Counter-apologetic pwnage par excellence

20 02 2008

At Richard Dawkins’ site, Paula Kirby offers a lengthy but absolutely devastating critique of four anti-Dawkins books–Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion?, John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion, Andrew Wilson’s Deluded by Dawkins? A Christian Response to The God Delusion, and David Robertson’s The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths–focusing most of her attention on the last of these, which she finds the best of the four, though that is certainly no compliment to Robertson.

As Kirby’s review demonstrates, all four books are chock-full of the same canards, fallacies, unsubstantiated assertions and other varieties of woolly thinking (to say nothing of blatant misrepresentations of The God Delusion) that many of us experience in countless exchanges with apologists–the one about how since Stalin and Hitler were atheists (arguable in the extreme in Hitler’s case), atheism leads to Stalinism/Nazism, & c. & c. being a particular favourite. Kirby’s reaming of Robertson (who apparently trolls the discussion fora at Dawkins’ site) is so thoroughgoing that it serves as an eminently useful primer in counterapologetics. So much so that it has earnt itself a permanent slot on my sidebar.

I do want to pick up on something Robertson says that I think is pretty revealing of what motivates much of the bigotry directed at atheists.

He objects to Dawkins’ opening paragraph of chapter 2 in TGD. You know the one: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction …” Robertson finds it offensive: “you are implying that I believe in this cruel, capricious and evil god.” He goes on, “if you attack my family, my friends, my community I am offended because part of my identity is tied up with them…. My identity is bound up with the God of the Bible and especially Jesus Christ. Therefore, when you attack him you are attacking me. So please don’t patronise.”

Why do atheists inspire such hatred, as the infamous CNN panel discussion wondered? It’s because our atheism is taken personally–as a personal attack–by those who object to it. Forget this nonsense about “Militant Fundamentalist Atheists (TM)”: simply to be an atheist is to be mean, hostile, offensive to Christians, at least according to those who share the mindset of Robertson. Hence the flurry of ad hominems and strawmen that Kirby encounters in the anti-Dawkins books she reviews. It’s an emotional–not to mention tu quoque–reaction: one that tries to dress itself up in the garb of reasoned argument, and fails miserably.

UPDATE:

Upon reflection, there is one aspect of Kirby’s otherwise masterful piece that bothers me. It’s where she addresses the question of what atheists would accept as evidence of the supernatural:

1. If one type of prayer were convincingly demonstrated to work better than another type. For instance, if the efficacy of prayers said by Christians were consistently significantly greater than that of prayers said by Moslems or pagans, or people who just keep their fingers crossed. Or if any kind of prayer were shown to have a consistent, significant effect. Or if a single prayer achieved something truly extraordinary, something which simply could not be otherwise explained: the scientifically verified re-growth of an amputated limb, for instance.2. If a new planet were to appear (as opposed to just being seen for the first time thanks to better instruments, for instance) in the solar system. This would violate the law of energy conservation and could only have a non-natural cause.

3. If evidence were to emerge that the universe must have begun in a high state of order, necessarily imposed from outside.

4. If there were any observable astronomical phenomenon that required the addition of a supernatural element before it could be described.

5. If, say, the Bible, had contained some specific information about the world which was unknown to science at the time of the “revelation” but which was later confirmed by observation. If it contained successful predictions of specific events in our own time that could have no plausible alternate explanation (not just vague allusions to suffering / evil / upheaval).

6. If someone undergoing a religious experience subsequently had new, verifiable knowledge that could not have been gained by other means. Not the usual stuff about how we should all love one another and watch our cholesterol, but something specific – the example Stenger gives would have been of someone in the 20th century specifically knowing that on 26 December 2004 a tsunami in the Indian Ocean would kill hundreds of thousands of people. We just couldn’t account for such prescience other than by the existence of something outside the material world.

I have previously stated that it would take extraordinary evidence indeed to convince me of the supernatural–so extraordinary that I can’t imagine what it would look like. The suggestions Kirby offers here haven’t really convinced me otherwise, and here’s why. What they describe are phenomena that appear to be beyond the capacity of science to explain: and if they can’t be explained in natural terms, then we must defer to supernatural explanations. But isn’t this just arguing from ignorance? And if it is, hasn’t Kirby just made a huge concession to apologists who routinely appeal to ignorance by way of making ambit claims about which phenomena science will never, ever be able to account for?

The question put to atheists–what would you accept as evidence of the supernatural?–is one that I’m beginning to think is little more than a clever apologetic trap. To accept it as a reasonable question is to presuppose the possibility that the supernatural exists. But how do you not presuppose this possibility without appearing dogmatic? Could it be that we agnostic atheists ought to be agnostic about more than just the existence of the supernatural–ought we rather to found our agnosticism on the fact that we lack sufficient evidence to justify giving even the possibility of the existence of the supernatural serious consideration?

Thoughts?


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24 responses

21 02 2008
Sammy Jankis

Thoughts?

I haven’t quite finished reading the whole thing but I did feel that this part of the article was a weak spot.

What would constitute evidence of the supernatural? I’ve asked myself this question and I still can’t arrive at a satisfactory answer. As you point out, unexplained phenomena which appear to be unexplainable by science don’t cut the mustard, because it’s just a god-of-the-gaps argument. Sometimes I’ve been tempted to respond to this question with “I guess I’ll know the evidence when I see it”, but I haven’t really thought this through – would I be leaving myself wide open for some serious smack-down here?

21 02 2008
AV

Sometimes I’ve been tempted to respond to this question with “I guess I’ll know the evidence when I see it”, but I haven’t really thought this through – would I be leaving myself wide open for some serious smack-down here?

Probably. Because one can imagine a theist giving the same response. That’s why I think I detect the faintest odour of question-begging about this “what would atheists accept as evidence of the supernatural?” dilemma. Perhaps, like the “who created the Universe if God didn’t?” question, it’s the wrong question to ask. (Or maybe not even wrong.)

21 02 2008
Sammy Jankis

Probably. Because one can imagine a theist giving the same response.

Yes – that had crossed my mind.

21 02 2008
The Lazy Aussie

The ability to bend a spoon would be sufficient. Case closed.

22 02 2008
AV

There is no spoon.

22 02 2008
The Lazy Aussie

Ah. No spoon. In that case I am undone.

22 02 2008
arthurvandelay

Perhaps, like the “who created the Universe if God didn’t?” question, it’s the wrong question to ask. (Or maybe not even wrong.)

To continue this train of thought, here’s Dawkins:

Why are unicorns hollow? Some questions simply do not deserve an answer. What is the colour of abstraction? What is the smell of hope? The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn’t make it meaningful, or entitle it to our serious attention. Nor, even if the question is a real one, does the fact that science cannot answer it imply that religion can. (The God Delusion)

25 02 2008
SB

AV is it also wrong to blame religion for what theist political leaders do?

3. If evidence were to emerge that the universe must have begun in a high state of order, necessarily imposed from outside.

The corollary of this is that I would be an atheist if the origin of the universe was well understood and it did not involve a deity.

Ultimately there may be sound personal reasons for a person to opt for religious belief.

25 02 2008
AV

AV is it also wrong to blame religion for what theist political leaders do?

This is a question that requires a bit of fine tuning, because it depends upon how you want to define “religion.” As it stands, I think it would be wrong to blame religion (in general, I mean–if you have a specific definition in mind, we can address that) for what theist political leaders do, because it is too easy to find expressions of religion that are (arguably) unlikely to cause people to behave objectionably or to mistreat others–e.g. emergent Christianity, or perhaps even the “Einsteinian religion” that Dawkins talks about in The God Delusion.

However, if what the theist political leader does is in keeping with his or her particular religious convictions, then I think one is quite justified in attributing that individual’s conduct to those convictions (all things being equal). What we should avoid, of course, is falling into the trap of strawmanning the adherents of a religion en masse because of how the extremist/fundamentalist/feral elements within that religion choose to interpret it. The other trap to avoid is the No True Scotsman fallacy: asserting that your religious baddie represents the purest form of his or her religion. Not all Catholics agree with the likes of Pell and the pope regarding issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and birth control, for instance–one would be committing the strawman fallacy by assuming that all Catholics (i.e. by virtue of being Catholics) agree with Pell and the pope, and one would be committing the No True Scotsman fallacy if one were to suggest that those Catholics who don’t agree with Pell and the pope are not true Catholics.

I think it is also justifiable to blame dogmatism/belief without evidence/ belief without substantial justification for what theist political leaders do. Atheism is a single response to a single question: “Do you believe in a god/gods?” Nothing further is implied, anything further that this or that particular atheist believes is irrelevant, and any beliefs that are attributed to atheists (usually without their being asked first) is a simple exercise in strawmanning. That’s what makes the atheism-leads-to-Stalinism/Nazism argument so profoundly stupid: there is no set of atheist doctrines, so the atheist-Stalin/Hitler causal chain makes about as much sense as claiming that being atheist causes one to prefer crunchy to smooth peanut butter. Strictly-speaking, there is no set of doctrines associated with theism, either–unless you count belief in a god as a doctrine. But when it comes to particular religions such as Christianity and Islam, or better yet, denominations within religions such as Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Pentecostalism, etc. it is easier to identify sets of doctrines about which it is possible for individuals to be dogmatic.

3. If evidence were to emerge that the universe must have begun in a high state of order, necessarily imposed from outside.

The corollary of this is that I would be an atheist if the origin of the universe was well understood and it did not involve a deity.

That’s an argument from ignorance: not understanding the origins of the universe and not knowing whether a deity was involved do not justify the conclusion that “God did it.”

Ultimately there may be sound personal reasons for a person to opt for religious belief.

Consolation is probably one. But it doesn’t mean that the belief is true.

25 02 2008
SB

Theism can be blamed sometimes. For example, if a leader believed that people of the book should have the choice between dhimmitude and death, and other non-believers should be killed without such a choice then it might be reasonable to blame that leader’s religious beliefs should they implement such a policy. Even then you would need to rule out the possibility of more mundane goals, with religion being a convenient excuse.

If an atheist leader believed that religion was holding back the people from rational living and decided to kill all the priests, as the Vietnamese communists tried to do, there might be more of a case for attributing those deaths and the attendant oppression to the atheism of the leader. Again, such a case might merely be a case of eliminating a likely source of political opposition than oppressing an opposing belief system.

I would like to argue that theism is often accompanied by doctrines limiting the taking of human life, and holding it in particular regard due to, say, a belief that humans are made in god’s image, and that theist leaders are more apt to be humane. Sadly, the historical record is not all that helpful on this score.

That’s an argument from ignorance: not understanding the origins of the universe and not knowing whether a deity was involved do not justify the conclusion that “God did it.”

I was arguing that ignorance justifies the conclusion that we don’t really know the answer. Call me a weak theist.

25 02 2008
AV

Theism can be blamed sometimes. For example, if a leader believed that people of the book should have the choice between dhimmitude and death, and other non-believers should be killed without such a choice then it might be reasonable to blame that leader’s religious beliefs should they implement such a policy.

That’s not theism per se (the simple belief that a deity exists): it’s theism PLUS a particular set of religious doctrines. Theism is not defined as the doctrine that non-believers should be killed.

Even then you would need to rule out the possibility of more mundane goals, with religion being a convenient excuse.

Yes. (That’s why I said “all things being equal.” (Though they rarely are.))

If an atheist leader believed that religion was holding back the people from rational living and decided to kill all the priests, as the Vietnamese communists tried to do, there might be more of a case for attributing those deaths and the attendant oppression to the atheism of the leader.

And that’s not atheism per se (the simple lack of belief in the existence of deities). It’s atheism PLUS a particular set of beliefs about religion. Those beliefs are not part of the definition of atheism, so it would not be justifiable to blame atheism–as opposed to, say, the belief system that prescribes the murder of priests–for what this or that particular atheist does.

I would like to argue that theism is often accompanied by doctrines limiting the taking of human life, and holding it in particular regard due to, say, a belief that humans are made in god’s image, and that theist leaders are more apt to be humane. Sadly, the historical record is not all that helpful on this score.

No, it isn’t. The association of religion with violence can turn up in the most surprising places–Zen Buddhism and wartime Japanese militarism, for instance. I know that isn’t particularly relevant to your point, since Buddhism is non-theistic. Still, while I think there are expressions of theistic religious belief that I think are less likely to promote violence and suffering–the aforementioned emergent/liberal Christians, the Bahais, etc.–the Japanese example makes it harder to be certain about this.

Humanism?

26 02 2008
Bruce

I think there needs to be am additional distinction/qualification made between those converting people to religion by the sword, and those converting people to atheism the same way. The two aren’t comparable if the violent conversion to an acceptance of a religious text is interpreted to be advocated by the text (i.e. the version of the religion says so).

Atheism can’t be interpreted to advocate any behaviour, it’s simply a position on a question of a single matter of fact.

If said religion didn’t endorse the use of violence but rather violence was an additional means to an ends to promote the religion, then I don’t think it fair to blame the religion in question (and certainly not religion generally). If it was to be prescribed by a particular version of the religion, then I’d say it far to criticise that particular version of the religion (and even say it was fair for the state to use force against that religion as through the use of force to convert, the religion is infringing upon the jurisdiction of the state.)

You can view this temporally if you don’t want to compare versions of Islam to versions of Christendom; Spanish Inquisition Catholic Theology versus Gabriel Marcel’s theology.

As for atheism, well there is no positive content in atheism that positively mandates (in may negate some) any moral heuristic (even in strong atheism) so it cant be seen as responsible for the positive choice to use force to enforce atheism. There simply isn’t a causal relationship.

The aim and the cause/motive are being conflated when people blame atheism for this. A reductio can make this absurdity more obvious.

Nasty psycho-killer Joe kills Ed because he obsessively likes the smell of rotting flesh. The smell of Ed’s rotting flesh can’t have killed Ed because if follows his death. It is Joe’s obsessive love of the smell of rotting flesh that precipitated the killing and it is that obsession (and Joe) that is to be blamed, not the actual smell of rotting flesh itself.

Unlike atheism (and the smell of rotting flesh), religion has the potential to mandate (or prohibit) killing rather than just be an aim if a killing. Not that it has to exercise this potential of course.

The problem I see with religion is that while with atheism and its clear lack of a mandate, the mandate of religions tend to be negotiable, more-so with time. How does one impartially interpret a text written in a long-dead language?

In order to keep the language in context and faithful, one needs to make reference to the culture the language was used in and for the most part history for the period of the origin of the Bible is historicism, impoverished history and an absence of knowledge. It’s not like any of this can be empirically observed.

This is as true for Scientology as it is for Christianity, albeit to a greater degree for the later which probably goes a great way in explaining the relative difference in the number schisms in doctrine.

That’s not to say that old doctrine is useless or anything. It’s just that one version of the religion stemming from such old doctrine, without recourse to an actual practitioners of the language (more specifically the people who wrote the original doctrine) as a way to establish a criteria for verification, ultimately has no more claim to be the true modern interpretation than anyone else.

I’m not saying that this makes th various interpretations as faithful to the original as each other and much less am I saying that they are as good as each other. It’s just that they are innately unfaithful to some degree.

I think this makes said prohibitions and mandated actions (i.e. no murder/must kill) subject to the influence of the zeitgeist of their time. Without recourse to the culture of the original religion, modern practitioners make recourse to their own norms or even to utilitarian (or other non-theistic) ethics. The differentiation within the Salvation Army over the topic of drug-rehabilitation is a good example, as is the ordination of women and gay priests.

I know the current Pope would disagree, but while conservative on these topics, he’s a progressive on the role of the inquisition compared to Catholic popes prior to the Enlightenment. His claim to some absolute tradition is nothing more than PR and his principles just as much the product of negotiation of these values. It’s just that his position has undergone this negotiation.

I think that via this process, Christendom in general has improved (and Islam has suffered) but there is no reason that parts of or even the bulk of Christendom can’t “negotiate its absolutes” to allow for the currently un-allowable (I don’t think it inconceivable that within our lifetime we could end up with a Pope that could accept warfare). AV’s example of Zen Buddhism also speaks to this truth I think.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I think that religions’ prohibitions are illusory in their capacity to prohibit. They can change with time, or one can jump between alternate interpretations/denominations to find allowances. Either harmless things like gay priests, or harmful things like the murder or abortion clinic staff.

The religious individual may prohibit themselves against murdering others in line with their chosen version of the religion, but if they want to kill someone, religion won’t stop them. Atheism on the other hand doesn’t pretend that it would.

26 02 2008
AV

Without recourse to the culture of the original religion, modern practitioners make recourse to their own norms or even to utilitarian (or other non-theistic) ethics. The differentiation within the Salvation Army over the topic of drug-rehabilitation is a good example, as is the ordination of women and gay priests.

Precisely. Which is why the “without God, where do you get your morals from?” is such a bullshit question. Anyone who tells you that without a religious rule book to follow, they would see no reason not to go on a rampage of rape, pillage and slaughter is likely to be either lying or psychopathic. (Or they really haven’t given serious consideration to what they’re claiming, which is probably the most likely.)

26 02 2008
Bruce

I’d go further actually. Given the necessary role of elements of non-theistic and rational ethics* (of various ilks) as criterion in preventing some of the nastier interpretations of the Bible, even if an ethically interested God exists, God isn’t as important morally speaking as are non-theistic ethics.

* By this I mean ethical systems that aren’t reliant upon a God, even if the individual choses to buttress them with the notion of divine authority or even if they aren’t aware they are employing them. Utilitarianism seems to come as a natural imperative (albeit not to psychopaths), and not even exclusively to humans (or even primates for that matter – some canid ethology is quite astounding in this respect).

26 02 2008
Bruce

Oh bum. “Criteria”. I edited the sentence around the word…

26 02 2008
SB

Bruce it seems you are comparing atheism with religion rather than with theism. There is no text for theism.

It would more logical to compare religion with a particular atheistic sect like Soviet Marxism, or to compare atheism with theism.

AV: Which is why the “without God, where do you get your morals from?” is such a bullshit question.

It is in fact a very interesting question. The answer might be “I have arbitrarily adopted a rule along the lines of, say, Kant or Mill and I derive my morals from this rule”, or it might be that “humans have evolved a moral sense which guides us”, or it might be some other basis, but there needs to be an answer to this most vexing question before any pretense of rationality is assumed.

27 02 2008
Bruce

Bruce it seems you are comparing atheism with religion rather than with theism.

I’m comparing with theistic religion (as a subset of religion), keeping non-theistic religion in mind as something separate but not mentioning it. Dogmatic Marxism did come in mind actually, along with Popper’s criticisms of it. But since Marxism doesn’t necessarily follow from atheism, I didn’t mention it.

It was my intention to compare atheism (not some political/ethical/cultural/normative system that some have unnecessarily attached to it) to theistic religion, which I think I’ve done.

…but there needs to be an answer to this most vexing question before any pretense of rationality is assumed.

You’ve illustrated the problem nicely. The question is only vexing for some.

Take me for example. I’ve never believed in God. I was raised godless, by an atheist mother and an agnostic father. I’ve determined none of my morals by way of religion (rather religious justifications for the moral impetus I act upon are redundant in that they’ve always been recognized afterward). I’ve never needed a supernatural motivation to act upon what I’ve seen as right.

Why do I care for other people? Why have I advocated for people when there is nothing in it for me (and indeed has only ever cost me)? Why don’t I kill other people?

This doesn’t tell you how precisely I’m arising at my morals, but it does tell you that there is a moral decision making process in action, being acted upon and being totally unreliant upon religion. There is nothing vexing about this!

But to (somewhat casually) answer your question;

Reason being a reasonable basis being self-evident, consequences being a reasonable by-definition function of ethical investigation and ethics being a reasoned mechanism of determining morals, put loosely is a way morals arise without God. Biological/psychological imperatives give the motive to act (which is why psychopaths can have excellent moral reasoning yet be utterly evil shits – not that I think that Stalin or Hitler had excellent moral reasoning, but if they did I doubt they’d act upon it).

The implication of the question of “where-from-if-not-god?”, of course is that by fiat, religion/God determines morals in some default capacity and that people without it (religion/God determined morals, not necessarily atheists – some humanist Christians for example could be included in this) are somehow handicapped.

The things is, for so many, the afore mentioned types of god-free mechanism of determining morality is intuitive. It may not be practiced perfectly, but it’s far from nihilism or non-existence. It may not me articulated well or at all, but it it’s most basic form it isn’t that complex and the search for the existence of its practice shouldn’t even stultify a four year old.

A four year old has the capacity to know that “X is wrong because it would cause suffering” and no God nor no religion is required for this! The ability to know (theory of mind and the development of logic) and act (empathy) are normal parts of healthy child development. Now for a religious leader or theologian to come along and state confusion, or ignorance to what a child would know* (heck, add primates and some canids to the list) isn’t to postulate a pertinent philosophical question, rather the religious leader exposes themselves as lacking a faculty.

It’s not just rhetorical to call such a person a psychopath (as per the debate ending rebuttal that if one’s interlocutor were not to know right from wrong without their religion, they are confessing to psychopathy). A deficient theory of mind and a lack of empathy, evidenced by the treatment of other’s capacity to suffer as exclusively abstract concepts, are symptoms of clinical psychopathy (of varying degrees of severity of course).

The question “is that a good way to determine morals?” is an interesting question. “Without God, where do you get your morals from?” should never genuinely** prove vexing, other than for those with the sadly currently incurable disease of psychopathy. It’s a bullshit question practiced only by psychopaths and malevolent sophists.

* Note, I’m saying “ignorance”, not disagreement.
** There are of course those that pretend to have a genuinely hard time with the question for the sake of rhetoric, sophistry and the prorogation of hatred.

27 02 2008
SB

Bruce: But since Marxism doesn’t necessarily follow from atheism, I didn’t mention it.

Religion doesn’t necessarily follow from theism, any more than Marxism follows from atheism.

As to god and morals, people who say they get their morals from god are clearly deluded, but at least there is a chain of causation for the ‘ought’ propositions that morals entails.

The psychological theory you proposed (i.e. most people know what is right and act accordingly, and those that don’t know, or who know but don’t act on that knowledge are consigned to categories of the mentally ill) tells us why people behave as they do, but not what they ought to do. At best it may describe what they ought to do if they want to be like most others. It certainly creates problems when people have differing moral sentiments – how do we know which is right?

Maybe we should admit that there is no logical basis for ought propositions.

27 02 2008
Bruce

Religion doesn’t necessarily follow from theism…

SB, if you were a fundie and I were the kind of person to post to FSTDT, this one would be right up there.

Not all religion is theistic I’ll grant you that, but I’m not for a second going to accept that theism isn’t a subset of religion. Religion may not follow from deism either, but I wasn’t talking about deism. By theistic, I mean belief following from a religious epistemology where limited to theism, a discrete criterion that no theology (formal or otherwise) rests outside of.

That’s not to say that organised religion necessarily follows from theism. It certainly doesn’t, but I’m talking about religious ideas not religious institutions (or lack thereof).

It certainly creates problems when people have differing moral sentiments – how do we know which is right?

I discussed this. Reason – > consequentialism. Lacks the conflicts of absolutism and the absurdity of relativism. It is limited by human knowledge/understand of course, but in making predictions all ethical systems are subject to this in one way or the other (the prophet may not properly understand the voices in their head, the Kantian may not accurately predict breaches of the categorical imperative that policy is intended to stop, the relativist has their ignorance self-imposed, the rational egoist may not be able to differentiate options from an apparent zero-sum scenario and the utilitarian must predict which route is the most harmful).

Maybe we should admit that there is no logical basis for ought propositions.

I think you’ve missed my point on knowing what is moral (in fact you obviously missed the part where I was answering “how do we know?” when you didn’t acknowledge that I had addressed it); “X is wrong because it would cause suffering” (suffering is by definition harmful, harm is by definition wrong* (aka ought not be), of all options** X causes the greatest net increase in suffering ergo X ought not be). And that’s just the negative utilitarian mechanism. There’s more in consequentialism than just that, and more that is intuitive to most healthy people.

It has a sound logical basis and sound premises (albeit some not explicit) and should come intuitively to any healthy mind. This really shouldn’t require any further abstraction for someone with even a cursory grasp of logic to understand (although it’s not the logic that I think is most likely to fail – either a failure of communication or of other faculty is more likely).

If I’m not getting this across, I don’t suspect that it’s the logic that your missing. If I’m correct in this suspicion, then either through your limitations or mine, I’m not really going to be able to get this across any better.

* Self-evident; we wouldn’t call something harmful if it weren’t wrong.
** Including inaction.

27 02 2008
Bruce

It is limited by human knowledge/understandING of course.

* shakes head *

If I’m correct in this suspicion, then either through your limitations or mine, I’m not really going to be able to get this across any better.

As this last paragraph would seem to demonstrate…

Let me rephrase.

If the logic I’m trying to get across, isn’t getting across, then I don’t suspect that it is a difficulty with the logic that is the problem. If this attempt to communicate this logic fails, then either through your limitations or mine, I doubt that I can communicate this to you.

Apologies for the articulation ladies and gents, but I’ve been up since 3am the past couple of days… Urrggghhhh….

27 02 2008
AV

As to god and morals, people who say they get their morals from god are clearly deluded, but at least there is a chain of causation for the ‘ought’ propositions that morals entails.

Not that it means much. We are entitled to ask, of those claim that their morals come from God, where God’s morals come from.

It certainly creates problems when people have differing moral sentiments – how do we know which is right?

That is a problem that existed already. The appeal to divine command or the assertion of the alleged “truth” of a religious (or ideological) set of dogmas merely postpones answering the question, and to some degree sweeps it under the carpet. If I just accept what my priest, pastor or imam (or Rick Warren) tells me are the “right” solutions to moral questions, then I don’t have to think about them. But all that has happened is that I am no longer thinking about these questions. Not thinking about them (or letting someone else do my thinking for me) is not tantamount to solving these questions. They’re still there.

So perhaps the best we are able to achieve is consensus. And there are, it seems to me, at least two ways of achieving consensus on moral questions. (Two that spring to mind, anyway.) One occurs if you belong to a religious or ideological community whose members are all of a mind (broadly speaking) on doctrinal matters, and are thus more likely to be all of a mind on how to address moral questions in accordance with the doctrine. (Those who aren’t able to get with the programme are likely to find themselves alienated, or marginalised, or shunned, or excommunicated, or imprisoned, or beaten, or tortured, or burnt at the stake, or beheaded.) The other way involves rational argument and evidence. Now, bear in mind that achieving consensus on a moral problem is not the same thing as solving it once and for all. But it strikes me that the second way is the better way to go in a plural society and–dare I say it–in a plural global community.

27 02 2008
How do we know what is right? « Five Public Opinions

[...] do we know what is right? 27 02 2008 There’s a great discussion between Bruce and SB on the “Counter-apologetic pwnage” comments thread regarding religion and morality. [...]

27 02 2008
SB

Bruce: Not all religion is theistic I’ll grant you that, but I’m not for a second going to accept that theism isn’t a subset of religion.

It is quite plain that one can believe in a god that is disinterested, unknown and unknowable, one that has no requirements of us. Such a belief can stand outside religion, organised or not. You may decide that that is not theism. However, there is something misleading about comparing something (atheism) the content of which is one idea (the non-existence of god) with religion rather than the single and polar opposite idea which I call theism and which you distinguish as deism.

I discussed this. Reason – > consequentialism. Lacks the conflicts of absolutism and the absurdity of relativism. It is limited by human knowledge/understand of course, but in making predictions all ethical systems are subject to this in one way or the other

Of course I wasn’t talking about making predictions, which is no way analogous to the question of which is the right rule to apply, the short answer to which is that we don’t.

I think you’ve missed my point on knowing what is moral (in fact you obviously missed the part where I was answering “how do we know?” when you didn’t acknowledge that I had addressed it); “X is wrong because it would cause suffering” (suffering is by definition harmful, harm is by definition wrong* (aka ought not be), of all options** X causes the greatest net increase in suffering ergo X ought not be).

In asking how do we know which is right, I am not interested in questions of which is right assuming something such as ‘harm is by definition wrong’. The issue is how do we know that our starting point is right i.e. what is the basis of our assumptions. The short answer again is ‘we don’t know’.

It has a sound logical basis and sound premises (albeit some not explicit) and should come intuitively to any healthy mind.

It is this type of illogic that caused me to walk out of Sunday school many years ago. You might as well say that god is your conscience. If my intuition is different to yours, or that of the majority, does that mean my mind is unhealthy?

Self-evident; we wouldn’t call something harmful if it weren’t wrong.

This is the most ridiculous statement I have seen you make. It is worse than saying something is wrong because it is wrong. It is worse because it is not a mere tautology. Natural disasters are harmful but not wrong. Harmful intentional acts done in ignorance of the consequences may not be wrong. A risky operation performed as a last resort may be harmful but not wrong, even if you know the likely outcome is death. A great many (possibly 1.3 billion) people would see no wrong in harming you if you insulted their holy book.

As for the ‘we wouldn’t’ part of the statement, you are placing too much weight on what humans would or would not do in any particular circumstance.

15 01 2009
melendwyr

If the prayers of one group are statistically effective, and another group’s are not, that is not evidence of the supernatural. It is natural evidence of a natural phenomenon.

There can be no evidence for the supernatural, because the conceptual category of ‘supernatural’ is incoherent.

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