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The End Of Faith
March 19, 2005 1:21 PM   Subscribe

The End Of Faith

A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life. Are you a scientist? A liberal? A racist? These are merely species of belief in action. Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings. If you doubt this, consider how your experience would suddenly change if you came to believe one of the following propositions: 1. You have only two weeks to live. 2. You’ve just won a lottery prize of one hundred million dollars. 3. Aliens have implanted a receiver in your skull and are manipulating your thoughts.
posted by nofundy (156 comments total)

 
These are mere words—until you believe them. Once believed, they become part of the very apparatus of your mind, determining your desires, fears, expectations, and subsequent behavior. There seems, however, to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world: they are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another. A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion. It seems that if our species ever eradicates itself through war, it will not be because it was written in the stars but because it was written in our books; it is what we do with words like “God” and “paradise” and “sin” in the present that will determine our future.
posted by nofundy at 1:23 PM on March 19, 2005


If you doubt this, consider how your experience would suddenly change if you came to believe one of the following propositions: 1. You have only two weeks to live. 2. You’ve just won a lottery prize of one hundred million dollars. 3. Aliens have implanted a receiver in your skull and are manipulating your thoughts.

There are Oscar-winning screenplays in each combination and permutation of the above.
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:25 PM on March 19, 2005


consider how your experience would suddenly change if you came to believe one of the following propositions: ... Aliens have implanted a receiver in your skull and are manipulating your thoughts.

How would this be a change from my current experience?

Don't forget to enjoy a cold, refreshing PepsiBlue™ while reading Sam Harris' "important and timely book"!
posted by casu marzu at 1:30 PM on March 19, 2005


I'm not sure how much I agree with these ideas. I think humans are idealistic creatures, seeking the greatest good for themselves and sometimes others. The ideas of God and Paradise have not persisted simply because they are ingrained, but because (I think) they are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. Now, I haven't read this book, and I'm glad it purports to combat faith objectively - i.e. secular as well as religious faith - but I wonder if this guy shouldn't be taking his own advice. Believing oneself to be correct is a kind of faith, and doubtless he has faith in his own ideas as to the causes of humanity's woes.

The reason people kill each other over these things, indeed the only reason people ever kill each other, is because they deem their cause as having greater value than a human life, or a million human lives. Faith is certainly a cause for which countless have suffered and died, but is faith itself to blame? Would Harris eradicate the soul, the hope of billions, the salvation of mankind as some people believe? A world without God may be just as dangerous as one without - I personally have no preference, at least I don't think I do.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:34 PM on March 19, 2005


Um, I haven't read a detailed review of the book, but it looks like a recapitulation of the last 200 years of Western thought.

What sycophant of science hasn't at one time hypothosized that organized relgion, in whatever form, wasn't the root cause of all societal evils?

I tend to find the truth is much more complex. I concede that most of the postive externalities of relgion can be manifested through alternative means, but cultures don't seem to work this way, or at least nobody has figured out how make it work.

Can all knowledge be arrived at through "rational" thought? Or is there some sort of mystical component to consciousness, reality, LIFE that is truly inexplicable and existential? I lean toward the latter. Spirtuality, not religion. Or religion and spirituality. Or relgion but not spirituality. I think that asking these questions will get you on the right path.
posted by gagglezoomer at 1:37 PM on March 19, 2005


wasn't = was
posted by gagglezoomer at 1:41 PM on March 19, 2005


i'm not sure if this book is brilliant or just completely self-evident. i'd order it if my currency's exchange rate didn't suck so bad. :)

wait --

“... faith—blind, deaf, dumb, and unreasoned—threatens our very existence. His exposé of faith-based unreason—from the religious fanaticism of Islamic suicide bombers to the secular fanaticism of Noam Chomsky—is a clarion call for reasoned debate...”

nevermind, i'm sold.
posted by spiderwire at 1:42 PM on March 19, 2005


is there some sort of mystical component to consciousness, reality, LIFE that is truly inexplicable and existential?

No.
posted by Bort at 1:42 PM on March 19, 2005


Don't forget to enjoy a cold, refreshing PepsiBlue™ while reading Sam Harris' "important and timely book"!
posted by casu marzu at 4:30 PM EST


I never considered that angle when posting this . My apologies. I still consider the excerpts from the book worth the time it takes to read them. I hope some will read those and then post their reflections about the material. Thank you.
posted by nofundy at 1:43 PM on March 19, 2005


...sort of reminds me when my dad starts talking about how all the hippies wanted to do was return to the Garden of Eden but then got crushed because niceness is fundamentally antithetical to the desires of the CEOs running our country, then proceeds in the same breath to rail against "fundies" because they're too dogmatic and insular...

this may be appropriate, too:

We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the '60s. ... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole lifestyle that he helped to create ... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody ... or at least some force — is tending the Light at the end of the tunnel.

...on preview: oooh, excerpts! brb.
posted by spiderwire at 1:45 PM on March 19, 2005


...man, i just want to start posting excerpts here wholesale. for those of you who missed the bit about excerpts, the first ten pages are here:

http://www.samharris.org/index.php/samharris/full-text/chapter_one/

initial thoughts:

1. the analogy about "believing" that you've won the lottery is weak. that's not the same type of belief.

2. Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand... hee, hee, hee....

3.Observations of this sort pose an immediate problem for us, however, because criticizing a person’s faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture. On this subject, liberals and conservatives have reached a rare consensus: religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse. this is a good point if somewhat exaggerated. and it's not true that there is a political consensus on this point. many parts of the far left and right prove otherwise on a daily basis.

4. i don't see very much addressing the issue of "faiths" that profess that they're not faiths ... like the aforementioned Noam Chomsky...

5. not sure i agree with his "moderation is bad" argument so far. done with the excerpt now. reading again...
posted by spiderwire at 1:54 PM on March 19, 2005


I think what is nearly at hand is the end of large brains as an outcome of natural selection. We grew brains to help us deal with the challenges of survival, but they have grown to the point where they are no longer beneficial to us as a species. Nucular weapons and the outcome of religious dogmatism are two of the most noxious results. Up next, I believe, (<-- there's that bugbear!) will be the chitinous carapace as a means of genetic ascendency.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:54 PM on March 19, 2005


nah, more nonplussed this time. he makes a good point about religion about about religious moderation, i guess, but it's also a point you could make any number of ways. and sure, i agree, give no quarter to the fundies, of any stripe or creed.

but still, it raises the obvious question: and? i don't see much in this excerpt suggesting a plan for dealing with the fundies -- you'd think that if there was one, it would have cropped up some time between the Enlightenment and now.

maybe it's somewhere near the end of the book. guess i'll just have to savor the mystery.
posted by spiderwire at 2:04 PM on March 19, 2005


**about religion about about religious moderation

uhhhh... no idea what that was supposed to be. strike those first three words, i guess.

out.
posted by spiderwire at 2:04 PM on March 19, 2005


There seems, however, to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world: they are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another.

Amen.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 2:08 PM on March 19, 2005


Apropros of a thread below this one, it's worth pointing out that Godel's incompleteness theorem demonstrated that no machine, no computer, will ever be able to exhaust the truths of mathematics. It follows immediately, as Godel himself pointed out, that if we are able to grasp these truths, then our minds must not be machines or computers.

So I'm not sure how one criticizes the "irrationality" of faith. We all operate on faith. Without faith, reason can't get started.

If Harris were trying to make a sociological point about the dangers of Islam, well, that'd be one thing. But he's not. He seems to be trying to make a philosophical point about "faith", in general, which is simply not warranted.

"If one identifies the correct foundation for theory as 'empirical verification', on what foundation has one identified this as the correct foundation? If it is on the basis of empirical verification, then the foundation merely assumes its own validity in a circular logic. But if it is based on some other foundation, then we may ask for the foundation of that foundation, and so on endlessly."

Beyond Postmodernism? Toward A Philosophy Of Play


"What we see in postmodernism is that reason, unguided by faith, not merely fails to uphold everything, but destroys everything, even itself."

-- "At the End of Pragmatism"


"Even when supported by the senses, reason has short wings"

-- Dante, Paradiso, canto 2.
posted by gd779 at 2:11 PM on March 19, 2005


Amen.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:19 PM on March 19, 2005


I never considered that angle when posting this . My apologies.

OK, fair enough. I concede that didn't expect an answer to my snark, and especially not a thoughtful once. Since I got one, I'll make a good faith effort to respond in kind:

I still consider the excerpts from the book worth the time it takes to read them. I hope some will read those and then post their reflections about the material. Thank you.

Here are a couple, with which I suspect you'll disagree.
I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.
This honestly sounds rather ominous, as if he's basically setting up an argument for anti-religious extremism as the logical solution to the (very real) problem of religious extremism. It's one thing to argue that we shouldn't tolerate dangerous religious beliefs; it's quite another to take that a step further and say that we shouldn't tolerate any religious beliefs, or to imply, as I think he does, that there's something inherently dangerous about all religious beliefs. This is just replacing one brand of fundamentalism with another.
These are ultimately questions for a mature science of the mind. If we ever develop such a science, most of our religious texts will be no more useful to mystics than they now are to astronomers.
As a scientist -- an irreligious one at that -- I've grown really tired of the phony science vs. religious dichotomy that so many people seem so fond of. This guy seems to be trotting out the same fallacy as so many others -- namely, that if we could just get everyone to consider things rationally for a few minutes, they would logically conclude that their religious beliefs contradict reason, and let go of them. Human beings have perfected the art of rationalizing entirely contradictory beliefs -- in fact, he basically argues that they've been doing this for thousands of years. So why does he suppose that his thin little tome is going to stamp that out?

I have to say I don't think I'm going to go out and buy this book. It just seems like a less-obviously insane version of this.
posted by casu marzu at 2:21 PM on March 19, 2005


We all operate on faith. Without faith, reason can't get started.

Indeed. 1 + 1 = 2 is a huge leap of faith, i.e the belief in discrete objects.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:27 PM on March 19, 2005


gd779 -- which truths of mathematics that are unprovable do we grasp? Why do you think they're unprovable, and why do you think we [all?] grasp them?


I've never bought that short, simple "proof" that we're not just machines.
posted by jepler at 2:28 PM on March 19, 2005


Oops, I guess I meant this. Dr. Joseph N. Hilton, Ph.D.™ seems to have updated his website recently.
posted by casu marzu at 2:29 PM on March 19, 2005


OK, the word belief is being used WAY to loosely for me to really appreciate this argument. I believe the sky is purple vs. I believe the sun will rise tomorrow. Same word, not even remotely similar thought-processes behind the two uses.

But, it is interesting stuff to think about. On the idea of religion being the root of man's evil: I say nonsense. The root of man's evil is his evil nature. OK, that's a tautology. But, being an atheist myself, it seems to me that religion as humans practice it is merely a reflection of humans. We kill each other in the name of religion, sure, but we were going to kill each other any way. We do bad things with religion because humans are often venal and selfish. That's about us, not our religions.

Unlike BlackLeotardFront, I tend to think that we are anything but altruistic at heart, on average.

But it is an important subject: do we make decisions based on reality, or our own imagination? What is reality? I obviously prefer reason -- many, many humans don't. But I am always skeptical of people that try and pretend it's all the same: science, religion, etc. it's all just faith. That is sophistry of the highest kind.
posted by teece at 2:31 PM on March 19, 2005


Indeed. 1 + 1 = 2 is a huge leap of faith

*consults fingers*

are you sure about that?
posted by jonmc at 2:31 PM on March 19, 2005


How he assumes the faith behind "Acid Culture" (that "there is light at the end of the tunnel") I would like to know. It seems that a faith thats worth something as mentioned would make Acid Culture unnecessary. Rather, a crack in the faith, or feeling of a discrepency inbetween religion/hope and reality could foster a need for a fix such as Acid Culture. Nice one, gd779.
posted by uni verse at 2:34 PM on March 19, 2005


jonmc: fingers? There are separate fingers? Where did you get that idea?

This is interesting, nofundy. Thanks. I'll be back when I've read it all and thought a little about it.
posted by koeselitz at 2:34 PM on March 19, 2005


jonmc, you left off the last bit of mrgrimm's comment, i.e the belief in discrete objects.

Have you ever tried to teach a discrete math class? Most students don't believe in it (or so it would seem from their test scores).
posted by casu marzu at 2:36 PM on March 19, 2005


it's worth pointing out that Godel's incompleteness theorem demonstrated that no machine, no computer, will ever be able to exhaust the truths of mathematics.

OK, thats a really hinky interpretation of Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem, gd779.

Really, really, really hinky. That theorem says there are correct systems based on axioms that can't be proven correct. Thus, there are true formulas that are not provably true.

Really not what you are saying, at all.
posted by teece at 2:38 PM on March 19, 2005


jonmc, you left off the last bit of mrgrimm's comment, i.e the belief in discrete objects.

I know. I was just making with the laff-laff. Feeding me straight lines is a dangerous thing.

Carry on.


Have you ever tried to teach a discrete math class?


Taught? I don't think I've ever taken one since up until this moment, I did not know such a thing existed, honestly.
posted by jonmc at 2:41 PM on March 19, 2005


I was just making with the laff-laff.

ok, me too.
posted by casu marzu at 2:44 PM on March 19, 2005


jonmc: Discrete math classes don't exist. We're just in one big math class, learning together.
posted by koeselitz at 2:50 PM on March 19, 2005


jonmc: Discrete math classes don't exist. We're just in one big math class, learning together.

Not me. I ditched and I'm out drinking schnapps under the bleachers with the rest of the burnouts. We've got plenty, come on in. ;)
posted by jonmc at 2:52 PM on March 19, 2005


Teece, "We kill each other in the name of religion, sure, but we were going to kill each other any way."
About WWI and two, i agree. But about all those deaths over that little stretch of land in Israel, where religions collide, I don't think they were going to do it anyway.
About which we base our beliefs on, imagination or reality, consider this:
Hadith number 2,562 in the collection known as the Sunan al-Tirmidhi says, "The least [reward] for the people of Heaven is 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome of pearls, aquamarine and ruby. Or consider the seven headed beast of the Revelation. Or the 21 armed budda. How are these things rationalized? Somehow, people like to believe in imaginative things, in a place far, far, away from reality.
posted by uni verse at 2:52 PM on March 19, 2005


On the idea of religion being the root of man's evil: I say nonsense. The root of man's evil is his evil nature.

I'll agree with this, but say that the greatest evil is achieved when man's religion gives him an avenue to act out the more murderous fantasies of his evil nature.

As a scientist -- an irreligious one at that -- I've grown really tired of the phony science vs. religious dichotomy that so many people seem so fond of. This guy seems to be trotting out the same fallacy as so many others -- namely, that if we could just get everyone to consider things rationally for a few minutes, they would logically conclude that their religious beliefs contradict reason, and let go of them.

Maybe, but is there any doubt that in the United States, at least we are most decidedly not wallowing in an age of reason?

What this country needs is a new enlightenment; but what is happening, instead, is that people are reacting en masse to the growing complexity of life, both ethical and technological, by withdrawing into a cocoon of religion; looking for moorings. That's a natural reaction, I suppose, but here is where I think Harris's observations are salient: When you embrace a specific brand of religion, particularly a more conservative brand, you are necessarily saying that all other faiths are wrong, blasphemous. It's only through our more moderate, or liberal, traditions that we "permit" other religions to exist.
posted by kgasmart at 3:03 PM on March 19, 2005


gd779: Apropros of a thread below this one, it's worth pointing out that Godel's incompleteness theorem demonstrated that no machine, no computer, will ever be able to exhaust the truths of mathematics. It follows immediately, as Godel himself pointed out, that if we are able to grasp these truths, then our minds must not be machines or computers.

You may wish to re-read that article, because you have it wrong. "If computers run according to formal systems and our minds provably don’t, not even in knowing arithmetic, then does this mean that our minds are provably not computers? Gödel himself, rigorous logician that he was, was reluctant to draw so conclusive a conclusion; he hedged it in logically important ways."

As to conflicting beliefs causing wars. I've always had the unsubstantiated theory that most wars, even if they appear to be religious in nature, are underneath it all simply about fighting over limited resources. Of course, that's just my belief.
posted by Bort at 3:10 PM on March 19, 2005


what this country needs is an IQ test to run for president. // end snark
posted by uni verse at 3:13 PM on March 19, 2005


.
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:20 PM on March 19, 2005


OK, thats a really hinky interpretation of Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem, gd779.

Well, as I noted, it was Godel's interpretation of the Incompleteness Theorem, not mine. I suppose he would know what his own theorem meant.

gd779 -- which truths of mathematics that are unprovable do we grasp? Why do you think they're unprovable, and why do you think we [all?] grasp them?

Well, there are plenty of places on the web that will explain Godel's theorem, and they would likely do a better job of proving it than I could. So I will defer to them.

On Preview: ou may wish to re-read that article, because you have it wrong.

Hmm. I'd never read that article. I read this article, in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm am completely unequipped to resolve the dispute, except to say that the Chronicle has always been highly reliable, and I have no idea what "Butterflies and Wheels" is. I will note that, in any event, even Butterflies and Wheels goes on to say this, which comes immediately after the section you quoted:

Other important thinkers, however, have drawn precisely this conclusion. Just such an argument served as the basis, for example, of Roger Penrose’s two celebrated books, “The Emperor’s New Mind” and “Shadows of the Mind.” He used Gödel’s incompleteness theorem to argue that our minds’ activities exceed what can be programmed into computers.

So, at a minimum, Godel advanced some version of the idea that his theorem implies that our minds cannot be computers, and later thinkers have either concurred or expanded this conclusion. The point, however, remains substantially the same, it seems to me. If we can know truths that can't be proven mechanically from axioms, then it appears obvious that our mind doesn't derive knowledge mechanically from axioms. It must, therefore, not work as a computer would work, or it must have some other source of knowledge. Or am I misunderstanding the theorem?
posted by gd779 at 3:21 PM on March 19, 2005


This fellow's arguments sound like they rest on some interesting assumptions. Here's the best place I can think of to start from:

from the link: "Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect to notice the irredeemably sectarian truth claims of each. As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of Judgment, he cannot possibly “respect” the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by these very ideas and await their adherents even now. Muslims and Jews generally take the same arrogant view of their own enterprises and have spent millennia passionately reiterating the errors of other faiths."

I should say: falsely. Islam in particular has from the start been a faith that accepted the diversity of paths. The practical impact of this belief is the fact that four groups of people (Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Sabians) are to be allowed to live in the society which the Prophet (on whom be peace) founded. There is to be toleration of all of them, although Islamic society obviously takes an Islamic cast. In fact, Mr. Harris might be interested to note that there have been many times in history when Islamic society has been extremely tolerant, and, in some ways, more tolerant than Western society is today.

I'd argue, if it weren't risking a derail, that all of this is true of Christianity and Judaism as well. The exclusivity exhibited by one small sect of Christianity today, I would say, is based on a misunderstanding of the inherent nature of Christianity; and I defy anyone to come up with a number of historical situations in which Jews were unwilling to tolerate religious diversity around them.

In the first chapter, he goes on to misuse Biblical verses in the same way that people have been doing since Baruch Spinoza. I strongly doubt that he's considered the Talmud, for example, in forming his position on what the Bible says. That is to say: his view of religion seems to be quite divorced even from what ordinary religious people think of religion. That's probably why he's not very good at talking about religion.

"It should go without saying that these rival belief systems are all equally uncontaminated by evidence."

This is an unwarranted statement. Mr. Harris refuses even to wonder about this possibility: what if God does exist? What if it's possible to know whether he exists? What's more, from where did we get this strange notion that all knowledge must be experimentally verifiable? If one believes that there is a truth that can be known about the universe, then one is admitting that something that isn't material exists, indeed that the highest and most universal thing is not material. One very good basis for such a belief is religious; which is why science was borne of religion.

Mr. Harris goes on to say something interesting, however:

"This is not to say that the deepest concerns of the faithful, whether moderate or extreme, are trivial or even misguided. There is no denying that most of us have emotional and spiritual needs that are now addressed—however obliquely and at a terrible price— by mainstream religion. And these are needs that a mere understanding of our world, scientific or otherwise, will never fulfill. There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions— Jesus was born of a virgin; the Koran is the word of God—for us to do this."

This sounds contradictory to me. We cannot 'fulfill our needs' through scientific understanding-- yet we need "no faith in untestable propositions" to do so? Isn't scientific understanding merely the testing of propositions? I somehow doubt that the mysticism which Mr. Harris implies is really something he subscribes to.

kgasmart: "What this country needs is a new enlightenment..."

Interestingly, the first enlightenment doesn't seem to have worked.
posted by koeselitz at 3:22 PM on March 19, 2005


I see what you are saying, uni verse, but I still think that says a lot more about people than religion. Why is there fighting in Israel? It has nothing to do with religion -- it has everything to do with the usual economic particulars: land, property, etc. and the usual cultural ones to help motivate the fighting: our group, our religion, etc.

Humans have very useful imaginations -- so useful that it can work against them. Which is exactly what happens, I think, with religious fundamentalists of any stripe. But to me, that tells me something about human nature, not religious nature.
posted by teece at 3:23 PM on March 19, 2005


Teece, well, considering war goes against the universal themes of peace in faith, there are discrepancies in my saying faith is the cause. But it would be alot harder to recruit without it. But also, as is being mentioned in other arguments, we don't think like computers; a computer would not look at this data and say, yes, do to the existence of [this religion/god] those opponents must be neutralized. It would notice the many contradictions inbetween faith and murder. Ultimately isn't it the flaw of human emotions; to believe in spite of the evidence, and the flaw in our ability; to suspend our intelligence (denial/ self-delusion) when we want to.
posted by uni verse at 3:39 PM on March 19, 2005


Interestingly, the first enlightenment doesn't seem to have worked.
Cleary, they haven't read, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart in a Few Days" (for you SF readers).
posted by uni verse at 3:42 PM on March 19, 2005


But about all those deaths over that little stretch of land in Israel, where religions collide, I don't think they were going to do it anyway

You honestly think that's a religious dispute, and not an argument about which families get to own which plots of dirt?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:01 PM on March 19, 2005


Interestingly, the first enlightenment doesn't seem to have worked.

Nah, it just didn't stick.
posted by kgasmart at 4:02 PM on March 19, 2005


So, at a minimum, Godel advanced some version of the idea that his theorem implies that our minds cannot be computers, and later thinkers have either concurred or expanded this conclusion.

Well, no, at a minimum, from what you quoted "other important thinkers" advanced that idea, not Godel. :)

Or am I misunderstanding the theorem?

I believe you are drawing the wrong conclusion from the theorem. However, this is far fram a settled issue - and I am not well versed in it enough to provide a decent summary of either side.

I did find an interesting tid bit (from wiki) that indicates that Goedel did not believe that his theorem showed that our minds are not computers but that "he believed that human beings had an intuitive, not just computational, way of arriving at truth and that therefore his theorem did not limit what can be known to be true by humans." I.E., he assumes we are not computers, and therefore, his theorem does not apply to us.
posted by Bort at 4:03 PM on March 19, 2005


Well, as someone who has been called an anti-religious extremist (with some justification), I'll have to read this book. I'll have to read it in its entirety rather than passing judgement on a few excerpts, I think. But I do like the fact that he seems to be attacking "moderate" religious belief as well as the more overtly insane variety, as this is one of my own particular bugbears.

...he maintains that “moderation” in religion poses considerable dangers of its own: as the accommodation we have made to religious faith in our society now blinds us to the role that faith plays in perpetuating human conflict.

Yes, but I go further: what such accommodation blinds us to is that the acceptance of inherently irrational beliefs supports a more general, simmering, low-level noise of unreason which pollutes our societies and our thinking. We can see the results of this acceptance not only at the sharp end of extremism but also in the way we have retreated from enlightenment. It is now acceptable to profess admiration for the most outrageously unsupported and unreasonable nonsense (think astrology and all manner of "new age" horseshit) where it would have been embarrassing to do so perhaps only thirty or forty years ago.

But why pick on religion? Simple.Because religion is a category of thoroughly irrational belief which exists at a higher quantum level of respect. The concepts of blasphemy and apostasy, for example, and actual laws based on those notions, do not exist for other beliefs, by and large. Religion and religious believers are afforded a level of respect and (often) a legal status that simply does not exist for those other beliefs. We hear all the time that one should respect the beliefs of the religious, yet I have never heard a single good reason why this is so. And that is the problem. There is no sound justification for granting a religious belief the slightest iota more respect than any other belief, yet for some baffling reason the sensibilities of the religious are coddled and indulged (and often protected by law). This makes it more dangerous. It is as if we feel driven to make religion the irrationality it's OK to indulge in.

I'm glad someone is attacking that. I shall read the book.
posted by Decani at 4:12 PM on March 19, 2005


"consider how your experience would suddenly change if you came to believe one of the following propositions: ... Aliens have implanted a receiver in your skull and are manipulating your thoughts."

To which casu marzu replied: "How would this be a change from my current experience?"

Because it might negatively impact the effectiveness of the Illuminati implant you were given soon after birth.
posted by davy at 4:14 PM on March 19, 2005


koeselitz: Interestingly, the first enlightenment doesn't seem to have worked.

kgasmart: Nah, it just didn't stick.


It could never stick. This is the point. Genuine religious faith is not a conventional subjective "belief" of the kind that Harris appears to assume it to be. He nominally acknowledges the "sacred dimension to our existence," but does not genuinely seem to account for it. This dimension does, as he says, involve more than merely understanding the world. It also involves more than merely understanding our place in the world. It consists in an ineradicable yearning to know that our tawdry, transitory lives participate in something not only transcendent and true, but beautiful as well. Can the average fundamentalist express this religious impulse in words? Likely not. But this is not to deny its power. It seems to be a fundamental condition of human life, and perhaps therefore the fundamental problem of human political life.

It is indeed interesting that the conscious attempt to re-found politics on a more secular basis had the result of undermining all public religiousity and perhaps all religiousity as such. Whether or not this was contrary to the aims of the founders of modernity (Hobbes, Spinoza, et al, who did wrestle with the problem in all of its considerable depth) is debatable; clearly, however, they did not foresee the equally distressing consequences of the spiritual void in which we now live. What consequences? Quoting from one of the reviews linked on the author's site:

The End of Faith has other important gaps, Stalin and Hitler being resident in one of them. Harris glancingly refers to communism and fascism as cults, but essentially ducks the problem of secular monstrosity.

As for the supporters of malign secular deities, nationalism has often been as effective an animating force for atrocity as religion, a point Harris never makes. Shinto and Buddhism hardly demanded Japan’s barbaric forays throughout Asia. For that matter, toxic intolerance—currently popular hereabouts as “zero tolerance”—runs left and right around the world. It plays out more dangerously in Tehran than in Toronto, but the dynamic is everywhere and religion is hardly the only cudgel.

Yet what of the virtues religions plausibly claim? Harris doesn’t deny that ethical behaviour, community support and spiritual experience can derive from religious practice, but argues that religion is unnecessary to produce these. Unexpectedly, he not only embraces the value of spiritual effort but—again raising the flag for empirical observation—believes “investigating the nature of consciousness directly, through sustained introspection, is simply another name for spiritual practice.”

....

And underpinning if not overriding the discussion is nature. Our pretensions to the contrary, animal nature continues to frame a rather large window onto human nature. Tyranny, murder and rape are all normative in the animal world, and pacifism, liberality and monogamy are exceptional. Humans have demonstrated their distinction in these regards mainly when their social structures vigorously reinforce those distinctions.


Is religion the best mode for enforcing such distinctions? Perhaps a better question would be, in its absence - and Islamic fundamentalism is not its rebirth, but rather its death rattle - what else do we have?
posted by Urban Hermit at 4:17 PM on March 19, 2005


Well, no, at a minimum, from what you quoted "other important thinkers" advanced that idea, not Godel. :)

Ah, but from what you quoted, Godel did advance the idea, he just "hedged it". So either it was entirely Godel's idea (my source), or it's Godel's idea, but he hedged, but later thinkers have said that the hedging wasn't necessary (your source). What difference that makes, I don't know. But, either way, the idea that the Incompletness Theorem indicates that our minds cannot be computers seems to originate with Godel.
posted by gd779 at 4:23 PM on March 19, 2005


In general, Harris seems to be boldly going where Locke, Jefferson, and approximately 6.02E+23 others went hundreds of years ago, heavily leavened with bullshit sessions straight out of late night at the first-year dorms.

I'm not sure where he gets the idea that you move out of biblical literalism into something more "tolerant," when biblical literalism is itself a fairly recent invention after thousands of years of more thoughtful and considered interpretation. People like Aquinas and Augustine were not literalists.

We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man.

Uh-huh. 'Cuz this hasn't been a topic of discussion for hundreds of years.

Also, if it were true, we'd expect that avowedly secular or atheist regimes to be somehow more tolerant or better places to be than anywhere else, and especially regimes with an official religion, and that just ain't true.

Also also, how can you possibly disentangle the effects of religion from those of simple tribalism when religious differences are strongly linked to tribal and national lines and often seem to serve more as tribal markers than anything else?

Even his beginning example is downright stupid. We know, or can bet, that the young man is not merely muslim. We can bet that he's poor, that he's been promised great things for himself and his family, that he's poorly educated, that he has essentially no legitimate prospects for employment, and that these people who've convinced him to blow himself and others to tiny bits were the first people in a long time to act like he was important.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:25 PM on March 19, 2005


So, at a minimum, Godel advanced some version of the idea that his theorem implies that our minds cannot be computers, and later thinkers have either concurred or expanded this conclusion. The point, however, remains substantially the same, it seems to me. If we can know truths that can't be proven mechanically from axioms, then it appears obvious that our mind doesn't derive knowledge mechanically from axioms. It must, therefore, not work as a computer would work, or it must have some other source of knowledge. Or am I misunderstanding the theorem?

I'd say that you are fundamentally misunderstanding the theorem. What it says is that there are things that will always be true, that really seem true to us, and that in all likelihood are true (for some definition of true), but that can not be proven true. That theorem shows a fundamental weakness it set theory -- it doesn't tell us anything much about God without a whole lot of extrapolation that moves completely away from the basis of the theorem.
posted by teece at 4:26 PM on March 19, 2005


The ideas of God and Paradise have not persisted simply because they are ingrained, but because (I think) they are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.

It's funny you should say that, because I happen to be reading Plato on the soul these days, and I am consistently surprised by the presentation of the beliefs of "the regular folks" - it's generally assumed that the average man doesn't believe in a separable soul, but thinks of it perhaps as a kind of 'tuning' of the body in one analogy - ie, the arrangement of the matter. And socrates talks about how when he was young he made the common sense assumption that the body grows and moves because it takes in air and food - ie, is a machine - and for no other reason.

In the Phaedo, Socrates is about to be put to death, and basically the dialogue tries to find a more hopeful possibility, that something of socrates will survive after he drinks the hemlock, but again, what strikes me is how they always say that the common man assumes the material nature, etc.

In other words, I guess, it's not a given that the majority of folks start from an assumption of belief. I'm not saying that you're entirely off base, as clearly death and the general mystery of consciousness cause humans to consider what the 'first cause' of the mind is, so to speak (why does matter arrange itself toward understanding itself?), but I don't think it's a given that in all cultures a literal understanding of an afterlife or a heaven or a personal god is foundational. Writers & philosophers throughout history have spoken of "God" because of the need for a "first cause", but they didn't necessarily mean god in any sort of personal/christian kind of way. And what the majority believed isn't necessarily knowable from the writings of a few anyway.
posted by mdn at 4:26 PM on March 19, 2005


Unless people learn to differentiate between "idea" and "impression" and "belief" I don't see how we can take discussions like this seriously.

And: "It consists in an ineradicable yearning to know that our tawdry, transitory lives participate in something not only transcendent and true, but beautiful as well."

A what? Can you explain that concept in words of one or two syllables? Then please tell us why we'd bother with such a thing?

Oh. and ROU_Xenophobe, don't you think it's quite possible that a well-educated atheist with good career prospects whose mama did not dress him funny and whose buds think he's neat-o might still "blow himself and others to tiny bits"?
posted by davy at 4:31 PM on March 19, 2005


MetaFilter: too deep for hip-boots.
posted by davy at 4:32 PM on March 19, 2005


Decani: what such accommodation blinds us to is that the acceptance of inherently irrational beliefs supports a more general, simmering, low-level noise of unreason which pollutes our societies and our thinking. We can see the results of this acceptance not only at the sharp end of extremism but also in the way we have retreated from enlightenment.

I think the failure of the modern enlightenment should invite us to reflect on whether it is more realistic to view irrationality as a "pollution" of human nature and human society, or as an inherent characteristic of them - a characteristic that, in our prudence, we should attempt to account for, but one that we only attempt to eradicate at our great peril.

It is now acceptable to profess admiration for the most outrageously unsupported and unreasonable nonsense (think astrology and all manner of "new age" horseshit)

Harris makes a similar point - he likens religion to alchemy in its ability to capture our fascination, and hopes it will similarly vanish in the light of reason. This, as I've tried to argue above, might be to badly misconstrue the nature of the religious impulse in man.

But why pick on religion? Simple.Because religion is a category of thoroughly irrational belief which exists at a higher quantum level of respect.

Is it merely this, or does religion in fact exist at a "higher quantum level" of epistemology - i.e., it does not have for believers the status of a mere "opinion" that can either be validated by objective evidence, or not. It exists, for them, beyond the realm in which reason and observation can confirm or not confirm opinions and hypotheses. It seems unproductive, therefore, and perhaps a bit ignorant, to confront believers with supposed "horseshit" like inconsistencies and controversies in their conflicting sacred texts. Of course reason will triumph on that battlefield, but the issue in the first place is whether it is the right one.
posted by Urban Hermit at 4:34 PM on March 19, 2005


Is religion the best mode for enforcing such distinctions? Perhaps a better question would be, in its absence - and Islamic fundamentalism is not its rebirth, but rather its death rattle - what else do we have?

We have secular dogmatisms that ultimately occupy the same place - as you (or the reviewer) accurately points out.

Were I a Christian, I would consider the sort of fundamentalism followed by so many in the U.S. to be almost akin to blasphemy. It is an offensive, selective reading of the Bible - but then that's Harris's point; in this country, at least, any interpretation of the Bible is going to be selective, is going to omit some aspects yet pound repeatedly on others - often from the same chapter and verse.

I always like how the fundies trot out Leviticus 18:22-23 to condemn homosexuality; as per the Dr. Laura letter, how many are wearing cotton/poly blend shirts in direct violation of Leviticus 19:19?

For my money, there are 2 kinds of Christianity (and maybe this is true about other religions as well): The type that is primarily interested in alleviating the suffering of others, and the type that is interested in controlling others. There's cross-pollination, of course, but the type of religion ascendant in the U.S. is largely about control. Where is its sense of social justice? Ah, it's more important to prevent gays from getting married.

And it's this kind of faith-based impulse that has resulted in so many dead people over the centuries.
posted by kgasmart at 4:38 PM on March 19, 2005


davy: Can you explain that concept in words of one or two syllables? Then please tell us why we'd bother with such a thing?

It's part of why we feel sad when someone dies, and part of why we don't. It's part of why we fear our death, and part of why we don't. It's why we lie awake at night sometimes and wonder what it's all for. Or maybe you don't.

Why we'd bother with such a thing? Most of us don't anymore - that's my point. Most of us don't even care that we don't:

Alas! There comes the time when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas! There comes the time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself.

Lo! I show you the last man.

"What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?"- so asks the last man, and blinks.

The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His species is ineradicable as the flea; the last man lives longest.

"We have discovered happiness"- say the last men, and they blink.


Too deep for hip boots? Put on a wetsuit and dive, man. The good stuff is down deep near the bottom."
posted by Urban Hermit at 4:52 PM on March 19, 2005


hmm...

kgasmart: "Were I a Christian, I would consider the sort of fundamentalism followed by so many in the U.S. to be almost akin to blasphemy."

(By the way, I agree, and I do think it's blasphemy.)

"It is an offensive, selective reading of the Bible - but then that's Harris's point; in this country, at least, any interpretation of the Bible is going to be selective, is going to omit some aspects yet pound repeatedly on others - often from the same chapter and verse."


I disagree strongly. Christianity has had ages when it had great teachers that brought wise leadership to the faith-- say, in Alexandria between 250 and 500 AD-- and ages when it had bad teachers. What American Christianity needs right now is better teachers. That need isn't a product of Christianity, it's common to mankind.

"For my money, there are 2 kinds of Christianity (and maybe this is true about other religions as well): The type that is primarily interested in alleviating the suffering of others, and the type that is interested in controlling others. There's cross-pollination, of course, but the type of religion ascendant in the U.S. is largely about control. Where is its sense of social justice? Ah, it's more important to prevent gays from getting married."

I believe you're trying to say that Christianity can live within a secular society without contradicting itself by focussing on service. I think maybe that's true, but there's another question pressing right now. A lot of Muslims are concerned at the moment about the secularism in the west, and we westerners need to be able to say whether they're right to be concerned. Their answer to your point, I think, would be: what if you have to control others somewhat in order to alleviate suffering? 'Controlling others to alleviate suffering' seems, at the very least, to be the principle of government; so it's not really so far-fetched.
posted by koeselitz at 5:01 PM on March 19, 2005


Btw, if you want to hear it directly from the author, Sam Harris will be on BookTV this sunday night at 12:15.
posted by McSly at 5:06 PM on March 19, 2005


Kudos for the shout-out to Uncle Fritz, Urban Hermit.

Since I haven't read the book (yet), I'll just say my piece/peace and move on:

What of the idea that Harris (erroneously) equates religion with the Abrahamic faiths? Again, this is largely speculative since I'm working off book reviews and the first chapter alone, but I think you could work up a fruitful thesis that explains both the persistence *and* terrible destruction wreaked in the name of religions like Christianity and Islam by isolating the more problematic aspects of monotheism per se, and not just spirituality or arational belief or the innate need for significance or the sacred or whatever.

I really don't want to derail, so file it under "something to think about" or ignore this and move on, but there's something about the combination of belief in personal immortality conditioned on the judgment of an all-powerful deity that's proven terribly effective and, effectively, terrible. Not all arational forms of "spiritual" belief hinge on these (to me) terrible notions of judgment, punishment, vengeance, blood sacrifice, and the like. If anything, it strikes me as a particularly infantile (though presumably "necessary") stage in our spiritual evolution. (I see all kinds of parallels at the level of individual behavior and belief, but that's another thread entirely ... )

I'm largely with Harris, but (again, haven't read the whole book) it seems like a classic case of pick-your-battles. Believe me, we'll have our hands full regardless. No need to throw the Buddha out with the Baalwater.
posted by joe lisboa at 5:07 PM on March 19, 2005


I always like how the fundies trot out Leviticus 18:22-23 to condemn homosexuality; as per the Dr. Laura letter, how many are wearing cotton/poly blend shirts in direct violation of Leviticus 19:19?

More pointedly, how many take Leviticus 25 as seriously?

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

Sam Harris is an atheist fundamentalist.

That is all.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:09 PM on March 19, 2005


A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life.

Not if a quantum of belief is immediately coupled to a corresponding quantum of doubt, opening up the field for continuing investigations of beliefs and corresponding doubts. On another tree it seems to resonate with Popper's observation, no?
posted by semmi at 5:10 PM on March 19, 2005


don't you think it's quite possible that a well-educated atheist with good career prospects whose mama did not dress him funny and whose buds think he's neat-o might still "blow himself and others to tiny bits"?

Sure, but that's not the tendency among the current crop of people going boom, which is the point. Harris's statement that we just can't know the educational level, or prosperity, of a suicide bomber is just hogwash; we can make damn good guesses about those things.

If nothing else, a well-educated yadda yadda could simply be drafted, or told that his family will be killed if he doesn't, or that he'll be killed in a more painful way if he doesn't, or he could be a patriot, or he might prefer the idea of a glorious death to a tedious and unimportant life, or for any number of other reasons.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:15 PM on March 19, 2005


I believe you're trying to say that Christianity can live within a secular society without contradicting itself by focussing on service.

I say that Christianity, at its core, seems to me to be entirely about service. This determination to eradicate poverty and injustice as a matter of faith is the most inspirational aspect of Christianity, as far as I'm concerned.

But again, how much time does your average fundamentalist evangelical sit around fretting about the people in America who go hungry at night, versus the amount of time they sit around stewing about gay marriage or abortion?

"Controlling others to alleviate suffering" might be how the fundies would describe what they are trying to do. But at the end of the day, I believe their attempt to exert control is the end in itself; it's not a matter of, You should live your life this way because better health/spiritual well-being/greater prosperity will be the result. It is, You should live your life this way because God says so and perhaps as important, because I say so.
posted by kgasmart at 5:25 PM on March 19, 2005


kgasmart: I agree that Christianity is about service, although I'm still trying to understand what that means. But I also believe that, so long as the world is the way it is, it's impossible to eradicate poverty and injustice without controlling people.

The fact that a lot of people want to exert power in order to salve their own feeling of impotence might not mean that justice doesn't require an exertion of power. And what if religion can exert power in a good way, bringing justice and decreasing poverty?
posted by koeselitz at 5:43 PM on March 19, 2005


how much time does your average fundamentalist evangelical sit around fretting about the people in America who go hungry at night, versus the amount of time they sit around stewing about gay marriage or abortion?

To be charitable to their position: they likely believe that the prospect of eternal damnation is far more important than earthly privation. (I'm not sure how I became the spokesman for fundamentalists in this thread, but since there don't seem to be any around MeFi...)

I'm not sure the issue is whether Christianity can exist as a faith dedicated to service as opposed to social control. That does seem consistent with its teachings. The question is whether it, or any faith, can meaningfully exist if they can no longer assert or even believe for themselves that their moral teachings are the Truth.
posted by Urban Hermit at 5:44 PM on March 19, 2005


I was thinking about this sort of thing this morning. As an atheist, I respect other people's right to believe in whatever hokum gets them through the night. Yet they are free to give me pamphlets in the street to try and convert me to their faith thing. But if I were to wander about trying to unconvert people it would create tension. I don't like the 'untouchable' aspect of religion. It should be questioned. Yes, they do good things but you can do good things without believing in some imaginary dude in the sky. It's like a criminal on drugs and a criminal not on drugs. I'll take the straight crim any day, as they are likely to be more rational. As with religious (and I hate the term) do-gooders as opposed to simply good people.
/Trying to not get too fired up
posted by bdave at 6:45 PM on March 19, 2005


I say that Christianity, at its core, seems to me to be entirely about service.

I'm glad you qualified that, kgasmart, because it seems to me (as someone raised and educated K thru BA in the thoroughly liberal social-justice wing of contemporary Roman Catholicism) that your interpretation of Christianity in this way requires a fairly selective reading of the Christian scriptures. If I had to pick-and-choose what to emphasize in the tradition, I'd side with you, of course. But my concern has to do with this picking-and-choosing to begin with.

I'm not just snarking, and if I could wave a wand and turn all the hardcore fire-and-brimstone fundies into love-and-feed-your-neighbor types, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But your reading seems to brush aside the core doctrines that distinguish the "message" of Christianity from just any other ethic. Doctrines like hell (Jesus himself promises "eternal punishment" to unbelievers in Matt 25:46) and the fact that our fallen state (the fault of our forebears, mind you) can only be atoned for vicariously through a god-human sacrifice, for instance.

On my reading, these seem precisely like the core elements of Christianity that distinguish it from just another "Take care of yourselves - and each other." golden-rule pick-me-up life philosophy. I have a hard time seeing how one could separate, say, the content of the Sermon on the Mount while ignoring what, precisely, it's punctuated with: the threat of hell-fire without stripping Christianity of everything that renders it unique.

And let me be clear: I think its unique elements are awful, which is why I squirm when folks invoke the elements of Christianity (e.g., service / compassion / etc.) that are wholly unoriginal as if they represented the beating heart of the religion, when its metaphysical core seems (again, to me) to be closer to a narrative about a fall from an ideal state and redemption from that fall via human sacrifice.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:01 PM on March 19, 2005


... and the promise of eternal reward / threat of eternal punishment that hangs over "buying into" the narrative or jumping through the right hoops or whatever.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:05 PM on March 19, 2005


To be charitable to their position: they likely believe that the prospect of eternal damnation is far more important than earthly privation.

I've actually had fundies tell me that they believe abortion is the ultimate social justice issue. Coming from where they come from, I can perhaps see how they'd arrive at that conclusion.

And as to the social control issue, religion has been one of the major reasons there has been social control over the centures; religion keeps an orderly society, though not necessarily one that is just.
posted by kgasmart at 7:22 PM on March 19, 2005


We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man.

Heh, who is this 'we'? The smart, rational, right-thinking, humane people of the world? I always wonder about thinkers like this, what exactly they expect the future to look like and what special sub-section of humanity they imagine themselves to belong to. And I always think they must have watched Star Trek while growing up and believe in The Federation. Seriously, they seem think some smart, rational, right-thinking, humane political entity is going to arise to rule, benevolently and with deepest wisdom of course, not only the whole human race but also the entire 'good guy' part of the known universe.

I can just see Picard commenting to Riker: "Yes Number One, we were slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuated man's inhumanity to man."
posted by scheptech at 8:13 PM on March 19, 2005


religion has been one of the major reasons there has been social control over the centures; religion keeps an orderly society, though not necessarily one that is just.
posted by kgasmart at 10:22 PM EST on March 19


Absolutely agree. I find it sad that the poorer certain communities are, the more churches seem to spring up everywhere. Religion works as social control and I don't quite understand why. Unless you truly hate yourself, the poorer you are, the less you should believe in religion.
posted by Jim Jones at 8:18 PM on March 19, 2005


So I'm not sure how one criticizes the "irrationality" of faith. We all operate on faith. Without faith, reason can't get started.

There's a major difference between foundational beliefs and irrational blind faith. Things like the accuracy of perception, the existance of the external world, the general reliability of memory, and the continuity of thought are generally regarded as needing no justification, to avoid endless epistemic regress. However, they are all things that are necessary to avoid skepticism and have a belief structure at all, and they are all things which seem to be true and are consistant with reliable observations.

Religion doesn't fit those criteria; you don't have to believe in any faith to avoid skepticism and most major religions are blatantly inconsistant with scientific observation. There's no reason to take it as a foundational belief. Because of this, religions should be treated as scientific theories, with the net result that nearly all of them are immediately thrown out as being contradictory, lacking predictive power, or being impossible to disprove. To believe them anyway would be to believe in something without justification or evidence, which is poor intellectual integrity, and unethical.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:43 PM on March 19, 2005


Things like the accuracy of perception, the existance of the external world, the general reliability of memory, and the continuity of thought are generally regarded as needing no justification, to avoid endless epistemic regress.

You're hitting on some of the right questions, but it goes quite a bit deeper than that. Even if your argument here is right, you still can't form reliable beliefs on the basis of reason alone.

You suggest that religion, like presumably all beliefs, should be treated like a scientific theory and tested against experience. This implies some sort of empiricist epistemology, which is common enough. The trouble is that Quine demonstrated persuasively in his challenging paper The Two Dogmas of Empiricism that our beliefs about anything but the most bare sense impressions are not rationally justifiable. Empiricism hasn't been the same since. And so it's my argument that, as Dante pointed out long ago, even if you grant empiricism as the sole and oncontroversial source of knowledge, reason still "has short wings". It can't take you very far at all - it basically can't take you past immediate sense perception. Because any statement more complicated than "I see a chair in this room" is supported by innumerable strands of other beliefs in a web, which are connected only indirectly with sense perception. As a result, almost any belief can be held rationally true in the face of any evidence, provided that you're willing to make drastic enough changes to the rest of your web.

Now, it takes hard, disciplined thought to see this logical reality, because human beings aren't wired to think this way. We are rationalizing rather than rational creatures, and when we get a belief to cohere with our existing web of beliefs our brain goes "eh, good enough" and we feel as if the belief is rationally justified. And then we're very puzzled (even angry) when other people feel rationally justified in contradictory beliefs. The answer to this puzzle is not that "if everyone were just as rational as I am, we'd all have The Truth". The answer is that we're not being rational either - we can't be that rational, because reason just doesn't have those kinds of answers to give.

Reason can tell us the implications of our most basic beliefs, and can help us to clear up contradictions in the web of beliefs, making it cohere better and better aligning it with the perceptions at the edge of the web. But it can't give us truth, because the decisions about which strands of belief to adjust in response to a conceptual puzzle are necessarily arational.
posted by gd779 at 9:58 PM on March 19, 2005


you don't have to believe in any faith to avoid skepticism

Didn't see that the first time around. This is just clearly wrong.

Empiricism is a faith. Don't believe me? How do you justify it rationally? As I pointed out earlier, if you justify it on the basis of empirical observation, then your argument is irrational and circular. If you justify it on the basis of something other than empiricism, then how do you justify that other thing? And what's the justification below that? And so on. It's the infinite regress problem. If you're a foundationalist, and it sounds like you are, you have to have faith somewhere in there. It's a logical necessity - it can't be turtles all the way down.

There's no reason to take it as a foundational belief.

If you are looking for (or requiring a reason) then, by definition, it's not a foundational belief. Foundational beliefs must be unjustified. Because the moment you provide a justification, that justification has become your true foundation.

One implication of this is that you can't compare foundational beliefs - no foundational belief can be said to be more "rational" than another (well, not in the sense you mean the word "rational" anyway - we could get into some discussions of philosophical rationalism, but I don't think that's what you're advocating here).
posted by gd779 at 10:06 PM on March 19, 2005


Unless you truly hate yourself, the poorer you are, the less you should believe in religion.

I don't know about that.


One of the reasons I think Christianity, for example, has endured over the centuries is that in addition to all we might find abhorrent about it in a forum like this, it has been a source of incalculable beauty, as well. Know anyone who's had Bible readings about love during their wedding?

The perception of a god as you struggle beneath forces you can never hope to control is, I think, probably a universal yearning. So even when life is shit, you can think, "well, it could be shittier."

Social control, like they said.
posted by kgasmart at 10:30 PM on March 19, 2005


Reason can tell us the implications of our most basic beliefs, and can help us to clear up contradictions in the web of beliefs, making it cohere better and better aligning it with the perceptions at the edge of the web. But it can't give us truth, because the decisions about which strands of belief to adjust in response to a conceptual puzzle are necessarily arational.

That's true, which is why most modern empiricists believe that you must employ observation as well as reason to get anywhere. Of course, empiricism still has significant problems, but I haven't encountered any other good system.

you don't have to believe in any faith to avoid skepticism

Didn't see that the first time around. This is just clearly wrong.

Empiricism is a faith. Don't believe me? How do you justify it rationally? As I pointed out earlier, if you justify it on the basis of empirical observation, then your argument is irrational and circular. If you justify it on the basis of something other than empiricism, then how do you justify that other thing? And what's the justification below that? And so on. It's the infinite regress problem. If you're a foundationalist, and it sounds like you are, you have to have faith somewhere in there. It's a logical necessity - it can't be turtles all the way down.


First of all, I meant the word 'faith' as used as a synonym for religion. Probably not the best word choice.

Secondly, the reasons for taking a belief as fundamental are not justifications. A justification is a reason for believing 'x' is true, our reasons for taking a belief as fundamental are reasons for treating 'x' to be true. We are not trying to prove the fundamental beliefs, we are giving reasons they should be taken as proven. It's not the same.


Surely there must be judgement used in taking fundamental beliefs, else you could end up with something ridiculous (I take it as fundamental I don't have to breath! *thud*) Criteria used to determine fundamental beliefs usually include being self-evident or obvious, being required to avoid skepticism, and being consistant with all observation.

Since these criteria are a product of the belief system, it is circular in a sense. However, it fixes the main problem with straight coherantism, which is allowing a place for fundamental justification to enter the belief system. It's not perfect, but barring a failure in a fundamental belief (which requires something totally crazy like the brain in the vat scenario) it should be valid.

Also, remember that throwing out empiricism doesn't make religion win, it makes skepticism win. Throwing out rational or observational belief structures means you have to find a valid system, it doesn't mean you can just make stuff up or believe what makes you happy.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:39 PM on March 19, 2005


First of all, I meant the word 'faith' as used as a synonym for religion.

That makes your argument much more clear. My bad.

the reasons for taking a belief as fundamental are not justifications. A justification is a reason for believing 'x' is true, our reasons for taking a belief as fundamental are reasons for treating 'x' to be true. We are not trying to prove the fundamental beliefs, we are giving reasons they should be taken as proven.

Okay. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be saying that our reasons for treating 'x' to be true do not relate in any way to the truth of 'x' (that is, they are pragmatic reasons). Presumably, then, these reasons must unfold as a result of some prior goal that you want to accomplish. What is this goal?

Is it merely to avoid skepticism? If so, then once you realize that your reasons are not related to the truth of 'x' in any way, have you really avoided skepticism, or have you simply shut your eyes to it (and taken a position on faith, comparable to religious faith)?

Now, if you're a true pragmatist, this argument won't particularly trouble you. Then again, if you're a true pragmatist, it's hard to imagine why you would object to all religious faith in principle, rather than simply objecting to the dangerous and fanatical factions of religious faith (like Islamic extremists). After all, religious faith often does good things for people, and in those circumstances a pragmatist would presumably (unless he had some arbitrary and personal internal need to do otherwise) encourage faith to blossom.

A pragmatist also wouldn't say things like "Throwing out rational or observational belief structures means you have to find a valid system, it doesn't mean you can just make stuff up or believe what makes you happy". The whole point of pragmatism is that you're basically constructing reality anyway ("making stuff up") and as long as it works ("makes you happy") go for it.

So you are presumably not a pragmatist. You seem to want some kind of normative foundation that provides you with access to truth. Which brings us back to where we started, and to your distinction between "believing" and "treating" a proposition as true. If I'm understanding you, then what you're proposing doesn't seem to get you what you want (because the difference between "believing" and "treating" seems to be precisely that "treating" something as true doesn't require a normative foundation for believing that it is true). But perhaps I don't understand the distinction you're drawing yet.
posted by gd779 at 11:09 PM on March 19, 2005


You are all wrong!
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:37 AM on March 20, 2005


The thing i'm most afraid of is being sucked into a creepy crazy cult!

(/sarcastic tinfoil)
posted by schyler523 at 2:06 AM on March 20, 2005


Is it merely to avoid skepticism?

The goal of the foundational beliefs is to create a belief system which is accurate, rational, and useful. Any belief system we construct is obviously going to be based on observation and reason; we have nothing else to base it on aside from random guessing. To ground out our beliefs, we merely make the reasonable assumption that observation and reason are trustworthy. Certainly, they seem to be, and if they are not, then forming a valid belief system is impossible anyway.

If so, then once you realize that your reasons are not related to the truth of 'x' in any way, have you really avoided skepticism, or have you simply shut your eyes to it (and taken a position on faith, comparable to religious faith)?

Well, skepticism is pretty much impossible to avoid completely, because there is always the possibility of being under a deception which is completely indistinguishable from reality. But it does avoid it significantly, because the fundamental beliefs are things that, if false, would render the world completely incomprehensible. So essentially, either the fundamental beliefs are accurate, and a belief structure grounded out in them is accurate, or they are wrong and an accurate belief structure is impossible anyway.

Also, fundamental beliefs do justify one another to some degree, and are justified from higher levels; the philosophy is coherent. These justifications are not why the fundamental beliefs are treated as proven, but they do increase our confidence in them.

This philosophy does have something in common with contextualism; it ignores the brain in the vat scenario, etc. in common practice, but skepticism is not totally discarded as a possibility. One can treat the knowledge that comes out of the philosophy as being conditional; it allows you to know something, assuming the foundational beliefs are true. Since one assumes them to be true nearly all the time, these assumptions are fine, unless one is actively considering the possibility that they are false.

A pragmatist also wouldn't say things like "Throwing out rational or observational belief structures means you have to find a valid system, it doesn't mean you can just make stuff up or believe what makes you happy". The whole point of pragmatism is that you're basically constructing reality anyway ("making stuff up") and as long as it works ("makes you happy") go for it.

So you are presumably not a pragmatist. You seem to want some kind of normative foundation that provides you with access to truth. Which brings us back to where we started, and to your distinction between "believing" and "treating" a proposition as true. If I'm understanding you, then what you're proposing doesn't seem to get you what you want (because the difference between "believing" and "treating" seems to be precisely that "treating" something as true doesn't require a normative foundation for believing that it is true). But perhaps I don't understand the distinction you're drawing yet.


I'm not a pragmatist, but rather a pragmatic idealist. I understand that the absolute truth is almost certainly unknowable, but I do want the best approximation of truth that can be found with regard to the external world. These foundational beliefs are the best approximatory method to determining knowledge I am aware of.

I actually consider pragmatic belief systems such as you describe to be completely unethical. When you allow your belief system to either have false or unnecessary assumptions, or it is incoherent, your beliefs become more and more inaccurate. Because your actions are reliant on both your beliefs and your intentions, having false beliefs will cause you to take actions to harm others, even if you believe you are doing good. For that reason, every person has a responsibility to keep their belief systems in order and assure they are fully coherent, in line with all observations, and contain no unnecessary or incorrect assumptions. Acting without this kind of intellectual integrity is almost certain to cause harm in the long term, even if all you attempt is good.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:09 AM on March 20, 2005


I understand that the absolute truth is almost certainly unknowable, but I do want the best approximation of truth that can be found with regard to the external world.

Okay. Sounds fair enough, but let's examine it. You judge an idea to be an "approximation of truth" (acknowledge that certain truth is unknowable) if:

every person has a responsibility to keep their belief systems in order and assure they are fully coherent

Check. Makes sense. You're just asking people to agree with themselves.

in line with all observations

Check. Makes sense. You're just asking people to remain consistent with the observable world. (You're limiting yourself to empiricism, but I'll grant that for the moment).

and contain no unnecessary or incorrect assumptions.

Whoah. Here's where you go off the rational rails. We'll set aside for a moment whether a system with a fewer number (rather than simpler or more reasonable) assumptions is actually better. Fundamentally, the rule about minimizing the number of assumptions you use to explain observation is designed for the practicing scientist - that is, it doesn't make thisexplanation obviously better, it just makes it easier for the explanation that comes from the next experiment to cohere. But most people are not practicing scientists. So how do you justify imposing this requirement on them? And how do you defeat Quine's argument that this "dogma" is completely unfounded, logically speaking?

Because your actions are reliant on both your beliefs and your intentions, having false beliefs will cause you to take actions to harm others, even if you believe you are doing good.

That would be true, if we had access to truth. But, in your view, we only have access to an approximation of the truth. And sometimes those approximatioins will be bad.

Early medical science followed all of your rules for determining truth. But up until like the early 1980's, if you were sick, you would have been statistically better off staying away from a doctor. Their approximations of truth were so bad that they were more likely to harm you than cure you.

So it's not always clear that our (bad) approximations of the truth will do less harm than a good and helpful lie. In those circumstances, would you grant that it is better for a person (not a practicing scientist) to have a false belief that does good, rather than a more true belief that does harm? Can you grant that in principle, even if not in fact?

Any belief system we construct is obviously going to be based on observation and reason; we have nothing else to base it on aside from random guessing.

Why is intuition ruled out of the equation a priori? To some people, the knowledge that "God loves me" feels every bit as real as the knowledge that it is a warm day. And the belief in God's love can be squared with experience easily enough. Is it an "unnecessary assumption" rather than an observation? If so, why?

Why is rationalism ruled out a priori? A lot of our greatest thinkers, from Descartes on down, have believed that truth can be known intuitively through reason. Why are you rejecting their claims out of hand?

I could go on, but I'm sure you see the point well enough to explain your reasoning on this point, if you wish to.
posted by gd779 at 6:47 AM on March 20, 2005


Urban Hermit:

...whether it is more realistic to view irrationality as a "pollution" of human nature and human society, or as an inherent characteristic of them

Well, I think that's a false dilemma. I regard it as both. Bad things can be inherent characteristics of other things.

- a characteristic that, in our prudence, we should attempt to account for, but one that we only attempt to eradicate at our great peril.

I'm not sure I see why it must be perilous to try to eradicate bad things. And if it is perilous, I don't see why that should stop us attempting to do it all the same; especially when the existing perils caused by those bad things are huge. Human progress has always been fraught with peril. I admire those who were courageous enough not to be daunted by this. Some things are worth a bit of peril, I think.

This, as I've tried to argue above, might be to badly misconstrue the nature of the religious impulse in man.

I don't think many of us who are strongly anti-religious are under any illusions about how powerful the religious impulse is, or how widespread its influence. That's precisely why we choose to resist it strongly rather than to seek accommodation with it. If we thought this stuff was weak, or trivial, or localised, we'd give it no more attention than we give to belief in alien abduction or palmistry. I don't think that it's any coincidence that the path of excessive tolerance towards the irrational has led us to a place where religious extremism and other forms of unreason have thrived.

Is it merely this, or does religion in fact exist at a "higher quantum level" of epistemology - i.e., it does not have for believers the status of a mere "opinion" that can either be validated by objective evidence, or not. It exists, for them, beyond the realm in which reason and observation can confirm or not confirm opinions and hypotheses.

Well, this sounds like a fancy way of presenting what is, at root, the fallacy of "argument from personal conviction". That doesn't fly in debate and I don't think it should fly outside of it either. I'm in no doubt that the religious often regard their particular belief as being of a superior nature when compared with other beliefs. Certain political extremists feel this way too. And others. But the fact that they feel that way is no argument at all in favour of their beliefs actually being of a superior or special nature, or, therefore, for treating them that way.


It seems unproductive, therefore, and perhaps a bit ignorant, to confront believers with supposed "horseshit" like inconsistencies and controversies in their conflicting sacred texts.

Unproductive in terms of persuading them, perhaps. But by confronting them we keep the rational position in view, where others can see it. Ignorant? No, I disagree there. It is no more ignorant to present an anti-religious argument than it is to present a pro-religious one. So long as the religious are pushing their ideas in public I believe the opposing ideas should be pushed right back. Quid pro quo. Balance. The religious, of course, frequently try to stifle such opposition (blasphemy laws, the recent "religious hatred" bill in the UK, etc) because it very much suits them to do so. It's worth noting that most anti-religious people only seek the right to attack manifestations of religious belief: we do not seek to suppress them.
posted by Decani at 7:13 AM on March 20, 2005


gd779, you're not distinguishing between beliefs which allow us to make use of the data we receive, and beliefs which are superfluous to the data we receive.

Reason is the organization of the data, so in order to be rational, we must allow for certain 'conditions for the possibility', basically. Accepting that the incoming perceptions etc are worth organizing and making sense of is what reason is; as you say it involves setting aside some doubts.

But this is different from belief in god or an afterlife, because we do not receive any direct data about those things, and we do not have to set aside doubts about them in order to interact with the world meaningfully.
posted by mdn at 7:24 AM on March 20, 2005


this is different from belief in god or an afterlife, because we do not receive any direct data about those things

Well, you may not receive any direct data about those things, but some people do. There's a couple of schools of thought here.

First, some people believe that they can know that murder is "wrong", even though I can't touch or see or taste wrongness. If you believe that, then the case is easy: it's impossible to distinguish intuitive moral knowledge from intuitive spiritual knowledge regarding God's love. You can accept one or neither, but there is no good reason to pick and choose.

Say, however, that you reject the idea that moral concepts exist, because you can't pin them down and define them. Fine, you're still left with the fact that some people do have certain intuitive knowledge of God's love. On close examination, this belief turns out to be rationally indistinguishable from any number of beliefs you probably hold without adequate support. So you're left, again, with the question of why you're ruling intuitive knowledge out a priori, rather than simply accepting them as valid evidence and then testing them against the rest of observed experience.

Say, however, that you are adamant in your (at this point, still unjustified) refusal to consider intuitive knowledge. You're still left with a variety of historical facts -- from the improbability that Jesus's disciples would choose to die for a lie to the impression of design in nature -- that can, to a reasonable mind, indicate truth, or at least be squared with experience. That's the key point: even if you yourself are not persuaded by these arguments (as I am not, by the way) you must recognize that they can be made perfectly coherent and consistent with observed experience; as a result, they are rational.

So there are a variety of ways in which reasonable minds can find direct evidence for some sort of religious belief. Indeed, the most brilliant minds in history, from Pascal on down, have in fact done so. I'm not quite willing to dismiss all of these thinkers as wholly irrational.

we do not have to set aside doubts about them in order to interact with the world meaningfully.

I'm not entirely sure I understand your point here. But if I do understand what you mean, then my answer would be: you do, at least arguably.

If materialism/evolution/secularism is true, then the mind is the product of random chance. There is, a priori, no reason to believe that a product of random chance would function reliably or consistently to produce true beliefs. As a result, our beliefs about, say, evolution cannot be entirely trusted, because who is to say that our minds were functioning properly when we decided to believe that? If the mind plays tricks on us, what can we trust? And if the mind is not designed, we have no a priori reason to believe that it won't play tricks on us, and no other faculty with which to verify that it is not playing tricks on us right this moment.

Assume, on the other hand, that God exists and created man for a variety of purposes that require an ability to reliably and consistently apprehend the truth of reality. Under this assumption, you are warrented (a priori) in trusting that your beliefs are true and well-formed.

So it appears that you might have to set aside some doubts about religion (and atheism) in order to interact with the world meaningfully. If you doubt that religion is true, you run into philosophical problems regarding your ability to formulate true belief.
posted by gd779 at 7:45 AM on March 20, 2005


Decani: "It's worth noting that most anti-religious people only seek the right to attack manifestations of religious belief: we do not seek to suppress them."

When I invoke the Soviet Union, it's not to show that atheists are more oppressive than religious people; it's only to show that the modern notion that atheists can't be just as oppressive is pure bunk.

posted by koeselitz at 8:12 AM on March 20, 2005


koeselitz: the problem with invoking the Soviet Union as a representation of "what atheists can do" is that it was the political beliefs of the Soviets (i.e. communism) that primarily drove their behaviour, not atheism. It was largely what they believed in that led to intolerance and brutality. Communism was not driven by atheism, and neither were its worst excesses. When people single out Soviet atheism as a primary factor in Soviet behaviour it smacks of desperation.
posted by Decani at 10:13 AM on March 20, 2005


gd779: "intuitive knowledge" is a contradiction in terms. Intuition is not knowledge. It's a guess. It may later turn out to be a correct guess, but it does not become knowledge until the guess is verified by rational, demonstrable, repeatable means.
posted by Decani at 10:15 AM on March 20, 2005


"intuitive knowledge" is a contradiction in terms. Intuition is not knowledge.

Decani: Well, many if not most of the greatest thinkers throughout history (especially Goedel, as noted) would disagree with you. But we'll set that aside, and examine your assertion (which is bald and unsupported, I note) on it's merits.

An honest, rational individual should consider all the evidence at his or her disposal when trying to determine the truth, don't you think?

When you see a chair in the room, what do you know? You know that you "see" a chair. Does that mean that the chair is actually there? Not necessarily. You could be drunk, or on drugs. You might be dreaming. Etc.

When you intuitively sense that murder is "wrong" or that "God loves me", what do you know? You know that you feel an intuition. Does that mean that "wrong" and God actually exist. Not necessarily.

But it is a data point. It is evidence of something.

What you are doing is refusing to even consider all the evidence; you are excluding a class of data out of bounds a priori. And you are making this exclusion on no basis (that I can see) whatsoever. Which is a very strange thing for a "rational" empiricist to do, don't you think?
posted by gd779 at 10:31 AM on March 20, 2005


Decani: No, I'm just dumb. I see your basis for refusing to even consider intuitive knowledge. Intuitive knowledge is not "rational, demonstrable, repeatable."

Let's examine that. What do you mean by "rational"? I have no idea. I suspect this is just rhetoric, designed to paint your opponents as "irrational" and therefore (by implication) not even worth listening to. We'll set this criteria aside.

Demonstrable. Well, in one sense I can demonstrate my knowledge: I can report it and see if other people agree. And, in point of fact, if you were to poll every human being throughout the ages on the existence of God, you'd get an overwhelming verdict in favor of God's existence. But perhaps we are more enlightened today, with more knowledge: Poll everyone alive at this very moment. You'll still get an overwhelming verdict in favor of God's existence.

(It's true the verdict won't be unanimous, but then try polling everyone on the existence of the color blue: some people just can't see it. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist.)

Ah, you might retort, but it is only here in the enlightened West that we have access to The Truth - everyone else is trapped in superstition and ignorance. Their beliefs are inferior. Fine, we'll poll everyone in the country. Still an overwhelming verdict in favor of God's existance, mostly on an intuitive basis.

So, at bottom, what you're saying is that the intutive existence of God doesn't cohere with the ways of reasoning deployed by you and the sort of people you usually like to talk to. That is a very modest claim. Have you any more rational basis for your argument?

Here I echo Stanley Fish:

A difference of opinion you respect is an opinion held by someone who argues from the same premises and with the same tools you do; an opinion you merely tolerate - although we won't imprison you for holding it, neither will we take any account of it in the process of formulating policy - is an opinion held by someone who argues from premises and with tools you and your friends find provincial at best and dangerous (because fanatical) at worst. It is at this point that you dismiss those premises (such as biblical inerrancy) as ones no rational person could subscribe to, whereas in fact what you have done is define "rational" so as to make it congruent with the ways of thinking you and those who agree with you customarily deploy. "Mutual respect" should be renamed "mutual self-congratulation" since it will not be extended beyond the circle of those who already feel comfortable with one another.

-- Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle, pg. 199 - 200.


Which brings us, finally, to your final criterion: "repeatable". As I mentioned earlier, this is a pragmatic consideration that bears no relationship whatsoever to the truth of a given proposition, but is instead designed to help practicing scientists keep their models at a workable level of simplicity over time. I see, and you have provided, no compelling reason to believe that this requirement should be imported to every day life.

I especially see no reason to adopt your criterion in circumstances where such a belief would be harmful to the interests of the person doing the believing. Many people get a great deal of utility out of their belief in the existence of God, and since that belief is - strictly speaking - perfectly rational, and therefore perfectly indistinguishable on rational grounds from the scientism you seem to worship, I see no reason to tell them they shouldn't believe their intuitions.

Do you?
posted by gd779 at 10:48 AM on March 20, 2005


we're very puzzled (even angry) when other people feel rationally justified in contradictory beliefs. The answer to this puzzle is not that "if everyone were just as rational as I am, we'd all have The Truth". The answer is that we're not being rational either - we can't be that rational, because reason just doesn't have those kinds of answers to give.

First, you have to separate the "we" into singular entities, and then individual reasoning gives coherence to the individual actions in retrospect. The notion that a set of reasoning or beliefs can serve a crowd of separate individuals is when untanable characterizations develop.
posted by semmi at 10:55 AM on March 20, 2005


Communism was not driven by atheism, and neither were its worst excesses. When people single out Soviet atheism as a primary factor in Soviet behaviour it smacks of desperation

The point is that its official atheism didn't save it from being a big jerk.

If officially atheist regimes can do horrible things, and regimes with a rigidly enforced official religion can do horrible things, and regimes with an unenforced official religion can be horrible, and regimes with no official religion can do horrible things, then odds are that doing horrible things doesn't have much to do with religiosity one way or the other.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:11 AM on March 20, 2005


Mitrovarr, I've been thinking about your last comment. Your beliefs are commendably useful and reasonably coherent. If you were saying, "this is what I believe", I'd be impressed. But that's not what you're saying. You seem to be saying "this is what everyone must believe", and that, I think, is the real point of our disagreement. I don't see the justification for it.

If you could step outside your belief structure, you'd see that your approach to knowing is not the only rational approach to knowing, that it's not even the only way to rationally claim to be approximating truth. You seem to acknowledge this fact in your distinction between "treating" and "believing", but then you seem to turn your back on that fact by insisting that what you're merely treating as truth must, in fact, approximate truth.

semmi: you're quite right, I think, I was just trying to point out that the limits of logic are universal and inescapable. Hence the "we" rather than "you" or "I". But it was still unclear, as you point out.
posted by gd779 at 11:19 AM on March 20, 2005


You could be drunk, or on drugs. You might be dreaming. Etc.

Comparing religion to being drunk or on drugs or dreaming are all such perfect metaphors that I can't accuse gd779 of lacking in self-awareness. Those have all helped some people and are mostly not problematic if you keep the dosage small enough. They are 'utilitarian' in the lingo. At best, religion will eventually be thought of as drug or alcohol use: that it's fine for light or social believers, but heavy believers or belief-a-holics require intervetion.
posted by boaz at 11:26 AM on March 20, 2005


At best, religion will eventually be thought of as drug or alcohol use: that it's fine for light or social believers, but heavy believers or belief-a-holics require intervetion.

That's precisely the opposite of my point, in a way. My point here is to defend precisely strong religious belief, because it is demonstrably just as rational as any other belief system. Now, when such a belief system becomes dangerous (when it becomes a threat to my beliefs and desires) and, say, starts killing innocent people, then that belief system must be opposed. By force, if necessary. But I do not entertain any comforting illusions that I am somehow "more right" or "more rational" than they are any way that I can rigerously demonstrate.

Of course, I might in fact be right (and I will almost certainly believe that I am) and the strong religious believer might in fact be wrong. But there's no way to prove that, and there's no way for me to rationally claim that I am intellectually superior to them on the basis of religious belief alone.
posted by gd779 at 11:43 AM on March 20, 2005


gd779: Now, if you're a true pragmatist, this argument won't particularly trouble you. Then again, if you're a true pragmatist, it's hard to imagine why you would object to all religious faith in principle, rather than simply objecting to the dangerous and fanatical factions of religious faith (like Islamic extremists). After all, religious faith often does good things for people, and in those circumstances a pragmatist would presumably (unless he had some arbitrary and personal internal need to do otherwise) encourage faith to blossom.

Well, there I would argue that there is some disagreement among pragmatist writings. James was comfortable with the claim that religious faith is good because it does good things for people, although my reading of him is that he would have problems if that was extended to include faith healing or the belief in being immune to snake venom. Dewey on the other hand argues that usefulness of a belief depends on whether that belief permits you to engage in further inquiry. For example, from a Dewey's perspective, belief in the Riemann conjecture is good, because we have a strong but not conclusive warrant for its ultimate truth, and provisionally accepting it as true allows us to make more discoveries in mathematics. Intelligent Design is less good because it offers few options for inquiry after you've said, "god did it."

A pragmatist also wouldn't say things like "Throwing out rational or observational belief structures means you have to find a valid system, it doesn't mean you can just make stuff up or believe what makes you happy". The whole point of pragmatism is that you're basically constructing reality anyway ("making stuff up") and as long as it works ("makes you happy") go for it.

This statement is so deeply wrong and misinformed on so many levels, that I don't even know where to begin. As a pragmatist, it seems to me that what you are describing is old-style rationalism ala Descartes and Aristotle.

Pragmatist theories are grounded in intersubjectivity. I can't for example just make up the claim that women have fewer teeth than men. I have to build a warrant for that claim based on inquiry within the world.

And the standard of a good theory is not not "what makes me happy" but what permits further inquiry in the world. These theories may make us happy by allowing us to better understand and manipulate the world around us, but that is a secondary goal.

Why is intuition ruled out of the equation a priori? To some people, the knowledge that "God loves me" feels every bit as real as the knowledge that it is a warm day. And the belief in God's love can be squared with experience easily enough. Is it an "unnecessary assumption" rather than an observation? If so, why?

I don't think intuition should be ruled out a priori. But I do think that intuitions should be tested using inquiry, and opened to a high degree of doubt if they have been shown to be misleading.

But there are a number of cases where "intuition" is a notoriously bad approximation of reality. For example, most people have the intuition that their chances of winning at a random game depends on how many times they lost previously. Most people have an intuition that their earliest memory occured around age three. We know that when we do inquiry, in which we check intuitions against the real world, that both of these beliefs tend to be wrong.

Why is rationalism ruled out a priori? A lot of our greatest thinkers, from Descartes on down, have believed that truth can be known intuitively through reason. Why are you rejecting their claims out of hand?

Oh, their claims should not be rejected out of hand. But I think in many cases, their claims should be rejected if they fail real-world tests. Cartesian mathematics has fared much better than his cosmology or theory of mind. (For that matter, Kepler's early cosmology built on the geometry of the spheres is intuitive, brilliant and pleasing, but ultimately wrong.)

If materialism/evolution/secularism is true, then the mind is the product of random chance.

Not true at all. Most of these three very different but related positions propose that there are laws embedded in the universe that create predictable structure. Dropped rocks don't wander in random directions, they fall to the ground. Bacteria don't sprout wings and fly in a single generation, they change gene by gene.

There certainly are beliefs that are at the core of materialism. However, I would argue that those beliefs are more about structure than randomness. One does not have to be an empiricist to show this is true. The Central Limit Theorem suggests that predictable structure exists any time you are dealing with a combination of 2 or more random factors.

There is, a priori, no reason to believe that a product of random chance would function reliably or consistently to produce true beliefs.

Well, I would argue the other way around having revealed the accusation of "random chance" as a straw man. I would argue that the fact that our brains are governed by the same processes that govern the rest of the world provides the best possible warrant for belief in sensory perception. If photons reflect off of objects, refracted in the eye, producing an electrical potential, that propigates through a neuro net that leads to the subjective experience of white glyps on a blue screen, then we have a direct chain of cause and effect from phenomenon to mind.

This warrant becomes more difficult if you propose that the mind is something different from a physical entity. How can I claim that the inexplicable ghost in the shell is not giving me an illusion.

Of course, no one seriously makes the claim that individual minds operate reliably (reliability and consistancy are redundant, perhaps you mean validity?). However, if you pool observations from a large number of minds, then you tend to get results that are reliable due to the Central Limit Theorem.

Furthermore, getting back to pragmatism, this form of inquiry, repeatedly testing the reliability and validity of our claims to reality is the best we can expect. Scientists know that their methods are filled with error, the difference between a scientist and a prophet is that the scientist tends to be more explicit about her sources of error.

Assume, on the other hand, that God exists and created man for a variety of purposes that require an ability to reliably and consistently apprehend the truth of reality. Under this assumption, you are warrented (a priori) in trusting that your beliefs are true and well-formed.

Except for the problem that we can demonstrate that the human mind is error-prone. If we were created to apprehend the truth of reality, then why are we so bad at it?

Which brings us, finally, to your final criterion: "repeatable". As I mentioned earlier, this is a pragmatic consideration that bears no relationship whatsoever to the truth of a given proposition, but is instead designed to help practicing scientists keep their models at a workable level of simplicity over time. I see, and you have provided, no compelling reason to believe that this requirement should be imported to every day life.

I don't know. I find that the repeatability of results is a very useful criteria for dealing with everyday life. For example, the maxim "lefty-loosey, righty-tighty" is a good observation that applies strongly to most jars, screws, bolts, beer bottles, and many valves. It is a repeatable observation that cars only cross the center yellow line of a road under a few conditions. You can even apply it to subjective experience in that it is a repeatable phenomenon that honeydew is less tasty to me than apple.

In fact, a central point of pragmatism is that many of the basic ideals behind "science" are not arcane, but are simple everyday practice. Our everyday beliefs are bolstered by repitition.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:56 AM on March 20, 2005


gd: That's precisely the opposite of my point, in a way. My point here is to defend precisely strong religious belief, because it is demonstrably just as rational as any other belief system.

I think the key problem here is whether rationality is sufficient. There have been many theories in history that have been rational, intuitive and logically consistent, but have completely failed real-world tests.

Steady-state cosmology, Kepler's first model of the solar system, and Aristotle's biology were all wonderful feats of rational intuition, but failed to match what we can observe from understanding the universe.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:04 PM on March 20, 2005


And the standard of a good theory is not not "what makes me happy" but what permits further inquiry in the world. These theories may make us happy by allowing us to better understand and manipulate the world around us, but that is a secondary goal.

Well, it's a secondary goal for you, perhaps. For another pragmatist, it might be a primary goal. The old joke about pragmatism is that "pragmatism doesn't work", because pragmatism defines "true" as "whatever works", and "working" must be defined in relation to a goal, which for most people (though not for you) is basically happiness.

This is why you can get variation among James and Dewey and the others about what pragmatism "is". Pragmatism isn't anything, except the state of (following Posner, because I'm a lawyer) being unconcerned with building "a sufficient theoretical foundation for beliefs". It's about "whatever works" without concern for some (to the pragmatist) unreachable standard of "truth".

Which brings me to this statement of yours, which puzzled me for a while:

As a pragmatist, it seems to me that what you are describing is old-style rationalism ala Descartes and Aristotle.

And then it hit me. The key phrase there is "as a pragmatist". You're not taking seriously Descartes method of attaining knowledge, you're assuming that it's basically false and constructed (an assumption you make "as a pragmatist"). Fine, fair enough, but that's a very misleading way to make a point, and indeed, I'm not sure what your point is. If you're a scientist/pragmatist, your goal is to make things up that have predictive power. If you're a normal human/pragmatist, your goal is to make things up that make you happy and help you live. Either way, it seems odd to criticize me for doing the same thing, and then call me a "rationalist". Or am I completely misunderstanding you?

I can't for example just make up the claim that women have fewer teeth than men. I have to build a warrant for that claim based on inquiry within the world.

I trust this requires no more explanation. It may be a true statement for you, but it is not true of pragmatism as a whole, as that term is normally defined.

Well, I would argue the other way around having revealed the accusation of "random chance" as a straw man. I would argue that the fact that our brains are governed by the same processes that govern the rest of the world provides the best possible warrant for belief in sensory perception.

I think this is where you, as a pragmatist, are having a hard time understanding an argument made in foundationalist terms (as a foundationalist would have difficulty understanding a pragmatic argument). Your points about random chance are basically well taken, but the only thing you can conclude from them is that our brains might be well adapted to helping us to pass on our genes. It's not at all clear that a mechanism for consistently forming valid beliefs is required to pass on our genes. For that matter, how do you know that "passing on our genes" is the natural law that guides the formation of our minds? So while you might, at most, be able to say that our minds are well adapted to their environment, it does not follow that the ideas they form will, in any normative way, be "true" (except, of course, in the pragmatic sense of truth, which we are explicitly not using).

Mitrovarr, and presumably mdn, want more than mere usefulness from his beliefs. They wants their beliefs to be "true". My point is that you can't get that.

Furthermore, getting back to pragmatism, this form of inquiry, repeatedly testing the reliability and validity of our claims to reality is the best we can expect.

That true, but again, it's only true if your goal is "usefulness (or pragmatic truth) over time". If your goal is to form useful beliefs now, it may or may not be true, depending on the circumstances. As I pointed out upthread, early medicine is very useful to us now, but it doesn't therefore follow that you were better off going to a doctor back then. As with everything in pragmatism, it depends entirely on your goals and your circumstances.

I don't know. I find that the repeatability of results is a very useful criteria for dealing with everyday life.

Quite true, and as a guiding rule of tumb, I agree. As a hard-and-fast condition for forming all belief, however, I disagree. Again, it will depend entirely on your goals and circumstances.

I think the key problem here is whether rationality is sufficient. There have been many theories in history that have been rational, intuitive and logically consistent, but have completely failed real-world tests.

Yes. Just so. And therefore you cannot condem religious belief as "irrational", and you cannot say that no one should ever be religious, full stop. It will depend entirely on the goals of the believer - sometimes religious belief will be useful to them (which is the real world test for most people) and sometimes it will not. That's all I'm saying, and we seem to agree?
posted by gd779 at 12:19 PM on March 20, 2005


gt779: Well, it's a secondary goal for you, perhaps. For another pragmatist, it might be a primary goal. The old joke about pragmatism is that "pragmatism doesn't work", because pragmatism defines "true" as "whatever works", and "working" must be defined in relation to a goal, which for most people (though not for you) is basically happiness.

I think that only comes from a very shallow reading of pragmatism. If you do actually dig into pragmatism, you do find that there is a goal beyond, "whatever I want." Leading to...

This is why you can get variation among James and Dewey and the others about what pragmatism "is". Pragmatism isn't anything, except the state of (following Posner, because I'm a lawyer) being unconcerned with building "a sufficient theoretical foundation for beliefs". It's about "whatever works" without concern for some (to the pragmatist) unreachable standard of "truth".

Well, actually I would argue that building a sufficient theoretical foundation for beliefs is central to pragmatism. Rationalism failed because it has no connection to real-world phenomena. Empiricism failed because you can't say much about real-world phenomena. Pragmatism proposes that the best we can hope for is to build theories grounded on real-world phenomena. When those theories reach a point where they provide a useful description of the universe we live in. Then we have a sufficient (if provisional) warrant for belief.

I don't need to show that "lefty-loosy, righty-tighty" works for every bolt, screw and lid out there. I just need to show that it is good enough generalization that I can get by.

And then it hit me. The key phrase there is "as a pragmatist". You're not taking seriously Descartes method of attaining knowledge, you're assuming that it's basically false and constructed (an assumption you make "as a pragmatist").

Both Descartes and Aristotle built theories that were rational, elegant, and pleasing, but were fundamentally wrong when applied to real-world observations. Frequently those theories were built around what made those men "happy."

Pragmatism is not about happiness, it's about what works. It does not matter that Descartes' cosmology was beautiful if it doesn't work.

I trust this requires no more explanation. It may be a true statement for you, but it is not true of pragmatism as a whole, as that term is normally defined.

Defined by whom?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:34 PM on March 20, 2005


"intuitive knowledge" is a contradiction in terms. Intuition is not knowledge.

Boy's never been in love, I guess. Anyhow, the definition of "knowledge" you're offering is so specialized and so different from the most common usage of the word that you may as well use a different word. All you're really doing is defining knowledge in a way that suits you, because it writes out anyone who comes to knowledge by means different than the ones you use.

Dewey on the other hand argues that usefulness of a belief depends on whether that belief permits you to engage in further inquiry. For example, from a Dewey's perspective, belief in the Riemann conjecture is good, because we have a strong but not conclusive warrant for its ultimate truth, and provisionally accepting it as true allows us to make more discoveries in mathematics. Intelligent Design is less good because it offers few options for inquiry after you've said, "god did it."

The thing here is that there are a good many religious people who agree with both Dewey's and James's criteria for what are good and bad beliefs- that is, many Christians consider fundmentalism bad religion because it produces bad citizens, bad human beings, and bad public policy; many consider fundmanetalism (and its stepchild, Intelligent Design) to be bad religion because it takes the place of God as the end of inquiry. Unlike God, theologies are not infinite - it is a fool who looks at the finger which points at the moon - but God, being infinite, is subject to endless inquiry.

I find that the repeatability of results is a very useful criteria for dealing with everyday life. For example, the maxim "lefty-loosey, righty-tighty" is a good observation that applies strongly to most jars, screws, bolts, beer bottles, and many valves. It is a repeatable observation that cars only cross the center yellow line of a road under a few conditions. You can even apply it to subjective experience in that it is a repeatable phenomenon that honeydew is less tasty to me than apple.

I think the point was less that "repeatability is not a useful criteria for truth in everyday life" but rather "repeatability is not always a necessary criteria for truth in everyday life."

On preview:

Mitrovarr, and presumably mdn, want more than mere usefulness from his beliefs. They wants their beliefs to be "true". My point is that you can't get that.

And, ironically, they want the same thing the fundamnetalists want- thier beliefs to be True. That's why fundamentalism is a modern religious development. Older Christianity and older religion in general accepted that one cannot have absolute certainty - the very definition of faith was as a decision based on relationship to God/the gods - that's why the Gospels tell differing accounts of the life of Jesus, because each writer is trying to get the reader inside his own personal experience - were the Gospels historical in our sense of the word, they would fail at their task, which is less to communicate facts and more to communicate the power of a personal experience.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:41 PM on March 20, 2005


I like the questions. I'll use them in my next sermon.

I wonder if Sam Hill has spent much time in your average mainline church. The half the little old ladies in my parish don't believe in the afterlife and don't think there is anything wrong with pluralistic beliefs. Most of them think that scripture was written by pious men who got things wrong. They don't like fundamentalism, but the theological attributes of religion [peace, love, hope, justice, prudence, etc] are virtues they trust. Granted, I don't see much reason for any of these virtues, but I believe them anyway.

As far as irrationality goes, the early church fathers considered religion - and Jesus - the manager of human irrationality. The point was not exacerbate irrationality, but to harness it for virtuous behavior.

Anyway, I guess I don't have faith that rational arguments convince people. Perhaps if atheists had churches, rituals, and a little book of important sayings, they could become better evangelists. Of course, they could always join the local Unitarian or Episcopal Church.
posted by john wilkins at 12:43 PM on March 20, 2005


We'll set aside for a moment whether a system with a fewer number (rather than simpler or more reasonable) assumptions is actually better.

That's not necessarily what I'm saying. A system with fewer unnecessary assumptions is better than a system with more, because any unnecessary assumption is something you are essentially believing for no reason at all. Removing the assumption would benefit the system. It's not a matter of the pure number of assumptions, only their necessity.

Early medical science followed all of your rules for determining truth. But up until like the early 1980's, if you were sick, you would have been statistically better off staying away from a doctor. Their approximations of truth were so bad that they were more likely to harm you than cure you.

I'd like to see the figures on that. That's a multiple generations past the invention of antibiotics, vaccinations, and the discovery of clean operating room protocol. Those are the major things that transformed medicine into something beneficial. I'd set the date in the 1940s, if not earlier.

I understand what you're saying, but in general the most harmful treatments were the ones that had no connection with the truth at all; things like bloodletting due to humoral theory, etc. As medical knowledge became more and more aligned with the truth, it became better and better. So while a very poor approximation can be bad if you assume you know more than you do, a good approximation can be extremely powerful and positive.

In the cases where poor approximations did harm, the most beneficial alternative would have been to assume ignorance and not practice a half-developed science. It is true that a lie can, sometimes, lead to better action than a poor approximation of the truth, but this is purely random in nature. Note than many of the horrible things done in the name of restoring health had lies to justify them (exorcisms, hunting witches to relieve curse victims, etc.)

Why is intuition ruled out of the equation a priori?

As far as I can tell, intuition is just subconscious reason, working with prior experience. It's a little dangerous to use because it's a 'black box' you don't have access to, but when it can be trusted, it's a form of reason. It's not discarded.

To some people, the knowledge that "God loves me" feels every bit as real as the knowledge that it is a warm day. And the belief in God's love can be squared with experience easily enough. Is it an "unnecessary assumption" rather than an observation? If so, why?

Yes, it is an unnecessary assumption. You don't need it to avoid skepticism or maintain a belief in the outside world. It's not an external observation because it relies on internal belief and utilizes no sensory pathway; if you didn't believe you were going to experience it, you wouldn't. It can be treated as an internal observation that may tell you something about the human brain, but is useless in making any determination about the outside world.

Why is rationalism ruled out a priori? A lot of our greatest thinkers, from Descartes on down, have believed that truth can be known intuitively through reason. Why are you rejecting their claims out of hand?

It's not. I did say 'observation and reason'. Reason is in there. I don't think rationalism alone is the answer; pure rationalism can't securely get to the point of knowing about the computer I'm using or the air I'm breathing, and without observation, it has nothing to keep it in line with the external world, and can be prone to wild inaccuracy when it fails. However, it has a place.

First, some people believe that they can know that murder is "wrong", even though I can't touch or see or taste wrongness. If you believe that, then the case is easy: it's impossible to distinguish intuitive moral knowledge from intuitive spiritual knowledge regarding God's love. You can accept one or neither, but there is no good reason to pick and choose.

I saw this, and I thought I'd comment on it. You can have an ethical system completely independant of religion and intuitive knowledge. My ethical system is based on a number of principles, none of them intuitive (although it is necessary to assume things, as it is to believe anything.) Here's what mine is based on:

I know that I am a conscious sentient entity, based on experience and rationalism (I think, therefore I am.)

Assumptions: Accuracy of memory, continuity of thought.

I know that it certainly seems that there are other entities in the world, and they seem similar and equivilent to me.

Assumptions: Existance of outside world, accuracy of perception.

Because they seem similar and equivilent to me, they must also have a quality of experience, which is equivilent to my own, and also partially dependant on external factors.

Because their quality of experience is equivilent to my own, it must be weighed against my own when making decisions.

Thus, I must not act in a completely selfish manner, and must consider the feelings of other people. This is the basis of any ethical system. Of course, the full version is much more complicated, and includes things like ensuring the accuracy of one's belief system, accounting for accidental harm or benefit, etc.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:47 PM on March 20, 2005


I don't need to show that "lefty-loosy, righty-tighty" works for every bolt, screw and lid out there. I just need to show that it is good enough generalization that I can get by.

Pragmatism is not about happiness, it's about what works. It does not matter that Descartes' cosmology was beautiful if it doesn't work.

But see, here "most useful" as "verified by repeatability" will, in some circumstances, provide a theory we know is wrong in the sense of offering up a reliable mirror to nature, but still be right in the sense of being repeatable and useful for making predictions about events and my world - a fine example of this is Newton's physics, which are not merely modified, but actually refuted by Einstein's physics - Newton's are not merely useful for predicting how cars or balls will behave, but better in everyday circumstances than Einstein's. So "what works" in one set of circumstances might not work in another - meaning that a good pragmatist must recognize that repeatability itself might not always "work" as a means of testing theories, or that repeatability might not always be necessary to establish workability.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:48 PM on March 20, 2005


Mitrovarr, and presumably mdn, want more than mere usefulness from his beliefs. They wants their beliefs to be "true". My point is that you can't get that.

Well, that might be partly a difficulty of semantics: what exactly do we mean by "truth"? I am okay with the fact that truth is a relationship, that what I know or consider true, I know through a series of data points which are regularly explored, compared and otherwise evaluated, to assist me in best understanding what I am and what the world is. I am also okay with the general pragmatic flexibility of truth, ie, the fact that should we discover evidence which contradicts the current theory (the extreme example being, if we are led out of the cave/matrix/illusion tomorrow) then we can readjust our understanding to fit the new information.

Assume, on the other hand, that God exists and created man for a variety of purposes that require an ability to reliably and consistently apprehend the truth of reality. Under this assumption, you are warrented (a priori) in trusting that your beliefs are true and well-formed.

all that this does for us is give us a sense of conviction we cannot otherwise establish, and its method is simply to appeal to some unknowable but higher authority who can be trusted to "ground" our knowledge. You would do just as well to simply have blind faith in the reality of the world, since you wouldn't bring in additional questions (like, why does god exist, what is god, is he a conscious being? Then is he finite? Or are we part of him? If we're not, then he must be limited in some sense; if we are, then in what sense is he "god" rather than just "reality"- and so on).

Well, you may not receive any direct data about those things, but some people do. There's a couple of schools of thought here.

The only people who claim to receive "direct" data about god etc are generally considered to be insane or anyway, undergoing hallucinations. Most religious people speak of "feeling" or "sensing" god, but not of seeing, touching, tasting, hearing or smelling god. Dreams, thoughts, and internal emotional experiences are not direct data. They are complex and often creative (imaginative) experiences. They can tell us certain things, cast light on certain things, but they fundamentally involve the personality of the person who has the experience in a way which seeing an object does not.
posted by mdn at 12:59 PM on March 20, 2005


It's not an external observation because it relies on internal belief and utilizes no sensory pathway; if you didn't believe you were going to experience it, you wouldn't.

Mitrovarr: Ah, but this is not actually true. If someone strongly expects (or wants) not to see, say, red cars, their brain will actually filter out red cars. They literally will not see any red cars. Similarly, lots of recent studies have shown that if someone expects to see something (say, a movie) and you cut it out for a minute (or turn the room dark) the portion of their brain that "sees" will remain active - they are still seeing the movie. The brain doesn't work quite as simply as you might expect.

mdn makes a related point:

Dreams, thoughts, and internal emotional experiences are not direct data. They are complex and often creative (imaginative) experiences. They can tell us certain things, cast light on certain things, but they fundamentally involve the personality of the person who has the experience in a way which seeing an object does not.

This is an assumption intrinsic to your worldview, it's not a necessary fact about the world. And, in fact, the vast majority of people would disagree with you. If I were to hit you right now, your first reaction would be "hey! what are you doing? That's wrong". Maybe, on reflection, you would deny the existence of morality, but most people would not. So a great many people assume that their subjective experiences tell them about the content of the world just as their objective experience does.

So the subject is relied upon just as the objective is, and on close inspection the objective turns out to be illusory, and really objectivity-mediated-through-subjectivity, or, for short, subjective.

The distinction can't withstand close scrutiny.

I'll keep addressing mdn for the moment, and come back to Mitrovarr at the end.

The only people who claim to receive "direct" data about god etc are generally considered to be insane or anyway, undergoing hallucinations.

Obviously, you've never been to a charismatic church. Your statement might be true among the sort of people you like to associate with, but it is not true of humanity in general. See my comments above about what we take as "reasonable" is often merely mutual self-congratulation that bears no logical or rational relationship to truth.

I am okay with the fact that truth is a relationship, that what I know or consider true... [assists] me in best understanding what I am and what the world is.

I'm not sure what you mean here. What you're saying is true, but only if you're willing to take some propositions solely on faith. If you aren't willing to make that concession, then reason cannot tell you anything about what the world "is", it can only help you adapt to some of the world as you perceive it. (See my discussion with Kirk). This has no necessary connection with the way the world actually is "out there", because we have - in principle - no access to pure reality without intermediation through unreliable subjectivity or recourse to faith. Is that what you meant?

all that this does for us is give us a sense of conviction we cannot otherwise establish, and its method is simply to appeal to some unknowable but higher authority who can be trusted to "ground" our knowledge. You would do just as well to simply have blind faith in the reality of the world, since you wouldn't bring in additional questions

Yeah, that's true. I am not arguing for the superiority of religious belief, merely for it's equality and rationality.

Defined by whom?

Kirk: A good point. My intent was "as defined by most people who use the term", but when you're is unconcerned with theoretical truth, you very quickly find yourself in a definitional game.

Call it whatever you want. If the philosophy in question is defined by what "works", as you said it is, then you must define the term "works". And that term must be defined in relation to a goal, and without recourse to theory. So, in those circumstances, it's not clear to me how one pragmatist can tell another what his goals "ought" to be, how one can claim that certain goals place you outside the orthodoxy of pragmatism.

eustacescrubb makes a lot of good points. Since I mostly agree, I'll just leave it at that.

You can have an ethical system completely independant of religion and intuitive knowledge.

Mitrovarr: Yeah, that's true, and I didn't mean to imply otherwise. So long as you recognize that both are equally rational or irrational, and that neither one is demonstrably superior to the other on purely rational grounds.

Because their quality of experience is equivilent to my own, it must be weighed against my own when making decisions.

I'll note that this doesn't follow. You cannot reason from is to ought. But, then again, it doesn't need to follow - it can be accepted on faith, or "assumed", just like the other assumptions you've made.

Everything you're saying makes sense, Mitrovarr. Except this: if you're willing to grant that you make assumptions, why not allow others to make different assumptions? You claim to have one goal, to "avoid skepticism and maintain a belief in the outside world". But you're not being honest (with yourself) here, because if that were your only goal, you wouldn't object to unnecessary assumptions. After all, if those unnecessary assumptions don't hamper your goal, why would you object to them?

So, actually, you have an additional goal: the avoidance of unnecessary assumptions. Of course, from the perspective of the believe, they're not unnecessary at all. The inclusion of intuition might help them in their goal of "formulating the best possible explanation of the world" or of "being happy". Why must your goal be everyone's goal?
posted by gd779 at 1:36 PM on March 20, 2005


Obviously, you've never been to a charismatic church.

Do they claim to see, touch, taste, hear, or smell god?
I was specifically differenting between the sensory receptors and the higher parts of the mind which have more complex emotional or personal responses.

Yeah, that's true. I am not arguing for the superiority of religious belief, merely for it's equality and rationality.

Its equality to an inflexible claim that experience reveals absolute reality - but most empiricists are much more flexible and skeptical than that. We simply say, we seem to be experiencing something consistent and intersubjective - not that it is therefore determinatively the "ultimate" layer of reality, or the only possible interpretation of what is, but that it is reality as we currently define reality (ie, conscious aliens could have quite a different world... perhaps animals do)

If someone strongly expects (or wants) not to see, say, red cars, their brain will actually filter out red cars. They literally will not see any red cars.

Exactly: we have to be aware of the tendency of our desires, expectations, and in general, personalities, to interfere with our perceptions. In other words, the fact that we should want or expect or "feel" something about an issue we are trying to understand, is exactly the reason to be even more skeptical of the data we think we're receiving about it. If you are aware of the shortcomings, socializations, and general filtrations the reflective consciousness can impose on unmediated perception, then we have a better chance of not being swayed by them. This does nothing to support the idea that we should pay additional attention to the personal/mediated consciousness in attempting to determine what exists in-itself. It means we have to constantly reevaluate the information we think we have, compare it with the reported experiences of others, and try to work out what's projected by us, and what's actually a reception of data external to us.
posted by mdn at 2:35 PM on March 20, 2005


Do they claim to see, touch, taste, hear, or smell god?

Yes. Sometimes people just see God's hand, or something like that, but yes. One weekend, back when I was a Christian, I was out of town on a Sunday, so I picked a church out of the yellow pages at random. The pastor there gave a sermon on how Jesus had appeared to him the night before, and how Jesus had let him smell his hair.

Personally, I think he was just on drugs. But the point is, yes, people (and you'd be surprised at who, I think - they're really very normal people, this one pastor aside) do sometimes see or touch or hear or even smell God.

So, as a general rule, I think your comments are spot-on. I would only object to them if you held that individuals who explain reality in a different way than you do, because they give different weight to evidence that you admit is valid in principle, are somehow demonstrably irrational. Which, it appears, you are not saying.

Which, I think, means we agree.
posted by gd779 at 2:48 PM on March 20, 2005


Don't forget to enjoy a cold, refreshing PepsiBlue™ while reading Sam Harris' "important and timely book"!

Cheap shot, reeking of doofus newbie. A person being enthusiastic about something is not a Pepsi Blue post. It's Pepsi Blue when the poster has an obvious financial stake in posting about something:

Pepsi Blue has become a sort of catch-all cat-call for something that's a possible shill posting on MetaFilter - that is, an ad or product endorsement for reasons other than just overall consumer joy.

Learn the lingo before you pitch it around: this wasn't a shill post and, in my opinion, you owe nofundy an apology.
posted by y2karl at 2:49 PM on March 20, 2005


Oh wow, lots of stuff that needs replies.

eustaciescrubb: I think the point was less that "repeatability is not a useful criteria for truth in everyday life" but rather "repeatability is not always a necessary criteria for truth in everyday life."

However, truely unique events are by nature, few and far between. Most of what we experience are phenomena that are repeated over and over and over again.

If someone claimed a unique event, like space aliens visitng and handing over a winning lottery ticket. Wouldn't you say that without similar experience, that it is safe to be skeptical?

But see, here "most useful" as "verified by repeatability" will, in some circumstances, provide a theory we know is wrong in the sense of offering up a reliable mirror to nature, but still be right in the sense of being repeatable and useful for making predictions about events and my world - a fine example of this is Newton's physics, which are not merely modified, but actually refuted by Einstein's physics - Newton's are not merely useful for predicting how cars or balls will behave, but better in everyday circumstances than Einstein's. So "what works" in one set of circumstances might not work in another - meaning that a good pragmatist must recognize that repeatability itself might not always "work" as a means of testing theories, or that repeatability might not always be necessary to establish workability.

Well, to start with, it is not true that Newton's physics were "refuted" by Einstein's physics. At low speeds and gravitational forces, Einstein's laws collapse into Newton's laws. This fact was pretty critical to the acceptance of Special and General Relativity.

The other issue is that "what works" is defined within pragmatism in a particular way that you are not taking into account here. "What works" is not defined in a conservative sense as what we can repeat in everyday life, but in a liberal sense of a framework that prompts future inquiry. Newton's physics in the absence of an ether become a roadblock to inquiry, while Einstein's physics open up new possibilities (such as the theory that we live in a dynamic universe.)

If you view the goals of pragmatic epistemology as just explaining the billiard balls and cars, then you really don't understand it.

gd779: Kirk: A good point. My intent was "as defined by most people who use the term", but when you're is unconcerned with theoretical truth, you very quickly find yourself in a definitional game.

That is about like trying to make a critique of "romanticism" by addressing it as viewed by people who have fallen in love, rather than going to Goethe, Shelly, Byron, and Turner.

In other words, I feel like in many respects we are talking about apples and oranges. I'm talking about Pragmatism, a theory developed to address the epistemological failures of rationalism and empiricism by constructing a synthesis between the two, while you and eustancescrubb appear to be talking about, well, I have no idea what you are talking about, but it has very little to do with epistemology or with Pragmatism.

Call it whatever you want. If the philosophy in question is defined by what "works", as you said it is, then you must define the term "works". And that term must be defined in relation to a goal, and without recourse to theory.

I don't see why that is a requirement, or how any other working philosophy does not also fail this test.

In pragmatism, what works is a theory that gets you as close as you can to the truth. Rationalism fails because a theory can be logically consistent, beautiful and "make people happy" but still be wrong. (Classic examples come from Aristotle, Descartes, Einstein and Hoyle.) Empiricism fails because humans are not reliable observers, and there is no inherent warrant to building generalizations between phenomena.

The solution to this is a synthesis of the two. You build rational theories based on emprical evidence and constantly test those theories against experience.

So, in those circumstances, it's not clear to me how one pragmatist can tell another what his goals "ought" to be, how one can claim that certain goals place you outside the orthodoxy of pragmatism.

Simple, you can argue that defining "what works" in such a haphazard manner produces an epistemology that is less useful in the long run than defining it in terms of developing better approximations of truth.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:26 PM on March 20, 2005


While everyone is out borrowing this book from the library be sure to get Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things" for reading also (if you haven't already read it, of course.)

Thanks for the kind words y2karl.
posted by nofundy at 4:45 PM on March 20, 2005


gd779: Yes. Just so. And therefore you cannot condem religious belief as "irrational", and you cannot say that no one should ever be religious, full stop. It will depend entirely on the goals of the believer - sometimes religious belief will be useful to them (which is the real world test for most people) and sometimes it will not. That's all I'm saying, and we seem to agree?

In essence, you seem to be claiming that because we must make assumptions in order to avoid solipsism, then it doesn't matter what assumptions we make, as long as they are useful to us. In fact, any useful assumptions can be described as "rational" owing to their utility.

You're argument seems to hinge upon accepting that whatever amount of evidence the believer uses to form their belief is sufficient. Thus - someone who ignores Quantum Mechanics because Newtownian Mechanics is all they'll ever need is making a rational decision. This is fine. No problem there. What isn't fine is someone who denies quantum mechanics because their useful evidence stops with Newton. Irrational? Not according to you - because it's still a practical belief.

You can define rationality in this way. I don't choose to, but I take your point. With that definition, I would say that the religionist is like the one who denies QM - there is utility in what they do believe, but nonetheless it's still an abdication of intellectual responsibility. It's not rational enough, because it's cherrypicking. It's ignoring the vast realms we have learned about biology, history, mythology, human psychology and neurology. Anecdotally - the only religionists of my acquaintance with sufficient grounding in these subjects to make their opinion informed, believe despite the evidence and admit it. I wouldn't consider that kind of cognitive dissonance rational, despite whatever utility it has.

/IMHO.

Anyhow - I could probably just have said 'believing things for rational reasons' and 'rational beliefs' are two different things we must be careful not to confuse.
posted by Sparx at 5:00 PM on March 20, 2005


Sparx, it's probably important to distinguish between my arguments to the pragmatists (like kirk) and my arguments to the foundationalists (like Mitrovarr).

The pragmatists say to me that a belief is true if it is useful, and to them I respond that religion is often useful, and therefore it can't be categorically condemned.

The foundationalists say to me that religion is irrational and false, and to them I point out that religion is demonstrably just as rational as their own beliefs - no more and no less - because all belief systems ultimately require faith, if you are to avoid the infinite regress problem. Their choice, if they are to remain consistent, is therefore between skepticism and tolerance.

But those are two separate and distinct arguments.

At the end of the day, you can't tell anyone what to believe. They will believe what they were going to believe regardless, and because such knowledge as we have necessarily comes from an arational source, there's very little you can do (on rational terms alone) to persuade them to change their minds. Which brings me to kirk...

Kirk: one of us, quite clearly, doesn't understand pragmatism. Pragmatism, as I understand it, is a wholesale rejection of the constant search for perfect theoretical truth, so when you say that "In pragmatism, what works is a theory that gets you as close as you can to the truth", I can't make heads or tails of it. But that's the trouble with pragmatism, isn't it - the fact that an idea is incoherent doesn't make it false. It makes it hard to talk about, which is probably why most pragmatists that I've read haven't been terribly good writers.

So all I can say is this: Adopting your vision of pragmatism doesn't seem particularly useful for me. So, if we are to judge ideas by their consequences (or "cash-value", as James suggested so long ago) then your conception of pragmatism is false. At least for me.
posted by gd779 at 5:12 PM on March 20, 2005


Oh, and Kirk, when making arguments about what pragmatists can and cannot believe, remember that the title of James' essay was "The Will to Believe". There's a reason for that.
posted by gd779 at 5:16 PM on March 20, 2005


Thanks for the resumming up, gd779. Hell of a thread to walk in on at post no. 100 or so.

religion is demonstrably just as rational as their own beliefs - no more and no less - because all belief systems ultimately require faith

Avoiding infinite regress gives all belief systems equal weight? The foundationalists are wanting to play cards, and you're insisting that your 'you can't prove you're not just a brain in a vat' card trumps every hand. Arguably true, but fundamentally uninteresting.

I'd still argue that such belief equivalency wasn't actually the case, though, because I'm just difficult. Occam's razor is all about preventing the proliferation of entities. Religion assumes the existence of a greater number of entities and thus requires more faith, making it the less rational belief system - all things being equal. In other words, it's better to believe in something that only requires one assumption on faith than something that requires that *same* assumption plus twenty more. Sure - they can both be falsified on that one shared point, but the second option is both more vulnerable to falsification and less elegant, making it the less rational choice.

Sometimes people do use the word irrational to mean 'less rational than the other options'.

I'll save the pragmatism until you folks figure out what you mean by it :-) I liked KJS's version more instinctually - but didn't James just say exactly what you did about the religious life? To which I once again respond there is a difference between rational beliefs and believing things for rational reasons.
posted by Sparx at 6:26 PM on March 20, 2005


"What works" is not defined in a conservative sense as what we can repeat in everyday life, but in a liberal sense of a framework that prompts future inquiry.

If you view the goals of pragmatic epistemology as just explaining the billiard balls and cars, then you really don't understand it.


I think what I don't/didn't understand is your argument - I took you to be advocating the point of view you're arguing against in the above quote- that is, you seemed to be arguing for "repeatable in erveryday life" to be the definition of "what works" and I was trying to argue that "repeatable in everyday life" wouldn't work as an epistemology all by itself, because of how narrowly it defines "works".
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:17 PM on March 20, 2005


Ah, but this is not actually true. If someone strongly expects (or wants) not to see, say, red cars, their brain will actually filter out red cars. They literally will not see any red cars.

You know, I've heard that before, and it's taken as a given, but I'm not entirely sure I believe it. It's true that people sometimes ignore peripheral things they do not wish to perceive, and are more attuned to what they expect or wish to see, but I'm not aware of any cases where someone of sound mind just outright failed to perceive something blatant and obvious because of bias. The only cases I know of where someone totally failed to perceive something blatant involve mental or neurological illness.

It's important to differentiate between perception and interpretation. The person in your example may not interpret his visual perception as a red car, but he does see it, and if he correctly described what he saw, a person who was not against the red car concept would recognize it. Similarly, if you drove that car in front of some tribesman who had no concept of cars at all, he wouldn't interpret it to be a red car, but he would see it properly, and if he drew a picture, it would look like a red car to someone who recognized it. It is the perception itself that is foundational, not the interpretation.

Similarly, lots of recent studies have shown that if someone expects to see something (say, a movie) and you cut it out for a minute (or turn the room dark) the portion of their brain that "sees" will remain active - they are still seeing the movie. The brain doesn't work quite as simply as you might expect.

If that were true, wouldn't I continue typing right through unexpected power outages without noticing anything? I understand the point you are bringing up (that perception is not perfect, nor is it uncontaminated by bias) and it's valid, but perception doesn't have to be perfect to be foundational. It only has to be reliable; correct much more often than not. With regard to the belief system, that means that one sometimes needs other sources of information to confirm perception, such as other people's perceptions or experimental evidence, but this is entirely reasonable.

I'll note that this doesn't follow. You cannot reason from is to ought. But, then again, it doesn't need to follow - it can be accepted on faith, or "assumed", just like the other assumptions you've made.

Sure it follows. If I believe others to have personal experiences equivalent to my own, I have to consider that when I evaluate the consequences of my decisions. If I ignored the feelings of others, I would be making decisions without considering all the implications, which is a poor and inaccurate decision-making process.

Everything you're saying makes sense, Mitrovarr. Except this: if you're willing to grant that you make assumptions, why not allow others to make different assumptions? You claim to have one goal, to "avoid skepticism and maintain a belief in the outside world". But you're not being honest (with yourself) here, because if that were your only goal, you wouldn't object to unnecessary assumptions. After all, if those unnecessary assumptions don't hamper your goal, why would you object to them?

So, actually, you have an additional goal: the avoidance of unnecessary assumptions. Of course, from the perspective of the believe, they're not unnecessary at all. The inclusion of intuition might help them in their goal of "formulating the best possible explanation of the world" or of "being happy". Why must your goal be everyone's goal?


Surely you see what an unmitigated disaster it would be if anyone could assume anything that made them happy to be true? Ethics and knowledge would be utterly destroyed; you could believe anything you wanted, and rationalize anything you wanted. Want to be a serial killer? All you have to do is assume that being a serial killer is good, and you can pull out that machete, confident that you are a good person acting in the interests of humanity. It's true that this sort of relativism puts religion and science on an equal footing, but it also puts hacking up orphans for fun on an equal footing. This is a purely pragmatic reason, of course, but an important one.

The goal of avoiding unnecessary assumptions is not so much an additional goal, it's a consequence of the goal of avoiding skepticism. If anything can be assumed with equal validity, then you can change the truth-value of anything in your belief system simply by modifying your assumptions, which renders the system useless and allows skepticism to win.

The necessary assumptions are safe because they are assumptions necessary for the existence of any accurate belief system; either they are true and my system is valid, or they are false and no system is valid. Unnecessary assumptions do not work that way; you can't assume religion because you can have a valid belief system in a world where religion doesn't exist.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:48 PM on March 20, 2005


gd779: The pragmatists say to me that a belief is true if it is useful, and to them I respond that religion is often useful, and therefore it can't be categorically condemned.

I see a big problem in that you assume that "usefulness" in the pragmatist sense of the term equates to your version of usefulness.

Kirk: one of us, quite clearly, doesn't understand pragmatism. Pragmatism, as I understand it...

Which I think is the basic problem. You don't understand it.

...is a wholesale rejection of the constant search for perfect theoretical truth, so when you say that "In pragmatism, what works is a theory that gets you as close as you can to the truth", I can't make heads or tails of it.

I don't see a contradiction between these two. The notion that we can reach a "perfect theoretical truth" has taken a pretty huge beating over the last two centuries. My personal conviction is that "perfect theoretical truth" is unworkable for many of the reasons that have been discussed in this thread: it is based on unprovable axioms, there is no inherent warrant for generalizing from experience, and Godel's proof that you can't construct a system in which "perfect theoretical truth" is possible.

However, that does not mean that all theories are equal, so a large chunk of pragmatism is about trying to construct a middle ground between "nothing is true" and "everything is equally true." That middle ground seems to me to be a very common-sense claim. We say, "to the best of our knowledge, this is true because..." and we list the evidence or logic that provides the warrant for that claim.

Does the fact that perfection is impossible mean that we shouldn't come as close as we can? Would it be a good world if doctors accepted a 50% error rate rather than striving for 5%, 1% or even 0.01%?

So all I can say is this: Adopting your vision of pragmatism doesn't seem particularly useful for me. So, if we are to judge ideas by their consequences (or "cash-value", as James suggested so long ago) then your conception of pragmatism is false. At least for me.

How so? In what way does recognizing that pragmatists were driven by a desire to get as close as possible to the truth have negative consequences? I can see how for you that confusing pragmatism with its cousin, radical constructivism, makes for a good Nemesis in this argument. But I'm thinking that there are philosophies and philosophers that better match your argument than pragmatism.

It is interesting that you brought up Will to Believe because in it, James goes to great lengths to characterize pragmatism in much the way I have described it. :
It will be observed that for the purposes of this discussion we are on 'dogmatic' ground,--ground, I mean, which leaves systematic philosophical scepticism altogether out of account. The postulate that there is truth, and that it is the destiny of our minds to attain it, we are deliberately resolving to make, thongh the sceptic will not make it. We part company with him, therefore, absolutely, at this point. But the faith that truth exists, and that our minds can find it, may be held in two ways. We may talk of the empiricist way and of the absolutist way of believing in truth....

We slouchy modern thinkers dislike to talk in Latin,--indeed, we dislike to talk in set terms at all; but at bottom our own state of mind is very much like this whenever we uncritically abandon ourselves: You believe in objective evidence, and I do. Of some things we feel that we are certain: we know, and we know that we do know....

But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think....

But in our dealings with objective nature we obviously are recorders, not makers, of the truth...
Before he even gets to his Will to Believe he makes the following epistemological claims:
1: There is an objective truth.
2: It may not be possible to get objective knowlege of it.
3: We can still get "an ever better position" towards truth.

Bottom line, James does not say what you claim he says.

In addition, there are a large number of caveats rolled into his Will to Believe. To start with, it only applies to a subset of all possible claims (defined at the start of the essay) and to those cases where avoiding making a commitment to a belief means doing something that is less than moral in the real world. We are not obligated to believe religions that we find to be "dead" or absurd.

If you actually read Will to Believe basically he just poses something which is the flip side of Huxley's Agnosticism. Both Huxley and James take a fundamentally agnostic position, but while Huxley proposes the development of alternative moral frameworks that don't depend on god, James suggests just sticking with the faith that is most appealing to you.
If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him.
Oh, and Kirk, when making arguments about what pragmatists can and cannot believe, remember that the title of James' essay was "The Will to Believe". There's a reason for that.

Oh, I'm not arguing that pragmatist can or cannot believe anything. What I'm pointing out is that key pragmatists such as Dewey, James and Pierce explicitly rejected the "wholesale rejection of the constant search for perfect theoretical truth." Certainly there are philosophers who advocate radical skepticism and relativism, but they've tended to be second cousins to the pragmatist tradition.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:49 PM on March 20, 2005


eustacescrubb: I think what I don't/didn't understand is your argument - I took you to be advocating the point of view you're arguing against in the above quote- that is, you seemed to be arguing for "repeatable in erveryday life" to be the definition of "what works" and I was trying to argue that "repeatable in everyday life" wouldn't work as an epistemology all by itself, because of how narrowly it defines "works".

That makes sense. I would argue that repitition is the key to most knowledge, because there is very little that we can say that is useful about unique events beyond commenting on their uniqueness.

Mitrovarr: It's important to differentiate between perception and interpretation. The person in your example may not interpret his visual perception as a red car, but he does see it, and if he correctly described what he saw, a person who was not against the red car concept would recognize it. Similarly, if you drove that car in front of some tribesman who had no concept of cars at all, he wouldn't interpret it to be a red car, but he would see it properly, and if he drew a picture, it would look like a red car to someone who recognized it. It is the perception itself that is foundational, not the interpretation.

I hate to say it, but the situation is quite a bit more complex, and Douglas Adams was not far off when he proposed his "Somebody Else's Problem" field. Perception and attention are also cognitive and can be strongly biased.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:59 PM on March 20, 2005


You know, I've heard that before, and it's taken as a given, but I'm not entirely sure I believe it.

That perceptions are affected by beliefs and expectations is pretty well documented in current neurological studies (I mean, just see oliver sacks or temple grandin, for examples). That does not mean that on reflection they continue to filter things, or that we can't actively work to expand our awareness, though. The point is just that our second level minds can get in the way of or complicate our immediate sensory perceptions.

I don't know why gd779 thinks this supports religious beliefs etc, as it seems to me rather to support the idea that we have to maintain quite high standards of consistency and explanation to accept incoming data... even our most reliable & intersubjective sources are sometimes corrupted by interests and expectations; the more subjective sources only more so.
posted by mdn at 8:10 PM on March 20, 2005


Kirk: I do not think the word "truth" means what you think it means, in the context of James' pragmatism.

The first thing you have to realize is that pragmatists, consistent with their philosophy, do not put a particular premium on clear and coherent theory. As a result, a lot of the things they say will contradict something they said earlier, and thus there is ambiguity in much of their writing. However, in his "A History of Western Philosophy", Russell summarized James' view of truth as the idea that something is true when it's effect is good. According to James, “truth happens to an idea; it is made true by events.... it is only after we have decided that the effects of a belief are good that we have a right to call it ‘true.’”

James, in other words, does not hold to the correspondence theory of truth. As such, operating within James' philosophy, there is no possible way to get "closer to truth" in the sense you are using the word truth. You only get closer to truth, in James' pragmatism, when changing your beliefs gives you something you want more.

Within James' pragmatism, it might be the case (if you can imagine a view from nowhere) that George Bush is the President of the United States. But if it is more useful, for you, to believe that Bush is not the President of the United States, then (within James' framework) the proposition that Bush is the President is false. Russell put it like this: “it might happen [in James' pragmatism] that ‘A exists’ is true although in fact A does not exist.”

Furthermore, Russell summarized the pragmatic view of truth as requiring two bits of knowledge: 1) What is good and 2) What the effects of potential beliefs will be. Notice that pragmatism can't possibly tell you what is good. Therefore, your idea that you can define "usefulness" in such a way that it excludes my idea of usefulness is untenable.
posted by gd779 at 8:27 PM on March 20, 2005


I will also point out that, since many pragmatists disagreed with one another about what pragmatism "is", trying to find the One True Theory is kind of silly. But you're the one asserting that my interpretation is naive and unacceptable, so I persist.
posted by gd779 at 8:42 PM on March 20, 2005


It's important to differentiate between perception and interpretation.

How would you go about it?
posted by semmi at 10:05 PM on March 20, 2005


Perception is raw sensory data, prior to mental interpretation. Your visual perception is a picture, your aural perception would be a sound file, your olfactory perception would be a sensation, etc. Interpretation is processed data. The interpreted data allows you to see things like cars, hear voices, and smell coffee. Sensory information is interesting and unique in that it is a combination of perceptual and interpreted data, although one can tune out one or the other, to a degree.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:38 PM on March 20, 2005


Mitrovarr: What you're saying does not tell me how you differentiate between one and the other. Whatever you perceive is filtered (interpreted) by you.
posted by semmi at 11:06 PM on March 20, 2005


gd779: Well, it should be noted that Russell was not an unbiased historian, and had a definite agenda in regards to his competition. Some of his criticisms are well-grounded. For example, I agree that James' The Will to Believe is extremely problematic because he explicitly makes an exceptional case for religious belief. However, if he cuts out the entire notion of experience from James and Dewey's pragmatism, that is quite troubling and not a fair summary. In fact, one of the key differences between American semiotics and European semiotics (with the exception of Eco) is the inclusion of the "object" in the theory of a sign.

But let's take a look from the horse's mouth:
This notion of a reality independent of either of us, taken from ordinary social experience, lies at the base of the pragmatist definition of truth. With some such reality any statement, in order to be counted true, must agree. Pragmatism defines 'agreeing' to mean certain ways of 'working,' be they actual or potential.
Truth is defined in relationship to experience. I know that there is a coffee cup on my desk because I can pick it up, move it, put it in the dishwasher, and fill it up again tomorrow morning.

"Good" within pragmatism relates to how a belief enables us to interact with an extrenal reality. Your hypothetical person who believes that George Bush is not the President of the United States would have a somewhat difficult time interacting with his political environment. The foundation of pragmatist epistemology is experience. Something cannot be held to be true if it contradicts the way we experience the world. "There is a coffee cup on my desk," is true if I can experience that object as a cup that holds coffee. "Pennicillin kill bacteria," is true if we can experience it killing bacteria in a petri dish or reducing the symptoms of disease. (In a classic example of one of Dewey's few metaphysical claims, this is becoming less and less true as time goes on.) "George Bush is President of the United States" is true if we can experience him fulfilling the duties of his office. (Either directly or vicariously through news media.) In fact, James specifically dismissed claims that pragmatism had no relationship to an external reality.

James invokes "Will" only in those cases where experience is not sufficient to provide an answer. So expanding the The Will to Believe from an argument regarding a case where James claims strong agnosticism to a case where such doubts are not justified seems to be misreading his argument.

Now there is something there when Russell makes the criticism that pragmatists is an indicator of truth rather than a defining characteristic of truth I'll have to think about that more. On the other hand, I think the gaps between Russell and the pragmatists are as much cultural as philosophical. Dewey, James and Pierce came out of experimental science, while Russell came from mathematics. I've argued elsewhere that science and math have at their heart, mutually irreconcilable ideas about truth.

I will also point out that, since many pragmatists disagreed with one another about what pragmatism "is", trying to find the One True Theory is kind of silly. But you're the one asserting that my interpretation is naive and unacceptable, so I persist.

Well, there are disagreements and there are disagreements. James and Pierce were practicing empiricists. James is the grandfather of Radical Behaviorism, which insisted that all claims about human cognition be phrased in the form of strictly defined and measurable environmental factors and behaviors, although I suspect that James would have some issues with Skinner taking it a bit too far. Dewey also made experience the central feature of his definition of pragmatism. While there were differences of opinion in regards to application, all three were pretty clear about the importance of a relatively stable external reality in shaping what we see as truth, and the fact that our petite truths must be regularly tested against an external reality.

So by all means, your interpretation is still unacceptable, but given that you have ignored the documentary evidence presented so far, I'm no longer convinced about "naive."

The Will to Believe is really problematic on a number of levels. It pretty much explicitly dismisses your claims (next time you cite a work, it would probably be a good idea to check it first). It just goes to show that James was not always consistent. But then again, I'm not one to throw out the Declaration of Independence because one of its authors owned slaves.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:43 PM on March 20, 2005


Duh, I also just realized after it soaked in a bit.

James also does not make the claim that a belief in god is "true". Basically what he presents is another form of Pascal's Wager, (actually, Buddha's Wager in this case.) Your belief in god may or may not be true. However, if believing feels better than doubting, by all means believe.

And again, he sets up the caveat that one should believe, only if there is not contrary evidence.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:51 PM on March 20, 2005


given that you have ignored the documentary evidence presented so far, I'm no longer convinced about "naive."

Yeah, okay, that's it. You've been unnecessarily abrasive at several points in this thread, but that's just you (whenever you're dealing with religion, which seems to be a sensitive subject for you) and I let it slide until now. But now you're just embarrassing yourself. Russell was hardly alone in his assessment of James' position (indeed, I would go so far as to say that your reading of James is in the minority, but I could be wrong). The point is, whatever you might think of Russell's history, it is at least a well respected enough source that you cannot claim that I am "ignoring the evidence" by relying on it.

Add that on top of your previous abrasive and uncharitable remarks, and it seems you've once again dropped to pointless attacks that ignore the substance of the matter. I think it's time to end this conversation.
posted by gd779 at 12:44 AM on March 21, 2005


gd779: Yeah, okay, that's it. You've been unnecessarily abrasive at several points in this thread, but that's just you (whenever you're dealing with religion, which seems to be a sensitive subject for you) and I let it slide until now.

Well, in which case, I must extend an honest apology. I find it frustrating when I do the leg-work of researching what the primary sources have actually said rather than relying on criticism and commentary, only to have that effort ignored.

But now you're just embarrassing yourself. Russell was hardly alone in his assessment of James' position (indeed, I would go so far as to say that your reading of James is in the minority, but I could be wrong).

Well, given how James died in 1911 and most of his works are now in the public domain, it should be a simple matter to provide some evidence from primary sources to back up your claims. If I am misreading James, or not addressing the entire scope of his work, it should be a trivial matter to discover the passages that show otherwise.

James did respond to Russell on the points you raise:
Mr. Russell speaks of our statement as
an 'attempt to get rid of fact' and naturally enough considers it 'a failure' (p. 410). 'The old notion of truth reappears,' he adds-- that notion being, of course, that when a belief is true, its object does exist.

It is, of course, BOUND to exist, on sound pragmatic principles. Concepts signify consequences. How is the world made different for me by my conceiving an opinion of mine under the concept 'true'? First, an object must be findable there (or sure signs of such an object must be found) which shall agree with the opinion. Second,
such an opinion must not be contradicted by anything else I am aware of. But in spite of the obvious pragmatist requirement that when I have said truly that something exists, it SHALL exist, the slander which Mr. Russell repeats has gained the widest currency.
So the problem that Russell glossed over the empirical aspects of pragmatist was noticed quite early.

It might also be nice to quote James' definition to truth:
The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE, AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That
is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that therefore is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known as.
And in regards to The Will to Believe and religion he specifically states:
I had supposed it to be matter of common observation that, of two competing views of the universe which in all other respects are equal, but of which the first denies some vital human need while the second satisfies it, the second will be favored by sane men for the simple reason that it makes the world seem more rational.
This supports my reading of The Will to Believe in that he is making a special case for religious faith vs. agnosticism by assuming they are equal, "in all other respects."

(all quotes from The Meaning of Truth available from project Gutenberg).

Of course, it is possible that my reading of James is in the minority. I seem to be one of the few people who actually read James, warts and all, which makes me a minority in a minority. I would argue that a large chunk of the problem is that more people have read Russell's critique of James rather than James.

The point is, whatever you might think of Russell's history, it is at least a well respected enough source that you cannot claim that I am "ignoring the evidence" by relying on it.

I think that Russell is a great source, for understanding Russell. On the other hand, I'm a big fan of primary sources, and I've spent a fair quantity of time in research on this thread digging into both the primary sources and criticisms involved, and abstracting from those sources here. Thus far, you have failed to address the evidence provided in this thread, nor have you provided evidence for an alternative reading from primary sources.

Now my frustration at having spent large quantities of my time researching, interpreting, and presenting primary works in the face of your own uncharitable marks only to meet with a refusal to address said evidence, does not excuse my own churlishness. For which, I apologize. In the future, I'll just provide the evidence and let it be read by those interested.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:17 AM on March 21, 2005


Well, I will take your apology at face value, though I must say that I still detect a very weird air of combativeness in your last remark.

I find it frustrating when I do the leg-work of researching what the primary sources have actually said rather than relying on criticism and commentary, only to have that effort ignored.

This is the heart of our disagreement.

This is, in fact, a very strange approach to philosophy. You appear to be more interested in history, actually, than in philosophy.

To take an example from outside pragmatism. Descartes is well known for starting modern philosophy on it's way - his arguments in the Meditations were brilliant. Amazing. Except for his argument for the existence of God - compared to the earlier writing, this argument is so sloppy, so contradictory, that it is generally ignored by modern philosophers, and many actually believe that it was written disingenuously to keep him out of trouble with the church.

Philosophy is not about what any given individual said. It's about what's right, what provably right. So it must be read with a critical eye, and with a background sense of the big picture. You seem to lack those two attributes, and you want to take any statement that might come close to supporting your worldview as support for the idea that that worldview is tenable.

You would be better off to look at the bigger picture, and realize that (in Posner's words):

"The core of pragmatism, if there is such a thing, is too variform to make pragmatism a single philosophy or philosophical school in a useful sense... To say that one is a pragmatist is to say little...

It is no surprise, therefore, that the pragmatists' stabs at defining truth -- truth is what is fated to be believed in the long run (Pierce), truth is what is good to believe (James), or truth is what survives in the competiton among ideas (Holmes) -- are riven by paradox. The pragmatist's real interest is not in truth at all but in belief justified by social need... Plainly we are dealing with an immensely diverse tradition rather than with a single, coherent school of thought."

Note that bit in the middle. The pragmatist attempt to define truth is frequently "riven by paradox", which is a nice way of saying that it is incoherent. This is not problematic in the pragmatist conception of truth. But it does explain why Russell's reading of James and your reading of James might both be right, why James might talk simultaneously of truth being only "cash value" and of truth being correspondence. The truth is that James pays lip service to both visions - the question is, which vision is coherent with his views as a whole. And I think the answer is plain, which is why (in my understanding) most people accept that, regardless of what his nominal rhetoric was, James did not accept a correspondence view of truth. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but that's my understanding, and in any event it underscores the importance of going beyond the primary sources. You cannot treat a pragmatist essay as if it were an inerrant Bible, which speaks with one voice and never contradicts itself. Contradiction is at the heart of pragmatic philosophy, for an incoherent doctrine is one that will be flexible; it will never lock you into an interpretation that is poorly adapted to your circumstances.

Indeed, your emphasis on a careful reading of the primary sources in order to develop a comprehensive view of pragmatism is - ironically enough - at odds with James' view of pragmatism. In an 1870 letter to Charles Renouvier, James wrote that he had discovered the seeds of his philosophy:

"My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will... Not in maxims, not in Anschauungen [contemplations], but in accumulated acts of thought lies salvation... Hitherto, when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into: now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power. [emphasis added]."

In a similar vein, Holmes said (speaking of the law, naturally) that "To rest upon a formula is a slumber that, prolonged, means death". You cannot extract from pragmatism a set of goals and rules which you then set in stone and treat as Pragmatism, forever and ever amen. Goals change. Purposes change. The conception of the good changes, and whether an individual pragmatist's rhetoric does or does not agree with that is beyond the point - changing desires are a part of reality, and it is only pragmatic to recognize reality, and to conform philosophy, moment-by-moment, to aid in achieving these ever-changing goals.
posted by gd779 at 8:49 AM on March 21, 2005


Sorry I'm so late to the party, but I did want to take up some of the Gödel-stuff which was kinda dropped earlier in the thread:
If we can know truths that can't be proven mechanically from axioms, then it appears obvious that our mind doesn't derive knowledge mechanically from axioms. It must, therefore, not work as a computer would work, or it must have some other source of knowledge.
If we can know1 truths that can't be proven mechanically from a particular set of axioms (and a particular set of rules of deduction), it means only that our mind does not derive knowledge mechanically from that particular set of axioms (and rules of deduction). It does not show that our mind is not a computer running mechanically from any set of axioms and rules of deduction.

Any statement can be proven, given an appropriate set of axioms and rules of deductions.

[1]I'll set aside for the sake of argument the difference between knowing something and being able to prove it.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:04 AM on March 21, 2005


Any statement can be proven, given an appropriate set of axioms and rules of deductions.

Yeah, but that's why Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem was so surprising to people. It allows you to "know" something within the system that you cannot prove. Knowledge doesn't come from recouse to a different set of axioms, it somes from within the system of axioms itself. It's kind of complicated, and I'm not a mathematician, so I won't try to explain it further, but I'm quite certain that Goedel's theorem answers your criticism.
posted by gd779 at 9:14 AM on March 21, 2005


Yeah, but that's why Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem was so surprising to people. It allows you to "know" something within the system that you cannot prove.

I really don't get what you're trying to say here at all. As far as I know (and I'm not a mathematician either, but I have done quite a bit of reading about the Incompleteness Theorem), it says only that given a sufficient set of axioms, there are statements which are true, but cannot be proven true. I've read nothing that suggests it's possible to "know" these statements are true without proving them.

But perhaps I should be reading more philosophy, and less math. Of course, if philosophers want to say that it is possible to "know" things without being able to prove them, they can, but that doesn't really have anything to do with Gödel--I suspect philosophers said things like that centuries before Gödel came along.

but I'm quite certain that Goedel's theorem answers your criticism.

Well, perhaps you being "quite certain" is enough for you to "know" that Gödel's theorem answers the criticism, but your certainty is not enough for me to "know" that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:59 AM on March 21, 2005


gd779: This is, in fact, a very strange approach to philosophy. You appear to be more interested in history, actually, than in philosophy.

Perhaps so. A lot of this discussion has been driven by historical questions rather than philosophical questions. You state that James claims X, however textual evidence suggests that James really claims Y. This is a question of history.

Philosophy is not about what any given individual said. It's about what's right, what provably right. So it must be read with a critical eye, and with a background sense of the big picture. You seem to lack those two attributes, and you want to take any statement that might come close to supporting your worldview as support for the idea that that worldview is tenable.

I think the problem is that it is difficult to make a defense of pragmatism if we can't agree or the basic terms of debate. My position is that pragmatist epistemology, in which we claim provisional truth that is constantly tested by experience, is an entirely valid epistemology.

So far, you have not argued much about that claim, instead, you have argued against a series of completely different claims about what you think pragmatism really is, while ignoring primary texts.

"It is no surprise, therefore, that the pragmatists' stabs at defining truth -- truth is what is fated to be believed in the long run (Pierce), truth is what is good to believe (James), or truth is what survives in the competiton among ideas (Holmes) -- are riven by paradox. The pragmatist's real interest is not in truth at all but in belief justified by social need... Plainly we are dealing with an immensely diverse tradition rather than with a single, coherent school of thought.

Well, I'm not familar enough with Holmes, but these characterizations of pragmatism are incomplete and miss the mark.

Pirece's pragmatic statement avoided any such thing as fate. His statement of pragmatism was simply that concepts must be defined entirely by their practical implications. There is a coffee cup on my desk. There are a number of functions around which we can define a coffee cup: it holds coffee, it can be held in one hand, it is well-insulated, it has a handle.

James' pragmatism is "radical empiricsm". "Good to believe" is defined in relationship to experience. I am justified in believing that there is a coffee cup on my desk because that claim is "workable" in relation to an external reality. I can take the coffee cup into the kitchen, refill it, bring it back and take a sip. The belief that George Bush is not acting PoUS is not "workable" in relation to an external reality, therefore we can't call in "good."

So, setting aside the he said/he said argument, in what ways is this view of "truth" as accountable to an external reality problematic?

The pragmatist attempt to define truth is frequently "riven by paradox", which is a nice way of saying that it is incoherent. This is not problematic in the pragmatist conception of truth. But it does explain why Russell's reading of James and your reading of James might both be right, why James might talk simultaneously of truth being only "cash value" and of truth being correspondence. The truth is that James pays lip service to both visions - the question is, which vision is coherent with his views as a whole. And I think the answer is plain, which is why (in my understanding) most people accept that, regardless of what his nominal rhetoric was, James did not accept a correspondence view of truth.

I think the theme is repeated too many times to be "nominal" rhetoric. But I would agree that pragmatic truth is not a naive correspondence theory of truth. I think there are some very good reasons why a naive correspondence theory of truth should be treated with skepticism. To paraphrase Bohr, I think that one of the few things we can conclude about knowledge following the 20th century is "the map is not the territory." Pragmatic truth may approximate an unknown external truth, but it should always be treated with a reasonable degree of skepticism.

So you want to talk theory, here it is in a nutshell. We experience the world. We construct generalizations about the world. How do we evaluate which generalizations are more likely to be true and which generalizations are more likely to be false? We engage in more experience. A generalization is "workable" if it matches our experince. A bonus is that we modify the world through our experience, and true generalizations help us to do so better than before.

That's it in a nutshell. A slightly looser variation of the scientific method.

I think that the primary criticisms of pragmatism comes from the fact that it advocates that in cases where there is no clear answer to just believe something and move forward. Eddington was justified in believing Einstein in spite of a lack of evidence for Special Relativity. This belief drove him to a hazardous mission to confirm the theory. The Michelson-Morley experiment is an example of the other case, their hypothesis was shown to be false, therefore they had to reject their earlier beliefs.

If you want to talk about theory, in what ways do you see that an epistemology that grounds generalizations on experience and tests generalizations against more experience to be problematic?

You cannot treat a pragmatist essay as if it were an inerrant Bible, which speaks with one voice and never contradicts itself. Contradiction is at the heart of pragmatic philosophy, for an incoherent doctrine is one that will be flexible; it will never lock you into an interpretation that is poorly adapted to your circumstances.

The thing is, I'm not treating pragmatism as if it were an inerrant Bible. The pragmatists made some pretty big gaffes in their philosophy. However, and perhaps this is just my bias as a researcher, I don't see that any of the competing epistemologies are less problematic. Pragmatism is I would argue the best compromise we have to date, so much the case that it seems to have been reinvented in the form of situated cognition.

There are perhaps three different arguments going on here:
1: What criteria did James claim as necessary in determining truth? This is a historic argument in which primary sources matter, and you have failed to make the case for your interpretation of James.
2: What are the foundations of pragmatism as a whole? My argument is that the common theme among the early pragmatists is that pragmatism is an emprical epistemology in which claims are grounded in a relatively stable and objective experience.

How do we know when an interpretation is poorly adapted to circumstance? When it no longer matches with our experiences.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:01 AM on March 21, 2005


Ok, if we want to talk about theory, here is pragmatism (as I see it) summarized in four statements:
1) knowledge is an inference constructed from experience, therefore...
2) knowledge is subjective, but...
3) subjective knowledge must be constantly tested against experience, and...
4) in the absence of experience, make an assumption and get experienced. ;)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:14 AM on March 21, 2005


y2karl, I did apologize long before you got here, although perhaps not explicitly enough for you.

But thanks for being a sancitmonious asshole, anyway.
posted by casu marzu at 10:40 AM on March 21, 2005


My position is that pragmatist epistemology, in which we claim provisional truth that is constantly tested by experience, is an entirely valid epistemology.

Okay, see, this is an empiricist epistemology. You have to put in quite a lot more before it becomes pragmatist. Which I think is what you're trying to do here...

I think that the primary criticisms of pragmatism comes from the fact that it advocates that in cases where there is no clear answer to just believe something and move forward.

The trouble is that, as Quine demonstrated, there are never any clear answers. Any belief that is not incoherent can be squared with the test of experience. Any belief. (Provided that you're willing to make sufficient adjustments to the rest of your web of beliefs). So pragmatism is not some narrow exception to empiricism, as you seem to believe it is. If pragmatism is anything, then it is everything. Beliefs are, with only mild exaggeration, wholly indeterminate.

This is what James meant in Pragmatism, when he said "Sometimes alternative theoretic formulas are equally compatible with all the truths we know, and then we choose between them for subjective reasons. We choose the kind of theory to which we are already partial".

There are perhaps three different arguments going on here.

You only listed two arguments, by the by.

Anyway, the debate about the specifics of James' pragmatism was a side-show - it was intended to make a point about what pragmatism "is". It is, therefore, not terribly interesting. Still...

I think the theme is repeated too many times to be "nominal" rhetoric.

How many times it was repeated doesn't matter. What matters is how useful it was for James. Remember that James was a professor at Harvard, and academic acceptance was his stock-in-trade. If comparing pragmatism to more widely accepted epistemologies made it more palatable and easier to defend, then he would have proclaimed incoherent statements like that from the rooftops. Which, basically, he did. That doesn't make it more than mere rhetoric, any more than Bush's repeated insistence that we invaded Iraq to free the Iraqi people makes that the real reason for the war. Now James isn't being disingenuous, because he warned us in advance that he was determining the "truth" of statements (including his own) by their instrumental value. In Pragmatism, he calls truth "what it would be better to believe" and, earlier, "an idea is 'true' so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives".

Which is why he made statements like this, in The Meaning of Truth: "To give the theory plenty of 'rope' and see if it hangs itself eventually is better tactics than to choke it off at the outset by abstract accusations of self-contradiction."

This, it seems to me, is a tacit ackowledgement of his own incoherence. But James didn't care about incoherence, because what matters is not theoretical truth, but instrumental utility.

Since I don't believe that James was consistent in his rhetoric, I'm not particularly interested in delving further into his writings. I'll just conclude with this, again from The Meaning of Truth:

"Owing to the fact that all experience is a process, no point of view can ever be the last one." This includes, one presumes, points of view on the meaning of James' philosophy.

My argument is that the common theme among the early pragmatists is that pragmatism is an emprical epistemology in which claims are grounded in a relatively stable and objective experience.

I don't disagree with that. I just think it's demonstrably wrong, and that the early pragmatists were being (sometimes by their own admission) incoherent. That is, therefore, not the foundation of pragmatism, if such a thing can even be said to exist (which, I maintain, it cannot). The only thing the pragmatists have in common, and the only thing that is usually foundational to their philosophies, is a rejection of the theory (correspondence) view of truth in favor of an assessment of the consequences of belief. So long as you are holding to the correspondence theory of truth, you are simply being a sloppy empiricist. It is only when you reject that view entirely and begin to consider truth in terms of utility that you become a pragmatist.

That is Posner's view, at least, and Posner is a contemporary pragmatist.

Well, perhaps you being "quite certain" is enough for you to "know" that Gödel's theorem answers the criticism, but your certainty is not enough for me to "know" that.

Well, look, the argument was Goedel's, not mine. You may think you understand the implications of his theorem better than he did, but I doubt that's the case. But, like I said, I'm not a mathematician, so I'm not really qualified to comment further. It is entirely possible that I'm wrong, after all.
posted by gd779 at 10:50 AM on March 21, 2005


KJS: Thanks for the Bohr paraphrase, "the map is not the territory." Lovely.
posted by semmi at 11:05 AM on March 21, 2005


That is Posner's view, at least, and Posner is a contemporary pragmatist.

Whoops, bad editing. I didn't mean to attribute to Posner a rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. (Posner is simply unconcerned with that kind of large theoretical question - he refuses to even ask the question). Instead, I meant to attribute to Posner the view that pragmatism is a diverse philosophy whose only commonality is an emphasis on practical solutions rather than on theoretical truth.
posted by gd779 at 11:16 AM on March 21, 2005


DevilsAdvocate: I've read nothing that suggests it's possible to "know" these statements are true without proving them.

It is possible because Goedel effectively expressed the true statement "this statement is not provable" with just the axioms he was interested in. We "know" that that statement is true within the universe defined by those axioms. However, the statement cannot be deduced from those same axioms.
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:23 AM on March 21, 2005


gd775: Okay, see, this is an empiricist epistemology. You have to put in quite a lot more before it becomes pragmatist. Which I think is what you're trying to do here...

Given that my claim is that pragmatism is, at its base, empirical, I don't see how that is a problem.

The trouble is that, as Quine demonstrated, there are never any clear answers. Any belief that is not incoherent can be squared with the test of experience. Any belief. (Provided that you're willing to make sufficient adjustments to the rest of your web of beliefs).

Is that always the case? Is Lucy right in that snow falls up, Charlie Brown? Or is there something to be said for the idea that a bit of experimentation and observation would be sufficient to show that snow falls down rather than up?

So pragmatism is not some narrow exception to empiricism, as you seem to believe it is. If pragmatism is anything, then it is everything. Beliefs are, with only mild exaggeration, wholly indeterminate.

A don't think that I'm making the claim that pragmatism is a narrow exception to empiricsm. Or do you mean, James' turn in regards to agnosticism.

This is what James meant in Pragmatism, when he said "Sometimes alternative theoretic formulas are equally compatible with all the truths we know, and then we choose between them for subjective reasons. We choose the kind of theory to which we are already partial".

Again, I don't see how this is incompatible with empiricsm. An agnostic would say, that in this case, the best option is to shrug your shoulders and say, "I don't know." In contrast, James says that in this case, the best option is to make a commitment and try it out. If you turn out to be wrong, there is no harm in changing your opinion later.

Or would you care to argue that a large chunk of 20th century science has been incoherent because people staked their careers on propositions for which they did not yet have evidence?

The only thing the pragmatists have in common, and the only thing that is usually foundational to their philosophies, is a rejection of the theory (correspondence) view of truth in favor of an assessment of the consequences of belief. So long as you are holding to the correspondence theory of truth, you are simply being a sloppy empiricist. It is only when you reject that view entirely and begin to consider truth in terms of utility that you become a pragmatist.

Except for the tricky fact that "utility" is defined in relationship to a relatively stable external reality. The notion that James and Dewey were just making a handwave at empiricism in order to please the audience, (they had strong career security and didn't particularly need to do so) is really facinating given that experience is pretty darn central to their theories.

How do we judge practicality? That which is field-tested through experience.

Whoops, bad editing. I didn't mean to attribute to Posner a rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. (Posner is simply unconcerned with that kind of large theoretical question - he refuses to even ask the question). Instead, I meant to attribute to Posner the view that pragmatism is a diverse philosophy whose only commonality is an emphasis on practical solutions rather than on theoretical truth.

Good clarification. Given that theoretical truth has taken some pretty hard knocks in the last two centuries, in what ways do you see this as a problem? I would argue that in many domains, "practical solutions" is the best we can expect.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:29 AM on March 21, 2005


Dammit. I missed it all. I'm never going to be able to read all the cited thinkers, but I appreciate the mind candy. Thanks.
posted by sciurus at 11:29 AM on March 21, 2005


"Sometimes alternative theoretic formulas are equally compatible with all the truths we know, and then we choose between them for subjective reasons. We choose the kind of theory to which we are already partial".

I'm still trying to see why this is a problem. For example, I'm working on a research project. This research is moderately risky in terms of my career, self-funded to a frustrating degree, and takes time away from what could be more profitable persuits. A large part of why I chose this particular project and thesis is based on a subjective hunch.

In what way is this a bad thing?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:39 AM on March 21, 2005


Given that my claim is that pragmatism is, at its base, empirical, I don't see how that is a problem.

Yeah, it's as I suspected. You're an empiricist who's trying to use the claims of pragmatism to ressurect empiricism. Which is fine, presumably you see that effort as useful to you, and therefore true. And, sadly, that is where all conversations with pragmatists must end - in a stalemate.

Or would you care to argue that a large chunk of 20th century science has been incoherent because people staked their careers on propositions for which they did not yet have evidence?

I am using the word "incoherent" to imply self-contradiction. To advance a theory that you can't prove is not incoherent. To advance two contradictory theories, simultaneously, is incoherent. To hold simultaneously to both the empiricist and the pragmatist conceptions of truth is incoherent. Which doesn't make it "false", in pragmatic terms, because having a contradictory belief structure may be useful for you (as I argued upthread).

Given that theoretical truth has taken some pretty hard knocks in the last two centuries, in what ways do you see this as a problem?

I don't see it as a problem. I'm an antifoundationalist. I don't identify myself as pragmatist mainly because I prefer to maintain some modicum of traditional theoretical truth, if only as a game to play.

In what way is this a bad thing?

It's only a bad thing if you're an empiricist, because it defeats the claim that empirical observation is capable of providing certain knowledge. If you're not an empiricist, and you define knowledge in other terms, than it is not a bad thing at all.
posted by gd779 at 11:45 AM on March 21, 2005


In other words, Kirk, you seem to want to have your cake and eat it too. You want to claim that empirical knowledge is the source of knowledge and knowledge is therefore objective. But when faced with the challenges to that point of view, you want to be able to say "hey, it's more useful to view life that way". But when faced with the challenge that useful things aren't always true, you want to be able to say that knowledge is empirical and therefore objective. You're slipping in and out of epistemologies as the circumstances warrant, which either makes you a very sloppy empiricist or a very good (if self-deceiving) pragmatist.
posted by gd779 at 11:48 AM on March 21, 2005


It is possible because Goedel effectively expressed the true statement "this statement is not provable" with just the axioms he was interested in. We "know" that that statement is true within the universe defined by those axioms.

But back to the original question, whether this demonstrates that the mind is not a computer, I still fail to see any proof here. You and I and Gödel may know that that statement is true, but that doesn't mean that we haven't mechanically deduced it from a set of axioms; only that if we have mechanically deduced it from a set of axioms, those axioms are not the axioms of standard mathematics.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:14 PM on March 21, 2005


gd779:I am using the word "incoherent" to imply self-contradiction. To advance a theory that you can't prove is not incoherent. To advance two contradictory theories, simultaneously, is incoherent. To hold simultaneously to both the empiricist and the pragmatist conceptions of truth is incoherent. Which doesn't make it "false", in pragmatic terms, because having a contradictory belief structure may be useful for you (as I argued upthread).

I think most of the contradiction tends to fall apart if "useful" is defined not as, "giving me what I want" but "enabling me to interact with an external universe." By necessity, this places quite a few constraints on what kinds of theories we can have and hold. The theory that snow falls up, becomes less useful than the theory that snow falls down.

In other words, Kirk, you seem to want to have your cake and eat it too. You want to claim that empirical knowledge is the source of knowledge and knowledge is therefore objective. But when faced with the challenges to that point of view, you want to be able to say "hey, it's more useful to view life that way". But when faced with the challenge that useful things aren't always true, you want to be able to say that knowledge is empirical and therefore objective. You're slipping in and out of epistemologies as the circumstances warrant, which either makes you a very sloppy empiricist or a very good (if self-deceiving) pragmatist.

Ohh, we have not gotten into what I want yet so it is probably not a good idea to go there yet. What I want is a theory of knowledge that is compatible what is obvious from psychology: knowledge has subjective and objective dimensions. (Or if you prefer, subjective and constrained dimensions.) It is doubtful that knowledge can be held to be objective by any sense of the phrase. At the same time, it is also obvious that our subjective interpretations of the world somehow manage to end up both reliable and valid. We all tend to agree that the sky is blue, and that water is wet. The only reason I can see for shared interpretations of the world rather than an infinity of individual universes of interpretation, is that knowledge is grounded in experience and answerable to experience.

Isn't it possible that knowledge can be subjective (or intersubjective) and still approximate an external reality? As an analogy, a painting is a subjective interpretation of an object (and in many cases, a painting with flaws can seem more "realistic" than a photograph) but we can still recognize the real subject of the painting.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:20 PM on March 21, 2005


To hold simultaneously to both the empiricist and the pragmatist conceptions of truth is incoherent.

what?
I have to agree with KJS that you have a very odd understanding of pragmatism... Pragmatism is basically to empiricism as Popper is to the positivists. It isn't non-empirical; it's simply flexible and rather than considering truth as "proven" or "absolute", it considers truth "what we currently take to be the case" through our best available sources, which are empirical experience and reason (small r, ie, organization, understanding, not mathematical a priori rationalist proofs). Dewey & Mead stress this all over the place.
posted by mdn at 12:28 PM on March 21, 2005


As an example, if I'm testing a software product, I can safely bet that all of the participants will, without prompting or prior information devolp very similar and overlapping theories of how that software product works.

How do you explain this? Their knowledge is certainly subjective, in that their individual interpretations will vary on prior histories, personality and mood. But yet, it will also have some degree of objectivity in that all of them will agree that the software product is a word processor and not an instant messaging ap, web browser, or database.

So far, the Deweyan notion that experience is both broad and deep, seems to be the best possible epistemology here. Experience is broad in that it includes individual inference and subjectivity, and deep in that it is rooted in a relatively stable phenomena.

mdn: I have to agree with KJS that you have a very odd understanding of pragmatism... Pragmatism is basically to empiricism as Popper is to the positivists. It isn't non-empirical; it's simply flexible and rather than considering truth as "proven" or "absolute", it considers truth "what we currently take to be the case" through our best available sources, which are empirical experience and reason (small r, ie, organization, understanding, not mathematical a priori rationalist proofs). Dewey & Mead stress this all over the place.

Bingo. Also, it should be noted that a central feature of pragmatism, especially in regards to Dewey is that it suggests that in most cases contradictions can be reconciled by a synthesis.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:38 PM on March 21, 2005


You and I and Gödel may know that that statement is true, but that doesn't mean that we haven't mechanically deduced it from a set of axioms; only that if we have mechanically deduced it from a set of axioms, those axioms are not the axioms of standard mathematics.

Well, that's not quite right. The proof is general enough to apply to any consistent sufficiently powerful axiomatic system. That includes any ad hoc axiomatic system we might use to see that the statement is true within the first set of axioms. Any attempt to "fully ground" a system of thought like this will fail.

Note that all of this only applies to consistent mathematical systems that can represent the natural numbers. Consistency is overrated, and the set of natural numbers is not known to be contained anywhere in our universe. The computer I'm typing on is not actually Turing-complete, it's only a finite-state machine. The relevance of Goedel to theories of actual human cognition is minimal. It only tells us that we won't get Human-Equivalent AI by sticking to formal systems of a particular type.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:51 PM on March 21, 2005


What I want is a theory of knowledge that is compatible what is obvious from psychology

But in order to know what is "obvious from psychology", you have to have a theory of knowledge. This is the infinite regress problem. The pragmatic answer is to just drop the whole line of inquiry and not worry about it.

That, by the way, is the difference between a postmodernist and a pragmatist. A postmodernist reads a book on epistemology and takes the ideas to their logical conclusion. A pragmatist reads a book on epistemology, sees where the arguments are heading, and stops reading.

Which brings me to...

Pragmatism... isn't non-empirical; it's simply flexible and rather than considering truth as "proven" or "absolute", it considers truth "what we currently take to be the case" through our best available sources, which are empirical experience and reason (small r, ie, organization, understanding, not mathematical a priori rationalist proofs). Dewey & Mead stress this all over the place.

To be clear, my argument isn't that pragmatism doesn't use empiricical experience, it's that it cannot be Empiricism (the formal philosophy).

It's true that Dewey and Mead and James and Holmes and all the rest make arguments like the one you're making. My point is that they also make other arguments, like "truth is whatever it is profitable to believe" or "there is no such thing as Truth at large". These arguments can't fit comfortably into empiricism and, further, they contradict the type of argument you're making (and that they also made).

But is that self-contradiction impremissible? My point has been that once you redefine truth in terms of utility, consistency is no longer a virtue. It therefore makes no sense to read the writings of a pragmatist in the same way you'd read Descartes. You can't assume that every statement is meant to be "true" in the non-pragmatist sense of the word. You can't just take them at their word, because they're going to say whatever is useful for them to say at the time, in relation to their goals and prejudices.

So if you want to know what is "true" about pragmatism, in the non-pragmatic sense of that term, you have to examine their statements critically and see what's tenable and coherent, and what's not. Saying "Dewey said X" doesn't say very much about anything, except that Dewey thought the consequences of saying X would be in line with his goals.
posted by gd779 at 1:04 PM on March 21, 2005


gd779: But in order to know what is "obvious from psychology", you have to have a theory of knowledge. This is the infinite regress problem. The pragmatic answer is to just drop the whole line of inquiry and not worry about it.

Not really, all you have to do have a knack for watching people. In the same way, you don't need to have a theory of animal behavior to state the obvious about dogs. It is only an infinite regress problem if you remove that whole "tested against real-world experience" demand.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:12 PM on March 21, 2005


Urban Hermit wrote: [Religion is] part of why we feel sad when someone dies, and part of why we don't. It's part of why we fear our death, and part of why we don't. It's why we lie awake at night sometimes and wonder what it's all for. Or maybe you don't.

Ah but:

part of why we feel sad when someone dies,


The simple egoism of missing them, for one thing.

and part of why we don't.

At least I'll stop complaining then!

It's part of why we fear our death,

Again, simple egoism; you don't need religion to fear "the Unknown" or to dread the finality of not being here anymore. (And why is it that those religions that claim expertise in making user-friendly "the world to come" are also the most likely to engage in mass killing?)

and part of why we don't.

At least I won't have so much to complain about!

It's why we lie awake at night sometimes and wonder what it's all for.

Again, simple egoism: "I'm such a bright fellow, I'm all philosophical and shit!"

"Or maybe you don't."

Well I do, or something very like that; instead of "what's it all for" I'm likelier to wonder "why do I bother?" The former question I've long ago answered with "shit happens"; the latter, with "I must be stupid as shit", again simple egoism as I wouldn't bother wondering such a thing if I weren't already very important to myself.

So I testify that religion is unnecessary. (At best.)

Now for my previous point: Unless people learn to differentiate between "idea" and "impression" and "belief" I don't see how we can take discussions like this seriously.
posted by davy at 1:15 PM on March 21, 2005


Not really, all you have to do have a knack for watching people. In the same way, you don't need to have a theory of animal behavior to state the obvious about dogs.

"If one identifies the correct foundation for theory as 'empirical verification', on what foundation has one identified this as the correct foundation? If it is on the basis of empirical verification, then the foundation merely assumes its own validity in a circular logic. But if it is based on some other foundation, then we may ask for the foundation of that foundation, and so on endlessly."

-- Beyond Postmodernism? Towards a Philosophy of Play.

And that brings us pretty much full circle in this thread, doesn't it?
posted by gd779 at 1:52 PM on March 21, 2005


In what way is this a bad thing?

Future will tell, in retrospect.
posted by semmi at 3:17 PM on March 21, 2005


"George Bush is President of the United States" is true if we can experience him fulfilling the duties of his office.

So... then... he's not President? I'm so confused...

I feel like pointing out that, so far as I can see from KirkJobSluder's and gd779's remarks, that gd779 seems to be more influenced by newer pragmatists (the late 20th century variety, post-Kuhn types like Rorty, Fish, et al) while KirkJobSluder seems to be more influenced in the older pragmatists, Dewey and James most especially. gd779 is reading the older pragmatists through the lens of the writings of the newer ones, while KirkJobSluder is arguing from a synthesis of the "classics", so to speak.
Kuhn's contribution is essential to understanidng this disagreement - pragmatism became something quite different from what it originally began as in the early 20th century - so it's like watching pragmatism argue with itself - young pragmatism and old pragmatism duking it out.

It's terribly interesting, and you're both making a lot of insightful points, though since I came into the conversation influenced by many of the same thinkers as gd779, I tend to favor his arguments.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:20 PM on March 21, 2005


That's probably a good point, eustacescrubb. I did read the newer writers first (I was especially influenced by Fish) and though it had never occurred to me before you brought it up, that probably did color my reading of the early pragmatists.
posted by gd779 at 5:45 PM on March 21, 2005


Oh boy. Religion devolves to philosophy - or vice versa - then auto-consumes.

Life marches on.

Who, here, joins the parade ?
posted by troutfishing at 10:52 PM on March 23, 2005


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