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Phillip Adams
August 2, 2005 7:17 AM   Subscribe

"I've never believed, for a moment, that atheists have all the answers. Just that they pose better questions." This attack (read the response), by the Australian Atheist society on Phillip Adams, is a good introduction to the Australian writer and broadcaster who presents probably the best, most thoughtful hour of radio on the planet. Now ABC National's "Late Night Live" is online, and podcast to the world. Give it a try, you absolutely don't have to be Australian to find it worthwhile.
posted by grahamwell (33 comments total)

 
Wonderful, simply wonderful. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.
posted by voltairemodern at 7:37 AM on August 2, 2005


This looks like the Odeo Page for Late Night Live.

And thanks for the link, I've been looking for something interesting to subscribe to.
posted by tweak at 7:39 AM on August 2, 2005


I concur: LNL is a good radio show. For one, his guests are not exclusive to Australia, giving it a wordly tone. Plenty of folks from the U.K., U.S., and elsewhere. One regular guest, an American, has a pretty good knack for summing up the latest brouhahas in politics. For two, he tends to let the guests say their piece without interruptions. For three, he and his producers have a knack for picking guests that aren't going to trot out the same tired cookie-cutter remarks and opinions. It does have the tendency, like most similar American radio shows, to be a bit heavy on guests who are promoting a book or project, but I think he makes up for it because he has so many pals, regular correspondents, and regular people he just flat out wants to talk with for 20 minutes.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:52 AM on August 2, 2005


Give it at least ten minutes. The initial music and presentation style is rather offputting, I zoned out when I first listened. After a while however you realise that this incredibly relaxed, grandfatherly voice is talking sense, real sense. He has the wonderful knack of getting very smart people together and letting them just say what's on their mind - then zeroing in with just the right question. It's very productive and very different from the aggressive style of interview fashionable in the UK. In the last two weeks he's covered some very off-beat but fascinating subjects, rural suicides in India, the state of American Feminism along with masterly coverage of bird flu and of course the bombings.

ABC Radio National is very good indeed. Check out The Night Air - I can't describe it but you have to listen.
posted by grahamwell at 7:56 AM on August 2, 2005


Credit to flabdablet btw for pointing it out to me in this AskMe thread.
posted by grahamwell at 8:05 AM on August 2, 2005


Wow, what is up with those guys? Could they be a bit more arrogant?

Admittedly, I didn't read the exchange too carefully, but it seems to me that both Adams and the atheists are just skeptics (of varied flavors). You would think they would get along much more readily.
posted by oddman at 8:07 AM on August 2, 2005


Many thanks
posted by kokogiak at 8:09 AM on August 2, 2005


The debate seems to center less on atheism, and more on epistemology. Quinn seems to be unaware that the kinds of a priori arguments have taken some pretty hard knocks in the 20th century.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:32 AM on August 2, 2005


The article on Feynman that is just below the atheist letters is worth the link all by itself. Good work!
posted by TedW at 8:43 AM on August 2, 2005


""I've never believed, for a moment, that atheists have all the answers. Just that they pose better questions."

Like Abraham Gordon in The Promise...
posted by weston at 9:02 AM on August 2, 2005


Admittedly, I didn't read the exchange too carefully, but it seems to me that both Adams and the atheists are just skeptics (of varied flavors). You would think they would get along much more readily.

The parenthetical statement is the most important part of that sentence. Their differences far outweigh their similarities.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:06 AM on August 2, 2005


The parenthetical statement is the most important part of that sentence. Their differences far outweigh their similarities.

I don't know so much about that, Russell points out that regardless of whether you believe in a soft agnostic-atheism or a hard gnostic-atheism, you end up at the same place. There is no reason to ground our morality, ethics, politics, aesthetics or criticism on the existence of god.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:12 AM on August 2, 2005


KirkJobSluder:

unaware that the kinds of a priori arguments have taken some pretty hard knocks in the 20th century.

Can you elaborate on this point?

There is no reason to ground our morality, ethics, politics, aesthetics or criticism on the existence of god.

There's no reason not to, either. That's why you don't "end up in the same place": The argument that there's no reason to ground all that stuff on the existence of god is the positive claim (basically, the claimn that the absence of a reason to ground things in god means we definitively shouldn't, which is a fallacy (not in the casual everyday usage sense, but in the more precise logical sense). But there's also the negative position, which is very different, saying basically that there's no reason to go one way or the other, which makes the whole question a matter of personal intuition.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 10:13 AM on August 2, 2005


VM. Correct me if this seems off to you (I said I only read it casually.)

Adams: There are truths, but humans shouldn't have any delusions of ever being able to figure them out.

The Atheist Society: There are no truths, so (of course) humans shouldn't have any delusions of ever being able to figure them out.

Sound about right? (More to follow once/if you correct this quick and dirty summation.)
posted by oddman at 10:16 AM on August 2, 2005


Thanks for the link. The Late Night Live podcasts are freely available through the iTunes music store. Don't you just love Apple? I hear they have a new mouse that will change the way we use computers as we know it?
posted by disgruntled at 10:18 AM on August 2, 2005


Russell was concerned with the epistemological committments and results of such beliefs--and he is correct in that respect--but epistemic concerns are not all we might have. Especially when considering the myriad ways religion impacts our lives, one's degree (and type) of skepticism is very important. For example, it clearly influenced Mr. Adams' dealings with both the religious fundamentalist he interviewed and the atheistic fundamentalist who wrote him.

There is no reason to ground our morality, ethics, politics, aesthetics or criticism on the existence of god.

We are in agreement. But the fact of the matter is that disbelief in god and belief that there is no god may result in two very divergent modes of conduct; the correspondence between Adams and the atheist demonstrates this in an interesting way.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:19 AM on August 2, 2005


Sorry, oddman, missed you on preview.

As for Adams' beliefs, the letter didn't give me enough material to answer your question as it stands. I couldn't tell you if he thinks that there are truths; however, if I had to guess, he would probably say that there might be truths, but humans aren't going to find them. (And if they do find them, they won't know that they have, at least not for sure.)

And the atheists' society likely has a much more positive outlook with respect to truth than you suggest; many atheists I know take the view that there are a good many truths, and science is the way to find them. (This has always struck me as being a sort of faith in science, but there you have it.) The way these atheists were enraged by the apparent contradictions in the presentation of the religious speaker leads me to guess that they probably do think there are some truths--that's why they are so angry when people "get it wrong".

In short, I agree somewhat with your characterization of Adams, but I could be wrong. And I disagree with your characterization of the atheists.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:29 AM on August 2, 2005


All-seeing: You're wrong in your charge of fallacy and on your burden of proof.
"The argument that there's no reason to ground all that stuff on the existence of god is the positive claim (basically, the claimn that the absence of a reason to ground things in god means we definitively shouldn't, which is a fallacy (not in the casual everyday usage sense, but in the more precise logical sense). But there's also the negative position, which is very different, saying basically that there's no reason to go one way or the other, which makes the whole question a matter of personal intuition."
The argument that there IS a reason to ground all of ethics/morality on the existence of God is the positive claim. Further, without a reason to claim the roots in God, the argument that we shouldn't is better encapsulated as: "We shouldn't base morality and ethics on the existence of God, because if we do, there will be no way to trust the conclusions drawn." While you can get the correct answer from flawed premises, the correct answer is always better presented by relying on correct premises.

I found the Atheist society to be obnoxious in the highest form, both because of their arrogance and their reliance on semantic quibblry to cement their argument.
posted by klangklangston at 10:38 AM on August 2, 2005


The argument that there IS a reason to ground all of ethics/morality on the existence of God is the positive claim.

Agreed: it's a positive claim.

But I'm talking about the positive atheist claim.

All positions potentially have positive and negative cases.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 10:51 AM on August 2, 2005


i still stand by my point, but on review, the point i'm trying to make is way too finicky for a general interest forum like this. sorry for the derail.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 10:53 AM on August 2, 2005


all-seing eye dog: Can you elaborate on this point?

Two names, Godel and Poincare.

The first pointed out that it's impossible to construct a complete and consistant system using a priori reasoning to answer all questions.

The second pointed out that even with the existence of such a system, that many real world problems require messy infinties. (A choice between infinitely small increments or infinitely large number of possible solutions.)

The argument that there's no reason to ground all that stuff on the existence of god is the positive claim (basically, the claimn that the absence of a reason to ground things in god means we definitively shouldn't, which is a fallacy (not in the casual everyday usage sense, but in the more precise logical sense).

Pardon me if I'm not exactily clear on the logic involved here. I can't say with 100% certainty that there is no tea cozy on Mars. And yet, I don't feel that there is a strong warrant to base my ethics, politics and aesthetics around Martian tea cozies.

vm: We are in agreement. But the fact of the matter is that disbelief in god and belief that there is no god may result in two very divergent modes of conduct; the correspondence between Adams and the atheist demonstrates this in an interesting way.

If the modes of conduct demonstrated by the exchange can be used as arguments against the underlying epistemology, then I must express more sympathy for Adams than Quinn. (Who seems reduced at the end to just calling Adams an "old woman.")

vm: And the atheists' society likely has a much more positive outlook with respect to truth than you suggest; many atheists I know take the view that there are a good many truths, and science is the way to find them.

The problem is that science can't claim big-T Truths, only qualified petite "truths." The best science can say is that materialism is a much better supported theory than supernaturalism, but that further evidence can upset the whole apple-cart.

In addition, Adams is correct in pointing out that theistic apologies are rather like a shell game. The one ontological argument against god in the exchange, (if god is infinite, he's the universe, and therefore not god) would be disputed by believers in a Spinoza-like god in which god is the universe, and indifferent to human concerns. Just as theists seem to be a century behind the times in debating science, atheists seem to be a century behind the times in debating philosophy.

My position as an atheist is that I just don't care about this week's redefinition, or reconceptualization of god. They are not worth my time to argue about.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:05 AM on August 2, 2005


An Atheism Society is a bit like a There-Is-No-Santa-Claus Society, no?
Seriously, who gives a fuck? Except the people who do, of course.
posted by signal at 11:13 AM on August 2, 2005


And yet, I don't feel that there is a strong warrant to base my ethics, politics and aesthetics around Martian tea cozies.

I agree--we don't have a dispute here. I was clarifying that there's a general difference between the positive and negative atheist positions. We don't have a dispute about how belief in god should factor into things (I promise).

Two names, Godel and Poincare.

The first pointed out that it's impossible to construct a complete and consistant system using a priori reasoning to answer all questions.


That's probably not what Godel thought he proved. There are some very strong arguments out there that he was trying to make a positive case for idealism. See the previous topic here for more on that.

Now: Can't we all just get along? ;)
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 11:16 AM on August 2, 2005


I love this correspondence, which seems to me between a genuine man of wisdom and the opinionated pseuds of the "current orthodoxy" which could be practically anything, Catholicism, Leninism but in this case is Atheism. How could anyone write "We are a small group of probably the finest intellectuals alive today. Certainly, we have not heard of anyone living whose thoughts approach the clarity, depth and power of our own." without a blush or second thought apparently, and then post the whole thing on the net? Amazing.

It gets better down the page, particularly Adam's piece "I think, therefore I haven't a clue", "Data isn't information. Information isn't knowledge. And knowledge isn't wisdom." . As you can tell, I'm a fan. Do check out the radio programme.
posted by grahamwell at 11:19 AM on August 2, 2005


MetaFilter: We are a small group of probably the finest intellectuals alive today. Certainly, we have not heard of anyone living whose thoughts approach the clarity, depth and power of our own.
posted by voltairemodern at 11:32 AM on August 2, 2005


Also: KLS, you are again waving your sword at an absent opponent. I, too, agree with Adams-- and if I thought, as you said you did, that there was no real distinction between Adams and the atheists, then I would be hard pressed to explain my affinity. As it stands, I think that Adams' lack of belief is much more interesting and supportable than the atheists' negative belief.
posted by voltairemodern at 11:43 AM on August 2, 2005


vm: I think there is a real distinction there betwen Adams and the strong atheists. However, I think that when you get down to brass tacks, that distinction is largely trivial, given how many other outspoken atheists share Adams' views in regards to atheism as disbelief in existence, vs. belief in nonexistence.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:55 AM on August 2, 2005


KJS: it is a fair point, though, that i didn't state my point very clearly to begin with (i sort of muddled up the concepts of strong/weak positions vs. positive/negative arguments, etc.)... guess that's what i get for trying to do philosophy on the sly when i should be working...

(whip cracks in the background...)
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 12:48 PM on August 2, 2005


Don't bother reading Adams' newspaper columns, though. There are five or six of them, which have been recycled over forty or so years ...
a) I was a teenage communist
b) I created the Australian film industry
c) John Howard is evil
d) I support charities
e) a story about my dog
f) something caught my attention (this is like his doosra)

The radio show is, however, pretty good.
posted by Wolof at 4:31 PM on August 2, 2005


KirkJobSluder > The problem is that science can't claim big-T Truths, only qualified petite "truths." The best science can say is that materialism is a much better supported theory than supernaturalism, but that further evidence can upset the whole apple-cart.

True, but best qualified by saying that the set of theories that are used to describe the natural world are currently very good.

They're so good in fact that extremely powerful machines are needed (particle accelerators) to generate super-energetic events that can then be used to probe the fabric of reality to the breaking point of the theory (or alternatively to the point where the experiment will provide supporting evidence for a theory to which we've been unable to fit an observation).

In other words we've getting to the point where we're running out of 'stuff' in the natural world where we're clearly wrong, so we're having to go to great lengths to create extreme events in space-time that will enable us to satisfy our curiosity.
posted by snarfodox at 4:34 PM on August 2, 2005


Outstanding post!!! I've loved Phillip Adams all my life. His is a BIG brain but not arrogant; all atheism and epistemological masturbation aside. He is one of the few people in public life who make me proud to be Australian. I went to a book launch/reading of his a few years ago for "A Billion Voices" about India and it was a rivetting talk. But I also wholeheartedly disagree with Wolof's dismissal of his columns. He's so prolific and covers such a wide variety of subjects though, I can understand not everyone wanting to read every piece, but I'd never accept that this guy rotates his writing subjects. And I'm so glad to know this is all online. I used to go to sleep listening to him at night.
posted by peacay at 6:51 PM on August 2, 2005


Grahamwell: with that link, you've repaid the favour! Perhaps it's wrong of me, but I can't help enjoying seeing pipsqueaks get their comeuppance.

Feynman - mediocre! Hee hee hee - I couldn't help but think of Wallace Shawn's wonderful turn as Vizzini in "The Princess Bride".
posted by flabdablet at 10:03 PM on August 2, 2005


Adams is certainly smarter than most, but it's important to remember that what you're hearing on radio is Adams, supported to no small degree by his producers/researchers, feeding him live information as he talks.
And, wolof was right on the money about his newspaper columns, though he didn't mention Adams' most annoying writing habit: namedropping. The man loves to tell us how many well-known people are his friends/acquantances/personal enemies.
Still, LNL is a very, very nice thing to listen to as I drive home from work.
posted by bunglin jones at 12:34 AM on August 3, 2005


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