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Oct 13 2011

Higher bullshitting

Andrew Sullivan thinks “militant atheists” have an excessively crude epistemology. (Via WEIT)

First he tells us how his works.

As to Coyne’s challenge to present a criterion of what is real in the Bible and what is true, I’d argue that empirical claims -   like, say, a census around the time of Christ’s birth, or the rule of Pontius Pilate in Palestine at the time – can be tested empirically. But the Gospels themselves have factually contradictory Nativity and Crucifixion stories…and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible – God’s entrance into human history as a human being.

If you are treating these texts as if they were just published as news stories in the New York Times, you are missing the forest for the trees. You are just guilty of a category error – or rather of forcing all experience into the category of science.

No, not science. News stories in the New York Times are not science (apart from the few that are). That’s a false dichotomy. Science is not the only alternative to fiction or myth. News stories in the New York Times are not science, but they are supposed to be, and expected to be, accurate. They are expected to get things right. They are not expected to make things up. (If you don’t believe me, Google Jayson Blair.) They are expected, in short, to tell the truth.

Sullivan apparently doesn’t agree with this (which is disconcerting, given that he is a journalist).

The rub is the miracles, as Hume noted. Here we have clear empirical accounts of things that we cannot account for in nature, indeed stories that are told precisely because they defy the laws of nature. And when the real and the true seem to conflict, I think we need to rely on the true, and leave the real to one side. The point of curing a blind man is the lesson of faith: “I once was blind and now I see.” I remain agnostic about the miracles as real; I have no doubt that they were true, that those who experienced Jesus’ touch and message were transformed in ways perhaps only expressible in terms of physical miracles. That goes for Lazarus as well. When we are talking about coming back from the dead, we are entering non-real truths. And the most profound unreal truth is, of course, the Resurrection.

He’s saying stories about miracles can be true even if they’re not real. Try that with the New York Times then. Try it with the Atlantic. Try it with the Daily Beast. If Sullivan reports something, as opposed to commenting on it or interpreting it, does he give himself permission to report it as true even if he knows it’s not real? Does he actually make truth claims in print in journalistic outlets that he knows are not “real” (by which the rest of us mean “true”)? I doubt it, and if he does, he risks getting in the kind of trouble that Jayson Blair did – but with a much bigger reputation to lose.

In other words, I think he’s bullshitting. I think he’s bullshitting rather shamelessly, since he probably wouldn’t act on that (bogus-seeming) distinction in his professional life. He wouldn’t call a fiction “true” to his editors or his readers (at least I don’t think he would, because as far as I know he’s a reputable journalist).

It’s interesting that this kind of special rule doesn’t apply in other areas. There’s no such thing as “true but not real” in the courtroom, or psychology, or history, or engineering. It might be a way of talking about fiction and story-telling, but that of course is the opposite of what Sullivan means – he is not saying that the Resurrection and the New Testament are fiction.

At the end he quotes a reader

Notice that the  fundamentalist and the militant Atheist both confuse truth with fact,  the fundamentalist by insisting that truth overwhelm fact, and the  militant Atheist by insisting that fact overwhelm truth. Neither, usually, have [sic] solid epistemological grasp of truth or fact.

And adds

Because their epistemology is too crude, in my opinion.

No. Thanks, but no.

63 comments

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  1. 1
    Blake Stacey

    The Star Trek canon is full of contradictory stories. Logically, it must then be screaming to express the inexpressible. Listen: can you hear it? The ear of faith can hear the call of truth. . . and truth is telling us, “Khaaaaaan!”

  2. 2
    Moewicus

    I’m amazed that someone can put this:

    If you are treating these texts as if they were just published as news stories in the New York Times, you are missing the forest for the trees. You are just guilty of a category error – or rather of forcing all experience into the category of science.

    right next to this:

    Here we have clear empirical accounts of things that we cannot account for in nature, indeed stories that are told precisely because they defy the laws of nature.

    without their head exploding. I guess it’s not surprising, given how ridiculous his definition of “truth” is:

    Other things we experience as true – a profound musical epiphany, or spiritual calm, or unexpected joy.

    How do you “experience [something] as true”? Evidently Sullivan’s epistemology is that “truth” is “emotion and experience,” rather than “corresponds to reality.” This isn’t refined–I’m tempted to say it’s caveman epistemology, but that would be unfair to actual cavepersons. The notion of truth as the measure of a proposition’s correspondence to reality is one of the most refined and advanced ideas in human history. Sullivan can’t accept it because he knows that so little of the gospels do correspond to reality, let alone to each other, and thus adopts a perverted definition of truth in order to preserve the truth of his position. On top of all this he makes the category error of treating some things in the gospels as empirical claims while chastising other people for making the category error of treating the gospels as making empirical claims.

    What a maroon.

  3. 3
    AJ Milne

    It’s an old–and silly–dodge ‘mongst apologists. You pointy-headed ‘scientists’, always insisting things make sense, add up… Must be that dang ‘scientism’, kicking up again…

    News flash, dearies: there’s lots of areas of life that aren’t ‘science’ where people do tend to get a mite hung up on particulars of what is and is not, in fact, true. Like in bookkeeping. Like in criminal investigations. Like when they’re trying to establish where their spouse was last night.

    Like, in fact, in most facets of life, hundreds of times a day, even if accounting isn’t your field and you’re not the accused at a criminal trial, and you’re not even married. Getting the facts right isn’t a concern of ‘science’, specifically. It’s a general concern of human beings. Getting reality right is, frequently, indeed, rather important if you wish to stay alive. It’s not a particularly academic question whether the car is or is not coming, when you cross the road. It’s the sort of thing one likes to get right. And we don’t generally call this ‘science’, either. We call it ‘looking’.

    But blaming such criticisms of religion on ‘science’, running, apparently, rampant, is, to borrow a phrase, such fashionable nonsense, now. Attractive, I suspect, mostly just because of the anti-elitist buttons it pushes. Common-sense, salt-of-the-Earth types, they’d never raise such objections, naturally. Too busy supporting our troops, no doubt.

  4. 4
    Greta Christina

    Our epistemology is crude because we care about whether the things we believe actually happened?

    I think my brain just tried to eat itself.

  5. 5
    Moewicus

    His quote from the reader is also bollocks.

    There is a difference between truth and fact, and fundamentalism and fanaticism stems from a confusion between the two. Evolution is a fact. The story of the Fall is true.

    This faux segregation of facts from truth is ridiculous. It’s a fact that species evolve: the theory of evolution, which describes this evolution, is true because it describes something in reality.

    The notion that people wander around with separate truths in their heads is hopelessly relativistic and Sullvan’s inclusion of it is telling. No one, except certain kinds of religious fundamentalist, are arguing for the extermination of other “truths” so the stuff about how it’s civilized to tolerate other people’s truths is a red herring.

  6. 6
    Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy

    AJ @4:

    Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sullivan thinks it’s okay to publish made-up financial data that tell people what you want (them) to believe.

    I say “I wouldn’t be surprised” because I don’t know whether Sullivan thinks it’s reasonable for large corporations to lie to investors, but lots of other people seem to these days, and it’s consistent with his idea of epistemology.

    But money, abstract and artificial as it is, is a lot realer than what he’s talking about.

  7. 7
    Cliff Hendroval

    Shorter Andrew “rawmuscleglutes” Sullivan: “Truth” is whatever makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

  8. 8
    Stewart

    The sentence that got me was: “I remain agnostic about the miracles as real; I have no doubt that they were true, that those who experienced Jesus’ touch and message were transformed in ways perhaps only expressible in terms of physical miracles.”

    That leaves me wondering how he can justify being so open-minded to a category as precarious as “true even though not real,” while simultaneously being completely closed-minded to the possibility that these stories were simply made up and that the people “who experienced Jesus’ touch and message” never existed outside of fiction. The little we know of the circumstances surrounding the writing of the New Testament is anything but conducive to the deployment of the statement “I have no doubt.”

  9. 9
    Ganner

    That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It isn’t real but it is true? And if you’re going to say that any of it – like resurrection – actually happened, how can you say that the other miracles didn’t actually happen but are true? And if there were no miracles, and there was no resurrection, then there is no Christianity. You can still derive a moral philosophy – not going to comment on its overall value or virtues and flaws – out of the supposed teachings of Jesus but you don’t have a religion. If people are going to strip out everything that makes religion a religion, why not just not have a religion? Why go to such lengths to have some weird mystical notion of “these are just stories that didn’t really happen but they’re TRUE therefore God.” It totally baffles me.

  10. 10
    Hank_Says

    Giving a shit about whether a truth claim is true is crude?

    This is your brain on God, children. Just Say NO.

    Wake me up when Sullivan stops making lame, desperate apologies for the religion that hates everything he is and has warped his mind into thinking he should still be a part of it. Wake me up when he admits his dissonance, his equivocating, his false dichotomising, his intellectual cowardice. Hell, just wake me up when he shuts the fuck up about faith.

  11. 11
    joelsassone

    Wanna know what’s “crude?” Pretending there’s a difference between truth, fact, and real, all of which are synonyms in the English language. This is childish wordplay at best. Either something happened, or it didn’t.

  12. 12
    picool

    I simply do not grasp how facts can “overwhelm” truth. Even if one is claiming “a different kind of truth” how can facts not be part of what is true? Maybe I just don’t have a religious mindset, but seriously, what is this I don’t even.

  13. 13
    SAWells

    From the linked article, we get this:

    “The sign of a civilized person is to allow others to have different truths than themselves, and to respect the truths of others, even when they differ from their own, especially when that respect is reciprocated.”

    No. Just no. Not at all. If it’s something about which people can legitimately disagree, then it is a matter of opinion, not truth.

    I’m going to ask him for the $100 he owes me. Even if he doesn’t think it’s true that he owes me $100, I do think it’s true, and I expect him to respect my truth even if it differs from his own.

  14. 14
    Casimir

    Evolution is a fact. The story of the Fall is true.

    Excuse me?

    Even if we were going to play Super-Fun-Fantasy-Time and acknowledge that “true” isn’t the same as “factually accurate”, the story of the Fall still holds no water, even metaphorically.

    The Fall posits that mankind was, at some point, a perfect being and somehow shattered this state of grace by making poor choices, and therefore the rest of our collective lives must be lived in perpetual atonement for this transgression in the hopes that we may, someday, re-obtain this ideal state.

    In what possible universe could such a ridiculous notion be “true?”

    Oh, right. The universe of the bible.

    To say that human beings are flawed creatures prone to behaving irrationally and, in spite of good intentions, can and will eventually do monstrously destructive things, I can accept as ‘true’. But that has the benefit of centuries of evidence behind it, so it can also be called a ‘fact.’

    This idea that we are only in that state because we somehow “lost” a previous state of being is simply absurd. So, both as a fact and a metaphor, the story of the Fall is, by all definitions, false.

  15. 15
    Marta

    I’m not surprised anymore when people engage in pretzel logic to argue that what they wish was true, was true. I used to be. Once upon a time, I’d read something like the Sullivan mess, and I’d wonder how they were going to walk it back, and how long it would take. But no longer.

    Sullivan’s identity is tied firmly to his Catholicism. No matter what it takes, or how terribly he must tie his own brain into knots, Sullivan is going to do his ever loving best to find an escape hatch for his illogical belief system–even if he is his own victim in doing so.

    Who would Sullivan be if he had to let that part of his identity go?

  16. 16
    JT Eberhard

    I love you.

    That is all.

  17. 17
    had3

    Unfortunately, we actually do have “true but not real” in the courtroom. It’s when the legislation states that something is to be presumed a fact, even when, in fact, it isn’t. It’s not common, but it exists. -sigh.

  18. 18
    Stewart

    JT Eberhard said:

    “I love you.”

    Is that true, or is it real? I think Ophelia has a right to know.

  19. 19
    carolw

    snark font/ I think what Andrew means is big-t Truth. See, it makes much more sense now. There’s what’s real, then there’s the Truth. You have to make big puppy eyes and drop your voice when you say “Truth” so that it has gravitas. /snark font

  20. 20
    Paul Crowley

    @AJ Milne: brilliant comment, have posted an excerpt to another website under “Rationality Quotes”:

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/7wm/rationality_quotes_october_2011/5117

    Thank you!

  21. 21
    CJO

    And when the real and the true seem to conflict, I think we need to rely on the true, and leave the real to one side. The point of curing a blind man is the lesson of faith: “I once was blind and now I see.” I remain agnostic about the miracles as real; I have no doubt that they were true, that those who experienced Jesus’ touch and message were transformed in ways perhaps only expressible in terms of physical miracles. That goes for Lazarus as well.

    I wonder if he “remains agnostic” about the purported miracles of the emperor Vespasian? Was the point of his curing a blind man the lesson of faith? Faith in what? Were those who “experienced [Vespasian's] touch and message” “transformed in ways perhaps only expressible in terms of physical miracles”?

    You ask me, it’s crudely parochial and intellectually dishonest to give this kind of pass to only one’s preferred fictions and not to all of them.

  22. 22
    RJW

    #6 Moewicus

    “the theory of evolution, which describes this evolution, is true because it describes something in reality.”

    Perhaps I’ve misunderstood your comments,but taking them at face value–

    The theory of evolution is not really “true”, science doesn’t actually make that claim, it’s a testable hypothesis that hasn’t been refuted so far. It’s ‘true’ to the same extent that Newtonian physics was true prior to the 20th century. Only the religious, or perhaps philosophers, claim that they’ve established “the truth”.

    People do in fact wander round with ‘different truths’ in their heads, it’s typical of human behavior.

    This is OT of course but Pinker’s lecture is fascinating and very informative.

    http://edge.org/conversation/mc2011-history-violence-pinker

  23. 23
    valleycat1

    This seems to me to be going back to the old argument of the Bible as myth [which often conveniently skirts the issue of why one would worship a mythological being]. That is, you can express an underlying truth through parables, fairy tales, myths, and other fiction. Unfortunately, most fundamentalist Christians equate ‘true’ with ‘literal’ or ‘factual’ or ‘historical’ and would disagree with Sullivan’s positing that the NT stories of Jesus healing the blind or raising the dead are speaking figuratively (in the latter case, it creates an issue of how one determines which of those instances was figurative and which was literal (Lazarus & Jesus?)).

  24. 24
    Stewart

    While I don’t wish literal blindness on Sullivan (the kind he already has seems bad enough), were he to be so afflicted, I suspect he would be dissatisfied with a miraculous cure that was “true” but still left him unable to see.

    What he really needs a miraculous cure for right now is those 60 new things Greta said Ophelia tore him (thanks for the smirk it gave me).

  25. 25
    John Horstman

    “Andrew Sullivan thinks ‘militant atheists’ have an excessively crude epistemology.”

    That’s fair, since I think Andrew Sullivan is an arrogant, privileged, willfully-ignorant asshat, and an epistemology that allows for such an evaluation of him would doubtless be crude in his view.

    Ad hominem attacks (fully-justified, in my opinion; you say he’s a “journalist” and a reputable one at that – do you read his column with any frequency?) aside, Sullivan is arguing for a distinction between “real” and “true” on the basis of a misunderstood (or perhaps just consciously misapplied) postmodern epistemology that holds that, as it’s impossible for any of us to verify our own experience, since we’re always limited to our own perceptions (and any supposed verification is thus filtered though our own perceptions, allowing for the same bias, delusion, etc. in the verification as in the original assertion), “truth” is completely subjective and only a matter of individual experience. “Reality” on the other hand, is the result of enough of us agreeing that something is “true”: it’s a near-consensus (it’s not truly a consensus: for example, we classify deviations from the normative reality as “mental illness” – obviously deviations from it do exist) evaluation of the external world that operates as the sum of our personal subjective experiences.

    This distinction is all well and good: it’s essentially just a semantic framing device devised to try to grapple with the subjectivity problem that results from various postmodern epistemologies. The problem is that Sullivan is making essentialized, universalized claims to “truth” – e.g. “And when the real and the true seem to conflict, I think we need to rely on the true, and leave the real to one side.” and “The story of the Fall is true.” – he’s saying that certain things ARE TRUE without bounding that “truth” to the context established by the distinction in the first place, that of a single, specific individual. As his example of “truth” in music clearly shows, he dose claim to be using the contextualized distinction, but when it comes to the religious points, he violates the terms of the distinction – for example, none of the people involved in this discussion in any way experienced The Fall or the Miracles of Christ or any of the other stuff, so none of it can be “true” to anyone involved. It’s external to the individuals in question, so the only basis for factual claims under the epistemology limiting truth to contextualized individual experience is “reality”, for which the empirical model is so far our best. Given that none of the fantastic claims can be empirically verified (in fact, most of them can be empirically rejected), we can safely say that they are neither real nor true. Sullivan doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, is lying, or both.

    Apologists like the language and some of the constructs of postmodern epistemologies, as they allow for critiques of the universal applicability of the empirical model, but only because they don’t understand that (strong) postmodernism rejects ALL universal truth, including their own views of their religions, at ‘best’ allowing for the possibility of religious hyper-pluralism.

    Either that, or I’ve missed the point entirely, and the WHOLE thing is bullshit, vs. a small part being bullshit.

  26. 26
    Ian MacDougall

    “But the Gospels themselves have factually contradictory Nativity and Crucifixion stories, especially in their mythological details (the Magi, the shepherds, the various sayings attributed to Jesus on the Cross, each of which suggests radically different interpretations), and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible – God’s entrance into human history as a human being.”

    That isn’t all they scream.

    The whole edifice of Christianity rests on the foundation of ‘The Fall’. (Fact? True? Both? Neither?) Yet if any event in the Bible is clouded with monumental imprecision, it is this fact/event/notion/fiction. Also that ‘The Fall’ of Adam and Eve was somehow inherited by all their (?) descendants. (Implication: Lamarck got it right, and Darwin was wrong.)

    What did Adam and Eve actually DO to precipitate all the evil, war, famine, pestilence, assault and battery that came after them: to the whole globe and to all the creatures in it? I would really like to find out, but no authority I have consulted so far can tell me.

  27. 27
    Saikat Biswas

    Truth can be unreal. Dark can be bright. Dry can be moist. Far out!

  28. 28
    Ophelia Benson

    “I think my brain just tried to eat itself.”

    Ha! I know the feeling, but never thought to put it that way.

  29. 29
    FresnoBob

    Andrew Sullivan is a twat twit… Is that true or real?

  30. 30
    FresnoBob

    Fair enough.

  31. 31
    Ophelia Benson

    Or you can have something harsher if you like! Just not that one. :-b

  32. 32
    Aratina Cage

    Does he actually make truth claims in print in journalistic outlets that he knows are not “real” (by which the rest of us mean “true”)?

    Yes, he does. He ended up hallucinating for I think it was three years that Palin had faked her last pregnancy. A local news reporter in Anchorage finally had had it with the “truth” and released numerous videos constituting reasonable proof that Palin was indeed pregnant no matter how much Sullivan wanted it not to be “true”.

  33. 33
    Stewart

    What I resent is his brazen assumption that just because Palin has had several children, she’s not a virgin. Well, I suppose it’s really his inconsistency with which I have a problem.

  34. 34
    Ophelia Benson

    Ha, Stewart!

    Ah – thanks, Aratina; I didn’t know that. I don’t follow him regularly because he’s always irritated me, since the ol’ New Republic days. I take it back about the reputable suggestion then.

  35. 35
    Aratina Cage

    The sentence that got me was: “I remain agnostic about the miracles as real; I have no doubt that they were true, that those who experienced Jesus’ touch and message were transformed in ways perhaps only expressible in terms of physical miracles.”

    It’s almost like he’s reducing Jayzuz to your standard TV evangelist or tent preacher. People felt better after forking over $10,000 to Pat Robertson, so whatever Pat Robertson says must be true!

  36. 36
    DLC

    So, Andrew Sullivan thinks it’s the rationalists who have the problem ? Isn’t his entire argument something that boils down to “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” ? (Wm Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 1 scene 5)

    See also : “Science! Bah! what do you and your Science know!?”
    (widely attributed to Doctor Baron Von Frankenstein)

    Will Sullivan next be telling us how Psychics really do work, because he believes in their truth ?
    Or perhaps he’ll be spouting Deepak Chopra quantum bollocks to justify his gods-belief next.

  37. 37
    Ophelia Benson

    People felt better after forking over $10,000 to Pat Robertson, so whatever Pat Robertson says must be true!

    Somebody said almost exactly that here the other day. In reply to my (oft-repeated) “we have no good reason to think there is a god” a commenter said god has helped manymany people to overcome problems. I could have cited Dumbo’s feather, but didn’t.

  38. 38
    Ophelia Benson

    DLC, v good, but Frankenstein was no Doctor – he was a college sophomore! That makes it all so much funnier…

  39. 39
    Ken Pidcock

    I long ago resigned myself to not expecting rationality from Andrew Sullivan when it comes to the core of faith. As others have noted, he is deeply invested in identity as a marginal Catholic, and he’s going to defend his status. That he comes off sounding so ridiculous doing so is, I think, useful to the conversation.

    But I give the man credit for his part in keeping the conversation going. Sullivan has been extraordinarily successful in this medium, and he devotes no small part of his attention, and that of his vast readership, to issues of belief, something which most successful bloggers don’t bother with. In doing so, IMHO, he has been quite generous in offering a forum to nonbelievers. There are, today, many more people familiar with Jerry Coyne’s perspective than there were the other week. If one can be both deluded and fair-minded, Andrew Sullivan is that.

  40. 40
    Aratina Cage

    Ah, yes, Dumbo’s feather. (Hmm, it’s actually very much like the emperor’s new clothes, except don’t tell poor Dumbo it has no magical power or you’ll end up severely hurting him, possibly even killing him.) Dumbo’s feather, a harmless clothing accessory, is one thing that I think accommodationists, homeopaths, astrologers, liberal theologians, and all the rest of the woo-headed would agree is worth having or worth pretending is worth having–for the benefit of others of course.

  41. 41
    Greta Christina

    You know, I keep coming back to this (sort of like picking at a scab):

    But the Gospels themselves have factually contradictory Nativity and Crucifixion stories… and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible – God’s entrance into human history as a human being.

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOO! (Brain attempting self-cannibalism again)

    The Gospels themselves have factually contradictory Nativity and Crucifixion stories… and so scream that they are WRONG. R-O-N-G Wrong. Mythical. Made up. Distortions of reality at best. Not true.

    I’d hate to see this guy on a jury. “The witnesses for the defense have factually contradictory stories… so they must be expressing something inexpressible about the knife’s entrance into the victim’s chest. It can’t possibly be that they’re just making shit up.”

    Sheesh. Do these people even hear what they’re saying?

  42. 42
    DLC

    Ophelia Benson@ 39: Ahh. I conflated the movie version with the literary.

  43. 43
    Stewart

    When two sources contradict each other and your reaction is that not even one is wrong, you’re doing exactly what the conspiracy theory nuts always do. The fact that what you believe in is true will always trump whatever else comes up, no matter how convoluted and implausible you have to make the explanation. But of course, once you go to those kind of lengths, there’s nothing left you can’t do. Absolutely anything is as plausible (or much more) as what you’ve already claimed is true. When Sullivan comes straight out and says, yes, they contradict each other and his conclusion somehow contrives to be anything other than one must be wrong, he could just as plausibly state that the fact that atheists are all militant and crude means god is trying to tell us “They’re right.”

  44. 44
    Ophelia Benson

    I’d hate to see this guy on a jury.

    I have that kind of thought all the time. It’s so striking the way a kind of thinking that won’t fly for one second in a courtroom or a forensics lab or on a bridge project is just fine for apologetics.

    DLC – yup. Hollywood probably thought some callow youth wouldn’t be convincing enough onscreen! Had to be Colin Whatsisname – I can’t think of it.

  45. 45
    Stewart

    You mean Colin Clive?

  46. 46
    otrame

    Sullivan’s truth versus real reminds me very much of a passage at the beginning of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The point-of-view character says he is going to tell a story about what happened to him. He then says (close paraphrase), “It’s all the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

    The point is that the man is a paranoid schizophrenic with frequent hallucinations in the days when the only treatment was heavy tranquilizers. Some of the events he experienced were hallucinations, and he knows that at the time he is telling the story. But his hallucinations are part of his experience of events and it is his experience that he is talking about. They are “true” in that sense, even if they didn’t actually happen.

    Outside of telling a story from the point of view of a mentally ill man, hallucinations cannot be considered evidence of anything real or anything “true” and it is only mental illness that makes a person think such illusions have something to do reality. For those with (at least nominally) healthy minds, it’s not sophisticated epistemology. It’s bullshit.

    There is nothing crude about demanding at least some evidence before you claim something is “true”. The fact that someone wrote the story down is not really evidence, or we should be wondering whatever happened to Middle Earth. Without corroboration such stories should not be taken as either fact or truth, because humans are so very good at lying, to each other, and more importantly in this case, to themselves. If someone tells a story that demands a complete change of our understanding of the universe, a story that is, as far as we know, impossible, there are a number of possibilities, the simplest and most likely of which is that they are lying. There is no truth or Truth to be found there. And no wisdom either.

  47. 47
    Stewart

    You start getting involved in “true and/vs real,” it’s everywhere. I was trying not to think of this thread and was reading this piece, which was on ALDaily: http://www.tnr.com/article/the-read/95758/art-spiegelman-metamaus-holocaust-memoir-graphic-novel

    Here are the lines that brought me back here:

    The question of how truthful Maus can be is perfectly illustrated by the minor kerfuffle that broke out when the second section of the book was published in hardcover and promptly made its way to the New York Times best-seller list—in the fiction column. In a letter to the New York Times Book Review (reproduced, naturally, in MetaMaus), Spiegelman protested: “I shudder to think how David Duke … would respond to seeing a carefully researched work based closely on my father’s memories of life in Hitler’s Europe and in the death camps classified as fiction.” One editor reportedly responded, “Let’s go out to Spiegelman’s house and if a giant mouse answers the door, we’ll move it to the nonfiction side of the list!” But the Times, following Pantheon (which had listed it as both history and memoir), ruled with Spiegelman.

  48. 48
    bad Jim

    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

    John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

  49. 49
    bad Jim

    To continue in the same silly vein:

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

    “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

    The various Murphy’s Laws are true to about the same extent as these famous opening lines, as are many proverbs, even when they contradict each other. Truths of this sort aren’t comprehensive or universal, but what exactly did the Mythbusters prove when they demonstrated that you actually can shine shit?

    What’s worse is that science doesn’t even claim to deliver truth, just the best approximation currently attainable. Do electrons actually exist? Yes, for all practical purposes, but it’s not out of the question that some more elegant description might yet be found.

    When I was in grade school, continental drift was fringe speculation, and now plate tectonics is a solid certainty. In college, the existence of black holes was a conjecture, but now we know that there are super massive black holes at the center of every galaxy. As for biology, it seems that almost everything worth knowing has been discovered since I left college. Truth, of a scientific sort, is a moving target, and it’s moving faster in some fields than others.

    A witness is sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but is only asked a series of specific questions, not all of which even admit of an exhaustively truthful answer. “Did you do X?” Yes or no. “Why?” Um…

    My point, I guess, is that science delivers increasingly reliable, practical approximations to certain sorts of truths, some other disciplines offer what experience has shown to be less reliable approximations to what we would like to know about a larger number of phenomena, and that we humans yearn to be right about almost everything that engages us.

    Then there’s mathematics.

  50. 50
    Mark Fournier

    The idea that myth is truth but not real is nothing new. But no reader of mythology makes the same epistemological claims, when speaking of the Odyssey, the Iliad, the imaginative works of Shakespeare, or innumerable works of fantasy and science fiction writers, as those made by the religious make when speaking of the Bible. When I hear these idiots speak of Neil Gaiman or J.R.R Tolkien in the same breath, and with the same epistemological stance, as they do with the Bible, then I will take them seriously. Until then I will treat them with the same contempt that they lavish upon Dawkins. And unlike their contempt for Dawkins, it will be richly deserved.

    Regarding dedicated Catholics–you know, the sort that remain loyal to the pope despite solid legal evidence that he is an accessory to thousands of cases of child abuse–they are not merely dupes, they are suckers. A dupe may be innocent, but a sucker is not, because a sucker wants to be fooled, and primes him or herself by lying to themselves. And while a dupe may be taken in by the unscrupulous, a sucker gives aid and succor to the criminals by providing criminals evidence for those criminals’ contempt for humanity. Nothing is so conducive to evil than the conviction that people deserve it and no more, and suckers provide the evidence for that conviction. Suckers are the broad base that supports the likes of Ratzinger, Rove, and Murdoch, and encourages their contempt for the very people who support them.

  51. 51
    mikee

    As a gay Catholic there are two options – turn yourself into a pretzel of cognitive dissonance like Andrew Sullivan, or reject the contradictions of Catholicism and religion itself, which is my approach.

    I think my approach gives me far less headaches (apart from those caused by Sullivan and others like him)

    I swear the level of cognitive dissonance to be both a gay man and a Catholic would make my head explode.

  52. 52
    machintelligence

    If you are interested in a slightly different take on practical reality, I would recommend: Beyond Belief Enlightenment 2.0 – Daniel Dennett on YouTube. The whole 27 minute lecture is worth watching, but the really relevant part is from 5:30 to 18:00. (Sorry for no link, but I can’t seem to get it to work.)

  53. 53
    Aquaria

    This is the same moronic twit who still can’t admit he got it totally wrong about Bush and Iraq because he was so fucking stupid while the Left nailed every single thing that would happen.

    He’s a liar and a fraud. But then, that’s why he has the gig at a big time New York publisher, rather than rotting in the street with snake oil salesman and tabloid reporter rejects like he deserves.

  54. 54
    sailor1031

    “- like, say, a census around the time of Christ’s birth, or the rule of Pontius Pilate in Palestine at the time – can be tested empirically”

    Someone writing a novel about yeshue bar youssef in the late first century CE and setting it in the early first century CE would be able to know quite easily who was the roman procurator of the time of yeshue’s alleged death in judea. He might be a little more hazy about a census around the time of yeshue’s alleged birth, years before, and therefore get the facts wrong. But since it’s only a novel, historical accuracy isn’t of primary importance – only plausibility is!

    The problem occurs when you insist that:
    a. this is a record of historical fact
    b. that this record has been divinely inspired by a divinity and is the “Truth”.

    We know, from the empirical evidence, that both of these beliefs are incorrect.

  55. 55
    dirigible

    This is the Johan Hari school of theology.

  56. 56
    dirigible

    “the Left nailed every single thing that would happen”

    No. “The Left” has retconned this as a justification for their previous opposition to the war based on simple “anti imperialism”. Very few leftists predicted what actually happened, and trying to pretend otherwise raises more questions than it answers.

  57. 57
    Svlad Cjelli

    Bag of shit.

    Not even Ray Comfort stoops to this level. (And Ray Comfort stoops pretty fucking low into transparent dishonesty.)

  58. 58
    Svlad Cjelli

    Praeterea censeo Sullivanem esse delendam.

  59. 59
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh not quite delendam. The poor guy isn’t Carthage.

  60. 60
    otrame

    @58

    Very few leftists predicted what actually happened, and trying to pretend otherwise raises more questions than it answers.

    So I take it that you didn’t notice all the talk about “getting us into another Viet Nam situation” that was going on? Selective listening or selective memory?

  61. 61
    Marta

    @58

    Yeah, nobody noticed your appellation of the label “leftist”. So apparently, your ability to speak about what anyone said about anything occurs first through a filter.

    Additionally, you would have to be deaf, dumb or plain stupid to argue that no one predicted what would happen. Colin Powell was all over what the potential fall out could be, and you’d have to be cracked indeed to think that Powell was a “leftist”.

  62. 62
    FresnoBob

    Scriptures don’t make sense? Well, derr!!…

    But the Gospels themselves have factually contradictory Nativity and Crucifixion stories…and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible – God’s entrance into human history as a human being.

    I wonder what Sullivan would be saying if all the accounts of the Nativity and Crucifixion lined up exactly in the right sequence, hitting every beat. What would they be screaming then?

    And what makes, “God’s entrance into human history as a human being” so bloody “inexpressible” anyway? It’s a big deal, sure, but a guy got born, lived and ended up being tortured to death. What is it about this particular guy that makes reliable contemporaneous accounts so bloody difficult? I don’t recall anything in the bible that said Christ had the effect of making people around him incapable of paying attention and making notes.

    If you are treating these texts as if they were just published as news stories in the New York Times, you are missing the forest for the trees. You are just guilty of a category error – or rather of forcing all experience into the category of science.

    OK Andrew – now we know how we’re going wrong, how exactly do you treat these texts? That might be a helpful start to understanding why you see nothing wrong in deriving ‘truth’ from conflicting accounts from this one particular source whilst considering such behaviour the height of fuckwittery in the rest of your life.

  63. 63
    Aquaria

    “the Left nailed every single thing that would happen”

    No. “The Left” has retconned this as a justification for their previous opposition to the war based on simple “anti imperialism”. Very few leftists predicted what actually happened, and trying to pretend otherwise raises more questions than it answers.

    Then you weren’t paying attention to what the left was saying before Iraq, dumbass.

    The left said there would be no WMDs. There weren’t any.

    The left said there would be no ties found between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. There weren’t any.

    The left said the US would have initial victories and then get bogged down in a civil war. The left was right–again.

    The left said that invading Iraq wouldn’t give us cheap oil. The left was right–AGAIN.

    Do you want me to go on? Because I can, dumbass.

  1. 64
    Caring About Reality is “Crude” | Greta Christina's Blog

    [...] apparently, Andrew Sullivan thinks atheist epistemology is “crude” because we care about whether the things we believe actually [...]

  2. 65
    From the Neighborhood | Almost Diamonds

    [...] Higher bullshitting He’s saying stories about miracles can be true even if they’re not real. Try that with the New York Times then. Try it with the Atlantic. Try it with the Daily Beast. If Sullivan reports something, as opposed to commenting on it or interpreting it, does he give himself permission to report it as true even if he knows it’s not real? Does he actually make truth claims in print in journalistic outlets that he knows are not “real” (by which the rest of us mean “true”)? I doubt it, and if he does, he risks getting in the kind of trouble that Jayson Blair did – but with a much bigger reputation to lose. [...]

  3. 66
    Articles « Loftier Musings

    [...] Higher bullshitting- Ophelia Benson. [...]

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