Gods and Gopniks
March 10, 2015 9:38 AM   Subscribe

Simply said, we have reached a moment in Western history when, despite all appearances, no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is possible. Not only do convinced secularists no longer understand what the issue is; they are incapable of even suspecting that they do not understand, or of caring whether they do. David Bentley Hart on Adam Gopnik's review of the state of theism and atheism.
posted by shivohum (128 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
A New Yorker author opined in an authoritative voice on a topic on which he [sic] is actually largely ignorant, and repeated mainstream pieties in doing so? You don't say!

(Actually, though, the article looks interesting, thanks.)
posted by kenko at 9:42 AM on March 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


True rationalists are as rare in life as actual deconstructionists are in university English departments, or true bisexuals in gay bars.

Help, guys, I rolled my eyes so hard they got stuck that way.
posted by almostmanda at 9:44 AM on March 10, 2015 [27 favorites]


Another "Oh! Why do people who reject the first principle of my argument stop reading my 500 page book!" lament.
posted by FireSpy at 9:47 AM on March 10, 2015 [13 favorites]


So Hart's issue seems to be that the current generation of disbelievers are no longer interested in exhaustive navel-gazing and debate over the same old arguments in favor of belief?

I know *I'm* lazy when it comes to having the same argument over and over. All of the facts support one side of the argument, and the other side is an ongoing exercise in rationalization and finding new ways to cram God into ever-smaller gaps.
posted by Ickster at 9:48 AM on March 10, 2015 [36 favorites]


Does Gopnik think he can assert rights here denied to Galileo, Kepler, and Newton? Or to Arthur Eddington, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac, Anthony Zee, John Barrow, Freeman Dyson, Owen Gingerich, John Polkinghorne, Paul Davies, Stephen Barr, Francis Collins, Simon Conway Morris, and (yes) Albert Einstein?
Well, yes, apparently.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:49 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


So Hart's issue seems to be that the current generation of disbelievers are no longer interested in exhaustive navel-gazing and debate over the same old arguments in favor of belief?

Hart's issue seems to be that he got a bad review in The New Yorker. From this, he determines that all discussion of the subject must be doomed forever.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:53 AM on March 10, 2015 [15 favorites]


"Journalism is the art of translating abysmal ignorance into execrable prose."

A rather curious thing to write as the first line of an article in "AMERICA'S MOST INFLUENTIAL JOURNAL OF RELIGION AND PUBLIC LIFE."
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:57 AM on March 10, 2015


I'd say no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is necessary or useful.
Believe what you will, don't shove it down my throat, and leave it at that.
posted by signal at 9:58 AM on March 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


Another "Oh! Why do people who reject the first principle of my argument stop reading my 500 page book!" lament.

I think it's more a "Why does someone who purports to be writing an article in part about my book stop reading my book but nevertheless attempt to characterize its argument, despite not having read it, let alone attempted to understand it sympathetically" lament, which is … a reasonable lament.

And (to Going to Maine), he did get a bad review, but it's a bad review in the sense that the review was not very well executed as well as in the sense that it was negative. And it's not as if Gopnik's the first member of the first generation of unbelievers to simultaneously not care about the subtleties of a long tradition of argument while simultaneously thinking that the ten minutes or so he's spent thinking about the subject obviously entitles him to pronounce on it magisterially, so, yeah, I think Hart's pessimism is justified; it's the bread-and-butter of the high-school^W^Wnew atheist crowd.
posted by kenko at 10:00 AM on March 10, 2015 [12 favorites]


A rather curious thing to write as the first line of an article in "AMERICA'S MOST INFLUENTIAL JOURNAL OF RELIGION AND PUBLIC LIFE."

Haha, it's almost as if "journal" has multiple meanings! Guess what, if you publish in the Journal of Philosophy you aren't thereby a journalist or engaging in journalism! And even if "journal" had the relevant meaning in this case, that wouldn't make the author a practitioner of journalism! And even if it did, that wouldn't make his line unknowing! And it would still be a good line!

What is it with you people!!!
posted by kenko at 10:01 AM on March 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think it's more a "Why does someone who purports to be writing an article in part about my book stop reading my book but nevertheless attempt to characterize its argument, despite not having read it, let alone attempted to understand it sympathetically" lament, which is … a reasonable lament.

And this bit did give me a smile ...

For full disclosure’s sake, I should note that my most recent book is among those Gopnik discusses (sort of). He obviously did not read it—at least not as far as, say, the introduction—
posted by philip-random at 10:02 AM on March 10, 2015


I'd say no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is necessary or useful.
Believe what you will, don't shove it down my throat, and leave it at that.


Yeah. I think many of the people, theists and atheists, who get invested in talking to the other side are less interested in "see, I was right all along!" and more in "Please stop being an asshole to us!" which is a very different conversation. And in my mind a much more productive one.
posted by selfnoise at 10:02 AM on March 10, 2015 [8 favorites]


It is true that if you limit yourself to reading and listening to the Harris/Dawkins-style polemicists and their theistic antagonists, you won't hear anything new or interesting since they are all mostly just repeating arguments that have gone on for hundreds if not thousands of years.

But this conversation is happening. People like Atran, Boyer, Ariely, Sperber, etc. are actually having this conversation on belief and un-belief and saying new and interesting things. Why are people religious, what purpose does religion serve, how can we curb religious radicalism and violence, and so on, are questions subject to scientific inquiry that actually have answers... and they aren't such bores
posted by mrbigmuscles at 10:05 AM on March 10, 2015 [14 favorites]


When the Jehovah's Witnesses (or the Mormons, or the Order of St. Michael, or once, unbelievably, the Unification Church) show up at my door and I tell them I'm not interested and to have a nice day, I take it for granted that they think there's something wrong with me. Hart's article parallels what must be their rationalizing internal dialogue when that happens over and over and over again. Oh, woe betide this sinful world that shares not my faith, won't even seriously engage with it.
posted by fleetmouse at 10:06 AM on March 10, 2015 [10 favorites]


Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend.

Maybe it's not such an adventure any more because theism is no longer the center around which the intellectual world must revolve, and moving in any direction away from theism is no longer traveling outward into the unknown, it's just another direction to move.

Hart's pet theory about the unanswered or unanswerable questions isn't special, and no one is obliged to treat it as the nexus from which all other lines of thought extend, or against which all other lines of thought must be compared.

The last sentence was pretty remarkable:
Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends—not with a bang but a whimper."
Is he really suggesting that this is a harbinger of the end of the age of reason? Or maybe he's describing disappointment that nonbelievers are no longer enthusiastically clashing in philosophical battle with theists, and have moved on to more interesting and productive lines of inquiry about the universe.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 10:12 AM on March 10, 2015 [20 favorites]


People like Atran, Boyer, Ariely, Sperber, etc. are actually having this conversation on belief and un-belief and saying new and interesting things. Why are people religious, what purpose does religion serve, how can we curb religious radicalism and violence, and so on, are questions subject to scientific inquiry that actually have answers...

I'd be interested in seeing a post on that, if they're actually saying new and interesting things. Hart, on the other hand, doesn't seen to be touching on any of those issues in his response.
posted by Ickster at 10:13 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


I actually think that Gopnik was on to something with the very last section of his piece:
Yet the wondering never quite comes to an end. Relatively peaceful and prosperous societies, we can establish, tend to have a declining belief in a deity. But did we first give up on God and so become calm and rich? Or did we become calm and rich, and so give up on God?
It's an interesting thing to ponder - and for my part, I'd lean more towards "a society is less inclined to be religious if it is more peaceful and prosperous". And I can even see this being a pendulum - the less influence religion has on a society, the less restraint there is on the selfish butt-wipes in that society, and the more likely they are to take over and re-make the society in a more restrictive fashion, which in turn may create conditions which foster the growth of a new-found religious fervor which drives people to then overthrow them in turn, and back and forth.

Mind you, I'm not saying that the lack of a religious influence leads to such a downfall, or that it leads to someone not having a moral code. Rather, there may be people with enough of a lack of imagination and empathy who may actually need that threat of a punishment after life to keep them in check, and without that, they're less likely to keep themselves in check. That's not a faith-vs.-not thing, that's a "people can be real shits if given half a chance" thing.

And even among the faithful - it's also human nature to be much more likely to be saying prayers of "please" rather than prayers of "thank you". So when things are going relatively well, a society may not be inclined to go looking for faith; everyone's doin' good, so they're all set. Religion gets de-emphasized.

So yeah, I'd by the notion that as a society gets prosperous, they emphasize religion less. (Save for the core faithful of any stripe, because there is always a core faithful no matter what you're talking about or what condition the world is in.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:19 AM on March 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


He obviously did not read it—at least not as far as, say, the introduction—given the bizarre description he provides of its argument.

In my experience, people who get paid to write book reviews sometimes get things wrong, but we do actually read the whole book. I remember Stephen Wolfram once wrote me email to take issue with what I wrote about A New Kind of Science, "strongly encouraging" me to read a particular section starting around page 750. I read it! I read all 1200 pages of it! Hart is free to reject Gopnik's paraphrase, but I highly doubt Gopnik didn't read his book.
posted by escabeche at 10:21 AM on March 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


Sorry, couldn't get past the first paragraph without metaphorically throwing this across the room.

Are there some good points farther down?

Hmm, reading the other comments in the thread, it sounds like just more of the same. He's insufferable all the way down, in other words.

Christ, what an asshole...
posted by Naberius at 10:26 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Turtles, dammit!
posted by sensate at 10:27 AM on March 10, 2015


"Journalism is the art of translating abysmal ignorance into execrable prose."

A rather curious thing to write as the first line of an article in "AMERICA'S MOST INFLUENTIAL JOURNAL OF RELIGION AND PUBLIC LIFE."


someone just got insanely owned, and it wasn't David Bentley Hart
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:33 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hart's letter falls into a long tradition of authors writing about the bad reviews they get and why the reviewers are wrong, but it fails in being funny or witty or even snarky. Therefore, I have determined that civilization as we know it must be coming to an end.
posted by rtha at 10:35 AM on March 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


It will end when the last book reviewer is strangled with the entrails of the last graduate student
posted by thelonius at 10:38 AM on March 10, 2015 [7 favorites]


First Things vs. Adam Gopnik is indisputably the Aliens vs. Predator of mass-market intellectualism. Whoever wins, we lose.
posted by RogerB at 10:42 AM on March 10, 2015 [7 favorites]


"People are unpredictable. ..Variation is the rule of nature."

The new algorithms beg to differ. I do like it that lack of belief in established faiths, has persisted so long generationally, that the non-believers now realize the futility and "ministry of funny thoughts," rediculuousness of even responding to attempts of conversation or conversion.

While horrifyingly, predictably, believers all over the world legislate their belief, dictate their belief, and make war over their particular delusions regarding the grandeur of their deities.

The deist complaining about the rational review of his doubtlessly difficult to read rubbish, throws bricks in the street, at someone who is not, nor ever will be, there.
posted by Oyéah at 10:42 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Another theist insists that we have to engage with millennia if tortured logic and tangled jargon in order to conclude that the Abrhamic God carries no explanatory power. I've been down this road with other MeFites, here on the blue, maybe six months ago; it's exhausting.

Insofar as evolutionary biology is concerned, I think the New Yorker piece missed an important narrative element: The theists started this fight, and it has only gone on so long because they're too punch-drunk to tap out.
posted by WCWedin at 10:43 AM on March 10, 2015 [8 favorites]


Believe what you will, don't shove it down my throat, and leave it at that.

The problem comes about when someones beliefs include that it is necessary to cram it down your throat.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:52 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


The most effective and far-reaching case against Christianity in eighteenth-century England is Chapter 15 of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Gibbon concedes—that is, “concedes”—the obvious truth of the Christian religion, and then asks, deadpan, what worldly mechanism would nonetheless have been necessary for its triumph? In a manner still not improved upon for concise plausibility, he enumerates the real-world minority politics that made it happen.
This is a very interesting point. Or so I think, because it was precisely this kind of deadpan sociological examination of the development of Christianity (in Eric Hoffer's The True Believer) that started me down the road to unbelief. I was exposed to plenty of science before then, but what changed my mind was the transformation of religion into "a question of human causes and events."
posted by clawsoon at 10:52 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Are there some good points farther down?

Atheists are the real racist (or uh, "quietly fascist") cultural supremacists, and not, you know, the literal missionaries that have been converting unenlightened savages for centuries.
posted by theodolite at 10:52 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


But why this prose style? Why?
posted by ostro at 10:53 AM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Simply said, we have reached a moment in Western history when, despite all appearances, no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is possible.

This is a very foolish statement. First of all, Hart is confusing so-called New Atheists for all atheists. And he seems to think that they speak for all atheists, doubtless ignoring a lot of quiet and considered discussion at the margins. Second of all, was there ever a meaningful public debate about atheism? This kind of issue is just too sensitive for many people to calmly discuss, even now.

Hart hints at this himself, when he says "Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend." In other words, atheism can serve a useful role in allowing the intelligent among the faithful to test and sharpen their faith...but not as a legitimate pursuit! As a marginal philosophy, I'm sure he and his ilk were quite content with it playing this role. But that's not a "meaningful public debate," that's atheism as religion's yapping lapdog.

The very idea of a public debate about belief/atheism seems ridiculous to me. Both sides are speaking from such different mindsets that they don't even really understand each other. As an long time atheist, I can say that honestly that I have a hard time even understanding why a person would be religious. I understand in principle, but I am completely unable to relate to it.
posted by Edgewise at 10:58 AM on March 10, 2015 [14 favorites]


Did Gopnik bother to read what he was writing there? I ask only because it is so colossally silly. If my dog were to utter such words, I should be deeply disappointed in my dog’s powers of reasoning. If my salad at lunch were suddenly to deliver itself of such an opinion, my only thought would be “What a very stupid salad.”
Really? That would be your only thought? Your lunchtime salads usually offer far more insightful commentary, do they?
posted by yoink at 11:00 AM on March 10, 2015 [7 favorites]


TLDR version of David Bentley Hart: The Courtier's Reply.
posted by dhens at 11:01 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Edgewise: Second of all, was there ever a meaningful public debate about atheism? This kind of issue is just too sensitive for many people to calmly discuss, even now.

That is such a clear win for religion that I can't help but wonder whether successful religions have it built into their DNA. A hysterical reaction to even the possibility of discussion - you're confusing the minds of our children! How can you be so insensitive! - is a great way to make sure that other viewpoints don't get heard.
posted by clawsoon at 11:12 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


But why this prose style? Why?

Yeah, it really is almost impossible to imagine the searing self-doubt and status anxiety beneath the overcompensation here, but that's the only thing that I could imagine leading someone to perform this stock-conservative-intellectual grandiloquent bluster with such remarkable vigor. I think of this as the George Will problem — it doesn't make a person any more likable, of course, as Will's example amply testifies, but it helps to explain the level of energy invested in the performance.
posted by RogerB at 11:30 AM on March 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


Mind you, I'm not saying that the lack of a religious influence leads to such a downfall, or that it leads to someone not having a moral code. Rather, there may be people with enough of a lack of imagination and empathy who may actually need that threat of a punishment after life to keep them in check, and without that, they're less likely to keep themselves in check. That's not a faith-vs.-not thing, that's a "people can be real shits if given half a chance" thing.

I think I'd add on also that a religious society also creates an environment that's more conducive for commenting on the moral behavior of other people and creating social pressure to act "rightly", regardless of any fears of punishment in the afterlife. This can be turned towards negative or positive uses (I could do without the version that turns into DOMA, but I'm pretty fond of the version where Pope Francis reminds everyone that late capitalism sucks.) Some strains of secular humanism have tried to address how to maintain this kind of socially-enforced responsibility to one another without turning it into tyranny of the majority, but it's a hard needle to thread.
posted by kagredon at 11:34 AM on March 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


you're confusing the minds of our children! How can you be so insensitive!

An even bigger problem is that it's considered rude to call someone's religious beliefs into question (we see that dynamic here on Metafilter a lot). Our social attitudes surrounding this question are so fraught and so contradictory that it is impossible to have anything like a "public debate" on the issue.

Indeed, what is particularly difficult is that it's precisely debate which is seen as beyond the pale. That is, it's fine for someone to stand up and say something that implicitly paints everyone who disagrees with them as either idiots or outcasts, but it's unacceptable to say it explicitly. Thus it's fine for someone to declare that they believe that salvation can only be achieved through Jesus, but it's not acceptable for them to say explicitly that this means Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists are going to burn in hell for all eternity--even if it follows as a logically corollary of the first statement. So, similarly, a first-person-testimonial "this is what I believe as an atheist" piece in the op-ed pages of your newspaper is uncontroversial, but a "this is why you ought to be an atheist" piece is not.

This may be a reasonable social detente, but it means that anything approaching actual "debate" between "theists and atheists" (or between Mormons and Muslims or what have you) in anything other than reasonably under-the-radar and out-of-the-way fora is not really possible.
posted by yoink at 11:40 AM on March 10, 2015 [10 favorites]


Incidentally, I hadn't heard of Hart before (though he's apparently been discussed here previously), but am enjoying the discovery of his political opinions, which are amusingly insane and more than a bit Moldbuggy in flavor.
posted by RogerB at 11:49 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


—If my salad at lunch were suddenly to deliver itself of such an opinion, my only thought would be “What a very stupid salad.”

Really? That would be your only thought? Your lunchtime salads usually offer far more insightful commentary, do they?


Was there a point to this comment, other than tedious pedantry?
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:50 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


yoink: So, similarly, a first-person-testimonial "this is what I believe as an atheist" piece in the op-ed pages of your newspaper is uncontroversial

Is it, though? The successful Western religions certainly seem to have an impetus toward making this into unacceptable discourse whenever they achieve enough social weight. (Perhaps Eastern religions do, too, but I'm not as familiar with them.)
posted by clawsoon at 11:51 AM on March 10, 2015


it's precisely debate which is seen as beyond the pale
Discussion is often useful; debate is a very specific form of competition ("you won that debate") that I have no more interest in participating in than American Football (and is equally likely to cause brain damage).
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:54 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


...i.e. I can't imagine such an op-ed in my old hometown paper in the Western Canadian Bible Belt.
posted by clawsoon at 11:54 AM on March 10, 2015


Our social attitudes surrounding this question are so fraught and so contradictory that it is impossible to have anything like a "public debate" on the issue.

That's the subtle problem that confounds the blowback around the 'new atheists'. A lot of the rage that people single out (unfairly, sometimes) is from this. Because it does hurt someone's feelings to call their deeply held beliefs wrong, in most cases. It's hard to separate that from impugning their intelligence and culture. The problem has come in the way it's held back ordinary people.

David Bently Hart is a much better writer than me. I'm sure he could spend 1000 words making me feel like an idiot successfully. But if you tell me that my neighbors can't get married because of all the dead white guys who thought like you do, then I'm pissed off.

And I know, not all religions and all religious people. It's just that that's where the anger is from. Most of the time I really don't care what you believe. But I care how you act, and how you ask me to act. So if I call you on it, and you try to justify it by appealing to De Chardin or whoever, well then I just think you're a jerk who's trying to put your comfort ahead of other people's rights.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:56 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Was there a point to this comment, other than tedious pedantry?

That "if my salad said this, I'd still think it was stupid" was itself a really dumb thing to say.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:57 AM on March 10, 2015


Was there a point to this comment, other than tedious pedantry?

I thought it was an hilariously stupid thing to say. I thought it doubly hilarious that it would be something he wrote write after saying "Did Gopnik bother to read what he was writing there?"

So the point was simply to invite others to share my amusement.
posted by yoink at 11:57 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm a Christian. I thought the Gopnik article was really interesting., thank you. The Hart article was unreadable bluster, and I would suggest people skip it.
posted by alasdair at 12:01 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Simply said, we have reached a moment in Western history when, etc.

Boy, talk about having a keratinous filament up one's ventral orifice....
posted by y2karl at 12:17 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


METAFILTER: Simply said, we have reached a moment in Western history when, etc.
posted by philip-random at 12:22 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


That "if my salad said this, I'd still think it was stupid" was itself a really dumb thing to say.

I dunno, I thought it was the wittiest part of his screed.
posted by Edgewise at 12:31 PM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


DBH is detestable, deeply. For more proof read the smug nonsense RogerB posted above. A sample: "Last week, as I watched the waves of the Republican electoral counterinsurgency washing across the heartland, and falling back only at the high littoral shelves of the Pacific coast and the Northeast, I found myself reflecting on what a devil’s bargain electoral democracy is."

An insight worthy of a third-year philosophy major.
posted by feste at 12:50 PM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


For more proof read the smug nonsense RogerB posted above.

Yeah, I read that article and I was duly impressed with his completely gratuitous use of big words. Midden! Littoral! Unfortunately, the article itself was either (a) empty musings or (b) a stupidly earnest affection for monarchy (we're talking salad-stupid here). I'm not sure which.
posted by Edgewise at 12:58 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here's an admiring review of Hart's book. It's interesting, because it characterizes Hart's argument in pretty much exactly the same way that Gopnik does. Which leads me to suspect that Hart is engaged in that oldest and most tedious of theist bait-and-switch games. That is, to counter the atheists who are making merry of God-as-Old-Man-on-a-Cloud he says "no, no, of course that God is an absurdity--the God I believe in is this glowy, immanent, indefinable, essence-of-being thingamajig" (the "Light of Life" is his term, I believe). And, of course, such a being is rigorously non-disprovable.

But then when you say "o.k., if you want to believe in that there's not much I can say--but I also don't see why such a vague, contentless being matters" (which is Gopnik's point) he comes roaring back out with the Old Man on the Cloud again: suddenly glowy-indefinable-Light-of-Life guy is kicking ass and taking names and creating the universe ex nihilo and condemning you for eating shrimp and the whole nine yards.

What's tedious is how familiar that move is.
posted by yoink at 1:02 PM on March 10, 2015 [21 favorites]


That "if my salad said this, I'd still think it was stupid" was itself a really dumb thing to say.

I dunno, I thought it was the wittiest part of his screed.


EmpressCallipygos couldn't help reflexively rewriting it to make it actually witty. What Hart actually wrote was "If my salad at lunch were suddenly to deliver itself of such an opinion, my only thought would be 'What a very stupid salad.'" Which kinda kills the joke, both by the gratuitous wordiness and by the weird insistence that a talking salad would not, in itself, be at all remarkable.
posted by yoink at 1:06 PM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


If my salad at lunch were suddenly to deliver itself of such an opinion, my only thought would be “What a very stupid salad.”
Next time, get the arugula.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:08 PM on March 10, 2015


completely gratuitous use of big words. Midden! Littoral!

I was walking by the shore of the lake and I littorally almost fell in!
posted by freecellwizard at 1:11 PM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


the weird insistence that a talking salad would not, in itself, be at all remarkable

But come on, that's surely intended as part of the "funny" hyperbolic putdown, like the stupidity of the thought is so remarkable that it crowds out even the remarkableness of the talking salad. I don't have the energy to go find it for sure but I'm pretty confident that it's a mangling of a joke stolen from some century-or-more-old writer (odds on Chesterton).
posted by RogerB at 1:13 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I wanted to write something in defense of Hart because the Gopnik piece is on the level of "if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys" as far as theological arguments go, but having read more about Hart I'm now going to forget that he exists. And I say this as an atheist or secularist of the sort you can get when growing up in the Soviet Union and then living in what is arguably the most secular country on Earth today.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:13 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yoink, my apologies. I didn't realize you were responding to a dumb thing said in the linked article. For some reason, I thought you were responding to a fellow MeFite's comment by picking apart a slightly clumsy bit of hyperbole, which I think would have been a bit unsporting. But anything written in a linked article is absolutely fair game, so by all means, fire away!
posted by Atom Eyes at 2:10 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


on which he [sic] is

Apologizing in advance for potential tedious pedantry, what's the [sic] for?
posted by caryatid at 2:31 PM on March 10, 2015


"Really? That would be your only thought? Your lunchtime salads usually offer far more insightful commentary, do they?"

oh ye of little faith in the eternal transcendent message of lettuce pray
posted by klangklangston at 2:31 PM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


For a very long time, I was an obdurate pantheist, and still have a great affection for the notions of transcendence and Kierkegaardian faith. I still think that free will and consciousness are hard problems without resorting to dualist dodges. I'm doubly sympathetic to Hart's charge that most atheists, especially New Atheists, aren't very well versed in the long philosophical discussion around theism and atheism.

But Hart's reply boils down to a "Nuh-uh," with three fourths of it devoted to just calling Gopnik dumb. I generally think the Courtier's Reply is too often invoked, but it's particularly apt here in that Hart defends his book as supportive of an intercessionary god, something that journalism (among other factors) has done a lot to undermine — it's puffery to pretend that the problem of evil is solved by a long appeal to philosophical history, and without solving the problem of evil there can't be an intercessionary, omnipotent god. Without the intercession, there's no reason to care whether or not a god exists. I'm glad that some people feel God's love, but too often that just becomes part of a just world fallacy rather than anything useful.

So under Hart's petulance, he's still back to defending a conception of God which either is internally inconsistent (miraculously?) and doesn't exist or a God that's consistent, might exist and doesn't matter. Because of this, I think Gopnik's distinction between Supernaturalists, or magical thinkers, and rationalists is ultimately a lot more interesting and will be more fruitful than another round of sub-Jesuit god-lawyering from Hart.
posted by klangklangston at 2:52 PM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I just don't see much point in debating atheism vs theism. There's just no evidence whatsoever for the existence of any sort of active god as postulated by most religions. I understand why people want to construct such things; because they need the universe to have some purpose, because they want to believe that death isn't the end, etc. So as long as they aren't trying to fuck with me over it, I'm not going to spend time arguing with them over it. People need what they need. I just don't happen to need the same things so I stick with the observational data from reality.
posted by tavella at 2:54 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Both Gopnik and Hart exclude nontheist spirituality. This is a stream of thought that holds that nature is a continuum wherein thought and matter are in every sense a unity. Thinkers in this vein include Spinoza, Goethe, Hegel and Marx. Some of its proponents, notably Constantin Brunner, assert that this is in fact the basis of all philosophy and mysticism. Brunner includes in it Judaism and its derivatives, ie. Christianity and Islam. Its basic assertion is that the whole of nature is alive, and each form is alive with its own way of thinking and acting. This nontheist spirituality is incompatible with both traditional theism and with physicalist scientism. Because it asserts that the life-forms can only be understood sui generis, ie. as whole and complete manifestations of being, it is incompatible with the theory of evolution.
posted by No Robots at 3:08 PM on March 10, 2015


I for one would hate to give up the occasional a/theism debate. I spend most of my days debating hard issues with tricky answers, slippery arguments, and where even the questions themselves are often unclear and under debate. A nice argument with a theist I find pleasantly restful -- the issues are clear and the arguments overwhelming, allowing you to relax and enjoy the occasional rhetorical flourish or concentrate on the most crushing demonstration of an internal contradiction. It's like someone runs up to you, offers you a sword, and then pulls from his own scabbard a carrot and suggests a duel. Life is full of complicated and hard questions; it's nice to have the occasional alternative.

(Note that I don't usually adopt this tone with sincere theists, just doofuses like Hart.)
posted by chortly at 3:11 PM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Because it asserts that the life-forms can only be understood sui generis, ie. as whole and complete manifestations of being, it is incompatible with the theory of evolution.

I'm not particularly up on Hegel or Spinoza but you had me until this part since my initial reading of this sentence:

This is a stream of thought that holds that nature is a continuum wherein thought and matter are in every sense a unity.

seems quite compatible with my understanding of evolution. Elegantly so, even. Can you explain a little more what you mean?
posted by atoxyl at 4:02 PM on March 10, 2015


If thought and matter are in every sense a unity how are life-forms sui generis? I must be taking this line of thought in a very different direction than you are.
posted by atoxyl at 4:06 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


iirc, Spinoza conceives of thought and matter of different modes of the one substance, which is Nature or God. What is a mode, in Spinoza's thought? Don't ask me. I always wanted to get around to really studying him, but have not done so. I do think I recall that he thought the important thing about substance is that it is active, not passive, and he eventually decided that there could only be one such entity, which everything else depends on. For this, he was called an atheist!
posted by thelonius at 5:50 PM on March 10, 2015


I'm doubly sympathetic to Hart's charge that most atheists, especially New Atheists, aren't very well versed in the long philosophical discussion around theism and atheism.

I don't understand why the atheist is more responsible for knowledge of this "long philosophical discussion" than the believer.
posted by dashDashDot at 6:10 PM on March 10, 2015


"I don't understand why the atheist is more responsible for knowledge of this "long philosophical discussion" than the believer."

Most theists that make this sort of argument, including Hart, are much more versed in the long history of theological philosophy.
posted by klangklangston at 6:32 PM on March 10, 2015


I think the theist argument in this case, is that you can't be an atheist--except the shouty, obnoxious kind--unless you can refute all the sophisticated theologies. "New" atheists simply reject this line of argument. This makes DBH very angry. DBH would also like atheists to spiritually suffer a bit more, like Nietzsche did. .
posted by feste at 6:39 PM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


It just seems to me that monism as I naively conceive it can be reconciled very well with evolutionary accounts of the history of life, since it lets you avoid questions like when non-life becomes life or how consciousness becomes associated with matter. I'd really like to know what I'm missing.
posted by atoxyl at 6:57 PM on March 10, 2015


without solving the problem of evil there can't be an intercessionary, omnipotent god

No, there can't be a benevolent such God. Or more precisely there can't be a benevolent such by current human knowledge. Or to be more precise there can't be a benevolent such by current human knowledge coupled with current assumptions as to what human good and evil are. Or to be more precise there can't be such a benevolent God by dint of certain knowledge and certain (necessarily question-begging) assumptions as to what human good and evil are. Or to be more precise, we can't be philosophically certain of the existence of such a God any more than we can be about any other metaphysically "unsolved" problems. Or to be more precise, the reasonability of our acceptance of such a God depends upon our reasons for accepting metaphysical assumptions more generally -- incidentally, another "unsolved" problem. Or to be more precise we can actually have very adequate if not impervious grounds for belief in just such a God depending on our criteria for accepting metaphysical beliefs as reasonable coupled with the specific reasons applied in the specific ventured solution to the problem of evil we find best (by some criteria for best), and likely more powerful grounds still for a God in which one or more of the assumptions above is relaxed.

That said there are also perfectly sophisticated defenses of atheism, and of course Gopnik's was not one of them. The measure of the sophistication of a view is how charitably and deeply it can comprehend its opponents' views and nevertheless pose rebuttals.

The new atheists and the anti-vaxxers are at about the same level of sophistication. They both dismiss their opponents with a hilarious combination of arrogance and ignorance, and for pretty much the same reasons: TLDR, motivated reasoning, Dunning-Kruger, insular and self-reinforcing group opinions, and paranoia about the establishment and "expertise."
posted by shivohum at 7:08 PM on March 10, 2015


Or to be more precise we can actually have very adequate if not impervious grounds for belief in just such a God depending on our criteria for accepting metaphysical beliefs as reasonable coupled with the specific reasons applied in the specific ventured solution to the problem of evil we find best (by some criteria for best), and likely more powerful grounds still for a God in which one or more of the assumptions above is relaxed.

This is the problem. I don't understand this sentence at all. "Sophistication" and parsing to the nth degree does not mean anything.
posted by feste at 7:18 PM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Both Gopnik and Hart exclude nontheist spirituality."

Gopnik explicitly mentions it, and lumps it under supernatural. That's part of his argument as to why the categories of atheist and theist are insufficient.

This is a stream of thought that holds that nature is a continuum wherein thought and matter are in every sense a unity.

That is the contention of one specific strain of spirituality; that is not a consistent position across spirituality. (It's also a bit of a deepity, in that materialists also think that thought and matter are the same thing ultimately, through physical and chemical explanations of consciousness.)

Thinkers in this vein include Spinoza, Goethe, Hegel and Marx.

I think lumping those middle enlightenment thinkers together is of dubious utility — their beliefs on spirituality were fairly different and incompatible, and arguing that Hegel's central belief was the unity of matter and thought is misleading at best.

Some of its proponents, notably Constantin Brunner, assert that this is in fact the basis of all philosophy and mysticism. Brunner includes in it Judaism and its derivatives, ie. Christianity and Islam."

You've made arguments from Brunner before, and he's idiosyncratic in his views and conclusions on the history of theology. He posits that Judaism is an anti-religion (opposed because it's better understood as a spirituality) and thinks that all philosophy adheres to the poles of either Kant or Spinoza.

Its basic assertion is that the whole of nature is alive, and each form is alive with its own way of thinking and acting.

This quickly becomes incoherent past generalities.

This nontheist spirituality is incompatible with both traditional theism and with physicalist scientism. Because it asserts that the life-forms can only be understood sui generis, ie. as whole and complete manifestations of being, it is incompatible with the theory of evolution."

And thus has very limited value in a world that has advanced greatly in the last 100 years or so since Brunner was working. It's an interesting thought experiment, but has limited probative value and has largely been supplanted by other thinkers in mainstream philosophy.
posted by klangklangston at 7:21 PM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos couldn't help reflexively rewriting it to make it actually witty.

I was actually going for "shorter", to be fair. But thanks. 😄
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:22 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


feste:
shivohum: Or to be more precise we can actually have very adequate if not impervious grounds for belief in just such a God depending on our criteria for accepting metaphysical beliefs as reasonable coupled with the specific reasons applied in the specific ventured solution to the problem of evil we find best (by some criteria for best), and likely more powerful grounds still for a God in which one or more of the assumptions above is relaxed.
This is the problem. I don't understand this sentence at all. "Sophistication" and parsing to the nth degree does not mean anything.

An omnipotent, intercessionary God becomes more plausible if one assumes that God is an asshole.
posted by clawsoon at 7:57 PM on March 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


No, there can't be a benevolent such God. Or more precisely there can't be a benevolent such by current human knowledge. Or to be more precise there can't be a benevolent such by current human knowledge coupled with current assumptions as to what human good and evil are. Or to be more precise there can't be such a benevolent God by dint of certain knowledge and certain (necessarily question-begging) assumptions as to what human good and evil are. Or to be more precise, we can't be philosophically certain of the existence of such a God any more than we can be about any other metaphysically "unsolved" problems. Or to be more precise, the reasonability of our acceptance of such a God depends upon our reasons for accepting metaphysical assumptions more generally -- incidentally, another "unsolved" problem. Or to be more precise we can actually have very adequate if not impervious grounds for belief in just such a God depending on our criteria for accepting metaphysical beliefs as reasonable coupled with the specific reasons applied in the specific ventured solution to the problem of evil we find best (by some criteria for best), and likely more powerful grounds still for a God in which one or more of the assumptions above is relaxed.

You do know the Ptolomeien astronomers could have just kept adding epicycles, and made just as accurate a model?

At some point it comes down to "Who you gonna believe? Me, or your lying eyes?"
posted by PMdixon at 8:51 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


"No, there can't be a benevolent such God. Or more precisely there can't be a benevolent such by current human knowledge. "

Fair point.

"Or to be more precise we can actually have very adequate if not impervious grounds for belief in just such a God depending on our criteria for accepting metaphysical beliefs as reasonable coupled with the specific reasons applied in the specific ventured solution to the problem of evil we find best (by some criteria for best), and likely more powerful grounds still for a God in which one or more of the assumptions above is relaxed."

That's circular jiggery-pokery. If assumptions justifying an intercessionary, omnipotent and benevolent god are made then belief is justified. But so far those assumptions have pretty much uniformly included either further appeals to unjustifiable assumptions or intractable conflicts with other moral and ethical precepts that have much more grounding in the observable world, e.g. either there's a heaven or God embodies a tremendous amount of needless suffering.
posted by klangklangston at 9:02 PM on March 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


I read the Gopkin article and was rolling my eyes because of the sheer lack of energy it seemed to have. "Yes, there's no evidence whatsoever that anything supernatural has ever happened, but don't you just sometimes really wish that it would, and isn't that just as important? Shouldn't we all just sit back and not think about it much?"

No. No it's not, and no we shouldn't.

So I clicked over to the response expecting to see something of a rebuttal to THAT bit of laziness, and instead I get the sort of bizarre arrogant tone I associate with the maligned New Atheists somehow coming from someone who doesn't even have science to support his arguments. Upthread, yoink mentioned how very old the "I believe in a completely non-definable and unprovable vague deific force that I choose to call God, now bow your heads and pledge fealty to Thor" game is, and ugh. Seriously?

THIS is why we can't have a public debate about faith. One side is composed of complete and unrepentant assholes (looking at you, Dawkins), and the other side is playing silly buggers with the philosophical game pieces, and meanwhile everyone else is babbling like Gopnik about how important it is that we treat playing pretend as something other than playing pretend. It's the refusal of anyone to engage in anything resembling a debate that means we can't debate in public. The one side dismisses out of hand; the other side won't stick to the program notes, and the audience doesn't care as long as no one punctures their idiosyncratic comfort-bubbles.

Things can be beautiful without being mystical, the documented need for something "bigger than Phil" doesn't have to be supernatural, and while the variety of quirks and psychological kinks that make up what for convenience's sake I call my mind mean that I, too, anthropomorphize and project constantly and subconsciously hope/expect my atavistic father/mother-figure imago to come pat me on the head and give me a lollipop, that doesn't mean I have to agree that other people's comfort-seeking imaginings should be grounds for public policy or justification for life decisions that negatively impact others.
posted by Scattercat at 9:22 PM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


THIS is why we can't have a public debate about faith. One side is composed of complete and unrepentant assholes (looking at you, Dawkins), and the other side is playing silly buggers with the philosophical game pieces, and meanwhile everyone else is babbling like Gopnik about how important it is that we treat playing pretend as something other than playing pretend.

Again, I think that it's vastly oversimplifying to talk about it like there are only two sides (plus Gopnik?). On one hand, I feel as I wrote earlier, that there never has been (and possibly doesn't need to be) a "public debate" about religion. It's too sensitive, and mindsets are too irreconcilable.

On the other hand, I think that tons of public debate is going on all over the place (i.e. on the internet), and some of it just has to be intelligent and valuable...right? Hart invokes the death of public debate on atheism as though it was once alive, so he can complain about the crassness of New Atheists.

If anything, it's probably healthier than ever, although I still think that doesn't necessarily mean much. I'm an atheist, and I don't expect atheism will ever truly become a majority thing for the long term. I really don't care in the slightest, as long as atheists are allowed to live in peace. It would be nice if most of US society wasn't prejudiced against atheists, but it's a very mild prejudice as far as those things go.
posted by Edgewise at 12:14 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


It would be nice if most of US society wasn't prejudiced against atheists, but it's a very mild prejudice as far as those things go.

This is an interesting issue because in polls of Americans - whether about trusted attributes in political candidates or opinions of various religious denominations - atheists tend to be extremely unpopular, at the absolute bottom of the list. So I'm not sure it's appropriate to call it a mild prejudice. However I think a lot of atheists are otherwise members of fairly privileged groups.
posted by atoxyl at 1:42 AM on March 11, 2015


I was raised in a very secular environment - though I have a lot of cultural Jewish background - and don't think I "know how" to believe, so I roll my eyes at a lot of earnest Internet Atheists. But I think it's worth remembering that some of them are atheists living in the Bible Belt and that's a whole 'nother perspective.

People like Dawkins being assholes is yet another issue. I liked some of his old science writing so I've been pretty disappointed in him in the last couple years.
posted by atoxyl at 1:48 AM on March 11, 2015


This is an interesting issue because in polls of Americans - whether about trusted attributes in political candidates or opinions of various religious denominations - atheists tend to be extremely unpopular, at the absolute bottom of the list. So I'm not sure it's appropriate to call it a mild prejudice.

This may be ameliorated, though, with what I suspect is in the minds of most survey responders when you say "atheist" - they're thinking of loud and pushy anti-theists, and the vast majority of atheists are "passing" with those same people simply by not being jerks.

Mind you, if you're talking about some kind of actionable law situation (i.e., a landlord discovers that a potential tenant is an atheist and refuses to rent to them or evicts them), that is definite prejudice, but there are already laws that restrict that - but on the other hand, that would be a really hard thing to just casually come up, so such a landlord would have to be screening for theists in their tenant search and they'd probably get smacked down sooner.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:34 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, where are the goalposts? A lot of people who don't identify with atheism are by no means theists; they sort of kind of believe in some kind of vague Universe-vibes, not the God of the Bible.
posted by thelonius at 5:35 AM on March 11, 2015


But so far those assumptions have pretty much uniformly included either further appeals to unjustifiable assumptions or intractable conflicts with other moral and ethical precepts that have much more grounding in the observable world, e.g. either there's a heaven or God embodies a tremendous amount of needless suffering.

What I was saying was that the very question of what assumptions are justifiable is exactly what's at stake. You're implicitly assuming the answer to that question -- though your answer is a little unclear. Incidentally, no metaphysical assumption has "grounding in the observable world" -- they're all lenses we wear which themselves focus and ground any statements we make about such a world, and the question of which lens to wear is again, exactly what is being disputed.

What you really have to argue is not that certain assumptions are more or less grounded in the world but that they more or less "appeal to our intuition." That is what these debates actually revolve around. That's not to say there is no actual truth, of course, but only that our access to it is mediated and indirect at best.
posted by shivohum at 7:47 AM on March 11, 2015


[F]or the evolutionists, the cosmic process is essentially temporal. There is a transformation of forms such that a higher form of existence is evolved from a lower form. According to Spinoza, however, the hierarchy of forms of being is the eternal order of nature; one form of perfection does not evolve from another, though it may be the efficient cause of a lower form. On Spinoza’s premises, the conatus or effort to maintain one’s form of being would prevent any evolutionary or transformation process. To cite Spinoza’s example (4 – pref.), “a horse, for instance, would be as much destroyed if it were changed into a man, as if it were changed into an insect.”--The Psychology and Ethics of Spinoza: A Study in the History and Logic of Ideas / David Bidney, p. 371.
posted by No Robots at 7:56 AM on March 11, 2015


Here is one hand.
posted by PMdixon at 8:08 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here is one hand.

You could change the conclusion of that argument to "Therefore God exists" and it would be exactly as persuasive.
posted by shivohum at 8:18 AM on March 11, 2015


No, I don't think it would. Moore is offering a proof, or ("proof"*) of common-sense belief in the extistence of an external world by displaying his hands. He'd have to be able to perform a miracle or something like that to try to apply the same method in service of proving ostensively that there were supernatural beings, let alone prove that there is a God. Even then, his demonstration would be undercut by Humean doubts as in "On Miracles" - that is, it's more likely that Moore has tricked us than that he has genuinely shown a violation of the laws of nature.

*I'm not very impressed with it, or with Moore's "open question" argument, or with Moore in general.
posted by thelonius at 8:26 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


The point that I take from that argument that I think is valuable is that there's a sort of blind spot in which inductive knowledge is privileged over the experiential, with a sort of presumption that we can fix the flaws in the latter with the former.

But if, in fact, I am so deep in error that there is in fact not a hand at the end of my arm, then why on earth should I place my faith in much more complicated and abstract ratiocination? My sensory inputs are imperfect and fallible, true, but if I can't even use them as a starting point then I have nothing, and it is hubris to think else.

(Also "two hands" is perfectly sufficient to constitute a universe in most usages, while generally not being sufficient to constitute God.)
posted by PMdixon at 8:26 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


He'd have to be able to perform a miracle or something like that to try to apply the same method in service of proving ostensively that there were supernatural beings, let alone prove that there is a God.

Not quite. He is taking the visual display of his hands as direct proof of this thing called an "external world" -- a material one, and our knowledge of which skepticism attacks.

That the image of the hands exists is not in question; the question is their externality. And that externality, Moore says, is true because we "know" it.

Wittgenstein put the point bluntly: “Moore’s mistake lies in this—countering the assertion that one cannot know that, by saying ‘I do know it’”

So why not equally say that we "know" the hands to be divine handiwork?

"I have two hands"
"These are divinely çreated objects"
"Therefore God exists"

The "externality" of the hands as objects is just as "in question" as their divinity. The same "common sense" by which Moore asserts we know the one could be the way we know the other. Of course Moore would claim his statement is more plausible than this modification -- but on what grounds? He has none. He just asserts based on his sense of plausibility. Someone else asserts based on theirs. What isn't happening is much of an argument.
--
But if, in fact, I am so deep in error that there is in fact not a hand at the end of my arm, then why on earth should I place my faith in much more complicated and abstract ratiocination?

You see an image. That is the starting point you can trust. The question is the meaning of that image. When you put words to it, you are asserting a meaning.

It's like seeing the sun rise and set. That image we can all agree on. The question is the meaning of it -- is it really rising and setting, or is something else going on that produces that impression?

Also "two hands" is perfectly sufficient to constitute a universe in most usages, while generally not being sufficient to constitute God.

Why not? If two hands implies a whole uncreated universe, then they could as easily imply a whole created universe.
posted by shivohum at 8:45 AM on March 11, 2015


It's like seeing the sun rise and set. That image we can all agree on. The question is the meaning of it -- is it really rising and setting, or is something else going on that produces that impression?

Your use of the plural pronoun is key here, I think. All knowledge beyond "fire burn" is socially constructed. This is not intended to be a radical claim. However, given that any interesting form of knowing is a group endeavor, an epistemology allowing for revelation is really really dangerous, because in practice it means that the known is defined in a pretty explicitly hierarchical and non public fashion. Given the well known tendencies of elites to be the last to find out the house is on fire, this tends to end poorly.

Why not? If two hands implies a whole uncreated universe, then they could as easily imply a whole created universe.

Maybe I misunderstand you, but the point, agree or not, isn't that they imply anything. It is that they are an external universe, even if there's nothing else. The parallel you want to draw should, I think, be that the hands are God.
posted by PMdixon at 8:56 AM on March 11, 2015


Why not? If two hands implies a whole uncreated universe, then they could as easily imply a whole created universe.

You're framing the argument incorrectly. The claim is not "the two hands imply a whole uncreated universe" it is "they two hands imply a universe...the 'wholeness' or 'createdness' of which is not yet established."

Strong atheism ("I know for a fact that there is no god") is an easy position to refute, but it's also a position which I don't think any serious thinker holds (one reason I've always held that "agnosticism" is a meaningless position--it's just a 'polite' way of saying you're an atheist). I'm happy to concede that there might be a god or gods out there hiding behind the cosmos. How on earth could I refute that hypothesis. But so what? There might be all kinds of things out there. The question is not "how can I disprove the possible existence of God" the question is "what evidence compels me to give serious consideration to the god(s) hypothesis?"
posted by yoink at 9:13 AM on March 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


Strong atheism ("I know for a fact that there is no god") is an easy position to refute, but it's also a position which I don't think any serious thinker holds (one reason I've always held that "agnosticism" is a meaningless position--it's just a 'polite' way of saying you're an atheist).

I definitely agree that the word "agnostic" is just a soft-pedaled atheist - you either believe, or you don't believe. Being unsure means that you don't believe.

Also, strong or positivist atheism is easy to refute, but I find myself leaning in that direction, anyway. It's not that I "know" that there is no god, but I do strongly believe that no such being exists. I just find the premise to be too absurd.
posted by Edgewise at 9:40 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, strong or positivist atheism is easy to refute,

Not if you make "should be worshipped/obeyed/taken as a source of morality," one of the criteria. (Which also everyone does but hardly anyone admits to.)
posted by PMdixon at 9:48 AM on March 11, 2015


given that any interesting form of knowing is a group endeavor

Hrm. I'm not sure why this would be the case. I'd say all of art and literature is a form of knowing that is primarily individual. The artist knows the relationship between his internal experience and the external form with an intimacy the audience never can.

an epistemology allowing for revelation is really really dangerous, because in practice it means that the known is defined in a pretty explicitly hierarchical and non public fashion.

Isn't this true for any technical subject? Though actually I don't think it necessarily follows here, since all the meaning of revelation is in the interpretation of it, which can be as public as anything else. In that sense revelation provides just a set of images or data. Its meaning is up for debate even if one accepts its validity. Of course there are more hierarchical social structures of interpretations (e.g. Catholicism) and less hierarchical ones (e.g. Protestantism).

It is that they are an external universe, even if there's nothing else.

I guess I was going from the Wiki argument you linked to, which said:

Here is one hand,
And here is another.
There are at least two external objects in the world.
Therefore an external world exists.

It seems like a clear distinction was being drawn between the objects -- hands -- and the world that they were "in." But regardless, even if you want to say that the hands are the external world and thus the analogy is to say that the hands are god, that's fine with me. I can't see that it makes much difference. Either way properties are being imputed to the image that are not on the surface apparent.
--
You're framing the argument incorrectly. The claim is not "the two hands imply a whole uncreated universe" it is "they two hands imply a universe...the 'wholeness' or 'createdness' of which is not yet established."

It doesn't change anything. If the hands can imply an external universe at all they can equally well imply a divine universe, a naturalistic universe, a universe where we don't know (that's your possibility above), etc. Just add these to the word "external" and their status is no more or less persuasive in the argument.
--
I definitely agree that the word "agnostic" is just a soft-pedaled atheist - you either believe, or you don't believe. Being unsure means that you don't believe.

Religious people wrestle with doubt all the time. Why should belief be a simple yes or no thing? And the term "agnosticism" actually patches over a very wide array of stances. Some agnostics are going to be unsure but far more open to investigating religion than other agnostics who have no interest or desire or receptivity.

In fact, I'd say that's the real issue: do you believe the topic is worth your continued time and investigative effort or not? That's the real distinction. Plenty of agnostics say yes.
posted by shivohum at 9:51 AM on March 11, 2015


Not if you make "should be worshipped/obeyed/taken as a source of morality," one of the criteria.

But that would just be to invent an idiosyncratic meaning of the word. Clearly we can all understand the idea of a "God" who does not need worship, require our obedience or act as the "source of morality" (except, perhaps, in the sense of "creating the conditions out of which morality arose").

Indeed the classic theist "bait-and-switch" I described above always involves retreating to such a strong-atheist-proof "god" before re-endowing Him/Her with all the worship/obedience/lawgiving palaver.
posted by yoink at 9:52 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


It doesn't change anything. If the hands can imply an external universe at all they can equally well imply a divine universe, a naturalistic universe, a universe where we don't know (that's your possibility above), etc. Just add these to the word "external" and their status is no more or less persuasive in the argument.

Yes, but you're the one who has smuggled all of these terms ("divine," "naturalistic" etc.) into the debate. Moore doesn't say the hands imply a "naturalistic" universe or a "divine" universe or anything else. He says they imply an external universe. The rest must follow from whatever evidence emerges.

So...again...where do we find the evidence that leads us to think the existence of a god or gods is an hypothesis worthy of consideration?
posted by yoink at 9:55 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


But that would just be to invent an idiosyncratic meaning of the word. Clearly we can all understand the idea of a "God" who does not need worship, require our obedience or act as the "source of morality" (except, perhaps, in the sense of "creating the conditions out of which morality arose").

Sure we understand the concept but no one actually thinks it's an interesting one. If God is meant to have no meaningful implications then I have clearly misunderstood this whole religion thing.
posted by PMdixon at 10:01 AM on March 11, 2015


Religious people wrestle with doubt all the time.

True, but they are unlikely to describe themselves, in those cases, as flickering between "agnosticism" and "faith."

Some agnostics are going to be unsure but far more open to investigating religion than other agnostics who have no interest or desire or receptivity.


Sure. But they are all "atheists" until such time as their "investigations" lead them to become "theists." The only reason the word "agnostic" was invented in the late C19th was because of the strong social pressure against the open avowal of "atheism" and the feeling that to declare oneself an "atheist" caused pain to the faithful. It wasn't the result of the discovery of some exciting new philosophical position (there have been no really interesting new positions on this debate for a very long time).

We have no equivalent word for a mediate state between "belief" and "non-belief" for about any other proposition. We simply do not believe until we have some degree of evidence available to support the belief. Thus far--after many centuries of trying--no persuasive evidence to support belief in a deity or deities has been forthcoming. Perhaps one day it might be, but so far it's 0 for several million.
posted by yoink at 10:07 AM on March 11, 2015


He says they imply an external universe. The rest must follow from whatever evidence emerges.

Right. And I'm suggesting that "external" is on a logical par with these other terms. Moore just "knows" there is an external world. In the same way we could just "know" there is a divine one. Not of course that either of these arguments is to me particularly good. They're just equally bad.

So...again...where do we find the evidence that leads us to think the existence of a god or gods is an hypothesis worthy of consideration?

My answer in a tiny nutshell.

Thus far--after many centuries of trying--no persuasive evidence to support belief in a deity or deities has been forthcoming. Perhaps one day it might be, but so far it's 0 for several million.

The same amount of evidence for a deity exists as for an external world.
posted by shivohum at 10:11 AM on March 11, 2015


Isn't this true for any technical subject?

Kinda sorta in the short term, not in the long term. In theory, the vast majority of empirical truth claims can be assessed without placing any trust in the specific person who originally made the truth claim. No, I can't independently verify LHC reports on my own. But if I really really wanted to, and I had enough people I trust in whatever operational sense, I could get those people to help me do it. There is no privileged person.

Though actually I don't think it necessarily follows here, since all the meaning of revelation is in the interpretation of it, which can be as public as anything else.

God said to Abraham, "kill me a son."
posted by PMdixon at 10:15 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Shivohum's evidence for God:
I think there is very good reason to believe that consciousness will never be reducible to matter. If so, materialism is false. And since dualism has problems, I think the most appealing ontological position is idealism. And if everything is thought, isn't it reasonable to think that behind all the thought there's a Mind(s) that thinks it? I think so.
So, first we have to accept that a currently unsettled (and nowhere near close to being settled) argument (whether consciousness can be reduced to being the emergent property of a material substrate) will be settled and will be settled so as to decisively prove that consciousness cannot be derived from matter.

So "how can I swallow a camel whole?" is being answered with "begin by swallowing a whole horse."

But then it gets worse. The proof that consciousness cannot be derived from matter somehow doesn't result in dualism (on the basis that you don't personally like it--and on no argument whatsoever), but results in idealism. So now we have matter and consciousness being one-and-the-same "substance" all over again--the very proposition we supposedly began by disproving.

Look, just because you got to rename "matter" as "idea" doesn't mean you got rid of "matter." So if consciousness can be derived, successfully, from matter-understood-as-idea all that's doing is changing our understanding of the nature of "matter." You haven't gotten us anywhere near the existence of a "god" or of anything "divine" in any form whatsoever.

I realize, of course, that I've stopped short of your step from "I've proven idealism" to "and so there must be a One Great Mind"--unfortunately that step was based, once again, on nothing firmer than "I'd like the world to be that way."

As arguments for theism go, this one is, well, as transparently ramshackle and unconvincing as pretty much all the others.
posted by yoink at 10:44 AM on March 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


So, first we have to accept that a currently unsettled (and nowhere near close to being settled) argument

I view it as quite settled as to the truth of the matter, but that of course doesn't mean it's settled in terms of consensus. Welcome to the world of philosophy, where important problems are never settled by consensus.

Look, just because you got to rename "matter" as "idea" doesn't mean you got rid of "matter."

Actually it does, since the underlying phenomena that matter labels can be explained by consciousness, but not vice-versa. That renders "matter" a superfluous term.

As arguments for theism go, this one is, well, as transparently ramshackle and unconvincing as pretty much all the others.

Well, whatever. I think your refutation is shallow, of course. But to go into it deeply we'd have to have a book-length conversation. And then if you weren't fundamentally inclined you still wouldn't agree, because of course the acceptance of these arguments in the end is informed by a lot of personal perspective and emotion. That doesn't mean that some arguments aren't better and truer than others, but it does mean that there's no way to persuade someone fundamentally disinclined to agree with you.
posted by shivohum at 10:58 AM on March 11, 2015


God said to Abraham, "kill me a son."

And Abraham could have discussed this with others. Did he? Who knows? And more important for contemporary times, this parable itself is an object of discussion and interpretation. It's far from clear just what Abraham's example means for people today.
posted by shivohum at 11:01 AM on March 11, 2015


The same amount of evidence for a deity exists as for an external world.

Well, no. What you're smuggling into that statement is a definition of "external" that is something like "the external world as you naively imagine it to exist as some sort of Newtonian playroom." But what if by "external world" I simply mean "the phenomenological world of my experience"? Because I have a ton of evidence for the existence of that world. The laptop I'm typing on, the sofa I'm sitting on, the bird that's tweeting outside my window etc. etc. etc.

I have precisely zero evidence for the existence of a "god" or "gods" on the other hand.

Now, how is that "external" world constituted? Does it actually exist "outside" me? Does that term even mean anything? Fucked if I know. Maybe it's all just weird energy flows in some holographic universe or who the hell knows what. Maybe we're all just programs in a giant computer (which would be one version of your "idealism"). But so what? I have lots of evidence that the real-world effect that I experience as birdsong (say) is caused by the vocalizing of small flying animals, and that when I hear that noise outside my window I will be able to see the little critter causing the noise if I go to the window and look out. That's nice, reliable, repeatable evidence confirmed by multiple experiments. Does that "prove" beyond the possibility of argument the existence of birds and their capacity to produce birdsong as some kind of metaphysical truth about the nature of the universe--of course not. There is room for all kinds of skeptical doubt. But there's a mountain of evidence that gives me a reasonably good handle on navigating the world as I experience it.

But, once again, of evidence for a "god"--not a trace.
posted by yoink at 11:03 AM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


yoink: So...again...where do we find the evidence that leads us to think the existence of a god or gods is an hypothesis worthy of consideration?

Mostly, we find it in the same place that we find the evidence that leads us away from that hypothesis: From people we trust.

I'm an atheist - okay, a philosophical agnostic and a pragmatic atheist - but I recognize that the vast majority of the knowledge which I base that on comes from trusting one group of people instead of another.
posted by clawsoon at 11:04 AM on March 11, 2015


Welcome to the world of philosophy, where important problems are never settled by consensus

No, they're settled by argument. Your saying "I view it as settled" is not one of those.

the underlying phenomena that matter labels can be explained by consciousness


I would love to see you try (hint: it can't. You are relying entirely on a "truthiness" derived from centuries of mysticism to give that claim a feeling of plausibility. The fact is that you can't even give me a convincing definition of consciousness--because no one can, yet--and you certainly can't demonstrate how "the underlying phenomena that matter labels" can be "explained" by this thing you can't even define).
posted by yoink at 11:06 AM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


But what if by "external world" I simply mean "the phenomenological world of my experience"?

Except that has nothing to do with Moore's argument. He's refuting skepticism of a stable, mind-independent reality, skepticism that says something like we can't know if the world isn't just a dream or that it wasn't created just 5 minutes ago or that we might all be brains in vats. That has nothing to do with the phenomenological world.

I would love to see you try

Sure. Whatever it is that's explained by "matter" -- that is, everything in the phenomenological world -- as a concept can be equally well explained if what we call matter were not insentient but sentient -- in fact better, because now we'd be able to account for consciousness. Consciousness is your sense of being an experiencing subject, qualia, etc. So simply take whatever you imagined matter to be, except now imagine it also to proceed from an experiencing subject.
posted by shivohum at 11:15 AM on March 11, 2015


And Abraham could have discussed this with others. Did he? Who knows?

Don't look at this from Abraham's perspective. Look at it from Sarah's, and consider a version where the angel doesn't do the candid camera reveal at the end.
posted by PMdixon at 11:19 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Welcome to the world of philosophy, where important problems are never settled by consensus."


This is the problem. Some atheists don't want to play these games anymore. You call that shallow, so be it.
posted by feste at 11:32 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just want to not believe without being obliged to discuss that non-belief.
posted by _paegan_ at 11:46 AM on March 11, 2015


I think there is very good reason to believe that consciousness will never be reducible to matter. If so, materialism is false. And since dualism has problems, I think the most appealing ontological position is idealism. And if everything is thought, isn't it reasonable to think that behind all the thought there's a Mind(s) that thinks it? I think so.

I have to agree with yoink on this. Your initial premise is completely unsubstantiated, and every step you make is an unjustified leap from point to point. Of course, you are entitled to think these things, but this approach smacks of a slightly updated ontological argument - which I've always ranked somewhere below the watchmaker analogy in its power of persuasion. As he implied, the last sentence is the biggest leap of all. In between each of these points are a lot of "feelies" i.e. what seems intuitively right to you. For what it's worth, though, I don't think that you are being logically inconsistent or are provably "wrong."

This is an interesting issue because in polls of Americans - whether about trusted attributes in political candidates or opinions of various religious denominations - atheists tend to be extremely unpopular, at the absolute bottom of the list.

I believe that this is misleading. In my experience, this opinion applies to the atheists that they don't know i.e. the abstract idea of an atheist. Yes, there is definitely prejudice against atheists in politics - I believe that's where it's the worst. But in day-to-day relations, I've literally never experienced any mistreatment that I could identify as resulting from my lack of religious belief. This might be different if I lived in the bible belt instead of Long Island, but that could also be an oversimplification stemming from prejudice.
posted by Edgewise at 12:12 PM on March 11, 2015


This may be ameliorated, though, with what I suspect is in the minds of most survey responders when you say "atheist" - they're thinking of loud and pushy anti-theists, and the vast majority of atheists are "passing" with those same people simply by not being jerks.

I'd be very surprised if that was the primary force rather than evangelicals - and conservative members of other religions - teaching distrust of atheists. I too get sick of the people am personally exposed too, rather than the people I'm not, but there are objectively many, many more pushy Christians than pushy atheists in the US.
posted by atoxyl at 12:15 PM on March 11, 2015


[F]or the evolutionists, the cosmic process is essentially temporal. There is a transformation of forms such that a higher form of existence is evolved from a lower form. According to Spinoza, however, the hierarchy of forms of being is the eternal order of nature; one form of perfection does not evolve from another, though it may be the efficient cause of a lower form. On Spinoza’s premises, the conatus or effort to maintain one’s form of being would prevent any evolutionary or transformation process. To cite Spinoza’s example (4 – pref.), “a horse, for instance, would be as much destroyed if it were changed into a man, as if it were changed into an insect.”--The Psychology and Ethics of Spinoza: A Study in the History and Logic of Ideas / David Bidney, p. 371.

This tells me what Spinoza believes but it doesn't tell me why, or in particular why it follows from the idea of the unity of matter and mind. I suppose you'd say I should go to the source?
posted by atoxyl at 12:17 PM on March 11, 2015


We are all accustomed to organizing discrete material phenomena into abstract categories, eg. horses into “horseness.” When we attribute to each of these abstract categories a unique and essential way of thinking, we preclude the possibility of them emerging from or producing anything but versions of themselves.
posted by No Robots at 12:37 PM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


I guess my question is whether a monist/pantheist (maybe not the appropriate word I know you said non-theist) worldview must be so strongly anti-reductionist and why?
posted by atoxyl at 1:16 PM on March 11, 2015


Spinoza is thoroughly reductionist:
Spinoza as well as Brunner, in agreement with modern science, reduce all things and their qualitative differences to quantitative differences of velocity of the one Motion which is basic to all existence and all change. The universe as the one motion-complex—this constitutes the unitary and incontrovertible view of nature, the starting point of all scientific investigation.--The Unity Of Body And Mind / Lothar Bickel, p. 36.
This view differs from that of most scientists in that it affirms that thought is simply motion as experienced internally by a system.
posted by No Robots at 2:35 PM on March 11, 2015


Jerry Coyne on Hart vs Gopnik. Coyne has DBH's measure, I think.

With shivohum, it seems like we're back to "your rejection of Cartesian doubt is just like my God-belief, so why not accept my faith as I accept yours?", a bit like on the earlier thread being referred to here. This is a nonsensical comparison, as we saw before.

I'm not sure why idealism helps here: there are experiences, and we interpret them in certain ways and draw our maps of the world. When people object to the lack of evidence, they are saying that our processes for good map making seem to be violated in that case where people draw maps which include gods. This seems to apply regardless of what the world is actually made of.
posted by pw201 at 3:46 PM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Your initial premise is completely unsubstantiated

Well I didn't try to substantiate it in that little comment. The substantiation rests on arguments about qualia: Chalmers' arguments, arguments about spectrum inversion, and so on. I think it's quite clear that there is a problem in principle with ever being able to see into another's inner world. If so, and if you don't accept mysterianism, materialism is false.
--
This is a nonsensical comparison, as we saw before.

Well, it seems nonsensical in part because, as I pointed out in that thread, you misinterpret the import of the argument. Idealism does not prove the validity of specific religions any more than induction proves the validity of specific theories of physics; it is an excellent philosophical basis for numerous religions. There's a separate question of which religion, if any, then to follow.
posted by shivohum at 5:13 PM on March 11, 2015


The problem with idealism is that there are things that cannot possibly be thoughts - the necessary truths of logic and mathematics, for example.
posted by fleetmouse at 5:56 PM on March 11, 2015


The problem with idealism is that there are things that cannot possibly be thoughts - the necessary truths of logic and mathematics, for example.

Why not? These are thoughts in the mind of an infinite being. Sounds just about right. Certainly there's a much big problem of placing them in the material world... which of course has problems with accounting for ideas generally.
posted by shivohum at 6:07 PM on March 11, 2015


Shivohum, your account of logical and mathematical truth as thought renders necessity contingent, which is absurd.
posted by fleetmouse at 4:24 AM on March 12, 2015


Shivohum, your account of logical and mathematical truth as thought renders necessity contingent, which is absurd.

That's only true if you make absurd assumptions.
posted by shivohum at 9:56 AM on March 12, 2015


This view differs from that of most scientists in that it affirms that thought is simply motion as experienced internally by a system.

In July 1969 at my friend's house where we dried the ditchweed that had totally baked me, I had exactly this thought. I anthropomorphized a clock, for instance, whose only thoughts were "Tick, another second, tock another second,..."
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:25 AM on March 12, 2015


Shivohum - sure. For instance, one might make the absurd assumption that God could arbitrarily assign the value of Pi, rather than it being the necessary ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.
posted by fleetmouse at 10:26 AM on March 12, 2015


"Right. And I'm suggesting that "external" is on a logical par with these other terms. Moore just "knows" there is an external world. In the same way we could just "know" there is a divine one. Not of course that either of these arguments is to me particularly good. They're just equally bad."

You're asserting that "divine" and "external" are of equivalent validity because on top of being external we could also imagine the divine. That's what I meant by appeals to further ungrounded assumptions. (Just as your justification for suffering relies on further ungrounded assumptions of afterlife.) The advantage that the external world has over the divine is internally consistent predictions verified through experiments. Without resorting to the invisible ineffable and reducing to materialism, the divine can't (and historically, divine predictions have a much, much, much worse record than material ones).

Really, all your contentions here can be reduced simply to ipse dixit. At which point, that's equal to my "nuh-uh," and leaves only you convinced.

"Spinoza as well as Brunner, in agreement with modern science, reduce all things and their qualitative differences to quantitative differences of velocity of the one Motion which is basic to all existence and all change. The universe as the one motion-complex—this constitutes the unitary and incontrovertible view of nature, the starting point of all scientific investigation."

That's incoherent with an unchanging "horseness." If universal (complex) motion is the frame, there's nothing that has to be eternal about our conception of horses. Ergo, proto-horses are horses.
posted by klangklangston at 10:43 AM on March 12, 2015


We navigate the motion complex by establishing relatively stable abstractions, eg. the elements in chemistry. The genera (kinds, types, forms) are the "elements" of biology.
posted by No Robots at 11:27 AM on March 12, 2015


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