Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Courtier's Reply-Reply and Other Atheist Logical Fallacies

I promise that essays of this type will not become a frequent occurrence on this weblog. For the most part, we only interject small doses of religion where it has to do with science and scientific romanticism. I can't imagine that anyone would be interested in my sermons save for on a blog specifically devoted to them.

With a enough provocation, I am willing to take a Sunday to come out of the proverbial closet and shout critiques into the wild aether. In this case, I sat down to watch Richard Dawkins' series Enemies of Reason, which he introduces with the following gem:
There are two ways of looking at the world – through faith and superstition or through the rigours of logic, observation and evidence – in other words, through reason.

At which point I turned it off since Dawkins once more revealed himself to be a mere writer of polemic op-ed pieces rather than a serious contributor to philosophical thought.

The great shock of this comment is not simply in its astonishingly naive view of the world. For some perspective, there are 16 different personality types each in the Myers-Briggs and the DISC systems. In the Keirsey Tempraments system, there are four tempraments with eight roles, and there are six personality types in the Holland Code with most people centering on two apiece. There are nine Enneatypes. In Multiple Intelligence models, there are seven distinct learning intelligence types. Just in Christianity alone, there are over two billion adherents scattered amongst 38,000 denominations and sects. 83% of the world's population is not from the Western cultural heritage. There are over 6.7 billion people in the world overall. Yet, he says, there are only two ways of looking at the world and you have to pick one or the other. It's less of a critique of religion than it is an insult to wonderful, creative, awful, inventive, brilliant humanity.

The greater and deeper shock is what this naiveté says of the person making it and the movement he has come to represent. I should note here that I do not speak of all atheists, the proper, small-a type for whom religion and spirituality are pragmatic non-issues and go about living their lives as civil and constructive members of a multicultural society. I am speaking of verbose, capital-A evangelistic Atheism, for which questions of religion and spirituality are of the utmost importance and for whom different people believing different things than them is a societal problem. If one needs evidence that there is a distinction and that non-belief in deities is not the sole necessary and sufficient characteristic of Atheism, one needs only to invoke the spectre of atheists who have done unpleasant things, at which point it descends into the "no true atheist" fallacy.

But I digress. The shock regarding Dawkins' comment is that a man so intelligent on matters for which he has a degree should show himself to be so profoundly ignorant of matters in which he does not. The shock is that a man who advocates so vehemently for logic should introduce a series entitled Enemies of Reason with a logical fallacy.

G.K. Chesterton addressed this profound - he called it "casual" - ignorance on the part of experts outside their area of expertise. Back in 1910, he observed:
Now against the specialist, against the man who studies only art or electricity, or the violin, or the thumbscrew or what not, there is only one really important argument, and that, for some reason or other, is never offered. People say that specialists are inhuman; but that is unjust. People say an expert is not a man; but that is unkind and untrue. The real difficulty about the specialist or expert is much more singular and fascinating. The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man. Wherever he is not exceptionally learned he is quite casually ignorant. This is the great fallacy in the case of what is called the impartiality of men of science. If scientific men had no idea beyond their scientific work it might be all very well — that is to say, all very well for everybody except them. But the truth is that, beyond their scientific ideas, they have not the absence of ideas but the presence of the most vulgar and sentimental ideas that happen to be common to their social clique. If a biologist had no views on art and morals it might be all very well. The truth is that the biologist has all the wrong views of art and morals that happen to be going about in the smart set of his time.

Such vulgar sentimentality expresses itself here in the false dilemma, which is a logical fallacy setting up a question in which two propositions are in opposition which may not be in opposition or for which there may be more than two propositions. Dawkins says that one has to choose between his rational, logical, atheistic way or the irrational, illogical, superstitious way. Never mind that there is every possible theological combination in the negotiation between physics and metaphysics, nor that there are vast swaths of human experience for which neither category really applies, nor that people in their psychological and cultural diversity are far more nuanced and complicated than this ultimatum allows.

He, of course, has a ready defense supplied to him by P.Z. Myers, another biologist. The accusation of crafting a false dilemma is dismissed with the accusation of a "Courtier's Reply". The Courtier's Reply-Reply is little more than a dodge attempting to change the subject when one has been exposed as having an inadequate understanding of the debate's particulars.

In Myers' own words:
I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

The summary of this parable is that religious people will attempt to distract from the fundamental question of whether or not theism is true by making sophistic theological arguments. In defense of Dawkins' logical fallacy one could reply that the diversity of thought on the integration of faith and reason is irrelevant because the object of faith has not been proven true by reason (thereby making faith by definition dialectic with reason). So long as gods and spirits have not been empirically proven, believing in them is automatically irrational and superstitious. Any further analysis of exactly how irrational and superstitious someone is descends into pointlessness.

Allow me to explain exactly where the Courtier's Reply-Reply fails.

First, it claims to be keeping the debate "on track" and focused on the core issue of empirical evidence for the existence of deities. However, the Courtier's Reply-Reply is frequently invoked to dodge the fact that the issue of proof - for and against - is a vigorous and ongoing theological discussion with numerous different perspectives. There is active debate over what categories of proof are relevant (not all proof is empirical), what would constitute a proof, and the strength of propositions in those categories. There is also vigrous debate over exactly what "faith" is and exactly what kind of discipline theology is. Not only do too many Atheists demonstrate themselves to be uninformed about these debates, but also about debates from epistemology and philosophy of science. That is, not only debates within religious circles about the nature of knowledge and proof, but even debates within science (including the error of conflating logic with reason with empiricism).

Nevertheless, the Atheist in question is certainly entitled to make the argument from personal incredulity: "I have not seen evidence for a deity that is sufficient according to my own criteria of evidence, and therefore no one else has." It is certainly reasonable not to accept the existence of something for which one has not been given convincing proof (and it seems to be that "and therefore no one else has" clause that separates atheists from Atheists). It is also possible to set the criteria of sufficient proof so strictly or inappropriately for the context that it becomes impossible for anyone to provide any proof by definition. For example, that only empirical proof is valid and you would have to show empirical proof demonstrating otherwise. Theologians are then entitled to reply that such a self-assured argument is narrow and has little mileage. If I truly do believe that I have seen what you have not seen, then we are only dancing around the mulberry bush of the obvious: you are an atheist and I am not.

That poor mileage may explain the second point on which the Courtier's Reply-Reply fails, which is that Atheists frequently debate the content of religious beliefs, exactly where being theologically and socio-historically informed would be relevant and beneficial. Not only that, but one would think that it should be a basic requirement.

To give a socio-historical example from my own experience, a frequent argument from Atheists is that liberal-moderate theists are complicit with the problems caused by radical-conservative theists because our "superstitious" thinking abstractly encourages their own. To draw it down from the vaporous abstract, I am a pacifist who arrived at that ethos through reflection on my Christian faith. According to Atheists employing this argument, I am responsible for all theists, be they Christians or Muslims or Mormons or Zoroastrians or Hindus or Wiccans, who do use violence. Because I believe things, regardless of what, I am somehow empowering the Christian Fundamentalists condemning me to Hell or Muslim terrorists who want to kill me. I'm unsure as to whether I'm also responsible for the atheists who have committed genocide on religious grounds, since they are not "true" atheists apparently. However, I have also never had a debate over theistic violence with an Atheist who was a pacifist themselves, so it's all somewhat absurd.

This particular association fallacy is so insipid because it demonstrates such an earnest desire to be angry at all theists on principle and without reason. It is a fallacy that could be easily resolved by having any familiarity whatsoever with denominational, interdenominational and inter-religious politics (Which religions are violent and irrational? "Uh... All of them!"). Yet to say so is to invite the Courtier's Reply-Reply that doctrinal distinctions between theists are irrelevant because the issue is over the existence of deities in general.

Of course, they are not. They are absolutely and immediately relevant. The above example was only peripherally about the existence of a god and practically about whether theism is a coherent enough category that any one theist or school of theistic thought could be made responsible for all the others. It's a sociological issue. When Dawkins claims that there are only two ways of looking at the world, he is not making an argument about whether or not a god exists. He is making a specific theological, socio-historical claim that no philosophy of science or religion can exist which integrates the two. This claim is demonstrably false and they are both problems of accurate representation, which is the prerequisite of effective and logical argumentation.

The same is true of any argument against the existence of God based on the content of a religion, such as the definition of a god, the ethical character of a god, why a good god would allow evil, why and if a deity would withhold incontrovertible evidence of its existence, the logical possibility of a deity - should one exist - incarnating as a human being, the nature of sin and salvation, what worshipping a deity means, proper interpretation of sacred writ, and so on (and on and on). Basically, any argument in which the Atheist assumes for the sake of argument that a god exists in order to catch the believer in a contradiction.

In doing so, the Atheist has become a theologian, attempting to work out the end-point of a theological proposition through logical argumentation. When the Atheist - say, a biologist stepping outside the realm of biology - engages in a theological discussion, then whether or not they are a good and informed theologian becomes a relevant issue. So while Myers may protest that "I don't know what's going on in the world of theology. And I don't give a damn." and proceeds to speak as a theologian on theological topics, he is merely admitting and excusing that he is a poorly-informed one.

The Courtier's Reply-Reply becomes little more than a cheat at this point, the very sort of red herring that they accuse theists of making. After attempting a theological argument, the goalposts shift when theological ignorance has been exposed. Doing so only demonstrates that one is not interested in a serious debate. It then bolsters the other logical fallacies in the Atheist rhetorical arsenal, like false dilemmas, straw men, appeals to ridicule, reductio ad Hitlerum and even the too-common ad hominem:

- "You close-minded bigot Christians believe that your bearded man in the sky says X!"
- Well I'm a Christian and I don't believe that.
- "Yes you do! You have to! The Bible says it!"
- I don't and you evidently don't understand what the Bible says or what we think about God. I believe G, N and J, but not X, and if you knew anything about my religion you would know that.
- "Bah! It doesn't matter anyways! All religions are the same! That's just the Courtier's Reply! Courtier's Reply!"

Beyond the fact that the self-proclaimed defenders of logic and reason find it necessary to rely on logical fallacies, there is a wonderful and tedious irony about the Courtier's Reply-Reply. Long before Myers gave it a name, the tactic has been employed by Christian Fundamentalists to excuse their deplorable lack of knowledge about, well, anything. They know, so they say, that Muslims, Wiccans and evolution are wrong, so of what possible benefit is learning about them? Why not persist in saying that Muslims worship a moon goddess, that Wiccans worship the Devil and that the only sufficient evidence for evolution would be a dog changing into a cat right before their eyes? The foundational premises are perceived to be wrong, therefore there is no need to be accurate in the particulars of other people's views.

Let me repeat that, because that is the crux of the Courtier's Reply-Reply: the foundational premises are perceived to be wrong, therefore there is no need to be accurate in the particulars of other people's views.

Amongst those who have suffered for how Christian Fundamentalists feel no pressing need to be accurate are atheists themselves. One of the key pieces of Atheist social justice arguments is that atheism continues to be demonized and misrepresented by the ignorant who insist on speaking against them without knowing anything about them. The pot calls the kettle black and once more we see evidence that a person, even with a PhD, does not automatically become logical and rational in all things simply because they are not a theist.

49 comments:

baralier said...

I'll begin with saying that, despite your warning at the start, I don't see any connection between this post and Scientific Romance.

That said, the discussion is interesting, though it falls down on a couple of points. Richard Dawkins is to atheists what the Ann Coulter is to American Republicans. He's opinionated, loud and outspoken but not always careful in his comments. You tried to make a distinction between atheists and Atheists but you seem to have resorted to lumping anyone who questions the existence of god(s) in with the Atheist camp.

While not a theologian myself, I have read a great deal regarding the Intelligent Design debate (and that's not including the years of religious education I had before that even became a topic of debate).

There are numerous way of looking at the world but in essence Dawkins is right. The sheer variation of people who call themselves "Christian" would necessitate boiling down the definition to the belief in a person called Jesus. Any further clarification than that and you will find some sect or denomination that disagrees.

For Dawkins there is either the belief in the physical world or belief in the world plus supernatural elements. That he chooses to call belief in the supernatural superstitious and illogical is, in my opinion, intentionally done to provoke a response.

Which he has done.

Your dismissal of the Atheist argument about the existence of a deity by saying their lack of education in the area of religion nullifies their criticism is almost a mirror image of your depiction of the Christian Fundamentalist argument, but with the same logic.

Arguing that Atheists haven't got it right in their distinction of various denominational differences is the same as FC argument that non-"Christians" are all the same and is essentially a paraphrasing of Myers' couturier argument. That many atheists begin debating the wrong points rather than the existence of the supernatural is another discussion entirely.

No I'm not a Christian, though I used to be one. I'm also not an atheist.

DLR said...

In reference to baralier, I suppose he's correct that "in essence Dawkins is right" since Dawkins picked the categories and he can therefore pick who goes into them (I might say for example that in essence there are two types of people: those who divide people into two rigid groups, and those who are not idiots... in essence, I am correct). Dawkins represents a Fundamentalist mindset; it allows for no doubt, no gray areas, no possibilities and na-na-na-I can't hear you-na-na. This is sadly common in the loudest people in any field or subject. True "skeptics" and "scientific minds" ask the questions, try to find out the truth, say things like, "As far as science is able to tell, there are no concrete indications of... (a Diety, the afterlife, Bigfoot)" or "I am skeptical of submitted evidence on x grounds". To use a very recent example, until only a few months ago it was believed by virtually all of science that people who reported "hearing" meteors were suffering auditory hallucinations (because the distance, among other factors, made the sounds impossible). However, some scientists decided to stop scoffing and actually look into the issue (probably because scientists were reporting observing the phenomenon as well) and discovered a mechanism by which the "hearing" could be and probably is a genuine event (involving magnetism and the inner ear bones). Atheism with large or small a is a belief system; any proper scientist would term him or herself an "agnostic".

In other words, "supernatural elements" are irrational only of one begins the debate by defining "supernatural" as "despite physics". But that's a logical fault. "Any sufficiently advanced technology..."

My perspective: lapsed Unitarian, pagan agnostic.

Dave Hall said...

The real problem with Dawkins is his apalling arrogance. He is ALWAYS RIGHT and if you disagree, YOU ARE AN IGNORANT JACKASS! He is to atheism as Rush Limbaugh is to conservatism.
He has done nothing to further any discussion except to insist he is in posession of the only truth. Nor will he ever--that would be an admission that he may not be in posession of real superior intellect.
In some circles, that is a symptom of mental illness.

Robin Edgar said...

Can I interest you in some reworked Gilbert & Sullivan perhaps? A little something from 'The Pirates of Penzance'? That perennial favorite of song parodyists 'The Major General's Song'?

Herewith 'The Atheist Supremacist's Song'

Cory Gross said...

Baralier,

"I don't see any connection between this post and Scientific Romance."

That is true... I just needed a dumping ground for some frustrations. I suppose I could, however, come up a circuitous rationalization that romanticism is ultimately a religious sensibility ^_^

"You tried to make a distinction between atheists and Atheists but you seem to have resorted to lumping anyone who questions the existence of god(s) in with the Atheist camp."

I thought I was being fairly particular with who I was talking about when I talked about Atheists... there are those who question the existence of gods, those who don't care enough about gods to question, and those who know there are no gods and that you're stupid for believing in them.

"There are numerous way of looking at the world but in essence Dawkins is right. The sheer variation of people who call themselves "Christian" would necessitate boiling down the definition to the belief in a person called Jesus."

I would strenuously disagree that diversity requires distilling it down into a faulty generalization. That is the very heart of a false dilemma: if you have to be dishonest (or uselessly vague) about the subject in order to fit it into your scheme, then your scheme is wrong. And there are, for example, quite valid arguments out there that some sects of Christianity are so far removed from one another that the umbrella term of "Christian" is not useful.

Regarding my invocation of Fundamentalist Christianity, I'm not exactly sure of the point you were trying to make.

And thank you everybody else for your contributions. Robin, that song is great! ^_^

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, but your agenda is showing...and you really are full of shit...

Cory Gross said...

Which bias? Where I explicitly state that I'm a Christian (and a pacifist)?

Now, Anonymous, dismissing someone's "biases" without even attempting to demonstrate the flaws in their argument is really just an ad hominem attack. I may be full of shit, but it will only be because of what I say and not what I believe.

Liam said...

I think this is one of the best analyses of this subject I have seen. Great post.

kT said...

You're talking about human art and culture, PZ is talking about science and religion. There are numerous religions, just as there are numerous scientific methods, and the only comparison both share is that 'anything goes'. However, science deals with the natural, and investigates the apparently supernatural, bringing them into the natural world in recognition and inquiry, whereas religions elevates the apparently supernatural to the 'theoetical' (or theitical, I love making up new words in psychology), excluding them from that natural world and our consensus methods of rational inquiry, which are acknowledged to exist, and appear capable of rendering apparently supernatural phenomena with coherent natural explanations, and allowing previously unknown phenomena to be revealed and described, so that they can subsequently be explained.

So indeed, it is a dichotomy.

Tulse said...

"the Courtier's Reply-Reply is frequently invoked to dodge the fact that the issue of proof - for and against - is a vigorous and ongoing theological discussion with numerous different perspectives."

In other words, theologians can't even come up with the basic foundations to tackle the issue. How is this supposed to be a good thing? How is this supposed to counter Myers' point? "Ha, that dumb Myers -- how can he argue against our position when even we don't know what it is! Triumph!"

And, on another issue:

"The real problem with Dawkins is his apalling arrogance. He is ALWAYS RIGHT and if you disagree, YOU ARE AN IGNORANT JACKASS!"

I'd be curious to see some actual supporting evidence of this claim. Dawkins may be firm in his convictions, but a) it is bizarre to me that someone defending religious beliefs would through around the epithet "arrogance", and b) apart from actually disagreeing with the content of people's superstitious beliefs, Dawkins is almost unfailingly cordial. Don't confuse opposing someone's views with being rude.

Cory Gross said...

kT and Tulse, you both sort of touch on the same issue, so I'll address you both at once...

When kT asserts that "religions elevates the apparently supernatural to the 'theoetical' (or theitical, I love making up new words in psychology), excluding them from that natural world and our consensus methods of rational inquiry", he or she is butting up against the problem of "which religions?" You are painting in very broad strokes that, I think, would need to be demonstrated.

Tulse brings it to the fore: "In other words, theologians can't even come up with the basic foundations to tackle the issue."

This is making a gross assumption that all theologians are the same, motivated to the same ends, coming from the same tradition. The false dilemma I harped on gets down to the fact that there is no such thing as "religion" in the sense of one unified front, one fundamentally agreed upon theology with a multitude of divergent minor expressions. Frankly, there isn't even one singular form of atheism either, and one would have to have a pretty superficial understanding of philosophy to think there was.

The debate amongst theologians, including atheist ones, underlines that defining what it is you're supposed to be looking for evidence of is a necessary task. You can't talk about proving the existence of a god until you know which one you're supposed to be looking for. And that itself leaves out tonnes of religions that don't even have gods. The idea that we all just sort of somehow know what a god is supposed to be and then we can quibble about errata after we've established that it exists is beyond superficial into outright ignorant. Goodness, it shouldn't even have to be said that Lutherans, Evangelical Christians, Sufi Muslims, Atheist Buddhists and Wiccans have such radically different ideas about metaphysics that you have to understand them in order to research their claims.

Tulse said...

"The false dilemma I harped on gets down to the fact that there is no such thing as "religion" in the sense of one unified front, one fundamentally agreed upon theology with a multitude of divergent minor expressions.... The idea that we all just sort of somehow know what a god is supposed to be and then we can quibble about errata after we've established that it exists is beyond superficial into outright ignorant. "

And this is precisely what a courtier would say.

Let's make this simple -- what is at issue is the existence of immaterial consciousnesses that have an impact on the physical world. (If your "religion" contains no such entities, then that's fine, although apart from (some strains of) Buddhism and the vaguest of Deisms, all religions do.) This seems an extremely straightforward question -- do such entities exist or not? Why does this question require theological nuance?

Cory Gross said...

And this is precisely what a courtier would say.

Let's make this simple -- what is at issue is the existence of immaterial consciousnesses that have an impact on the physical world... This seems an extremely straightforward question -- do such entities exist or not? Why does this question require theological nuance?

What immaterial consciousness? What are these consciousnesses claimed to be? How many of these are there? How are they claimed to be influencing the physical world? What mechanisms are claimed to be at work? How do claims for this activity cohere with studies of the physical world? It's all a question of exactly what it is that you think you're supposed to be looking for. All your objection says to me is that you already think you know what you're looking for, which means you have piles upon piles of unchallenged assumptions.

Just as an example, and maybe this is why I'm predisposed to catching this flaw in the Courtier's Reply-Reply, I'm a Lutheran. A core piece of Lutheran theology is that you cannot assume to know anything about God. You may have certain feelings about things, and that's certainly significant, but you cannot assume to know anything about God from those feelings alone since those feelings are only generated in the human brain. Nor can you assume to know anything through reason alone either, since reason is also only generated in the human brain (which is something Atheists seem to miss). The only way to know anything about God is through God's own self-disclosure. As a Lutheran, I believe that this definitive self-disclosure came through Jesus of Nazareth alone, particularly in the drama surrounding His death and resurrection.

Now, knowing that, you are going to be having a radically different conversation about evidence for God with me than you would be having with a Neo-Pagan or a Creationist. I dated a Neo-Pagan for over a year and, believe me, we had extremely different ideas about what God is, what God does, and what constitutes evidence for God. You could be harranging me about there being nothing to support my ideas about God and not even come close to anything that impacts on her beliefs, and vice versa.

Or with the Creationist, you could do the most amazing, beautiful, thorough assault against a literal reading of Genesis ever put together... and I would agree with you completely. I have no problem with evolution whatsoever; in fact, I began my undergrad degree in geology and am currently in the Public Education and Outreach committee of the provincial palaeontological society. You may have disproven Creationism and not touched on a single thing that matters to my own faith.

You talk about making this simple, but you're not dealing with a simple subject. You are dealing with a varied and complex intersection of cultural, historical, psychological, intellectual, aesthetic, philosophical and spiritual phenomena that combine in billions of different ways. If one is not prepared to deal squarely with that complexity and variety, then one should perhaps step down and leave the discussion to the people who are.

Tulse said...

"What immaterial consciousness? What are these consciousnesses claimed to be?"

Entities without physical form but possessing thought and will. Which major world religion doesn't believe this?

"How many of these are there?"

If you're asking me, the answer is "none". If you ask the religious, the answers may vary, but that has no impact on the question of their existence -- if people had different beliefs about how many unicorns there were, would that impact on a discuss of how likely their existence was?

"How are they claimed to be influencing the physical world?"

Through the exercise of their will on the physical world. Which major world religion doesn't believe this?

"What mechanisms are claimed to be at work?"

None that are recognized by science, since science doesn't recognize any way for immaterial consciousnesses to exist, or for pure disembodied will to impact the material world.

"How do claims for this activity cohere with studies of the physical world?"

They don't.

"A core piece of Lutheran theology is that you cannot assume to know anything about God."

Except that, at minimum, he is an immaterial consciousness who intervenes in the physical world.

"I dated a Neo-Pagan for over a year and, believe me, we had extremely different ideas about what God is"

Except that you both presumably believed that gods are, at minimum, immaterial consciousnesses who intervene in the physical world.

See, the only concern that is at issue for atheists is the claim that immaterial consciousnesses intervene in the physical world. Theologians can debate how many they are, and the various qualities they may or may not possess, and how many might be able to dance on the head of a pin, but in the end, those speculations are merely the courtiers arguing amongst themselves. A believe in gods is, at minimum, a belief in immaterial consciousnesses that intervene in the physical world. And science has no evidence for such entities.

Cory Gross said...

Entities without physical form but possessing thought and will. Which major world religion doesn't believe this?

What sort of entities without physical form but possessing thought and will?

If you're asking me, the answer is "none".

I wasn't asking you. I was putting forward questions that anyone serious about the subject should be asking. These are exactly the sorts of questions that the Courtier's Reply-Reply is designed to dodge, which doesn't bode well for a movement that considers itself the height of intellectualism and free inquiry. It's amazing that such people should be so bothered by the prospect of having to ask thorough questions.

If you ask the religious, the answers may vary, but that has no impact on the question of their existence -- if people had different beliefs about how many unicorns there were, would that impact on a discuss of how likely their existence was?

It has all sorts of impact. First, you have to find out what they mean by a unicorn. Then you have to find out what sort of evidence these unicorns would leave. Then you have to have an idea of how many there are so you can work out the likelihood of finding any evidence at all anyways.

Substitute "unicorns" for "snow leopards" and go on a hunt for them in the bayous of Louisiana. When you don't find any will you declare them a fairy tale for stupid people, relegating any discussion about looking in the right place for something you know how to identify to the babble of courtiers?

Even that is too blunt an example. You speak of immaterial consciousnesses exerting their will... prove to me that such a thing as "will" exists at all, even in material consciousnesses. When you want to define what "will" is, I'll be sure to cry Courtier's Reply and say that it's entirely irrelevant to the discussion.

Through the exercise of their will on the physical world.

Such as? How do you presume to recognize when they're exercising their will? What do they do? How do they act? What sort of evidence should we be looking for?

Except that, at minimum, he is an immaterial consciousness who intervenes in the physical world.

I don't know that. For all I know, God could be the universe itself... a consciousness composed of all matter. Or an alien. Or anything. I won't know until God discloses itself (which, incidentally, is the same requirement of knowing a person... objective evidence may tell you about a person's genome, but tells you nothing about who they are).

Except that you both presumably believed that gods are, at minimum, immaterial consciousnesses who intervene in the physical world.

I'm a Christian. I believe that one Person of the Trinity is defined by His materiality. I believe that another Person of the Trinity is wholly transcendent to the universe and that this figure is the primary agency of the cosmos. On the other hand, she believed that the gods were not only not transcendent to the universe, but actually come into being through human will. For her, the primary agency is not the will of an immaterial consciousness, but the will of the human being.

Your model is already beginning to break down between just two people, let alone 6.7 billion.

You speak of what is the "only concern" of Atheists (and I capitalized that because it's not a question that real atheists are concerned with) and then you dismiss the work of theologians which form the only basis upon which you can do any research whatsover into the question that is your only concern. Before you can possibly look for evidence of a god or gods or ancestral spirits or a universal consciousness, you have to know what you're looking for.

Tulse said...

"What sort of entities without physical form but possessing thought and will? "

It honestly doesn't matter to the issue at hand -- the qualities I listed are the ones under contention. It doesn't matter how many there are, or if they permeate the universe or live on Mount Olympus -- what matters is if there is evidence of immaterial consciousnesses who intervenes in the physical world, using the same definition of "evidence" that we would use for other, non-supernatural issues.

"How do you presume to recognize when they're exercising their will?"

Generally, when some effect in the physical world attributed to them is not accountable via non-supernatural means.

"For all I know, God could be the universe itself... a consciousness composed of all matter."

If your god is composed of matter, then he didn't create matter. I'm guessing that's probably not Lutheran orthodoxy.

"Or an alien."

Now I'm certain you're not arguing in good faith. Do you honestly think you could be worshipping an extraterrestrial? Please.

"I'm a Christian. I believe that one Person of the Trinity is defined by His materiality."

Certainly not defined primarily by his materiality, unless you subscribe to something like Socianism, which as I understand it is definitely not Lutheran orthodoxy.

"I believe that another Person of the Trinity is wholly transcendent to the universe and that this figure is the primary agency of the cosmos. On the other hand, she believed that the gods were not only not transcendent to the universe, but actually come into being through human will. For her, the primary agency is not the will of an immaterial consciousness, but the will of the human being."

...who creates immaterial consciousnesses who intervene in the physical world. Again, the method of creation simply doesn't matter to the issue at hand. Gods can exist prior to time, or spring from the heads of other gods, or be created by the will of humans, but in the end, all gods are, at minimum, immaterial consciousnesses who intervene in the physical world.

"Before you can possibly look for evidence of a god or gods or ancestral spirits or a universal consciousness, you have to know what you're looking for."

Right, and all those things you list are immaterial consciousnesses who intervene in the physical world. And there is no objective evidence for the existence of such entities.

Cory Gross said...

It honestly doesn't matter to the issue at hand

And I honestly fail to see how knowing what you're looking for doesn't matter.

Generally, when some effect in the physical world attributed to them is not accountable via non-supernatural means.

That in itself assumes that such an immaterial consciousness would act in ways that are repeated and unaccountable. You speak at the close of your post of objective evidence, assuming that a god would leave any. Nested into that statement is an implicit theological claim.

If your god is composed of matter, then he didn't create matter. I'm guessing that's probably not Lutheran orthodoxy... Now I'm certain you're not arguing in good faith. Do you honestly think you could be worshipping an extraterrestrial? Please.

So far as bad faith arguments go, I would keep in mind that you trailed me from Myers' blog to let me know what an idiotic, superstitious, disingenuous moron I am. Perhaps one should examine their own commitment to good faith arguments.

No offense, but you seem to have a real problem with taking things, shall we say, quite too literally and missing when I'm asking rhetorical questions as an example of the sorts of things you should be asking or when I'm saying something for the sake of argument to make a point.

Do I honestly believe I'm worshipping aliens? No, of course not, because of what I believe regarding God's self-disclosure in Christ. Barring that, what exactly is going through my head becomes an "anything goes" question. After all, you obviously don't think I'm worshipping anything that actually exists. Without God's self-disclosure, it could indeed just be a mental illness fuelled by historical dogmas... A mere wicked trick of the brain like reason and sonnets.

Certainly not defined primarily by his materiality

Putting His materiality on a lower level of a heirarchy misses the fundamental characteristic of his identity as we understand it. He is defined primarily by being God Incarnate. If you wanted to attack my beliefs rather than someone else's, that would probably be where you'd want to strike. And I'm baffled that you somehow arrived at the conclusion that differences like that are inconsequential.

...who creates immaterial consciousnesses who intervene in the physical world. Again, the method of creation simply doesn't matter to the issue at hand.

Except that we've already jumbled up issues of the materiality of consciousnesses. Not to mention that you completely avoided the whole thing about will. That was another point of divergence between us: free will was core to her beliefs and, at best, irrelevant to mine. That will also colour issues of evidence and arguments against them.

This still all comes back to the problem that you seem to be pretty confident that you know what to look for and don't need the quibbling nonsense of the people who actually believe this stuff telling you what they actually believe. That distance will inevitably put you far outside the range of saying anything relevant to us. When I know as intimately as anyone could that your arguments are not touching on anything of substance to my own faith, all you are doing is making a tremendous song and dance about how you don't believe the same things I do, nor know anything about what I believe, nor are interested as you prepare to hoist the flag of victory over them. It's truly mind-boggling.

Tulse said...

Before I respond to the substance of your latest comment, I would like to address this:

"So far as bad faith arguments go, I would keep in mind that you trailed me from Myers' blog to let me know what an idiotic, superstitious, disingenuous moron I am."

Cory, I have endeavoured, as I always do in these kind of exchanges, to be polite and address the substance of the claims being made. Nowhere have I called you an "idiot", and nowhere have I said you were "superstitious". As for "disingenuous", I did indeed question the sincerity of your claim that you thought God might be an alien, a position which you confirm you don't actually hold, so I think that charge has some substance.

More to the point, I don't see how trying to engage you here is somehow "bad faith" or rude. Yes, I was made aware of your posting on Pharyngula, and yes, I posted in the public comments section for that posting. I thought this was just engaging in debate, not stalking or intimidation or impoliteness. That said, I understand if you have an established audience whom you would prefer to discourse with, and that I am an interloper here. If you want me to leave I will.

I will observe, however, that this implicit claim of rudeness often seems to be the response when engaging those of faith on the substance of their claims. Mere questioning, however polite, of the content of those beliefs seemingly is perceived to be impolite, in a way that, say, debating a political position is not. That kind of defensiveness does not seem to me conducive to helpful discourse, if that is the goal.

Now, to the substance of our disagreement:

"That in itself assumes that such an immaterial consciousness would act in ways that are repeated and unaccountable. You speak at the close of your post of objective evidence, assuming that a god would leave any."

To be completely clear, science is only interested in gods that leave objective evidence of their existence. If they don't, then they don't challenge the explanations that science offers, and are thus unnecessary as causal explanations of the world. This is the issue at the heart of things -- whether we need to invoke the notion of supernatural beings (i.e., immaterial consciousnesses) to explain aspects of the physical world (i.e., such immaterial consciousnesses impact the physical world).

If a god doesn't leave objective physical evidence, then, as I see it, that is essentially admitting that the emperor's clothes are invisible. You may believe you still have reasons to hold that his clothes exist, but they are not rational, evidence-based ones.

Perhaps this will clear away some of the confusion between us: I am not interested in determining whether gods exist in particular, but whether science has need for such a concept, that is, whether science is causally incomplete. As I see it, this means that I don't have to know the particulars of how such a being might interact with the world, or how they came to be, or how they might differ from other such hypothesized entities -- I only need to see whether the world is somehow fundamentally causally inexplicable.

By analogy, if someone claims that an elephant lives in my refrigerator, to test that claim I don't need to know if the creature is an African or Indian elephant, or if he was allegedly put in the fridge at the factory or crept in while I wasn't watching, or if he is invisible or pink or standard grey -- all I have to do is see if anything is happening in the fridge that I can't otherwise account for. And claims that "the fridge elephant leaves no objective evidence of his existence" would be met with, well, let's just say that if that is the claim, then such an elephant bothers me not in the least.

I think that clarifies what I mean, and I will leave off here. If you wish to continue the discussion, that's great, but if you'd prefer me to go, that's fine as well. It's your blog, so it's your call.

Cory Gross said...

I am well aware of the tenor of discussion on Myers' blog, as well as specific statements about me, so there is no need to beat around the bush about that. I know exactly where I stand amongst Atheists.

Nor does any other theist, which is why that claim of Atheists being rude, smug jerks keep coming up. Since they're not directed at you, you may have the luxury of ignoring the unrelenting ad hominems, the smirking appeals to ridicule, the insulting straw-men, the stock violations of Godwin's Law, the constant handwaving, and for me personally, constantly being told I'm an illogical and uneducated idiot by people who don't even have half the academic background in science and theology that I do. It's unbelievably frustrating to try and carry on a serious conversation with someone who is taking every opportunity to sneak in a quick insult. Atheist spokespeople get a reputation for being disrespectful asses because they act like disrespectful asses.

Nevertheless, I thank you for your clarifications on in the intersections between science and religion. The weird thing about them is that, for someone as strenuously opposed to theology as you have made yourself out to be, you just outlined a good chunk of theological discussion. When you say that science and religion do not conflict because they're looking at different phenomena and using different processes, I throw up my hands in either rejoicing or frustration depending on my mood at the time. If one bothered to look at the theology they are so desperately making excuses not to, they would know that there are millennia-old schools of thought saying exactly that. Goodness, the predicating claim of Christianity is that there was no body in the tomb. It's not for nothing that we insist upon participant observation.

It's this sort of thing that the Courtier's Reply-Reply dodges. Not being equipped with even a minimal understanding of what people believe and how they think that does or doesn't intersect with science, it gives one over to making any number of tedious comments that are really just projecting a spat with Fundamentalist Christian Creationists onto anybody who happens to believe anything.

If you were to talk to me about science and religion, I would agree completely that science doesn't need a Deity because God is not so sloppy as to leave big gaps in natural laws that He needs to fill. Miraculous events, like the resurrection, are miraculous exactly because they're infrequent and unmeasurable. To me, that question has no bearing on whether or not a god exists. In the mean time, if you'd like to stick around my blog and read what I've written, I'd hope you'd notice that I don't suffer for want of scientific wonder (as Dawkins claims I must, or that I must not go beyond)... Even if wonder is itself an irrational process.

...

Cory Gross said...

...

If I may use an analogy for my own frustrations, to me it's like you're trying to argue that the world is black and white while I'm trying to argue that there is a whole colour spectrum. It's my contention that it's a kind of philosophical colourblindness that prevents you from seeing all these shades of teal and indigo. You contend that until I can empirically prove the existence of colour at all, those differences are completely irrelevant. However, they're not at all irrelevant to anybody who actually sees colour. Especially if they're really, really serious about colour, like artists. Furthermore, it's nearly impossible to discuss colour without refering to specific colours, all of which can only be experienced subjectively and agreed upon intersubjectively. It's even worse than trying to explain an emotion by having to refer to other emotions, because the objective observer can at least see that someone is experiencing an emotion. You seem convinced that everyone seeing colour is part of a vast superstitious conspiracy to trick the colourblind with sophistic arguments about whether the emperor's cloak is red or blue.

Now you could certainly accuse me of making the worn out argument that you just don't "get" it, but that only underlines that you are an Atheist and I am not. Of course I believe that I am seeing something that you are not. That is exactly the difference between us. The troublesome thing about the Courtier's Reply-Reply is that the people who tend to invoke it seem to think they're qualified to talk about what I do or don't get without the slightest clue what I actually think. They don't know, don't want to know, but do want to carry an opinion about it. I cannot possibly see how that flies with anyone who considers themselves intellectually honest.

It's that problem that is the substance of my whole piece: the insistance on speaking about something someone admits to knowing nothing about. It's an issue of accurate representation, which is a predicate to informed, rational discussion. It's projecting a relatively particular theological problem that's only meaningful in the context of certain specific religious movements and projecting it onto the whole of anything that is not a natural science.

Tulse said...

"I am well aware of the tenor of discussion on Myers' blog, as well as specific statements about me, so there is no need to beat around the bush about that."

What does that, and the rest of your rather defensive comments, have to do with our interactions? As I said earlier, I have striven to be polite and substantive in my comments. I have not tarred you with expectations of the crudity and even explicit threats of violence that I have received from some more fundamentalist theists, so perhaps we can just interact with each other, rather that fighting battles that are not germane to this discussion.

"When you say that science and religion do not conflict because they're looking at different phenomena"

I most assuredly did not say this, and apologize if this was your interpretation. Science and religion do conflict to the extent that religion makes claims about the physical world (such that a god created the world in a certain amount of time, or that god created all organisms, or that god performs miracles in general). If your god does not intervene in the physical world, then that's fine, we have no quarrel, although as I see it only the vaguest of Deisms could make that claim.

No amount of theological dancing can get around the point that, if your religion makes claims about the physical world (or, more precisely, that a god or gods intervene in the physical world), then those claims are in conflict with science. This is the point of the Courtier's Reply -- one can ascribe whatever properties wants to a god or gods (good or evil, immanent or transcendent, one or many), but if those entities interact with the physical world, then such belief conflicts with science. It is solely the property of physical interaction which is at issue.

"If you were to talk to me about science and religion,"

Wasn't I doing exactly that?

"I would agree completely that science doesn't need a Deity because God is not so sloppy as to leave big gaps in natural laws that He needs to fill."

OK, so your god doesn't intervene in the physical world -- in other words, you believe some form of Deism.

"Miraculous events, like the resurrection, are miraculous exactly because they're infrequent and unmeasurable."

Except now you don't appear to subscribe to a god compatible with science, because you believe it performs miracles.

As for the qualities you ascribe to miracles, I'd argue that it is only with the rise of science that miracles have become "infrequent". The god of the Old Testament routinely performed extremely spectacular miracles (flooding the entire earth, wiping out the firstborn of an entire country, destroying cities, parting seas, raining food down on desert travellers), and even in the New Testament Jesus performs various extremely public miracles. Even in the post-resurrection era Christians argued for the routine occurrence of miracles (such as healings coming about through prayer). It is only in our more scientific and skeptical age that god has seemingly grown shy about showing himself in this manner, which seems very much like special pleading.

And miracles are certainly "measurable". How much water was turned into wine? How many loaves and fishes were produced from the initial five loaves and two fish? How many people were healed? These are all straightforward questions that can in principle be objectively answered (although such historical events may lack the evidence needed). Ditto for claims of modern miracles, such as healing through prayer (in fact, various studies have been done precisely to measure the claimed effect). There is nothing "unmeasurable" about miracles -- to the extent they impact the physical world, that impact can be measured.

I get the sense, however, that we are beginning to talk past each other. Again, I will leave it to you to determine whether further discussion would be fruitful.

Cory Gross said...

...so perhaps we can just interact with each other, rather that fighting battles that are not germane to this discussion.

This is a consistent issue that I've had with Atheists that does go back to the Courtier's Reply-Reply. Namely, when it is used to dodge how someone is arguing against something I don't even believe. It means to guard one from having to actually interact with a theist, consigning them to mere courtiers while trying to argue against abstractions.

Suffice it to say, though, I saw what you guys said over there *shrug*

"If you were to talk to me about science and religion,"

Wasn't I doing exactly that?


No actually. You were attempting to justify Dawkins' false dilemma by explaining how all forms of theism have essentially the same content and that you don't need to know the particulars of any one of them to research the claims of all of them.

That's very different from having a discussion with me in particular about what I think RE: the integration of science and religion. To have that discussion at all, you'd have to go back on your defense of the Courtier's Reply and acknowledge that the courtiers may have germane things to say about their own belief systems.

OK, so your god doesn't intervene in the physical world -- in other words, you believe some form of Deism... Except now you don't appear to subscribe to a god compatible with science, because you believe it performs miracles.

You're making two different claims here. When pressed on the issue of gods being involved in the physical world, you provided the following explanation:

I am not interested in determining whether gods exist in particular, but whether science has need for such a concept, that is, whether science is causally incomplete.

But that is a particular form of involvement in the physical world that may or may not have anything to do with any other kind of involvement in the world. You're asking about the God of the Gaps.

God stepping in and performing miracles has no bearing on science's causal completeness. Miracles are, by necessity, not a regular working part of the natural order. While we may have an advantage with miraculous claims made today, we have a distinct problem with historical miracle claims. That puts them outside of science's purview, requiring other methods of inquiry.

Of course, as you note, there is the whole issue of interpretation of miracles. I can tell from what you said that you seem to have a more literal reading of Scripture than I do, but that is your theological perogative. Once more though, you are wading into theology in order to establish the terms of the question. It is no good to cry "Courtier's Reply" after the fact.

The question I would have to pose to you regarding full-on, natural law defying miracles is what scientific test you propose to determine whether or not the resurrection happened? Keep in mind that repeatability has no bearing on it... To insist that it didn't happen because resurrections don't ordinarily happen is to miss the point, putting it mildly.

George Taylor said...

Excellent post, as always!

Since the argument doesn't center on Fantasyland or the inaccuracies of the Canadian Pavilion...I can't join it totally.

I am reminded of a library conference where a librarian celebrity was bemoaning that it was easier to rent a car than to get a library card. It irritated me because his logic was wrong. You cannot rent a car if you are under 25. Also, you have to have a credit card of some sorts. Most libraries require a driver's license to get a card. He felt that we were too restrictive. But we will give a 10 year-old a card if the parents are there. Try that with a rental car.

After I stopped being angry, I realized that he was being extreme for a purpose. We need people standing on mountain tops and screaming at us--even if we don't agree with them.

We need people to anger us and challenge our ideals. We need them to push us, even if we don't pursue their thoughts.

Maybe the Atheists and the Others are screaming to get us thinking and moving.

Just my thoughts.

Thanks for sharing Cory!

Cory Gross said...

Thanks for the feedback George... You did contribute a lot, don't worry! And we didn't even have to discuss how wishing upon a star is an irrational and superstitious thought process complicit with Stalinist genocide! ^_~

Anonymous said...

I was looking for a good blog with steampunk resources and found a "dumping ground" for Atheist logical fallacies... I'll be moving along...

Cory Gross said...

Anonymous, I apologize for offending you. However, there are almost three hundred articles on this blog reviewing Victorian-Edwardian history and Scientific Romances and exactly two that even mention Atheism.

Russell said...

Dear Mr. Gross,

I've been a follower of your blog for a short while, maybe a year, and I'd be remiss if I didn't thank you for all the work you have done here. Your blog has been a source of constant wonderment and enjoyment for me, thank you.

And I'd like to thank you for this post as well. As a more conservative minded Christian, I've run against the Dawkins and Tulse types myself over the years, and have had the same sort of encounters.

I'd like to say I responded with the same aplomb and self-possession as you have evinced, but sadly I can make so such claim. Thank you for the post and your responses!

Respectfully,
Russell

Cory Gross said...

Thank you Russell, and I'm glad you enjoy the blog!

I wish I could say I was always as civil as I made myself out to be here. Hasn't always been the case, saddly. But if I get a chance to redeem myself, I'll take it!

valdemar said...

"A core piece of Lutheran theology is that you cannot assume to know anything about God."

Except for His opinions on gays, women, killing or enslaving people, and a few other things.

Stop trying to have it both ways. One minute organised religion is important and worthy of respect because it's followed by millions of people. Then atheists point out that most of those millions seem to believe something manifestly absurd, and you retort that it doesn't matter because a tiny handful of erudite believers have a clever argument (no 35 or so on the list) that confuses the issue a bit. Not good enough. Religion is a political force - and a very pernicious one. That's the problem, not Richard Dawkins' grounds for his dismissal of Thomas Aquinas' opinions.

When a Taliban throws acid in a girl's face because she's trying to go to school, religion is at least in part to blame. How exactly does sort-of believing in your sophisticates' God stop more acid from being thrown?

Cory Gross said...

Stop trying to have it both ways.

Both ways? Thank you parading one of the fundamental problems with the Courtier's Reply-Reply: the assumption that all religious people are the same and you don't have bother yourself with learning any of the distinctions, either theological (in Tulse's case) or sociological (in your case).

If you want to know my opinion on homosexuality, feminism, violence and slavery, please ask me. If you want to know someone else's, ask them. Do not assume that we both think the same things because we each happen to believe in different things. I can assure you that my beliefs are very different from an acid-throwing Taliban, and if you want to ask what my "sophisticate" religiousity is doing about it I would ask what your angry, blog-ranting atheism is doing about it.

What you are making is a faulty generalization, a logical fallacy. Comparing me to an acid-throwing Taliban would be just as disingenuous as me comparing you to a genocidal Stalinist. Talibanism is a form of religion and Stalinism is a form of atheism, but to accuse either of being the typical form is sheer, unadulterated ignorance.

The closest I personally have come to wanting it both ways is to view the persistence of spirituality amongst the majority of humanity as suggestive that something is being accessed for which strict "scientism" has inadequate explanations. However, that does not mean I endorse every religion, believe they're all equal, or don't think that they can be manipulated, abused or apropriated for evil purposes (just like science!).

Piechur said...

Dear Cory, you've made a very long way from a steampunk fan to a christian moralist. Problems with a puffed-up ego?

Cory Gross said...

M'nope. Been a Christian longer than I've been into Steampunk.

Piechur said...

Thank God, not all Christians feel an urge to use their fan-blogs for religious moralizing.

Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. said...

Thank Heaven that most commentators don't go onto other people's Journals to tell them what they can and can not write about. They don't make ad hominem remarks, accuse the author of having a "puffed up ego" and attack the author for "religious moralising" when they discuss religious matters. Such behaviour is that of an uncivilized boor.

Mr Gross is surely entitled to use his own Aetheric Journal in any way he sees fit. If he wishes to spend one post, out of hundreds, discussing religious matters (and which he made clear he was going to do at the beginning of post) then it should be of little concern to his usual readers even if they disagree with him.

Only an Intolerant Atheistical oaf would take exception to this.

Piechur said...

It's interesting what makes people like Cory believe that anyone would be interested in their opinion about life, morality or religion? Of course, Cory is a recognized authority on steampunk and scientific romance, but that's all. Everything else is a Bono Syndrome.

Cory Gross said...

Mild Colonial Boy,

It's Piechur. He can't help it.

Piechur,

Given that this one piece has had the biggest and most sustained interest of any piece I've written, looking at hit-counts and comments, evidence suggests that people are, in fact, interested. Even you felt provoked to write.

Piechur said...

I didn't know that provoking random people to write their random thoughts was a true purpose of this blog. Try writing about sex, you'll generate even bigger traffic :)

Cory Gross said...

Thank you for your concern over keeping me focused and on track, but I'm pretty sure I can manage on my own.

Luke said...

From your example, I think that the fallacy you complain of Dawkins using is either false dichotomy, or law of the excluded middle, correct? I think what Dawkins is saying is not that there are two types of people, but that all people use a mixture of empirical reasoning, and gut reasoning, and he's trying to encourage people to use more of the former. If he truly believed that all believers were inveterately superstitious, he'd have little hope of redeeming them.

But most creationists are perfectly happy to use medicines which account for natural selection, and most scientific discoveries require some great insight, then supported by rigourous empirical testing. Logic can be used to prove anything if you use the right premises so I think that the distinction that Dawkins is drawing between drawing on external observation, and intuition works.

You dismiss the Courtier's Reply because you feel that Dawkin's distinction between intuition and observation is flawed, and that you still need expert knowledge. The problem is that Theology, while generally based on sound logic, is based on gut-premises. So you are asking people to accept centuries of well-reasoned superstition on the grounds that it is part of Western tradition, and to ignore the fact that theological reasoning stems from a logical interpretation of intuition.

Take, for example, Richard Dawkin's proposal that there is a third column in Pascal's wager, is which God punishes those who believe without basis for their beliefs, is not bad Theology. The responses to this include the argument that nobody else has proposed this before, which is essentially Argument ad populum. And it also misses the point of Dawkin's argument. If God did want to punish people who went along with what other people did blindly, you wouldn't expect that to be a popular argument.

There is absolutely no verifiable external evidence that the Bible is true, and theology is an attempt to disguise this by claiming argument from the speaker's intuition about gods, and based on what other people believe (Appeal to tradition and popular belief). And despite theology, the reason most people believe in Biblical inerrancy or even a general truth is because other people believe it. That's the reason that Muslims are concentrated in one section of the globe, Calvinists in another. Theology is a post-hoc excuse to justify one's own own beliefs.

Speaking as someone who would generally rather let religious believers do their thing and not argue with a brick wall, the reason that Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens have started attacking religion is precisely because religious believers have been trying to enforce respect for their religious beliefs.

Look at the Muslims who bomb the Danish embassy because Denmark has no blasphemy laws, Christians who insist on abstinence-only education despite its demonstrated inefficacy, the majority of Americans who wouldn't vote for an atheist under any circumstances, and especially religionists of all stripes who argue that empirical fields like science and history should share time with theology (see the Discovery Institute's "wedge strategy" crusade against naturalism, which argues precisely that the eyes are not the only form of evidence), or even to yield outright.

Cory Gross said...

Hi Luke, and thank you for your well-thought out response.

On the false dilemma, I would first disagree on the grounds that your apologetic is more generous to Dawkins than the evidence allows. I don't believe he titled his series Enemies of Reason in order to suggest that the human mind is a complex spectrum of rational and nonrational forces and that some people identifying as religious have a slight overabundance of the latter. It does a discredit to the integrity of this statement in context of his other works to suggest that it means anything other than what it plainly says. He quite clearly sees a dialectic in which religion is a violently dangerous and irrational meme that must be wiped out for the good... nay, the survival... of humanity.

Secondly, the argument that Dawkins really means a spectrum when he says a dialectic misses my point entirely, which is that there are entirely other ways of looking at the world than in the categories of Reason and Faith. That's even assuming that those are completely distinct and self-contained categories, which is something I do not ordinarily grant either. This is what I was getting at with my laundry list of the multiple ways in which people are different from one another.

The biggest fault of Dawkins' false dilemma is not even so much that he clearly doesn't understand religion. It's that he doesn't even clearly understand people. But that may not be unusual.

...

Cory Gross said...

...

I do think you are doing a serious disservice to all the other faculties of the mind to reduce the non-rational to "gut intuition". I have stated before that I am not keen to simply dismiss millennia of experience and meditation on that experience as a mere neurological oddity in favour of one particular nuerological oddity called Reason. I am disposed to a holistic explanation and the probability that all these people all through history have been experiencing something, the nature of which is unclear but not dismissable. It is far easier to explain the few without numinous experience than the majority with, and far more difficult to ignore the explorations of theology than to limit myself to the disciplines which certain lettered people tell me are the only valid ones.

But I would also argue that the point is moot: simply to function in society and in the world, the average person must rely on far more than Reason to carry them through, including the Aesthetic, the Emotive and, in its true definition of trust, Faith.

We, of course, disagree on the extent to which the Bible has "verifiable external evidence", what that statement even means, and the extent to which the Bible is evidence of the events recorded within its pages. However, in carrying on with your comments about "most people believe because everyone around them believes", this may be true but is also irrelevant. The reality of conversion experience makes it irrelevant lest one make a generalization fallacy of denying the exception. People do convert to other religions, even in quite unpopular and even dangerous circumstances, whether a convert to atheism in the deep South USA or a convert to Christianity in the Arab states.

Any totalizing theory, which is what New Atheists are trying to make when they say, for example, that "religion poisons everything", must take the exceptions into account. To say that religious people only believe their religion because everyone around them does is not exposing an argument from popularity: it is exploiting it.

If New Atheists, as you suggest, are moved to action by the advances of religious fundamentalists, then we may merely dismiss the advances of New Atheism as ill-founded foolishness. It would take an exceptionally peculiar brand of ignorance about nearly every facet of life, history and philosophy (perhaps pursuant to the above link) to think that the solution to the problem of religious fundamentalism is to artifically classify every single person who disagrees with your worldview as a religious fundamentalist or the equivalent. It is, at the very least, strategic suicide and if we credit New Atheists with any intelligence at all, suggests that there must be a firmer ideological bent behind it. In other words, they must genuinely believe what they say.

Anonymous said...

You're missing the point. Atheists don't really care whether there's a god or not (and obviously don't believe that there is one), but what they don't like is when believers impose their morals onto society and retard society's progress.

It's unfortunate that we humans are able to comprehend our own mortality, but no amount of nimble wordplay or theology will create an afterlife. We are just like all other living things on earth, n and realising that will help us fit into the world with a more caring and thoughtful attitude.

Cory Gross said...

You're missing the point. Atheists don't really care whether there's a god or not

Some seem to care a great deal. It's all they're known for talking about.

but what they don't like is when believers impose their morals onto society and retard society's progress.

As I said to someone else in the comments above, if this is true, then Atheists (capital-A) are committing strategic suicide.

First of all, the wording is a bit of a canard. The citizens of a society are always imposing their morality onto the society. That's the very nature of democracy. It's just that liberal and moderate people don't mind it when it's other liberals and moderates doing the imposing: civil rights are great! So is universal health care! If it wasn't for religious leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Tommy Douglas imposing their morality, American and Canadian society would be worse off.

Secondly, most liberal and moderate believers do not want fundamentalists imposing their morality on society either. They want civil rights and universal health care. They would be keen allies with the secular persons who are in the fight for a society of civility, decency and progress.

But those aren't Atheists. That's not what Atheists want. They don't want a society of civility, decency and progress, with civil rights and universal health care and all that. What they want is a society where everybody believes the same things as them. Like every other populist, fundamentalist movement, Atheists think that once everybody believes the same things as them, all our problems will be solved.

For me it comes down to taking them at their word. The solution to fighting off the influence of fundamentalists is not accusing everyone who belives something different from them of being a fundamentalist. There is something incredibly daft about artificially inflating the ranks of your enemy like that. No, what I assume is that they genuinely mean what they say. They genuinely do, just like they say, have a rigid and dogmatic hate-on for religious belief, period.

It's unfortunate that we humans are able to comprehend our own mortality, but no amount of nimble wordplay or theology will create an afterlife.

Sure, because no religious believer has compelling reasons for what they believe. It's all just "nimble wordplay", and as a consequence, that's why lots of people look down on Atheists as condescending, dismissive jerks.

We are just like all other living things on earth, n and realising that will help us fit into the world with a more caring and thoughtful attitude.

I have seen zero evidence that the conclusion of fitting into the world with a more caring and thoughtful attitude follows from the premise of realizing that we're just like all other living things on earth. That statement isn't even true of all the other living things on earth... Let alone a humanity that has a remarkable propensity for self-destruction, including mass murder in the name of both religion and atheism.

Peter Magellan said...

Sadly I don't have time to read all the comments, so my apologies if my points have already been made, but here's my 2p:

Firstly, your criticism of Dawkins' apparently simplistic, dichotomous summary of worldviews. As a way of kicking off a programme that aims be thought-provoking, it's actually a good gambit and has manifestly achieved that purpose - especially given that it seems to be the only part of the programme you bothered to watch. It also happens to be true: faith/superstition and reason are indeed polar opposites, and they do tend to be mutually exclusive. When people try to reconcile one with the other, they end up tying themselves in the most horrendous semantic (I hesitate to use the word 'intellectual') knots; for evidence, one has only to look at the entire misbegotten field of theodicy.

Secondly, your reference to the various systems of personality classification. All of them, to the best of my knowledge, have been called into question as analytical tools, both in their accuracy and in their basic underlying theories - some even in the articles you cite. Neither Myers nor Briggs, for instance, had any qualifications in psychology, and their entire system seems to be based on anecdotal eveidence and a incomplete understanding of Jungian psychology - which, in itself, is not all that empirical.

And I have to say your inclusion of "Enneatypes" as if it were even a serious sytem of psychological classification, rather than a piece of religious mysticism, is telling. One might as well cite Scientology's Tone Scale.

There are many means of categorising people and classifying them according to purported "personality types", and almost all of them are fundamentally arbitrary, however brave they are at attempting to understand the human psyche. Thankfully, some approaches are now being developed based on empirical neurology and actual psychological research rather than arbitrary pairs of guessed dichotomies. Perhaps a viable method of classification will emerge from these, but it hasn't yet.

You invoke the fact that there are 38,000 denominations and sects of Christianity alone. The feature all of them have in common - with each other and with all other religions - is that they are mutually exclusive. Each officially believes - leaving aside the question of whether their individual adherents believe it - that it alone has the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything, and all the other sects/denominations/religions are heresies whose devotees will roast in Hell. How could it be otherwise? If all these sects were in broad agreement with each other, they simply wouldn't need to exist as separate entities.

You invoke the "no true Scotsman" fallacy as if it's often employed by Atheists; in fact, I've never know that to happen. It's much more often invoked by the religious to repudiate extremists and - shockingly - to distance themselves from the extremists so thoroughly as to absolve them of the need to take any action against those extremists; a fact that has contributed to the spread of religious extremism more effectively than anything an atheist can do.

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Peter Magellan said...

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Now, on your reply to the Courtier's Reply:

"... the Atheist assumes for the sake of argument that a god exists in order to catch the believer in a contradiction.

"In doing so, the Atheist has become a theologian, attempting to work out the end-point of a theological proposition through logical argumentation."

The only theological proposition an atheist seeks to argue against - by definition - is the existence of god(s). That requires no detailed knowledge of the non-field of theology; merely the ability to observe and verify facts about the world and compare them to the characteristics of the god in question. And I usually handle the "that's not my god you're talking about" argument by getting my interlocutor to tell me about their god before I proceed to argue against it. That way, I can refute exactly the characteristics they've enumerated (and I always can), and the "that's not my god" argument ceases to be tenable.

"When the Atheist - say, a biologist stepping outside the realm of biology - engages in a theological discussion, then whether or not they are a good and informed theologian becomes a relevant issue. So while Myers may protest that "I don't know what's going on in the world of theology. And I don't give a damn." and proceeds to speak as a theologian on theological topics, he is merely admitting and excusing that he is a poorly-informed one."

Ditto on the need to be a theologian. And I long ago lost count of the theologians who presume to pronounce on the most complex scientific matters without even a high-school science qualification. Myers talking on theological topics is speaking as a reasoning human being, not a theologian. There's no need to speak as a theologian to refute theology - unlike science, where it is usually necessary to have a fairly detailed knowledge of a scientific theory in order to refute it.

As an aside, I also find it curiously biased that prospective believers are allowed - even encouraged - to affirm the existence of gods without the slightest knowledge of theology, whereas anyone who wishes to refute the existence of gods is required by the religious to be familiar with it almost to degree level.

"Let me repeat that, because that is the crux of the Courtier's Reply-Reply: the foundational premises are perceived to be wrong, therefore there is no need to be accurate in the particulars of other people's views."

Exactly. After all, if I were to try to establish the field of, say, Seleno-fromology without first establishing its most basic premise - that the moon was made of cheese - and simply went on to publish endless pontifications about what kind of cheese it was made of, whether cheese-quarrying was a possible solution to world hunger, and so on, I'd be laughed at by scientists and theologians alike. And yet theologians expect everyone else to take their blatherings about the precise nature of their gods seriously when they have failed, for many centuries, to even establish that those gods exist.

The assumption that the Christian God exists and is good has necessarily given rise to the whole field of theodicy, which purports to prove that God is not evil, even though He allows evil to exist. Even assuming that supernatural beings exist, I can demolish that whole field in one simple proposition: he's fooling us.

"a person, even with a PhD, does not automatically become logical and rational in all things simply because they are not a theist.a person, even with a PhD, does not automatically become logical and rational in all things simply because they are not a theist."

Indeed not - they have to be taught critical thinking. Which is why religious organisations are so keen to establish and take over schools. They know that if people learn to think for themselves at an early age, there's no chance that they will be suckered into the ridiculous propositions upon which all religions are founded.

Cory Gross said...

Ah, I got Pharyngulated again... Maybe I should recommend that new arrivals read over the comments from the last time I was Pharyngulated, since little new ground is covered.

It also happens to be true: faith/superstition and reason are indeed polar opposites, and they do tend to be mutually exclusive. When people try to reconcile one with the other, they end up tying themselves in the most horrendous semantic (I hesitate to use the word 'intellectual') knots; for evidence, one has only to look at the entire misbegotten field of theodicy.

No offense, but "is too!" is not much of a rebuttal. Simple reassertion of the false dilemma doesn't itself counter my point.

As far as theodicy goes, you're actually confusing what reason is. Reason is not itself a set of propositional claims, but rather, the process of working out the logical conclusions of a set of preexisting premises. How one acquires those premises is a separate issue from reason, at least as regards this question. If you begin with premises like the existence of a benevolent and involved personal Deity, then theodicy ceases to be a misbegotten semantic field. It may only appear so if you disagree with the premises, which is fair. It makes no sense, however, to accuse it of being a twisted up attempt to reconcile reason and faith when, as a field of theology, it is the very application of reason to the premises of faith.

All of them, to the best of my knowledge, have been called into question as analytical tools, both in their accuracy and in their basic underlying theories - some even in the articles you cite... Thankfully, some approaches are now being developed based on empirical neurology and actual psychological research rather than arbitrary pairs of guessed dichotomies. Perhaps a viable method of classification will emerge from these, but it hasn't yet.

Sure, and I never stated otherwise. In fact, implicit to my listing them all is that they are in disagreement with each other, thus giving us the plentitude. The point I was making is that, however effective each one may or may not be, studying personality is far more complex than Dawkins' false dilemma. I suspect that whatever comes out of neurology and psychological research will be much the same.

The feature all of them have in common - with each other and with all other religions - is that they are mutually exclusive.

And this it shares with Atheism. What you are itterating is nothing more than the law of non-contradiction: a Christian cannot say that Christianity is both simultaneously true and false. Nor can an Atheist say that about Atheism, or at least I have never heard any Atheists positively affirm that there is both no God and a God. In this, to paraphrase Chesterton, a Christian is no more intellectually or morally constrained than any other thinking person. Or in other words, yes, I actually do believe what I claim to believe.

Each officially believes - leaving aside the question of whether their individual adherents believe it - that it alone has the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything, and all the other sects/denominations/religions are heresies whose devotees will roast in Hell. How could it be otherwise? If all these sects were in broad agreement with each other, they simply wouldn't need to exist as separate entities.

Well, the Inquisition was some time ago and much has changed since then. There is really nothing for me to do here but recommend doing some research, since you seem unaware of such things as the ecumenical movement, full communion agreements and the like. Put simply, the statement you make here is verifably false.

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Cory Gross said...

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You invoke the "no true Scotsman" fallacy as if it's often employed by Atheists; in fact, I've never know that to happen.

I see it all the time, so I guess we'll have to chalk it up to relative experience.

It's much more often invoked by the religious to repudiate extremists and - shockingly - to distance themselves from the extremists so thoroughly as to absolve them of the need to take any action against those extremists;

As I observed to someone above, there is no reason why I should take responsibility for actions I don't approve of by someone who believes different things than me. As a pacifist, pro-GLBT Lutheran, for example, my beliefs, practice, politics, etc. are demonstrably different from a militaristic, gay-bashing Southern Baptist. I don't see what should be so shocking about what is in evidence from simple observation.

The only theological proposition an atheist seeks to argue against - by definition - is the existence of god(s). That requires no detailed knowledge of the non-field of theology; merely the ability to observe and verify facts about the world and compare them to the characteristics of the god in question.

Which, as I noted in my essay, is a false claim. Whether or not it is "by definition" (and you want to be careful with that statement, since it begs the question of "whose definition?"), I have seen plenty of times where atheists assume a theistic premise in order to argue a point of theology. In fact, you go on to describe doing exactly that. My responding to a theological claim, you are engaged in theological discourse over the nature of God or gods, including if such a being would leave objective evidence and what kind it would. All I asserted in that portion of my essay was simply that someone who seeks to argue theological claims should be educated as to what they are. It does no good to engage theological questions and then exclaim, after the fact, that theology is a non-field that you don't have to know anything about.

Ditto on the need to be a theologian. And I long ago lost count of the theologians who presume to pronounce on the most complex scientific matters without even a high-school science qualification.

And I completely agree. Theologians who wish to comment on scientific issues should take it upon themselves to study them. Any person who wishes to comment on any issue should take it upon themselves to be informed. That includes: "Myers talking on theological topics is speaking as a reasoning human being, not a theologian." If this supposedly reasoning human being proudly acknowledges that he does not know anything about the subject upon which he is voicing an opinion, then he should shut up.

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Cory Gross said...

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As an aside, I also find it curiously biased that prospective believers are allowed - even encouraged - to affirm the existence of gods without the slightest knowledge of theology, whereas anyone who wishes to refute the existence of gods is required by the religious to be familiar with it almost to degree level.

If I had my way, every believer would be well-versed in theology. And science, for that matter. While shooting for the stars, I would like for every person on the planet to have a thorough, polymathic education. Unfortunately, not being God myself, I have to make due with what I can. Therefore, in my own little sphere of influence, I do not put up with stupid arguments, whether for or against the existence of God.

Exactly.

Very well then. We have now established that so long as you think the premise is silly, you can be not merely dismissive, but actually ignorant, of anything you like. You have validated many a Creationist, for which I am sure they are grateful. Even if you disagree and think it's all "blather", it is at least fruitful to actually know your enemy. I remember a decade ago when skepticism actually meant knowing enough about spurious claims to refute them.

The assumption that the Christian God exists and is good has necessarily given rise to the whole field of theodicy, which purports to prove that God is not evil, even though He allows evil to exist. Even assuming that supernatural beings exist, I can demolish that whole field in one simple proposition: he's fooling us.

The lack of humility in this claim is superlative. Anyone who claims to be able to "demolish" a whole field with a "simple proposition" is laughable to say the least. That may indeed be your answer to the question, and that is fine. It is then upon you to argue it in a field where nearly every argument has been made. I would be mildly curious to know if you've ever looked up rebuttals to the proposition that God is, in fact, not good.

Which is why religious organisations are so keen to establish and take over schools. They know that if people learn to think for themselves at an early age, there's no chance that they will be suckered into the ridiculous propositions upon which all religions are founded.

Oh yes, who will think of the children?! I do take seriously the threats to liberty and education that fundamentalist insurrections into public education have made, but what you said here is nothing of the sort. It is nothing more than self-agrandizing back-patting about how much smarter Atheists are than people whose beliefs differ from theirs. After all, all religious people are complete dunces without any vestige of critical thinking skills, every one of whom arrived at their faith without the slightest bit of rational reflection. You also forgot to compare us to Hitler.

Joshua D'Alton said...

"I do take seriously the threats to liberty and education that fundamentalist insurrections into public education have made, but what you said here is nothing of the sort. It is nothing more than self-agrandizing back-patting about how much smarter Atheists are than people whose beliefs differ from theirs."

What disturbs me is the blank assumption that just because a school is religious or whatever, that it would be 'bad'. Of course from the atheist goal of eradication all religions (except atheism of course), it does make some sense, but without the school the students would be even less equipped to understand the atheist perspective.

They should learn from Taliban and so on, who infiltrate and subvert the schools and so on, rather than just blowing them up.

Atheism is remarkably close to a short-lived virus. If it ever does take off, the cultures and societies that embrace it will quickly implode, destroying the very thing they want to survive. Irony!