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July 1, 2009 5:05 AM   Subscribe

The Guardian's How to Believe series summarizes some great philosophical works in the reversed-date format we all know and love. Giles Frasier evaluates the lasting value of Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, Julian Baggini tells us what to believe about Hume's critique of religion, Mary Midgeley begrudgingly accepts the majestic contributions of Hobbes' Leviathan, and Simon Critchley throws himself into the hermeneutic circle of Heidegger's Being and Time.

Perhaps most entertaining are the responses to comments. Hurf Durf Über Alles!
posted by anotherpanacea (63 comments total) 88 users marked this as a favorite

 
And the whole concept of claiming there is a divine is the same way as claiming 'there's a giant flying invisible rat behind you and it's outside the laws of the natural world'.

It's a figment of the thoughts of those humans who are so pathetically emotionally needy as to need an imaginary friend into adulthood.
posted by kldickson at 5:51 AM on July 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's a figment of the thoughts of those humans who are so pathetically emotionally needy as to need an imaginary friend into adulthood.

Wow, what an original thesis! And, of course, it goes without saying that you are one of the elite, the strong, the mighty, who, with an unbending will, face the cruelties and savageries of the short and miserable life on this cruel dark planet.

You sound like someone who's read that pathetic drivel by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al and has never really studied religion.

One can rationally believe in a lot of things, and nobody is impressed by rabid and militantly hateful atheism.
posted by Autarky at 6:03 AM on July 1, 2009 [19 favorites]


This is really excellent. It makes me wonder to what extent discussion of philosophy and the history of philosophy is politicized in the UK. Is publishing something like this seen as a volley in a "culture war", or is it just good old fashioned discourse?

I don't imagine a US newspaper would do this. Just the notion of educational discourse—to say nothing of European philosophy—is so wrapped up in left/right conflict (cf. kldickson above) that I as a publisher would be terrified to put anything along these lines to print. The content would too quickly become ammunition for people hawking some political angle.
posted by avianism at 6:29 AM on July 1, 2009


How do I get to week two of Baggini's thing? And why do I get the feeling he means "in next week's lecture"?
posted by GeckoDundee at 6:36 AM on July 1, 2009


There is nothing beyond our perceivable universe, and I can't prove it!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:38 AM on July 1, 2009


GeckoDundee: Click "next" at the top of the article. Or else go the index (first link) and scroll down.

kldickson: I think you should really read the articles. Since you clearly don't know who Nietzsche and Hume are, I think you'll really enjoy meeting them in this arena. In some ways, I envy your innocence: sometimes I wish -I- could read these authors again for the first time. Hume especially.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:57 AM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Very interesting, I didn't know about this series. Thanks.

Baggini's explanation of Hume is very clear. He is good at showing how Hume's major arguments against certain species of religious belief (esp. belief in miracles and intelligent design) are still applicable to contemporary thought -- even though Hume was writing well before Darwin.
posted by voltairemodern at 6:57 AM on July 1, 2009


It's a figment of the thoughts of those humans who are so pathetically emotionally needy as to need an imaginary friend into adulthood.

Oh, right. Religion: the refuge of dullards.
posted by jquinby at 7:06 AM on July 1, 2009


In short, Nietzsche sets out to save people from the idea that they stand in need of salvation.

Ooh, I like that answer. It's pat and ironic, practically a license to stop thinking about the issue. It's a quote you can use at parties and sound terribly clever. Actually you can substitute other things for Nietzsche in this maneuver: uh, yeah, the ironic thing about gun control is that liberals want to shoot all the guns.
posted by fleetmouse at 7:08 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh joy, now that we've had the equally unreasonable foolishly delusional theist and spiteful angry atheist cards played, can we move on?

And technically, it's not a Godwin if you are talking about historic Nazis.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:09 AM on July 1, 2009


Thanks. It's a really bad UI, but anything that gets Hume out there has to be good. Thanks for the link.
posted by GeckoDundee at 7:19 AM on July 1, 2009


it's not a Godwin if you are talking about historic Nazis.

You know who else was equally unreasonably foolishly delusional?
posted by jquinby at 7:19 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed this, thanks.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:24 AM on July 1, 2009


I'll definitely look into this more, but, well, it feels like cheating. Or, more accurately, robbing people of something. Granted, most people weren't going to pick up, say, Beyond Good and Evil, or On the Geneology of Morals on their own, but having someone sum them up in bite-sized blog posts kind of misses the point. At best, we're looking at cursory glances, scarce on text (granted, it was sort of written in German, so I can't claim to have read the real stuff). To me, half of the point of reading Nietzsche is the language he employs. It requires time and effort, but it's quite vivid (sometimes excessively so) and deserves its own chance to shine.

I'm torn about this. It's good to promote thinking, as it's in short supply at the moment. Thrusting a book of philosophy into someone's hand, of course, isn't the way to go about that, but it still feels like it's being dumbed down.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:40 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ghidorah, did you read the Heidegger series? IMHO it's a first-rate summary of Being and Time that doesn't skimp on the essentials.

Heidegger is particularly difficult due to his reliance on invented terms and the impossibility of translating them clearly from German. I love the challenge of reading him (The Question Concerning Technology is, to my mind, the most comprehensive investigation of modernity and its relationship to nature ever written, wrapping the entire conceptual foundations of the Industrial Revolution and the 20th century in a neat little package with a bow on top), but it's really, REALLY not for everyone.

I'd rather someone read these series than never pick up Heidegger at all, and frankly if you're the sort of person who can plow through Being and Time without falling asleep or throwing it down in disgust, then you won't be content with a few blog posts anyway and will be inspired to pick it up.
posted by xthlc at 7:58 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have recently decided I am an Extreme Fundamentalist Agnostic. I'm not sure what that means - but that's the point, ha-HAH!
posted by freebird at 8:34 AM on July 1, 2009


Beyond Good and Evil is available on Steam for a very reasonable price, if people want to pick it up!

; )

More cheating for those who like this approach to philosophy.
posted by asok at 8:34 AM on July 1, 2009


xthlc, I went straight for Nietzsche, as he's who I studied in my philosophy capstone course. I'll check out Heidegger, though, on your recommendation. Thanks.

On further reading of the Nietzsche though, I feel like he's really skipping the meat of the slave morality, that the slaves saw things which benefitted the masters, and claimed that since these things were good for their enemies, they must then be morally wrong, and that those things which were hurtful to the masters must therefore be morally good. This makes sex, wine, strength, and joy "evil" and penance, willful deprivation, misery, and flagellation "good." I have yet to come across an actual description from the writer about exactly what Nietzsche meant by slave morality, and I think it does the reader a disservice.

(Granted, this is a gross simplification of what I took from a seminar course in Nietzsche over 10 years ago. To rend apart my weak and wretched reading with great joy and muscular, nay, barbaric yawps would be evil. Just evil. You shouldn't do it.)
posted by Ghidorah at 8:38 AM on July 1, 2009


There is nothing beyond our perceivable universe, and I can't prove it!

If we can't perceive (or rather, measure) something, even indirectly, then why posit that it exists?
posted by LordSludge at 8:39 AM on July 1, 2009


Thanks for posting this, anotherpanacea.

I don't imagine a US newspaper would do this.

This strikes me also. Is anyone aware of something analogous in the US?
posted by xod at 8:49 AM on July 1, 2009


If we can't perceive (or rather, measure) something, even indirectly, then why posit that it exists?

If we can't perceive (or rather, measure) something, even indirectly, then we can only say with confidence that its existence is unproven, not that it doesn't exist.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:12 AM on July 1, 2009


This is real neat! Thank you!

I'll definitely look into this more, but, well, it feels like cheating.

It doesn't feel that way to me at all; it feels more like a friendly review, intended to either give me a basic gloss, or to spur me into reading the actual works being discussed. I've had a number of people tell me I should read Nietzsche for a long time, but rarely in a way that actually gets me interested; these essays did. It's like the difference between someone saying "CITIZEN KANE! GREATEST AMERCIAN MOVIE! WATCH IT!" and reading a page that discusses the historical precedents set by Citizen Kane in filmmaking techniques, the state of the American movie system at the time the movie was made, and the general emotional thread of the film. The latter is a lot more likely to get me to watch the film than the former.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:18 AM on July 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


xod:

Sadly, the closest analog I have seen in a U.S. publication are information-scarce articles on "the healing power of prayer and laughter" that basically plagiarize tripe like Chicken Soup For The Soul. Maybe if it's really deep it will have a flippantly ironic paraphrase of a famous Nietzsche quote.
posted by idiopath at 9:21 AM on July 1, 2009


For more on Heidigger's Being & Time, here is the philosophy 185 lectures from UC Berkeley. I've only started to try and get through it, but it is interesting so far. (what little I understand of it).

For added goodness, it is taught by Hubert Dreyfus...who, apparently, was the inspiration for Dr. Farnsworth on Futurama. It provides a great mental image for me.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 9:24 AM on July 1, 2009


As one whose view of philosophy was tainted heavily by a professor more interested in his career and ego than teaching, I have to say that these are very helpful in reviving interest in philosophy. A political background makes Hobbes readable in a different light, but the remainder really fell into a category of disinterest. I'd actually say I'm interested in reading some of these works for myself now. Well, except for Nietzche. He just sounds so incredibly bitter.

Thanks for the post. Maybe I'll give this stuff another shot and hope I have better fortune in finding discussion.
posted by Saydur at 9:29 AM on July 1, 2009


ZenMasterThis:
would you really say that phlogiston, bigfoot, the learned elders of Zion, Piltdown man, unicorns, leprechauns, ancient astronauts, Catherine the Great being fucked to death by a horse, astrology, tea leaf reading, and telekinetic spoon bending are all "unproven"? Wouldn't you want stronger language than that for dismissing some of these hoaxes, myths and flights of fancy? I am sure you cannot definitively and absolutely prove any of them wrong (OK maybe that one Piltdown man skull was proven fake but that isn't proof there wasn't a Piltdown man).
posted by idiopath at 9:32 AM on July 1, 2009


He is good at showing how Hume's major arguments against certain species of religious belief (esp. belief in miracles and intelligent design) are still applicable to contemporary thought -- even though Hume was writing well before Darwin.

It's also worth pointing out, Hume also takes aim at certain fundamental but unexamined aspects of scientific belief, as in his mercilessly skeptical take on causation.


What a cool series. As others have pointed out, you'd probably never see something like this in the US, due both to the pervasive anti-intellectualism of our media culture, and due to the tendency of all serious intellectual debate to be swallowed up in partisan political warfare.

Here in the US, philosophical and ideological commitments are viewed as too integral to one's core identity, I think.

Americans don't seem particularly comfortable snuggling up to the idea that they might not already have all the answers, or that their beliefs on particular issues might not be sensible or well-grounded in reason. Using the dialectic method to test and improve (or if necessary, even discard) one's ideas, rather than using rhetorical argument only to convince others of the correctness of predetermined beliefs, goes against the grain of modern American culture. That's probably why we embrace so many bad ideas.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:44 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is something I wonder about. Is anti-intellectualism so deeply embedded within US democratic egalitarianism, the cult of practicality (cf The American Philosophical Society) and the idealization of pastoral self-reliance (village life vs the city) as to be fundamentally characteristic?
posted by xod at 10:13 AM on July 1, 2009


Good point, xod. The foundations of American anti-intellectualism undoubtedly do go a lot deeper and further back than just the modern American cultural milieu.

Consider this anecdotal support for that view:
In a letter to John Adams written in 1814, Thomas Jefferson complained that, while the post-revolutionary American youth lived in happier times than their parents, this younger generation held "all knowledge which is not innate, [to be] in contempt, or neglect at least." Their “folly” included endorsing "self-learning and self-sufficiency; of rejecting the knowledge acquired in past ages, and starting on the new ground of intuition."
This particular source goes on to note that, although the American philosophical tradition also encompasses the Transcendalism of Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau, "Pragmatism is seen by most philosophers today as the classic American philosophical tradition."

And even Transcendentalism, probably the second most influential early American philosophical school, didn't place any particular emphasis on reason or rationality--arguably, it most closely resembled 18th century European Romanticism, which in many ways rejected received knowledge and rationality.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:35 AM on July 1, 2009


Saydur: Well, except for Nietzche. He just sounds so incredibly bitter.

No way! A lot of his writing is positively joyful:

- I would only believe in a God that knows how to dance.
- One must have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.
- "Body am I, and soul"–so says the child. And why should one not speak like children?
posted by spaltavian at 10:50 AM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


“If we can't perceive (or rather, measure) something, even indirectly, then why posit that it exists?”
Yeah, totally. Exactly what I said to Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig in 1964. All non-material non-sensational theories of knowledge are for suckers.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:35 AM on July 1, 2009


But we posit those things exist from rational models of how the universe works, but on other models and evidence. Even here, we are still dealing with knowledge and theories derived from reason. These are still congruent with a materialistic, rational view of the universe. That is quite different from "knowledge" derived from faith, which is in line with a mystical, supernatural view of the universe.
posted by spaltavian at 11:39 AM on July 1, 2009


That should read: "But we posit those things exist from rational models of how the universe works, and on other models and evidence".
posted by spaltavian at 11:42 AM on July 1, 2009


The Hobbes piece was pretty dismal; at least the Guardian readers called her on it.

(Using "social contract" to describe Hobbes' take on the sovereign shows that someone slept through a PoliSci survey course.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:45 AM on July 1, 2009


Also, can we avoid a stupid Atheist Epistemology derail here?
posted by klangklangston at 11:46 AM on July 1, 2009


would you really say that phlogiston, bigfoot, the learned elders of Zion, Piltdown man, unicorns, leprechauns, ancient astronauts, Catherine the Great being fucked to death by a horse, astrology, tea leaf reading, and telekinetic spoon bending are all "unproven"?

That's what I would say. I believe saying it this way makes it more logically, statistically and semantically correct.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:05 PM on July 1, 2009


Thanks for nudzhing me into reading Hume in a thread way back when, klangston. He's a cool guy and doesn't afraid of anything.
posted by fleetmouse at 12:08 PM on July 1, 2009


To avoid the atheist epistemology derail (or at least keep things nominally on track), I will quote one of the articles in its quote of Hume:
That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.
Or, as the article goes on to say "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". It may be true that those things are unproven, but they are also claims about things that for the most part are so extraordinary, that given the dearth of evidence offered for them, are also probably wrong.
posted by idiopath at 12:18 PM on July 1, 2009


What idiopath said.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:21 PM on July 1, 2009


"Thanks for nudzhing me into reading Hume in a thread way back when, klangston. He's a cool guy and doesn't afraid of anything."

I really should go back and reread him. His radical skepticism kinda kicked my ass when I first delved in, to the extent that I'm not still sure that there's any non-intuitive counter. And I know I never got through the whole of his oeuvre. I think I got bogged down trying to muddle through Kant's reply and then decided that I enjoyed Continentals (existentialists and phenomenologists, specifically) more, and political philosophy even more.
posted by klangklangston at 1:21 PM on July 1, 2009


This is good. Thanks, anotherpanacea.
posted by homunculus at 7:58 PM on July 1, 2009


"would you really say that phlogiston, bigfoot, the learned elders of Zion, Piltdown man, unicorns, leprechauns, ancient astronauts, Catherine the Great being fucked to death by a horse, astrology, tea leaf reading, and telekinetic spoon bending are all "unproven"? "

All of these are things that are meant to exist or occur within the confines of our world, within space-time. So, we can argue about them productively. It is entirely possible that we could offer definitive proofs on the existence of these things (as we have for phlogiston).

They are thus disanalogous with things outside of space-time, which are not just unproven, but unprovable.
posted by oddman at 7:58 PM on July 1, 2009


Who was talking about anything that is outside space-time? I am not sure I can even grasp anything meaningful out of the concept of something being outside space-time. What is the difference between saying something is outside of space-time and simply saying that it does not exist?
posted by idiopath at 9:01 PM on July 1, 2009


idiopath, taking each of your questions individually:

1) One reason that we might say that "we can't perceive (or rather, measure) something, even indirectly" is that it is outside space-time. I was adding to that discussion.

2) Many people have had no trouble thinking of things beyond space-time; Plato would be a good example of one such person. There are many other examples ancient, modern. and in between.

3) The difference between those two claims is that one is a claim that a thing exists and the other is a claim that a thing does not exist. Sure, from the perspective of a person wishing to make observations there is effectively no difference, but that does not mean there is absolutely no difference. In any case I made neither of those claims. I was merely pointing toward a difference in our ability to argue about certain categories of things.
posted by oddman at 9:19 PM on July 1, 2009


Phlogiston was a poor member of that list, it was actually disprovable through experiment and observation, because it proposed something testable.

I am familiar with Plato's notion of ideal forms existing outside time, I am also familiar with the sentence "colorless green ideas sleep furiously", while I can make out the individual elements of the formulations, I can make no sense of their actual meaning. The concept of something "existing outside of space-time" makes exactly as much sense as something being "colorless green". I can be absolutely certain that I have never experienced and will never experience "outside space-time", no matter where I go to look for it; just as I can be certain that I will never see "colorless green".
posted by idiopath at 11:06 PM on July 1, 2009


Isn't it a bit much, a bit egotistical, to argue that something is non-sense or impossible simply because you cannot experience it? Absolutely reductive materialism has not been a viable worldview for a while now.
posted by oddman at 5:42 AM on July 2, 2009


Also, the only difference between phlogiston and the other members of the list is that the latter has already been disproved. We can certainly compare what is said of the remaining members with what we know of science and determine their possibility (with the possible exception of allowing certain of them to be aliens). Sure, we might not know enough right now to have a conclusive answer, but I'm confident that won't be so forever.
posted by oddman at 5:46 AM on July 2, 2009


oddman: Isn't it a bit much, a bit egotistical, to argue that something is non-sense or impossible simply because you cannot experience it? Absolutely reductive materialism has not been a viable worldview for a while now.

No, actually I find the current dominant thread in regards to atheism to be quite modest. Sure, there may be an infinite possibility of entities beyond the limits of empirical evidence-driven knowledge. Rather than make bold ontological claims outside of what can be supported by those methods, we stick to what we might conceivably know, and base our convictions accordingly.

I have no problems in saying, as an atheist, that a god might be possible in the broadest sense of the word "possible." My conviction is that possibility is outweighed by probability, and so far, theists have not given an argument that god is necessary or sufficient to abandon common-sense skepticism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:03 AM on July 2, 2009


But there can be no meaningful talk about probability about God, can there? What sorts of evidence could be marshaled? The very same thing that makes it impossible to argue for his existence makes it impossible to argue against. Doesn't it?
posted by oddman at 6:35 AM on July 2, 2009


If there were a God who took an interest in earthly affairs and occasionally intervened, as he is said to do in the Bible and from anecdotes at Lourdes and so forth, then in principle the activity of God is empirically verifiable and perhaps even falsifiable.

On the other hand, a deist God who created but never intervenes is unfalsifiable.

klang: I'm not still sure that there's any non-intuitive counter.

I don't think there is. There's certainly no formal, rational way to justify induction, because it's not logically necessary for the universe to continue behaving consistently. Nothing about the universe is true by definition, only by observation, so no matter which way you turn you confront the same issues about induction.

Personally, I'm perfectly happy with Hume's own solution - we use induction instinctively, as a matter of survival.
posted by fleetmouse at 9:44 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


oddman: But there can be no meaningful talk about probability about God, can there? What sorts of evidence could be marshaled? The very same thing that makes it impossible to argue for his existence makes it impossible to argue against. Doesn't it?

Well, avoiding the fact that we can talk about probabilities regarding God for a moment. The point isn't to argue against God. The point is that skepticism is a perfectly justifiable default position and theists have failed to meet the minimal standards necessary to warrant abandoning that position. It's a subtle, but important distinction.

You can't prove that there is absolutely no benefit to playing Mozart for your baby. The best you can do is show that effects are statistically insignificant for reasonable population sizes, and therefore the benefits of Mozart on babies are entirely aesthetic, and no more justified than playing The Cramps for them. By a similar extent, theists have failed to provide evidence to justify treating God as anything other than an aesthetic choice.

But in terms of arguing probabilities, I can see two obvious lines you can take. The first is that the dismal failure of previous theories of God justifies a Bayesian bias against the current flavors of scientific pantheism or deism. If it's reasonable to reject Thor, Zeus, god mooning Moses, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then it's reasonable to reject their more abstract flavors as well. The second is that God is only one solution of many posed to certain problems that are considered intractable. The fact that God is an easy solution to a question like, "what happened 'before' the Big Bang?" doesn't mean that we should privilege it over other solutions.

And for the most part, it seems to me that most contemporary apologetics don't argue for the existence of God either. They argue for the aesthetic or moral need for belief in the absence of evidence or certainty. And for the most part, I'm inclined to let liberal theists have their belief that they can see God if they squint their eyes just so and examine philosophy just so. I'm not inclined to agree with them though.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:06 AM on July 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


"The first is that the dismal failure of previous theories of God justifies a Bayesian bias against the current flavors of scientific pantheism or deism. If it's reasonable to reject Thor, Zeus, god mooning Moses, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then it's reasonable to reject their more abstract flavors as well."

But this only holds if you think that believing in Thor is like believing in things beyond space-time (Godly or otherwise). You seem to think it's all the same, but you shouldn't lump all abstract entities with god.

"The fact that God is an easy solution to a question like, "what happened 'before' the Big Bang?" doesn't mean that we should privilege it over other solutions."

Neither does it mean that we should privilege other solutions. My point is that atheism is unreasonable because it makes a claim. In this case a negative claim is just as unreasonable as a positive claim. If you wish to follow a strict logicaal-empiricist line of thought you ought to be agnostic.
posted by oddman at 12:33 PM on July 2, 2009


Since this discussion started, I have discovered something called ignosticism. Would this address your concerns about atheism's unreasonable positive claims, oddman?
posted by idiopath at 12:42 PM on July 2, 2009


"Well, avoiding the fact that we can talk about probabilities regarding God for a moment. The point isn't to argue against God. The point is that skepticism is a perfectly justifiable default position and theists have failed to meet the minimal standards necessary to warrant abandoning that position. It's a subtle, but important distinction."

Ignoring my own grumbling about the derail for a moment, this is exactly the kind of atheism that I respect and wish more folks professed.

I know that by professing a belief in God, I'm saying that I believe in something irrational, and something that stands outside of proof. It's eminently reasonable to disagree and to have a default skeptical position—my feelings are entirely based on a subjective experience, and I would never presume to proselytize or even make real apologies. I emphatically reject the notion that my belief or disbelief should weigh seriously on public policy, aside from a vague dedication to tolerance, but I feel that I can make a pretty decent utilitarian case for that irrespective of my theism.

Part of why I think I find this sort of atheism appealing is because I come down as a pretty hard agnostic, which I don't think conflicts with my theism—I think that quite a lot of things are rather impossible to know, such as "what came before the big bang," and I think God is one of them, and I tend to be immediately suspicious of anyone who professes to know God's will. Again, I think it's perfectly reasonable to default to a skeptical position, and likely healthier for society as a whole. I tend to think that one of the necessary corollaries of believing God is subjective is that the primary realm of public discussion is the objective, or as objective as possible given human failings.

But I have to admit that it does annoy the shit out of me when atheists start addressing folks as if every theist believes in "an invisible sky wizard" or starts arguing that it's proven that God doesn't exist. I have no problem with people who disagree with me (Some of my best friends, etc.), but I only wish that more of them would be more circumspect in their claims, especially if they presume to argue from rationality.

Which does rather tie back to Hume and understanding the limits of where purely rational argument can reach, though I'm not stupid enough to try to use Hume as an argument for theism—I understand the fairly significant difference between inductive causation and God.

I don't mind having a God softer than kitten breath, and I don't mind that most folks don't feel it. I definitely prefer that to attempts to prove the existence of God and attributing every crazy vacillation of chance to "His" will.
posted by klangklangston at 12:42 PM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


oddman: But this only holds if you think that believing in Thor is like believing in things beyond space-time (Godly or otherwise). You seem to think it's all the same, but you shouldn't lump all abstract entities with god.

Certainly, the question then changes. Is reasonable to talk about such abstract and incomprehensible entities with the same language, theory, and systems of ritual that previously were used to talk about the concrete ones? The numeric constant Pi certainly governs many aspects of my life, but I don't feel compelled to worship it.

oddman: Neither does it mean that we should privilege other solutions. My point is that atheism is unreasonable because it makes a claim. In this case a negative claim is just as unreasonable as a positive claim. If you wish to follow a strict logicaal-empiricist line of thought you ought to be agnostic.

The problem here is that many flavors of atheism (as defined by a fair number of atheists since Huxley) do not make a negative claim, or a positive one. Certainly atheism isn't incompatible with formal agnosticism. Having actually read Huxley's argument for agnosticism, he strikes me as arguing primarily for the sake of argument, and his arguments are ultimately obsolete because the epistemological crisis he foreshadowed is old news. At the end of the day, you have to make a commitment around the imperfect knowledge of the universe you have, and Huxley's conclusion advocates for a humanist philosophy based on what we can know.

Most theists are formally agnostic as well, they just argue for making a leap of faith that God exists, or that the writers of scripture might have had some good ideas. Either you accept the apologist's argument that belief in god is more moral, more ethical, or more beautiful than skepticism, or you accept the argument that skepticism is more reasonable. There is no conflict in my saying that I don't know for certain god doesn't exist, but practically I live as though he doesn't.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:22 PM on July 2, 2009


I don't mind having a God softer than kitten breath

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA it's Fluffy Kittens brand Gospel Tissue, the Touch of Grace that Blesses your Behind.

I am never going to stop teasing you about this. Never.
posted by fleetmouse at 3:12 PM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Careful, fleetmouse—your anality's showing.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:03 PM on July 2, 2009


"That is quite different from "knowledge" derived from faith, which is in line with a mystical, supernatural view of the universe."

I didn't get into faith or the whole God thing. The assertion was that perception = existence or the premise of somethings existence. This is untrue. It's often quite useful to think in that way in order to hypothesize about the nature of reality.
Plenty of particles that are purely theoretical in nature and well beyond perception and proof. Virtual particles don't have an objective existence. And indeed, Feynman diagrams are useful mental placeholders. Gödel's incompleteness theorem shows that there are statements within any formal system that it can't prove or refute - so there's a kind of faith in operation in any system.
Now certainly there's a difference between mathematical calculations and simply casting thought to the wind with "AND THEN A MIRACLE HAPPENED."

But Heidegger and other philosophical thought is useful in exploring (and exercising) reason and logic (itself a human construct) and the nature of reality and consciousness. That it happens to mention "God" in some instances doesn't completely invalidate all the other work.
Einstein believed in God and mentioned God in relation to his work. We don't toss out Relativity because of it.
What's "dark matter?" Don't know? Can't perceive it? Than why posit its existence? Especially when you're probably wrong about it.
Well, phlogiston was a useful theory until folks figured out oxidization.
Renormalization Dirac and Feynman had a lot of problems with, but it was useful in statistical field theory applied to condensed matter physics.
I brought up quarks because before evidence existed for it folks thought it was just an abstract tool used to explain certain concepts - like the Feynman diagrams.

This whole thing on living practically, without inquiry into the heavy concepts, is swell. But one can't retreat to that on the one hand as a way of saying "God is irrelevant" without recognizing that this argument too limits other conceptual tools.

Nontheism thus far has satisfied me in terms of rhetoric. It simply doesn't matter whether God exists or not in much the same way what occurred "before" the universe, that is, before space-time existed, doesn't really matter. If there was some special form of time or something, it's pretty much impossible to know.
The trick is differentiating what it is useful to think about from the rhetorical "can God create a rock so heavy" nonsense.
Heidegger's "being -is- time" and finite consciousness grasping the concept and implications of infinity is pretty f'ing relevant I'd say.
Hell, literature - those characters don't really exist. Dreams don't really exist. And yet, they're non-material things that have had an impact on how we think about reality.
Where does the word "quark" come from?
Without such inspiration and thought on the non-physical I don't think we would have made the progress we have made on inquiring into physical reality of the things we can't perceive.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:05 PM on July 2, 2009


I wouldn't paint myself as an ignostic. That position seems to argue that it's impossible to understand the question "Does God exist?"; I don't. I think it's impossible to answer the question (either negatively or positively).

But I just noticed a possible confusion. I suppose there are two reasons why a question is unanswerable.

Is Pi an even number? Is unanswerable because the question is nonsense.

Is Kal-El's youngest cousin on his mother's side blond? Is also unanswerable, but only because there is a clear lack of evidence about the unconceived biographies of cousins of fictional characters.

Does God exist is like the Kal-El's cousin question.
posted by oddman at 6:53 PM on July 2, 2009


On reflection replace the Pi question with this one "Does Pi taste like Mango or adjectives?"
posted by oddman at 7:23 AM on July 3, 2009


Somewhere out there is probably a person with synesthesia who can taste Pi. (I can only taste Pi·e.)
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:34 AM on July 3, 2009


I always figured if a rational God created the universe, Pi would be a round number, or at least a rational number. AS it is Pi looks like shoddy workmanship.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:24 AM on July 3, 2009


I mean whole number. DOH
posted by fleetmouse at 8:25 AM on July 3, 2009


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