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Slaves to Superstition
August 13, 2007 4:42 AM   Subscribe

Episode one of controversial evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' new series Enemies of Reason premieres on Channel 4 tonight. Here's a list of topics.
posted by chuckdarwin (310 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Erm, Themes:

Astrology
Paranormal
The Past
Prejudice
Wikipedia
Medicine

posted by chuckdarwin at 4:47 AM on August 13, 2007


The usual assaults on Dawkins as an extremist, despite the fact that the other side has literally millions of people doing the exact same thing (only without the facts on their side) every Sunday morning around the world in 3...2...1....
posted by DU at 4:52 AM on August 13, 2007 [7 favorites]


The Observer astrologer interviewed responds.
posted by edd at 4:58 AM on August 13, 2007


Don't forget Charlie Brooker's Screen Burn about the show.

Which is so beautifully rant-tastic that I'm still in awe.

and secret lust
posted by Katemonkey at 5:09 AM on August 13, 2007 [6 favorites]


That astrologer's response would have improved the FPP a deal more than three variations on the same channel4 link and a wikipedia page.
posted by Leon at 5:11 AM on August 13, 2007


Stern face!
posted by asok at 5:12 AM on August 13, 2007


Interesting that his response doesn't even have a defense of astrology (probably because it is impossible). Instead, he just attacks Dawkins.
posted by grouse at 5:13 AM on August 13, 2007


Both Dawkins and that astrologer are enemies of reason in my book. The astrologer, arguing for homeopathy, says that "the placebo effect is real enough" and in the same sentence bases his argument for homeopathy on "a wealth of personal testimony" -- which of course is undermined by the wealth of data on the placebo effect. And then the astrologer tries to nail Dawkins down on liking Yeats, and apparently Dawkins said to him "Oh, Yeats wrote a lot of pretty words...whether they mean anything is another matter". Dawkins reads poetry like a slack-jawed yokel or a sixth-grader apparently.
posted by creasy boy at 5:13 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


'The Enemies of Reason'

No doubt he looks forward to the day where he can execute Theists. Dawkins hasn't demonstrated any familiarity with theology or even the philosophy of Religion (a field dominated by secularists. He is yet another village athiest, but if the French Revolution and Communism showed anything, it's that believers will never be able to match the brutality of the atheists. There is little rhetorical difference betweens Dawkins "enemies of reason" and the "Enemies of people."
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 5:18 AM on August 13, 2007


The money quote from that astrologer: "Scientism, of course, hates meaning."
posted by creasy boy at 5:19 AM on August 13, 2007


but if the French Revolution and Communism showed anything, it's that believers will never be able to match the brutality of the atheists

Oh do fuck off.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 5:24 AM on August 13, 2007 [30 favorites]


"Dawkins said to him "Oh, Yeats wrote a lot of pretty words...whether they mean anything is another matter". Dawkins reads poetry like a slack-jawed yokel or a sixth-grader apparently."
In fairness, explaining the difference between good literature and literature which has some fundamental relevance to the makeup of the universe isn't wonderfully easy to put into one sentence in a way that doesn't allow someone to portray it in an unintended way. I think it would be unwise to think Dawkins really does read poetry 'like a slack-jawed yokel or a sixth-grader'.

"No doubt he looks forward to the day where he can execute Theists."
Plenty of doubt.

"Dawkins hasn't demonstrated any familiarity with theology or even the philosophy of Religion"
Courtier's reply.
posted by edd at 5:26 AM on August 13, 2007


That astrologer's response would have improved the FPP a deal more than three variations on the same channel4 link and a wikipedia page.

The interview with Dawkins was meant to be the pivotal link. Funny how you completely failed to mention it.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:34 AM on August 13, 2007


Edd: yes but it doesn't matter to me what Dawkins is like at home in his slippers. Its his public positions and his public persona that matter. If he sets himself up as a spokeperson of rationality and in this guise says that poetry is basically meaningless, this gets on my nerves -- since I'm more or less one of the people he alleges to be speaking for. Dawkins' only value as a public persona should be in speaking out against exactly this kind of dogmatic insistence upon ignorance, not mouthing it himself.
posted by creasy boy at 5:34 AM on August 13, 2007


Thanks edd, as ever, for the help.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:34 AM on August 13, 2007


The Courtier's Reply presupposes that Dawkins is right. It does not address the claim that Dawkins is ignorant of religious matters. It merely says that 'Dawkins is right because religion is a put-on'. It's virtually an ad hominem attack.
posted by lyam at 5:38 AM on August 13, 2007


Katemonkey, that is an excellent article...
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:38 AM on August 13, 2007


Christ, Gnostic Novelist, even ParisParamus was a better troll than you are. Good trolls phrase things in such a way that there could possibly be some chance that they're not actually trolling. Posting nonsense like "No doubt he looks forward to the day where he can execute Theists." and "He is yet another village athiest, but if the French Revolution and Communism showed anything, it's that believers will never be able to match the brutality of the atheists. There is little rhetorical difference betweens Dawkins "enemies of reason" and the "Enemies of people."" demonstrates a complete lack of skill and effort.

That your trolling is so poor is far more offensive than any assault on minorities or homosexuals or atheists that you can come up with.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:38 AM on August 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Aye, Pope Guilty. I agree. After I had posted my response above I felt bad for being caught by such a piss poor trolling effort.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 5:41 AM on August 13, 2007


Good God that Charlie Booker rant reads like Michael Savage ripping the Democrats a new one.
posted by lyam at 5:42 AM on August 13, 2007


chuck: I didn't mention it because there was nothing wrong with it. Great link. Bravo, and all that. Pat on the back. Thanks for the heads-up. But you've got to admit, this:

channel4.com/culture/microsites/E/enemies_of_reason/
channel4.com/culture/microsites/E/enemies_of_reason/index.html
channel4.com/culture/microsites/E/enemies_of_reason/themes.html

is a bit weak.
posted by Leon at 5:45 AM on August 13, 2007


In fairness, explaining the difference between good literature and literature which has some fundamental relevance to the makeup of the universe isn't wonderfully easy to put into one sentence in a way that doesn't allow someone to portray it in an unintended way.

he doubted yates' poetry meant anything ... it's pretty hard to interpret that in any way that doesn't make dawkins look like a philistine ... he wasn't trying to explain anything, just dismiss it
posted by pyramid termite at 5:48 AM on August 13, 2007


I think that Neil Spencer's response is an ideal illustration of the problem that he (Spencer) can't see. He just doesn't seem to understand that there are things that are (or should be) covered by science and there are things aren't. Poetry is something that is not under the perview of science and can be enjoyed purely for its emotional (or whatever) effects. However, something such as astrology, which purports to link causes and effects has to be held to the same standards as anything else that claims the same. It may well be that when I concentrate really hard that I can make a die always roll a 6, but unless I can demonstrate this in a scientific way, then I would not expect anyone to take my claim seriously.


In discussions like these, I am always reminded of the Dalai Lama's response to questions about the inviobility of Buddhist doctrine - He has repeatedly said that when science shows that Buddhist scriptures are incorrect, then the scriptures should be rejected.
posted by daveg at 5:50 AM on August 13, 2007


I always thought that superstition was caused by a lack of reasoning ability rather than the other way around. If you could get someone to abandon their new age crystals, biblical literalism, young Earth theory or whatever, wouldn't they just run out and replace it with some other metaphysical security blanket? Perhaps one that the allies of reason would like even less?
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:56 AM on August 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


but if the French Revolution and Communism showed anything, it's that believers will never be able to match the brutality of the atheists

You've got to be kidding. Or you slept through most of history class. Ever heard of the Inquisition? Witch burning? The KKK? 9/11? No subset of the human race and no subscribers to any ideology have ever cornered the market on brutality.
posted by orange swan at 5:57 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


The thing about poetry and meaning is that Dawkins is a material reductionist. From his standpoint, "meaning" is a particular configuration of brain chemistry. He may be right or wrong about Yeats, but he's not saying this just to stir up some shit- he's simply fully aware and accepting of the philosophical consequences of material reductionism, and those consequences are alternately horrifying and terrifying to people who are used to a quasi-supernatural conception of the self.

In other words, if you believe that you have free will, and that concepts like "meaning" exist in some way other than as predictable patterns of brain chemistry, of course Dawkins looks like a Philistine- the implication that one is not endowed with that which the quasi-supernatural conception of self (which is the dominant paradigm) is rather abhorrent.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:59 AM on August 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


But I looked great in a smock and I was the best turnip-chucker in the village!
posted by Abiezer at 6:01 AM on August 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


I always thought that superstition was caused by a lack of reasoning ability rather than the other way around.

That's an interesting point, but consider how you would convince someone that, say, Biblical literalism is untrue...you could never teach them just that, you would inevitably convince them of the value of more general principles of critical thought as well. Unless you somehow, instead of truly persuading them, just brainwash them out of their old brainsashing. I agree that this would be useless.
posted by creasy boy at 6:01 AM on August 13, 2007


The thing about poetry and meaning is that Dawkins is a material reductionist. From his standpoint, "meaning" is a particular configuration of brain chemistry.

Doesn't this come around to bite him in the ass though? If fundamentalist hogwash and astrology are just brain configurations with no "meaning", and scientifically sound theoretical models are equally just brain configurations lacking meaning, then why should it matter anymore to him or me or anyone who thinks what? Isn't this is a position that makes it impossible to argue for any position at all?
posted by creasy boy at 6:05 AM on August 13, 2007


scientifically sound theoretical models are equally just brain configurations lacking meaning

No, scientific models explain something beyond what's in a human brain. Well, except for the models of neuroscience, etc.
posted by grouse at 6:11 AM on August 13, 2007


If fundamentalist hogwash and astrology are just brain configurations with no "meaning", and scientifically sound theoretical models are equally just brain configurations lacking meaning, then why should it matter anymore to him or me or anyone who thinks what? Isn't this is a position that makes it impossible to argue for any position at all?

Not really. Certainly he could formulate the following based on self-interest (which I don't really think is what he's doing, but bear with me, this is theoretical):

1) Supernaturalism holds back science and therefore harms people.
2) I'm part of "people".
3) .: I'm harmed by supernaturalism and would benefit from a reduction of supernaturalism. (from 1, 2)
4) I can act to reduce the amount of supernaturalism in the world.
5) .: I should act to reduce the amount of supernaturalism in the world. (from 3, 4)

I think he'd couch things in terms of concern for human wellbeing (in a humans-as-a-whole sense rather than the self-interest sense that I've formulated above) or a distaste for what he perceives as falsehood.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:12 AM on August 13, 2007


Bittorrent please ...
posted by homodigitalis at 6:22 AM on August 13, 2007


orange swan You've got to be kidding. Or you slept through most of history class. Ever heard of the Inquisition? Witch burning? The KKK? 9/11? No subset of the human race and no subscribers to any ideology have ever cornered the market on brutality.

The 9/11 terrorists were not Christian. As for the Inquisition, it was mostly a political matter of power, but I would never excuse it. Witch burning and the KKK were indeed mistakes, but only the former was truly rooted in anything resembling religion. The Klu Klux Klan were progressives, albeit they may have been a little on the racist side. They weren't primarily a religion organization. Atheists put up numbers that religious fundamentalists couldn't dream of. Islamic radicalism will never be as successful as the militant atheists were. I'd sooner tolerate a holy Islamic state than anything resembling an atheist one.
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 6:23 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty: so in your presentation either it's all premised on self-interest, which is bad given his outraged and concerned demeanour, or it's premised on some feeling of goodwill for others that he happens to have...and either way when asked why it matters what's good for him or why he's concerned for others he can basically only shrug and say "it's in my programming" or something similar. Here's where his programme for me begins to look irrational, because his very narrow conception of rationality means he simply cannot account morally or ethically for himself and his actions and opinions....but he continues to have them anyways....rather stubborn and dogmatic, it would seem.

Anyway I meant to attack materialism even deeper on the level of truth and not just surface ethics. One process for arriving at opinions would be listening to your local preacher. Another process would be examining evidence and inferring to the best hypothesis. (Both oversimplifications). Now both these processes exist, and as such for Dawkins both exist as mechanical processes, bits of matter colliding and reacting. But Dawkins seems to think that one process is more valid than the other. What is this validity -- another bunch of molecules? In other words, how is truth just a molecular state? And then this is a different question than how he justifies his moral concern for the truth.
posted by creasy boy at 6:27 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


This is ridiculous Gnostic Novelist. If Dawkins and the rest of us who want to promote this sort of thing want anything it's that we want you to think and reason your way to your beliefs. If you end up an atheist because the law tells you to we're no better off than if you end up anything else because anything other than reason tells you to.

And I can't think of any reason someone might think Dawkins or anyone else like that was planning a brutal campaign to wipe theists off the planet by force. It defeats the whole object of what he's trying to get people to do - think.
posted by edd at 6:31 AM on August 13, 2007


The 9/11 terrorists were not Christian.

They were fundamentalists, and what they did was rooted in their religious beliefs. You said "the believers will never match the brutality of the atheists".

The Klu Klux Klan were progressives, albeit they may have been a little on the racist side.

A little? A LITTLE?

They weren't primarily a religion organization.

They called themselves Christians. So did Hitler, for that matter. So, they're "believers". You could argue that their ideology doesn't stem from their religious beliefs, but then to be consistent you'd also have to admit that Stalin's brutality didn't stem from his atheism, but was "mostly a political matter of power".
posted by orange swan at 6:38 AM on August 13, 2007 [8 favorites]


albeit they may have been a little on the racist side

A little? You think?

Atheists put up numbers that religious fundamentalists couldn't dream of.

You mean between the Inquisition, the Crusades, the witch burnings, the pogroms, the forced conversions, the "missionaries" in Latin America and Africa, the early Catholic-Protestant conflicts (and even current--remember the IRA?)? Then there's the corruption, the sexual abuse scandals, the Magdalene Sisters--and that's just Christianity. We're not even talking all the other religious conflicts that have existed since religion came about. Atheism hasn't been around long enough to rack up those kinds of numbers. And find, prattle on about how those were all using religion as a front for power and political battles--but then you argue that atheism and French Republic and the terrors of Communist Russia are not allowed the same consideration? When religious people do evil, it's not actually in the name of their god. But when atheists do evil, it must be because of the atheism and not anything else.
posted by schroedinger at 6:39 AM on August 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


Oh, whoops, orange swan got there first.
posted by schroedinger at 6:39 AM on August 13, 2007


Metafilter: a little on the racist side
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 6:42 AM on August 13, 2007


YHBT guys.
posted by grouse at 6:42 AM on August 13, 2007


Dawkins's fatal flaw is that he is not nice -- it's not about being right, it's about being nice. but these are bad times for those who insist on relying on reason -- it's God vs Allah
posted by matteo at 6:45 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


You silly knob-knocker. If you can dismiss the Inquisition as essentially about power, you could ascribe the mass deaths of Communist China or the Soviet Union to millenarian themes underpinning ostensibly atheist political movements. For a Gnostic, you're a bit of a know-nothing.
posted by Abiezer at 6:46 AM on August 13, 2007 [6 favorites]


It's not that Dawkins is a reductionist. The problem is that in his attempts to disprove religion he adopts a position as both a radical materialist and empiricist: you can only say anything exists if there is empirical evidence for it. It's not impossible to have a consistent philosophy based on that, but it leads you through a number of philsophical minefields which are very hard to negotiate. He seems barely aware of them, and his followers seem entirely ignorant of them.

Some of the problems:
1. The problem of induction
2. Descartes problem that you cannot know the senses to be reliable
3. Mathematics depends on assuming unprovable axioms, science depends on mathematics
4. It's extremely difficult to produce an ethical system relying on empiricaly verifiable facts rather than concepts like "human rights" or "the common good".

As a result, Dawkins followers tend to be fundamentally irrational, since they hold inconsistent belief systems.

For example, consider the Judeo-Christian taboo against infanticide. That didn't exist in the pre-Christian Greek, Roman or Germanic cultures: it was introduced by Christianity purely as a consequence of Christian theology.

Somehow, many Dawkinsians hold fixedly to this strange Judeo-Christian taboo, and have no consistent moral theory to explain why a creature not capable of speech or apparent rational thought should be treated differently to any other animal.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:47 AM on August 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


I'd sooner tolerate a holy Islamic state than anything resembling an atheist one.

What would an "atheist" state be? Has there ever been one? I wouldn't want to live in Stalinist Russia or in China as it was under Mao, but that has nothing to do with their atheism and much more to do with the horribly repressive regimes they had. Any state that forces people to abide by any ideology without regard for civil liberties is likely to be a damned miserable place to live, and a secular government that allows and protects its citizens individual rights to religious freedom will be as close to Utopian as we're likely to get in this flawed world.
posted by orange swan at 6:48 AM on August 13, 2007


Abiezer: Are you talking about the Spanish Inquisition or the medieval inquisitions? They're not really the same thing.

The Spanish Inquisition is widely believed by mainstream historians to have been politically motivated.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:50 AM on August 13, 2007


Here's where his programme for me begins to look irrational, because his very narrow conception of rationality means he simply cannot account morally or ethically for himself and his actions and opinions....but he continues to have them anyways....rather stubborn and dogmatic, it would seem.

He doesn't have to account for himself morally or ethically. I imagine he does, but material reductionism would limit morality and ethics to behavior sets which maximise harmony or some other good-for-us goal without reference to supernaturalism.

One process for arriving at opinions would be listening to your local preacher. Another process would be examining evidence and inferring to the best hypothesis. (Both oversimplifications). Now both these processes exist, and as such for Dawkins both exist as mechanical processes, bits of matter colliding and reacting. But Dawkins seems to think that one process is more valid than the other. What is this validity -- another bunch of molecules? In other words, how is truth just a molecular state? And then this is a different question than how he justifies his moral concern for the truth.

What you're attacking isn't materialism but the scientific method itself. Science is a better tool than religion for gaining an understanding of reality because it's verifiable- anyone with the proper equipment and the education to use it can reproduce any experiment and see for him/herself. With religion, we are limited to revealed knowledge which cannot be verified because of its very nature- anyone can say "Well, god told me this..." and their claim of revealed knowledge is no more or less valid than any other claim of revealed knowledge. Science, then, provides not just facts but a toolset for discovering, verifying, and interpreting facts, while religion simply gives a set of facts. One may argue over religious facts, but no process exists to falsify them.

Now, a common retort to this goes along the lines of "Well, people's senses are falliable, so scientists, by trusting their senses, are no better than priests!" The flaw in this argument is that it presumes that useful knowledge involves a correlation between observable facts and the deep objective reality. We run into the problem Descartes ran into, in which he speculates that his perceptions could be inaccurate because there might be a Master Deceiver controlling his every sensation. The way forward is to note that while we may or may not be able to observe deep objective reality, the vast majority of the species exists within a shared world of perceptions and sensations- what is a table to me is a table to my brother, to my professor, to my lover. Perhaps there is a Master Deceiver, and science is simply exploring a shared hallucination. What is required, then, is a redefinition, wherein science is exploring the world which we can perceive. After all, if we cannot experience or perceive the deep objective reality, there is no purpose in even discussing it. (One might as well talk about Middle Earth, which, if there is a Master Deceiver, is equally relevant to humanity as deep objective reality.)

Even if we're simply in a shared hallucination, religion still fails to conquer science here, because even if priests begin to speak of knowledge of the deep objective reality, the content of their statements is still essentially arbitrary- there is no reason other than emotional attachment (I was raised with it, it makes me feel good/I find it comforting, etc) to believe in one particular set of religious facts over another. The facts uncovered by science are non-arbitrary, as they are formed through a process of empirical investigation that anyone can engage in and come to the same answers. This is simply not true of religion; if it were, there would be a single set of religious facts, with a tiny number of fringe dissidents, rather than thousands of factions with their own arbitrary, equally-likely-to-be-true sets of facts. And that's why people like Dawkins value science over religion. It has nothing to do with "Oh, I like science, boo religion!" and everything to do with science being more useful than religion for uncovering and investigating facts about the world.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:51 AM on August 13, 2007 [21 favorites]


Oh yes, Theophile, I don't deny that. What I won't have is that somehow the history of religious movements and their role in power is nuanced and part of a complex reality, but the history of atheism is defined by its ideology alone.
posted by Abiezer at 6:53 AM on August 13, 2007


Atheists put up numbers that religious fundamentalists couldn't dream of.

Sam Harris has a line about how atheism is about saying "I won't believe what you're telling me unless you offer some proof." It's essentially skepticism, and excessive skepticism was not what was happening in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China.

Of course, to someone who privileges religious epistemology over scientific epistemology, I can understand how it's inconceivable that there is any way of knowing that is not fundamentally religious. It's like this:

A: "Do you worship God or Satan?"
B: "I'm an atheist."
A: "So you don't worship God?"
B: "That's correct."
A: "So you worship Satan."

Or perhaps better phrased, when you regard a hammer as the only valid tool, the concept of a screwdriver is impossible.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:56 AM on August 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


I'd sooner tolerate a holy Islamic state than anything resembling an atheist one.

(Gnostic Novelist, you are genuinely deranged. Seek help. Spiritual help, even.)

I have no issue with the astrologer's assertions that the real world of "science" practitioners has it's share of bias, irrationality and other human flaws. (nice comparison between astrology types and Meyers-Briggs). I do agree that we need to pay more attention to homeopathy and acupuncture, etc, because they do work in many cases, and they should be explored with an open mind.

But that in no way justifies his assertion that the scientific method is just another belief process ("scientism") to be equated to astrology and other unproven beliefs.

As a sentient species, we're almost grown-up. It's time to face the truth about Santa and God. Or at least find a way to reconcile one's belief system with the evidence of one's senses and intellect.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:01 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


1. The problem of induction

How is this a problem?

2. Descartes problem that you cannot know the senses to be reliable

See my comment at 9.51a.

3. Mathematics depends on assuming unprovable axioms, science depends on mathematics

They're not unprovable, they're tautological. And what's more, they work, and they produce reproducible results which reveal useful and verifiable facts about reality, as I explained at 9.51a.

4. It's extremely difficult to produce an ethical system relying on empiricaly verifiable facts rather than concepts like "human rights" or "the common good".

The logical formula from my comment at 9.12a is easily adapted to any ethical principle. Ethics can be based in self-interest without degenerating into egoism.

Somehow, many Dawkinsians hold fixedly to this strange Judeo-Christian taboo, and have no consistent moral theory to explain why a creature not capable of speech or apparent rational thought should be treated differently to any other animal.

Hell, I can answer this one- as I said in the Libertyville abortion thread, I don't regard newborn infants as morally considerable persons. I do, however, find infanticide repugnant, and can oppose it on the grounds that I find it unpleasant. There's nothing irrational about wanting to minimize things one finds unpleasant. The abhorrence itself may be irrational, but let's not expect people raised in a Judeo-Christian culture to overthrow all their social programming overnight and make themselves into new beings. The Soviets, with their conception of the New Communist Man, spent most of a century trying, and failed miserably.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:07 AM on August 13, 2007


The problem with the Courtier's Reply is that Dawkins doesn't just make the case for atheism as the most reasonable position. Dawkins is also attempts to explain the sociology and psychology of religion using his own unproven science of memetics. And this is where Dawkins is often guilty of setting up religious strawmen to knock down. In this regard Dawkins is less effective a critic than people like Schermer, Wilson, or Hitchins who at least acknowledge the complexities of religious thought.

Pope Guilty: But haven't you basically created the same kind of false dichotomy that gets atheists criticize as being ignorant yobos in regards to theology? The counter argument to this is that while science may be quite good for developing one type of knowledge (generalizations about how the world works), it is not that great for developing other types of knowledge, (ethics, law, aesthetics, math.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:08 AM on August 13, 2007


He doesn't have to account for himself morally or ethically. I imagine he does, but material reductionism would limit morality and ethics to behavior sets which maximise harmony or some other good-for-us goal without reference to supernaturalism.

So the materialist offers some neutral description like: harmony-maximising behavior set (HMBS). HMBS could possibly in principle be describable in physical terms. But why is this good, i.e. which is or should this be my ethics? There is quite simply a leap from the description of anything to an endoresement of that thing as good. Let's say that Dawkins thinks that religion does in fact, if you look at it empirically, reduce or hinder HMBS. If this is true, then this is a fact -- whether it is good or bad is not in the fact or in the description of it. But he stands up in front of the public with outrage and moral concern -- he himself is committed to HMBS as a moral good. Why? I think he does have to explain this. If his only explanation is that he doesn't know why he holds HMBS to be good and dedicates his life to it, his brain just makes him do it, then this is where it seems irrational to me. It makes him seem like the religious believer who believes because it makes him more comfortable.
posted by creasy boy at 7:15 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty: (quoting Theophile Escargot) 3. Mathematics depends on assuming unprovable axioms, science depends on mathematics

They're not unprovable, they're tautological. And what's more, they work, and they produce reproducible results which reveal useful and verifiable facts about reality, as I explained at 9.51a.


Well, first in response to TE, I'd argue that science does not depend on mathematics because it is entirely possible to have completely qualitative scientific theories.

Pope Guilty misses the point that mathematics is a radically different system of knowledge compared to science. Science and math have fundamentally different goals, methods, standards of evidence and ultimate knowledge claims. "Reproducible results that reveal useful and verifiable facts about reality" are utterly irrelevant to mathematical truth.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:16 AM on August 13, 2007


but if the French Revolution and Communism showed anything, it's that believers will never be able to match the brutality of the atheists

Oh pshaw. I can name 100 examples of wide-scale persecution and mass slaughter in the name of "religion" for any one example of atrocities carried out in the name of ideological secularism. Maybe 1000.

People are brutal to each other often, throughout history. They justify that brutality by appealing to whatever ideological framework they have available. For most humans, throughout most of human history, that framework has been "religion."

Rationality (which entails atheism, but does not make atheism its central pillar, but rather reason itself) hasn't even been given a freaking chance.

I love Richard Dawkins. A very brave man. And he's right.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:17 AM on August 13, 2007


I do agree that we need to pay more attention to homeopathy and acupuncture, etc, because they do work in many cases, and they should be explored with an open mind.

There's a difference between being open-minded and refusing to think critically. Homeopathy, rather than operating on the germ theory of disease, operates off the occult Law of Sympathy. Acupuncture claims to be manipulating an energy field that no device is capable of detecting, yet it can apparently be manipulated using pins. At best these provide a welcome placebo effect. At worst, they dissuade those suffering illness and pain from seeking real treatment.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:17 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope Guilty: The way forward is to note that while we may or may not be able to observe deep objective reality, the vast majority of the species exists within a shared world of perceptions and sensations- what is a table to me is a table to my brother

Except, if you're like me, you don't know that. It's through your senses that you listen to yourself asking your brother what the object is, and also his reply of "duh, that's a table!"

grouse: No, scientific models explain something beyond what's in a human brain.

Nah, that's just what your brain configuration caused you to say.
posted by Gyan at 7:19 AM on August 13, 2007


The thing about poetry and meaning is that Dawkins is a material reductionist. From his standpoint, "meaning" is a particular configuration of brain chemistry.

if carried far enough, that argument is indistinguishable from nihilism - there is no "meaning" it's just brain chemistry

at which point the enlightenment sucks itself up and disappears like one of those cartoon vacuum cleaners disappearing up its own hose

The way forward is to note that while we may or may not be able to observe deep objective reality, the vast majority of the species exists within a shared world of perceptions and sensations- what is a table to me is a table to my brother, to my professor, to my lover. Perhaps there is a Master Deceiver, and science is simply exploring a shared hallucination.

the flaw here is that you can't prove the hallucination is shared ... in fact, it's not a hallucination, just a state of brain chemistry

The facts uncovered by science are non-arbitrary, as they are formed through a process of empirical investigation that anyone can engage in and come to the same answers.

unless they have different brain chemistry

and yet we can't prove that we are anything more than states of brain chemistry, therefore there is no "anyone" to come to the same answers, just a state of brain chemistry that makes certain perceptions seem possible and others not

Of course, to someone who privileges religious epistemology over scientific epistemology

but that's been done away with ... now it's all neurochemistry, isn't it?

it's a hopeless line of argument, as far as i'm concerned, and offers nothing to anyone
posted by pyramid termite at 7:20 AM on August 13, 2007


And as to your second point: What you're attacking isn't materialism but the scientific method itself. No, I assure you I'm attacking materialism and not scientific method. I believe that scientific method has validity. I don't see how materialism can allow for validity in any way, either moral validity or methodological validity, since it is stuck listing descriptions of material events and cannot explain how its own descriptions, themselves being mere events, can have validity, can be better or worse than any other events. Thus is my position today. So far I haven't mounted a very good argument for it but I seem to remember Frege, the founder of modern logic, making this point very convincingly somewhere.
posted by creasy boy at 7:21 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope Guilty: But haven't you basically created the same kind of false dichotomy that gets atheists criticize as being ignorant yobos in regards to theology? The counter argument to this is that while science may be quite good for developing one type of knowledge (generalizations about how the world works), it is not that great for developing other types of knowledge, (ethics, law, aesthetics, math.)

Ethics and law can be worked out logically from something similar to the logical formulation I provided earlier, and then modified to suit based on human experience. Aesthetics is simply a set of brain chemistry responses- what do we find pleasurable to look at? and soforth. Math can be derived logically.

We don't need religion to have philosophy- indeed, when practiced well, philosophy is precisely opposed to religion.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:21 AM on August 13, 2007


They called themselves Christians. So did Hitler, for that matter.

Actually, Hitler wasn't too keen on Christianity. He was more interested in the revival of German paganism, so I suppose you could call Hitler the poster-child of neo-pagan atrocity.

I do think astrology can have some value as a Rorschach kind of test, though. What we do is so often shaped and influenced by subconscious desires and thinking that we don't fully understand, that this kind of test can really tell you a good deal about yourself that you don't necessarily consciously understand. That's certainly not what astrology claims about itself, but it's not worthless, either; mirrors are very useful things all around.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:22 AM on August 13, 2007


3. Mathematics depends on assuming unprovable axioms, science depends on mathematics

Reading things like this just makes my blood boil. I don't know how many times I can tell people that mathematics contains no information about the real world; they'll continue to believe whatever they want.

As a mathematician, I find your comment extremely insulting.
posted by King Bee at 7:24 AM on August 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Except, if you're like me, you don't know that. It's through your senses that you listen to yourself asking your brother what the object is, and also his reply of "duh, that's a table!"

And as I say, if one is trapped within ones senses, the method which is most useful for investigation one's perceptions should be used. Science is a process that creates reproducible results and offers a framework for interpreting them. Religion offers facts, but has no method for generating new facts beyond divine revelation, which has throughout humanity's history shown itself to generate unreliable information without a method for discarding unuseful facts. When new scientific facts emerge, they come from investigation and experimentation- and facts which prove mistaken can be discarded and/or altered without calling the validity of science itself into question, as the possibility that a particular fact is wrong is built into the system. Religion does not offer a method for discovering new facts and verifying/falsifying old facts.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:28 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ethics and law can be worked out logically from something similar to the logical formulation I provided earlier, and then modified to suit based on human experience.

human experience is simply a set of brain chemistry responses ... what logical reason do you have for preferring one set over another and what do you do if my brain chemistry causes me to prefer a different set?
posted by pyramid termite at 7:31 AM on August 13, 2007


Oh yeah I think it's in The Thought. Der Gedanke. Sort of like pyramid termite and Gyan here, Frege argues that through an ironic twist of fate, materialism implies idealism. If you think everything is just concatenations of material events, yourself being concatenations of neurochemical events, then you've sawed off the limb you're sitting on, since you can't explain how these particular neurochemical events produce things like truth, compelling inference, rational persuasion, justification, etc. They might produce anything. They're just blind mechanical events and that's it. You've explained away the validity of the inferences you relied on to come to this conclusion. And then you might be stuck in yourself with nothing but images of these atoms & brain cells et al.
posted by creasy boy at 7:31 AM on August 13, 2007


Hell, I can answer this one- as I said in the Libertyville abortion thread, I don't regard newborn infants as morally considerable persons. I do, however, find infanticide repugnant, and can oppose it on the grounds that I find it unpleasant. There's nothing irrational about wanting to minimize things one finds unpleasant.
Not quite. Emotions are not rational. If your moral system is based on emotions like repugnance, it's not a wholly rational system.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:33 AM on August 13, 2007


if carried far enough, that argument is indistinguishable from nihilism - there is no "meaning" it's just brain chemistry

That you find a fact unpleasant is irrelevant to its truth.

the flaw here is that you can't prove the hallucination is shared ... in fact, it's not a hallucination, just a state of brain chemistry

I've addressed this at 10.28a.

but that's been done away with ... now it's all neurochemistry, isn't it?

Completely irrelevant. The brain chemistry results in some kind of consciousness, as far as we can tell. This consciousness perceives other consciousnesses and interacts with them. Nobody is proposing to abolish philosophy simply because our consciousnesses are the result of a stew of chemicals and electricity. Well, nobody serious, anyway.

it's a hopeless line of argument, as far as i'm concerned, and offers nothing to anyone

It offers a deeper and more thorough understanding of reality than can be gained by insisting upon the existence of the supernatural.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:33 AM on August 13, 2007


human experience is simply a set of brain chemistry responses ... what logical reason do you have for preferring one set over another and what do you do if my brain chemistry causes me to prefer a different set?

There's no uberbeing, uninvolved with humanity, choosing sets. I'm talking about human beings working together to determine which metaset best serves humanity based on human preferences and experiences.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:35 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope Guilty: Ethics and law can be worked out logically from something similar to the logical formulation I provided earlier,

Which is not science.

Aesthetics is simply a set of brain chemistry responses- what do we find pleasurable to look at?

Is it really useful to apply that kind of reductionism to aesthetics? Should we reduce all engineering to quantum mechanics, because all of the properties of the Sears Tower can be reduced to electron fields?

I think it is entirely reasonable to talk about Harry Potter novels as using episodes of tension and resolution, without invoking brain chemistry.

Math can be derived logically.

Which again is not science.

We don't need religion to have philosophy- indeed, when practiced well, philosophy is precisely opposed to religion.

Of course not. I'm not arguing for religion, I'm arguing against bad critiques of religion. When you create a false dichotomy between science/religion, you are creating a piss-poor critique of religion. Case in point:

Science is a process that creates reproducible results and offers a framework for interpreting them. Religion offers facts, but has no method for generating new facts beyond divine revelation, which has throughout humanity's history shown itself to generate unreliable information without a method for discarding unuseful facts.

In one paragraph, you not only have made a bold misrepresentation of religion, but you've also boldly misrepresented science.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:35 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah I think it's in The Thought. Der Gedanke. Sort of like pyramid termite and Gyan here, Frege argues that through an ironic twist of fate, materialism implies idealism. If you think everything is just concatenations of material events, yourself being concatenations of neurochemical events, then you've sawed off the limb you're sitting on, since you can't explain how these particular neurochemical events produce things like truth, compelling inference, rational persuasion, justification, etc. They might produce anything. They're just blind mechanical events and that's it. You've explained away the validity of the inferences you relied on to come to this conclusion. And then you might be stuck in yourself with nothing but images of these atoms & brain cells et al.

As I've said before, that you find an idea and its consequences unpleasant is irrelevant to whether or not it's true.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:36 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope Guilty :And as I say, if one is trapped within ones senses, the method which is most useful for investigation one's perceptions should be used. Science is a process that creates reproducible results and offers a framework for interpreting them. Religion offers facts, but has no method for generating new facts beyond divine revelation, which has throughout humanity's history shown itself to generate unreliable information without a method for discarding unuseful facts.

The irony is that your own conditional at the start invalidates the objectively-phrased statements that follow. If you're trapped in your own senses, how do you know that religious statements are unfalsifiable or whatever else that you claimed?
posted by Gyan at 7:36 AM on August 13, 2007


In a nutshell Pope the question boils down to this: religious fanatic A believes x because it makes him feel good -- according to Dawkins, he couldn't help this, his brain made him do it. So why is Dawkins mad at him? But to continue: materialist B believes y because he thinks it's rationally compelling -- according to Dawkins, he couldn't help this either, his made him do it. If "comfortable" and "rationally compelling" are both just arbitrary mechanical events, then how is one better than the other?

Dawkins seems to act like he's sitting above both of these brain states, belief-from-comfort and belief-from-purported-rationality, and finds the one truly better than the other. But he's ruled out this kind of objectivity.
posted by creasy boy at 7:38 AM on August 13, 2007


Not quite. Emotions are not rational. If your moral system is based on emotions like repugnance, it's not a wholly rational system.

Emotions are patterns of brain chemistry. We have sciences- psychology and neurology, for example- which in part explore human emotions. If emotions were not rational, psychology would be useless, and psychoactive chemicals would not work. Particular emotional responses may stem from stimuli which human beings regard as overreactions or mysterious, but emotions have causes.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:38 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope the consequences are not "unpleasant" to me, the consequences undermine the position itself. I'm not personally squeamish about these things at all. This is a reduction ad absurdum.
posted by creasy boy at 7:40 AM on August 13, 2007


Since I already have a TV guide, I can only imagine that this post's real intended usefulness was more about initiating a debate. So glad I managed to miss most of it.
posted by hermitosis at 7:40 AM on August 13, 2007


Which is not science.

Logic is a fundament of the scientific worldview.

Is it really useful to apply that kind of reductionism to aesthetics? Should we reduce all engineering to quantum mechanics, because all of the properties of the Sears Tower can be reduced to electron fields?

I think it is entirely reasonable to talk about Harry Potter novels as using episodes of tension and resolution, without invoking brain chemistry.


It's far more useful to talk about such things by making reference to the more complex structures, but that is not the same as it being sensible to deny that the fundamentals exist. We talk about alloys when it is appropriate, and elemental metals when it is appropriate, and subatomic particles when it is appropriate, but we do not at any point deny that alloys are made of elemental metals, nor that elemental metals are made of subatomic particles.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:42 AM on August 13, 2007


The irony is that your own conditional at the start invalidates the objectively-phrased statements that follow. If you're trapped in your own senses, how do you know that religious statements are unfalsifiable or whatever else that you claimed?

Because, as I have stated, religion offers no process by which to verify or falsify statements. One can debate the internal consistency of religious fact sets, but when you find a contradiction between two revealed facts, you lack a means by which to identify which of them goes. (This tension is usually resolved in reality by simply ignoring the religious fact that one finds unpleasant or inconvenient; an example is the fundamentalist who insists that witches be put to death yet eats dairy and meat together.)

Further, part of falsifiability is reproducibility- anyone can run a scientific experiment and get the same result that everyone else gets. This is untrue of religion- not everyone who receives religious revelation receives the same facts, whereas everyone who drops two unequal weights from the same height in a vacuum will discover that they hit the ground at the same time.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:48 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Disbelievers, cower before MY CONCLUSIVE PROOF:

See for yourself: The eggplant slice that spells "GOD". Discovered by Felicia Teske of Boothwyn, PA, shown with her husband, Paul.
posted by The Straightener at 7:49 AM on August 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


I've addressed this at 10.28a.

no, you've completely avoided it ... you've just made the sweeping assumption that there is a shared reality (or hallucination) and it has such things as mutually agreeable facts

Completely irrelevant. The brain chemistry results in some kind of consciousness, as far as we can tell.

as far as we can tell ... in actuality, it may be the brain tricking itself into an illusion of consciousness ... and yes, this is being debated by neurologists quite a bit these days

This consciousness perceives other consciousnesses and interacts with them.

except that you can't prove this consciousness exists ... in short, you are basing this on a faith based construct of consciousness

Nobody is proposing to abolish philosophy simply because our consciousnesses are the result of a stew of chemicals and electricity. Well, nobody serious, anyway.

oddly enough "nobody" is exactly the right word here ... you and dawkins have just done away with the "self" and it's "consciousness" ...

now - on what basis do we construct a theory of science, when we've done away with the observer? ... perhaps we can just call it something that "appears" to work and let it go on - i don't have a problem with that

but - on what basis do we construct a philosophy of human rights? ... of government? ... of anything?

There's no uberbeing, uninvolved with humanity, choosing sets.

i said nothing about an uberbeing choosing anything ... in fact, the point i'm making is that NO ONE is CHOOSING anything

there is NO ONE

there is NO CHOICE

there is simply states of brain chemistry

and that is where your logical reductionism has left us
posted by pyramid termite at 7:50 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


In a nutshell Pope the question boils down to this: religious fanatic A believes x because it makes him feel good -- according to Dawkins, he couldn't help this, his brain made him do it. So why is Dawkins mad at him? But to continue: materialist B believes y because he thinks it's rationally compelling -- according to Dawkins, he couldn't help this either, his made him do it. If "comfortable" and "rationally compelling" are both just arbitrary mechanical events, then how is one better than the other?

You're ignoring what I'm writing. It's not about "comfortable" and "rationally compelling" being intrinsically better. It's about which one is better at providing useful information about reality.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:50 AM on August 13, 2007


Scientific method is better at providing useful information. Is materialism useful at providing this information? I've never heard of scientists actually relying on the philosophical thesis of materialism.
posted by creasy boy at 7:52 AM on August 13, 2007


Because, as I have stated, religion offers no process by which to verify or falsify statements.

does your science offer me a process by which i can verify or falsify consciousness?
posted by pyramid termite at 7:52 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope Guilty: you seem to have missed my point. You started with the conditional "if one is trapped within ones senses" and then go on to make claims independent of the self i.e. "Science is a process that creates reproducible results" rather than "for me, science has been the process with reproducible results rather than religion". In essence, you are asserting an objective character for your claims immediately after prefacing them with the constraint of being trapped in your own senses.
posted by Gyan at 7:55 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope the consequences are not "unpleasant" to me, the consequences undermine the position itself. I'm not personally squeamish about these things at all. This is a reduction ad absurdum.

The whole point is that "truth, compelling inference, rational persuasion, justification, etc" are things we've come up with that enable us to understand and interpret the world. Don't confuse the tools with the materials.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:56 AM on August 13, 2007


Sam Harris has a line about how atheism is about saying "I won't believe what you're telling me unless you offer some proof." It's essentially skepticism, and excessive skepticism was not what was happening in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China.

As an avowed believer in psychic powers and other nonsense, Sam Harris amply demonstrates that skepticism as a position is different than skepticism as a cultural allegiance. Dawkins shares this tendency, since he basically believes that human thinking owes itself to unfalsifiable processes that, thanks to a marvelous coincidence, happen to behave like his scientific specialty, and has effectively created a conceptual stratum to replace religious superstition. Dawkins is not a real skeptic, neither is Harris and they cannot be trusted to make genuinely skeptical arguments. Dennet too. They're just boring well off white men playing culture warrior.
posted by mobunited at 7:58 AM on August 13, 2007 [5 favorites]


Ah shit, why don't you bastards all go outside and eat some psilocybin laden mushrooms then see how much you know about all this.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:59 AM on August 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Pope Guilty: Logic is a fundament of the scientific worldview.

Which is elevating science far beyond its reasonable scope.

Science is simply a process for building inferential knowledge from a large body of systematically collected examples.

Mathematics isn't science.
Logic isn't science, like mathematics, logic has fundamentally different goals, methods, standards of evidence, and ultimate knowledge claims when compared to science.
Philosophy isn't science.
Aesthetics isn't science.
Law isn't science.
History isn't science.

Science is science and not anything else.

Now, jumping to your straw man of religion: Religion offers facts, but has no method for generating new facts beyond divine revelation,

At least in regards to the mainstream Protestant denomination that I grew up in, human knowledge was said to come from multiple sources including:
science and other disciplines
the Holy Spirit
individual interpretation of the Bible
individual thought and conscience

So, clearly there are other methods involved beyond divine revelation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:59 AM on August 13, 2007


Emotions are patterns of brain chemistry. We have sciences- psychology and neurology, for example- which in part explore human emotions. If emotions were not rational, psychology would be useless, and psychoactive chemicals would not work. Particular emotional responses may stem from stimuli which human beings regard as overreactions or mysterious, but emotions have causes.
I think you're confusing "rational" with "deterministic". Rational means pertaining to the faculty of reason.

Your repugnance to infanticide is not because you have exercised your faculty of reason to determine that it's bad. It's just an emotional response.

Now if you do want to track emotions back to causes, simple operant conditioning is a better answer than a nebulous appeal to "brain chemistry". Punish a child in proximity to something and it develops an aversion to it. Reward the child and it learns to like it. Moreover, children learn from the society around them and adopt similar responses.

Now, if you were raised by members of the Klu Klux Klan, you'd probably develop a repugnance to black people, and would seek to exclude them from your environment. While your response to that emotion has a degree of rationality, it's still not a rational action overall. Even if there are rational steps attached to it, there is an irrational element which is an essential link in the chain.

Now going back to the topic, if this KKK-child is a theist, he at least has a chance of saying: "this repugnance I've been indoctrinated with is inconsistent with the moral injunction to love my neighbour". If he's a Dawkinsian, all he can do is follow his cultural conditioning.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:01 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


man, you people are retarded.
posted by Stynxno at 8:03 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


The whole point is that "truth, compelling inference, rational persuasion, justification, etc" are things we've come up with that enable us to understand and interpret the world. Don't confuse the tools with the materials.

Do I understand you right here, that you think these tools of ours are not "materials"? Justification, for example, is something beyond mere matter? Rationality? Because this is the crux of the whole issue. Dawkins is angry at what he sees as irrationality, and he thinks he's justified in correctness of what he thinks and justified in his anger. Yet I contend that his way of explaining anything puts this "justification" on the exact same footing as religios belief from comfort.
posted by creasy boy at 8:04 AM on August 13, 2007


no, you've completely avoided it ... you've just made the sweeping assumption that there is a shared reality (or hallucination) and it has such things as mutually agreeable facts

...because without that "sweeping assumption", it's pretty much impossible to operate in the world. To not start from that point is to make oneself completely unable to do anything in any way other than sit in the corner shrieking in fear that something you can't perceive will suddenly annihilate you.

as far as we can tell ... in actuality, it may be the brain tricking itself into an illusion of consciousness ... and yes, this is being debated by neurologists quite a bit these days

Okay. So what? We appear to have consciousness. That's what enables everything else.

oddly enough "nobody" is exactly the right word here ... you and dawkins have just done away with the "self" and it's "consciousness" ...

now - on what basis do we construct a theory of science, when we've done away with the observer? ... perhaps we can just call it something that "appears" to work and let it go on - i don't have a problem with that


Hardly. Material reductionism simply refutes the idea that the self and its consciousness are supernatural things. That you regard the self as inherently supernatural is no more relevant than the child who regards blocks as inherently made of wood.

but - on what basis do we construct a philosophy of human rights? ... of government? ... of anything?

As I've said, we can figure out what we find unpleasant and abhorrent and speculate as to why. These emotions, born of experience, can become a basis for ethics, law, and so on, rather than on divine commandments divorced from human experience.

i said nothing about an uberbeing choosing anything ... in fact, the point i'm making is that NO ONE is CHOOSING anything

there is NO ONE

there is NO CHOICE

there is simply states of brain chemistry

and that is where your logical reductionism has left us


And I have repeatedly noted that your conception of the self is supernatural. We don't need it. We appear to have consciousnesses, which experience things as pleasant, unpleasant, and so forth. Why does the fact that our consciousnesses appear to be the result of material processes bother you so much? Animals seek food and reorder their environment based on what they find pleasant and unpleasant. Why on earth do we have to be somehow above nature to do the same?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:05 AM on August 13, 2007


Homeopathy, rather than operating on the germ theory of disease, operates off the occult Law of Sympathy. Acupuncture claims to be manipulating an energy field that no device is capable of detecting, yet it can apparently be manipulated using pins. At best these provide a welcome placebo effect.

As far as I know, homeopathy has never been shown to have results significantly better than the placebo effect, but that's not true of acupuncture. They just did a big study around the new year that showed that acupuncture had fairly dramatic effects on some kind of knee injury, although I don't remember exactly what it was. (might have been arthritis.) IIRC, it was actually better than mainstream treatment of the same type of problem.

We don't, in other words, know why, but it does appear there's something to it.

In other words, a magical explanation for something does not automatically disqualify it. Explanations are separate from facts on the ground; they might be wrong about why it works, but it does appear to work, at least some of the time. And it's entirely possible that the explanation is correct too, and that science hasn't caught up to it.

What matters is results, not the mental framework we use to get there; if other studies do confirm that acupuncture does indeed work, then science needs to bend to suit, not the other way around.

Your position in this thread is so rigid that I think it's fragile. Science is about what works, not about enforcing modes of thought.
posted by Malor at 8:07 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope Guilty: because without that "sweeping assumption", it's pretty much impossible to operate in the world

Eh? You said this before - As I've said before, that you find an idea and its consequences unpleasant is irrelevant to whether or not it's true.
posted by Gyan at 8:09 AM on August 13, 2007


At least in regards to the mainstream Protestant denomination that I grew up in, human knowledge was said to come from multiple sources including:
science and other disciplines
the Holy Spirit
individual interpretation of the Bible
individual thought and conscience


Let's see... science, divine revelation, extrapolating from divine revelation, and a method of knowledge generation that, I'm sure, would totally be respected if it led to something contradicting numbers two and three.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:14 AM on August 13, 2007


I have to say I am astonished by the sheer idiocy of some of the replies to this post.

if carried far enough, that argument is indistinguishable from nihilism - there is no "meaning" it's just brain chemistry

For fuck's sake, have you never read Sartre, read the existentialists? Meaning derives from our embracing our terrestrial existence as our only existence -- it is absolutely materialist and fundamentally humanist too. The argument that material reductionism (which is a charge that can and has been leveled at all areas of science throughout recent history) necessarily implies a life devoid of meaning because it implies a life with no externally imposed 'purpose' (where else would purpose come from?) is not only fallacious but displays a lack of reasoning that is downright embarassing. It's, once again, another empty shibboleth hurled by irrational (usually religious) people everywhere and it doesn't mean a damn thing.

All Dawkins is arguing for is the aggressive confrontation of irrationalism with the application of the scientific method. Anywhere someone alleges that the universal, uniform laws of the universe that have been verified by that methodology are temporarily suspended without explanation or real evidence (resurrection of corpses, communication with the dead, foretelling the future, whatever nonsense is being sold), reasonable people should use their intelligence to rationally analyze and verify the veracity of such allegations. How is that so controversial?
posted by inoculatedcities at 8:14 AM on August 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


How is that so controversial?

The vast majority of humanity is committed to a worldview in which the universal, uniform laws of the universe that have been verified by that methodology are regularly suspended without explanation or real evidence.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:21 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm glad you said that inoculatedcities. You are completely correct. I think most people who criticize Dawkins, particularly the secularist ones, have never read more than a few blurbs. Go pick up the God Delusion and read the entire thing. There he systematically responds to every single retort in this thread (and others). Mischaracterising the Professor Dawkins seems a common mistake.

And to those who either think science is as dogmatic as religion, or that scientists are choosing one fundamentalism over another, really never learned what science is. Or how it works. One wonders if they ever attended a single science class!

And lastly, to echo Prof. Dawkins, why do we feel that superstition and religion are somehow off limits to critical analysis and discussion? After all, we debate politics with more fervor than almost anything and that is as personal and intimate to our persons as religion. It also begs the question, how strong is your religious beliefs if it cannot stand under the scrutiny of reason? Why are so many fearful of the conversation? I suppose most would rather believe what they believe and not waste time thinking about it. Scary.
posted by Dantien at 8:22 AM on August 13, 2007


As far as I know, homeopathy has never been shown to have results significantly better than the placebo effect, but that's not true of acupuncture. They just did a big study around the new year that showed that acupuncture had fairly dramatic effects on some kind of knee injury, although I don't remember exactly what it was. (might have been arthritis.) IIRC, it was actually better than mainstream treatment of the same type of problem.

I have never heard anything even remotely like this and would like a link.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:22 AM on August 13, 2007


Eh? You said this before - As I've said before, that you find an idea and its consequences unpleasant is irrelevant to whether or not it's true.

Don't conflate facts with assumptions.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:23 AM on August 13, 2007


For fuck's sake, have you never read Sartre, read the existentialists?

inoculated, we've been discussing Dawkins' framework, not Sartre's. His framework seems to me to have two incompatible elements: 1) his belief that all beliefs are just concatenations of material, and 2) his emotional investment in the idea that one of these concatenations is clearly superior to the other, morally superior it would seem. I agree that scientific method is better than astrology but I don't think his framework can account for this normative idea that he himself also espouses. The question we pose him is: why -- according to him -- is the one concatenation better than the other? Pope mentioned feelings of repugnance. I think that's a terrible basis for morality and highly irrational. Hence I think Dawkins' tone of absolute certainty that he is rational and others not rather irksome. Believe me, if Dawkins starts to invoke Sartre I'll rethink his framework.
posted by creasy boy at 8:28 AM on August 13, 2007


King Bee
3. Mathematics depends on assuming unprovable axioms, science depends on mathematics

Reading things like this just makes my blood boil. I don't know how many times I can tell people that mathematics contains no information about the real world; they'll continue to believe whatever they want.

As a mathematician, I find your comment extremely insulting.
That's the point. Mathematics contains no information about the real world. If you use it as an essential part of your method of understanding the real world, you are therefore relying on something that you cannot prove empirically.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:30 AM on August 13, 2007


Science means unresting endeavour and continually progressing towards an aim, which the poetic intuition may comprehend but which the intellect can never fully grasp.—Max Planck. The Philosophy of Physics. New York: Norton, 1936.
posted by No Robots at 8:31 AM on August 13, 2007


As a mathematician, I find your comment extremely insulting.

"I find your comment extremely insulting" is not an effective argument unless you want to fully embrace relativism. After all, it is one that could equally be made by astrologers, priests, and homeopathists as it can be made by scientists, mathematicians, and atheists.
posted by grouse at 8:35 AM on August 13, 2007


Disbelievers, cower before MY CONCLUSIVE PROOF

Who is "GÅD" and why is he fucking with their eggplant?
posted by cmonkey at 8:35 AM on August 13, 2007


because without that "sweeping assumption", it's pretty much impossible to operate in the world

fine, but don't call it reason based, because it isn't

Material reductionism simply refutes the idea that the self and its consciousness are supernatural things.

or natural things ... if you can't prove they exist ...

And I have repeatedly noted that your conception of the self is supernatural.

you've got that turned around ... i'm saying that according to your ideas, ANY conception of the self is supernatural

YOU are the one who is arguing for the self, not i

Why does the fact that our consciousnesses appear to be the result of material processes bother you so much?

nice rhetorical trick but you are the one who's refusing to face the fact that according to your worldview, there is no self, no consciousness, no observer, no shared reality without a faith-based assumption that such things exist

The argument that material reductionism (which is a charge that can and has been leveled at all areas of science throughout recent history) necessarily implies a life devoid of meaning because it implies a life with no externally imposed 'purpose' (where else would purpose come from?) is not only fallacious but displays a lack of reasoning that is downright embarassing.

i suggest you tell that to someone who actually MADE that argument

my argument is that his material reductionism has left him with no choice but to construct his world view on faith based assumptions
posted by pyramid termite at 8:37 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope Guilty: Don't conflate facts with assumptions.

I didn't. All the statements you made about the character of science and religion are presented as being (shared) facts, and yet there's an assumption underlying them. Doesn't that make them assumptions as well?

Finally, is this - you find an idea and its consequences unpleasant is irrelevant to whether or not it's true - a fact or an assumption? If the former, what's the proof?
posted by Gyan at 8:45 AM on August 13, 2007


creasyboy, he doesnt say anything like "one of these concatenations is clearly superior to the other, morally superior it would seem" anywhere...nor does he claim to think so. You are misreading Dawkins and misunderstanding reason maybe? He is saying that ANY belief should be willing and able to stand under the onslaught of critical thinking or be discarded! There is no arbitrary decisioning taking place. If we could provide a reasonable argument to contradict his thinking, he would (and should) recant and change his message. But he's not choosing one belief. He's not ascribing Christian thinking to feelings on infanticide. He's reasoning out his ethics and stating that they do not need to rest on any ideology or divine command theory. Belief is the absence of such reason and this is where he thinks we go wrong.

To me, if anything, he is subtlety espousing a Aristotelean Virtue Ethic. But that's a subject of a future grad school paper for me....
posted by Dantien at 8:49 AM on August 13, 2007



my argument is that his material reductionism has left him with no choice but to construct his world view on faith based assumptions


PT, can you elaborate some more? How did you come up with this?
posted by Dantien at 8:50 AM on August 13, 2007


The universe is vastly more complicated than you can possibly imagine. If you think you've found the the answer, you're more than likely wrong.

That doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing whatever answer you think works for you. For many people, belief in God is a model that works. It's not one that I find particularly convincing, but who am I to judge?

Life sucks, we're all alone out here, and it would be a lot better if we just made more of an effort to understand where each other are coming from.
posted by empath at 8:54 AM on August 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Allright Dantien it's like this. I certainly agree with him that beliefs should rest on rational and critical thought. This itself is a normative position and Dawkins seems in my mind quite ethically concerned to promote this position. Which is fine in my book. I may not like his presentation style. I found his reductionism of poetry very off-putting given that he claims to speak for us rationalists. But it was when Pope in response said that he reduces poetry because he is a materialist that the argument began about whether Dawkins can reconcile his normative position -- that rational & critical thought is a good -- with his position that rational & critical thougth is just a bunch of neuro-chemical bumpings & grindings of bits. It seems to me that materialism, which is not the brunt of his message but a part of it, makes any normative position arbitrary and irrational, including his own.
posted by creasy boy at 8:59 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope Guilty, that's because you're so sure it can't work that you didn't even bother to do a Google search. From the second Google link for "acupuncture study knee arthritis": Acupuncture May Help Knee Arthritis.

And that article is two years old; I know there was something showing a much stronger effect just recently. But I'm not going to do any more of your research for you.

Like I said, your position is rigid that it's fragile; you're just as dogmatic as the fundamentalists.
posted by Malor at 9:03 AM on August 13, 2007


Sigh. "is so rigid". Prufreeding is gud!
posted by Malor at 9:05 AM on August 13, 2007


Although "it's rigid that it's fragile", along the lines of "it's enraged that it's weak" has quite the poetic ring.
posted by creasy boy at 9:08 AM on August 13, 2007


But I'm not going to do any more of your research for you.

I'm going to try that maneuver next time I write a paper:

"This runs counter to Descartes' assertions on the subject. I could explain how, but I'm not going to do any more of your research for you."
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:10 AM on August 13, 2007


So creasy boy, why cant a "bunch of neuro-chemical bumpings & grindings of bits" be a good? Are you claiming that materialism somehow cannot prescribe an ethic? Ethics are not, of course, some metaphysical claim. They are fundamental and practical and "real world". His claim seems to me to be stating that rational & critical thought is a good because of it's effectiveness and applicability (much like murder is an evil not due to a metaphysical claim but that it fails under the categorical imperative). But perhaps I am misunderstanding your point?

And "feh!" on the poetry thing. He's not claiming to speak for anyone but himself. And it's rather nit-picky to focus on that and ignore the greater message. My $.02. Let's move on.
posted by Dantien at 9:11 AM on August 13, 2007


PG, too funny!

"Sorry Professor. I can't elucidate Schopenhauer's theory on animal ethics since I refuse to do any more of your research for you!" Classic! I'm soooo using that.
posted by Dantien at 9:12 AM on August 13, 2007


Dantien:
You are misreading Dawkins and misunderstanding reason maybe? He is saying that ANY belief should be willing and able to stand under the onslaught of critical thinking or be discarded
Possibly.

For instance, science and religion have somewhat different domains.

Dawkins attacks religion because it isn't very good at making observable predictions of the physical world.

That's like attacking science because it isn't very good at telling us how to lead moral lives.

But anyway, let's keep going and say we're talking about scientific or religious world-views. After all, it's more elegant to have a single consistent world-view between your epistemological and ethical beliefs.

If you can attack a religious world-view for not producing good experimental results, you should also be able to attack an atheistic world-view for not producing consistent ethics.

I think Dawkins himself might accept that. But some of his followers tend to want to do things the easy way, where they can attack religion on both ethical and epistemological grounds, but they themselves can only be attacked on the ground they prefer.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:12 AM on August 13, 2007


PT, can you elaborate some more? How did you come up with this?

he says there is a self, a consciousness, an observer and a shared reality without having offered any proof that such things can be constructed from states of brain chemistry and be objectively real ... he seems to think that states of brain chemistry that result in belief of those things is better than a state of brain chemistry that believes in god ... he seems to think that a state of brain chemistry that is repulsed by infanticide is better than one that isn't ... but he's yet to demonstrate any kind of objective reason why the states of brain chemistry he prefers are superior to the ones someone else may prefer

he just believes they do

So creasy boy, why cant a "bunch of neuro-chemical bumpings & grindings of bits" be a good?

well, all i'm really seeing here is an attempt to substitute "my bible tells me so" or "my god tells me so" with "my state of brain chemistry tells me so"

that's not an improvement

If you can attack a religious world-view for not producing good experimental results, you should also be able to attack an atheistic world-view for not producing consistent ethics.

i agree with that
posted by pyramid termite at 9:16 AM on August 13, 2007



well, all i'm really seeing here is an attempt to substitute "my bible tells me so" or "my god tells me so" with "my state of brain chemistry tells me so"


Yeah this is basically the point I was trying to make. His framework leaves him with no other option than an irrationalist ethic. Now, there are philosophers who consider ethics basically irrational. They usually come to this conclusion reluctantly, and they face up to the problems involved, such as that they can no longer reproach religions with being irrational, as much as they'd like to.
posted by creasy boy at 9:22 AM on August 13, 2007


Wow. I'm beginning to see something in these responses akin to "That's like attacking science because it isn't very good at telling us how to lead moral lives." (credit to TE). this almost sounds like the response I hear from my religious neighbors who told me "If there is no God, what's stopping me from going out and raping and killing people I hate?!" to which I respond "If there was no God, why would you?"

Religion has only been a moral compass because it's taken on that role. But let's say, for one second, we remove God from the universe. Are we to claim that our ethics and morals would disappear? Or would we really say that our moral decisions are based on utilitarian, Kantian, and virtue theory?

Someone please point out to me where an atheistic world view (by which I assume you mean one where reason reigns supreme) doesnt produce "consistent ethics".
posted by Dantien at 9:24 AM on August 13, 2007


And PT, your definition of "self" seems strongly metaphysical, while I think Prof Dawkins is referring to it as the observer...I dont think he is making claims that the self has to be somehow outside our cognition and self-reflective abilities of our neurochemistry. And I dont see how that is somehow a problem in our discussion.
posted by Dantien at 9:26 AM on August 13, 2007


In further thought, let me quote Dawkins himself:

"Religious people do not derive their morality from religion. I disagree (with the interviewer) on this point. Almost all of us do agree on moral grounds where religion had no effect. For example we all hate slavery, we want emancipation of women - they are all our moral grounds. These moral grounds started building only a few centuries ago and long after all major religions were established. We derive our morality from the environment we live in, Talk shows, Novels, Newspaper editorials and of course by the guidance of parents. Religion might only have a minor role to play in it. An atheist derives his morality from the same source as a religious people do."
posted by Dantien at 9:31 AM on August 13, 2007


Someone please point out to me where an atheistic world view (by which I assume you mean one where reason reigns supreme) doesnt produce "consistent ethics".
I believe I've done that in this and this comment. What is claimed to be a rational system turns out to be an emotional system.

Note that that doesn't by any means apply to all atheistic ethical systems. If you have a human-rights-based ethical system, you can be consistent, but you're also believing in non-empirical concepts like "human rights". Similarly with systems based on "virtue" and "the common good". And Peter Singer has a admirably consistent, materialistic, empiricist system which fulfils Dawkins requirements; but he's bitten bullets that most Dawkinsians won't.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:33 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope G, at one point you argue that one mode of knowing is better at providing useful information about reality, and that this information can also be used, in combination with "self-interest" to establish a system of ethics. w would this "scientific" view (in quotes here since this is so weakly defined and fungible throughout the thread) ensure that self-interest is, um, humane? (It's tricky not to refer to terms that are suddenly in question.) Would self-interest be determined by who has power? How would self-interest establish equality for all people in a scientific manner?

What if in this information about reality is something we do not wish to find? Let's say we establish an excellent computer model of our planet and population and discover that it really is out of whack, we face starvation, armed conflict, disease, etc. on scales we have never approached. But with a 25% reduction of population, say of the most verifiably unproductive portion of people (after all we must remain scientific), such calamity could be avoided. You sacrifice 25% of the elderly, after all they produce little and take a lot, and save around +15% of the populous and spare us some agonizing times.

Reason does not start with a global us. It's more likely to start with a me (hey, let's call that a "Selfish Gene") and work to save it first. Or have a I missed a road sign on the way to your utopia?

Now if you'll excuse me, I am going to finish my screenplay, I call it "Logan's Scampering" (working title).
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 9:34 AM on August 13, 2007


Dantien, so how does he justify morality? This would interest me. Because if he ends up at the end with some answer like, "well we just have this feeling of benevolence for other people, it's just in our nature and so that's how we act" -- I think this is first of all woefully inadequate as a moral philosophy, but more importantly here, it's an irrationalist conception of ethics.
posted by creasy boy at 9:37 AM on August 13, 2007


w would this "scientific" view (in quotes here since this is so weakly defined and fungible throughout the thread) ensure that self-interest is, um, humane?

Because it would be constructed from human experience and response. Inhumanity requires a separation from those things.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:39 AM on August 13, 2007


TE, sorry but your infanticide argument isnt valid. One could claim that caring for infants is a biological evolutionary trait (the tribes that cared survived longer than those that didnt).

I still dont see where morality must be tied to religion. I also dont see where Dawkins disallows emotion. I think you guys are making this conversation Reductio ad absurdum. Singer (whom I know well and have spoken with many times) claims that people take his arguments and pick them apart using unrealistic assumptions of the extent of his claims.

Seriously? If God didn't exist you'd kill babies? Come on people!
posted by Dantien at 9:39 AM on August 13, 2007


What if in this information about reality is something we do not wish to find? Let's say we establish an excellent computer model of our planet and population and discover that it really is out of whack, we face starvation, armed conflict, disease, etc. on scales we have never approached. But with a 25% reduction of population, say of the most verifiably unproductive portion of people (after all we must remain scientific), such calamity could be avoided. You sacrifice 25% of the elderly, after all they produce little and take a lot, and save around +15% of the populous and spare us some agonizing times.

If the options are "some die and others live" and "everyone dies", I'm not sure what scale of humanity you subscribe to that describes "everyone dies" as more humane than "some die and others live." I think Veidt was correct and Rorschach was wrong.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:42 AM on August 13, 2007


creasy boy, let me educate!

Our moral thinking is thought to derive from four modes or theories.

Divine Command ("God told me to")
Utiliatarianism
Deontological Ethics
and Virtue Ethics

Most of your moral thinking falls into the latter 3, and rarely do you make a decision because God instructs you to (or you are afraid of punishment if you dont).
posted by Dantien at 9:43 AM on August 13, 2007


Chinese ethical debate in the Axial age saw no appeal to supernatural authority (there was discussion as to whether human nature was innately good, bad or neutral) from any of the major schools. This was one of the underpinnings of a long-lasting culture that was shared by a vast chunk of humanity.
It does do well to remember that there are varieties of ethical and religious experience that fall outside of the Abrahamic and usually Eurocentric framework that is usually the point of debate in posts like these.
I say this partly because I'm a Buddhist and thus a religious atheist, and want some hatin' from all sides.
posted by Abiezer at 9:43 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Upon preview, I am not arguing for a morality based on religion. I am more bothered by a religious reading (misreading?) of Dawkins that tries to find all meaning in science.

And I am intrigued by the Dawkins "moral grounds" quote above. Where do these moral grounds come from? The "we all hate slavery" bit is interesting. At one time science could have justified slavery, and did I believe, by concluding a race is inferior and therefore could be used like animals. But it's ok now. Is it Dawkin's belief that evidence and rationality leads inexorably to a moral system?

Or is that moral ground resting on the back of turtles all the way down?
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 9:43 AM on August 13, 2007


PG, great to bring up Watchmen since it's an excellent moral conundrum. Veidt was clearly using a Utilitarian framework to make his decision. However, Utilitarianism can sometimes go against our deep feelings and therefore seems to fail at times.
posted by Dantien at 9:44 AM on August 13, 2007


Dantien yeah so is Dawkins a utilitarian? Because the basis of utilitarianism is usually, in my experience, something like moral sentiment or like Hume's idea that we just have certain feelings of benevolence. That utilitarianism still doesn't work is a different subject, but if Dawkins ends up with morality based on feelings we happen to have, then morality stems from an irrational source. Which might be the case -- I think it's a very complicated subject -- but then you have an irrationalist ethics! And you can't make it your whole schtick to call everyone else irrational.
posted by creasy boy at 9:47 AM on August 13, 2007


If the options are "some die and others live" and "everyone dies", I'm not sure what scale of humanity you subscribe to that describes "everyone dies" as more humane than "some die and others live." I think Veidt was correct and Rorschach was wrong.

That's not an answer. Or perhaps it is to some question asked by someone else in some other place about some other thing in some other words.

Here's the question. Based on self-interest alone, can you rule out sacrificing a non-productive segment of the population to save a significantly larger productive part of the population?
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 9:48 AM on August 13, 2007


I would argue that Utilitarianism seems brutal sometimes precisely because we've been raised in a society whose concept of ethics is predominantly shaped by the deontological Judeo-Christian ethic. I wrote a term paper on how utilitarianism isn't the atrocity generator it sometimes appears to be, but damned if I can find it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:49 AM on August 13, 2007


But let's say, for one second, we remove God from the universe. Are we to claim that our ethics and morals would disappear?

i haven't made that claim ... i've claimed that "states of brain chemistry" are insufficient for that ... at some point, an assumption that x is better than y needs to be made

I dont think he is making claims that the self has to be somehow outside our cognition and self-reflective abilities of our neurochemistry

inside or outside, one still has to prove it exists and isn't an artifact of brain chemistry that causes an illusion of selfhood and consciousness

For example we all hate slavery, we want emancipation of women - they are all our moral grounds. These moral grounds started building only a few centuries ago and long after all major religions were established.

but in the states, the abolitionists were very closely associated with churches ... dawkins is ignoring history, here
posted by pyramid termite at 9:50 AM on August 13, 2007


wait CB, what is irrational exactly about this? That it stems from humans? Where else do you feel ethics should stem from? Some objective law?

Centuries of moral thinking has yet to provide an objective ethical theory. What we tend to do (and what has worked best so far) is to use an amalgam of the theories I presented above. Utilitarianism fails based on deontological grounds. Kantian ethics fails on virtue theory. They seem to compliment each other in some interesting ways.

Ethical or moral thinking stems from humans and therefore may be irrational. Doesn't make it any less valid or useful. I dont know what you guys are looking for...but it does not exist.
posted by Dantien at 9:51 AM on August 13, 2007


In other words: what is the source of morality for Dawkins? If he's a Kantian I'm fucking shocked. I've been assuming he locates the source of morality in some brute fact of our nature, such as the feelings of repugnance Pope mentiond above. I think a morality based on feelings is terrible, most people make it at least a little more complicated (Simon Blackburn as I remember has a pretty fancy solution)...but our morality stems from an irrational source, then he ends up with an irrationalist ethics. And then I think he should re-examine the whole tone of his rhetoric.
posted by creasy boy at 9:53 AM on August 13, 2007


So maybe I'm hearing "it comes from humans, therefore it cant be valid"? or what? Im really confused (particularly by PT's responses) as to what the point is! Our selfhood is unverifiable? Ethics are irrational?

so PT, what is your solution then? What do you have to share that Dawkins seems to miss? Picking apart his understanding of history (which frankly was a poor attack) doesnt help the conversation.
posted by Dantien at 9:54 AM on August 13, 2007


CB, why be one only? Cant he be Utilitarian and Kantian?
posted by Dantien at 9:56 AM on August 13, 2007


Sorry I should've previewed.

Ethical or moral thinking stems from humans and therefore may be irrational. Doesn't make it any less valid or useful.

Well, if you say this, OK. If Dawkins says this, then, again, he has to re-examine how he formulates his critqiue of religion.

And that is my point. And now I leave to go swimming.
posted by creasy boy at 9:57 AM on August 13, 2007


Based on self-interest alone, can you rule out sacrificing a non-productive segment of the population to save a significantly larger productive part of the population?

But self-interest isn't the be-all and end-all; it's merely a starting point that can be used that nearly everyone can agree exists in every person. I believe that benevolence toward the entire set of persons is a better starting point, but there's a lot of people who would say I'm full of shit. I don't know that anyone denies that all beings operate in the pursuit of their self-interest on some level.

I'm digressing, though. You don't go from "self-interest" to "giant psychic alien in Manhattan", you go from "self-interest" to "what principles will maximally protect the interests of a maximal number of selves" and so on. One can start with self interest, discern that utilitarian ethics best serve the self-interest of all people (I'm not saying it necessarily does, just using this as a demonstration), and from there determine that killing a few million people is acceptable to prevent all life on earth being killed off.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:57 AM on August 13, 2007


Dantien:
Seriously? If God didn't exist you'd kill babies? Come on people!
Infanticide is a common cultural practice. As I said, in pre-Christian Greece, Rome and Germany it was accepted.

Britannica: "It seems to have been common in the ancient cultures of Greece, Rome, and China".

Google: "In eighty-four societies spanning the Renaissance to our time, "defective" children have been killed in one-third of them. "

It's not a question of "seriously". It's just a fact.

A newborn baby is not capable of supporting itself, cannot speak, shows no ability to reason: it's obvious to many cultures that it's not a human being with human rights and privileges.

Historically, infanticide came to be seen as wrong because of Christian ethics. In Christian natural law ethics, the purpose of a baby is to become a human being, and therefore it must be treated as one. In a more simple Christian folk belief, a baby is considered to have a soul.

So yes, if it wasn't for Christianity; I wouldn't see anything wrong in killing an unwanted newborn baby. Neither would you. It would just be an accepted cultural tradition.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:57 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Logical positivism a la Ayer. Slightly tongue-in-cheek abridged account of Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic -- he's basically Dawkins' philosophical ancestor.

The best, and shortest, review of Ayer. A logical criticism of the principle of verifiability. Certainly doesn't refute Dawkins' position, but it's worth reminding contemporary proponents of positivist-like positions that there exists no well-defined principle distinguishing verifiable from unverifiable.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:59 AM on August 13, 2007


but in the states, the abolitionists were very closely associated with churches ... dawkins is ignoring history, here

There's really no point in pretending that the Southern Churches didn't preach that slavery was God's WillTM and that opposition to slavery was opposition to God. Religion was on both sides of the issue.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:00 AM on August 13, 2007


TE, so what about non-christian cultures? How did they survive when they didnt have the benefit of the Bible to tell them not to kill their young?

The existence of infanticide is not evidence of the need for religion to prescribe morals. *rolls eyes*
posted by Dantien at 10:01 AM on August 13, 2007


I dont know what you guys are looking for...but it does not exist.

actually, that's my point ... and therefore dawkins or anyone else calling the religious irrational is like the pot calling the kettle black

we all have to assume something ... preferably things that are useful to assume, such as the scientific method or judeo-christian ethics

Our selfhood is unverifiable?

as unverifiable objectively as god is

Ethics are irrational?

no, assumptions are ... the ethics one builds upon them can be quite rational

What do you have to share that Dawkins seems to miss?

that the rational and irrational are two sides of the same coin
posted by pyramid termite at 10:03 AM on August 13, 2007


TE, you're obsessing with the tree in order to ignore the forest. Do you believe that God is necessary for morality?
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:04 AM on August 13, 2007


After readjusting the scale of my outrageometer to current events, astrology and other new ager stuff doesn't even make the needle twitch anymore.
posted by Skwirl at 10:04 AM on August 13, 2007


Religion was on both sides of the issue.

so were the morals of the time ... dawkins simply isn't making sense here
posted by pyramid termite at 10:05 AM on August 13, 2007


PT, that's absurd. religion comes to its claims through unverifiable means. science, the opposite. You cant' claim both are equal! One is repeatedly testable and Dawkins is advocating NOT assuming anything. He wants to stop religion's hold on our reason! Why does it seem to me no one really listens to what he is saying!?
posted by Dantien at 10:07 AM on August 13, 2007


Ethical or moral thinking stems from humans and therefore may be irrational. Doesn't make it any less valid or useful. I dont know what you guys are looking for...but it does not exist.

I'm butting in on this discussion late, but isn't the point, though, that Dawkins' main argument in attacking faith as a basis for ethical or moral thought is that faith is irrational?

Let me put it another way: How do you define what's 'valid' or 'useful' without implicitly making those judgments based on some presupposed values system which is itself based on unchallenged (or 'irrational' assumptions)? The Romans, for example, saw maintaining the authority of the state as a sufficiently valuable objective to persecute and slaughter Christians. In that cultural and historical context, those particular goals might have been considered reasonable, and their methods (persecution and murder) might have been considered useful. What can science, in itself, offer as a useful mechanism for determining what we should value?

Nothing, because the scientific method is just a set of tools and methodologies for achieving our preexisting goals and either challenging or affirming our preexisting beliefs. Science doesn't offer beliefs, so ultimately all beliefs can be challenged as lacking a scientific basis.

(on preview--i don't think i want to get into this any further--but that's my 2 cents worth)
posted by saulgoodman at 10:10 AM on August 13, 2007


I'd like to echo that the claim made a couple times in this thread that the reasoning leading materialism is only a partway argument to ultra-radical skepticism a la postmodernism does nothing to refute the basic idea that we should believe things we have better reasons to believe than "it's comforting," it would only show that it doesn't go far enough from its assumptions.

I'll also add, regarding the notion that consciousness is not an externally verifiable trait, that there are people who think this does pose an empirical problem that needs a very unusual solution to explain consistently. Chalmers is the leading proponent of a naturalist sort of neo-Cartesian Dualism (restricting the aphysical component to conscious events, not "the mind" generally), and I approximately agree with him. Different people have different accounts of the accessibility of consciousness (including the curious, all-too-common denial that there's anything externally unverifiable about it at all). I'd argue that even when you grant that consciousness is externally unverifiable, it doesn't threaten the whole enterprise of creating a consistent--even true (if not complete)--picture of the natural world, regardless of other things which might.
posted by abcde at 10:13 AM on August 13, 2007


saulgoodman (say hi to Rebecca for me!), that's what I've been trying to get at- we are very explicitly not just saying "RATIONAL: GOOD, IRRATIONAL:BAD!" I am saying as hard as I can that we can judge things based on their utility to human beings in furthering the goals the benefit us. Science and reason benefit us and allow us to understand reality and to prosper. They are useful tools. Religion and irrationality are not useful tools and should be discarded.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:15 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope G, I think the decision gets tougher the more you reduce the range of results. For example, either everyone dies or that guy talking on his cell phone at the coffee counter dies. Answer, B. But when you try to compress utilitarianism and define the groups (100 people of type X to save 150 people of type Y) it gets far more tricky.

And the dying psychic alien? Interesting that saving the world was not a question of numbers, but a question of myth -- you need the common enemy, right? Even if it is a fabrication. Suddenly Leo Strauss rises up (and with him, appropriately, Popper) and with it his claim that people, the majority of people, need myth, need uniting lies, not truths, and that it is in the best interest of society that we have these irrational truths. It's a spooky neo-con position, but what if Strauss (and Nietzsche) are right, that people need stories?

Isn't that what the Outer Limits episode, Reagan, and the Watchmen all share in common?
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 10:15 AM on August 13, 2007


innoculatedcities: By all means, there is no lack of atheistic and secular philosophy out there. The problem is that science on its own makes for a pretty impoverished vision of secular philososphy. The result is often that science is applied to questions that its poorly suited for, or like Pope is doing, other forms of knowledge are invoked blindly.

Danten: And lastly, to echo Prof. Dawkins, why do we feel that superstition and religion are somehow off limits to critical analysis and discussion?

Straw man, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Of course superstition and religion are fair game for analysis and discussion. Further, the arguments and evidence used by critics of religion are fair game for analysis and discussion. Having read Dawkins's writings on religion for much of the last 5 years in The Humanist, I think he depends too much on theory that is "not even wrong" in looking at the psychology and sociology of religion.

Dantien: Are you claiming that materialism somehow cannot prescribe an ethic? Ethics are not, of course, some metaphysical claim. They are fundamental and practical and "real world". His claim seems to me to be stating that rational & critical thought is a good because of it's effectiveness and applicability (much like murder is an evil not due to a metaphysical claim but that it fails under the categorical imperative). But perhaps I am misunderstanding your point?

Well, I'll make the argument that ethics are "metaphysical" in that there is nothing physical which mandates utilitarianism, deontological, or virtue ethics. Note, that does not mean I'm proposing a supernatural source to ethics, just that ethics is one of those many examples where we impose meaning on the universe.

Dantien: Why does it seem to me no one really listens to what he is saying!?

That's what I'm wondering. From where I sit, if you really listen to what he's saying, he comes off as passionate about his views to the point of blinkered blindless to the flaws in his own argument.

Science is not the antonym of religion BTW.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:18 AM on August 13, 2007


Dantien:
TE, sorry but your infanticide argument isnt valid. One could claim that caring for infants is a biological evolutionary trait (the tribes that cared survived longer than those that didnt).
...
TE, so what about non-christian cultures? How did they survive when they didnt have the benefit of the Bible to tell them not to kill their young?

The existence of infanticide is not evidence of the need for religion to prescribe morals. *rolls eyes*
Dantien, Richard Dawkins would be clobbering you over the head if he heard this. You're making a group selectionist argument. The whole point of Dawkins' real work is that genes are selfish. (That's well worth reading BTW: Dawkins is very good on subjects he understands). Evolution operates at the gene level, not at the individual level and certainly not at the tribe level.

The genetic reasons for infanticide in the human world would be the same as it's common in the animal world. In unfavourable conditions, you don't want to waste resources on a child, and you don't want to risk your own welfare. You are the repository of 100% of your genes, your child only 50%: you are therefore twice as valuable as your child. (Well, as long as you're young enough to reproduce again).
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:19 AM on August 13, 2007


religion comes to its claims through unverifiable means.

on second thought, one last thing: why is dawkins' smart enough to recognize that the human propensity for superstition and religious belief may be biologically-rooted but not smart enough to realize that, if that's so, religious belief can't necessarily be reasoned away and it may just be pointless to try? that's what i want to know. (or is his commitment to memetic theory to blame--he thinks we can just incorporate his superior memes into our culture, and poof, religion will vanish in a puff of smoke?)

I'll take my comments off the air, as they say on NPR.

saulgoodman (say hi to Rebecca for me!)

Ha! ;)

(yes, i used an emoticon, so sue me.)
posted by saulgoodman at 10:23 AM on August 13, 2007


saulgoodman: I think memetics is his greatest flaw, and an area where Dawkins himself succumbs to irrationality.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:26 AM on August 13, 2007


Science and reason benefit us and allow us to understand reality and to prosper. They are useful tools. Religion and irrationality are not useful tools and should be discarded.

Define utility: If I was a smarter monkey than my fellow monkeys, getting them to believe I am The One and True representative of the Big Hoodoo in the Sky would be very useful to me and my offspring.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:28 AM on August 13, 2007


Pope Guilty:
TE, you're obsessing with the tree in order to ignore the forest. Do you believe that God is necessary for morality?
No, I'm using a suitable example to illustrate my point. I think it's working quite well.

I've already said here that I don't think God is necessary for a consistent morality. However, the morality we've all been brought up with is a specifically Judeo-Christian morality. If someone hasn't studied anthropology, ancient history or other cultures in detail, they tend to massively underestimate how specifically Judeo-Christian our cultural morality is.

It is therefore very difficult to come up with a strictly materialist, strictly empiricist moral philosophy that does not feel utterly repugnant to someone brought up in our culture.

I already cited Peter Singer as someone who has come up with a Dawkins-friendly moral philosophy. But when he starts talking about in some circumstances, some animals have more right to life than some humans, people often get a little bit queasy...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:30 AM on August 13, 2007


Evolution operates at the gene level, not at the individual level and certainly not at the tribe level.

You are comparing apples to oranges so it is hard to tell exactly what you mean. But if you mean that natural selection always acts on individual genes independently, you are mistaken. The three words "genes are selfish" does not even approach explaining the complexity of evolution.
posted by grouse at 10:32 AM on August 13, 2007


If I was a smarter monkey than my fellow monkeys, getting them to believe I am The One and True representative of the Big Hoodoo in the Sky would be very useful to me and my offspring.

Useful to you, yes. For the rest of the monkeys, not so much, and their utility would lie in minimizing your influence at every turn.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:32 AM on August 13, 2007


Define utility: If I was a smarter monkey than my fellow monkeys, getting them to believe I am The One and True representative of the Big Hoodoo in the Sky would be very useful to me and my offspring.

Wow, blazecock: I think you just proved that religion is science!
posted by saulgoodman at 10:32 AM on August 13, 2007


I'm sure there are deep lines of argument from extremely bright people about this, but just to dip a toe in one of them, regarding the issue that the masses need myths to cohere, what should we think of all the ex-soviet societies that no longer have the unifying doctrine of communism but are still widely atheistic? They tend to have low happiness indices, but they're not in anarchy.

There are other types of pervasive myths (dare I say memeplexes in the souring atmosphere in this thread toward memes?) besides religious and political ideologies, but if I recall, conservative types like Strauss tend to think the latter, particularly religion, is necessary for society.
posted by abcde at 10:33 AM on August 13, 2007


but if I recall, conservative types like Strauss tend to think the latter, particularly religion, is necessary for society.

my own take on this, and i tried to suggest it earlier, is that the question of whether or not unifying myths or religious faith are necessary misses the point: they're probably biological imperatives. even many of the more rational, scientific minded people i know don't abandon their irrational beliefs entirely when they begin to challenge their inculcated faiths. instead they adopt belief systems like neo-paganism or various eastern systems. all of which leads me to suspect that whether it benefits society as a whole or not, most people do need belief systems of one kind or another, and those belief systems can't be entirely rational or science-based, because science fundamentally lacks the capacity to generate novel beliefs (theories, yes; beliefs, no).
posted by saulgoodman at 10:42 AM on August 13, 2007


Really, it's a shame how Dawkins has gobbled up all of the atheist mindshare out there. Schermer is worth reading because he starts from the fact that human beings are rationalizing animals and any attempt to deal with religion needs to take into account the way our mental pumps are primed to see coincidence as fate, and to have some really wacky subjective experiences under the influence of stress, minimal sleep, or ingesting many substances.

Wilson, Druyan, and Sagan should get credit for expressing the view that the wonders of the universe provide an alternative for filling human needs for awe, wonder and worship.

Hitchens deserves credit because no one else writes as well at attacking religion as a social system.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:44 AM on August 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


You know, KJS, this may be the single point on which we completely agree. :)
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:46 AM on August 13, 2007


Simply put, if genes are selfish, I'd argue that human consciousness is not (at least, not always). The repulsion of infanticide (as an example) is a good example, but sadly you are ignoring the evolution Dawkins so fervently defends.

If a tribe practiced infanticide regularly, at some point they would have a smaller population than one that didn't. And as many tribes have realized, population numbers can mean superiority. (i dont think anyone is arguing against this, im just restating.) And while we can claim that no ethical theory stands as a metaphysical truth, that doesn't mean we should dispense with them all. Theories have evolved to help us, as a society, thrive. The golden rule certainly existed before Jesus allegedly spoke it (I'm ignoring the bibilcal studies over the veracity of Jesus, or the authenticity of the New Testament of course). Whether or not we are soaked in Judeo-Christian teachings doesn't mean we require them to have a healthy society.

These ethics of ours live in the real world and are not necessarily scientific. But they should stand up to reason and rationality, something religions fail to do. Our morals must come from a common understanding and agreement, not from a God, or a Bible, or a priest. Rationality or irrationality is irrelevant. Ethics are practical and one of the few areas of Philosophy that are such. You can say we are imposing meaning on the universe. True! But it's better than we do it ourselves and with some reason behind it than allow a 2000 year old book to tell us.

Dawkins is welcome to hit me over the head anytime btw.
posted by Dantien at 10:53 AM on August 13, 2007


what is a table to me is a table to my brother, to my professor, to my lover.

God, you're lucky. My table is a table to everyone but my lover. She's always dropping things on the floor. It's been really difficult.
posted by anazgnos at 10:57 AM on August 13, 2007


grouse:
Evolution operates at the gene level, not at the individual level and certainly not at the tribe level.

You are comparing apples to oranges so it is hard to tell exactly what you mean. But if you mean that natural selection always acts on individual genes independently, you are mistaken. The three words "genes are selfish" does not even approach explaining the complexity of evolution.
No, but the book I linked to does explain why Dawkins considers group selection like "the tribes that cared survived longer than those that didnt" to be a fallacy.

If you want a more immediate cite than the book, there's Wikipedia:
Dawkins has been consistently sceptical about non-adaptive processes in evolution and about selection at levels "above" that of the gene. He is particularly sceptical about the practical possibility or importance of group selection.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:59 AM on August 13, 2007


In other words, a magical explanation for something does not automatically disqualify it.

Right - There's evidence that acupuncture does do something. However, it does not do everything that's claimed of it by a long shot (e.g. a needle in the ear won't cure smoking or other bad habits) , and there doesn't seem to be any evidence of the existence of meridians. Its effect appears to be modest and localized.

The whole acupuncture argument is a red herring - many medical practices got their start from folk medicine. But they were put to better use once they were understood by science. Once enough is known about acupuncture, it will cease to be "alternative." But the fact that it has some effect does not validate the mystical beliefs of its adherents - much less the beliefs about other mystical cures such as homeopathy.
posted by QuietDesperation at 11:04 AM on August 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Dantien: If a tribe practiced infanticide regularly, at some point they would have a smaller population than one that didn't. And as many tribes have realized, population numbers can mean superiority.

Which misses the whole issue of r-selection vs. k-selection. What matters is not the number of offspring, but the number of offspring that reach reproductive age. When resources are scarce, k-selection reproductive strategies such as altuism and infanticide are favored. When resources are bountiful, r-selection strategies are favored. So if you were basing your moral argument on evolution, you would be forced to conclude that infanticide is an evolutionary imperative under some conditions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:08 AM on August 13, 2007


Dantien:
If a tribe practiced infanticide regularly, at some point they would have a smaller population than one that didn't. And as many tribes have realized, population numbers can mean superiority. (i dont think anyone is arguing against this, im just restating.)
Nope. If you have a child in a year when there's a bad harvest, the sensible decision may be to kill it, and maybe have another next year when there's a good harvest. That way you don't risk yourself and produce more surviving offspring on average.
These ethics of ours live in the real world and are not necessarily scientific.
However, even though I've quoted multiple sources including the Encyclopedia Britannica, you're still denying that infanticide exists or ever existed.

This is the irony of Dawkinsism. You're claiming to be rational and evidence based. But actually what you're doing is denying the evidence in order to fit your metaphysical notions.

You are exactly what you claim to oppose.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:09 AM on August 13, 2007


You can say we are imposing meaning on the universe. True! But it's better than we do it ourselves and with some reason behind it than allow a 2000 year old book to tell us.

Dantien: I don't disagree with any of your sentiments, but just suppose for a moment that human religious faith has biological underpinnings. Now, obviously, there's a lot of genetic variation in the world, so even if this were so, you'd expect to see some variation in the expression of the traits that give rise to religious belief, and as a result, a few individuals (like Dawkins and yourself) might be capable of completely abandoning their religious beliefs when those beliefs were clearly shown to be irrational or inconsistent with the preponderance of scientific evidence--some individuals may never have held such beliefs in the first place. However, conceivably, such individuals could be exceptional, and the vast majority of people could literally be incapable of completely abandoning their religious beliefs while remaining psychologically healthy--do you agree that such a scenario could obtain, or are you prepared to argue that it couldn't? To me, that's the crucial point. If the tendency to hold irrational religious beliefs is biologically-rooted, it might not be possible to argue away, and it might be more productive to adopt strategies for harmonizing the biological realities that drive faith with larger humanistic goals, rather than denying those realities on ideological grounds.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:11 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wow TE. Where in the f#$@ did you get that I deny infanticide exists? Did my account get hacked? Show me where I said it.

What I was saying was that we are looking for some rational ethical stance in Dawkins' statements. There is no rational ethical stance when you feel human decisioning is inherently irrational. And so our ethics are developed not from Judeo-Christian views, but from evolution and our own views. In fact, you could easily claim that Judeo-Christian ethics hijacked our own common-sense ethics at the time (however wrong they may have been). We are an evolving species and our ethics evolve also.

I'm claiming that our morals MUST stand up to rationality or be reevaluated. I'm not claiming any metaphysical "notions". I am a-metaphysical. Our ethics are real world and while infanticide may have been necessary for our survival during times of poor resources, they aren't now and our ethics have adapted to our current situation.

Of course, one could argue to bring infanticide back to lower the population explosion. It's repugnant to me (an expecting father) but certainly worth discussion. It's religious fanaticism that discourages discussion and in the end, this is what Dawkins is railing against.
posted by Dantien at 11:31 AM on August 13, 2007


saul, very clear thinking there. thanks.

But I would argue that regardless of the difficulty of arguing away biologically-held religious beliefs, doesn't mean we should continue to hold onto them, nor should we enact them as policy and force others to be beholden to them. In defending Dawkins on here, I'm really trying to clarify his thinking to those who've seemed to misunderstand him. He's simply claiming that biological or not, we must shine a very bright light on these beliefs, no matter how deeply held. Perhaps they are good beliefs ("Love each other") or bad ones ("kill the unbelievers"), but until we really look at them with reason, we are making a dangerous error. We've evolved physically, why not mentally and spiritually also?
posted by Dantien at 11:35 AM on August 13, 2007


Useful to you, yes. For the rest of the monkeys, not so much, and their utility would lie in minimizing your influence at every turn.

Nah, for now they're pretty dumb, and having them believe in the Big Hoodoo placates them and makes them feel good, giving them hope despite the lions, plague and pestilence that makes us all suffer. It's win-win, so I think my smart monkey will take advantage and give my offspring the benefits.

Applying the moral calculus of Utilitarianism to evaluating the "usefulness" of science or religion doesn't work well, since the utility function depends entirely on who measures it, and what outcomes are determined to be "useful".
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:36 AM on August 13, 2007


I love this quote from Robert Weitzel:

"Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are not bigots. They are an unholy trinity of bestselling atheist authors who are fed up with having to tap dance around people of faith whose religious beliefs are as irrational as they are ubiquitous, and as potentially deadly as they are personally cathartic.

This unholy trinity is the rising voice of over ten percent of Americans who identify themselves as atheists (closeted or otherwise) who are mad as heck—we don’t believe in hell—and who aren’t going to take it anymore. What else can account for the phenomenal sales of the unholy trinity’s recent books?

Think of it, at least ten of your hundred closest friends are the “pissed off faithless” . . . a sizable cabal at any backyard barbecue, or polling station for that matter.

If the faithful would just keep their religious beliefs in their own pocket and out of public school classrooms and bedrooms and women’s wombs, I doubt much would ever be heard from the unholy trinity or the POF. What would be the point?

But in kissing up to the religious right . . . or religious center . . . or religious left, it’s gotten so that politicians, both elephant and ass, will not open their mouths without first crossing themselves or testifying. For the POF, it’s particularly nauseating every election cycle as candidates yammer on about their walk with the Lord while they trample all over the truth to cut each other’s throats. "

posted by Dantien at 11:38 AM on August 13, 2007 [4 favorites]


Simply put, if genes are selfish, I'd argue that human consciousness is not (at least, not always).

This is deeply confused and I can't even begin to understand what you are attempting to say here. I don't think consciousness is necessary or relevant to discussion of evolution, even specifically human evolution. All the traditional problems associated with the observation of consciousness apply here: even if you are in a solipsist universe, evolution still holds perfectly well for all living things.

If you're working with an assumption of a soul or free will, and attempting to work that into Darwinian evolution, well, feel free to babble on - but it doesn't seem worth discussing.

In fact, you could easily claim that Judeo-Christian ethics hijacked our own common-sense ethics at the time (however wrong they may have been). We are an evolving species and our ethics evolve also.

Our ethics are real world and while infanticide may have been necessary for our survival during times of poor resources, they aren't now and our ethics have adapted to our current situation.


Here's your problem: you've contradicted yourself, or at least you are stating things very ambiguously. "our own common-sense ethics" were hijacked by "Judeo-Christian ethics" but "our ethics evolve" and now "our ethics are real world" and "our ethics have adapted" - how many different ethics are we tracking here and which ones are correct/evolved/current? Were Judeo-Christian ethics evolved to hijack previously evolved ethics or artificially imposed? How do you account for the latter in an evolutionary framework?

Finally, who is "our"? In a world of 6 billion people, is ethics universal? Individual? Tribal? National? Can and should the ethics "evolved" by say, American Christians, be applied to Africa? (to borrow from your infanticide argument, does your modern ethical viewpoint on infanticide apply equally in a famine-ravaged developing nation?)

Ultimately I think if you inspect your position closely enough it's identical to moral relativism. Evolution is not directionary, and therefore neither is an evolved ethics.
posted by mek at 11:44 AM on August 13, 2007


Applying the moral calculus of Utilitarianism to evaluating the "usefulness" of science or religion doesn't work well, since the utility function depends entirely on who measures it, and what outcomes are determined to be "useful".

How wonderful it is, then, that Utilitarianism advocates the greatest pleasure for the greatest number, and not the greatest usefulness.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:49 AM on August 13, 2007


*applauds Pope Guilty* oh how rich!!!

Mek, dude, this isn't about me. I'm not stating my ethical position AT ALL. Why the attack? I'm claiming that ethical theories have evolved over time based on biological performance and was only bringing the Judeo-Christian part in since it was earlier stated that it wasnt until then that infanticide was suddenly "wrong" (which is absurd. It existed, but wasn't "right" but necessary. it is no longer thus).

But its fine if I'm attacked, or my sloppy logic is occasionally nitpicked. It doesnt negate my claims however. I'm happy to be your strawman though.
posted by Dantien at 11:58 AM on August 13, 2007


Sorry Dantien, that's what I thought you were saying with your argument that infanticide would have produced smaller populations among tribes and been group-selected against.

Otherwise, see mek's comment. I'm not really understanding what you're saying.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:00 PM on August 13, 2007


""defective" children have been killed in one-third of them" Killing defective children is a survival trait. deformed or malformed children are not as likely to survive to adulthood and reproduce. As I understand it, infanticide was typically practiced in the first few weeks of life and in a world with little birth control and no abortions can just be considered a 4th trimester abortion.
posted by Megafly at 12:09 PM on August 13, 2007


I was only attacking your argument or "sloppy logic" as you put it, but that's generally how argument is done, as I understand it. You may not be stating your position but you are stating *a* position - all the more reason to not consider an attack on the position as an attack on you. I only hope to clarify the discussion.

Infanticide may no longer be acceptable in Western culture but it is still prevalent and accepted in places, China being an obvious example.
posted by mek at 12:09 PM on August 13, 2007


Let me simplify, since we are all over the map (and really, i want to get to the heart of my point). I'm quoting Hitchens here:

"Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first -- I have been asking it for some time -- awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.

Essentially conceding that philosophy and secularism do not condemn their adherents to lives of unbridled selfishness, and that (say) the Jewish people did not get all the way to Mount Sinai under the impression that murder and theft and perjury were okay, and also that we could not have evolved unless human solidarity was in some way innate, Gerson ends weakly by posing what is a rather moving problem."
posted by Dantien at 12:12 PM on August 13, 2007


Life sucks, we're all alone out here, and it would be a lot better if we just made more of an effort to understand where each other are coming from.

That's an easy position to take if you're part of the vast majority of humans who believe in a sky person. I think that many of the people who have contributed to this thread have forgotten that the British Government was still hanging atheists as recently as 1850.
posted by chuckdarwin at 12:22 PM on August 13, 2007


Dantien: Let me simplify, since we are all over the map (and really, i want to get to the heart of my point).

Well, that's the problem. I don't think there is much wrong with the heart of your point. However, you argue for your point with a lot of silly irrational BS and top it off with a huge dollip of pseudoscience. So as an example, if you want to argue that human ethics is grounded in evolution, you need to not only explain the ethics of infanticide but also the ethics of "please and thank you," and the rather arbitrary development of economic systems.

You can say we are imposing meaning on the universe. True!

I'm not claiming any metaphysical "notions". I am a-metaphysical.

Do you even bother to look at your own stuff rationally when writing self-contradictory BS?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:34 PM on August 13, 2007


I think that many of the people who have contributed to this thread have forgotten that the British Government was still hanging atheists as recently as 1850.

Well, there's my curiosity piqued, and Google doesn't seem to turn anything up.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:35 PM on August 13, 2007


. ?
posted by washburn at 12:36 PM on August 13, 2007


I think that many of the people who have contributed to this thread have forgotten that the British Government was still hanging atheists as recently as 1850.


And Christians were being tortured and persecuted as recently as yesterday.
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 12:39 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Dantien: that's not really what we're arguing here.

Being an atheist is not necessarily the same thing as being a Dawkinsian atheist. You can disbelieve in God, but believe in intangible, unprovable concepts like "human rights", and your ethics around that. "A baby is a human being, it therefore has an inalienable right to life".

From a Dawkinsian point of view though: you are believing in something emprically unprovable, and are therefore being irrational.

The question is whether you can adopt Dawkins' strict empiricism and strict materialism, and still come up with a consistent, rational system of ethics.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:44 PM on August 13, 2007


TE: Bingo! And to point out another blatant flaws in the appeal to strict material empiricism, they are quite willing to accept mathematics and logic as valid knowledge systems in spite of the glaring flaw exposed by Godel and Turing. It is a blatant contradiction to say that axiomatic systems are valid to make claims about computer problems, but not about ethics, aesthetics and morality.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:52 PM on August 13, 2007


Is Dawkins involved in any efforts to actually educate people with critical thinking skills? I mean, apart from complaining that people are irrational? With his media access, he could be organizing seminars on elementary logic, basic math and statistics, logical fallacy, etc. Nobody's going to be convinced of his arguments without these skills. He's right obviously, but it doesn't seem like he's doing anything about it that won't just put religious people on the defensive. Instead of challenging people's beliefs, he should be educating them with the tools they'll need to question their beliefs themselves. I would think it would be more effective to devote more effort to helping people transition from holding irrational beliefs to learning how to look at the world logically. Religions offer new converts lots of counselling and guidance for people to become acclimated to their new beliefs, but going the other way, we expect people to just have an epiphany of rationalism and start thinking clearly. Really, there should be some place for people who are thinking "you know, I'm skeptical of some of the teachings of my religion. But if my religion is wrong, where can I find meaning in my life? What can motivate me? How can I still be a good person? I don't really get what science is all about, but am a bit curious." Right now, these people who doubt their religion are often simply picked up by another faith, since the sense is that secularists are condescending and mock their values. If he really wants to see people embracing rationality, I think he could take a more active route in promoting this. If I'm wrong and Dawkins is actually involved in such outreach and educational efforts, then my point is moot, but from what I've heard of him, his message seems to be more "religion is harmful and here's why" than "learning to think rationally will help you make sense of the world, and if you don't think you have it in you to master logic, here's what you can do to learn."
posted by SBMike at 12:52 PM on August 13, 2007


Christianity and its persecution of Apostates, Humanists, Pantheists Deists, Atheists and others

The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England: A Fragment of Autobiography
posted by chuckdarwin at 12:59 PM on August 13, 2007


Gnostic Novelist, I haven't claimed that Christians aren't being persecuted... I was simply reminding people that atheism was ILLEGAL until quite recently.
In the twentieth century, for the first time since pre-Christian times, anyone could safely espouse agnosticism or atheism, although the Blasphemy Statute of 1698, survived until recent times. The clause about the Trinity had already been rescinded in 1813, and the rest of Act was quietly repealed in 1967.
posted by chuckdarwin at 1:05 PM on August 13, 2007


According to atheists.org George Holyoake was sentenced to six months, rather than hanged.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:09 PM on August 13, 2007


Chuckdarwin I was simply reminding people that atheism was ILLEGAL until quite recently.

And that [outlawing atheism] is wrong. Theism/Deism could possibly be the ultimate truth, but outlawing atheism worsens humanity in the same way outlawing the free-market does. Most religious people ought to be held to a higher standard. If one does proclaim ultimate truth, then one must face ultimate consequences. I was simply pointing out that it is a hellish world for Christians, contra Western perception. I don't know how well Atheist fare in non-Western or Non-Islamic societies.
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 1:34 PM on August 13, 2007


It's been touched on before, and should be reiterated. Science consists of

(a): a body of empirically derived theories.
(b): the method (based on the principle of falsification) used to derive those theories.

That's it. It's not a worldview. It's not a rival to religion. By definition, (or at least by the above definition, which is decently sturdy), it can't really oppose religion because it can't actually touch the core principles of most religious thought - i.e. the existence of spirit, of god, and of the afterlife. Such principles make no falsifiable predictions, and so they are outside of science's jurisdiction.

Now, science can oppose religion when adherents of religion makes falsifiable statements,like those who advocate Intelligent Design and its cousins. Science has never failed to chase religion from the field on those occasions. One may draw one's own conclusions about religion at large from this history - but such conclusions would not, strictly, be scientific conclusions.

And one may also make scientific hypotheses about the underpinnings of religion - in this case, whether belief in a god derives from some kink of the brain. But one may not disprove the larger statements of religion through even this method; a neural basis for religious fervor does not disprove the existence of God any more than the neural basis for vision disproves the existence of light.

I can see why many atheists wish for and often assume a scientific basis for religion's falsity. But such a basis does not exist and will not be forthcoming. You may strongly suspect that religion does not exist. You may hazard that religion does more harm than good, and that its adherents are murderous morons. And you may choose to reject religion - personally.

But you cannot know for sure. And you cannot pronounce that people must drop religion and pick up, I don't know, memetics, without being guilty of the same philosophical arrogance that atheists find so abhorrent in theists.

This last is what I find most unappealing about Dawkins. He attempts to fight fire with fire with by dragging rational discourse down to the level of the thou musts and the thou shall nots that so often poison religion. I would much rather see religion (which, like humanity as a whole, has engendered both unimaginable destruction and unimaginable loveliness) brought up to a level where that loveliness could flourish without the dross of compulsion, repression, and intellectual thuggery.

(Of course, this is all my opinion).
posted by Iridic at 1:43 PM on August 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


I don't know how well Atheist fare in non-Western or Non-Islamic societies.

I don't think they can admit that they are atheists in such places.
posted by chuckdarwin at 1:44 PM on August 13, 2007


I was simply pointing out that it is a hellish world for Christians, contra Western perception.

It's a hellish world for people of every religion who live in a place where the dominant religion is something else. (Parts of Europe excepted, of course.)
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:50 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, I'll make the argument that ethics are "metaphysical" in that there is nothing physical which mandates utilitarianism, deontological, or virtue ethics.


Pain is physical. Proof: remove certain parts of the brain and, voila, no pain is felt. The harm causing the pain is obviously physical too.

From here you start building your rational ethics. With logic you can derive what ethical system is somewhat good or not so. (Revelation is obviously not as valid as logics to evaluate ethical systems.)
posted by vertriebskonzept at 1:51 PM on August 13, 2007


Excuse me:

You may strongly suspect that religion does not exist.

should be

You may strongly suspect that God does not exist.
posted by Iridic at 1:52 PM on August 13, 2007


Dawkins: "Science cannot disprove God as well as they cannot disprove Apollo or Juju or Thor with his hammer or even a Flying Spaghetti Monster creating the universe. However, we do not believe them as they are unlikely to exist. We do neither believe in fairies of Hans Andersen although we cannot disprove them. To believe in an unlikely event or a deity only because we cannot disprove it, sounds foolish to me."
posted by Dantien at 1:54 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


To believe in an unlikely event or a deity only because we cannot disprove it, sounds foolish to me.

And to me. But then, no one believes in a deity (or other unfalsifiable system) "only" because they cannot disprove it. Back when Dawkins when was plugging memetics, he didn't exactly push that system's lack of verifiable predictions front and center.
posted by Iridic at 2:05 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


And Christians were being tortured and persecuted as recently as yesterday.

Either you're trolling or you didn't bother to read what you linked, since your references to alleged torture and persecution are not taking place in secular countries, if such an entity exists.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:08 PM on August 13, 2007


his message seems to be more "religion is harmful and here's why" than "learning to think rationally will help you make sense of the world, and if you don't think you have it in you to master logic, here's what you can do to learn."

I agree with you but there's only so much one man can do. Dawkins' contribution is getting this important debate started...he's a great polemicist. Didn't they used to call this "consciousness raising".

There is indeed a need for educators to step up to the plate. Critical thinking skills and the scientific method need to be taught better in the schools.
posted by storybored at 2:17 PM on August 13, 2007


Either you're trolling or you didn't bother to read what you linked, since your references to alleged torture and persecution are not taking place in secular countries, if such an entity exists.

The link includes a story about Christians being persecuted in Laos, which is a communist state.
posted by vorpal bunny at 2:32 PM on August 13, 2007


Laotians practice Buddhism, on the whole.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:40 PM on August 13, 2007


From CIA's World Handbook:
Loas, Religions: Buddhist 65%, animist 32.9%, Christian 1.3%, other and unspecified 0.8% (1995 census)

It is 2007, vorpal bunny, not 1957. If you would care to crawl out of your fallout shelter once in a while, you would have have a chance to realize that communism and atheism are two very different things.
posted by c13 at 4:18 PM on August 13, 2007


Loas, Religions: Buddhist 65%, animist 32.9%, Christian 1.3%, other and unspecified 0.8% (1995 census)

Laos is still communist. Buddhism is mostly atheistic anyway. I don't see what is so shocking about an atheistic Buddhist culture.
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 5:15 PM on August 13, 2007


Well, I haven't been around here since the very beginning, but this must be the dumbest comment posted since 2004.
posted by c13 at 5:33 PM on August 13, 2007


Agreed.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:37 PM on August 13, 2007


I'm not directing this comment at anyone in particular here but I'm willing to bet that anyone who jumps on the "Secularism prescribes no morality..." bandwagon has never read Marc Hauser or Robert Trivers.

Here's a choice quote from an interview with Hauser:

If there is an innate moral instinct, why was it selected? What advantages does it bring?

First, the only way for selection to work, if we are discussing biological as opposed to cultural evolution, is for the trait to have some genetic, heritable component that is variable. Now the challenge comes in working out the selective advantage of such a capacity, and here there are at least two options.

First, it is possible that the moral instinct was originally selected due to its fitness consequences for maintaining social norms, some of which may have evolved long before humans emerged on earth. That is, the moral faculty provides a set of principles for cooperating, for punishing cheaters, for determining the conditions in which helping is obligatory, and so forth.

Second, it is possible that some of the computations that underlie our moral instinct evolved for reasons that are not specific to morality but were subsequently co-opted or adopted for morality, and then subject to a round of selection. For example, take the fact that many moral decisions are based upon whether an action was intended or accidental. If someone harms another, it is essential to assess whether the harm was intended or the result of an accident. If accidental, was it due to negligence? Though the intended/accidental distinction is critical to our moral evaluations, the ability to distinguish these two causal factors appears in non-moral situations: Though I am a fairly good tennis player, sometimes I hit a winner because I really aimed for a particular spot inside the line, and sometimes I accidentally hit the spot. The consequence is the same: I hit a winner.

Early in human development, children appear sensitive to these hidden psychological causes, appreciating that not all consequences are equal. They appreciate that the means of achieving a particular consequence matter for both moral and non-moral situations.

posted by inoculatedcities at 6:01 PM on August 13, 2007


I'm not directing this comment at anyone in particular here but I'm willing to bet that anyone who jumps on the "Secularism prescribes no morality

It depends on the definition of secular. Secular =/= atheistic. Many awoed athiests worship at the alter of Science or Collectivism and pretend it isn't a religion. I have little beef with secularism (if its opposition is theocracy). But very few atheists are actually secularists once their religion of science is at stake.
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 6:09 PM on August 13, 2007


Gnostic, use of the very phrase "religion of science" shows an obvious and complete misunderstanding of what science is.

If by religion you mean a "body of techniques for investigating phenomena and acquiring new knowledge, as well as for correcting and integrating previous knowledge...based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning, the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses," you might be asked to provide a single example of a religious doctrine or organization that espouses anything even remotely close to that statement. Go ahead, give it a try.

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science." - Charles Darwin

posted by inoculatedcities at 6:20 PM on August 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


Gnostic, use of the very phrase "religion of science" shows an obvious and complete misunderstanding of what science is.

Oh, come on! If Buddhism is the same as atheism, and atheism is pretty much the same thing as communism, why wouldn't "religion of science" be acceptable? If you take words you don't know the meaning of, redefine them to suit your immediate needs and then use them interchangeably, any combination of them will have just about as much meaning or be equally valid.
posted by c13 at 6:42 PM on August 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


c13 - Heh. Point taken.
posted by inoculatedcities at 7:08 PM on August 13, 2007


If Buddhism is the same as atheism

Someone needs to put down the bong. Atheism does not encompass all the tenets that Buddhism holds dear. There are seriously 'supernatural' elements at work there.

All Dawkins is trying to accomplish is this: use a double blind and try to prove things. If that doesn't work, your set of ideas is faith-based; including [especially] tarot, reiki, runes, etc.
posted by chuckdarwin at 7:32 PM on August 13, 2007


religion of science

Crackpot.
posted by bardic at 7:35 PM on August 13, 2007


More like troll.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:49 PM on August 13, 2007


More like troll.

I wonder, whatever happened to Bevets? Those two would get along so well...
posted by c13 at 7:53 PM on August 13, 2007


Ice floats!
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:08 PM on August 13, 2007


I'm thinking Gnostic Novelist and peeping_thomist might be the same person. I mean, they might as well be.
posted by bardic at 8:29 PM on August 13, 2007


Dawkins: "Science cannot disprove God as well as they cannot disprove Apollo or Juju or Thor with his hammer or even a Flying Spaghetti Monster creating the universe. However, we do not believe them as they are unlikely to exist. We do neither believe in fairies of Hans Andersen although we cannot disprove them. To believe in an unlikely event or a deity only because we cannot disprove it, sounds foolish to me."

. . . but your ideas fuck and have babies on an invisible Platonic plane. That's true.
posted by mobunited at 8:32 PM on August 13, 2007


MetaFilter: Someone needs to put down the bong.
posted by homunculus at 9:02 PM on August 13, 2007


Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith?

sigh

Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by an unbeliever that could not have been uttered or done by a believer.

Can any reader of this column think of a good statement made, or an good action performed, precisely because of a lack of religious faith?

someone please tell hitchens that rhetorical questions aren't real questions
posted by pyramid termite at 9:25 PM on August 13, 2007


To believe in an unlikely event or a deity only because we cannot disprove it, sounds foolish to me.

except of course, mr dawkins, few have actually argued that
posted by pyramid termite at 9:27 PM on August 13, 2007


"I'd sooner tolerate a holy Islamic state than anything resembling an atheist one." —posted by Gnostic Novelist

That would be Sweden!

In fact, all the countries in Scandanavia are consistently ranked every year by the U.N. as the best places in the world to live.

Apparently, atheism is good for society. Just think, no more televangelists, no more jihadis, and no more nukes!
posted by disgruntled at 9:34 PM on August 13, 2007


Can any reader of this column think of a good statement made, or an good action performed, precisely because of a lack of religious faith?

Here's one, pyramid: if you're not a Catholic, you might see the sense of encouraging the use of contraception in sub-saharan Africa, a move that would possibly save perhaps millions of lives from HIV/AIDS in regions where Catholicism is an influence. This is a good action performed precisely because of a lack of religious faith (also helped by, once again folks, the application of reason). How about an ethical motivation not to mutilate the genitals of an infant or child in the name of religious tradition? I could go on if you like...say the word. (There, that was easy.)

The question posited by Hitchens is in response to the argument made by many religious folks that without religion, (or faith, or belief in the supernatural, or the unmoved mover, however you wish to redefine it), people are doomed to a life of nihilistic hedonism. This is, of course, predicated on the absurd assumption that without explicit divine mandate (from a book or books I would bet most self-professed religious people actually know very little about), humans have no conception of justice or injustice (see discussions of "prisoner's dilemma", my citations of Hauser and Trivers above). However, like the assertion that there is an intelligent creator of the universe (and the silly addendum that you or someone knows his/her/its mind), the onus is on the believer to offer evidence and prove that it's true, not on the skeptic who denies that there is sufficient evidence or reasoning to validate it (just as the onus is on me to prove that faeries exist, not on the skeptic who denies it on the basis of a lack of evidence). Damn, there's that scientific method again.

except of course, mr dawkins, few have actually argued that

Yeah, I beg to differ (see above). This is almost always the de facto "See? I win!" style of 'argument' that religious people routinely engage in. To cite a relevant contemporary example, it's precisely how nonthinking quasi-mystic automatons have invented and furthered the cause of the 'intelligent design' incarnation of creationism.
posted by inoculatedcities at 10:03 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Another way to put Hitchens' position is this -- what a disgustingly low opinion one must have of herself and her fellow human beings to think that only the threats of an invisible entity can keep them from tearing each other apart and murdering one another.
posted by bardic at 10:15 PM on August 13, 2007


if you're not a Catholic, you might see the sense of encouraging the use of contraception in sub-saharan Africa,

Or, if you're not a Talibani, you might value your wife or daughter slightly more than your dog.

There are plenty more examples, PT but like you said, it requires thinking to see them.
posted by c13 at 10:16 PM on August 13, 2007


It is 2007, vorpal bunny, not 1957. If you would care to crawl out of your fallout shelter once in a while, you would have have a chance to realize that communism and atheism are two very different things.

Awww shucks, c13, it was my first comment on Mefi and already I'm getting attacked. After lurking here for years I finally feel like I belong! :)

I wasn't trying to imply that communism is atheism, just that it is secular, which was what Blazecock Pileon was looking for.

At the very least I hardly think that Gnostic Novelist can be said to have not read the link or be trolling.

Who's up for yahtzee in my bomb shelter - it'll be all the pork beans you can eat!
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:21 PM on August 13, 2007


Here's one, pyramid: if you're not a Catholic, you might see the sense of encouraging the use of contraception in sub-saharan Africa, a move that would possibly save perhaps millions of lives from HIV/AIDS in regions where Catholicism is an influence. This is a good action performed precisely because of a lack of religious faith

a lack of catholicism is not necessarily a lack of religious faith ... a faithful person, even one who doesn't believe people should commit premarital or extramarital sexual acts, could well say that protection being used is more ethical, or even more moral, than not using it

How about an ethical motivation not to mutilate the genitals of an infant or child in the name of religious tradition?

actually, the ethics of that is debated in the new testament ... not with the precise concerns you may have in mind, but it IS debated

the non-circumcisers won, if you're curious

of course, if you KNEW what you were talking about, you would have KNOWN that debate was in the new testament, right?

The question posited by Hitchens is in response to the argument made by many religious folks that without religion, (or faith, or belief in the supernatural, or the unmoved mover, however you wish to redefine it), people are doomed to a life of nihilistic hedonism.

people have made other arguments, you know ... but of course, you and hitchens are only interested in debating the easy ones

Yeah, I beg to differ (see above).

it's a straw man argument he's indulging in ... it's odd how those who proclaim themselves rationalists keep committing logical fallacies like that

many people have gone into deep and sophisticated philisophical and theological arguments about god ... why is it that dawkins and hitchens and their followers don't debate those points of view? ... they pick the most banal and simplistic arguments to take on

mostly because they'd actually have to spend some time reading something they disagreed with to intelligently debate it
posted by pyramid termite at 10:30 PM on August 13, 2007


Or, if you're not a Talibani, you might value your wife or daughter slightly more than your dog.

actually, dogs are fairly despised in afghan and many other islamic cultures

There are plenty more examples, PT but like you said, it requires thinking to see them.

facts help, too ... do try to acquire one next time you attempt an example like that

bad logic AND factually wrong ... i'm through with this ... you guys are TOO easy
posted by pyramid termite at 10:41 PM on August 13, 2007


people have made other arguments, you know ... but of course, you and hitchens are only interested in debating the easy ones

Can you say what these are, Im honestly looking through the thread and cant find it. What are the hard questions, I cant find them.

Another way to put Hitchens' position is this -- what a disgustingly low opinion one must have of herself and her fellow human beings to think that only the threats of an invisible entity can keep them from tearing each other apart and murdering one another.

Just an addition to this, and I think something that pyramid termite will have a problem with-

The materialist/secular view is that morality exists, but is not absolute. It changes over time based on peoples veiwpoints, we can discuss and debate morality and work out what is best.

The religious view is that morality is absolute. We are just arguing over what it is, what god wants us to do.

What the quotes are doing is showing that secular people can still have morality by religious standards, in some cases. If the secular veiw is morality is not absolute, I think religious people get stuck in a bit of a loop- "secularists can be moral but they have no standard for morality."
posted by phyle at 10:48 PM on August 13, 2007


But the fact is that teaching and promoting sexual hygiene is suppressed and circumcision (male and female) still happens. Of course you can always fall back on the old denying that "those people" are not real christians/muslims/whatever, but I think they would deny your charges as vigorously as I would.

many people have gone into deep and sophisticated philisophical and theological arguments about god ... why is it that dawkins and hitchens and their followers don't debate those points of view? ...

Because no matter how deep or sophisticated they are, there is still no evidence that god exists. Just because there are websites where dorks discuss deep philosophical ideas about the Matrix or Star Wars, does not mean we're living in a computer simulation and are about to be zapped by the god-damn Death Star.

actually, dogs are fairly despised in afghan and many other islamic cultures

No shit, really? Are you familiar with this concept?
posted by c13 at 10:55 PM on August 13, 2007


a lack of catholicism is not necessarily a lack of religious faith ... a faithful person, even one who doesn't believe people should commit premarital or extramarital sexual acts, could well say that protection being used is more ethical, or even more moral, than not using it

Sure, but the majority of religious people in the world believe what: that contraception is, by extension, more ethically and morally preferable to disease and death or that it is more wrong when it is contrasted with their beliefs?

Look, I have met and still admire Daniel Berrigan immensely for his activism on behalf of reducing imposed force and violence upon the world, but I would admire his actions so much more if they were motivated by humanism, upon the recognition that all life is equitable, independent of a tenet of particular religious dogma that he subscribes to because of an interpretation of his religious doctrines. Do you see?

actually, the ethics of that is debated in the new testament ... not with the precise concerns you may have in mind, but it IS debated


Terrific! Such thoughtful people to have come to (a theologically-reasoned) conclusion that we don't have to mutilate the genitals of the young to please our one true God!

people have made other arguments, you know ... but of course, you and hitchens are only interested in debating the easy ones

Pray tell, what are the difficult ones? Are you about to renounce the validity of all of the Abrahamic religions and endorse an at least slightly more plausible abstract deism on metaphysical grounds? Or is this the part where we get into an argument about needles dancing on the head of a pin?

... they pick the most banal and simplistic arguments to take on

Or perhaps they take on the most frequently-voiced, prima facie arguments (we really should say 'slogans'), you know, the ones that the vast majority of "believing in belief" pseudo-believers invoke? (Usually the same people who like the phrase "tax-and-spend Democrats" though I by no means imply a causal connection).
posted by inoculatedcities at 11:04 PM on August 13, 2007


More ridiculous than the notion that a non-believer carries the burden of disproving god's existence is that such non-believer, to be taken seriously, must engage in the very realm of fantasy and bullshit he would dearly seek to avoid. Dawkins has his reasons, which seem to have much to do with how religion conditions one to accept without reason, and what that has done for the state of reason; but he need go no deeper than the most superficial. There's no better argument against religion than looking at the reasons people buy into it.
posted by troybob at 11:30 PM on August 13, 2007 [2 favorites]


I wasn't trying to imply that communism is atheism, just that it is secular, which was what Blazecock Pileon was looking for.

Laos is not a secular country. Communism does not necessarily imply secularism.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:00 AM on August 14, 2007


Laos is not a secular country.

In other words, Laos is a country of faith.
posted by grouse at 2:09 AM on August 14, 2007


many people have gone into deep and sophisticated philisophical and theological arguments about god ... why is it that dawkins and hitchens and their followers don't debate those points of view? ... they pick the most banal and simplistic arguments to take on

I'm not that bothered about Dawkins taking on sophisticated philosophical and theological arguments about god - you could do that indefinitely and make no headway. Which religion do you choose to do that against anyway?

My problem with the programme was that Dawkins took on the water dousers, astrologists and new agers. I mean really, who apart from a very tiny minority give these views any kind of credence? Why didn't he attack the new faith schools or the fact the government is now allowing private individuals (of any persuasion) to own schools and impose their own beliefs on children who may have no choice but to attend that school. What about the law which is making it illegal to attack religion? Maybe he does that in the next programme.

Why didn't he tell us WHY water dousing is nonsense? This programme was aimed at a mainstream audience who may know very little science. WHY is astrology rubbish? This programme looked like an old professor tutting at some harmless hippies.
posted by Summer at 4:50 AM on August 14, 2007


Oh, come on! If Buddhism is the same as atheism, and atheism is pretty much the same thing as communism,

Just because one is spiritual does not mean one is not an Atheist. The second demigod of atheism, Sam Harris, is a Buddhist. One can believe in all sort of supernatural things and still be an atheist. Atheism is simply a faith in the belief that there is no God or gods. Most forms of Buddhism are atheist.

Atheism in the 20th century alone put killed more people than religious wars in recorded history.

Laos is not a secular country. Communism does not necessarily imply secularism.

Yes it does. Seeing as communists have never gotten 100% at the ballot box. Communists are like global warming adherents, elitists. You can have communists, atheists, in a government when the population are believers.

That would be Sweden!

Sweden also has a state church.
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 4:51 AM on August 14, 2007


vertriebskonzept: From here you start building your rational ethics. With logic you can derive what ethical system is somewhat good or not so. (Revelation is obviously not as valid as logics to evaluate ethical systems.)

Well, there is the rub. Logic, like math is a metaphysical system of knowledge. There is no requirement that a true logical proposition be physically possible, or empirically testable.

So you start with the notion "pain is bad," where you go from there depends very much on which axioms you consider to be important. And all of the axiomatic systems developed around ethics have some flaws, and come to conclusions that many people would find to be counter-intuitive and barbaric.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:20 AM on August 14, 2007


Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.

the book of job
dante's divine comedy
the poems and engravings of william blake
the book of psalms
the grand inquisitor segment of the brothers karamazov
posted by pyramid termite at 5:38 AM on August 14, 2007


look, here's a pretty important take home point, from my point of view: if you look back over this thread you'll see that a significant percentage of the complaints and criticisms directed at dawkins are coming not from religious zealots, but from the very same secular rationally-grounded types he claims to represent. if dawkins' particular approach to the problem of religious zealotry and intolerance sparks this much resistance among audiences of largely humanist-minded secularists, then how in the hell do he and his fellow travelers expect to persuade those who aren't in the slightest bit inclined toward humanistic ideals and rationalism? and if winning hearts and minds, so to speak, isn't his goal then what is? is he just puffing out his chest and stamping his feet, to make himself feel better? or is he calling upon the secular minority to get together and initiate pogroms to weed out the true-believers? surely, it's one or the other of the two, because he's not seriously persuading anyone to reconsider their existing positions in this particular battle of the culture wars--just encouraging true-believers on both sides to dig in their heels and spoil for a fight. how does that improve the situation? how 'useful' an approach is that?

also, about hitchens, if hitchens is such a committed, hard-nosed athiest, why has he been such an unquestioning supporter and apologist for the one administration that's been more instrumental than any other in american history for stoking christian fundamentalist fervor in america? an administration that has at every step worked to dismantle the framework of legal precedents that were established to protect america from becoming a christian theocracy? what the fuck kind of committed athiest virtually throws his entire career away just to sing the praises of a man known to many in the american religious fundamentalist community as the 'pastor in chief'? which interests do the so-called hard-nosed athiests like hitchens and dawkins really serve?
posted by saulgoodman at 7:06 AM on August 14, 2007


saulgoodman: Hitchins's response is that Bush's pandering to Christian Conservatives is not nearly as dangerous as the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.

which interests do the so-called hard-nosed athiests like hitchens and dawkins really serve?

Well, their own interests of course. At least one of the things I dislike about these debates is the way that atheism and theism are treated as a single unified ideology, when I see very little political justification for a unified front that includes all atheists and excludes all theists. As an example, the Dover, PA case regarding intelligent design was brought to court by Christians.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:17 AM on August 14, 2007


It strikes me that much of the debate about ethics is too intellectualized.

Chimps seem to have a well-developed sense of right and wrong behaviour and they seemed to have gotten it without reading Kant.
posted by storybored at 7:45 AM on August 14, 2007


When the atheist nation finally does come into being I'm going to lobby for philosophy majors to be the 2nd group against the wall.
posted by longbaugh at 7:52 AM on August 14, 2007


Chimps seem to have a well-developed sense of right and wrong behaviour.

Indeed?
posted by No Robots at 7:57 AM on August 14, 2007


Indeed.

"Many researchers have asserted that only people will assist strangers without receiving anything in return, sometimes at great personal cost. However, a new study suggests that chimpanzees also belong to the Good Samaritan club, as do children as young as 18 months of age"
posted by storybored at 8:04 AM on August 14, 2007


saulgoodman: Hitchins's response is that Bush's pandering to Christian Conservatives is not nearly as dangerous as the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.

well, hitchen's doesn't really understand how dangerous american christian fundamentalism is, then, and how serious a corrosive effect it's had on the integrity of our secular public institutions over the last few decades. the threat of islamic fundamentalism isn't nearly as serious as the threat of the greatest military power and most technologically sophisticated nation in the world falling into the hands of crusading religious zealots, and that's what's been happening. his understanding of the american domestic political situation is woefully out of step with reality. the effect of the 'war on islam' that hitchens and his fellows have been promoting has been to frame the conflict in the minds of many american christians as a fundamentally religious conflict, which has had the secondary effect of deepening the cultural divide between the secularists and the faithful, to the point that the religious right has become increasingly fanatical and driven in its pursuit of influence over america's public institutions and policies.

notice how the faith-based movements seem to have a had a little of the wind sucked out of their sails, with the increasing public disapproval of the war in iraq. well, that's why: the 'war on terror' has been very good for religious fundamentalism in america, and as long as it continues, forces hostile to secularism will only continue to gain greater traction and exert more influence on the american political process.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:08 AM on August 14, 2007


Dawkins' single greatest contribution to science is his work on memetics. We desperately need to apply scientific method to the study of how ideas originate and propagate. It seems to me that Dawkins realized that religious ideas are among the most socially powerful, but that he remains somewhat at a loss as to what to do about that.
posted by No Robots at 8:14 AM on August 14, 2007


Indeed? Indeed?
posted by No Robots at 8:24 AM on August 14, 2007


Sweden also has a state church.

No.
posted by mr.marx at 8:27 AM on August 14, 2007


No Robots: Dawkins' single greatest contribution to science is his work on memetics.

Please, a half-baked conjecture that overgeneralizes from genetics to all of information theory is not "great contribution." It isn't even a contribution.

We desperately need to apply scientific method to the study of how ideas originate and propagate.

Yes, because after all, it's not as if we have a century of empirical research in psychology, communication theory, message theory, human perception, learning theory, semiotics, diffusion of innovations, linguistics, communities of practice, etc., etc., which have given us both empirical findings and prescriptive practices. We obviously need to dump 100 years of science in favor of an untested and unsupported conjecture that in 30 years has done nothing but become the darling of ignorant little internet gadflies such as yourself.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:30 AM on August 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes, because after all, it's not as if we have a century of empirical research in psychology, communication theory, message theory, human perception, learning theory, semiotics, diffusion of innovations, linguistics, communities of practice, etc., etc., which have given us both empirical findings and prescriptive practices.
Hmm. Don't see what effect all that is having on the problem of religion. Shrug.
posted by No Robots at 8:35 AM on August 14, 2007


saulgooodman: Certainly I agree with you, but the basic point is that not all atheists do, and it's silly to expect atheists too agree on anything beyond the fact that they don't believe in the existence of God. (And even that definition will be open to debate.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:38 AM on August 14, 2007


No Robots: Hmm. Don't see what effect all that is having on the problem of religion. Shrug.

So what you are saying here, is that bad science should triumph over good science because it deals with "the problem of religion?" In which case, you have exposed yourself as being just as much a dogmatic and ignorant tool as the most fervent fundamentalist.

This is one area where Schermer who actually reads and understands psychology is much better than Dawkins who keeps pushing unsupported pseudo-science like memes and mind viruses. Schermer for example can talk about the ways in which human cognition is kinked to see conspiracy and design from random events, and treat mystical experiences as products of brain chemistry. He can propose that religion is in many ways an expanded Folie a Deux. He can do this because he doesn't feel the need to reinvent the behavioral sciences around a bad analogy.

Memetics I feel will probably go the same way as Kepler's first solar system model based on the progression of ideal geometric solids. An interesting conjecture that turned out to be fundamentally flawed.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:55 AM on August 14, 2007


*grabs microphone*

Atheists! Hi! Uh.. you don't know me - I go to church a lot - but - hey. I have an idea!

Rise up! Stand up and proclaim your atheism - wear it proudly - and go out into the world and do shit! Do all the things that you so loudly accuse us deluded believers of not doing. Stop having meetings - we know you guys are good at having meetings and getting controversial speakers to show up and grandstand. I've got it! If you live in the U.S. - try and fix the Lakota reservations in South Dakota. They're in a world of shit. Or maybe organize a huge effort to get doctors in really nasty parts of Africa. Take on homelessness! There are medium sized cities throughout the U.S. where eliminating homelessness is actually possible.

Prove to the whole world that your way of life is better! Show us that you're more than a bunch of angry teenagers all hopped up on Ayn Rand. Then, when you do that awesome thing that I know you can do - when they build the giant statue commemorating your awesomeness, it'll say, "This great feat was carried out in the name of the Human Will - the most powerful force in the Universe!" It would be so cool. And you could join ecumenical councils, and "reach out" to churches and work together toward solving some of these pressing issues - and people would respect you because you'd be such a powerful force for good in the world. "Those atheists," they'd say, "may not understand that God loves them, but shoot! I can't imagine an America without them." People would respect Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson more because they were atheists - instead of connoting them with loud people who berate them for believing in something greater than themselves.

If you need help, I'm sure your local pastor / social worker / mayor / alderman would know a thousand places you could start.

I can't wait to see what you guys come up with. You're so bright.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:58 AM on August 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


People are motivated by ideas, and all the physicalist reductionism in the world will never change that.
posted by No Robots at 8:59 AM on August 14, 2007


No Robots: People are motivated by ideas, and all the physicalist reductionism in the world will never change that.

Which is ironic, given how memetics is absurdly reductionist in its definition of an "idea."

And actually, there are some pretty darn complex theories out there regarding human motivation. Why are motivation theories complex, because simple theories fell short when it came to empirical support.

Baby_Balrog: Has it occurred to you that some of us have been working alongside you the entire time?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:10 AM on August 14, 2007


Baby_Balrog: Atheists don't have to be all evangelical. We don't have anything to prove. That's the point.
posted by troybob at 9:11 AM on August 14, 2007


KirkJobSluder: Sorry - forgot how much it hurts when you get pigeonholed.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:14 AM on August 14, 2007


memetics is absurdly reductionist in its definition of an "idea."

Not as much so as one finds in the other disciplines you mentioned.
posted by No Robots at 9:17 AM on August 14, 2007


Baby_Balrog: No need to apologize. I realized pretty darn quick that you were either taking a wank, giving voice to your prejudice, or both. In either case, there is no reason for hurt feelings.

No Robots: Not as much so as one finds in the other disciplines you mentioned.

Given that you boldly state those disciplines did not exist a mere hour ago, I wonder on what basis of information you have to make such an absurdly ignorant and stupid statement.

I mean, take for example a Pierceian sign, (which is the basis of work by Umberto Eco). It consists of three parts. But perhaps most importantly signs can be connected together to form linked webs of meaning.

Or take for example message theory which looks at the interaction of a message, the intended meaning, the received meaning, the medium of transmission, and factors that compromise the message.

Some social constructivists propose that you can't talk about "ideas" as individual units in isolation. Concepts exist in relationship to other concepts and the meaning and importance of concepts comes from the entire gestalt.

And a critical error in regards to memetics is that the "idea" is proposed as a unit of information analogous to the gene. But research by memory researchers such as Lotufs suggests that everything we remember is reconstructed on an ad hoc basis. This has some serious implications for the entire analogy.

But the basic problem is that these theories you disparage work. They make predictions that are validated by experiment and observation. Memetics does not and cannot because it has no useful operational definition of an "idea" that can be discussed aside from abstract wankery.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:38 AM on August 14, 2007


Heya norobots, I should clarify the point about chimps.

The articles we've both posted show that chimps engage in altruistical and aggressive acts.

So what i'm saying is take away all the intellectual posturing that our pre-frontal lobes have slathered on top, and what do you get? Behaviors that are identical to our lobally-challenged primate cousins.

All that philosophical and religious ethical discussion adds is a patina that masks innate primate behaviour.
posted by storybored at 10:08 AM on August 14, 2007


...and the chimps have it easier since they don't have to waste time wondering wheter their brains are sitting in some vat somewhere.
posted by storybored at 10:09 AM on August 14, 2007


I disparage these theories because they do not work when it comes to dealing with ideal phenomena like religion. I applaud people like Eco and Dawkins to the extent that they try to deal with these phenomena; but, really, there is only one place to look for the true science of ideas: Spinoza's Ethics:

The order and connection of ideas is identical to the order and connection of things.

posted by No Robots at 10:18 AM on August 14, 2007


So what i'm saying is take away all the intellectual posturing that our pre-frontal lobes have slathered on top, and what do you get? Behaviors that are identical to our lobally-challenged primate cousins.

My point is that authentic ethics take this fact as its starting point.
posted by No Robots at 10:23 AM on August 14, 2007


No Robots: I disparage these theories because they do not work when it comes to dealing with ideal phenomena like religion.

In what way do they not work to explain phenomena such as religion? In fact, I would argue that theories such as communities of practice, and conformity do more to explain religion than memetics. I mean, what does memetics give you?

1: Ideas can be treated like genes.
2: Some ideas propagate better than others.

No shit Sherlock, memetics just makes a claim about religion that is obvious, and borders on the pseudo-scientific.

Spinoza's ethics are great and all, but that ain't science either.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:26 AM on August 14, 2007


My point is that authentic ethics take this fact as its starting point.

I bin down that road. It's more fun with the chimps.
posted by storybored at 10:42 AM on August 14, 2007


On reflection, that was a primatey-thing for me to say....but thinking about it, look no further than this thread for examples of primatey-ethics.

Embrace your true self! Recognize your true father!
posted by storybored at 10:46 AM on August 14, 2007


Some ideas propagate better than others.

Yes, but which ones and why? And what about how ideas originate? Memetics isn't the be-all and end-all, but it is an attempt to address these issues.

Spinoza's ethics are great and all, but that ain't science either.

I think you would find that position quite lonely.
posted by No Robots at 11:02 AM on August 14, 2007


storybored: the thing about Kant is that he is the guy who can't recognize his inner chimp, what with all his talk about "the moral law within". What a chump.
posted by No Robots at 11:04 AM on August 14, 2007


Man, you guys (esp. KJS...dude, can you someday post without adding an insult?) are why I don't publish.

1) have an interesting idea.
2) publish
3) get attacked and insulted ("ignorant little internet gadflies") because the idea isn't 100% flawless to some unexplained metric of measurement.
4) Give up.

That's what I'm afraid of. I mean, here is a guy (Dawkins) raising the level of discussion on religion to a place unseen in years (since O'Hair), giving those atheists marginalized by our current culture a voice, and people do nothing but friggin nitpick. You know what? I think Dawkins is doing a far better job than most of us on here. And attacking Dawkins' ideas, without adding anything to the academic discussion, is as bad as a movie critic who doesn't make movies. Necessary perhaps, but unwanted and looked down upon.

Please, if you have nothing to contribute to the solution, thank you for your analysis but go crap in another thread. Or start a site on how Lucas stole your childhood. Just stop with the insults and nitpicking. It's sickening.
posted by Dantien at 12:15 PM on August 14, 2007


Atheism in the 20th century alone put killed more people than religious wars in recorded history.

If it was only that simple. The fact is, no one really knows what another person's beliefs are.

The religious views of Adolph Hitler.

Sweden also has a state church.

Shoot yourself in the foot much? You might want to read your own link 'cause Sweden no longer has a state church and only 2% of the population attends mass.
posted by disgruntled at 12:25 PM on August 14, 2007


“Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith.”

wow. i could easily imagine these words coming straight from a modern fundie.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:40 PM on August 14, 2007


It has seemed to me for some years, now, that religion and most academic philosophy share the same mistaken goal: To find a justification for human intellectual behavior (morality, ethics, emotion) that is not fundamentally rooted in our physical, animal nature.

One great danger of atheism is that, if you let it, it can suck your hope and will to act into a black hole of meaninglessness. Fortunately, most folks are are constitutionally predisposed to conceive of an atheistic universe are constitutionally indisposed to accept that their lives have no meaning. Even as they talk a game of nihilism, they'll act as though their lives are worth living and they have choices in how they live them.

The ultimate "truth" of human existence is that we are animals and we want to live -- however we come, through conditioning and training and the interplay between our bodies and genes and epigenes and environment, to define "live". Everything else follows from that.
posted by lodurr at 1:02 PM on August 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've never been comfortable with Dawkins, and one of the reasons is that his thought feels a lot like religion to me. Always has, since I first encountered it about 16 years ago, starting with the simple logical inversion (treated as insight) of "selfish-gene" theory.

For a man who wants to enshrine reason, Dawkins speaks in a lot of mystical language. Which I'm fine with, actually -- I think that kind of language betrays modes of reasoning that are pretty much wired into us, and ignorance of them and their uses is liable to do us more harm than good. But I'm not sure that Dawkins really understands the degree to which magical, quasi-religious thinking has colored his own ideas.
posted by lodurr at 1:06 PM on August 14, 2007


The ultimate "truth" of human existence is that we are animals and we want to live -- however we come, through conditioning and training and the interplay between our bodies and genes and epigenes and environment, to define "live". Everything else follows from that.

I agree, lodurr. Maybe I should call myself a biotheist. Actually, I think this is the core of all wisdom traditions: l'chaim to life!
posted by No Robots at 1:14 PM on August 14, 2007


Of course, I hardly mean my own, individual life is my idea of the ultimate. Rather, my own life is one manifestation of the infinite One Life.
posted by No Robots at 1:24 PM on August 14, 2007


Actually, I think this is the core of all wisdom traditions: l'chaim to life!

to life to life?
posted by Snyder at 2:41 PM on August 14, 2007


But I'm not sure that Dawkins really understands the degree to which magical, quasi-religious thinking has colored his own ideas.

Examples?
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:57 PM on August 14, 2007


Snyder: you're right. Comes from watching "Fiddler on the Roof". L'chaim.
posted by No Robots at 3:09 PM on August 14, 2007


Examples?
It is a manifest fact that the brain—especially the human brain—is well able to over-ride its ultimate programming.—Dawkins
How lucky for us! I guess we're not chimps after all.
posted by No Robots at 3:56 PM on August 14, 2007


...his thought feels a lot like religion to me. Always has, since I first encountered it about 16 years ago, starting with the simple logical inversion (treated as insight) of "selfish-gene" theory.

Please explain the thesis of Dawkins' selfish gene theory. Please, just to show me you've actually read the book and have some idea of what you're talking about. Incidentally, his theory is now recognized as a hugely significant contribution to recent biology, even by biologists, ethologists, geneticists and other specialists who don't endorse the gene-centric view of evolution. Also point me in the direction of your published refutation of the theory that made Dawkins infamous, or any other scholarly contributions you've made to modern biology. I'll bet they are full of insight as opposed to 'logical inversions'.

For a man who wants to enshrine reason, Dawkins speaks in a lot of mystical language...I'm not sure that Dawkins really understands the degree to which magical, quasi-religious thinking has colored his own ideas.

Examples please. Your whole post was just one broad "Ehhh, never liked that Dawkins fellow..." with a couple of vague allegations, no supporting evidence, no citations, no real substance. People just love to attack Dawkins without reading or listening to him. It's like college students who say "Bush sucks!" but can't articulate many good reasons why.
posted by inoculatedcities at 4:28 PM on August 14, 2007


No Robots: Yes, but which ones and why? And what about how ideas originate? Memetics isn't the be-all and end-all, but it is an attempt to address these issues.

Certainly, and as an attempt it is badly conceived latecomer.

Well, memetics has had 30 years to provide evidence to show that it is a better theory than the many others that address the same issues. During that 30 years, memetics has utterly failed to address these issues beyond meaningless abstraction. Furthermore, memetics relies on a theory of mind and idea that is contradicted by contemporary developments in cognitive and neural psychology.

The bottom line is that memetics is a bad theory, and other theories have proven to have better experimental and explanatory power.

Dantien: 3) get attacked and insulted ("ignorant little internet gadflies") because the idea isn't 100% flawless to some unexplained metric of measurement.

The metric of measurement has been clearly stated. "They make predictions that are validated by experiment and observation." Memetics is to cultural diffusion as intelligent design is to evolution. If advocates of memetics want to be taken seriously, they need to provide the evidence that their paradigm is more than just a strained metaphor. Evidence is the cash surety of science.

But this debate really isn't about the evidence or lack for memetics. This debate is about dogmatism. No Robots doesn't argue for memetics, he argues that MEMETICS IS THE ONE THEORY, THE TRUE THEORY, THE ONLY THEORY THAT ADDRESSES OR CONFRONTS ISSUES OF RELIGIOUS FAITH! HALLELUIA! PRAISE THE PROPHET! In this regard, he is even worse off than the Intelligent Designer who at least tries to create a false equivalence between ID and Evolution. No Robots doesn't want to deal with Webber, Dewey, Rogers, Eco, Lave & Wenger, Piaget, Vygotski, West, and James. He wants to deny their existence, or relevance. Why someone would want to reject all other insights without giving them a fair hearing is beyond me.

Dantien: And attacking Dawkins' ideas, without adding anything to the academic discussion, is as bad as a movie critic who doesn't make movies.

Actually, I have added my two bits to the academic discussion. If memetics really did offer insight into the problems that I find worthy of research, I'd certainly be using it as a theoretical framework. As it is, I feel that other theories are better supported, and more powerful.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:33 PM on August 14, 2007


God is a meme.
posted by disgruntled at 5:42 PM on August 14, 2007


Your mom's a meme.
posted by Snyder at 6:39 PM on August 14, 2007


Prove to the whole world that your way of life is better! Show us that you're more than a bunch of angry teenagers all hopped up on Ayn Rand. Then, when you do that awesome thing that I know you can do - when they build the giant statue commemorating your awesomeness, it'll say, "This great feat was carried out in the name of the Human Will - the most powerful force in the Universe!" It would be so cool. And you could join ecumenical councils, and "reach out" to churches and work together toward solving some of these pressing issues - and people would respect you because you'd be such a powerful force for good in the world. "Those atheists," they'd say, "may not understand that God loves them, but shoot! I can't imagine an America without them." People would respect Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson more because they were atheists - instead of connoting them with loud people who berate them for believing in something greater than themselves.

Or you know we could just support any of the secular charities already set up. We dont have to do good in the name of anything, thats the point.

Isnt the red cross promoted as secular? Isnt amnesty international? They may of had religious beginnings..

heres a list.
posted by phyle at 6:57 PM on August 14, 2007


It is a manifest fact that the brain—especially the human brain—is well able to over-ride its ultimate programming.

how can he say that when he doesn't know what the ultimate programming is?

As part of this, the brain has been equipped by the natural selection of genes with the power to take its own decisions - Dawkins, same source

or to give the owner the illusion that he is making his own decisions ... can dawkins prove it isn't an illusion?
posted by pyramid termite at 8:50 PM on August 14, 2007


how can he say that when he doesn't know what the ultimate programming is?

He does know what the ultimate programming is,"ultimate programming" is a term he seems to have made up to explain what he is talking about in the article. He gave examples - "such as hedonistic pleasure, orgasm, enjoyment of a sweet taste, or determination to kill oneself in a Jihad"
All of those can be overridden. We could do scintific experiments to prove this.

I think a simpler word for what hes describing is instinct, I dont know why he doesnt just use that word.


or to give the owner the illusion that he is making his own decisions ... can dawkins prove it isn't an illusion?


Well this appears to be another one of those - "can you prove santa/god doesnt exist?" "can you prove we are not a brain in a jar?" "are there shadow people that hide behind my head and only come out when I close my eyes" questions...

The thing about these questions, unless there is evidence for them, you can argue reasonably that they are unlikely.

I dont think Dawkins is claiming to know the meaning behind the universe and everything. It is silly to try and prove there is not a magic teapot orbiting saturn, just that we shouldnt live our lives as if there is.


I have a question to ask you pyramid-
If I was someone arguing for the existence of santa clause, and all the evidence you gave me to suggest he is made up I replied with - "well you really cant prove anything 100%, you cant prove he doesnt exist" What would you say? Have I won the argument?
posted by phyle at 10:13 PM on August 14, 2007


He does know what the ultimate programming is,"ultimate programming" is a term he seems to have made up to explain what he is talking about in the article. He gave examples - "such as hedonistic pleasure, orgasm, enjoyment of a sweet taste, or determination to kill oneself in a Jihad"
All of those can be overridden.


but how do you know that the overriding of that programming isn't itself a part of the programing? ... in short, how do you tell the difference between a programmed action and an unprogrammed action?

The thing about these questions, unless there is evidence for them, you can argue reasonably that they are unlikely.

that's because you're not understanding the question or the context of it

knowing what we know of the brain and its workings today, the simplest explanation may well be that decision making is an illusion, a story the brain tells itself, to make sense of the world around it ... in other words, it does what the interaction between the perceived world and its programming tells it to and then it tells itself, "i decided to do that" ... such a self-deluding tendency may give the organism confidence or meaning and that might be an evolutionary advantage

If I was someone arguing for the existence of santa clause

you seem to be arguing for the existence of consciousness with just as much evidence as someone who argues for the existence of santa claus

so is dawkins ... he just breezily assumes that minds can actually overcome their "ultimate programming" without defining what programing is ... (or why ultimate programing is different than plain programing)... or explaining why ANYTHING we say, do or think could not be explained by this programing

and then he turns around and criticizes others for their faith in an unprovable god, even though he can't prove HIS beliefs in what his mind is and what it can do
posted by pyramid termite at 10:45 PM on August 14, 2007




First let me define dawkins theory-
Our brain has default programmed actions or instincts, that guide and influence our consciousness. Consciousness has evolved to be the final say on actions, although often heavily influenced by instinct.

Your theory-
decision making is an illusion, a story the brain tells itself, to make sense of the world around it ... in other words, it does what the interaction between the perceived world and its programming tells it to and then it tells itself, "i decided to do that" ... such a self-deluding tendency may give the organism confidence or meaning and that might be an evolutionary advantage.



I really have trouble with this bit - "such a self-deluding tendency may give the organism confidence or meaning and that might be an evolutionary advantage." How is it an evolutionary advantage? If the brain is feeding input to consciousness and controlling it totally, if consciousness is effectively doing nothing, offering no effective input or output, how does it have any effect on evolution?



You do seem to be saying "can you prove we are not a brain in a jar?". Which again is very similar to santa- there is no way to prove/disprove either, ever.



but how do you know that the overriding of that programming isn't itself a part of the programing?


Well in a sense it is part of the programing. Dawkins is saying we evolved consciousness. The balance between consciousness and instinct is our programing.


how do you tell the difference between a programmed action and an unprogrammed action?

Ok heres another thing, all actions are controlled by consciousness. There are no "programmed actions"(ok maybe your heartbeat and stuff like that). Dawkins never actually used the term "actions".
posted by phyle at 11:47 PM on August 14, 2007


So does this Programmer work in a team with the Designer or separately?
posted by Grangousier at 2:50 AM on August 15, 2007


AFAICS, the major gap of understanding in many discussions that involve consciousness is that many folks -- and I think KJS might be such a folk, I know I am -- don't accord consciousness any special status. They think it's just another evolved characteristic of the species (and possibly, to a greater or lesser degree, of a number of species).

The evolutionary advantages of consciousness are actually not obvious, but as I sit here I imagine that it might have served a function analogous to R. A. Lafferty's "Hunchy"-bot: To come up with stuff that wasn't directly related to the problem at hand.

What it's clear (to such people as myself) is true about consciousness is that it's not something we need nearly as much as we think we do. Most of our functions go merrily along without any requirement for conscious awareness. And I'm not just talking autonomic shit, I'm talking higher processes like problem-solving, complex pattern recognition ("Is there an error on this page?" "Is that my wife, or her identical twin sister?"), and the like.

When you take away consciousness as a privileged thing, a lot of the stuff that KJS says looks a lot less radical.
posted by lodurr at 3:45 AM on August 15, 2007


Wow, inoculated cities (and to a lesser extent, [expletive deleted]), you're coming off as a real Dawkins fanboi, there. Which is another thing that I've always found really irritating about Dawkins: The Dawkinsites. One of my rules of thumb about intellectuals is that, at least to start with, I tend to trust them in inverse relation to the zealousness of their fanbois.

"Selfish-gene" theory basically boils down to this: Evolution serves genes, not organisms. There are several problems with this that were obvious when he first published the book: First, it's a simple inversion of the Darwinian/neo-Darwinian paradigm, and simple inversions as a rule of thumb are almost never right; second, when you read the book (and I'm afraid I never owned a copy, I got it out of teh library 16 years ago, so even if I had the time I couldn't go chapter and verse on it), if you have any experience with textual criticism, it's abundantly clear that he's using telelogically-charged language -- interesting, though, is the fact that he seems to know that, because I remember quite distinctly looking at some passages again and again to see if he was crossing a rhetorical boundary from manipulating his audience through language to actually implying teleology. third -- and again, this is a matter of usage, but it's a pretty critical one -- his language imputes agency to genes, which is prima facie preposterous.

That last part is critical because it's the imputation of agency that covers over the fact that he's making a simple inversion of existing theory. He claims to be saying something radical; he's not really saying anything radical at all.

Finally, his theory granting primacy to the gene ignores the importance of the organism -- he privileges the chicken in favor of the egg, the final product (which is arbitrary, really, in the sense that we decide what the appropriate "form" of the final product is) in favor of the process. This is actually a big problem: The genes can't propagate without the organism that they "use" to do that with. Dawkins had a response, of course: The organism was simply the expression of the genes. But it was clear even back then that it wasn't that simple: What about mitochondria? What about the influence of what we now call epigenetic factors?

We now know that the expressed phenotype (which is the mere "vehicle" that propagates Dawkins's "selfish genes") -- and for that matter, the mode of expression for subsequent generations, in some cases -- is the product of what amounts to an ecological interplay between genome, epigenome, and environment. Certainly there's room in that for the exercise of imagining what's "good for the gene", but that more complex understanding drives home how simplistic Dawkins's original vision really was.

As for memetics, I don't give it a lot of thought anymore. It seemed to me at the time to be a very incomplete theory that was trying to position itself as being more comphrehensive than it really was. The actual propgation of "memes" and all the stuff that Dawkins rolled up into that term happens through a much, much messier process, that's simply not going to be vulnerable to that simplistic of an analysis. The "memosystem" is an ecosystem, and like all ecosystems, it's exceedingly complex and not vulnerable to simple analyses.
posted by lodurr at 4:01 AM on August 15, 2007


phyle: ...all actions are controlled by consciousness

If that's really what you mean, I suggest you rethink it. Because it's quite clear to me that that's very obviously false.
posted by lodurr at 4:08 AM on August 15, 2007


phyle: ...all actions are controlled by consciousness

If that's really what you mean, I suggest you rethink it. Because it's quite clear to me that that's very obviously false.


Its late and Im honestly trying to get what your alluding to.. I must just be dense.

In the very next sentence I did mention heartbeat and other "stuff like that"
Obviously Im talking about circulatory systems, digestive systems, immune systems... There are a whole bunch of automatic systems within the human body.

Apart from that I honestly don't know what you mean.
posted by phyle at 5:04 AM on August 15, 2007


lodurr: I'm rather agnostic about giving consciousness special status. Some empirical theories of behavior do seem to work if you make the agent a black-box and don't worry about internals. On the other hand, and this is why we are not all Radical Behaviorists, such things as the gambler's fallacy seem to beg for opening up the black-box to find the parts that are biased.

Which again, is why I'm rather fond of Schermer. Rather than attempting a bit of discipline imperialism and attempting to reduce social psychology to a biological metaphor, Schermer takes a look at the literature on the gambler's fallacy and says, "Isn't that interesting that humans see unrelated events as connected? This explains quite a bit about how religious faith comes to exist..."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:26 AM on August 15, 2007


"Special status" was probably not a very good term. Clearly consciousness has "special status" in the sense that it's through my consciousness that "I" exist and interact with the world as me.

I'm basically an epiphenomenalist when it comes down to it, yes, if that's what you're suggesting. But I also think the "black box" concept is kind of silly: I'm pretty sure my consciousness has an impact on unconscious things, and I'm as certain as I can be that the reverse is true as well. The epiphenomena affect the underlying phenomena.
posted by lodurr at 5:55 AM on August 15, 2007


phyle: There are any number of things you do -- non-autonomic things (not heartbeat, not breathing, not fight-or-flight) -- that you do not make a conscious choice to do. Many of those include things like those I alluded to above -- stuff we think of as conscious because we become aware of its outputs, but which is happening entirely without conscious volition. (Indeed, as any good sports psychologist could tell you, getting your conscious volition involved with those things often screws them up.)

So, unless you want to say those things are not "acts" -- that nothing which doesn't require conscious volition is an "act", by definition -- then it's clear that consciousness is not required for a person to perform acts. Some people have defined "act" in that highly specialised, extremely narrow way. But that usage is sufficiently at odds with the way most people understand the term, and it ends up describing such a circumscribed class of actions, that it's kind of useless.

(I'm using the term "act", not "action", because there's actually a philosophical tradition for claiming that all "acts" are volitional -- i.e., that makes the distinction I talked about in the previous para. But "actions" are simply things that happen. If you say all "actions" are volitional, you're into mystical territory: Volition in the world, etc.)
posted by lodurr at 6:03 AM on August 15, 2007


If the brain is feeding input to consciousness and controlling it totally

if? ... do you mean something outside the brain is doing that?

if consciousness is effectively doing nothing

it's giving the brain a narrative - that's not doing nothing

offering no effective input or output

where did i say that? ... in fact, in the first part of the sentence here, you say the brain IS feeding input to consciousness ... now you say it isn't

how does it have any effect on evolution?

organisms with an ability to create narrative (meaning) may have an advantage over those that can't ... and the ability to have consciousness may be an essential part of that advantage ... or simply be a by product of it

You do seem to be saying "can you prove we are not a brain in a jar?".

no jars involved - the brains i'm talking about are within skulls

how do you tell the difference between a programmed action and an unprogrammed action?

Ok heres another thing, all actions are controlled by consciousness.

first, that's not true ... do you mean to say that when you eat or walk that you consciously think about every muscle movement you perform in order to do those things?

second, it's not an answer to the question
posted by pyramid termite at 7:49 AM on August 15, 2007


Lodurr-
I would define acts or actions as having output to the real world. Moving your body, opening your mouth to speak. Processes such as face recognition, I wouldn't really call them "actions" until they are transferred to the real world. And the vast majority of the time they have to pass through consciousnesses to get there.



Pyramid-
muscle memory,a process which helps us to speak, walk, play a musical instrument, throw a ball - is still controlled by consciousness - your muscles dont start moving without your consciousnesses go ahead. How do all the runners on the starting block know when to start running? The noise of the starting gun feeds through there ears to the brain, they consciously start the race. We can test and verify this. The runners could consciously ignore the starting gun.



how do you tell the difference between a programmed action and an unprogrammed action?


Ok if you look up at how Im responding to Lodurr youll see we may have different things in mind when we say "action". What are you meaning when you say action? Because by my definition the question is silly- as I said just about all actions are controlled by conscioussness. So the answer to your question is they are all unprogrammed?



And just so we remember what your theory was-
decision making is an illusion, a story the brain tells itself, to make sense of the world around it ... in other words, it does what the interaction between the perceived world and its programming tells it to and then it tells itself, "i decided to do that" ... such a self-deluding tendency may give the organism confidence or meaning and that might be an evolutionary advantage.

i said - concioussness is offering no effective input or output

you said - where did i say that? ... in fact, in the first part of the sentence here, you say the brain IS feeding input to consciousness ... now you say it isn't

effective is the operative word. With your theory concioussness plays absolutely no part in outputting to the real world. I dont understand - using your model, tell me how consciousness has any effect on the real world?
Evolution occurs in the real world.
posted by phyle at 5:42 PM on August 15, 2007


your muscles dont start moving without your consciousnesses go ahead.

what would you say if i told you that's been proven wrong?

"Dr. Libet found that brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them."

the new york times article the link references was published jan 2, 2007

you think that you're deciding to move your muscles before your brain starts the process necessary to move them, but that's because your brain is LYING to you

this isn't just idle chitchat i'm making, but something that real scientists have been debating for years, using real evidence

of course, there are a lot of different opinions about this whole field of questions about consciousness and free will ... as you can see from this metafilter post
posted by pyramid termite at 8:51 PM on August 15, 2007


Ive been reading a bit on these Libet experiments and they are very interesting.


what would you say if i told you that's been proven wrong?

I would hardly say that anything has been proven from these experiments, they seem far from conclusive. From the little web research Ive done it appears they are contriversial in both the methodology and interpretation of their results. For starters, from Benjamin Libet's wiki page-

It is also possible to dispute the meaning of the experiments with regard to free will on a more simple methodological question: Libet asked his subjects to note the position of the dot the moment at which they became aware of making a decision. The assumption contained in the interpretation of the results, is that it took no time to note the position of the dot. Another account would be that in fact, given their instructions, subjects had to make a decision to note the position of the dot, but that this itself would take some time, and would interfere with the decision to move the wrist.

This seems like a pretty big oversight to me.


Also, even if the results and interpretation of the experiment are correct-

Despite these findings, Libet himself does not interpret his experiment as evidence of the inefficacy of conscious free will—he points out that although the tendency to press a button may be building up for 500 milliseconds, the conscious will retains a right to veto that action in the last few milliseconds.[72] According to this model, unconscious impulses to perform a volitional act are open to suppression by the conscious efforts of the subject.

I dont understand why He gives concioussness credit for "the power of veto" But he doesnt give it credit for sitting down to do the experiment and getting ready to push the button in the first place.
posted by phyle at 10:28 PM on August 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


phyle: if they consume energy, they're actions. Thinking consumes energy. But that's a nit. What's not a "nit" is the phrase "translated to the real world." That's pretty loaded. It reminds me of a lapse in understanding between me and an anthropology prof during a discussion about behaviors. It turned out that she didn't classify consciously formed ideations as "behavior" -- in fact, as far as she was concerned, nothing was "behavior" unless it could potentially be perceived by another human being.

Anyway, back to the point:

Lots of people speak, walk, take the things you define as "actions" without discernable conscious volition (and if it's not discernable, it's not really conscious). You do it, too. And you don't need Dr. Libet's experiments to validate that. Just do an experiment of your own: Walk across the room. Now, do it again, only this time, think about everything that you do to accomplish that....

Better, play a game of skill, preferably something involving language. The better people are at something like that, the less it's a matter of conscious thought and the more it's a matter of answers "just coming" to them. In short, it's not consciousness in any conventional sense that's doing most of the work.

This is actually not at all a radical view I'm espousing. Neurologists and sports psychologists/physiologists, at least, have been thinking about consciousness this way for more than 25 years (I know, because I first encountered these kinds of thought experiments while reading in sports psychology in my teens, more than 25 years ago).
posted by lodurr at 2:35 AM on August 16, 2007


o homeopathy and acupuncture, etc, because they do work in many cases,

No they do not. Even the "best" evidence for acupuncture (there is none for homeopathy that has not been found lacking on attempted replication) shows benefits that are easily attributed to stress reduction (lying on a table in a darkened room while soft music plays and someone pays close attention to your pain is very relaxing) or simple manipulation without all the needles and chi mumbo jumbo. Acupuncture is like a doctor telling you to say magical incantations before taking aspirin, and then crediting the relief of your headache to the incantations rather than the drug.

Why are people so very, very stupid about medicine?
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:04 AM on August 20, 2007


fourcheesemac, I'm normally one of the first people around here to disparage quackery, but for some symptoms, such as chronic lower back pain, properly performed acupuncture performs significantly better than sham acupuncture (Cochrane Review; Meta-analysis in Annals of Internal Medicine). Yes, there are serious methodological concerns with the studies, and with the idea of truly double-blind sham treatment. And there isn't conclusive evidence that acupuncture performs better than other treatments. But the small amount of evidence in its favor is enough that I'm not entirely dismissive about the use of acupuncture.

However, it is problematic when people begin to see acupuncture as a panacea for any health concern. You see the same pattern in other fields of alternative medicine such as chiropractic—after there is some evidence that it works for some symptoms, people use that to argue that the whole discipline has validity for any sort of unproven treatment. Not so.
posted by grouse at 6:46 AM on August 20, 2007


As a postscript to this discussion, here's an interesting little piece from Discover Magazine that touches on some of the topics discussed earlier in this thread.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:15 PM on August 20, 2007


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