverse. I'm not calling for cold, hard Vulcan logic all the time. Such squeaky-clean mental hygiene and rigidity is asking to have one's mind shattered.

What I'm (irrationally) hoping for is that organized irrationality/belief/religion having less influence over science, politics and policy, or less of an influence about how we plan and think about the future. I don't want people to see a hurricane or tornado and think "God did this." I want them to think about these natural things as things we can prepare for even if we can't control them. Because there's worse shit out there to prepare for like giant rocks falling from the sky just waiting to give us a good whack and a magma tsunami - which also have nothing to do with anyone's belief or disbelief in any religion.

Not only do I want religion to stop getting in the way of believing that these natural events are "acts of god" - but I want it to stop getting in the way of knowing that we can influence or control these kinds of huge, existential threat grade events, because we can. Or could. If we apply ourselves and learn how. And this means science. And science most often means setting aside dogma, superstition, belief/disbelief. Science is the opposite of a belief system. It's a proof and truth discovery system.

I also want people to stop using belief as a convenient camouflage for bigotry and hatred. That people don't have a right to force those beliefs on others through the rule of law or government. I want people to know the differences between ethics and morals - and practice them.

I'm also not going to discount the role of organized belief and religion of all sorts in helping foster and organized humanity, to develop both morality and ethics. Religion and spirituality is the cradle of thought and knowledge, of philosophy. It would require devotion and even fanaticism to invent, say, the printing press. Or the written word.

People are free to believe what they want to believe. It's when they set the status quo and enforce that belief system on me through the laws or social conventions of the land that I start to get really itchy.
posted by loquacious at 7:47 PM on May 16, 2011 [17 favorites]


You're conflating intuition and creative thought -- which are indeed an integral part of rationality -- with belief in the supernatural, which is not.

I'm not, really. I'm just being a lazy communicator. I don't think that one requires the other, but I do think that intuition and creative thought are evolutionarily linked to belief in the supernatural in a way that we - and I mean in the aggregate - are possibly incapable of separating, short of the singularity. Much in the same way that a cappacity for violence was once an advantage to survival, and now could be our end.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:49 PM on May 16, 2011


What's to test?

Nothing! I have nothing here to test with! Nothing at all! Purely hypothetical, officer.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:51 PM on May 16, 2011


loquacious, do you intend to continue eloquently and thoughtfully expressing my beliefs for me all night? I only have so many favorites to give, you know.
posted by gilrain at 7:51 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


For those of us with that faith, there is evidence of Him all around. But to people such as Hawking, they are unable to see it. They lack the organ of perception, so to speak.

Please understand I am not upset with people who don't have faith. I could wish they did have it, tho. It's way cool.


And what about the other people on this planet that do the exact same things, with entirely different religions and Gods? Everyone else got it wrong, but you got it right? People spend their entire lives in monasteries exploring religion and get still get it wrong, but you've got it right. It might not be hard for you to dismiss Iroquois that had the creation myth involving a world on the back of a gigantic turtle, and the countless others that conflict with yours. I feel the same way about yours, in addition to the rest.

Only thing that surprises me about religion is that somehow the monotheists won out. Having a bunch of Gods and the inherent compatibility that can imply would really have made having a peaceful global society a lot easier.
posted by floam at 7:51 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


For those of us with that faith, there is evidence of Him all around.

There is no evidence of anything of the sort. Evidence is used to prove things. You need to use another word, because that one doesn't mean what you think it means.
posted by tzikeh at 7:58 PM on May 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


What I'm (irrationally) hoping for is that organized irrationality/belief/religion having less influence over science, politics and policy, or less of an influence about how we plan and think about the future.

From your mouth to God's ear, loquacious! From your mouth to... Uh... From your mouth to... uh... Higgs boson's... uh...

*sigh*
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:00 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Michael Schermer has written at length about his personal mystical experiences and why he's skeptical of them. I've certainly had them myself, but at the end of the day, I can't say that they didn't originate from my own mind.

Although in the opposite of Pascal's Wager, since a non-Universalist universe doesn't make sense to me, I lose little by exploring my own intuitions about the universe.

But to people such as Hawking, they are unable to see it. They lack the organ of perception, so to speak.

Please understand I am not upset with people who don't have faith. I could wish they did have it, tho. It's way cool.


Thank you for demonstrating exactly why I don't trust even nice and soft-spoken religious people like yourself.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:02 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


I don't think that one requires the other, but I do think that intuition and creative thought are evolutionarily linked to belief in the supernatural in a way that we - and I mean in the aggregate - are possibly incapable of separating, short of the singularity.

Likewise, a tailbone is evolutionarily linked to walking upright in a way that we - and I mean in the aggregate - are possibly incapable of separating, short of the singularity.

...we do just fine with one about an inch long, however.
posted by vorfeed at 8:02 PM on May 16, 2011


I see that same universe and see the glory of God.

Spinoza saw the universe as evidence of the glory of God.

But not as proof of the existence of an after-life.
posted by ovvl at 8:04 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Let's hope we can lose the vestiges of superstition a lot quicker than we lost our tails, vorfeed.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:09 PM on May 16, 2011


But to people such as Hawking, they are unable to see it. They lack the organ of perception, so to speak. Please understand I am not upset with people who don't have faith. I could wish they did have it, tho. It's way cool.

I grew up in a very religious family. I was compelled to attend church every Sunday while I remained in my mom's house. I was even compelled to attend approximately three years of bible study. I'm versed.

And I understand this "organ of perception" or faith. I've felt it. I know exactly what you're talking about. I used to believe, I really did. I've felt the "burning of the spirit" and all of that - and it's the same "burning of the spirit" and energy someone gets rooting for the same baseball team. Or dancing at a rave. Or chanting prayers. Or when people start weird cults worshiping comets or volcanoes or idols or Elvis.

You think your belief and organ of perception is somehow unique and special. It's not. Most humans have it.

The thing is is that I learned that we want to believe, and that my want and need to believe was culturally reinforced and programmed. We want to believe that there's a plan, a meaning. We want to believe that our good behavior and struggle not only to simply survive and grow has meaning and/or that we will be rewarded or even just loved by someone or something accountable for all the pain and suffering that life can bring.

Not only do we want to believe, but we're physically wired to believe. To make believe, to make things up, to fill in the gaps. It's what our brains and minds do with information and pattern recognition - it makes guesses. Hopefully intelligent ones.

In a very real way reality is indeed a bit harder without this belief that it all has some real meaning or purpose - but with it comes the freedom to invent your own. We could do worse than "Be excellent to each other and party on."
posted by loquacious at 8:18 PM on May 16, 2011 [26 favorites]


Not only do we want to believe, but we're physically wired to believe

And why do you suppose that is?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:31 PM on May 16, 2011


I end most days screaming in terror at my own impending death

As a person who does not feel any such terror - any fear at all, really, beyond a certain anticipated regret at the likelihood of death interrupting some project or other - I'd appreciate a sketch of the thoughts you'd typically be having while feeling that screaming terror.
posted by flabdablet at 8:32 PM on May 16, 2011


On one level, I absolutely agree with Stephen Hawking. There is no place in the sky where our humanesque souls float to after death. And every spoken human conception of an afterlife is a sort of fairy tale, just like the entirety of human language is a kind of fairy tale which we've all agreed on. Words and stories are all sorts of lies. But we use them because we hope, through them, to reveal a truth.

When I was a kid, one of my first books was an illustrated Aesop's Fables; ignoring the power of myth, to me, would be like skipping all the fables to get right to the morals at the end. Yeah, the moral's a more direct representation of the truth. But the narrative, the poetry, the myth behind the fable can all help people more fully realize those truths. There's a difference between knowing and understanding; flat-out being told something doesn't necessarily help you understand the impact of what you're being told.

The irony for me is that a lot of people who call themselves religious know the words and practices of their religion without understanding them. The people who let their "belief" in a religion lead to ignorance, intolerance, and cruelty tend to be the people operating at the most surface level of understanding; these are the people who insist that God literally handed down the Bible with two pearly hands, and that quoting a decontextualized line of scripture gives you a moral/intellectual superiority without any further discussion. These are people who are not using religion as a tool to hunt for truth. They are using it as an excuse to avoid meaningful engagement with other people's ideas.

The second irony, then, is that so many atheists and nonbelievers, upon discovering a single version of religion that they dislike, insist that they understand the purpose and practice of religion, and then refuse to attempt to understand what people are really getting out of religion, how they're using it to seek truth, and what validity might lie within their claims. Let's be honest. Just because you're an atheist doesn't mean you're instantly willing to empathize and understand people with whom you disagree. We've got as many idiot atheists as we've got idiot God-worshippers. And in the atheist who claims there is nothing more to religion than a sky-man I see the same immaturity and unwillingness to engage that I see in the worshipper who thinks that all nonbelievers are going to hell.

What worries me about science is that it makes an incredibly direct bee-line for the truth. It's the moral behind the fable. It's knowledge that frequently is unconcerned with understanding. (Science elegantly expressed is beautiful. Science poorly expressed is as useless as myth to me, because it prevents me from understanding the subject well enough to even develop thoughts on the subject. That forces me to either accept arbitrary scientists' words, or to study until the incomprehensible becomes meaningful — which is kind of like religious people telling you to either accept their interpretations of XYZ Holy Book or to devote your life to forming your own interpretation. Both equally unreliable and useless.)

I am unequivocally against religious thought that opposes science or critical thinking. Let me make that clear. I am an atheist.

But I am similarly against scientific thought that blanket-opposes religion. I'm not quite as certain about this one, because I don't understand religion very well at all, but here's what I'm thinking: We ought to stop accusing religion of causing ignorance and bigotry. We cause ignorance and bigotry. Humanity. Which one of us atheists is prepared to claim utter unignorance and unbigotry? This is something native to our species. Look at what's-his-name who claimed a genetic superiority between races; was his bigotry religious in nature? If we blame religion for our ignorance, we're missing the fact that ignorance is our default state, and must be unlearned.

And if religion's not the root to all of our woes, then when we dismiss religious people for the myths they seek to understand we are spreading intolerance and misunderstanding of a school of thought. Again, I'm not saying that the people who buy into the Bible literally are people whose beliefs we need to accept for truth (though we can at least not be utter dicks towards them, in the hopes that then we can continue conversation); but the people who use the Bible (or whichever other religious thingy) as a springboard for understanding deeper levels of truth and meaning are frequently hitting upon important questions and ideas, and when we go after them, we're simultaneously dismissing a whole bunch of people with relevant thoughts, and we're teaching a certain category of religious person to think of us as ignorant and intolerant.

The fact that some people think it's okay to be ignorant and intolerant of religion, because religion is not an attempt to express factual truth, goes to show that we in the science camp aren't exactly morally superior to the people we hate in the religious camp. Yes, religious people are fucking up a whole lot of shit in the world. But aren't we supposed to be able to understand the complexity of something as grandiose as religion, and understand that people look for the truth in a whole lot of ways, each of which offers its own advantages and drawbacks? We're all-too-willing to assume the morally superior stance, black-and-white our opponents, and use that black-and-white interpretation to continue not to tolerate their approach to the world, simply because it is not ours.

I am an atheist, but I want to understand people who are not atheist. I don't mean "understand" in the sense of "why do these people delude themselves so?" I mean "understand" in the sense of "what truths are there to be gleaned from the ways these people look for truth?" What do these people know that I don't know?

And, hell, this doesn't just apply to Christianity and Buddhism. It applies to poetry and novels, funk music and punk music and pop music, theater and film and video games and dance, economics, sociology, all that jazz. Everybody's looking for truth. Not all of these truths are at odds with one another. In fact, I'd argue that it's rare for somebody to only seek a certain truth. How many biologists think that chemists' research isn't worthwhile? Are there many scientists who could say that they've never learned something from a work of art of some sort? And is it really hard to imagine that the myths and fables and fairy tales have something to teach us beyond that surface level of "knowing" a story? That there might be something important and powerful lurking within these stories?

When Alia tells us that the God she refers to is somehow transcendent, somehow beyond the universe, why do we insist on assuming that she's referring to some kind of human figure who's just lurking right offstage? Is it so hard to understand that when she says "God" she's referring to something different than that sky-man we all know doesn't exist? Why do we have to snark and insist that she "prove" God when she says over and over that her God isn't the kind of God who exists in the framework of scientific proof? That her God doesn't invalidate any of science, but rather is another way of looking at the world entirely that gives her something which science does not?

Again, I am an atheist. If Alia uses her belief in God to justify, say, not teaching Darwin's theory of evolution, I'll accuse her of intolerance. (Alia, I am not saying you're using your belief to justify this.) I don't think that religious faith allows you to deny science. But when somebody of faith says that they feel their beliefs have a certain validity, a certain truth, then I am capable of understanding that they're not talking about a truth that involves the physical mechanics of the universe. Perhaps I don't immediately understand what that truth is. My religious education largely ended after my bar mitzvah and my renunciation of a material God. But I want to know more about their idea of truth, and the only way for me to talk to them about it is to discuss religion on the terms of religion, not on the terms of science. It's either that, or I decide not to talk to them at all, or maybe even mock them or sneer at them. But then I'd hope that I at least have the self-awareness to admit that I am no better than the people I mock and dismiss.

I am not disappointed in Hawking for expressing his nonbelief the way that he did. If we're talking about material existence, I think he's completely accurate, and when we die our physical selves cease to exist. But when religious people think about heaven they are not thinking about a physical place, or a "place" at all. They're thinking about a certain mode of existing, in which our physical bodies and consciousnesses are not the entirety of "us". It's a different way of thinking of "I", since for most of us our definition of "I" begins and ends with our consciousnesses. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's a wrong way of thinking, or that thinking in such meta-physical terms can't lead us to thoughts and ideas and truths which we wouldn't find otherwise.

I am a little disappointed that MetaFilter is so bad at discussing religion, and that so many intelligent people on this site are willing to trust their collective blind spots. But I'm not much less blind than those people, and I've only started thinking about these things this year, so I completely understand that blind spot, and I hope that my attempts to grasp at a greater meaning of heaven and God and religion might inspire other people to attempt similar things.

To those of you who have thought about this more than I have: I'm sorry if my attempts are crude and piss-poor, and I'd love you to teach me more, either on this thread, or in private if things here don't get better.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:34 PM on May 16, 2011 [28 favorites]


And why do you suppose that is?

See theory of mind, above. Also, see appendix and vestigial tail.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:34 PM on May 16, 2011


I grew up in a very religious family. I was compelled to attend church every Sunday while I remained in my mom's house. I was even compelled to attend approximately three years of bible study. I'm versed.

And I understand this "organ of perception" or faith.


I grew up in a Jewish household, Loquacious, and I attended many Roman Catholic services on my father's side. I studied Torah for quite a few years. I felt I understood religion, and the desire for faith, and thus felt justified in my rejection of it, and in my decision that it was false or deceptive or delusional.

I would like to ask you to consider how certain you are that you understand the purpose of faith as thoroughly as you do. I wouldn't ask you to change your mind without being convinced; but I'd like to request that you never shut your mind to the possibility that there is more to this issue than you fully grasp. The easiest way to look foolish about something is to convince yourself that you understand it. I keep having to be taught that myself.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:38 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


And why do you suppose that is?

Gullible people are easier to control in tribe-sized social units, conferring a reproductive advantage.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:40 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


And why do you suppose that is?

Because as I and others in this thread have been discussing it's a useful trait for an intelligence to develop. It's not limited to humans, either - it's a function of intelligence. We know primates and dolphins can intelligently "guess" or "believe" things. Ask any dog owner if their dog can guess when they're going for a walk.

To answer the question properly we will have to wait for a further understanding of "mind" and "brain" and if there's a difference between the two. At this point it's looking like "not" - the entirely unromantic notion that you and I and every living thing on this planet is really just the complicated equation of their electrochemical potential reacting and adapting to a dynamic universe.
posted by loquacious at 8:40 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


We've got as many idiot atheists as we've got idiot God-worshippers.

Statistically, this is just really unlikely.

(Mostly just nitpicking because I can't favorite your post more than once. )
posted by weston at 8:42 PM on May 16, 2011


Now I kinda want an "Idiot Atheist" T-Shirt.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:45 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


I am a little disappointed that MetaFilter is so bad at discussing religion

Part of that stems from some calling atheists bigots with no provocation, whatsoever.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:52 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


We ought to stop accusing religion of causing ignorance and bigotry. We cause ignorance and bigotry.

This bears repetition, and I don't accusing belief of causing ignorance or bigotry, but that I wish belief wasn't used to hide ignorance or bigotry. I hope I was pretty clear, there.

Religion isn't the only social construct used to justify bigotry or hatred, it just happens to be the topic that we're on.

I would like to ask you to consider how certain you are that you understand the purpose of faith as thoroughly as you do. I wouldn't ask you to change your mind without being convinced; but I'd like to request that you never shut your mind to the possibility that there is more to this issue than you fully grasp. The easiest way to look foolish about something is to convince yourself that you understand it. I keep having to be taught that myself.

I would go so far as to say that I'm actually agnostic and not atheist. I'm certainly someone who believes there's something inexplicable and even magic about life, and like I tend to go on about - the universe is a really big, strange, complicated thing.

This is a great discussion/answer from Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson answering the question "Do you believe in UFOs?" while talking about the "argument from ignorance" and tangenting through the topics like the fraility of eyewitness and subjective perception, the differences between perception and evidence/proof, how much we don't know and the amazing probabilities of concepts like the multiverse and pie.
posted by loquacious at 8:54 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


Part of that stems from some calling atheists bigots with no provocation, whatsoever.

I never once called an atheist a bigot, Alex.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:55 PM on May 16, 2011


Something something Tea Party, St. Alia, beating-a-dead-horse, something something.

Religion, as I know it in America, is such an obvious extortion of human sympathy and kindness, and as loquacious so beautifully put it above, a horrific way to keep the masses from educating themselves by pidgeon-holing them into a specific mindset, basically providing them an excuse to not even attempt to study anything because a certain book that continues to fly off of the shelves at your local Wal-Mart says so.

You're told from the day that you're born that things are this way, not that way, and if you want to be accepted, you're going to deal with it and do as the fairies tell you. There's so much fulfillment in the world, so much beauty, and it has absolutely nothing to do with God. We're on a beautiful planet with beautiful people, who if they learned to respect each other instead of trying to use religion as a means to revoke rights from others based on the way someone wants to interpret a piece of fiction, might be able to see that the high that they believe they're getting from God is just the high of life, of living, of love and possibilities.

Rory, I respect your theory, but I still think it's a pretty bold and somewhat high-and-mighty statement to tell someone that they probably aren't as smart as they think they are and that in your ability to be 'more understanding', you somehow are. No one here is not 'understanding'. Faith has merits, but not when it's keeping a species from progressing because a margin of the population are profiting off of herding the sheep any way they can for as long as they can, using any means necessary.
posted by june made him a gemini at 8:57 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


how much we don't know and the amazing probabilities of concepts like the multiverse and pie

Err, correction - multiverse and pie not included in that video. I was confusing it in my head with a different TED video.
posted by loquacious at 8:58 PM on May 16, 2011


He has set it up that at least in this universe, it takes faith to notice He's around.

So your god sets things up and then makes it difficult to notice him. OK. Fine. But then what exactly does he do? What good is he? How does his presence matter? Seriously. Where do you go once your faith has allowed you to notice he's there? Or (to quote Peggy Lee) is that all there is?
posted by binturong at 8:58 PM on May 16, 2011


I never once called an atheist a bigot, Alex.

Perhaps before you lecture everyone on how we should discuss religion on Metafilter, Rory, it would be good if you come to some honest acceptance of what you said in the Metatalk thread in question. That said, this thread has been going just fine, your comments notwithstanding.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:04 PM on May 16, 2011


Metafilter: From your mouth to... uh... Higgs bosoms.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:08 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not sure if this has been said, but isn't Hawking's apparent certainty on this point decidedly unscientific?

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, despite Occam's razor.
posted by hamandcheese at 9:11 PM on May 16, 2011


On the subject of pet beliefs, or: who knew the catholic church had a sense of humor?
posted by Redhush at 9:14 PM on May 16, 2011


FWIW, I think Rory's big post here is probably the most reasonable, thoughtful, sincere and curious (about other points of view) post in this thread thus far and I wanted to express that openly, instead of just quietly favoriting like I normally do. I really enjoyed reading that, Rory; thanks.
posted by byanyothername at 9:17 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hamandcheese, I believe the way it works is that the person making the claim of existence shoulders the burden of proof. Much like how I imagine you are fairly certain that people cannot fly and that the events of Star Wars are fictional, despite nobody having point-by-point refuted each and every possible thing about these notions.
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:17 PM on May 16, 2011


No, I don't think he or I see it that way, hamandcheese. It's like...the religious side wants to point to this god-shaped silhouette and go, "Okay, maybe that's not god, but you don't know, right?" And the atheists are going"...but there's no silhouette there."

I don't know how to articulate it that might better illustrate the difference. I have no evidence that there isn't an invisible, intangible basketball floating in the middle of my living room. You could argue that I therefore don't have evidence of absence, but I would really like you to establish a reason why there might be a basketball there before I'd agree that the lack of evidence isn't really conclusive. Do you see what I mean? It seems to me the religious side likes to point to (mystical feelings, origins of life, origins of the universe) and say, "There, doesn't seem like maybe we need to seriously discuss the basketball?", and the atheist side is like, "I've carefully considered your (mystical feelings, origins of life/universe) and I don't see any suggestion of the basketball?"

I don't think that made it any clearer. Oh, well.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:21 PM on May 16, 2011


Perhaps before you lecture everyone on how we should discuss religion on Metafilter, Rory, it would be good if you come to some honest acceptance of what you said in the Metatalk thread in question. That said, this thread has been going just fine, your comments notwithstanding.

It would be great if you'd stop accusing everyone with whom you disagree, always, everywhere, of arguing in bad faith and being liars. Or, if you insist on continuing in this practice, could you be less coy about it? Sincerely.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:21 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


I guess science is just God's beard. So to speak.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:24 PM on May 16, 2011


This is a great discussion/answer from Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson answering the question "Do you believe in UFOs?"

People in this thread are talking about, among other things, the origin of science and the origin of religion. But let's keep in mind that the earliest scientists were mostly religious. Newton, for example, was definitely religious. I think it's possible they both come from the same place. a desire to know or perhaps a desire to feel certainty. If you can convince yourself you know the reasons for the universe, even if that answer is "gods will" then that satiates the desire to know.

On the other hand, curiosity may lead you to examine things and explore and do research as well. Newton, I think, (not sure exactly) thought that it was possible for people to understand the mind of god the same way they learned to understand the workings of the universe (or so they thought at the time).

Also, I think people can feel the same wonder and astonishment at the answers provided by science as other people do about religion.

So I don't think it's fair to say that science and religion have different innate bases in terms of the structure of the human mind.

There are lots of just so stories about how such things might have evolved. Obviously an animal with curiosity would have a better chance of survival in some environments, and less chance in others.
posted by delmoi at 9:24 PM on May 16, 2011


As if there's some rule against eminent physicists making blunt, down-to-earth statements.

An atheist's worst sin is being direct, these days. I guess it's progress, of a sort, for Western societies.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:25 PM on May 16, 2011


Also, i think there's a bit of a U.S/U.K split in terms of how effective "outspoken" atheist rhetoric is. In the U.K there are far fewer religious people, especially strongly religious so trying to demonstrate that religion is ridiculous by ridiculing it might be more effective. In the U.S, it just seems kind of rude.

The other thing to remember is that the purpose of advocacy is to win over people who are persuadable, not convince the hard core about anything.
posted by delmoi at 9:28 PM on May 16, 2011


St. Alia of the Bunnies: "Not only do we want to believe, but we're physically wired to believe

And why do you suppose that is?
"

I've never believed, I've never "wanted" to believe, not once, ever. Same for my parents, and their parents, and their siblings, and their siblings' children, etc. etc. etc.

So "we" are not physically wired to believe. A lot of us are programmed to, though.

Why do you suppose that is?
posted by tzikeh at 9:29 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


God hates your family?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:30 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


not as much as He hates me, obviously...
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:31 PM on May 16, 2011


Blazecock Pileon: Perhaps before you lecture everyone on how we should discuss religion on Metafilter, Rory, it would be good if you come to some honest acceptance of what you said in the Metatalk thread in question.

Which MetaTalk thread is this, please? I don't see a link or a mention.

posted by tzikeh at 9:32 PM on May 16, 2011


dammit. that <em> tag was closed on preview!
posted by tzikeh at 9:33 PM on May 16, 2011


We ought to stop accusing religion of causing ignorance and bigotry. We cause ignorance and bigotry. Humanity.

Many people above were fine with implying that social Darwinism causes ignorance and bigotry -- and that's without even getting into Godwin. If we're going to say that nothing ever causes ignorance and bigotry (because "we cause it"), that's one thing... but if not, then it seems to me that religion is a fair target for said accusation, just as every other human institution is.

But aren't we supposed to be able to understand the complexity of something as grandiose as religion, and understand that people look for the truth in a whole lot of ways, each of which offers its own advantages and drawbacks? We're all-too-willing to assume the morally superior stance, black-and-white our opponents, and use that black-and-white interpretation to continue not to tolerate their approach to the world, simply because it is not ours.

Again, unless you're willing to say this about everything -- including things our society is incredibly black-and-white about -- then it's nothing more than special pleading. You are telling me that anti-religious people are in a blind spot, aren't trying, are unconcerned with understanding, are immature and unwilling to engage, don't know as much as they think they know about religion, blah blah etc... and then you're telling me that I mustn't ever think any of these things about the religious, because that would be too black-and-white? Give me a break.

If truth can be found in "Christianity and Buddhism. It applies to poetry and novels, funk music and punk music and pop music, theater and film and video games and dance, economics, sociology, all that jazz", then there's truth to be found in the "militant" atheism of the anti-religious, too. And if you don't agree, that's fine, but I'd like to request that you never shut your mind to the possibility that there is more to this issue than you fully grasp...
posted by vorfeed at 9:33 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's a really, REALLY annoying habit of liberal, ecumenical, and interfaith religious people. They'll embrace post-modern uncertainty, deism, and pantheism. They'll embrace Einstein, Spinoza, post-conversion Flew along with Hildegarde of Bingen, Rumi, and C.S. Lewis. They'll embrace "spirituality" from a half dozen different traditions they barely understand which historically had radically different ideas about gods and the universe. And they'll say that there's beauty, value, and truth to all of it, damn the contradictions.

But. Not. Atheists.

We are the case study in doing it wrong. We lack the higher understanding, organ of perception, Maslow's "peak experiences, or spiritual drive. We also lack beauty, love, awe, poetry, art, and humility. And it gets extremely frustrating to be told we need to be more polite, open-minded, and collegial with people who will then say that I'm less than fully human.

Rory: I would like to ask you to consider how certain you are that you understand the purpose of faith as thoroughly as you do. I wouldn't ask you to change your mind without being convinced; but I'd like to request that you never shut your mind to the possibility that there is more to this issue than you fully grasp. The easiest way to look foolish about something is to convince yourself that you understand it. I keep having to be taught that myself.

Well gee, I've experienced the Great Rite in the form of a divine revelation. Not the nice metaphor of chalice and blade, not the symbolic role-play, but Goddess and God in their wonderful pansexual glory in an unprompted vision that was more real than real. The series of revelations that led me beyond them were, likewise, as much experienced as considered.

Which is why I find the claim that we would believe, but can't because we're just not open to the right experiences to be patently insulting. And it's not just here, but something that I see cross my newsfeed on a weekly basis.

I also, suspect that arguing faith is extremely difficult because of these subjectively powerful revelatory experiences. Which is why I've largely given up on conversion.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:35 PM on May 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


Which MetaTalk thread is this, please? I don't see a link or a mention.

Since I'm being called a liar, here is the thread in question.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:35 PM on May 16, 2011


Not only were the earliest scientists mostly religious. All scientists now are lazily religious. I down with Hawking about the seeming silliness of the afterlife.

But what makes him, and unreflecting atheists like him, so full of it, imho, is that they don't realize that our society is still held together by the residual irrationality of religious systems.

There is NO basis for moral behavior in rational thought. The last person to even attempt it was Kant, and the effort is now considered laughable.

As Theodor Adorno wrote in his "Dialectic of Enlightenment", scientific rationality perversely threatens to throw us all back into the worst kind of regressive animal barbarism:

"Reason is at the service of every natural interest. Becoming simply an organ, thinking reverts to nature. For the rulers, human beings become mere material, as the whole of nature has become material for society. After the brief interlude of liberalism in which the bourgeois kept one another in check, power is revealing itself as archaic terror in a fascistically rationalized form."

In other words, once the admittedly completely irrational habits and fears of a Christian society wear off, science replaces it with nothing but survival of the fittests. Kill or be killed. Destroy or be destroyed.

This is not apparent to us because we are still living through the Christian twilight.

So by all means, Stephen, laugh at the fairy stories about "hell", but remember that Christian brotherhood and love for your fellow man through the mediation of God's all-powerful love is JUST AS BIG A FAIRY STORY. A real laugher that one. Total BS. Really. It is. The idea that we should keep a child with ALS around? Why? Because on the off one in a million chance he'll turn out to be a genius scientists. Sorry, dude. The probabilities don't justify it. In a perfectly rational society, weak and deformed children like you get gently and quietly exterminated. It's called eugenics. And believe you me, it's PERFECTLY RATIONAL.

And when everyone wakes up from their childish belief in the need to love and respect their fellow human beings, science will leave us, ironically, in a state of perfectly rational barbarism and self-destruction.
posted by macross city flaneur at 9:38 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Not only do we want to believe, but we're physically wired to believe

And some of our fellow human beings appear to be wired to be sexually attracted to members of their own sex. Did you really fail to appreciate where your line of argument would lead or are you being selectively disingenuous? There is another option, but I am going to be kind and presume you did not argue in *cough* bad faith.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:38 PM on May 16, 2011


There is NO basis for moral behavior in rational thought. The last person to even attempt it was Kant, and the effort is now considered laughable.

As Theodor Adorno wrote in his "Dialectic of Enlightenment", scientific rationality perversely threatens to throw us all back into the worst kind of regressive animal barbarism:


I am only a lowly Philosophy lecturer, but I suspect you are reading Kant wrong and you are most certainly reading Adorno wrong.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:40 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


And, for the record, the Dialectic of Enlightenment was/is a book-length text, not an essay. And it was co-authored by Max Horkheimer, so, you know: credit where it is due. Again: you seem to suffer from a bizarrely narrow reading of the text in question.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:42 PM on May 16, 2011


joe lisboa, the entire thrust of Dialectic of Englightenment is that the triumph of reason threatens to throw us back into complete barbarism, and one of Adorno's major points is that Kant's effort to provide a rational justification for morality is one of the weakest (and least respected) parts of his entire output.

Suspect all you want. These are not fine details of Adorno's argument. They are the major pillars of it.
posted by macross city flaneur at 9:43 PM on May 16, 2011


I also want to bring up something that's often brought up with regards to the Flying Spaghetti Monster thing, and that Rory mentions in his longer post in terms of "the sky-man we all know doesn't exist".

I think I've finally understood why FSM is hated on so much (besides snarky, condescending references by smug atheists). I think poor FSM is misunderstood.

At least, it seems to me that something like this is happening: The Flying Spaghetti Monster is supposed to be some sort of analog to real religions (true so far). And the point atheists are raising with FSM is that real religions are similarly ridiculous (false!). And therefore they must be thinking of like bearded, white-robed, cloud-throned Sky God! I don't believe in that, so the argument is a straw man!

But this isn't the point of the FSM analogy. The point of the FSM analogy isn't the ridiculousness of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but the arbitrariness of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The point is that one set of arbitrary beliefs makes as much sense as any other. So it doesn't really matter, from my view on the FSM thing, whether you believe in Sky God or Thor or just like, hand-wavey greater purpose stuff, or something. They strike me as equivalently random. Well, no, I guess the specific randomness of Sky God is more arbitrary than the vague higher power type thing, but that just seems like a matter of degree.

And so when I've had discussions like these, I've unconsciously always used mundane arbitrary beliefs, like the basketball I was talking about, rather than ridiculous ones. Because to the typical atheist, the illustrative value of the arbitrary factor is enhanced by "arbitrarily" choosing something more ridiculous, like FSM. But to the theist, the ridiculousness gets confused for the point (understandably). Not to mention that there are plenty of atheists making the same error.

Damn, that's been bothering me for years. I don't think that'll matter to anyone but me, but I finally understand the beef with ole' FSM and all these "straw men" comments drawn from the theists.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:45 PM on May 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


macross city flaneur: In other words, once the admittedly completely irrational habits and fears of a Christian society wear off, science replaces it with nothing but survival of the fittests. Kill or be killed. Destroy or be destroyed.

Not really. It's pretty much plainly obvious to anyone that living that way would make society go down in flames, which is really in nobody's interest. You have to try to think of a workable model for society, and for everyone's behavior, and that becomes the new morality.

On the other hand, if you believe what you want to believe instead of basing what you believe on what is verifiable and real, you can pretty much believe anything at all. If you can handle the mental gymnastics, you can pretty much do whatever you want to do, and consider it good. You know what kind of toxic philosophies that has brought to the world over the years.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:46 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Suspect all you want. These are not fine details of Adorno's argument. They are the major pillars of it.


Okay, granting this for the sake of argument (troublingly over-simplified though it may be), how does this square (i.e., have anything to do with) a debate over the putative (personal) immorality of Homo Sapiens? Are you a Catholic-schooled philosophy major or something?

I was too. It is why I ask.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:46 PM on May 16, 2011


No, joe lisboa, I'm not a religious believer at all. And neither was Adorno. For him, we don't have the choice of returning to Christian belief. We must work through "thought", and enlightenment is the path of thought.

But nor can we ignore the lack of a rational basis for moral behavior.

It is fine to say, as Mitrovarr does, that "it's plainly obvious we should be good to each other". The point is there's no RATIONAL basis for believing that.

It is just as much a fairy story as heaven and hell, just as much an act of faith, just as IRRATIONAL.

Which is why I say scientists, like Mitrovarr, are lazy Christians.
posted by macross city flaneur at 9:50 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


And when everyone wakes up from their childish belief in the need to love and respect their fellow human beings, science will leave us, ironically, in a state of perfectly rational barbarism and self-destruction.

I thought this whole kind of silly argument had been forever and resolutely put to bed by the simple point that we can all suggest improvements to the morality put forth in the Bible (or whatever religious text you suggest has pervaded my unconscious).

No? If I'm capable of saying, "The God of the Bible seems like kind of a dick," isn't that proof that we're capable of extra-religious moral reasoning?
posted by neuromodulator at 9:51 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is NO basis for moral behavior in rational thought.

Love exists. If it exists in the absence of supernatural intervention, then it is our birthright. What rational mind would discard such treasure for short term reward and violent death? Love is rational. Morality is rational. That logic can be applied to an argument for selfishness does not make it the best argument. It makes it a convenient excuse for the selfish. Which is the same weakness in religion. Whatever core values may be contained in any tradition, it is still up to humanity not to fuck it up. Which is why losing our religion wouldn't magically make anything better. It would just give us different reasons to do whatever it is we decide to do.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:52 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


There is NO basis for moral behavior in rational thought. The last person to even attempt it was Kant, and the effort is now considered laughable.
I think what you can say is that people have an innate drive to morality and ethics without needing some other reason. We don't need religion to make us want to have sex, which is necessary for the propagation of the species, why would we need it to behave with a modicum of morality (i.e. not killing each other) which is equally necessary.

There's also the game theory aspect, where being nice to other people results in a more optimal situation for yourself.

These are things you can test empirically and it turns out even infants, who don't even speak or understand language, and thus couldn't possibly have a religious basis for their actions have a sense of right and wrong.

The "We need religion to hold society together" isn't reasonable. China and Russia aren't falling apart, despite governments that tried to clamp down on religion.
posted by delmoi at 9:54 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


"Love exists."

Oh? Describe an experiment that would prove that.
posted by macross city flaneur at 9:54 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


There is NO basis for moral behavior in rational thought. The last person to even attempt it was Kant, and the effort is now considered laughable. ...

I am only a lowly Philosophy lecturer, but I suspect you are reading Kant wrong ...


He isn't misreading Kant. Kant did try to ground morality in rationality. And the results were laughable by moderns standards.

The problem is that he's drawing a mistaken conclusion from the fact that Kant's theory is flawed, by saying there is "NO basis for moral behavior in rational thought." Pointing to Kant as an example of someone with a bad ethical theory doesn't show that morality doesn't have a rational basis.
posted by John Cohen at 9:55 PM on May 16, 2011


And neither was Adorno. For him, we don't have the choice of returning to Christian belief.

Uh, you know his family was Jewish, right? Like, persecuted by the Nazis / change his surname to that of his Italian mother Jewish? Do you really want to continue this conversation? Your soapbox pronouncements on the merits of the last two-hundred years of moral philosophy gives you the airs of a Randian / C.S. Lewisian (sp?) undergrad, which is why I tried to give you the opportunity for a dignified out. Again: you have yet to demonstrate what any of your various comments have to do with the ostensible topic at hand. God (ha!) forbid you actually speak for Adorno and mention (however casually) that belief in personal immortality might, just might, serve some other interest.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:58 PM on May 16, 2011


But, John Cohen, the point of Adorno's argument is not that morality has no rational basis, but that every attempt to furnish one has been terribly flawed, and the fact that we assume "there must be one somewhere", while perhaps it may turn out to be proven one day, must be accorded the status of "faith" at this moment.

The burden is not on me to demonstrate that morality has no rational basis. Since you're the one that believes it does, then the burden is on YOU to prove that it does.

Until you, or someone else, does, it's a "fairy story" in Hawking's parlance.
posted by macross city flaneur at 9:58 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is fine to say, as Mitrovarr does, that "it's plainly obvious we should be good to each other". The point is there's no RATIONAL basis for believing that.
There's no rational basis for wanting to have sex or even to continue to live. But we all feel those things. There are plenty of rational reasons not to want to overeat, but in fact it's hard not too.

The simple answer is that it's possible that humans have an innate desire to help out and be altruistic towards other people, as well as to punish them for transgressions.
Oh? Describe an experiment that would prove that.
Love is a psychological effect that can be measured empirically. All you have to do is ask people to self-report how much they love certain things. Say on a 1-10 scale. This can be used to predict their behavior towards those things.
posted by delmoi at 9:59 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


The burden is not on me to demonstrate that morality has no rational basis. Since you're the one that believes it does, then the burden is on YOU to prove that it does.
No, there is no need to prove that morality has a rational basis. In fact there is no reason for morality to have a rational basis. An irrational basis is perfectly sufficient.
posted by delmoi at 10:00 PM on May 16, 2011


Not only do we want to believe, but we're physically wired to believe

And why do you suppose that is?


I remember this old Steve Martin / Lilly Tomlin movie, and there was this Guru from India. He was for the first time in a modern environment, in a fancy hotel. Somehow he linked the phone ringing to the toilet flushing. So later, when he heard the phone ring, he'd run into the bathroom and flush the toilet.

Some people look at the universe and see the glory of god. Oopsie!
posted by Meatbomb at 10:01 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Man, I'm going through youtube's 'related videos' and I'm finding tons of great bits from Tyson and also dawkins.

this vid is really interesting, and fits well with the thread. It's labeled "Dawkins vs. Tyson" but it's actually Tyson making the point about being to pointed in discussing science. Dawkins answer is pretty awesome too.
posted by delmoi at 10:03 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The burden is not on me to demonstrate that morality has no rational basis. Since you're the one that believes it does, then the burden is on YOU to prove that it does.

Until you, or someone else, does, it's a "fairy story" in Hawking's parlance.


DUDE. You Are Going To Die. Period. We Tried to Help You Dealing With This Fact. You Declined. Good Luck with That. Peace Out.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:04 PM on May 16, 2011


joe lisboa, whatever impact Adorno's Judaism may have had on his thinking, he kept it to himself. It did not enter in any overtly significant way into his thought.

Now we can perhaps construct a Judaic foundation for his arguments, but Adorno himself does not do so.

And Adorno does very much say that we cannot turn back the clock on enlightenment and re-enter into some pre-rational religious phase.

Adorno in fact does not argue for any positive program of moral systematizing. He is committed, perhaps more than any philosopher, to "negative" projects, which is to say the application of critique to positive systems.

And please, try to avoid personalizing this. No one's dignity is at risk here. Certainly not mine. Declaring that you've given me an "out" only makes you sound like you're trying to win a debate.
posted by macross city flaneur at 10:05 PM on May 16, 2011


"An irrational basis is perfectly sufficient."

If that's the case, then I suppose you would acknowledge that Hawking's whole basis for finding fault with religion disappears, yes?
posted by macross city flaneur at 10:06 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


whatever impact Adorno's Judaism may have had on his thinking, he kept it to himself. It did not enter in any overtly significant way into his thought.

You are wrong. Demonstrably so. Good night, sir.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:07 PM on May 16, 2011


If that's the case, then I suppose you would acknowledge that Hawking's whole basis for finding fault with religion disappears, yes?

What? You're saying if someone says something like, "I think an instinctual basis for morality is sufficient", they must concede, "that concluding religious beliefs are not well-grounded is impossible"? Is that your point?

Here: I think there's an instinctive drive for mothers to take care of their young, and that's good. I think there's an instinctive drive for me to feel angry towards someone accidentally bumping into me, and that's bad. Was that hard?
posted by neuromodulator at 10:10 PM on May 16, 2011


"Love is a psychological effect that can be measured empirically. All you have to do is ask people to self-report how much they love certain things."

And by this standard then, all we need to do to prove God exists is to ask people to self-report their beliefs?
posted by macross city flaneur at 10:11 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Adorno in fact does not argue for any positive program of moral systematizing. He is committed, perhaps more than any philosopher, to "negative" projects, which is to say the application of critique to positive systems.

Then why attempt to shoehorn his admittedly complex analysis into a justification for the claim that your precious sweet little soul should and will exist into perpetuity? Setting aside basic narcissism and self-preservation? Oh wait. Exactly.

I will be the first to raise a toast at your funereal, sir, but common decency alone will keep me from pretending that you will magically reappear in the fourth act after the credits roll. Stop elevating hubris as a virtue, please.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:11 PM on May 16, 2011


The irony is that he is only alive today because of the religious notion that human life is sacred. Otherwise he would have been discarded as defective long ago.
posted by eeeeeez at 10:12 PM on May 16, 2011


If that's the case, then I suppose you would acknowledge that Hawking's whole basis for finding fault with religion disappears, yes?
What is it? All I read was that he didn't believe in the afterlife. I didn't say he thought religion was bad.

Different people have different critiques of religion. You can look at Dawkins or Hitchens and see people make the claim that religion is, by itself, a problem but I don't personally share that view. I think religious people tend to interpret their religion in a way that fits with how they feel anyway .
posted by delmoi at 10:14 PM on May 16, 2011


OH my god, are we having an actual, thoughtful discussion on religion, here on Metafilter!?! Perish the thought!

Wait, nevermind.

Regarding the whole rational basis thing - well, in my view, it kind of comes down to the scope of what is called the person (something that is by no means a clear line!). For instance, if I feel good for, say, helping someone across the street, then such is a rational action for me to take (I like to feel good!). If however, we view the release of hormones in the brain as part of our conscious, then we might see it as an irrational pleasure-button response carried over from humanity's tribal days.

That said, I thought that the economic description of humanity as merely self-motivated actors was rather discredited, at least in purely descriptive terms? In most cases, humans (not humanity) don't act that way at all.
posted by Arandia at 10:14 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Then why attempt to shoehorn his admittedly complex analysis into a justification for the claim that your precious sweet little soul should and will exist into perpetuity?"

I'm not arguing that. And I don't believe it. The point is that all the snarky and reductive sniping at the irrationality of x,y, and z religious beliefs fails to grapple with the nuance that we are all in various degrees implicated in irrational beliefs, and that, in fact, irrationalism founds society every bit as much as rationalism does.

I think it's difficult for the afterlife NOT to appear silly to a sufficiently thoughtful modern, as is a great deal of what the world's major religious traditions preach.

But our criticism of those beliefs must be tempered by an awareness of the complex way irrationalism contributes in positive ways to our society.

In other words, circumspection on this issue would make us all a bit less snarky.
posted by macross city flaneur at 10:16 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


And by this standard then, all we need to do to prove God exists is to ask people to self-report their beliefs?
No, but we can measure their belief in god that way. You obviously believe that Religion is a real thing with an effect on the world. How is that different then love? Both exist only inside people's heads. All we know about them is what people tell us.
posted by delmoi at 10:16 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


The irony is that he is only alive today because of the religious notion that human life is sacred. Otherwise he would have been discarded as defective long ago.

This explains the strident championing of universal health care in the United States by the religious right.
posted by maxwelton at 10:16 PM on May 16, 2011 [10 favorites]


The irony is that he is only alive today because of the religious notion that human life is sacred.

Yes, because religions the world over the REALLY good at sticking to that maxim. Never killed nobody for any reason. Nosiree.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:17 PM on May 16, 2011


"Love exists."

Oh? Describe an experiment that would prove that.


No problem. Choosing for the sake of brevity a narrow definition, I'd say we examine claims versus behaviour in the light of your claim that reason alone must lead to barbaric self interest. Therefore, we take a large sampling of people claiming to love one another. We test their physical responses to images, sounds, smells, etc., of their loved ones. Just for data. Then we offer them the chance to sacrifice their lives to save the lives of their loved ones. If a sufficiently high percentage of mothers who claim to love their children and lovers who claim to love their partners and who don't show physiological signs of lying are willing to act against their own self interest and sacrifice themselves for those they love, then we have evidence to believe that "love," whatever the mechanism or purpose, is something that can be said to exist.

I mean, it wouldn't be a very popular experiment... I hope... You'd probably have to air it after 9:00...
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:18 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


eeeeeez, I'd argue that it was religion that co-opted humanity's tribe-focused ethics, rather than the other way around. Thus, that Religion argues for the disabled to be treated with respect beyond their mere utility is only coincidental to Hawking's survival.
posted by Arandia at 10:19 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


macross city flaneur: The fact that moral philosophy is hard work, and I know just enough to understand that it is, does not mean that Social Darwinism wins by default in the absence of an absolute moral framework. The reason for this is because Evolutionary Biology has absolutely nothing to say about how we should order a society.

Assuming a deity as the basis for morality is just handwaving the problem away.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:21 PM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


eeeeeez, I'd argue that it was religion that co-opted humanity's tribe-focused ethics, rather than the other way around. Thus, that Religion argues for the disabled to be treated with respect beyond their mere utility is only coincidental to Hawking's survival.

Except this makes no sense, seeing as how most tribes are openly hostile to the elderly and disabled and treat them with the utmost brutality. Likewise children.
posted by eeeeeez at 10:22 PM on May 16, 2011


In other words, circumspection on this issue would make us all a bit less snarky.

... but no less dead once we die.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:24 PM on May 16, 2011


This explains the strident championing of universal health care in the United States by the religious right.

No, it doesn't. What is your point?
posted by eeeeeez at 10:24 PM on May 16, 2011


eeeeeez: "most tribes are openly hostile to the elderly and disabled and treat them with the utmost brutality. Likewise children."

This isn't true. And it smells like racism.
posted by gilrain at 10:25 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


The idea that we should keep a child with ALS around? Why? Because on the off one in a million chance he'll turn out to be a genius scientists. Sorry, dude. The probabilities don't justify it. In a perfectly rational society, weak and deformed children like you get gently and quietly exterminated. It's called eugenics. And believe you me, it's PERFECTLY RATIONAL.

And when everyone wakes up from their childish belief in the need to love and respect their fellow human beings, science will leave us, ironically, in a state of perfectly rational barbarism and self-destruction.


First of all, Stephen Hawking was never "a child with ALS". It began to develop while he was working on his Ph.D at Cambridge; I doubt a brilliant physicist who couldn't walk would have been "discarded as defective" in any society, at least not one which values physicists.

Second, you have a poor understanding of what "barbarism and self-destruction" is. Anthropology, sociology, and even animal behaviorism do not support the idea that living creatures simply tear each other apart until there aren't any anymore; quite the contrary. As social animals, we are wired for love and respect for our fellow beings, just as we're wired for violence against those who don't "count" as such... and I see no evidence that Christianity has prevented the latter, much less single-handedly created the former.

And that's the nightmare, isn't it? That we are what we are, animals who invent a million moral fairy stories yet periodically commit ourselves to war and murder, killing and being killed? If so, I doubt we'll be any worse off with rationalist fairy stories based on Game Theory rather than God...
posted by vorfeed at 10:26 PM on May 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


Yes, because religions the world over the REALLY good at sticking to that maxim. Never killed nobody for any reason. Nosiree.

So you think killing is bad?
posted by eeeeeez at 10:26 PM on May 16, 2011


eeeeeez, I'd argue that it was religion that co-opted humanity's tribe-focused ethics, rather than the other way around. Thus, that Religion argues for the disabled to be treated with respect beyond their mere utility is only coincidental to Hawking's survival.

Except this makes no sense, seeing as how most tribes are openly hostile to the elderly and disabled and treat them with the utmost brutality. Likewise children.


Umm... I'm afraid I might have to call Poe's law here. Are you serious?

There is, admittedly, a wide sampling of tribes, just as there are a wide sampling of religions in question. My understanding of them, however, is the vast majority do things like feed and educate (to the best of their ability) their children, respect and listen to their elders, and generally form an extended family circle where everyone largely sinks or swims together. There are a few exceptions in extreme situations, of course, but not by and large by any means.
posted by Arandia at 10:27 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


eeeeez - I think you're missing the sarcasm. If all life is sacred, according to (in this case) Christianity, then the Religious Right should be 100% behind universal health care. They aren't, hence the comment being about the hypocrisy of the Religious Right.
posted by tzikeh at 10:27 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


But this:

But our criticism of those beliefs must be tempered by an awareness of the complex way irrationalism contributes in positive ways to our society.

does not seem to me to be what you're saying here:

If that's the case, then I suppose you would acknowledge that Hawking's whole basis for finding fault with religion disappears, yes?

I mean, yes, we can say "irrationalism contributes in positive ways". Because it's pretty reasonable to consider that a lot or all of our morality was evolutionarily derived. But that raises some obvious questions for me. If I can look at our instincts and judge some good and some bad, how am I doing that? If you're telling me it's informed by religion (which I don't think you are, but that many religious people want to insist), how can I make judgments about the morality of religious beliefs, which I seem to be able to do? If it isn't religion that's allowing me to do that, but maybe reason...then I'm not sure what your point is.

And those points aside, I'm not sure what acknowledging the positive contributions of irrationality have to do with invalidating Hawking's conclusion. Acknowledging the positive contributions of irrationality doesn't seem to mean that I have to therefore concede that I can't make judgments about anything irrational. Or that having irrational motivations for beliefs means other aspects of things outside of motivations (e.g. effects of beliefs, truthfulness of beliefs) become inscrutable to reason.
posted by neuromodulator at 10:28 PM on May 16, 2011


This isn't true. And it smells like racism.

I would kick you in the teeth, but I'm not a savage.
posted by eeeeeez at 10:28 PM on May 16, 2011


Not only do we want to believe, but we're physically wired to believe

I want to point out that I'm the person said this, Not St. Alia. It looks like some people are misattributing the quote.

I'm talking about how we're biologically wired for belief and superstition, how it seems to be a function of pattern recognition, intuition and self awareness.
posted by loquacious at 10:29 PM on May 16, 2011


eeeeez - I think you're missing the sarcasm. If all life is sacred, according to (in this case) Christianity, then the Religious Right should be 100% behind universal health care. They aren't, hence the comment being about the hypocrisy of the Religious Right.

It's a facetious argument, made to play well with the crowd. Because I smoke, I can't argue in favor of no-smoking legislation? What?
posted by eeeeeez at 10:30 PM on May 16, 2011


And that's the nightmare, isn't it? That we are what we are, animals who invent a million moral fairy stories yet periodically commit ourselves to war and murder, killing and being killed? If so, I doubt we'll be any worse off with rationalist fairy stories based on Game Theory rather than God...

I agree, but I disagree. We are products of rationalist Game Theory, except with the 'unit' in the game being the group, rather than the individual. Religion is merely an extended version of this.
posted by Arandia at 10:31 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Assuming a deity as the basis for morality is just handwaving the problem away."

Unfortunately, assuming concepts like "love" and "respect" as the basis for morality is handwavy in a very similar way.

And the idea that we are "wired" for love and respect has as little, or as much, evidence behind it as the idea that we are "wired" for brutality and selfishness.

I'm afraid the jury's out on which of these things motivates us more, and in fact, the societies we've constructed thus far have all had to use a fair bit of coercion and violence to produce relatively consistently safe and fair outcomes.

Now, we can certainly define love and respect in some reductively behaviorist way, and then set up experiments to test for those behaviors. But we could do the very same thing with God.

Again, I'm not trying to defend belief in God. I'm simply trying to counter what I perceive to be the relatively poor arguments that providing a rational basis for moral behavior is a straightforward or simple thing, or that it's been accomplished already.

It isn't. And it hasn't.
posted by macross city flaneur at 10:31 PM on May 16, 2011


eeeeeez: "This isn't true. And it smells like racism.

I would kick you in the teeth, but I'm not a savage.
"

Who are these "savages"?
posted by gilrain at 10:32 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm simply trying to counter what I perceive to be the relatively poor arguments that providing a rational basis for moral behavior is a straightforward or simple thing, or that it's been accomplished already in a thread about the putative immortality of the soul.

Soul-Trolls gonna soul-troll.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:34 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


seeing as how most tribes are openly hostile to the elderly and disabled and treat them with the utmost brutality. Likewise children.

what
posted by rtha at 10:36 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


In case that failed to reach you, macross: this is not a thread about the ontological basis of morality or whatever. This is a thread about what Stephen Hawking had to say about immortality. You somehow managed to make it about you and your personal opinion on the topic (however evidently self-serving and irrelevant) of moral objectivity. You are failing hardcore. Please try harder.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:41 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Again, I'm not trying to defend belief in God. I'm simply trying to counter what I perceive to be the relatively poor arguments that providing a rational basis for moral behavior is a straightforward or simple thing, or that it's been accomplished already.

Certainly, but why the urgency here? It's not as if any other society has done more than negotiate an arbitrary set of moral values and means for enforcing those values. It's not as if any modern secular society with an arbitrary value of human life is gleeful about infanticide or eugenics.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:41 PM on May 16, 2011


And the idea that we are "wired" for love and respect has as little, or as much, evidence behind it as the idea that we are "wired" for brutality and selfishness.

Yes, but that's exactly my point. We exhibit both behaviors, as do all social animals. Thus, the idea that we alone will spiral into the depths of self-destructive depravity without religion to stop us is ridiculous -- wolves don't live that way, bees don't live that way, and apes don't live that way, and it should be obvious that wolves, bees, and apes don't believe in "Christian brotherhood and love for your fellow man through the mediation of God's all-powerful love".
posted by vorfeed at 10:45 PM on May 16, 2011 [11 favorites]


Good night, everybody. Please don't kill any babies or elderly while I'm away.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:46 PM on May 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


"Assuming a deity as the basis for morality is just handwaving the problem away."

Unfortunately, assuming concepts like "love" and "respect" as the basis for morality is handwavy in a very similar way.

And the idea that we are "wired" for love and respect has as little, or as much, evidence behind it as the idea that we are "wired" for brutality and selfishness.


Macross, I'm pretty sure we're as 'wired' for love and respect as much as we are for brutality and selfishness - these aren't exclusionary. That said, I think that a major difference you are overlooking here is the universality of the basis. In a system for and by humans, it makes sense to base moral laws on things humans have in common. The Golden Rule is pretty-much universal! Systems that base their rules on the local Deity(s) fail this test pretty quickly. Just one, quick difference between the two.
posted by Arandia at 10:47 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Good night, everybody. Please don't kill any babies or elderly while I'm away.

Well, that depends. What tribe are they from?
posted by Arandia at 10:47 PM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


Dear gilrain - It is a great testament to whatever wonderful education system you emerged out of that you are so finely attuned to the casual racism that underpins our imperialist notions of "the savage" and "civilization". Kudos. Why you bring race into a discussion about culture, however, is anyone's guess.
posted by eeeeeez at 10:48 PM on May 16, 2011


it should be obvious that wolves, bees, and apes don't believe in "Christian brotherhood and love for your fellow man through the mediation of God's all-powerful love"

And look how they're doing.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:50 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


eeeeeez: "Dear gilrain - It is a great testament to whatever wonderful education system you emerged out of that you are so finely attuned to the casual racism that underpins our imperialist notions of "the savage" and "civilization". Kudos. Why you bring race into a discussion about culture, however, is anyone's guess."

I'm just curious which "tribes" of "savages" exhibit the behavior you're stating as fact. I don't know of any. Even amongst animals.
posted by gilrain at 10:50 PM on May 16, 2011


What tribe are they from?

Your tribe. For every value of "Your".

G'night!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:52 PM on May 16, 2011


And the idea that we are "wired" for love and respect has as little, or as much, evidence behind it as the idea that we are "wired" for brutality and selfishness.
So a couple of things here. First of all there is plenty of evidence for both of those things. And of course people can be incredibly brutal defending the people they love. The individuals these forces are directed at are not the same, thus, wars.

So here's the problem here, your argument can be summed up with the following logical construction:

1) There is no rational reason for people to be moral/ethical
2) Religion is the only source or irrational belief.
3) Given 1 and 2 without religion there will be no reasons to be moral or ethical.
4) Without morals/ethics society will fail.

Now you're saying that people need to prove 1. But what about 2? The argument is that there are innate drives which are not 'rational' and that those include altruistic behavior. And my understanding is that there is plenty of evidence for this. Are babies perfectly rational? Clearly they're not. But they are altruistic. If an adult drops something a baby will try to get it for them. But, at the same time they can't be religious, since they can't use language. And like vorfeed said, apes and wolves and other social animals do the same thing. Chimps don't refrain from killing each other because they are afraid of hell.

Regarding number one. There is a clear game theoretic basis for mutual altruism. If you help someone, they may help you later on and thus that benefits you. On the other hand, game theory may sometimes predict it would be better to take from them. People do both.

So I don't think the theory that religion is required to build a functional society is reasonable.
posted by delmoi at 10:55 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I suffer. This is tautologically bad*. For reasons of symmetry and simplicity I assume a model of the world where other people suffer as well, in largely the same way and for largely the same reasons that I do, even though I can't observe their suffering directly. Since I can't assume I'm the center of the world (symmetry again), their suffering is bad as well. This suffering should be minimized. Everything else is details.

*Asking why suffering is bad is like asking why 1 is the first natural number.
posted by Pyry at 10:58 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Dear gilrain - It is a great testament to whatever wonderful education system you emerged out of that you are so finely attuned to the casual racism that underpins our imperialist notions of "the savage" and "civilization". Kudos. Why you bring race into a discussion about culture, however, is anyone's guess.
As opposed to one that made you feel comfortable opining on 'the savages' without actually being able to name any.
posted by delmoi at 11:01 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


I need to go to bed now, too.

As an atheist, I am hoping that my base instinct to secure a larger share of breakfast resources tomorrow doesn't drive me to kill my girlfriend as I lay down beside her.
posted by gilrain at 11:02 PM on May 16, 2011 [14 favorites]


Thus, the idea that we alone will spiral into the depths of self-destructive depravity without religion to stop us is ridiculous -- wolves don't live that way, bees don't live that way, and apes don't live that way, and it should be obvious that wolves, bees, and apes don't believe in "Christian brotherhood and love for your fellow man through the mediation of God's all-powerful love".


The Golden Rule is pretty-much universal!

And universally ignored.

First of all, we need to acknowledge that the spiral into self-destruction is not an abstraction. Precisely through the lever of triumphant reason, we have come very close to accomplishing this in just the last century. Cuban Missile crisis, anyone? Perhaps we should ask the victims of Hiroshima how barbarous and destructive a society America is? Or the Tuskegeee Airmen? Or the subjects of the tests conducted by the leading members of the cognitive science community, on behalf of the CIA, to determine whether brainwashing was possible?

Or perhaps we should ask the executives of Goldman Sachs how they feel about their fellow human beings? Or just the that wide swath of the middle class who, year after year, declare in opinion polls that they don't want their tax dollars going to help the poor?

Or perhaps we could ask the scientists themselves. Perhaps the ones studying the effects of the BP spill on the health of the Gulf of Mexico? We could ask them if THEY think we are living in a society that is descending into self-destructive barbarism.

And then we might ask them whether, given the narrow interests at stake, whether they think BP, or the CIA, or Harry Truman, acted rationally in carrying out the various acts of self-destructive brutality for which they are responsible. Whether they think, say, game theory, could furnish the logic by which we might condemn those acts.

The point here, again, is NOT that we must preserve religion, or return to religion, as a means of making these kinds of decisions. The point is that the smug condemnation of religious belief on the part of those who claim, implicitly or explicitly, to be wholly motivated by rationality is plainly and simply short-sighted.

ALL of us are caught between rational and irrational beliefs. ALL of us must grapple with ways of trying to achieve a world that is safe and fair and sustainable in this gap between our rational and our irrational selves.

This makes Hawking's comments seem immature, unreflective, and naive. Not because their basic content is flawed. Heaven DOES seem silly. So does being in love, for most of us who've found us in that place. The question is, how do we respond to our self-awareness of that silliness? Do we crush those irrational feelings because they appeal to us? In the case of believing in "heaven", maybe most of us do. Do we necessarily jump to the conclusion that someone who has a different belief is a fool, a dupe, or an idiot?
posted by macross city flaneur at 11:04 PM on May 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


St. Alia of the Bunnies: But to people such as Hawking, they are unable to see it. They lack the organ of perception, so to speak.
Please understand I am not upset with people who don't have faith. I could wish they did have it, tho. It's way cool.


It's funny you should say this. I often marvel at the universe, faithless, and I am amazed at such a thing exists and we are so unfathomably tiny. The random chance of it all, the vast complexness that I'm not sure our brains will ever be able to really fully grasp, all happening just because it happened. No big guy in the sky, no other worldly power, just raw chance. And then I feel sad for the religious, who have to have a crutch to appreciate just how amazing it all is. Who's minds can't fathom the complete wild hair chance that we exist, and that in a blink of an eye, we don't anymore and that we're done forever. That when humans die, we won't be remembered. And who can say how many other lives, beings, and societies in the universe were erased before we were even amoebas. It makes everything so much more special and amazing than any designed universe could be.

I wish the religious could have that perspective. It's way cool.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:06 PM on May 16, 2011 [14 favorites]


The point here, again, is NOT that we must preserve religion, or return to religion, as a means of making these kinds of decisions. The point is that the smug condemnation of religious belief on the part of those who claim, implicitly or explicitly, to be wholly motivated by rationality is plainly and simply short-sighted.

ALL of us are caught between rational and irrational beliefs. ALL of us must grapple with ways of trying to achieve a world that is safe and fair and sustainable in this gap between our rational and our irrational selves.


Agree completely.

And now I really am signing out. Good night.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:08 PM on May 16, 2011


macross, as a Christian who believes in the afterlife, I think you're missing some crucial context for Hawking's comments about the afterlife that make them much more defensible.

In western society, religious people are frequently not content to just say, "I believe in the afterlife." Commonly, they say, "I believe in God and the afterlife, therefore you should do X."

Hawking isn't necessarily saying he doesn't believe in Heaven because he likes to lord his intellect over the irrationality of religious people (maybe he is, but I'm unwilling to uncharitably assume it). It's just as likely that he's saying he doesn't believe in Heaven because he has no interest in doing X. "Heaven is just a fairy tale" is his rebuttal to people urging him to do X.
posted by straight at 11:18 PM on May 16, 2011


As opposed to one that made you feel comfortable opining on 'the savages' without actually being able to name any.

Why should I name anybody and what would it prove? Firstly, whatever I would say would be called out as anecdotal or non-representative. For obvious reasons, university-level, peer reviewed research into the nastier behaviors of culture X or Y is not popular. Secondly, it would be a disservice to the many good and kind hearted individuals among them.

The sad fact is that small, isolated groups will tend to ostracize and torment those who are different. A single day at an average high school will tell you this. Only where there is a strong authority figure to condemn this behavior will people suppress this natural instinct. Religion acts as such an authority, when it's good.
posted by eeeeeez at 11:19 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


And universally ignored.

First of all, we need to acknowledge that the spiral into self-destruction is not an abstraction. Precisely through the lever of triumphant reason, we have come very close to accomplishing this in just the last century. Cuban Missile crisis, anyone? Perhaps we should ask the victims of Hiroshima how barbarous and destructive a society America is? Or the Tuskegeee Airmen? Or the subjects of the tests conducted by the leading members of the cognitive science community, on behalf of the CIA, to determine whether brainwashing was possible?
You're not making a coherent point anymore. The entire basis of your origional argument was that people were good, and they were good because of vestigial religion in society. Now you're saying they're bad. The people in charge of the U.S. government in the 20th century all claimed to be religious, so how can you blame atheism for their behavior?

In fact you are working to disprove your own point: If fear of hell didn't stop the people responsible for Hiroshima then how can you claim that fear of hell stops any other bad acts any more then innate morality?

It's hard to argue with someone who can't even keep track of what they're trying to say.
posted by delmoi at 11:22 PM on May 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


The sad fact is that small, isolated groups will tend to ostracize and torment those who are different. A single day at an average high school will tell you this.
Again, a failure to follow your own argument. You first said it was due to religion based sympathy that Hawking was still alive. Then you said that 'savages' (i.e. people without christian religion) put their elderly on ice-flows contrasting with christian culture of life stuff.

But now you're saying that all groups 'ostracize and torment those who are different'. But that also includes religious groups, thereby disproving yourself.

You can't keep your own arguments straight.
posted by delmoi at 11:25 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


If a simple chemical can make these "transcendent" feelings happen, sans ritual, prayer, belief, or anything else commonly associated with religion, then how transcendent are they? Doesn't that suggest that they're simply a reaction in the brain, just as most atheists would suppose?

I keep seeing people say this kind of thing, which seems a very confused way of thinking about the brain.

What if we could give you a drug that gives you the feeling of "being in love"? The exact feeling you had when you fell in love with your wife. Would that suggest that your wife doesn't actually exist?

Or if we apply electrical stimuli to the brain causing you to hear a Mozart symphony or see butterflies. Would that suggest that orchestras and butterflies don't really exist?
posted by straight at 11:25 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Then you said that 'savages' (i.e. people without christian religion) put their elderly on ice-flows contrasting with christian culture of life stuff.

I didn't say that.

But now you're saying that all groups 'ostracize and torment those who are different'. But that also includes religious groups, thereby disproving yourself.

You are either daft or dense or perhaps just argumentative.

There is a strong tendency in people to ostracize and torment those who are different. Religion acts as a brake on that and in so far as it does that, it helped keep Hawking alive.
posted by eeeeeez at 11:34 PM on May 16, 2011


You're not making a coherent point anymore. The entire basis of your origional argument was that people were good, and they were good because of vestigial religion in society. Now you're saying they're bad. The people in charge of the U.S. government in the 20th century all claimed to be religious, so how can you blame atheism for their behavior?

In fact you are working to disprove your own point: If fear of hell didn't stop the people responsible for Hiroshima then how can you claim that fear of hell stops any other bad acts any more then innate morality?

It's hard to argue with someone who can't even keep track of what they're trying to say.


delmoi, I never argued something so general as "people are good". I argued that a basis for believing that people should be "good" could not be furnished by rational systems.

And "the people in charge of the US government" in the 20th century believed many different things. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project, believed very different things than Harry Truman.

The point is that with each passing decade our society has become, since the enlightenment, based more and more on the values of rational inquiry and less and less on the values that preceded it. That does not seem to be in dispute among most historians and intellectuals that I've read, though you're welcome to argue the point if you like.

What Adorno saw, and I agree with him, was that such a society was becoming more and more barbarous even as it became gradually more and more committed to the values of the enlightenment. He saw it in Nazi Germany, and he saw it in the United States.

And this was surprising to Adorno. It was not what you would expect. It was counter-intuitive, but nonethless, the general trend of the 20th century seemed to indicate that it was so. And indeed, a great deal of barbarism and destruction was carried out by MEANS of, and in the name of, those very ideals of rational inquiry.

People in the thread were scoffing at the notion that a society based on the values of the enlightenment might, in the absence of religion, descend into self-destruction and barbarism.

The "coherent point" was that the 20th century was one of the most shockingly barbarous and self-destructive in recorded history. It is not an abstraction. It is real.
posted by macross city flaneur at 11:37 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


What if we could give you a drug that gives you the feeling of "being in love"? The exact feeling you had when you fell in love with your wife. Would that suggest that your wife doesn't actually exist?

Or if we apply electrical stimuli to the brain causing you to hear a Mozart symphony or see butterflies. Would that suggest that orchestras and butterflies don't really exist?


No, it would not. However, it would suggest that the actual presence of orchestras, butterflies, and your wife are not necessary to trigger those feelings. This would further suggest that those feelings, in and of themselves, are not a sufficient argument for the existence of orchestras, butterflies, and your wife.

This, in contrast to the suggestion that "heroic doses" of psychedelics tell us anything about whether there's an afterlife.
posted by vorfeed at 11:44 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


but I kinda think perhaps my atheist artist friend who tells me that "we all have our own truths and we shouldn't disrespect others' truths" is a wee bit smarter than hawking in the communication area.

So the "truth" that the Holocaust never happened and the "truth" that Jewish bankers pull the strings all deserve respect and consideration?

Your friend sounds like a fucking moron.
posted by rodgerd at 11:44 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


eeeeeez: "There is a strong tendency in people to ostracize and torment those who are different. Religion acts as a brake on that...."

I literally hurt myself laughing when I read this. If any force has ever existed in human history that drives people to ostracize and torment those who are different more than religion, I don't know it.
posted by tzikeh at 11:56 PM on May 16, 2011 [15 favorites]


This isn't true. And it smells like racism.

I would kick you in the teeth, but I'm not a savage.


But you certainly sound like a racist...

There is a strong tendency in people to ostracize and torment those who are different. Religion acts as a brake on that

And either really, really dumb, really, really disingenious, or really, really ignorant. I mean, if we've learned anything from a few hundred years of the Crusades, the extermination of paganism in the old Roman empire and the pre-Islamic Arab peninsula, Proposition 8 in California, as a quick off-the-top-of-the-head list, that it's religion is a brake on ostracism and torment.
posted by rodgerd at 11:58 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


And either really, really dumb, really, really disingenious, or really, really ignorant.

Ooh, ooh, I know this one! Is it (d), all of the above?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 12:07 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


But you certainly sound like a racist...

I am not the one equating "savage" and "tribe" with skin color.
posted by eeeeeez at 12:08 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


If any force has ever existed in human history that drives people to ostracize and torment those who are different more than religion, I don't know it.

Religion binds and organizes people so well that they can effectively do a lot of damage, I guess that's a valid point.

To me that seems a rather distorted point of view though. It is like making a documentary about evolution that consists of nothing but scenes from boxing fights montaged in a furious hour long barrage, culminating in the conclusion that the development of opposable thumbs was a big mistake.
posted by eeeeeez at 12:15 AM on May 17, 2011


What Adorno saw, and I agree with him, was that such a society was becoming more and more barbarous even as it became gradually more and more committed to the values of the enlightenment. He saw it in Nazi Germany, and he saw it in the United States.
Well, I would argue that after the orgy of violence in the middle of the 20th century things have been cooling down. This Adorno guy died in 1969. The world is much less gruesome then it was in 1944. And not only that, if you include disease and not just death dealt from the human hand 1944 was less gruesome, worldwide, then 1844. Certainly it was a better time to be an American, or a Canadian, or a Mexican or a citizen of anywhere in the developing world.

Really what you see is the use of science to create more dangerous weapons. You didn't see any kind of change in attitude. There were plenty of wars before the enlightenment.

But the point is, you're not supporting your thesis that religion is necessary to avoid bad things.
I argued that a basis for believing that people should be "good" could not be furnished by rational systems.
Yes, but this has MULTIPLE problems if you're going to use it as an argument that religion makes people good.

1) Game theory provides a rational basis for altruism
2) does religion furnish a basis? All your evidence that 'people are bad' points the other way.
3) Why do people need to be provided with a rational basis, if they have an innate basis resulting from evolution (in fact, evolution in a game-theoretic environment with other members of our species)
The "coherent point" was that the 20th century was one of the most shockingly barbarous and self-destructive in recorded history. It is not an abstraction. It is real.
The problem with this is that it's incredibly euro-centric. The united states was far more barbarous in the 19th century then in the 20th. If you look at WWII, it was certainly pretty bad. But it was only 1 decade out of 10. The 1990s, I would bet, were more peaceful and pleasant for the average human then any decades in any prior century. In fact in the U.S. there was a practically monotonic improvement in living standards.
posted by delmoi at 12:17 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am not the one equating "savage" and "tribe" with skin color.
Well you do everyone a favor and shut up? You're adding zero to the discussion.
posted by delmoi at 12:18 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


eeeeeez - can you explain that? Because I honestly don't see how it's like the documentary you described--I understand you're saying it's distorted in the same way that your documentary would be distorted, but I have no way of putting this together into something that makes sense to me. I do mean this; can you say this another way?
posted by tzikeh at 12:19 AM on May 17, 2011


Well you do everyone a favor and shut up?

delmoi, please. Why are you even saying these things? What purpose does it serve? Are you so emotionally invested in Metafilter that me being here makes you feel unwell? It makes me sad on many levels.
posted by eeeeeez at 12:33 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


hi tzikeh - You claim that religion ostracizes and torments more than anything else. This seems to be a common point of view - friends of mine hold it, too, and rodgerd has expressed thoughts along a similar vein. To me it seems that such a position is useful in a broader battle or antagonism against religion, as it is hard to disprove, damning and funny. But given that most religions preach tolerance and love for one another, I think that as a critique of religion it fails, since it ignores what is most pertinent about religion, and it also ignores that virtually anything has been used as a pretext to ostracize and torment people.

I mean, when I am on holiday, I always spend an afternoon or so visiting (medieval) churches in the area. I'm not a religious man, but it fascinates me how people built these things and the belief that must have underpinned it. They are quite often beautiful markers of place and time, with towns growing and evolving around them and the churches becoming part of the landscape, appearing in the backgrounds of paintings that are themselves hundreds of years old.

Sometimes during renovations, they will discover grafitti left on the walls by the craftsmen who were involved in the construction, hidden for ages beneath layers of plaster. Just little things like "pray for me" or vulgar stuff like "stephanopoulous was here". It's charming and quirky and makes me wonder, and I don't get any of that from your blanket (sorry to characterize) HA-HA-HA-RELIGION-IZ-TEH-DUMBS dismissal.
posted by eeeeeez at 12:58 AM on May 17, 2011


Are you so emotionally invested in Metafilter that me being here makes you feel unwell? It makes me sad on many levels.
Well, you posted a few more substantial comments since then, but that comment was completely pointless and just a waste of everyone's time. On metafilter you can 'derail' a thread by starting a pointless argument, which is what you were doing.
posted by delmoi at 1:00 AM on May 17, 2011


Well, you posted a few more substantial comments since then

What makes you the arbiter of substantivity on Metafilter, dull man?
posted by eeeeeez at 1:05 AM on May 17, 2011


Theorize there's no heaven. Its easy if you try.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:08 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


eeeeeez: given that most religions preach tolerance and love for one another, I think that as a critique of religion it fails, since it ignores what is most pertinent about religion, and it also ignores that virtually anything has been used as a pretext to ostracize and torment people.

This doesn't address what I said, though. I said that I do not know of any force in human history that has driven people to ostracize and torment those who are different more than religion. I don't see how that "fails" as a critique of religion. Religion has been a massive force behind mankind's acts of ostracism and torture of others throughout human history, and continues to be to this day. Is that false? If not, how is it not a valid critique?
posted by tzikeh at 1:11 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


tzikeh: He's not making any kind of coherent arguments. Better to just ignore him.
posted by delmoi at 1:15 AM on May 17, 2011


Religion has been a massive force behind mankind's acts of ostracism and torture of others throughout human history, and continues to be to this day. Is that false? If not, how is it not a valid critique?

Well, again, it is hard to disprove. I think it is false, though, yes.

Because it is impossible to prove that these acts would not have been committed, or in a lesser way, had religion been absent / non-existent.

And it conflates religion as a political force and a way of organizing society, and religion as a spiritual or moral force.

And I'm not sure if it correctly identifies cause and effect. If religion helps people to self-organize into a society that is so wealthy and confident it can stage exuberant expeditions to ostracize and torment, the question is whether religion is to blame for the wealth or for the torment.

Finally, the greatest massacres humanity has ever known have been committed in the names of distinctly anti-religious cults in the twentieth century.

I mean this is all standard fodder. Again, it is hard to disprove, and there are standard counter arguments to each of these. It all rapidly devolves into what some bishop or sultan really said or did not say in 1451 or some such.

I personally have no desire of arguing the point, I'm just responding to your question.
posted by eeeeeez at 1:32 AM on May 17, 2011


Well, again, it is hard to disprove. I think it is false, though, yes.

Because it is impossible to prove that these acts would not have been committed, or in a lesser way, had religion been absent / non-existent.


... I. What.

The fact that the terrible things brought about by religion throughout history might not have happened had religion not existed does not counter the fact that they happened, and that religion was the force behind them.

There is no way to address your statements because you're having some other conversation to which I am not party. I just... this is a Wolfgang Pauli moment - you're not right; you're not even wrong.
posted by tzikeh at 2:24 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


It just bothers me that this "fairy story" bit is news at all. Should we be tiptoeing around when discussing whether reptilians exist, or plot holes in Scientology canon?
posted by dunkadunc at 2:52 AM on May 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


There is no way to address your statements because you're having some other conversation to which I am not party. I just... this is a Wolfgang Pauli moment - you're not right; you're not even wrong.

I am a bit disappointed that you would stonewall me with such a facile bit of sophistry, but alas, I suppose I antagonized some people in the discussion here and its not altogether unexpected. Perhaps I misinterpreted you.

At your request I have tried to put forward arguments to counter your suggestion that religion has been a corrosive force. I understand from your response that you consider those arguments invalid or irrelevant because you believe religion to be a corrosive force. I think that begs the question.

I would argue that the cause of virtually all the terrible things that happened throughout history is bloodlust and powerplay, not religion. Religion may all too often have been misery's handmaiden, but so were luminaries like Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein. Does that make them complicit, too?

I started this with the observation that (Christian) religion is valuable in that it posits the inviolable sanctity of human life. Christianity is not unique in that regard, nor has its track record been all that stellar over the years, but nevertheless it is what we have and it is a pretty good place to start.

Now here we have a scientist, who has been kept alive by science, but also by the moral belief that, well, you cannot just throw people away when they are broken: a moral belief which is strongly rooted in the Christian notion of the sanctity of life. It is interesting that Hawking recognizes the first, but seems completely dismissive of the second. Now Hawking is a genius, so arguably he is not "broken". But would it be OK with him if we threw away "non-geniuses" who have "stopped working"? Presumably not, but who knows? What value system should we use to predict his judgments? The "scientific" value system which sent millions to their death in labor camps across the former USSR? Or that other one, [stop]

When you dismiss religion, rightly or wrongly, you cannot but also erode the moral foundation it provides. So the cavalier disregard expressed for religion by this well-known scientist, who would not have survived without the moral imperatives that flow from the very religion he disparages, seems almost cosmically funny, like the man vigorously sawing at the tree branch he is sitting on.

I will trot out this worn Habermas quote until the words collapse unto themselves from sheer exhaustion:
"Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk"

posted by eeeeeez at 5:17 AM on May 17, 2011


eeeeeez: Your argument doesn't make a lick of sense to me. "He doesn't believe in Heaven, therefore Stalin!" is an absurdity given the world of religious and philosophical alternatives to both.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:50 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it's a big mistake, eeeeeez, to absolve religion of its participation in history. Religion has proven all-too-willing to use fear and threats of punishment to drive people under its umbrella. It's willing to let people be ignorant as long as their ignorance is of the right religious flavor. It's been used to incite violence and intolerance. Sometimes it's sparked violence simply because other people didn't believe the right thing.

None of this means that religion is as inherently stupid and valueless as some of the commenters here are suggesting. But just because religion potentially has value when used correctly doesn't mean that it should be excused for the many, many, many horrible things done under its name.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:10 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Everyone talking about morality and ethics realizes that these are not static concepts right? Just like religions and the belief in fairies are not static concepts.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:19 AM on May 17, 2011


Umm, that's a pretty absurd canard, eeeeeez. Afaik, the major atheist philosophies like utilitarianism place more value upon Hawking's life than Christianity does.

There isn't any particularly special moral foundation provided by Christianity in any case, mostly just religious rhetoric being plastered over humanist deductive arguments. Yes, King and Carter are great men, but so are Philip Randolph, Alfred Kinsey, Harvey Milk, and Emma Goldman. And they all deploy fundamentally secular arguments, while only King used religious rhetoric.

There are however other important human rights issues where Christians have never accepted their rhetoric applies, especially women's rights and gay rights. In fact, there have been an awful lot of atheists women's rights activists over the last 200 years specifically because the church has always ignored the rights of women. Gays usually faced harsher penalties for organizing.

"The Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world." --Bertrand Russell

There is however one big historical benefit to religion that's totally unconnected to morality, namely it provided an alternative competing power structure throughout much of human history. All religions are built upon mountains of dead bodies. In particular, the Holocaust was of course the capstone of a thousand years of persecution of Jews by Christians. Yet, I believe religion's overall influence has actually made humanity less authoritarian, despite it's best efforts to centralize power for itself. Do we need religion for this purpose still today? Not necessarily, but we should be especially careful to avoid a world government without it.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:24 AM on May 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


This, from ages ago: I would go so far as to say that I'm actually agnostic and not atheist. I'm certainly someone who believes there's something inexplicable and even magic about life, and like I tend to go on about - the universe is a really big, strange, complicated thing.

I've made a decision to call myself 'non-religious' from now on. When you call yourself atheist or even agnostic people make too many assumptions about what you are and what you think. My non-belief in God and the afterlife says precisely nothing about what I actually do believe.

And the science thing is a big derail. You can know nothing about science (although it helps) and still tell from all the internal inconsistencies that most religions are untrue.

None of this means that religion is as inherently stupid and valueless as some of the commenters here are suggesting. But just because religion potentially has value when used correctly doesn't mean that it should be excused for the many, many, many horrible things done under its name

I cringe slightly when hear the argument that religion is guilty for so much murder, cruelty etc. Religion is just tribal culture with an origin story. People are to blame, religion is just a reflection of our hateful nature. That said, religion provides the authority that justifies and sanctifies murder and cruelty. But that's what humans seem to need to get by, hopeless sycophants that we are.
posted by Summer at 6:28 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Two more thoughts:

The argument that everything will fall apart without the guiding hand of Christian ethics is easily falsified by current events in Japan, which historically suppressed Christianity and has only a small minority of self-identified Christians (2% according to the CIA World Factbook).

Second, the argument strikes me as unfair to Christianity, which I suspect is robust enough to handle criticisms of its eschatology.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:42 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


IMHO, everyone has the "organ of perception". But they are too wrapped up in their minds to let it speak.

Consciousness, not thought alone, is the organ. It does not judge, makes no enemy with reality, and is the universe apprehending itself. As soon as it identifies, names, classifies what is without letting it just be, it is dragged back into mind and identification. Heaven is truly in the midst of us, but we're too busy cutting it up into pieces to realize this.

Which is why I find Hawking's statement interesting. Here is a being that has, far more than most folks, been locked into his mind. He doesn't feel much of his body, a vast source of information is lost to him. I'm not saying that disqualifies his view in any way, just that it is interesting.

Our brains may be computers, but we're more than that. We are a temporary organization of atoms that produce consciousness, along with the ability to think. Ironically, it's thinking that clouds our perception and can produce a kind of "hell". We are part of the "it" when we talk about the universe, yet we don't really seem to believe it. To simplify the idea of "heaven" as an idyllic afterlife home is really missing the mark if that is meant as a critique of religion, at least it is when that religion was meant to point a way "home", to consciousness. It just smacks of ego to assume the great teachers were simply charlatans. I suspect Buddha and Christ really were trying to fill our lamps with oil, not lull us to sleep with fairy tales. It is unfortunate fundamentalist religions seem to need to throw out the baby with the bathwater as a first organizing principle.
posted by absentian at 6:55 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


A realization that there is nothing in this world but what we make of it is the deepest justification I can find for kindness, generosity and love. There is no light but what we make for each other.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:56 AM on May 17, 2011 [15 favorites]


We wouldn't listen to a preacher's thoughts about physics, so why are we listening to an physicist's thoughts about heaven? Boring, and ridiculous.
posted by FunkyStar at 7:39 AM on May 17, 2011


I'd like to state for the record that I have no intention of absolving religion of anything and I would hate for my words to be construed as such. The idea of religion as an competing / balancing power structure puts a very interesting slant on its supposed merits.

The link to Stalinism is obviously an absurd bit of rhetoric, but the point is that science by itself won't save us - Marxism was hailed as a "scientific" doctrine and it failed spectacularly.

I think the "world of religious and philosophical alternatives" have pretty shitty track records, if not in content, then in execution. I am happy that of the many cultures that make up my heritage, I ended up in the Christian West; its many sins, so apparent in retrospect, notwithstanding - there but for the grace of God etc.

~~~

At the risk of pontification, I would like to point out that something that struck me deeply in the story of the three boys lost at sea posted here on the blue a few days ago. All this talk can get a bit windy, what with the cartoonish distortions of world historic movements and awkward tabulations of deaths and such. But these kids were stuck on a boat for 51 days and that brings some stuff into sharp focus. At some point one of them starts thinking about killing and eating one of others:
When I asked Samu to confirm that he had indeed considered killing Etueni, he simply smiled and gave me one of his enigmatic eyebrow raises. Ultimately, though, Samu decided he could not do it. He said he couldn't because he was scared of God.
Whether this is actually true or not, I think it is a beautiful story and a great example of what faith really is. Don't get me wrong - I don't think that a belief in God prevented this boy from killing his friend. I think everybody has an innate revulsion of killing. But the stories that were told to this boy give him a reason not to do it. Faith helps keep us sane.
posted by eeeeeez at 7:42 AM on May 17, 2011



The link to Stalinism is obviously an absurd bit of rhetoric, but the point is that science by itself won't save us - Marxism was hailed as a "scientific" doctrine and it failed spectacularly.



You're really muddying the water here.

Why would an economic theory create a more moral human? Why would we expect it to?

Economics might create or defuse conflict or inequity, but they're not going to compel us in the manner you're describing, and they don't often claim to. Secularism is not a religion. Economics are not religion. They're not expected to "save us," but if we condemn them for failing to do so, than we certainly need to condemn religion for failing in the same field.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:57 AM on May 17, 2011


those feelings, in and of themselves, are not a sufficient argument for the existence of orchestras, butterflies, and your wife.

This, in contrast to the suggestion that "heroic doses" of psychedelics tell us anything about whether there's an afterlife.


Agreed. The ability to stimulate brain and produce "religious" feelings refutes the argument that the existence of religious feelings is proof that God exists.

I was arguing against the more expansive argument that I've seen (and that you seemed to be leaning towards) that the ability to create those feelings in the brain with chemicals by itself disproves that such feelings could ever have a supernatural origin.

Personally I don't think it's a very strong argument for religion, but I think the fact that lots of people have had those feelings in the absence of drugs or mood-altering practices (e.g. prayer, meditation, fasting, etc.) is a reason to at least be willing to consider the possibility that there is some sort of "supernatural" reality that's hard or maybe even impossible to study with the scientific method.

(Hard for similar reasons that sociology and psychology are "softer" sciences than physics and chemistry, because study of the supernatural might entail the study of something personal, something where fundamental scientific assumptions about generalizability, repeatability, probability, etc. don't apply very well.)
posted by straight at 8:02 AM on May 17, 2011


The argument that everything will fall apart without the guiding hand of Christian ethics

Is not exactly a straw man, since people really do say stuff like that, but it's not addressing the most rigorous argument (exemplified by the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and that macross city flaneur was approaching from the other side with Adorno) that people who make moral judgments are using concepts based inextricably upon religious premises, whether they acknowledge them or not (like a creationist who is willing to take steps to prevent the spread of antibiotic resistance).
posted by straight at 8:15 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Stagger Lee - Why would an economic theory create a more moral human? Why would we expect it to?

Eh? Are you pulling my leg? The whole system is about creating a new moral order in which a New Man will arise to witness a New Dawn. (The terror was to be just temporary.)

Go read the lyrics to the Internationale or the Communist Manifesto, or have a glance at some piece of socialist realist art. It's all pregnant with the moral superiority of the Worker and his moral imperative to overthrow the existing order.
posted by eeeeeez at 8:16 AM on May 17, 2011


We wouldn't listen to a preacher's thoughts about physics, so why are we listening to an physicist's thoughts about heaven? Boring, and ridiculous.


I feel like I'm constantly bombarded by preachers and followers offering their thoughts on physics, biology and psychology, and then trying to pretend that what they're saying falls behind some mystic curtain that makes it "unknowable" to science.
posted by neuromodulator at 8:19 AM on May 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


IMHO, everyone has the "organ of perception". But they are too wrapped up in their minds to let it speak.

I think this is a great comment. There absolutely is a "sense of sensing". I used to be a crusading atheist until I became aware that there are fundamentally different ways to experience the world, to gain knowledge about the world. There are things you see and can reason about, and there are things you can feel, and then there are things which just seem incontrovertible: the stuff of being itself. And I decided that that must be what faith is like and that we all rely on it to some extent.

It is this stuff, the "organ of perception", that tells you that you exist, that other people exist and that they are like you, and that the world is not perversely random, but ordered, etc. You can't prove any of it, it's all faith - but nevertheless it's true and useful.
posted by eeeeeez at 8:36 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


eeeeeez: The link to Stalinism is obviously an absurd bit of rhetoric, but the point is that science by itself won't save us - Marxism was hailed as a "scientific" doctrine and it failed spectacularly.

Do many people in this game claim that science by itself will save us? Accusations of scientism are often little more than rhetorical boogeymen.

And still, the fact remains that eschatology, creation, and moral philosophy are three very different things. Arguing that a statement about eschatology ("there is no Heaven") is also a statement about morality ("humans don't have value") is a non sequeteur. Especially considering that Heaven is an often-debated subject just within Christianity, and has little applicability outside of Christianity.

Interestingly enough, the economics and politics of Hawking's survival owe much more to Owen and Marx than to Christian philosophy, which may or may not mandate the kinds of health care systems that Hawking benefits from. Christian and atheistic arguments for a social safety net overlap a great deal. The reason for this is not that the Bible has much to say about modern socio-economic systems, but that both forms of ethics tend to produce post-hoc rationalizations of desired policy.

It is, ultimately, no more absurd to say, "I consider it axiomatic that human life has value" than it is to say, "God created us, therefore, human life has value." The problem of philosophically grounding those moral axioms is largely academic. The same problem exists for the scientific method, which we find pragmatically useful and employ anyway.

I think the "world of religious and philosophical alternatives" have pretty shitty track records, if not in content, then in execution.

The attempt to use Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot as an indictment of modernism and non-religious belief systems is problematic on two fronts. First, comparing the total numbers of deaths need to take into account exponential population growth. It is, in my mind, difficult to say that the 9-12 million killed under Stalin in death camps are more abominable than the equal millions of Americans who died in slavery in the United States, or the 90-100% genocidal attrition rate experienced by multiple groups in North America.

Second, those numbers are routinely inflated by the impact of failed economic policies. In which case, we need to consider that 42 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses compounded by religious objections to prevention strategies focused on sexuality, and probably a similar number due to economic hardship and warfare triggered by Western post-colonial policies.

Cultures that are more secular than the United States (such as the UK) have less poverty, less crime, and spend less money on better health care. The track record of Hawking's home certainly does not support the need for him to embrace Christian creation myths or eschatology in order to ensure his continued existence.

Regardless, the track record of the alternatives is completely irrelevant. Pandora's box has effectively been opened, and religious and secular philosophy isn't going to go back to a naive divine command theory.

But the stories that were told to this boy give him a reason not to do it.

That's nice, but we have dozens of cases in the Western world where Christian shipwreck victims made a very different decision.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:53 AM on May 17, 2011 [10 favorites]


abstentian: IMHO, everyone has the "organ of perception". But they are too wrapped up in their minds to let it speak.

Why do you assume we don't let it speak a different conclusion to us?

eeeeeez: It is this stuff, the "organ of perception", that tells you that you exist, that other people exist and that they are like you, and that the world is not perversely random, but ordered, etc.

Why do you assume we don't let it speak a different conclusion to us?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:56 AM on May 17, 2011


I was "over" Hawking when the Discovery Channel kept blaring ads for his show promoting him as the self-declared "Smartest Man in the World." I mean, I know he's smart, but really doesn't he just have a really good PR company"? He wrote some popular science books, but he's not freaking Einstein or anything.

But I do absolutely sympathize with his bravery in facing the possibility of his death and rejecting the platitudes I assume people have directed at him all his life.
posted by threeturtles at 9:00 AM on May 17, 2011


We wouldn't listen to a preacher's thoughts about physics, so why are we listening to an physicist's thoughts about heaven? Boring, and ridiculous.

I know why a physicist is more qualified than a preacher to talk about physics, but how is a preacher more qualified to talk about heaven than a physicist? It seems to me that the physicist not only knows more about the origins of the universe but that he or she is also used to separating knowledge from wishful thinking.
posted by callmejay at 9:04 AM on May 17, 2011 [9 favorites]


I think everybody has an innate revulsion of killing.

I think this is flat-out wrong, and all you have to do is open a newspaper to see it.

You don't think a belief in god kept the kid from killing and eating his friend, but his belief in a story that god would punish him is what kept him from killing and eating his friend? I'm not seeing a difference between these things.
posted by rtha at 9:06 AM on May 17, 2011


I think this is flat-out wrong, and all you have to do is open a newspaper to see it.

Uh, no, it's in the newspaper because it is special when people kill one another, and therefore, news.

The resistance of people to kill one another is well documented, soldiers who refuse to shoot, soldiers who purposely shoot too high/low, etc. It really takes some training to kill a man.
posted by eeeeeez at 9:15 AM on May 17, 2011


Do you think Christianity invented the idea that you shouldn't go around killing people in your tribe/society? Did the ethics of the New Testament prevent the warmongering of any Christian nation? When have we ever actually followed the morality of Christianity, as set out in the Bible? Or do we just make it up as we go along, changing our minds as society evolves, as we would do if religion didn't exist?
posted by Summer at 9:32 AM on May 17, 2011


I mean, I know he's smart, but really doesn't he just have a really good PR company"? He wrote some popular science books, but he's not freaking Einstein or anything.

He didn't just write some popular science books. He's actually probably as smart if not smarter than Einstein, and he's probably contributed just as much to cosmology. As we're discovering both General and Special Relativity are just (very good) frameworks - but frameworks which have flaws or unresolved issues.

Before Hawking's work with black holes it was inconceivable that they would radiate at all. But they do. Not only do they radiate energy, black holes probably evaporate, too. This is now commonly known as Hawking radiation and was a big deal to cosmologists and physicists.

You don't become the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Fuckin' Cambridge for 30 years just by writing a few popular science books and having a really good PR company.

The popular science books are just one facet of Hawking, and is actually evidence that he might be smarter than Einstein. I've read Einstein's published "Theory of (general) Relativity." Hawking is frankly better at writing about advanced physics and cosmology in plain English than Einstein ever could, even when for allowing the fact that Einstein probably spent most of his time thinking in German.
posted by loquacious at 9:34 AM on May 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Funny how the fear of God didn't keep the church hierarchy from wantonly killing heretics during the Inquisition...
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:38 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


The resistance of people to kill one another is well documented,

The lack of resistance is also well-documented, and I'm not talking about soldiers and their special training. Kids offended by a perceived diss kill each other; husbands who don't want their wives to leave them kill them; gangbangers who see rivals in the "wrong" neighborhood shoot without regard to who might get caught in the crossfire.

But all of this is pointless let's-throw-examples-back-and-forth, and really has nothing to do with whether people who believe in god are less likely to commit murder (or other kinds of violent crimes against people). People are just as likely, I believe, to resist murdering people because they believe that murdering people is wrong, even if there's not a god waiting to punish them in the afterlife.
posted by rtha at 9:40 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


This, in contrast to the suggestion that "heroic doses" of psychedelics tell us anything about whether there's an afterlife.

Psychedelics can't really prove or disprove anything. They're just additives that mix it up with the chemicals in our brain that affect perception/consciousness and, for lack of a better word, distort things.

But man, those distortions do suggest stuff?

In my time (back when I was doing my heroic doses), they managed to suggest both A. the absolute proof of God/gods and a cosmos where every vibration was entirely tune with His/Her/Their high and glorious benevolence, and B. the opposite (ie: they suggested only oblivion). So, I, a young man who entered into my psychedelic days as a rather proud agnostic exited them as still agnostic but lacking the proud part. That is, I had taken things to the edge and beyond. I had surpassed the speed of light and found both God there and the Void.

So yeah, I found my proof and found it paradoxical. Or more to the point, the proof looked me in the eye and said, "I'm beyond you, sucker," and then it both kissed me gently on the lips and kicked me in the balls.

Which gets us back to what "heroic doses" of psychedelics are good for. In my case at least, it was humility. I was like the guy in the old black-and-white Titanic movie ("A Night To Remember"), who upon surviving the disaster could only comment, "I'll never be sure of anything ever again."

So yeah, Mr. Hawking, you are no doubt far smarter than I (the entire internet's been telling me so for the past 24 hours), but are you smarter than God (even if he doesn't exist; are you smarter than the concept of him)? I think not and, as such, I find your recent comments rather foolish, and as I suggested already, rather sloppy.
posted by philip-random at 9:47 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


You've already spent most of the lifetime of the universe not existing. You'll spend most of the rest of it likewise. What's there to fear? That you won't have more time to dick around on the Internet? That you won't be able to put off even longer those projects you swear you'll get around to at some point? Life: Live it, love it, enjoy it, but don't get attached to it.

As for the question of theism (because there are religions that don't involve a god or afterlife, IIRC), the real question is, when will folks prove God is relevant? Because it doesn't matter if he exists, if he's transcendent, if he's omnipotent and omniscient if you never actually interact with him. If God's going to do his own thing, follow his plan no matter what I want or what I ask him for, then it makes no difference whether I worship/believe/whatever. If he's going to do his own thing, I'm going to do my own thing. A loving god will appreciate that. A god who doesn't appreciate that is a bit of a dick and doesn't deserve my worship or belief or... well, anything. Fuck 'im.

We've got tools to handle the problems of today, and they're not poorly-translated and transcribed words in some ancient book. We have reason and compassion. We can do the things we need to do to improve the lives of the people around us, with or without God. If he wants to participate, he's welcome to. But the whole silent passive-aggressive thing has got to go.
posted by Eideteker at 9:48 AM on May 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


abstentian: IMHO, everyone has the "organ of perception". But they are too wrapped up in their minds to let it speak.

Why do you assume we don't let it speak a different conclusion to us?

What conclusion is there to draw? We are "it", "it" is us. We are made of the same stuff it is. We can measure it, name it, and break it down, just as we can measure and describe ourselves. But pure consciousness is pre-thought, pre-conclusion. I can understand plenty without thinking. In my most lucid moments, I can know and feel myself as part of a larger whole without feeling the least discomfort about anything at all. To me, that is heaven. I don't pretend to know what you really think and feel about your place in the cosmos or if you think about that at all. I do believe some great teachings have been co-opted and recast and formulated into religions and I think those teachings were properly meant to point us toward truths about human existence, that consciousness is primary and rest is mostly form and attachment to form, including attachment to ideas about the afterlife AND ideas about the origin and nature of the universe. Humans are the leading edge of consciousness in our tiny part of the cosmos, yet we are too hell bent on obscuring it with form and attachment to let shows us the simple inherent truth of beingness. Hope that doesn't sound too fruity :)
posted by absentian at 9:56 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you think Christianity invented the idea that you shouldn't go around killing people in your tribe/society?

Actually in terms of Western thought, it's entirely arguable that the Ten Commandments does set this Law down ("Thou Shalt Not Kill"). Not Christian in origin, of course, but definitely part of the creed. Interesting things those commandments. I believe I read it here on Metafilter some time ago:

If you're looking for a good, working definition of human nature, just dig up the Ten Commandments and imagine the opposite. It's human nature to kill, to steal, to dishonor one's parents, to covet someone else's wife, etc. The whole point of God, morality, ethics (whatever imperatives compel you to "do good") is that they challenge you to go beyond your nature, to improve yourself, perhaps even to evolve.

Or words to that effect.
posted by philip-random at 9:57 AM on May 17, 2011


even if he doesn't exist; are you smarter than the concept of him

Um, what?
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:58 AM on May 17, 2011


By putting "organ of perception" in protective quotes you effectively keep any discussion from wandering into the real world from your mystical, magical paradise. It really isn't a form of argumentation at all, just a dodge.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:01 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Philip-random - that could be a description of ethics/morality per se. As non-Christian cultures have them, I don't think you can claim they began with or generally reside in Christianity.
posted by Summer at 10:01 AM on May 17, 2011


What conclusion is there to draw?

That my relationship with the Universe can't be framed by using god-language.

I don't pretend to know what you really think and feel about your place in the cosmos or if you think about that at all.

Except that you just did when you said, "But they are too wrapped up in their minds to let it speak." Again, the argument that we wouldn't be atheists if we were not blind as bats or deaf as a post is patently offensive. Better to say that you just don't understand how we encounter the world.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:05 AM on May 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


philip-random: The decalogue is a bit flawed because three or four of the rules (depending on your particular religious doctrine) are specific to Christianity or Judaism. Of course if it's human nature to covet your neighbor's ass, it's also human nature to aspire for something different, and human nature to commit those aspirations to an oral or literary tradition.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:10 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


KirkJobSluder, I would like to state up front that I appreciate your reasoned response. I would hope to respond in kind.

And still, the fact remains that eschatology, creation, and moral philosophy are three very different things. Arguing that a statement about eschatology ("there is no Heaven") is also a statement about morality ("humans don't have value") is a non sequeteur. Especially considering that Heaven is an often-debated subject just within Christianity, and has little applicability outside of Christianity.

You cannot independently evaluate these things because the ground on which humans are to be valued matters and is inextricably intertwined with eschatology and mythology. Clearly humans have value, if for nothing else than economic worth of the minerals and substances in the human body. But this conception of value is not conducive to the construction of an ideal of the kind of society we want to live in.

It is, ultimately, no more absurd to say, "I consider it axiomatic that human life has value" than it is to say, "God created us, therefore, human life has value."

That depends entirely on your belief in God.

The problem of philosophically grounding those moral axioms is largely academic. The same problem exists for the scientific method, which we find pragmatically useful and employ anyway.

I don't believe this. I believe that beliefs generate motivations and results that do not always or necessarily reduce to after the fact rationalizations.

The attempt to use Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot as an indictment of modernism and non-religious belief systems is problematic on two fronts. First, comparing the total numbers of deaths need to take into account exponential population growth. It is, in my mind, difficult to say that the 9-12 million killed under Stalin in death camps are more abominable than the equal millions of Americans who died in slavery in the United States, or the 90-100% genocidal attrition rate experienced by multiple groups in North America.

As I said before, I think this kind of death tabulation is awkward and misses the point. Communism is not a bad system because it murdered millions of people - it is a bad system because it undermines individual autonomy, exhausts motivation and rejects idealism. The deaths are a natural consequence.

Regardless, the track record of the alternatives is completely irrelevant. Pandora's box has effectively been opened, and religious and secular philosophy isn't going to go back to a naive divine command theory.

This is the crux. Given that this is so, I think it is especially germane at this junction to look back and remember the stories and ideals that got us here in the first place. Hopefully we can take some of the better ones with us into the future.

That's nice, but we have dozens of cases in the Western world where Christian shipwreck victims made a very different decision.

But nobody mentions them. We forget them or at best, remember them as sad and misguided - because we know there is a better way.
posted by eeeeeez at 10:18 AM on May 17, 2011


KirkJobSluder - Why do you assume we don't let it speak a different conclusion to us?

I do assume that. What gave you any impression otherwise?
posted by eeeeeez at 10:20 AM on May 17, 2011


OP you've got Heaven on Their Minds stuck in my head now...anyway, great post!
posted by nile_red at 10:23 AM on May 17, 2011


... hey are unable to see it. They lack the organ of perception, so to speak.

Is this "organ" anything like the "X-Ray Glasses" I purchased from the back of a Marvel comic book when I was 7 y.o.?
posted by ericb at 10:26 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


even if he doesn't exist; are you smarter than the concept of him

Um, what?


Yeah, guilty of confusionism there. To clarify: there are many who don't believe in God (Einstein for instance) who nevertheless have used the word (three simple letters, one syllable) to speak for the vast and incomprehensible magnitude of all-existence.

So yeah, godlike high as his IQ may be, I submit that Hawking is up to knowing anything for sure about the true and fundamental nature of the cosmos, so the sort of off-hand certainty about such that underlies his "fairy story" comment is disappointing.
posted by philip-random at 10:40 AM on May 17, 2011


oops. There's a NOT missing from the previous comment:

I submit that Hawking is NOT up to knowing anything for sure about the true and fundamental nature of the cosmos,
posted by philip-random at 10:41 AM on May 17, 2011


So yeah, godlike high as his IQ may be, I submit that Hawking is up to knowing anything for sure about the true and fundamental nature of the cosmos, so the sort of off-hand certainty about such that underlies his "fairy story" comment is disappointing.

Yet you seem awfully sure that his certainty is foolish... so much for "humble" agnosticism.
posted by vorfeed at 10:43 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


eeeeeez: You cannot independently evaluate these things because the ground on which humans are to be valued matters and is inextricably intertwined with eschatology and mythology.

Again, we only need to look at the diversity within Christianity to show that this isn't so. Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention have radically incompatible ideas about the origin of the universe and humanity, similar ideals about the sacredness of human life, and incompatible politics about the application of those ideals to issues like the death penalty. And that's not looking at the value of human life in Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism which don't have a single unified idea of Heaven.

But lets get to the crux of the matter:

This is the crux. Given that this is so, I think it is especially germane at this junction to look back and remember the stories and ideals that got us here in the first place. Hopefully we can take some of the better ones with us into the future.

Pardon, but isn't that exactly what Hitchins, Dawkins, and Pullman are doing when they praise the Bible as a literary work, or Rees, UU Humanists, and Jewish Humanists when they identify culturally with religious traditions while questioning the mythology and eschatology?

Meanwhile, we have a few thousand years of inquiry into ideas about morality, creation, and Heaven to show that none of these areas are going to fall into nihilism because of the criticism of Hawking, or even Rob Bell who has a much more pointed heresy about Heaven and Hell. That shouldn't be rejected either.

I do assume that. What gave you any impression otherwise?

Of course. I'm asking you to justify your confirmed prejudice that atheists are psychologically and spiritually stunted because we don't listen to our actual or metaphorical organ of perception.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:46 AM on May 17, 2011


Again, we only need to look at the diversity within Christianity to show that this isn't so

There is no diversity within Christianity on the sanctity of life.

Meanwhile, we have a few thousand years of inquiry into ideas about morality, creation, and Heaven to show that none of these areas are going to fall into nihilism because of the criticism of Hawking

Fair enough. If we can agree on the uselessness of Hawking's criticism, such as it is, then I'm fine with that.

Of course. I'm asking you to justify your confirmed prejudice that atheists are psychologically and spiritually stunted because we don't listen to our actual or metaphorical organ of perception.

I'm sorry, you lost me here.

[reads back]

Sorry, what I should have said is the exact opposite: I don't assume that. If I assumed this "organ" didn't speak a different conclusion to you then I wouldn't have to argue with you, because you would already be enlightened :-p

Earnestly, I am acutely aware of the different views on the world in myself and in others. Thanks for your sharing yours.
posted by eeeeeez at 11:03 AM on May 17, 2011


There is no diversity within Christianity on the sanctity of life.


I don't how wrong this is, but given the various definitions of "sanctity of life" employed by different denominations, it sure isn't as simple as you say.
posted by rtha at 11:09 AM on May 17, 2011


p-r: I submit that Hawking is NOT up to knowing anything for sure about the true and fundamental nature of the cosmos...

Is anyone? But it's a something of a self-defeating argument. If we can choose to call that vast and inconceivable cosmos "god." Then we can choose to not call it "god" and you can't fault Hawking for saying as such.

"Ubi dubium, ibi libertas." At some point I decided that obsessing over my doubt rather than embracing it was getting in the way of my "spiritual" growth. So the cosmos isn't "god," what now? It's a step in a relationship, not a conclusion of it.

eeeeeez: There is no diversity within Christianity on the sanctity of life.

Of course, the dimensions of freedom there were not the sanctity of life, but mutually incompatible ideas about human origins and eschatology.

eeeeeez: Fair enough. If we can agree on the uselessness of Hawking's criticism, such as it is, then I'm fine with that.

No, I don't agree that Hawking's criticism is useless (although I'm not terribly impressed with it either.) It is part of a centuries-old practice of theological inquiry that's also a critical part of the tradition in which Hawking lives.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:17 AM on May 17, 2011


Of course, the dimensions of freedom there were not the sanctity of life, but mutually incompatible ideas about human origins and eschatology.

Well, you postulated that distinction, but I didn't follow you there. Please don't make it seem as if I am changing the terms of the debate. My arguments in this thread have consistently focused on the (Christian) sanctity of human life.
posted by eeeeeez at 11:28 AM on May 17, 2011


"We are united with that which is not creature and whose creative ground no creature can destroy; then we know they cannot destroy the meaning of our lives even if they can destroy our lives. And this gives us the certainty that no creature can destroy the meaning of life universal, in nature as well as history, of which we are a part, even though history and the whole universe should destroy themselves tomorrow. No creature can keep us from this ultimate courage." Paul Tillich, The New Being.

It's hard to talk people out of this stuff, believe me, I've tried to with myself, and the programming really sticks."Good luck with all that," as they say.
posted by eegphalanges at 11:28 AM on May 17, 2011


There is no diversity within Christianity on the sanctity of life.

I'm pretty sure Cromwell would have laughed... as would the members of the Albigensian Crusade, to say nothing of militant Dominionists today. All Christian doctrine does not agree on whether life is more or less important than salvation, for instance, much less on which acts violate "the sanctity of life"; examining the difference between, say, the Catholic Church and the UCC on matters of life and death should be instructive.
posted by vorfeed at 11:31 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


eeeeeez: Well, you postulated that distinction, but I didn't follow you there.

No, you did.

"You cannot independently evaluate these things because the ground on which humans are to be valued matters and is inextricably intertwined with eschatology and mythology."

In other words:
heaven->sanctity of life
origin mythology->sanctity of life.

Which is important to your attack on Hawking, because he's not said anything about the sanctity of life, only statements about heaven and origin mythologies.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:41 AM on May 17, 2011


vorfeed - examining the difference between, say, the Catholic Church and the UCC on matters of life and death should be instructive.

There are endless arguments on how the sanctity of life doctrine should be applied. This can hardly be surprising. But I am not aware of any Christian community that rejects or questions the doctrine itself.
posted by eeeeeez at 11:42 AM on May 17, 2011


KirkJobSluder - I'm sorry, perhaps I'm missing something. My response, that you are quoting, says that "you cannot independently evaluate" so I don't see how you infer from that that I follow your distinction, and I don't understand what your arrows mean. It wouldn't be the first time, even in this thread, that I said the opposite of what I meant to be saying, so forgive me if I seem unhinged.
posted by eeeeeez at 12:07 PM on May 17, 2011


There are endless arguments on how the sanctity of life doctrine should be applied. This can hardly be surprising. But I am not aware of any Christian community that rejects or questions the doctrine itself.

That's quite some distance away from "there is no diversity within Christianity on the sanctity of life". And, again, it ignores the fact that some Christian communities have questioned or rejected the primacy of life in favor of overtly militaristic doctrine, both historically and currently. These people are not talking about the sanctity of life, nor are these.
posted by vorfeed at 12:10 PM on May 17, 2011


some Christian communities

Yeah, well. I say we kill them.
posted by eeeeeez at 12:23 PM on May 17, 2011


"So yeah, godlike high as his IQ may be, I submit that Hawking is up to knowing anything for sure about the true and fundamental nature of the cosmos, so the sort of off-hand certainty about such that underlies his "fairy story" comment is disappointing."
Again, what's with this peculiar obsession with certainty and proof? That stuff is the domain of logic and mathematics and not a lot else - science doesn't prove things. At best it shows some things are extremely likely or unlikely to be true. I suspect Hawking has a better grasp on how certain he is about certain fundamental properties of the cosmos than most people have a grasp on their own certainty on much more mundane matters.
posted by edd at 12:27 PM on May 17, 2011


eeeeeez: I'm sorry, perhaps I'm missing something.

Yes you are. Your argument appears to be:
1: Hawking does not believe in heaven.
2: Therefore, he does not believe in the sanctity of life.

There's no connection between one and two, and you can't make one because there's no unified Christian doctrine about heaven. Rejecting a belief in heaven says absolutely nothing about the sanctity of life.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:04 PM on May 17, 2011


I love fairy tales.

There may be a link between the history of Christian thought and secularism that has not fully been explored. Christian thought was always fairly diverse, and if there is a scale of "religiosity" among religions, Christians may look more like atheists than, say, animists.

It is possible to be religious, and use religious language, while not believe in heaven. However, the language of faith that secularists can use may seem like nonsense if examined too closely. I do think "sanctity" does imply God, but it does not necessarily mean the speaker believes in God.

But one can be a moral person and assert that life is not intrinsically sacred in any meaningful sense. I may act that life is "sacred" while acknowledging intellectually that we are computers made like meat. In another sense, I don't go to church because I need a bunch of true propositions. I go because my operating system works better with the programming I have when I do.
posted by john wilkins at 1:24 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


eeeeeez: At your request I have tried to put forward arguments to counter your suggestion that religion has been a corrosive force. I understand from your response that you consider those arguments invalid or irrelevant because you believe religion to be a corrosive force. I think that begs the question.

You have entirely missed the point I was making, which could not have been more simple, or clear.

Sophistry: a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning.

"Just because we can't know whether or not the bad shit that happened in the past because of religion would have happened if religion didn't exist, it is still a fact that religion caused those bad things."

Please explain how this is subtle, tricky, or fallacious.
posted by tzikeh at 1:33 PM on May 17, 2011


"Women often compliment me on my fallacious method," Tom lied.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:58 PM on May 17, 2011


ian1977: people that actually truly and fundamentally accept and fully internalize their own mortality, finiteness and imminent annihilation are few and far between.

I step up to claim that, as far as I can tell, I've done this. When I'm dead, I'm gone. I'm an ex-parrot, etc.

Mostly, the only thing about it that bugs me is that I'll be missing out on a lot of good tv that will air after I'm dead. That sucks.
posted by tzikeh at 2:15 PM on May 17, 2011


Reading this thread today I fully accepted and internalised my own mortality, finiteness and imminent annihilation, and that led me to buy a coffee with my lunch instead of just having tea from the kitchen. That's the kind of life-affirming energy you get from non-belief. Suck that evangelists.
posted by Summer at 2:31 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Again, what's with this peculiar obsession with certainty and proof? That stuff is the domain of logic and mathematics and not a lot else - science doesn't prove things. At best it shows some things are extremely likely or unlikely to be true.

Nicely put, except then I go back to what Mr. Hawking actually said and I get something that comes across as pretty darned certain:

'I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.'

Am I wrong in suggesting that the scientifically "correct" way to have stated this is something along the lines of:

"Based on the volumes of excellent evidence at hand, I find it easy to conclude that there is no heaven or afterlife."

Notice I left out the computer analogy (sloppy logic) and the fairy story stuff (needlessly provocative).
posted by philip-random at 2:37 PM on May 17, 2011


There is nothing "scientifically correct" about avoiding analogies, the appearance of certainty, and/or ideas that might be "provocative"... nor is there any reason why someone should have to be "scientifically correct" in a personal interview in the Guardian.
posted by vorfeed at 2:57 PM on May 17, 2011


It's not really a question of evidence that explicitly doesn't fit the idea of an afterlife, rather that both a universe with and without an afterlife arguably should look the same (at least there's plenty of people here that think it's consistent with one, and plenty that think it's consistent with the other) and one of these has something of what a certain monk named Ockham would call an unnecessary plurality. This should inherently make it more unlikely, in something like proportion to that plurality.
So yes, the volume of evidence should make it easy to conclude, because it doesn't favour the more complicated idea, even if it's not explicitly inconsistent with certain versions of it. However, some would claim to have special evidence of their own which interpreted in a certain way that swings it for them. I personally disagree with that.

On sounding certain, I'd frequently state things as if I'm certain when I'm not 100% (Cromwell's Rule applies) but that's partly linguistic shortcut, and partly that we might as well act as if we're certain when your belief in something rises to a high level, and I would say (without knowing the man past nearly falling over him once when I wasn't looking where I was going) that's likely to be what Hawking is doing too if he ever sounds certain of anything that's not a logical certainty.
posted by edd at 3:03 PM on May 17, 2011


St. Alia of the Bunnies: For the record, I don't believe in fairies.

Why not?
posted by LordSludge at 3:13 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great comment, LordSludge, very respectful. It's always fun to converse with atheists.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:01 PM on May 17, 2011


Am I wrong in suggesting that the scientifically "correct" way to have stated this is something along the lines of...

Let's set aside the fact that there's no scientific answer to the question, "What, if anything, do you fear about death?", and, therefore, Hawking is perfectly entitled to talk about his experience and philosophical sentiments that he clearly flagged with "I regard..."

A scientifically correct way of framing this would be "differences were not significant (p=0.5, N>some reasonable number)." But of course, you'd have to operationally define "heaven" in a way to make it a scientifically testable hypothesis, and I'm not convinced that it's even possible. I don't even think you can get "volumes of excellent evidence."

The fact that Hawking uses the scientific method as part of his day job does not mean that he's obligated to answer interview questions about personal feeling and opinion, on an issue that's probably outside of the domain of what science can address, with a comment loaded with pseudoscience just to make it sound more sciency.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:06 PM on May 17, 2011


Great comment, LordSludge, very respectful. It's always fun to converse with atheists.

Are you talking about his "Why not?" Your comment seems like the least respectful of the two.
posted by neuromodulator at 4:11 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


"A scientifically correct way of framing this would be "differences were not significant (p=0.5, N>some reasonable number)." But of course, you'd have to operationally define "heaven" in a way to make it a scientifically testable hypothesis, and I'm not convinced that it's even possible. I don't even think you can get "volumes of excellent evidence." "

So... you're a frequentist?
posted by edd at 4:13 PM on May 17, 2011


So how do you prove that a Being that by definition exists outside the universe-outside space and time-is or is not there, seeing as that you, as part of that universe, and of space, and of time, would be unable to access outside it?

Convenient, that. For you.
posted by terrapin at 4:13 PM on May 17, 2011


What's disrespectful about my comment, neuromodulator?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:55 PM on May 17, 2011


So how do you prove that a Being that by definition exists outside the universe-outside space and time-is or is not there, seeing as that you, as part of that universe, and of space, and of time, would be unable to access outside it?

Such a being cannot be God, else prayer is pointless. Either God plays a role in this universe, or He doesn't. Is self-refuting to say "you can't detect him because he's outside the universe, yet he's not outside the universe nor undetectable because he makes a difference to the universe that I can detect".

If God is outside the universe such that he's not detectable, then he's also not there for you.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:20 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Consider one of the programmers of the game The Sims (or any other simulation program that simulates a world with entities that "live" in that world), as he debugs the program. The programmer is running the program in the debugger, which means that he can stop the program and make arbitrary changes to the state of the simulated world. Not only that, but if he's careful, and perhaps also changes the state of the simulated characters themselves, he can make substantial changes to the state of the world that are undetectable to the inhabitants.

So, in a very real sense, the programmer is the god of that simulated world. But no one would say that he's in the world. Now if a human programmer in our world can do that, how much more would the Ground of Being be able to do?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 5:39 PM on May 17, 2011


The Ground of Being can do anything at all, because that's how he was created.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:42 PM on May 17, 2011


If God is outside the universe such that he's not detectable, then he's also not there for you.

He's not JUST transcendent.


Honestly, this is covered in the first class meeting of Systematic Theology 101. It's not rocket science. He interacts with His creation but He is also above and beyond it. You may not believe like I do but it's not that hard a concept.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:49 PM on May 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's not rocket science.

Hilarious!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:51 PM on May 17, 2011


And as to why I believe in God and not fairies, well, that is actually a very fair question.

In Romans chapter 1 it says:
"...that which is known of God is revealed in them, for God revealed it to them.
For the invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even His everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse. "

I went to art school, and part of that was a couple of semesters of art history. It just so happens I am pretty good about looking at a particular painting (and if I am familiar with the artist) being able to tell who painted it. Each artist has a style about him or her. For that matter, an individual's handwriting is generally unique to that individual.

One purpose for the larger creation is just that-to display God's attributes in a form humans can grok. Now for those who pick up the hint and the trail at this point, and start to seek the creator, whether in the Bible or (in the case of those without one) in whatever form that might take, the Bible teaches that search is rewarded. Here we get into the topic of faith again. Faith is like a pair of glasses that you can put on and things become sharply in focus. The things might have been there all along but without those glasses, they would not have come into view.

Now, to make a long story short, I took that journey, put on those glasses, and was rewarded for the effort. I don't just assume God, He has been very interactive in my life in some pretty interesting ways.

The spiritual realm and spiritual things are not things that one can quantify in a laboratory. It is a totally different thing and must be accessed in a totally different way. If someone disbelieves that such a thing as a spiritual realm exists it is really no wonder that they don't perceive anything that has to do with one, now does it?

As to fairies, they are silly stories. I have my own theories as to how those stories got started but that is a conversation for another day.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:01 PM on May 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Honestly, this is covered in the first class meeting of Systematic Theology 101.

Which I'm certain would make a lot more sense if I was not cognitively stunted by the absence of an organ of systematic theology.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:05 PM on May 17, 2011


My organ of systematic theology only plays in B sharp. Which is fine, though. I could have grace, but I'd rather B sharp.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:10 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


The best explanation I've ever come across of how an actual relationship with an actual God might work can only really be "grokked" if you're a writer of fiction, a novelist for instance.

The novelist creates characters. He gives them names, faces, backstories, desires, foibles etc and plants them into a story somewhere amid various problems, challenges, dilemmas. But then, if the writer's doing his job, if he's really in tune with his imagination, a strange thing starts to happen. The characters start to talk to him. They tell him he's wrong about something. They wander off down some corridor they weren't supposed to. Sometimes, when the author has everything intention of killing them, they beg for mercy.

Does the author always do what the characters ask of him? Of course not. He's trying to tell a story and they are only part of it. But he does listen to them. Sometimes he even learns from them. But in the end, if they gotta die to make the story work, then they die ... and so on.

This, by the way, is all a loose paraphrase of something I read once in a Robert Anton Wilson book. Speaking of agnostics.
posted by philip-random at 6:16 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


St. Alia, I am astounded by your ability to enter into these conversations, and continue them, oftentimes as a minority of one, and present your arguments, steadfastly adhering to the basis of what you believe and why you believe it.

I won't pretend that I can even begin to understand how you believe what you believe. I can't promise that I'll never respond to your comments with incredulity or even anger--I know I have before, and I'll likely do it again. But woman, you do amaze me with your strength and persistence here. Kudos to you.
posted by tzikeh at 6:22 PM on May 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


And humor. Come on - that rocket science line was gold!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:23 PM on May 17, 2011


The question is, does your organ of systematic theology have a Leslie speaker?

If someone disbelieves that such a thing as a spiritual realm exists it is really no wonder that they don't perceive anything that has to do with one, now does it?

Why do you assume that we don't?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:32 PM on May 17, 2011


Spinoza believed that God is the Universe as we perceive it.

All of the rest is just quibbling on a thread.
posted by ovvl at 6:38 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


But where did Spinoza go when he died?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:02 PM on May 17, 2011


It's Raining Florence Henderson: But where did Spinoza go when he died?

Downstairs in the room that our tech guys use for storage, of course!
posted by tzikeh at 7:35 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


But where did Spinoza go when he died?

Obsession with the afterlife is an extension of the ego. And what tzikeh said, perhaps.
posted by ovvl at 8:10 PM on May 17, 2011


He interacts with His creation but He is also above and beyond it.

It sounds like incoherent thinking. If He interacts with His creation in any meaningful sense, if you can detect Him (as other claims of yours suggest), then he is detectable.

You are correct in that it really isn't a difficult concept.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:25 PM on May 17, 2011


[...] if you can detect Him ..., then he is detectable.

Brilliant observation.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:47 PM on May 17, 2011


Not brilliant. Basic. Yet people do mental gymnastics to get around it.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:46 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


It sounds like incoherent thinking. If He interacts with His creation in any meaningful sense, if you can detect Him (as other claims of yours suggest), then he is detectable.

I think there's a difference in how you're using the word "detect" versus what Alia's talking about. You're thinking of God as an entity separate from the universe whose presence we ought to be able to perceive. Whereas from what Alia said here, I think she's looking at the patterns inherent to the universe and to life and saying that she see's God's signature everywhere.

Unlike her I wouldn't call those patterns the work of God with this crowd — I might say it poetically, but I'm not-invested enough in religion that I'm okay with not using religious terms if I don't have to. At the same time, though, I think there's absolutely a transcendent beauty to mathematics, to the way you can start with nothing and still end up with geometry and calculus simply because they're the way numbers work. When I was 10 or 11, I fell in love with the Fibonacci sequence, and with how it shows up everywhere, in nature, on our bodies... It makes you realize that we're all connected in some mysterious and fascinating ways.

I don't think there's a conscious creator who chose to make things the way that they are. But then, when Alia talks about God, she's not talking about a being who's conscious in the exact same way that we are either. Her God may be aware, but it's an awareness on a level that goes beyond us, even if perhaps it's an awareness that reflects also in the human consciousness.

I disagree with her that fairies don't exist, however, because every time I push C-up one tells me that I ought to go to Death Mountain. And if I don't push C-up she gets annoying really quickly.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:55 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyway, my main point here is why is Hawking's opinion greater than anyone else's?
-- St. Alia of the Bunnies

There are several ways to look at it. One way is to rephrase your question "Why is the press giving his talk a lot of attention?" And the answer is, because he is famous. People will read the article because he is well known. Paris Hilton's opinion on the subject would get equal billing.

Another way to rephrase it is "Why should I care about Hawking's opinion?" For quite a lot of people, as stated above, the fact that he is famous is enough. For others, the fact that he is considered a genius might us enough to give his opinion due respect. The fact that he is known as a physicist and not a philosopher might negate this argument for you.

So, really, the answer to this question depends entirely on the person asking it.
posted by eye of newt at 10:10 PM on May 17, 2011


But then, when Alia talks about God, she's not talking about a being who's conscious in the exact same way that we are either. Her God may be aware, but it's an awareness on a level that goes beyond us, even if perhaps it's an awareness that reflects also in the human consciousness.

It's called the stratification of consciousness. Just like everything else science has elucidated, from taxa to matter to the large scale structure of the universe, consciousness exists in a hierarchy. Panpsychism is the next big thing...all the cool kids are doing it. :)

As far as what happens when we die I can't really say, but I am of the same opinion as one Peter Pan: "To die will be an awfully big adventure".
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 10:26 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is that too harsh or clinical? Too much cold logic? I'm not sure if I care anymore. I'm really no longer interested in "respecting" someone's fairy stories whenever they feel like diverging from reality - especially when someone claims that those beliefs give them the right to behave unethically or otherwise a free pass at being a shitty human.

If there's one thing on this planet that I fear short of the easy brutality and cruelty of human kind - it's our innate ability to believe in fairy stories and make shit up when we can't handle or understand the truth.


There's a nifty story by Joseph Campbell, this erudite guy who had little experience of Asia was on a tour visiting some of the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and he approached one of the priests in a garden and said "You know, I've been to many of these ceremonies, and I've seen many different types of shrines and temples. But I don't get the idea, I don't understand your theology."
And the priest said "We don't have theology. We dance."

Which is the quintessential problem with, in fact both theists and atheists.
There is no reduction of the meaning of the rites or the dance to the constituent meanings in the way a given set of concepts can be reduced or a postulate can be analyzed or hypothesis defined.

A significant image or movement or sound renders insights beyond words and beyond the kind of meaning words define.

I've read books, looked at works of art, listened to music and there's always someone there who doesn't get it. As though my (and others) experience of it has no validity because it can't be universally quantified or drawn into words. And the words only make you think you understand, and indeed, lead to yet more monkey talk weighing this thing against that and judging one thing as superior over another and you get completely cut off from the thing entirely.
Like intimacy. It's there or it isn't. And you know it.

Some things require metaphor, a fairy story, to understand, because to speak of them destroys or even perverts their nature. To most people this is foreign territory because they have not had feelings of that depth or have been open to not asking what the dance means and just dancing.
If you have to explain it...

Plenty of religion, theology, myth, deals in very deep detail with death and the harsh realities of life. Kirtimukha is found on a lot of sacred architecture. And yet he is a devouring demon that feeds on all things including himself in ever consuming pain.
And this is the view of the world Shiva demanded recognition of. That life is monstrous and that it will not change and looking to recreate a world without pain and sorrow is ridiculous because you have to learn to live in life and yet find a joy beyond that pain.

This joy can take many forms of course, secular and otherwise.
But it's silly to write off as shallow 'fairy stories' which have very deep insights into the human experience simply because one doesn't understand the dance or can't quantify it.

Indeed, I think it's hubris to think we are a thing apart from the universe, that we're too small to be noticed and so simple in the vast machinations of things that we're beneath notice.
But it's a double edged sword.

Old Indian story about a disciple of Krishna that was told by his guru that he was identical with the power in the universe we personify as "God" and went out elated. He walked the streets seeing himself in the highest and lowest of things and the ultimate connectedness of those things with the being of the universe.
He watched an elephant with a howdah on it's back riding down the street thinking "I am God; all things are God." He saw the elephant. "The elephant is God." He heard the rider "You idiot, get the hell out of the way!" And he saw the rider as God and asked why God would be afraid of God. He saw the elephant and asked why God should move out of the way of God.
And in deep meditation he was grabbed by the elephant's trunk and hurled into a deep ravine.
He got up and went back to his guru, shocked and existentially stunned.
"You said I was God."
"Yes, all things are God." His guru said.
"That elephant that almost ran me over and threw me aside like a stick, that was God?"
"Yes, that elephant was God," the guru said. "But why didn't you listen to the voice of God shouting to get the hell out of the way?"

The problem is that when one's view expands, one's sense of self is diminished. This is not altogether a bad thing.
What makes it harmful is if it is not linked to the extension of oneself in spirit to those new horizons and that new consciousness with deepening insights into nature (and we ourselves are nature) and the refinement of meaning in human life.

The problem thus far has been our concepts are old and worn and stuck on Disneyfied pollyanna saccrine substitutes watered down by men who were more economist and politician than oneironaut or seeker.

So what we need are new fairy stories. New metaphors for the human experience. New insights into meaning.

We already see the sea change gathering before us threatening to inundate us in data, trivia and minutiae.

I like Hawking and I like what he has to say, but the form of it, this Brittany Spears, pop philosophy of the week, hyper-tweeted, everyone's opinion is equal so nothing is more insightful or relevant than what we can brand, constant whitewater rush is not good for the - pardon the metaphor - soul.

We're certainly in a desert of meaning. It's just as right to express anger over it as it is to rail at five thousand year old concepts that fail to take into account leavened bread much less the fact we've walked on the moon.

Doesn't do much for getting us out of it though.

As for the heaven/hell thing. I've been to hell. It's real enough. And if you doubt that there are plenty of other places to look where you can see it in someone's eyes.
Caught a glimpse of heaven once. I think the "at hand" metaphor is true.
You can do most anything with enough practice. I think if you practice loving well enough you could reach there (and there are people who seem to have it together, Leo Buscaglia seemed on the right track, I've seen a lot of care workers with that weird light in their eyes. I worked out and got physically stronger, mentally stronger as well, and there were other lessons learned, it stands to reason you exercise loving you get more powerful in that area. Gotta be better than bitching about how stuff sucks all the time.)

The Disney version of heaven - does anyone really believe that? Enough to worry about even addressing it? (You know, there isn't actually a tooth fairy)

I think Steve Martin captured the essence of that:

'What if you died and found yourself in Heaven. Pearly gates, harps. Wouldn't you feel stupid.
What. You mean I'm? No. In college they said this was all bullshit.

What, you've been keeping tabs on me? How many times did I say the Lord's name in vain?
Oh? A million six? Jesus Chr....'
posted by Smedleyman at 12:04 AM on May 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


...if he's careful, and perhaps also changes the state of the simulated characters themselves, he can make substantial changes to the state of the world that are undetectable to the inhabitants.

Then how would the characters ever become aware of the programmer in order to construct a religion around him, if the changes he's making are undetectable to them?

This whole 'He's there, but you can't tell he's there unless he wants you to and gives you special organs of perception. And even then you won't be able to show anyone else' rationale seems to be a lot of handwaving around the fact that this universe with a god outside-but-able-to-affect-the-inside looks identical to a universe that doesn't have any god at all.

As for the novelist creating characters who talk back to him - perhaps he only thinks he's a novelist, and the others are characters, because the characters are actually novelists who've collaborated on a project. They've created an author to take credit for things they're too modest to claim for themselves or too romantic to ascribe to a beautiful yet impersonal universe. Perhaps.
posted by harriet vane at 12:06 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


"They lack the organ of perception, so to speak. "
"Now for those who pick up the hint and the trail at this point, and start to seek the creator, whether in the Bible or (in the case of those without one) in whatever form that might take, the Bible teaches that search is rewarded. Here we get into the topic of faith again. Faith is like a pair of glasses that you can put on and things become sharply in focus."
I'm not sure what St Alia is trying to say between these two quotations. If I lack the 'organ of perception' does that mean I was always predisposed to never have faith (I've never to my recollection had it, not had it and lost it)? If so wouldn't the Bible then be wrong to say that the search is rewarded, if I'd searched and never been able to find what I was looking for? Am I some how (meta-)physiologically incapable of being saved?
Alternatively is there always the potential for me to have searched and perceived what St Alia believes she perceives, in which case isn't it rather offensive to suggest I'm just not trying hard enough? I don't mean to suggest St Alia means to be offensive - she clearly in no way does - but it such sentiments do tend to have that effect upon me.
posted by edd at 3:02 AM on May 18, 2011


Rory Marinich: "... I think there's absolutely a transcendent beauty to mathematics, to the way you can start with nothing and still end up with geometry and calculus simply because they're the way numbers work. When I was 10 or 11"

Mathematics, was intelligently designed. Depending who you ask it may very well have been designed by humans though. Consider, for example, the fact that there are huge portions of mathematics that don't reflect known properties of anything humans can experience.
posted by idiopath at 5:33 AM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, we may be mentally disabled in our inability to see God, but at least we might have better sex.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:26 AM on May 18, 2011


Then how would the characters ever become aware of the programmer in order to construct a religion around him, if the changes he's making are undetectable to them?

The programmer could make changes that would result in conditions or events that might seem noteworthy to the characters but make them in such a way that no character could ever prove (to the satisfaction of other, skeptical, characters) that these conditions or events were the result of changes made by the programmer.

I think God does this all the time in our universe. I don't know for sure why He would choose to do things that way, although I have my own speculations on the matter.

This whole 'He's there, but you can't tell he's there unless he wants you to and gives you special organs of perception. And even then you won't be able to show anyone else' rationale seems to be a lot of handwaving around the fact that this universe with a god outside-but-able-to-affect-the-inside looks identical to a universe that doesn't have any god at all.

The universes may look identical from a certain limited perspective, but that doesn't mean they are identical.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:36 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's lost in the beanplating of questions about whether Hawking knows or believes that there's not an afterlife, and whether he's claiming authority or is treated as such, is that we have the reflections of a man struggling with long-term illness reflecting on how he comes to terms with his mortality.

It's something that's really started to bother me about the way people respond to what Hitchins writes about his illness, leading me to feel deep sympathy for a person who has opinions I find to be abominable. The rush to condemn the man as both wrong and arrogant in atheism overwhelms the possibility that he might, possibly, have something wise, wonderful, and beautiful to say about his condition.

But, it's easier to accuse atheists of mental defects, ignorance, intellectual sloth, and amorality than to actually consider what atheists have to say about truth, value, beauty, meaning, mortality, and wonder. (And at what point can we call out such blanket dismissals and stereotypes as bigotry?)

Crabby Appleton: The universes may look identical from a certain limited perspective, but that doesn't mean they are identical.

If they look identical, then there's no reason to fault an atheist's relationship with that universe, guided as it may be by organs of perception and glasses of clear focus.

Smedleyman: Enough to worry about even addressing it?

I wasn't aware that people were addressing it. Please give us some credit that yes, we are aware of the many different flavors of deity.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:05 AM on May 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


But, it's easier to accuse atheists of mental defects, ignorance, intellectual sloth, and amorality than to actually consider what atheists have to say about truth, value, beauty, meaning, mortality, and wonder. (And at what point can we call out such blanket dismissals and stereotypes as bigotry?)

You realize that if you drop the "a" from "atheists", this statement loses none of its accuracy. And yes, it is accurate.

Someone, a long time ago in this thread, asked why we bothered having these discussions, asked if anyone had EVER had their mind changed by them. It was a good question to ask. And then someone else suggested that it's not about having your mind changed; it's about enhancing your understanding of the "other's" position, perhaps even starting to feel some empathy toward it.

Perversely, I think I love these threads precisely because they do represent a sort of World War One of discussion. That is, opposing sides have burrowed deep into their trenches and though there are constant skirmishes, probes, major battles -- neither side ever really wins or loses much ground. I don't know why I get a kick out of this, but I do. Like I said, it's perverse. Or maybe there's something to be said for everyone, on their own, in some unique and novel way, stumbling upon what for me is perhaps the greatest truth of the 20th Century:

Everything You Know Is Wrong.

And yes, this came directly from WW1. It came from Zurich, 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire, the virulent birth of Dada wherein a crowd of mostly young malcontents from all over Europe found themselves outside the war, in a neutral nation, giving voice and image to the rage, the frustration, the sheer apocalyptic confusion that the war had forced upon them. Their nations had failed them. Their churches had failed them. Their schools had failed them. Their world had failed them. If they played by the rules, they were doomed to either death in the trenches, or the madness that would inevitably follow survival of that hell on earth.

So, they conjured something fresh ... an art that was beyond art, a sort of actualized war that didn't actually hurt anyone ... although it didn't necessarily spare feelings.

Here's hoping that our current experiences in this other sort of trench warfare eventually, inevitably lead to the formulation of something similar -- a different sort of Cabaret Voltaire, in a different sort of neutral state, a different sort of battleground.

stop making sense. pass the ketchup. keep on rockin' in the free world. I've gotta get back to work.
posted by philip-random at 9:57 AM on May 18, 2011


There is actually an FAQ that handles this question nicely. ;)
posted by jeffburdges at 10:17 AM on May 18, 2011


Metafilter is actually better than most of the rest of the world, where it seems that just about everyone with a byline related to religion is rushing not just to disagree with Hawking's opinion, but to treat it as authoritative and attack his competency to express his feelings regarding his own mortality.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:30 AM on May 18, 2011


If they look identical, then there's no reason to fault an atheist's relationship with that universe, guided as it may be by organs of perception and glasses of clear focus.

Try this thought experiment. Start with the universe as it is at this point in time. Create a duplicate of it. Let the original universe continue without Divine intervention, and let the duplicate continue with God performing miracles from time to time. The universes will diverge and therefore, in that sense, they will not look the same. However, let's assume that God conducts his interventions so that no inhabitant of the duplicate universe will ever have proof sufficient to convince a skeptic that any intervention has taken place. Then the skeptic will say exactly what harriet vane said, i.e., that "this universe with a god outside-but-able-to-affect-the-inside looks identical to a universe that doesn't have any god at all". The skeptic would be wrong, but because there's no way to prove him wrong (short of yanking him out of the duplicate universe and showing him both universes), he will continue to feel completely justified in insisting that he is right.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:31 AM on May 18, 2011



A bottle of wine gets opened.

NORTH:
So anyway, these were all signs.

GALA:
Of what?

NORTH:
That nothing is real, that everything can best be explained as some kind of mass media induced hallucination.

GALA
Very McLuhanesque.

North looks to the camera eye, fixes it with a cool stare.

NORTH:
Either way, essential forces of chaos, titillation and confusion do still flow, hence entertainment value, which is the only real reason anyone even pays attention. Am I right or am I right?

GALA
I have no idea what –

NORTH
That God, if he were for real FOR REAL, well he could certainly create a reality in which all evidence of his alleged existence was completely absent.

GALA:
God could create the illusion of his own non-being.

NORTH:
Arguably.

He takes a swig of wine.

GALA
But what does this have to do with an invisible soul sucking sub-quantal entity that lurks within the world's electromagnetic grid?

NORTH:
I was just getting to that.
posted by philip-random at 11:20 AM on May 18, 2011


This joy can take many forms of course, secular and otherwise.
But it's silly to write off as shallow 'fairy stories' which have very deep insights into the human experience simply because one doesn't understand the dance or can't quantify it.


As far as I'm concerned, there is no universal morality, no one single lesson to be learned. Some people dance to rap or pop and not metal or classical, but others are the opposite... and why not? Different dances teach different lessons, embrace different parts of the human experience. All religions (and dances in general) define themselves as much by what they're not as by what they are, so why should atheism be any different? Why should atheists alone be accused of rejecting others' dances "simply because one doesn't understand the dance or can't quantify it", while all around them are people who do the same with thousands of other dances?

As Stephen F. Roberts once said, "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

For most, atheism (and the subsequent search for one's own sense of meaning) is a dance-of-one; that doesn't mean it's not a dance. I get a little tired of hearing about Deep Insights Into The Human Experience That Go Beyond Words, as if atheists don't know what that feels like, or aren't trying to express something vital when they speak against religion, just as the religious are when they speak against sin or attachment.
posted by vorfeed at 12:19 PM on May 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


It sounds like incoherent thinking. If He interacts with His creation in any meaningful sense, if you can detect Him (as other claims of yours suggest), then he is detectable.

Usually when scientists use the term "detectable" they mean "reliably detectable." All of our data so far is just anecdotal.

Sightings of Bigfoot are hard to take seriously because we've explored the regions in question so thoroughly that it's just not credible that such creatures could be hiding in those areas. But I can't imagine any sort of exploration or investigation that could rule out God in the same way.

At best a scientist can say, "I've never seen any glimpses of God, and none of the stories I've heard seem very convincing to me." But that seems more like a forensic judgment call than a scientific one.

Perversely, I think I love these threads precisely because they do represent a sort of World War One of discussion. That is, opposing sides have burrowed deep into their trenches and though there are constant skirmishes, probes, major battles -- neither side ever really wins or loses much ground.

Maybe we can sneak out into no-man's-land every once in a while and share a furtive beer or soccer game.
posted by straight at 12:25 PM on May 18, 2011


As Stephen F. Roberts once said, "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

This is not very clear thinking at all. Compelling evidence for the truthfulness of one story about a god or gods could rule out contradictory stories about other gods in ways that aren't even hypothetically possible for an atheist.

I don't disbelieve Joseph Smith's stories about golden tablets and magic spectacles solely because I'm a skeptic, but also because they contradict other stories about Christianity which I think are true.
posted by straight at 12:41 PM on May 18, 2011


Crabby Appleton: Try this thought experiment.

Why yes. This is exactly the thought experiment which convinces me I'm safe and harmless in my atheism, even if God exists.

To use your programming metaphor, I can only act and function based on my nature, my intellect, and the interface She reveals to me. If that interface is a beautiful and rich monism that the English word "god" is inadequate to describe, then it's my function, my nature, my ordained fate, so to speak, to live as a spiritual atheist. If it's Her will to selectively reveal Herself, then skepticism is Her will as well.

The skeptical position, isn't usually, "She doesn't exist," it's "the evidence is not sufficient for belief or action." If, as you propose there's no evidence to be discovered, then the skeptic is objectively correct and justified.

I don't believe you can simultaneously claim that god is elusive in Her actions, and also say that atheists are deficient should their experiences not result in faith in Her.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:09 PM on May 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Compelling evidence for the truthfulness of one story about a god or gods could rule out contradictory stories about other gods in ways that aren't even hypothetically possible for an atheist. I don't disbelieve Joseph Smith's stories about golden tablets and magic spectacles solely because I'm a skeptic, but also because they contradict other stories about Christianity which I think are true.

What you're missing here is exactly what I (and Roberts) was trying to express: many atheists disbelieve at least partly because religious stories contradict a story about reality which they believe they have compelling evidence for. While skepticism is a big part of atheism for many, the idea that all atheists are atheists "solely because they're a skeptic" is inaccurate (hell, is anyone really ever anything "solely due to X"?)

Being nothing more than a lack of belief in god(s), atheism is a huge tent... likewise, skepticism can lead to many possible destinations, including strong agnosticism and even solipsism. Other than belief in god(s), I don't think there are any "ways that aren't even hypothetically possible for an atheist".
posted by vorfeed at 1:20 PM on May 18, 2011


A meta thought experiment:

J: Assume, for sake of the thought experiment, that there is a benevolent God who, for reasons of His own, does not want to give absolute proof of His existence. Now-
A: Why would I do that?
J: Why would you do what?
A: Why would I assume that there is a benevolent God who, for reasons of His own, does not want to give absolute proof of His existence?
J: It's just a thought experiment. I'm trying to prove a point.
A: You can't, though. Your initial condition already begs the question of God's existence. Since your initial condition is the question at hand, your so called "thought experiment" can't teach us anything.
J: But you haven't even let me make my point, yet.
A: Ask yourself this, first, then: Can your point be made without the initial condition? If we assume nothing but the physical world around us for which we have direct evidence or at least sound scientific theory - does your point still hold up?
J: Well, no. I was going to talk about God's silent hand in the world.
A: Perhaps we would be better off considering thought "experiments" that require a little less circular reasoning and let God's silence speak for itself.
J: But if I have to start every thought experiment from a position that doesn't assume the existence of God, how can we examine the role of God at all?
A: Indeed.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:36 PM on May 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


In any case, there is a clear answer St. Alia's question, namely : Hawking has figured out remarkable stuff about the universe. Ain't like the pope ever tells us anything cool. You might recall that a recent scifi program was based around the idea that the cosmic background radiation contained a message from "god", well Hawking just reminded us that never happens in real life. Fairy tails aren't real, not even the ones you like.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:43 PM on May 18, 2011


"Smedleyman: Enough to worry about even addressing it?

I wasn't aware that people were addressing it. Please give us some credit that yes,
we are aware of the many different flavors of deity."

Hawking was addressing it. And addressing, specifically, the watered down Disney version of heaven as a fairy story.
But that's one of the points, why is, for example, a method of introspection lumped in with "flavors of deity"?
Some atheists are anti-christians. Not actual atheists. One trick ponies who can't argue anything but why the judeo-christian God doesn't exist. Swell. I meditate. I don't think of God or not God.
Doesn't enter into the equation at all. But because it's ritualized, I must be worshipping 'the man in the clouds' or some ersatz version of it and the tools I use to work with paraverbal concepts aren't genuine tools
to foster understanding the way any other artist uses metaphor through whatever medium (paint, dance, chords),
but must be illusory spirits summoned to dispel irrational fears.
That's not as condescending or intellectually insulting as some Disney-Christian telling me I'll go to hell for the same reasons? That I'm worshipping a 'false' God? (as opposed to characterizing as 'worshipping' any ritualized act.)
Pfft.


"Different dances teach different lessons, embrace different parts of the human experience."

You've missed the point entirely. There is no theology. There's just the dance. Your statement attempts to make them analogues and criticize theology by pointing to the variety in dance. But there is no theology.

"All religions (and dances in general) define themselves as much by what they're not as by what they are, so why should atheism be any different? Why should atheists alone be accused of rejecting others' dances "simply because one doesn't understand the dance or can't quantify it", while all around them are people who do the same with thousands of other dances?"

You are essentially reacting in precisely the manner I detail as missing the point entirely.
Why does religion have to be differentiated into this dance or that dance or qualified at all as a certain kind of rite or ritual? Why does it need to be justified in any way at all? The point of the story is very clear.
The visitor thinks he's missing the point of the religious ritual and searches for the meaning behind that. When in fact the act itself has an inherent meaning - his refutation or affirmation on a theological basis is irrelevant.

"As Stephen F. Roberts once said, "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.""

I contend that an art critic produces one fewer work of art than the artist.
The varieties those kinds of rituals take prove my point completely that it is a component of human expression.
The contention here is the problem. Indeed, part of the problem is that there is contention that there's a problem rather than the possibility that the thing in itself can have meaning. As a powerful image has a wordless meaning or a dance, of any kind, has its own meaning.
I contend that some people dance while others ridicule them because they are tone deaf regardless of the style of dance.

This is irrespective of the duality of atheism/theism some folks seem to insist on putting on this kind of expression.

"I get a little tired of hearing about Deep Insights Into The Human Experience That Go Beyond Words, as if atheists don't know what that feels like, or aren't trying to express something vital when they speak against religion,"

I get a little tired of hearing about how human experience only has validity if it contains no metaphors and can be intellectualized as if insight and expression were subject to engineering principles.

But what is really tiresome is how atheists go on and on and on and on about how little God matters when presented with the non-dichotomous concept that human expression occurs before (and whether or not) God (or not-God) enters the equation.
The urge to dance occurs first. The wordless expression exists before the form.

But neither theists nor atheists express anything vital when they speak for or against religion.

Some people don't like jazz. Some people talk of nothing else. Know what's going on there? Not music.

"many atheists disbelieve at least partly because religious stories contradict a story about
reality which they believe they have compelling evidence for"

Precisely the problem. At least as far as what I'm talking about, which it appears some folks have no interest in understanding beyond a priori refuting it as a theistic argument (which again is criticism that applies to people who insist on overlaying their frame on things rather than being open to the experience - funny that this is taken solely as a criticism of atheists by an atheist as that's self-referential. But it applies to anyone who does that. 'People who like this sort of thing will find that it's the sort of thing they like tautology there.' It seems a simple point, but apparently not, so I detailed it. Perhaps that lead to greater confusion.).

In any case:

Is there evidence the ritualized dance (mikagura) in Shinto ceremony actually entertains the Gods?
Was the sun goddess Amaterasu actually drawn out of her cave by wild dancing?

Point of the story - again - it doesn't f'ing matter. They're dancing. It's a dance. They dance.
Many arts derive from it. Are those arts, celebrations, etc. invalid or should they not be done because there's no evidence the story it's based on actually happened?

This is, given the proper understanding of the story in context, what you would be saying. They shouldn't dance because religious stories contradict a story about reality which they believe they have compelling evidence for.

The ritual itself has value and has developed intricate and beautiful art. I don't believe you're disputing that, but again, the entire point of the story was that the visitors discernment was inappropriate to the enjoyment of the fable and the dance as dance.

Not that he's an asshole because he doesn't believe in the sun goddess or that the dancers are because theydance in celebration of one more sun goddess than he has.
There's no religion to understand there, there's just the dance. The point of it, as the priest is saying, is the dancing.

I suppose this contends metanarrative, in that true experience doesn't need an explanation, regardless of the nature of the metanarrative itself.

But why bring Baudrillard, Habermas and Lyotard into this.
I suppose another way of putting it is from a theological noncognitivist perspective,
the problem of meaning still remains. And there are atheists who do insist on defining meaning in specific terms regardless of the essence of whatever experience (in this case dance).
It goes without saying that most theists do this (some deists, I suppose, don't, doesn't matter though.)
posted by Smedleyman at 3:33 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


In an interesting twist on that, Smedleyman, I credit my artistic side at least as much as my rational side in why I am an atheist. I was raised in a very religious, though liberal and intellectually curious, household. So there was much exposure to various religious traditions and philosophical thought. But we were also raised to be participant in the arts, including liturgical dance, which was a huge part of our life. But the truth is, I have never really believed in God, not ever, as far back as I can remember. I've felt the presence of the spirit from time to time, but on reflection, as an artist and a brutally honest self-analyzer, I recognize that same feeling as the feeling of artistic expression coming from within, not without.

A true believer might say (have said to me) that's because God is always there within me, and the creative force is His force, so of course it is the same. But I know that it is coming from me, that I am making it happen. Not because I am prideful (though I am), but because it is there when I will it, and I am quite cognizant of turning the creative mind off and on. I have watched too many people put themselves in that mental space, willing themselves into believing their inner creations. What we feel is fantastic, and even important, but I am incapable of perceiving it as anything but natural.

But, atheist though I am, I still love liturgical music, and architecture, and sometimes even dance. It just means something slightly different for me, I suppose.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:09 PM on May 18, 2011


The varieties those kinds of rituals take prove my point completely that it is a component of human expression. The contention here is the problem. Indeed, part of the problem is that there is contention that there's a problem rather than the possibility that the thing in itself can have meaning. As a powerful image has a wordless meaning or a dance, of any kind, has its own meaning.

Hey Smedlyman is a Durkheimian of sorts. It's not only a question of meaning though is it? Isn't it also a problem of ontology? For example where does the urge to dance come from? How do societies and cultures seemingly self organize to produce these urges and rituals that give meaning to said urges? What is the interface between these self organizing systems and individual human consciousness? To me these questions are much more interesting and worthwhile than "Is there a god?" or "Is there an afterlife?" Some days I think that it is actually the totality of culture and society that produce and make individual consciousness possible. Maybe Jaynes was right and individual consciousness is a fairly recent development. I'm not claiming to have any answers just throwing that out there, but I would be interested in your thoughts, Smedleyman. Or anybody else's for that matter.

Also on a side note, and because this seems to be as proper a place as any to do so I can't recommend enough that everyone read The Varieties of Religious Experience(Amazon link) and A Pluralistic Universe(Amazon link) both by William James.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 4:18 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's disrespectful about my comment, neuromodulator?

Sorry, I sort of stopped checking the thread for a few days. Apologies for saying that and disappearing.

Your comment seems disrespectful because

a) I assume you're being sarcastic with the "very respectful". Sarcasm is kind of a crappy way to deliver criticism for one, and for two it seems to assuming a bad faith argument on LordSludge's part. It seems to me perfectly reasonable (and not disrespectful) to ask. Here's the situation: we have an FPP in which someone compares religion to fairy tales. We have a person of faith assert a difference. We have another person ask what the difference is. This seems totally inline with the topic, and isn't intrusive in the sense that s/he didn't just pick a random person of faith to ask; s/he asked the person who asserted the difference.

Speaking as an atheist, I literally do not comprehend the difference. Or rather, I feel like the difference has to be "my cultural background", which confuses and troubles me as a reason to believe something once it's recognized. (Obviously we all hold such beliefs unconsciously and it's normal - I'm certainly not above it. It's just that once we recognize that as a primary cause, I feel that should be examined carefully.)

b) And then you follow with the "always fun" bit, which, yeah, again with the sarcasm (I'm assuming) and which is not addressing anything anyone said but is a not-favorable generalization about a group. I assume you can see what's disrespectful about that, and this is more of a "how can it be disrespectful when I'm responding in kind?" but the thing is that you're not responding in kind, to my reading of the exchange, towards which I readily admit my own bias. But I do feel like I'm trying to be fair and careful with my reading.

It could be that I'm having an extremely favourable reading of LordSludge, but it really does seem to me to be in line with the discussion that we're having.
posted by neuromodulator at 4:45 PM on May 18, 2011


You've missed the point entirely. There is no theology. There's just the dance.

You say "there's just the dance", and I say you're missing the point that many atheists, anti-theists, and the like are also dancers. They're not "art critics", they're not "tone deaf", and they're not acting solely on a collection of "engineering principles". The continuous rejection of an overarching answer, the embrace of self-as-it-is and self-as-part-of-the-natural-world, the act of creation inherent in building my own beliefs, and in trying to reach past them -- these are part of what it is for me to be atheist and anti-theist in a religious world, and they take place largely in the realm of the wordless. They are not just something experienced on an intellectual level; as It's Raining Florence Henderson makes clear, for many of us their "wordless expression" began long before we knew what the "form" of god(s) was.

The expression of atheism can be seen as "criticism" on a meta-level, but so can your words in favor of unmediated experience... does that make unmediated experience itself a form of criticism?

Your mention of meditation is a fine example, because, well, I meditate. So do millions of atheists. I take part in things I'd personally consider ritual. So do millions of atheists. I bang my head ecstatically to induce states I cannot quantify, I create art which has meaning beyond my intention or explanation, I go out into nature and feel connected to a universe larger than myself -- and so do millions of atheists. Again, what makes me an atheist is the fact that I don't believe in god(s). That's it, that's all, and your attempt to make atheism into some sort of overarching belief system which is devoid of "insight and expression" is missing the fucking point, big time.

This is, given the proper understanding of the story in context, what you would be saying. They shouldn't dance because religious stories contradict a story about reality which they believe they have compelling evidence for.

Should we stop doing yoga as exercise, then? Should we stop having a big meal and gathering around Solstice time? Should we stop meditating and fasting and taking shrooms? I would say no, because none of these things require believing in god(s). If they have their own "wordless meaning", then we can have that without fairy stories to go along with it... and that, right there, is atheism, at least to me. It's an embrace of humanity and the world, including the wordless, transcendent parts of our experience, without god(s) or just-so stories pasted on top.

It's not opposed to feeling or unmediated experience, and it does not "insist on defining meaning in specific terms". It's just life, without god(s) or religion, in defiance of your attempt to pigeonhole it as a joyless BEEP BOOP BOP ILL-OGIC head-trip. Maybe it's like that for other atheists, I don't know... but I very much doubt it, because atheists are human, and we are quite familiar with the humanity that you and others seem to be trying to deny us.
posted by vorfeed at 5:31 PM on May 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


A million favorites for vorfeed!
posted by neuromodulator at 5:41 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Smedleyman: Let me tell you a story. On the eve of my Grandfather's funeral, I attended a UU drumming circle he and my uncle frequented. We all drummed. I and other people had visions. Some of us spoke about our visions. Which is reasonable because there's nothing wrong with trying to express and share what we experience from sacred art. We all experienced different things, and that's ok.

Hawking's words are another form of dance. (And I don't envy him the process of getting those words out.) He's dancing with his own mortality, and when I hear people do that, I suspend my judgement and ridicule and listen. I may not agree, but how a person comes to terms with leaving the world is possibly one of the most important things they have to say and should be respected, sacred even.

I had a longer response, but it's driven by anger that you've completely misrepresented my beliefs and practices, held them up to ridicule, and ridiculed Christians as well. Until you see my visions, my revelations, my art, my science, my inquiry, and my relationships with the Universe as sacred along with your own, I don't think we have much to say to each other.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:48 PM on May 18, 2011


Smedleyman: Some people don't like jazz. Some people talk of nothing else. Know what's going on there? Not music.

Yes, but people who don't like jazz still know jazz exists; there is empirical proof. This is a flawed metaphor.
posted by tzikeh at 8:04 PM on May 18, 2011


I just had an interesting thought while perusing this thread. Jesus told a parable about the rich man and Lazarus (this particular Lazarus being a beggar that the rich man knew, not the brother of Mary and Martha.) The parable spoke of both in the afterlife, with the rich man in Hell and Lazarus being in "Abraham's bosom." The rich man and Abraham held a conversation in which the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn them about fleeing the wrath to come.

Abraham replied, "They have Moses and the prophets."

The rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

To which Abraham replied, "‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead."

I take from this that Jesus was of the opinion that there is no pleasing a skeptic. :D
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:11 PM on May 18, 2011


Hmm. Or perhaps Jesus was trying to persuade his father there was no point in having himself tortured and killed after all?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:16 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jesus is all like, Dad? Have I ever told you the parable about the rich man and Lazarus? And God would be all, Who do you think you're talking to, young man? Of course I know the parable about the rich man and Lazarus. And you're still getting crucified and rising from the grave. Aw, Daaaaad! I'm not going to be a zombie, am I? No son, you're not going to be a zombie. Now get a haircut. You look like a hippy!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:26 PM on May 18, 2011


"But, atheist though I am, I still love liturgical music, and architecture, and sometimes even dance. It just means something slightly different for me, I suppose."

I don't think it does. I think a lot of theists misuse that (experience of art) as a counterpoint. Dance, music, etc. means just what it means.

Good Buddhist thing on that:
Subhuti was sitting one day under a tree. Flowers began to fall on him.
"We are praising you for your discourse on emptiness," the gods whispered to him.
"But I have not spoken on emptiness," he said.
"You have not spoken of emptiness, we have not heard emptiness, this is true emptiness."

So I guess the atheist thing to do is to love music, dance, etc. irrespective of the form or religious implications. Theists, by definition, require a certain form.
But something isn't necessarially religious because it looks that way or someone says it's so.

The argument I buy into, albeit not completely, is that (some) atheists have to
speak against religion because (some) theists are always pushing it. Socially, verbally, etc. and I see that.
In this case Hawking was asked for meaning and said "We should seek the greatest value of our action."
I think that's a pretty powerful statement.
If I have an objection it's to the concept that, not so much that religion is a crutch for the weak, because sometimes when you have something broken, you need a crutch,
but that irrational, non-verbal or ritual responses, or indeed, all non-scientific responses to phenomena are for weak minded people.
I'd have to say that religion in the sense that it's used as a dodge by some people is rightly criticized this way.
But so too is anyone who is disingenuous in seeking some sort of truth and meaning in experience.

So I object more to the idea that there is a 'them' and 'us' in terms of what form we use to discern meaning as opposed to the more useful concept that
there is a 'them' and 'us' when it comes to those folks earnestly seeking truth and those seeking power or some other illusory thing. And there's little need to
apply the label of 'weak' to power trippers since it's fairly obvious.



"Hey Smedlyman is a Durkheimian of sorts."

Yeah, I have to agree there's something in religion that transcends the symbols it uses. But I wouldn't say that it was religion itself that ever mattered.
It always got in the way. Metaphor is an approximation. And I do think we need new ones. The problem is we seem to seek it through distruction of the old. Not entirely invalid, but
there it runs into Lyotard's thing (and Godel really). So the hazard is not athiesm per se, but the concept that no experience, once transformed into symbol or myth,
has bearing on 'reality.'


"To me these questions are much more interesting and worthwhile than "Is there a god?" or "Is there an afterlife?""

I couldn't agree more.


"For example where does the urge to dance come from?...Some days I think that it is actually the totality of culture and society that produce and make
individual consciousness possible."

I've thought the same. Dance seems to be just one form of expression we've found. That seems to come naturally from metaphors using body movement.
But then, where do *you* and *I* come from. But then. I speak English. I act a certain way in conformity with certain mores. I can't think of any thoughts I've had
that anyone hasn't had before (Particularly Marcus Aurealius.) So *I* am a transitory development. That'd about be where nihilism can set in though. So I have to defer
to Lao Tse and Buddha and some others (and Hawking here too really).
It doesn't matter where it comes from. What matters is what's here now and what is going on with that.
Really, it's the best I can seem to do anyway.

"Should we stop doing yoga as exercise, then? Should we stop having a big meal and gathering around Solstice time?
Should we stop meditating and fasting and taking shrooms? I would say no, because none of these things require believing in god(s)."

Which would be what I said. If you understood the point of the story, you would, in fact, not say we should stop doing yoga, but in fact say
'ah, so the objective of yoga as a healthy exercise is still healthy exercise whether or not it seems to have religious overtones.' Which is akin to
what you just said.



"If they have their own "wordless meaning", then we can have that without fairy stories to go along with it... and that, right there, is atheism, at least to me."

Well, actually, no you can't. You see, Shinto dance has a wordless meaning with a visceral emotional reaction to the form and stately ritual of the dance. It is meant
to inspire awe. Without the 'fairly story' of the sun goddess it's doing Hamlet without Hamlet. We can recognize it as a convenient fiction. But the line gets blurred
along the way. It's not the fairy story it's the immediacy of it. This is happening now. Here comes the sun goddess. Wow, that's incredible and we were all part of it.
Theater and religion have been linked in human history for a long time. Now you can say that we should recognize this as a convenient fiction, and I would agree.
But in no way would I want to be sitting next to you in a theater and stand up in the middle of MacBeth and shout "THIS IS ALL BULLSHIT! IT'S NOT REAL!"
Likewise I would not want someone to send in the cops after Banquo is murdered or screaming because there's real witchcraft going on.
People want to be able to discern meaning from the event, without the 'theism' or 'atheism' imposition.
I understand 'theism' is a social imposition from your perspective. That's a point apart from the more specific point of the dance story.


"You say "there's just the dance", and I say you're missing the point that many atheists, anti-theists, and the like are also dancers."

Except they're not. You're addressing a particular story in which the visitor refuses to let the work speak for itself. He is saying he doesn't understand their theism.
The Shinto priest is saying, there isn't any theism, there is just the stately, musical rite, this dance.
In the broader sense yours is a different point. I would think this was obvious.
Perhaps you're so fixated on contrarianism you're incapable of understanding that I agree with this point?

"It's an embrace of humanity and the world, including the wordless, transcendent parts of our experience, without god(s) or just-so stories pasted on top."

'Just-so stories' - See, why does there always have to be that dig at poetry and implicit criticism that somehow metaphor and fiction are inferior?
Is it not obvious how there this screaming: "Look at how accepting we are of diversity and cultural folklore no matter how stupid these ignorant savages
who believe in sun goddesses are?" and that it's clearly not an embrace of humanity?

As though modern mikos think they're genuinely possessed by gods but, yeah, you see through that and accept them anyway?
Give me a break. The condescention is mighty thick here. I condemn as useless and worse than useless the symbols used by churches as Disnification
but I just don't understand how we can do without god(s) in our transcendent experience? Why don't you smell what you're shoveling at me?
Hell, why don't you just read without looking to fight someone who's criticising a particular behavior, not your - and you've made clear it is your ("and that, right there, is atheism, at least to me.") - atheism.

"They are not just something experienced on an intellectual level; as It's Raining Florence Henderson makes clear, for many of us their
"wordless expression" began long before we knew what the "form" of god(s) was."

Yes. And? Do you not see that this supports my point? The extension of which is, we should allow other kinds of ritual, rites, etc., stand for themselves without imposition
of reduction to words or outdated metaphors - which, as I said above, don't take into account leavened bread much less the moon landing.
That this urge to expression transcends the form it takes regardless of whether it depends on that form/symbol or not?

"That's it, that's all, and your attempt to make atheism into some sort of overarching belief system which is devoid of "insight and expression" is missing the fucking point, big time"

Ah, yes. Your desire to contest the point has occluded your ability to discern meaning. I have not attempted to make atheism into a belief system. On the contrary, I've
made the point that belief systems get in the way of direct experience, truth, etc. Having a mysterious symbol defined for you in terms contrived
by a fifth century council of bishops is useless. So too is categorizing anything that smacks of fable or 'God' or poetic metaphor as theism and contending it.
Again, this conversation itself is ironic in that sense because you're arguing a point I have no contest with and forcing your paradigm on my expression: "your attempt to make atheism..."
Not at all what I'm saying. Indeed, theological noncognitivism asserts words like 'God' are not meaningful. And there are theists who have said the same thing.
Meister Eckhart for example ("whatever you say about God is wrong" etc.) So again forcing that specific dichotomy on something that does not contain it gets in the way.
Campbell quotes psychiatry professor John Perry who coined the phrase "affect image" to characterize a living mythological symbol
that immediately brings about a strong intuitive, emotional response.

The traveler in that particular story had his response impaired by his imposition on the ritual. I don't believe "eruidite guy" translates for all intents and purposes
into "atheist" but even if it does in your world I added that this was a criticism of the mindset of both atheists and theists in reference to - what should have been
abundantly clear given the history on these kinds of discussions but in this thread alone - the argument getting in the way of the experience and a priori
imposition of meaning (for good or ill reason) on metaphor.

"Yes, but people who don't like jazz still know jazz exists; there is empirical proof. This is a flawed metaphor."

Well, it would be if it concerned the existence of God.
But as it's alluding to the argument over religion and contesting over symbols of what I consider to be a moot point in the first place, and it either goes on and on and on or people actively shout to prevent other folks from listening to it, seems pretty apt to characterize it as not being music.
Or not being what respective adherents purport it is about.


"Hawking's words are another form of dance."

I agree. It is what he's doing in part.
My reasons for disagreeing with the "fairy story for people afraid of the dark" element of it are made clear above.

"Which is reasonable because there's nothing wrong with trying to express and share what we experience from sacred art."

Unquestionably.
If someone came by and made fun of you while you were drumming - 'silly hippie' or some such - your response would be?
And if they said you were worshipping the devil?
And if they said what you were doing was pointless and being done only because you fear death?
It's all the same question to me.
Your drumming has inherent meaning beyond the fact of the drumming and regardless of its characterization.

"but how a person comes to terms with leaving the world is possibly one of the most important things they have to say and should be respected, sacred even."

Indeed? If they approach it with a fairy story, something about heaven perhaps?

There's a great scene in "The Invention of Lying" where Mark Bellison is telling his dying mother about the Man in the Sky.
You can substitute the story about dancing with someone else in that world who understands lying and asks Bellison why he was lying to his mother.
Bellison would say much the same thing. "I wasn't lying. I was comforting my mother."

The truth of that moment is in that scene. And though it involves the Man in the Sky lie, for Bellison it is not about the lie.

But I don't think the symbol(s) someone uses in coming to terms with leaving the world are sacred. I think the process of coming to terms is, regardless of the symbol.

Confronted leaving the world myself more than a few times. I do understand those things.

"it's driven by anger that you've completely misrepresented my beliefs and practices, held them up to ridicule, and ridiculed Christians as well."

My apologies for misrepresentation. If you clarify I would be glad to make amends.
In most nouns (atheists/theists) I use modifiers "some" to clarify that I definitely mean to criticize the holders of the specific concepts I'm criticizing.
Not the entire group. And if you're alluding to the acrimony I have for the Disney-Christian thing - that wasn't directed at you. Perhaps that wasn't clear, particularly given the goofy posting form there. I apologize for that.

"Until you see my visions, my revelations, my art, my science, my inquiry, and my relationships with the Universe as sacred along with your own,"

Ah, except that's exactly what I do. Your relationship with the universe is as sacred to me as my own. Your symbols? Symbols of any kind? No, those are just tools.

Old Zen story about a man using a brick to knock at a (spiritual) door. When the door is open, the brick can be tossed aside.
Lots of attachment to bricks.
Pointing out someone else is holding a brick is not the same as dropping your own.

Maybe that's it, I come off as holier than thou when I reiterate something like that? But hell, I've got them weighing me down all over same as anyone else.
Just thought I'd put 2 cents in, share some wisdom.

It's funny, I don't seem to walk the walk there either. I know people will f'ing kill you over this shit. I still have to chime in with teh Zen "Say folks, y'know positing the question of the existence of God is meaningless in a number of ways particularly because your own perspective is all you got and here's some cute anecdotes about a gorilla and a lotus flower to illustrate that point."
'why a gorilla exactly Smed?'
'What kind of gorilla? Was it a lowland gorilla? Because those are endangered you demented freak!'
'"It's just gorillas, without god(s) or religion, in defiance of your attempt to pigeonhole it as a joyless BEEP BOOP BOP ILL-OGIC lotus-trip.'"

Yeah. That's what I did. I'm all about pigeonholing people. Ok. Whatever. The medium is not the message.
('Oh, you believe in mediums too?')
posted by Smedleyman at 8:28 PM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why should atheists alone be accused of rejecting others' dances "simply because one doesn't understand the dance or can't quantify it", while all around them are people who do the same with thousands of other dances?

Re-reading, perhaps I haven't done justice to the concept that literalism in belief or disbelief (or simplistic materialism) is limited and unimaginative and that there is a common human experience underlying the similar and different means humans have developed for coming to terms with it.
(Well, no 'perhaps' to it really. I could have executed it brilliantly or horribly, if the end result is failure, it's failure.)

Actually, y'know who explains Joseph Campbell's perspective on the confrontation of Eastern and Western thinking (and nontheist/theist thought) in religion?
Joseph Campbell
posted by Smedleyman at 9:18 PM on May 18, 2011


Hell, why don't you just read without looking to fight someone who's criticising a particular behavior, not your - and you've made clear it is your ("and that, right there, is atheism, at least to me.") - atheism.

When you "criticize a particular behavior" by quoting me directly and then countering with phrases like "you've missed the point entirely" and "you are essentially reacting in precisely the manner I detail", it's pretty difficult for me not to think that you meant me.

And if you didn't mean me, and you didn't mean all atheists or most even atheists, then who do you mean? Where are the atheists in this thread who have claimed that "human experience only has validity if it contains no metaphors and can be intellectualized as if insight and expression were subject to engineering principles", or anything close to it? Where are the atheists who have claimed that "no experience, once transformed into symbol or myth, has bearing on 'reality.'"? From where I'm sitting, this looks like a massive straw-man... and even if not, your clear and utter disdain for people who prefer logic and intellectual thought to metaphor and unmediated experience sure isn't convincing me that they are the ones with a hang-up about materialism and meaning.

'Just-so stories' - See, why does there always have to be that dig at poetry and implicit criticism that somehow metaphor and fiction are inferior?

That's not what I meant by that, at all. All I meant was the very same thing you're saying -- that the story is not the important part, and often means "getting in the way of the experience and a priori imposition of meaning (for good or ill reason) on metaphor" (and it should be obvious that not all stories, poems, or metaphors are just-so stories, yes?)

Is it not obvious how there this screaming: "Look at how accepting we are of diversity and cultural folklore no matter how stupid these ignorant savages who believe in sun goddesses are?" and that it's clearly not an embrace of humanity?

As above, that's not the point. The point is that I, myself, do not believe in the sun goddess, nor in similar stories, nor do I accept that living without such stories is "doing Hamlet without Hamlet". In fact, I think it's just doing Hamlet. If you think that makes me a limited and unimaginative person who looks down on mikos and can't "embrace humanity", fine. But as is written in the Book of Lemmy, 8:3, I know it ain't my crime...
posted by vorfeed at 9:26 PM on May 18, 2011


I don’t know that I buy that there are “inexpressible” things. I think that there are some things that are hard to think about, and some things that are hard to articulate, and those are two very important (and distinct) things that together make it seem like there are concepts/experiences that are inexpressible. I get that there are really big things and really vague things and really complex things, and that sometimes a poetic descriptor of those things is much, much easier.

But...I’m not sure that means anything more than that it’s difficult to think clearly or to speak clearly about. I’m not convinced that there are things that are beyond the limitations of language. I’m not sure I could be convinced that this was so, either, unfortunately, so it becomes a weird point for discussion. All you could convince me of is that I personally couldn’t articulate something, but I’m a poor writer.

Further to this, I’m really not crazy about this route people take when dealing with these sorts of things by retreating into vagueness. This, “I’m not talking about Sky Wizard, I’m talking about something subtle and great and loving. I’m not even sure what this great and subtle and loving thing does, what relationship it has with the world, but I am convinced that it’s there.” That’s frequently brought up as if atheists could only possibly object to Sky Wizard, and are characterizing people’s faith unfairly.

Well, I object to the subtle and vague thing, too. Because I do think this whole retreat into the poorly defined is weak. Not weak like cowardly but weak like insubstantial. I think some of the people who actually do this actually mean something poetic by their vague entity, like, “I think the shared experience of joy and love and compassion tie us all together and join us as something greater than individuals.” And I feel like, the response to that is, “Do you mean a literal something or a poetic something? If you mean poetic, that’s fine, but I don’t know why we’re talking about this in a religious sense. That’s a poetic idea that is pretty and has nothing to do with any of the stuff about religions I find non-sensical. If you mean something in a literal sense, then I have to ask where this happens? By what means? And why do you believe it?” And I know that’s a push back towards defining something they’d rather not define, but...how can that not just be hiding behind an unassailable statement? “I believe in something with no definition,” strikes me as a meaningless statement exactly equivalent to “This sentence is a lie”. It’s self-negating. Asserting it is entirely purposeless.

And I think often people mean the poetry thing and they don’t want to give up the poetry thing. I don’t want you to give up the poetry thing, either. I just want you to call it the poetry thing.

Why do I care? Let’s forget all the really negative things that crop up in the world from various religious beliefs, and let’s just talk about the “we’re all literally connected via love” thing. Let’s say there’s someone with no beliefs any different than mine except that they really want to insist that the poetic thing is a real thing. Why would I care about that?

Because I think the truth has value that outshines anything else, and I think dressing the truth up in surface-level falsehoods that might look prettier to a casual glance is bad for us. I think it’s like preferring candy to healthy food, and I want everyone to be healthy. I think it diminishes our ability to see beauty, and be graceful and dignified. I think there is a poetic sense in which we are united in our triumphs and loves and joys and that pretending that there’s a real literal thing there prevents people from actually seeing the poetic sense, or if they do see it, they miscredit it to something else.

I think dressing up death in talking about immortal souls or afterlives or reincarnation prevents us from facing death with dignity. I want to hold my head up high when it’s my time to go and give in gently to nothingness. And I think wrapping it up in false beliefs is denying me the chance to do that. I think putting another guise on it is doing something else.

I need to put this another way. I need to put something of the value I find in my worldview down here, since I frequently hear atheism and science-based worldviews described so coldly.

This is what I see: I’m indistinguishable from anything else in the universe, in a very real sense. There is an illusion based on the scale of our animal senses that this is separate from that, that this object starts here and that one ends there. But we’re all made up of all these little tiny bits that are interacting with all the other tiny bits, and the difference between “this object” and “that one” isn’t anything so much as it is a difference in forces. The attraction between these two tiny bits is stronger than those two, and so we call these two “one thing” and those two “separate things”. And even that is only really going to be true for an absurdly short amount of time. Anything that tells me otherwise is born of the scale on which my senses function, and my brain functions.

And the way my brain functions is similar to everything else: these tiny bits have organized into larger bits that behave in such-and-such a way, and this amazing structure has built up from all these interactions, guided by some fantastic lengths of time making incremental little changes in a replicating design. And somehow all these interactions produce a fantastic array of sensations, and these sensations and all of it are due to relatively simple rules that govern the tiniest bits, and that’s fucking jaw-dropping.

And somehow is this giant, glittering, cold universe these little bits have collided in such a way as to form me, for just a tiny fraction of a moment. And they collided to form me at such a time in the history of my replicating kin that I can piggyback on all this wonderful knowledge and feel that I have a humbling, staggering picture of what the universe is, more or less. A big swirling mess of tiny tiny bits and great empty spaces. And I’m not separate from any of it. I am it. And when I look at it, I'm looking at me. And when I think about it, I'm it thinking about itself.

And that’s the thing. I have, like others on this world, for a cosmic nanosecond, the chance to be a little tiny portion of the universe becoming aware of itself. I’m the universe briefly becoming sentient and looking at itself and seeing itself clearly, before this particular arrangement breaks down and the bits are scattered and reassembled into something else. I have this tiny little chance to do this, and to see clearly, and I want to grab onto that because it is the most fragile, amazing, beautiful thing conceivable. And every little falsehood you put over this truth is a denial of that, it’s a covering up. We want there to be a purpose, meaning, a continuation of us, because those things are comforting, I full well understand that those are comforting ideas. But they are also denials of that one little chance you have to be “that part of the universe manifesting self-awareness, and seeing itself truly”. Because you, privileging yourself, or privileging humans, or souls, or the divine, are then not part of that. You have divided things, you are divided from it, and you are not seeing clearly. You had the chance and you blew it because you found the illusion prettier.

And I guess as long as you find that illusion pretty and comforting, that’s not bad, but I’d really like as many companions on this weird little voyage as possible. I picture the universe, all of it, and these little manifestations of self-awareness as infinitesimal little blips, little flares of light in one far off corner, and, you know, I’d like us to shine our lights in concert, if we could. That would be nice.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:35 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Smedleyman: Don't apologize when you've just offered yet another post (three on preview) of the same bullshit.

But in no way would I want to be sitting next to you in a theater and stand up in the middle of MacBeth and shout "THIS IS ALL BULLSHIT! IT'S NOT REAL!"

If someone came by and made fun of you while you were drumming - 'silly hippie' or some such - your response would be?


Yes, and we also eat babies.

Come on Smedley. Most people, atheists included, know there's a time and a place for engaging in discussion. Atheists are no more likely to interrupt religious ritual or performance, than you are likely to charge into the Vatican museum with a sledgehammer shouting, "symbols are not sacred."

On that front, you're coming across as a religious zealot and dogmatist, not that far from the Puritans who objected to mince pie in winter because it was too Papist. If a religious tradition says that a symbol is both sacred and useful as a method of experience, I'm going to take them at their word. And you're inconsistent defending metaphor in one place and yelling about symbols getting in the way of experience in another place. So yeah, a non-cognitivist Puritan stealing both the dogmatic self-righteousness and the hypocrisy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:00 PM on May 18, 2011


rmmcclay: "Hawking has obviously never taken a "heroic dose" of a good psychedelic drug."

I've always wanted to have him (or some other of the great physicists) try shrooms and see what they report. I've known a few more "rationalist" people (and I too am an agnostic/pantheist, and think science is pretty chill)... but I've known them and they seem to get as uptight about psychedelics as a bunch of fundie christians. I can't understand if you don't think it will lead you to "The Truth" (I don't think it does either), but I think like Terence said "Going to the grave without having psychedelics is like going to the grave without having sex" -- I think he means that it's an experience that can be had that can be fascinating and tap into the deepest parts of experience, like climbing a mountain or listening to a symphony, only the symphony is melting away under the color of sunset... Or something.

I just don't understand the reluctance of some people to seek experiences like going to space or climbing mountains or flying and see nothing worthwhile or interesting to partake in a substance that can certainly give you some new experience that for the most part won't hurt, and is no more a waste of your time than a good long nap. And maybe you enjoy yourself in the process.

That said if you think it's not for you then it isn't for you, cuz you're too uptight to try it (which sadly, is the case for me these past few years *sigh*)
posted by symbioid at 10:29 PM on May 18, 2011


St. Alia: I take from this that Jesus was of the opinion that there is no pleasing a skeptic. :D

I can think of at least six forms of evidence that would sway me. An actual Rapture would definitely seal the deal for me. Proof of irreducible complexity in molecular biology, (as opposed to the usual bad claims to such). Discovery of a natural multicellular chimera inconsistent with descent with modification. Discovery of Earth-compatible biochemistry on multiple extrasolar planets. Visitation while sober by two or three dead grandparents that can't be attributed to neurological phenomena. Or being swallowed in the belly of a whale and surviving.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:33 PM on May 18, 2011


I don't believe you can simultaneously claim that god is elusive in Her actions, and also say that atheists are deficient should their experiences not result in faith in Her.

This is the crux for me. Apparently I'm deficient, and you should pity me, because I can't see something that presents no evidence of itself. I can't see the wind blow, but I can see the effects it has on the things around it. Shouldn't that be analogous to the experience of seeing God? But so far, no theist has presented (to me) an effect on the world that doesn't already have an explanation I find perfectly satisfying and comprehensive without the need for a god to have caused it. So tell me, are my standards for evidence too low or too high?

Who was it who said that he found gardens perfectly beautiful without the need to imagine fairies in them? According to many people in this thread, that makes me unable to appreciate poetry and dance and art, because I look for truth instead of comfort. Is there some kind of bonus-level to life where if you score 100 Religion Points you get an extra mystical layer on top of the reality of colour and sound and movement, and on top of the metaphor and symbolism that all humans can create? It sounds like a hallucination to me. Some hallucinations are fun, as symbioid points out. But having known a few people with schizophrenia and paranoid delusions, they can also be sad and destructive.

I wish that one of the theists in this thread would put themselves in the shoes of an atheist (and not the strawman strict-logician). Imagine someone's asked you to take their word for it that there's an invisible being that has changed their world, but they can't show him or any of those changes to you. It sounds less than convincing.
posted by harriet vane at 10:41 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


IV
She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?''
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured
As April's green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evenings, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow's wings.
posted by eegphalanges at 11:11 PM on May 18, 2011


"When you "criticize a particular behavior" by quoting me directly and then countering with phrases like "you've missed the point entirely" and "you are essentially reacting in precisely the manner I detail", it's pretty difficult for me not to think that you meant me."

So my initial comment was "here's a story about Shinto dance that illustrates how vorfeed's atheism is wrong"?
I do in fact mean you in later comments when I say you've missed the point entirely. The point being that in the initial comment I'm not refuting atheism but the duality of thought that interferes with transcendent experience.

Of which certain elements of theists and atheists participate. Hence "some."

Can we not agree that some people view the world in a mechanistic, simplistic manner?
Can we not further agree that some of those people are theists and some are atheists?
Can you allow for the general concept that Western thought has been, for the most part, theistic and Eastern thought has been, when not pantheistic, non-theistic?

"...then who do you mean? Where are the atheists in this thread who have claimed that "human experience only has validity if it contains no metaphors
and can be intellectualized as if insight and expression were subject to engineering principles", or anything close to it?"

Hawking: "There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

There's no implicit condemnation of the consensual validity of human experience in understanding the world through certain metaphor?
Number of other glaringly obvious ones in this thread. From a variety of quarters.

"That's not what I meant by that, at all. All I meant was the very same thing you're saying -- that the story is not the important part, and often means "getting in the way of the experience and a priori imposition of meaning (for good or ill reason) on metaphor"
(and it should be obvious that not all stories, poems, or metaphors are just-so stories, yes?)"

So you can see then how it can be frustrating when someone asserts you mean something you don't. Ok, I see what you mean. So we're right about being agreed. Good on us.

"The point is that I, myself, do not believe in the sun goddess, nor in similar stories, nor do I accept that living without such stories is "doing Hamlet without Hamlet". In fact, I think it's just doing Hamlet."

Again, I don't contest your point. My point is, Hamlet IS a story and just doing it doesn't require an actor to genuinely believe they're Danish royalty. It requires someone who appears to believe they're Danish royalty to the extent that we believe it too. For a time.
This again goes to my overall point on the problem with duality and trying to apply any words to the transcendent.
Is there an afterlife? It doesn't matter.
Does oversimplification of mythos into a "fairy story" and people who find meaning in certain kinds of ritual behaving as though such a thing were true as "afraid of the dark" help? No, it really doesn't. It's one end of a dualism.

So Hawking, yes, says something akin to that ("We should seek the greatest value of our action.") but shoots himself in the foot by introducing 'fairy stories' as
it's opposite. There's no opposite to 'dance.' Or within dance. There's just dance.
Well, there's 'not dancing', but hopefully the sense I mean is clear. The transcendent is the transcendent, you don't think about it you just do it whether your
thought is correct or not (whether there's a god or not, whether your dancing to a fairy story or sun god or performing a secular ritual or not).
I'd never thought of it but he introduces the topic pretty powerfully.

“I believe in something with no definition,” strikes me as a meaningless statement exactly equivalent to “This sentence is a lie”. It’s self-negating. Asserting it is entirely purposeless."

I've broached the concept a number of times. Allow me to post a wikilink.


"I’m not convinced that there are things that are beyond the limitations of language."

Campbell says: "our imagery has been deprived of its affect by our strongly rational tendancy in the interpretation of images
and by religious traditions concretizing symbols so they refer, not past themselves to symbolic themes but to historical events - when, for example,
we interpret the resurrection of Christ as having been a historical event instead of seeing the resurrection as a psychologically crucial moment of crisis,
this deprives the imagery of its affect. And when you have a preisthood that is simply repeating what has been taught in theological seminaries and not,
as in the world of art, rendering individual personal experiences, then you have a group of teachers who are not teaching us, so to say, how to relate
our experiences to the imagery." Campbell goes on to distinguish traditional and creative mythologies.
Really, it's worth checking out.

He makes his point much better than I make his point.

"Smedleyman: Don't apologize when you've just offered yet another post (three on preview) of the same bullshit."

It was a freely given apology. I stand by it for the misunderstanding I caused.
I'm still not sure what it is I've said that's offensive.

"'If someone came by and made fun of you while you were drumming - 'silly hippie' or some such - your response would be?'

Yes, and we also eat babies.'"


And you accuse me of being disingenuous?


"Atheists are no more likely to interrupt religious ritual or performance, than you are likely to charge into the Vatican museum with a sledgehammer shouting, "symbols are not sacred.""

Here I want to say "the map is not the territory." But let me choose my words more carefully and explicitly.
I do not mean to say (other than metaphorically), atheists would in fact do that, any more than I mean to say theists would persecute the witches.
There I mean to reinforce, through unfortunately colorful hyperbole, an earlier point.

"And you're inconsistent defending metaphor in one place and yelling about symbols getting in the way of experience in another place."
It's an alloy argument. Metaphor and symbols are useful in expressing the otherwise inexpressible, through the art of dance in this case, but the placing of the symbol
or metaphor (in this case theology) before or in place of the expression, does get in the way of the expression itself.
In the case of the erudite visitor, the assumption that Eastern nontheistic expressions could be viewed and captured by Western, theistic notions.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:01 AM on May 19, 2011


Here I want to say "the map is not the territory."
The map precedes the territory actually. The whole On Exactitude in Science by Borges thing.

"The Way that can be described is not the true Way.
The Name that can be named is not the constant Name." - Tao Te Ching
posted by Smedleyman at 12:45 AM on May 19, 2011


Hey! Maps and territories are my obsession! Go get your own!





Infidel.
posted by flabdablet at 2:36 AM on May 19, 2011


Or being swallowed in the belly of a whale and surviving.

Point of order: In the Biblical account it was a great fish, not a whale. Whales are mammals. ;-)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:39 AM on May 19, 2011


St. Alia of the Bunnies: "Or being swallowed in the belly of a whale and surviving.

Point of order: In the Biblical account it was a great fish, not a whale. Whales are mammals. ;-
"

And in ancient Aramaic, "swallowed by a great fish" was an idiomatic phrase equivalent to "in a pickle." We can only hope that, thousands of years from now, our descendants don't begin to wonder why vinegar and salt were involved in some baseball plays.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:38 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Smedleyman: There's no implicit condemnation of the consensual validity of human experience in understanding the world through certain metaphor?

It's an interesting accusation to make when you consider that Hakwing is explaining his views through metaphor. As much as you claim to dislike literalism you certainly deploy it when it's convenient for you.

Is there an afterlife? It doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter to you. It does matter to people like my mother who get significant comfort from the belief that her parents are in Heaven and to me who finds the idea of the afterlife to be horrific. You are condemning a way of understanding the Universe that's important to millions of others.

It was a freely given apology. I stand by it for the misunderstanding I caused.
I'm still not sure what it is I've said that's offensive.


And therefore, your apology is meaningless. And, it's already been explained to you in a couple of very comprehensive posts. It's reasonable to object to being characterized as tone-deaf critics who would disrupt religious ceremonies to make a point. It's reasonable to object to "Disney-Christian" as an unfair stereotype. It's reasonable to object to your intrusions into sacred space and ridicule of other people's spirituality, combined with your appeals against ridicule.

And you accuse me of being disingenuous?
I do not mean to say (other than metaphorically), atheists would in fact do that, any more than I mean to say theists would persecute the witches.
There I mean to reinforce, through unfortunately colorful hyperbole, an earlier point.


Yes you are given that your attacking Hawking for "Fairy Stories" and liberally using hyperbole to ridicule and mischaracterize the way others experience the world. Now please, politely stop talking about atheists or Christians until you can do so with more honesty and less ridicule.

n the case of the erudite visitor, the assumption that Eastern nontheistic expressions could be viewed and captured by Western, theistic notions.

That's nice. But this story shouldn't be used as a hammer to bully who live in a Western tradition and wrestle with Western conceptions of the afterlife.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:46 AM on May 19, 2011


"It's an interesting accusation to make when you consider that Hakwing is explaining his views through metaphor. As much as you claim to dislike literalism you certainly deploy it when it's convenient for you."

Well again - There's a nifty story by Joseph Campbell, it concerns the confrontation of Eastern and Western viewpoints in religion. But suggests the way in which
Eastern thinking turns religion into art rather than in western thought where criticism is so ubiquitous it precedes experience.
Erudite guy, tours temples, says he doesn't understand the theology behind the dances thinking apparently there's theology behind the dances. Priest explains that there is no theology.
This suggests that if this inward way into oneself allowing a rite to exist as a work of art intact as seen in Eastern thought is followed without losing touch with the conditions of contemporary life might lead to new depth and wealth of creative thought and fulfillment in life and literature and arts.

"'Is there an afterlife? It doesn't matter.'
'It doesn't matter to you. It does matter to people like my mother who get significant comfort from the belief that her parents are in Heaven
and to me who finds the idea of the afterlife to be horrific.' "


Ok, see where I criticize breaking things down into constituent parts which destroys the coherent meaning of the entirety?
That there would be what happened in your comment. See, Hamlet is a story. We accept ghosts in a given time and place, under certain circumstances, in order to accept the work of art called "Hamlet." Is there really, genuinely an afterlife such that it's necessary to enjoy the play? It doesn't matter. There's just the play.
It isn't relevant that your mom thinks her parents are in heaven or you think the idea is horrific - Hamlet's fathers ghost comes to explore an emotional depth within the play.
Outside considerations truly aren't relevant to the internal truth of the expression at the time of the expression.

But taking your point in the larger sense - according to Hawking your mother believes in a fairy story and is afraid of the dark. Shouldn't you disabuse her of that notion?
If not, should you not then buy into her notions? No? Or do you accept for certain times and certain places certain things are true for certain people regardless of how they appear
to someone else?
It appears you do. Then does what I think matter? No.
And if your criticism applies to me, how much more does it apply to Hawking?


"It's reasonable to object to being characterized as tone-deaf critics who would disrupt religious ceremonies to make a point."


But he didn't disrupt the religious ceremony. He asked a question which illustrates a certain perspective in western thinking which is a completely moot point in eastern thinking.
I have apologized for not making this more clear. My attempts to further illustrate it have drawn me down a path I did not intend.
Nor did I intend to belabor the point, but merely point out different facets. But again, I failed and I apologized. You don't have to accept my apology, but your refusal
not to continue to compound this error doesn't make my efforts to foster understanding into bullying.

"It's reasonable to object to "Disney-Christian" as an unfair stereotype."

There are no circumstances under which the story of Christ is not oversimplified for purposes of ridicule by atheists?
There are no circumstances under which the story of Christ is not oversimplified for purposes of exploitation by theists?
Not with the qualifier 'some'? No theists or atheists under any conditions at any time have ever done this?
Hawking himself has not reduced a wide and varied mythos concerning understanding human relationships with death into an oversimplified term ('fairy stories')?

"It's reasonable to object to your intrusions into sacred space and ridicule of other people's spirituality, combined with your appeals against ridicule."

I ridicule only the reduction of other people's spirituality into simplified caricatures for purposes of ridicule.

"Now please, politely stop talking about atheists or Christians until you can do so with more honesty and less ridicule."

Because I'm the first person to ever criticize atheists or Christians on metafilter and in this thread.
My short story is dishonest and ridicules others being perfectly serious and exact in language at all times.
Comments like "Aw, Daaaaad! I'm not going to be a zombie, am I? No son, you're not going to be a zombie. Now get a haircut. You look like a hippy!"
- perfectly cogent, reasoned affairs meant without a hint of tongue in cheek.

" 'in the case of the erudite visitor, the assumption that Eastern nontheistic expressions could be viewed and captured by Western, theistic notions.' "

'That's nice. ...'"

You'd have thought so. Except you demand that it isn't though, don't you?
I must be an enemy. My attempts to apologize for misunderstanding must be meaningless.
Where I point out solidly that I agree, I must be, what, lying?
I must be insulting your mother who Hawking says believes in a fairy story. I must be insulting you when I defend your right to drum as a self-justified act.
When I point out my insufficiency at illustrating the point and post Joe Campbell's words and images to aid in consideration of his point I'm reflecting it has to be unaddressed because I must be a bully. I can't be anything else can I?

You were right before, we have nothing to say to each other.
But not because I refuse to listen or to speak.

And congratulations on completely disrailing what, in fact yes, was a nice point. You drew me in. I fail. Yay. You win. The failures of the messenger don't mean the message is wrong. But you refuse to look at anything else.
Face it, you took this personally from your initial contact that "we are aware of the many different flavors of deity."
Never mind the message about practicing love either secular or otherwise. Never mind that in objecting to Hawkings characterization ('fairy story') I made clear I don't object - indeed I agree - with his other sentiments.
No, any criticism of the pattern of attack must itself be a pattern of attack.

It can't be your anger colorizing any of this, it must be that I'm a bully. Because surely I've not experienced pain and loss myself. Surely I don't empathize with Hawking and seek to challenge the notion that all considerations of life after death can be reduced to the term 'fairy stories.'

I'll put it far far more simply and avoid plugging in other people's stories which can lead to me bullying dying mothers and people in wheelchairs (rather than misunderstandings, because that's what I do, I bully people when I post on a weblog as opposed to having a pulpit or national newspaper to express my misanthropy).

Hawking: "There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

Me: I think that statement oversimplifies the vast and complex nature of human expression in dealing with the experience of the loss of life.
I think there are some other people who also oversimplify this complex topic regardless of what philosophy or body of thought they adhere to or say they adhere to.
In contrast I like Hawking's statement that "We should seek the greatest value of our action."
I think there are some people who say they believe this, but perhaps they do not genuinely believe in it when we consider some of their actions.
Further, I think there are some people who are more interested in contention than seeking the greatest value of their action, again irrespective of whatever labels.

Polite enough? Or does it need more zombie jesus vs. scripture quoting fighty stuff to be legitimate?
posted by Smedleyman at 7:24 AM on May 19, 2011


(obviously that last comment wasn't polite. Maybe I'm taking things too personally too)
posted by Smedleyman at 7:25 AM on May 19, 2011


No Heaven: Kirk Cameron says Lennon and Hawking don’t know what they are talking about
posted by homunculus at 9:27 AM on May 19, 2011


Smedlyman: The difference here is that I respect religious belief enough to accept what religious people have to say about it, rather than try to shoe-horn it into some garbled muddle based on a repeated bad paraphrase of John Campbell (who I doubt is as idiotic as you've presented him) which strips religious belief of any relevant meaning or claims to external truth. And yes, I find your reductionism of spirituality to mere performance to be more insulting than "fairy tales..."

Which at least are coherent, generally well formatted, and meaningful.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:55 AM on May 19, 2011


To explain yet again my objection. Religious ritual can not only have an internal structure and experiential beauty, it can also point to a claimed theological reality. The spiritualism of people who communicate with dead loved ones isn't just a performance, it's a way of understanding how the universe works and human relationships. Belief/non-belief in the afterlife isn't something that can always be waved away as irrelevant.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:23 AM on May 19, 2011


Yes, it's true you can't prove there is no God. Doesn't seem like a very firm basis for belief, though.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:18 AM on May 19, 2011


rather than try to shoe-horn it into some garbled muddle based on a repeated bad paraphrase of John Campbell (who I doubt is as idiotic as you've presented him)

I said as much myself and I've apologized for it. Apparently you've refused a cursory look at Campbell's work to come to terms.
I've also apologized for appearing to make personal criticisms rather than the general way I initially meant them. You don't want to hear about that either.
What, precisely, would satisfy you?

"And yes, I find your reductionism of spirituality to mere performance to be more insulting than "fairy tales..."
Which at least are coherent, generally well formatted, and meaningful."


Well, again, this is not what I've said or intended to say. You either believe that or you don't. Coherent - yeah I can be incoherent. Sorry. I do get angry myself some times.
Meaningful - well, debatable. But I share what I have. I do take criticism though, so if I'm off base I look to fix it. Poorly formated - I'm not always on something with a word processor. I do fuck that up regularly. Probably why I tend to write long, get as much in so I don't have to keep going through this garbage. But again, yeah, that's my problem, so sorry about that.

"Religious ritual can not only have an internal structure and experiential beauty, it can also point to a claimed theological reality."

I agree.

"The spiritualism of people who communicate with dead loved ones isn't just a performance, it's a way of understanding how the universe works and human relationships."

Again, I believe in refuting Hawking's statement I've said as much myself.

"Belief/non-belief in the afterlife isn't something that can always be waved away as irrelevant."

There would be one of the issues of contention. In Eastern thinking, in the story I posted, the search for the truth in that form is beyond categories of thought, beyond names and forms and beyond the concept of anthropomorphic attribution of human sentiments to something intended to be beyond thought. In the Western tradition, there's this dichotomy that exists before the search takes place.
So "belief/non-belief in the afterlife" begins with a dichotomy in the first place, before confronting the form the search takes.

What I'm saying is irrelevant - in part because I cede many of the arguments, but mostly because I'm not even addressing them in the first place - is the fight between belief/non-belief.
It's as though the guy from the west comes in and sees a game and asks whether black or white is winning, because all games are chess.
Well, wait a second, before we even get to black or white, let's recognize that not all games are chess.
So too, not all searches for meaning in these kinds of questions have the western overlay of theology/not-theology.

So religious ritual can have an experiential beauty and point to a claimed theological reality, but not all 'X' must be 'Y.'
Not all experience must have a theological component of the nature we're used to using in the West.

Good example of (someone I presume to be) a theist (to be clear not an atheist) forcing experiential beauty and metaphor (and out of a claimed theological reality no less, but it's not salient to my point) is Harold Camping.
He's calculated that since Christ was crucified on April 1, 22 A.D., exactly 722,500 days before May 21, 2011, and that 722,500 is the square of 5x10x17, the world will end on that day.
He goes on to use other numerology to drain the metaphor out of the bible and force it into literal terms as though, as I said, insight were subject to engineering principles.

I suppose I'm thinking of Pauli's comment "this isn't right ... it isn't even wrong" and the Zen negation of the question asked ("Mu").

I think the bible does have some valuable metaphors in terms of human experience regardless of the theology in it.

But the categorical demand (preceding experience) is an illusion, and forcing the assumption that a symbol must be a literal interpretation - as Camping does - destroys their usefulness as tools of insight.
And there are people other than Camping who do this who come from a variety of traditons and schools of thought.

Best I can put it.

Now, if you want to argue that Hawking means something else, well hell, I could be wrong about that too.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:38 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Crabby Appleton: "If they look identical, then there's no reason to fault an atheist's relationship with that universe, guided as it may be by organs of perception and glasses of clear focus.

Try this thought experiment. Start with the universe as it is at this point in time. Create a duplicate of it. Let the original universe continue without Divine intervention, and let the duplicate continue with God performing miracles from time to time. The universes will diverge and therefore, in that sense, they will not look the same. However, let's assume that God conducts his interventions so that no inhabitant of the duplicate universe will ever have proof sufficient to convince a skeptic that any intervention has taken place. Then the skeptic will say exactly what harriet vane said, i.e., that "this universe with a god outside-but-able-to-affect-the-inside looks identical to a universe that doesn't have any god at all". The skeptic would be wrong, but because there's no way to prove him wrong (short of yanking him out of the duplicate universe and showing him both universes), he will continue to feel completely justified in insisting that he is right.
"

---------

Add in the threat of eternal hellfire, and you got yourself a stupid religion. That's the point I think a lot of us "atheists/agnostics" etc... are saying - we are doing our best to understand with the faculties we have. We are to be punished for trying our best to understand if we don't believe in your (not you, specifically, Crabby) specific way. Calling something a fairy-tale, it's demeaning, sure. But hey, in our version you just kinda die like the rest of us. In yours you demean us to the point of utter damnation for all eternity, even for making the most sincerest of efforts to understand the world around us.

The question upthread if anyone is going to change their mind. Well of COURSE they will... Maybe not in this particular thread or because of any one thing, but perhaps someone is questioning one way or another, and they see a new perspective or something that they haven't thought of before.

Maybe, in my case, you went to church, and you said you believed, you thought you did. You weren't "on fire" for it or anything, but hey, you believed. And you sat there in the back pew picturing the image of hellfire aimed at your head if you didn't believe, and wondered: Do I believe because I'm afraid of hell or because I *actually* believe. And you begin to question. And as you read more, in online forums, books about humanism, books about other religions (wherein you find all the silly claims about them from some OTHER religion are just bullshit, either intentional distortions and willful ignorance or honest misunderstanding by filtering the world through your perspective on what religion is (in my case, it was when I learned that Buddhism wasn't about god, and that making a claim that "Buddha isn't risen" is a bit silly, because that was never the point of Buddhism in the first place, so why are you trying to make a false claim that's utterly irrelevant to another religion). Anyways, you start to read and learn and see new perspectives.

Maybe -- maybe some if it just *resonates* with you (oooh an almost spiritual word). Maybe you feel "yeah, I can dig the universe as a big vast amazing thing") and you see yourself as a bit of a materialist pantheist, replacing "God" with "Laws of Universe" and there you have your atheist spirituality.

So, yeah, these threads are important. Of course, who is taking the time to read these after the fact, who knows... But I'm sure an impressionable younger symbioid ca. 1994-1997 would have read this and been affected by the back and forth comments...
posted by symbioid at 9:56 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I must say, I love how the "Recent Comments" page randomly cuts off Smedleyman's most recent comment:

I think the bible does have some valuable meta [...]
posted by philip-random at 10:22 AM on May 20, 2011


DoctorFedora: "St. Alia of the Bunnies: "Or being swallowed in the belly of a whale and surviving.

Point of order: In the Biblical account it was a great fish, not a whale. Whales are mammals. ;-
"

And in ancient Aramaic, "swallowed by a great fish" was an idiomatic phrase equivalent to "in a pickle." We can only hope that, thousands of years from now, our descendants don't begin to wonder why vinegar and salt were involved in some baseball plays.
"

In a pickle, in a fish, in a pickled fish, in a... herring...a red herring?
posted by symbioid at 12:30 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Despite popular opinion to the contrary, it is possible to prove that God doesn't exist, and I have successfully done so on several occasions. I've stopped doing it, though, because last time I got the impression that it kind of hurt His feelings.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:00 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sorry I couldn't follow-up on my "why not?" question. It wasn't meant to be snark; it was intended to probe the mindset behind dismissing fairies outright as silliness vs. accepting much more outlandish claims under the guise of religion.

Her answer was that "it was 'revealed' to her", with no further evidence, which I don't find satisfying -- I don't see how anybody could, unless they're already at the same conclusion and need no convincing. I could counter that fairies were "revealed to me" and that's that. So now everybody is supposed to respect and accept my fairy belief? Of course not. But why not? Really, why not?

[I should note that I was raised very religious -- pretty much Disney Religion, as I gather the term -- so I do have some empathy with the religious mindset, but I'll admit I've been losing patience as of late. You're allowed to have invisible friends when you're a child. As adults, I think we should expect more from ourselves. This is madness.]
posted by LordSludge at 12:02 PM on May 23, 2011


Don't knock revelation till you've had some. It's ossum.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:35 PM on May 23, 2011


Don't knock revelation till you've had some. It's ossum.

I've had some, thank you.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:39 PM on May 23, 2011


Opossum? I've had a Pogo reveleation or two in my day, I must confess. "We have met the enemy and he is us," springs to mind.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:40 PM on May 23, 2011


I'm confident that "revelation" in this context is like a "really good trip" in that certainly it has a powerful effect on a person -- and in that sense I agree, such an experience can be life-altering -- but in and of itself a good trip does not represent scientifically testable evidence of a supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient being. But maybe I'm just not taking the right kind of drugs.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:00 PM on May 23, 2011


but in and of itself a good trip does not represent scientifically testable evidence of a supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient being.

so science is the final arbiter of "truth"? Personally, I find I tend to operate as if this were so, but how much of this is just my secular conditioning? I mean, what's science got to say about that time I surfed the edge of the Big Bang (still ongoing) for a period of about ten years for maybe a second and a half whilst rather altered by a combination of nitros oxide and strong LSD? Sure, I was just hallucinating, but what does that mean exactly? This wasn't pink elephants or unicorns. This was visceral experience ... of something rather awesome.
posted by philip-random at 3:37 PM on May 23, 2011


Um, you were hallucinating. You too, phillip-random.
posted by LordSludge at 8:35 PM on May 23, 2011


Maybe the universe is just God's hallucination. Did you think about that?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:22 PM on May 23, 2011


"Computer, End Program."
posted by zarq at 9:07 AM on May 24, 2011


Maybe the universe is just God's hallucination. Did you think about that?

Hey, I've thought about it all, at length, even come to a few more or less firm conclusions, most of which revolve around the nature of life-the-universe-everything being beyond man's ability to comprehend, yada-yada-yada. Hence my agnostic position in these discussions.

Bottomline: regardless of how much info we compile regarding the exact nature of the physical universe, we seem forever stuck with conundrum of not knowing (being unable to know) whether it's the whole of all creation we're experiencing, or just a proverbial fishtank ... with God(s) on the outside, looking in, dropping in a bit of food every now and then, adjusting the PH balance, etc.

Or as I heard it put once. When we're sleeping and dreaming, we're seeing the mind of God. When we're awake, we're God's dream manifesting.
posted by philip-random at 9:38 AM on May 24, 2011


Bottomline: If that's the case, then there's no grounds on which to criticize an atheist for understanding the Universe on his or her own terms.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:43 AM on May 24, 2011


Bottomline: Does this philosophy make my ass look fat?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:47 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bottomline: If that's the case, then there's no grounds on which to criticize an atheist for understanding the Universe on his or her own terms.

Well, there's always room for respectful criticism in a situation where "proof" is still in doubt. This is the whole point of discussion, no?

Bottomline: Does this philosophy make my ass look fat?

No, that's a trick of the mirror.
posted by philip-random at 9:52 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


philip-random: Well, there's always room for respectful criticism in a situation where "proof" is still in doubt. This is the whole point of discussion, no?

I guess I don't see how you can have criticism if the answer is unknowable and it's a matter of personal revelation anyway.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:23 AM on May 24, 2011


I guess I don't see how you can have criticism if the answer is unknowable

The answer is unknowable to the degree that we don't know (can't know) the boundaries to the fish tank (to return to the previous analogy). Nevertheless, we have seen and mapped a lot of fish tank and thus can talk about it, compare data, make conjectures, hypotheses, arrive at theories, even lock down "facts" insofar as these "facts" are argued in terms of their high degree of probability as opposed to their certainty.

Certainty's the dirty word as far as I'm concerned, equally foul whether it comes from a theist or an atheist. Way too many people get hurt when they find themselves in the way of someone else's certainty ... whether in every day life, geopolitics, or just internet discussion threads.
posted by philip-random at 11:36 AM on May 24, 2011


Sure, my whole experience of reality can be just a trick conjured by a clever deity, and some day the consistency revealed by science will be up-ended by her ultimate joke.

The rest of you suckers may just be a figment of my very powerful, elaborate imagination. I just wish I could make you act like I want.

These are fun concepts to play with while really stoned, but they lead nowhere, after a minimal amount of reflection. You're really caught on the cusp. Either you go with the god thing, where just about any reality is possible, including the two above, and tremulously hope that the god that controls everything is a loving and merciful being and will not let life torment you too much before you die, or you take reality as it appears through our senses and the extensions we've created to examine it more deeply, trusting that the universe does operate according to those derived laws and proceed to discover more of those laws while using them to improve our own and others lot. The former belief really doesn't seem to have much value, especially since it appears that the latter tack is pretty much the one we all take.

Now, the god-thing believer might respond that they take both paths. However, this requires that you believe there are beings that can pull the reality rug out from under you at any time (in spite of there being no evidence of this) and so the laws aren't really laws, just temporary things that god allows for however long. That being the case, trying to discover them is a fool's game, because ultimately everything's unpredictable and up to the whim of the trickster god. And any assertions of merciful love are wishful thinking, because looking around I see a lot of abuse heaped on people by a natural world that would presumably be controlled by that god.

So, atheist for me, thanks.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:14 PM on May 24, 2011


philip-random: I don't see how we can have a discussion when both groups are denying that the other lacks key experiential data.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:21 PM on May 24, 2011


philip-random: You've mentioned your agnosticism before. I'd be interested to know how you act in day to day life - do you do anything to please any particular god (whether that's a ritual or a moral choice, or any other way you'd like to interpret it), or do you act more or less the same way an atheist would in everyday circumstances?

I don't get to meet many agnostics who meet the definition of being unable to be certain on the issue of the existence of god. The ones I meet are usually more of the strong-opinion-but-don't-want-to-associate-with-that-side or I-don't-know-but-maybe-someone-else-does types. But you're not under any obligation to satisfy my curiosity :)
posted by harriet vane at 7:20 AM on May 25, 2011


All flavors in this discussion have been wrestling with the problem of certainty for over a century. Flogging strawmen of certainty may have been reasonable for Huxley in the Victorian era, but it's positively quaint in in the wake of postmodernism. Is it too much to ask that most claims in these areas be treated as including an implicit, "I could be wrong...?" It's a big reason why I'm on "Team Hawking" in this discussion, because I see absolutely no reason to consider his statements as either authoritative or certain.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:15 AM on May 25, 2011


philip-random: You've mentioned your agnosticism before. I'd be interested to know how you act in day to day life - do you do anything to please any particular god (whether that's a ritual or a moral choice, or any other way you'd like to interpret it), or do you act more or less the same way an atheist would in everyday circumstances?

My proper answer to this is probably really long. But here's a shortish one.

When I step back and reflect, I find that I tend to operate from the root liberal interpretation of Judeo-Christian values that I was raised with. To reduce them all to eleven words: "Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You" -- The Golden Rule.

The problem is, I happen to believe (based on a complexity of life experience, historical research, watching the news) that the Golden Rule is actually kind of useless unless there is a God, some kind of moral, organizing principle to the universe -- that absent this God, the correct path if one wishes to survive and succeed is more Darwinian than the Golden Rule. But I don't want to live in this kill-or-be-killed scenario. I want more than that ...

So I sort of roll the dice and go with the Golden Rule, not believing in the God that would make it true, but not disbelieving either. I guess, a sports analogy applies. As long as the game continues, the outcome is in doubt, so the best I can do is to keep playing hard. And if there's a god, hopefully she notices my efforts and I'll get my reward. And if there isn't, well maybe I'm just doing my tiny hopeful bit to help the species survive these ongoing (and not likely to resolve any time soon) post-split-atom crises of apocalypse.
posted by philip-random at 10:25 AM on May 25, 2011


I'm more of a tit-for-tat with forgiveness fan, myself, but I don't see why one would necessarily need God and/or "some kind of moral, organizing principle to the universe" in order to embrace the Golden Rule.

As far as I'm concerned, the only organizing principle inherent in the universe is Might Makes Right... but that doesn't preclude things like empathy, cooperation, or doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, assuming those are the Rights you want to Make. Who says you can't choose to be magnanimous with your own power? A quick glance at modern biology suggests that natural selection rewards (or, at least, fails to select against) behaviors like teamwork, caring, and even straight-up forgiveness much more often than Hobbes would have believed...
posted by vorfeed at 1:34 PM on May 25, 2011


I don't see why one would necessarily need God and/or "some kind of moral, organizing principle to the universe" in order to embrace the Golden Rule.

Yeah, speaking as a theist I'm not sure I understand this either, although I get it if you don't want to go into like seventeen paragraphs explaining the entire history of your moral philosophy.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:48 PM on May 25, 2011


that absent this God, the correct path if one wishes to survive and succeed is more Darwinian than the Golden Rule.

I really don't think this follows. That is, if one wishes to survive and succeed, one must therefore abandon the Golden Rule. For one thing, Darwinian "success" means living long enough to reproduce - that's it. You get to define survival and success, and you can certainly attain those and still treat people as you want to be treated.
posted by rtha at 3:01 PM on May 25, 2011


vorfeed - I don't see why one would necessarily need God and/or "some kind of moral, organizing principle to the universe" in order to embrace the Golden Rule.

Maybe one doesn't. But your quick admission that ... "As far as I'm concerned, the only organizing principle inherent in the universe is Might Makes Right... " rather makes me believe that one does, or else you're just a Pollyanna-idiot who's about to get bitch-slapped into place by some Might-Makes-Right gangsta/warlord type.

Granted you do follow with a reflection on how ..."modern biology suggests that natural selection rewards (or, at least, fails to select against) behaviors like teamwork, caring, and even straight-up forgiveness much more often than Hobbes would have believed... ...

I've heard the same stuff recently and it's certainly the kind of thing I'd like to believe. But then, I must ask, "Well, what's the basis for these behaviors? What's driving folks to be caring, forgiving, team playing?" I guess a hardcore Randian Libertarian would simply argue that they do it because it ends up working for them (and thus they profit), and then you'd get a whole complex bell curve of variations which would eventually get you to the other extreme, that of the hard core believer, who would simply say, "I do it because the Bible tells me." (or the Koran etc)

I guess, I'm just somewhere in the middle.
posted by philip-random at 3:25 PM on May 25, 2011


I do it for the sex.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:27 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


The reasons why I don't find variants of the TAG very compelling is, assuming that such a divine and transcendental order is necessary for everything to make sense, why give it the linguistic and theological baggage of "god?" In actuality, I'm probably just shy of being a mystical pantheist, it's that nagging feeling that "god" is a bad-fitting shoe that I'm trying to force onto my experiences of it that keep me in ignostic territory.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:30 PM on May 25, 2011


Maybe one doesn't. But your quick admission that ... "As far as I'm concerned, the only organizing principle inherent in the universe is Might Makes Right... " rather makes me believe that one does, or else you're just a Pollyanna-idiot who's about to get bitch-slapped into place by some Might-Makes-Right gangsta/warlord type.

Not at all. The fact is that some Might-Makes-Right gangsta/warlord type (or a speeding car, or a falling tree, or an asteroid, or...) is going to be able to smack you down regardless of what you believe, assuming greater might than yours. The same goes for the gangsta/warlord type, too -- someone or something mightier than him will be out there.

I can think of ways in which following the Golden Rule might possibly cause you to get "bitch-slapped into place" by some Might-Makes-Right gangsta/warlord type... but I can also see where being a Might-Makes-Right gangsta/warlord type might get you smacked down by another gangsta/warlord (or the cops). So? Neither belief set is universally "better"; as always, animals are only fit with respect to the environment, and what's a very adaptive trait in one place and time may be worse than useless in another.

Besides, we're all going to get smacked down eventually, and nobody wins all the time. I personally believe that striving for the Golden Rule 100% of the time means risking victimhood more than someone with a comparably fluid strategy... but if that's what's Right to you and you're willing to pay the price of admission, so be it. You are free to value Golden Rule-yness over not-being-a-victim or vice-versa; you don't need God to give you a thumbs-up on that.
posted by vorfeed at 4:08 PM on May 25, 2011


Maybe it would be useful to ask what the purpose of deciding on a specific personal Right-slash-moral philosophy is, at least in regard to what's being discussed. Is the goal to get through life most easily, to minimize one's own pain/discomfort/whatever, to minimize that of others, to minimize that only of others belonging to a specific set...? I'm not sure how I'd answer this myself, but it might make it easier to talk about personal-Rightness.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:27 PM on May 25, 2011


Thanks for answering.

...absent this God, the correct path if one wishes to survive and succeed is more Darwinian than the Golden Rule. But I don't want to live in this kill-or-be-killed scenario...

It seems like you're going with a fairly basic idea of what Darwinian means - it can be interpreted as red in tooth and claw, but all it states is that with variations between generations (via mutation, usually), living creatures will vary to suit the environment they must live in. Some will do a better job than others. The kill-or-be-killed scenario tends to be analogous to cheetahs and gazelles - but remember that they evolved in concert, so that after millenia they're still pretty evenly matched and live together in the same environmental niche, even if individual cheetahs and individual gazelles don't do so well.

Plus (as mentioned above): co-operation, kin selection for fairly broad definitions of 'kin', etc are really interesting areas of science these days. You'd probably enjoy looking into them, I'm pretty sure there's been some good threads on it before.

Plus plus: Humans have a lot in common with ants and other social animals as well as with primates.
posted by harriet vane at 12:19 AM on May 26, 2011


What's driving folks to be caring, forgiving, team playing?

I don't feel like there's a spectrum between Randian profit and biblical submissiveness on this one. My own understanding is that genetically, humans are social animals, not loners like tigers or orangutans. We're pretty similar to chimps - we have family units which live with other family units in communities. Not that chimps don't get murderous rage, etc but we are both adapted to cooperate, to do favours, to protect those more vulnerable than ourselves. People can justify it with 'the bible tells me so', or 'profit' if they like. But generally they'd do those things anyway.

There are always individuals who try to betray or cheat the social contract, though. It's why we're also evolved to pay lots and lots of attention to body language and facial expressions (in case we need to catch someone out) and why we generally agree that people who break the social contract should go to jail. If we can't trust someone to play by the (vague and contradictory) rules, then we want to keep them away from us.

Like chimps, we'll sometimes go to war with other tribes, because the ties between the family groups in different communities are too weak for us to cooperate in a competitive environment. Speaking only for myself, I try to see all living creatures as being part of one big tribe. My interest in astronomy, etc leads me to believe that it's a big old empty universe out there - if there are aliens, I'd see them as part of our same tribe of Life, trying to adapt to the environment of Entropy.
posted by harriet vane at 12:38 AM on May 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


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