“Shut Up, That’s Why” – A Follow-Up »« Why Are You Atheists So Angry? The Cover!

Truth Is Not Boring

It shocks and upsets me that I should have to say this. It especially shocks and upsets me that I should have to say this to another atheist. But apparently I have to:

Truth is not boring.

You may have been following the debate about Alain de Botton’s article on CNN, What atheists can learn from religion, which began thus:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

And the sound you’ve been hearing over the last couple of days has been the tops of atheists’ heads coming off.

Including mine. I read de Botton’s piece when I was stuck at the Charlottesville airport waiting for a re-scheduled flight, getting over a stomach bug and trying to sleep on the airport floor… and I immediately started rage-writing this piece in my head.

Truth is not boring.

Reality is not boring. Reality is not irrelevant. Reality is not some trivial footnote in the larger, more serious business of keeping our brains in a bubble of happiness.

Reality is all that we have.

There’s something JT Eberhard says a lot in his talks, and he said it again in some of his responses to de Botton: Caring about reality is a moral obligation. You can have the best intentions in the world, but if you’re not committed to understanding how the world really works, you’re going to make bad decisions: decisions that hurt yourself and others around you. You’re going to let your child die when medical treatment could cure them; you’re going to cut off your little girl’s clitoris; you’re going to tell people in a country ravaged by AIDS not to use condoms because they make baby Jesus cry. If we really do care about making ourselves and one another happy, we owe it to ourselves and to one another to understand reality, to the absolute best of our ability.

I totally agree. But I’m going to say more. Again, it shocks and upsets me that I should freaking well have to say this, but apparently I do:

REALITY IS NOT BORING.

Here’s the thing. We have two competing hypotheses about how the universe works: religion, and naturalism. The religion hypothesis says that the universe is the way it is because a super-powerful supernatural being wished it into existence. The naturalism says that the universe is the way it is because of a chain of physical cause and effect.

And I’ll be honest: Either of these hypotheses would be fascinating.

If religion were right, and a super-powerful supernatural being had wished the universe into existence? That would be fascinating. If that were true, I would want to know. I would want to know everything there was to know about that being. I would want to know where it came from, how it worked, how exactly it made things happen, what it was thinking, why it did things the way it did.

As it turns out, the religion hypothesis doesn’t hold water. It has never, ever, ever, in the entire history of human knowledge, proven itself to be true. The naturalism hypothesis is almost certainly the correct one. And this hypothesis is also entirely fascinating. Space that bends? Continents that drift? Solid matter that’s mostly empty space? Black holes at the center of every spiral galaxy? Billions of galaxies all flying away from one another at breakneck speed? Life forms that are all cousins to one another? Consciousness that somehow arises from brain chemistry? That is freaking awesome. That is entirely fascinating. I want to understand every centimeter of it, in as much vastness and as much detail as I possibly can. It is one of the great tragedies of my mortal life that I’m going to die before the great mysteries of our time are answered.

I am not an atheist because I like the conclusion of atheism. I am an atheist because, based on the best evidence I have, that is the most plausible and consistent conclusion I can come to. I am an atheist because I care about the truth.

And I am not an ally with people who think the truth is irrelevant.

Some atheists, most notably Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist, have been defending de Botton, saying that his main point was that religion provides something valuable for people, and atheists need to figure out ways to replace that. If that really were his main point — fine. I don’t know any atheist activist who disagrees. Just about every atheist activist I know is working on this question of building atheist communities. We’re working hard — often to the point of obsession — on figuring out what people get out of religion, and how the atheist community can provide some or most or all of it without the “believing in things you have no good reason to think are true” part. We have some disagreements about how to go about building this community, and what to call it, and so forth — but we recognize that we have to do it, and we’re doing it, and we’re working hard on trying to do it better.

If that really were de Botton’s main point — yes. Fine. We’re not “overlooking” it, as de Botton thinks. We’re on it. Thank you for sharing.

But I don’t agree that this was his main point. It was one of his points, but it was far from his only one. Other writers (see “tops of atheists’ head coming off” above) have thoroughly reamed de Botton for his ill-informed and unfair characterization of modern atheists and the modern atheist movement. Other writers have pointed out that of course atheists care about morality, art, gratitude, mental exercise, education, politics, ritual, travel, even fashion. Other writers have pointed out what I just did: that modern atheists are acutely aware of what people get from religion, and are working like crazy to build secular alternatives. Other writers have even asked why hard-line atheists are divisive jerks for calling out de Botton, but somehow de Botton isn’t a divisive jerk for calling us out. I don’t need to say all that again. (Okay, I just did. Oh, well.)

But when you open your piece by saying that “the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true.’”?

I don’t have to pay attention to a damn thing you say after that.

The fact that de Botton is an atheist does not make him my ally. I am far more in alliance with a religious believer who cares passionately about the truth, who genuinely wants to understand the truth, who sincerely believes that God is real and is carefully investigating that question to arrive at a better understanding of the truth, than I am with an atheist who thinks truth is boring. I think that this believer, if they genuinely care about and pursue the truth, will eventually reach the conclusion of atheism. But I am more allied with them, in their sincere pursuit of the truth, than I am with an atheist who thinks truth is boring… and who issues an ill-informed lecture chiding other atheists for being so naive as to care about it.

Comments

  1. penasquito says

    Truth is boring, and caring about it makes you so unsavvy, Greta. Sheesh, what a nerd.

  2. says

    I’ve found it revealing that de Botton’s few defenders have little more than tone trolling in their arsenal to defend him with. All his critics are so nasty and mean! If all de Botton had been saying was, “Hey gang, there’s some nice stuff about religion too!” he wouldn’t be getting heaped with abuse. It’s in the way he’s built his entire argument around a sterile, emotionally barren and heartless secular world he insists we’ve all chosen to live in though none of us do, and that embracing the practices of religion is the only way we can attain that which we’ve given up (though we haven’t) in our dogmatic devotion to such trivialities as truth. Yeah, I’ll lob a few F-bombs in the direction of that.

  3. Yukimi says

    Well said!

    Also, in Spain, where I live, even baptised Catholics don’t go to church except on weddings and such, don’t use religious counsellors, … and Spain isn’t exactly the most secular country precisely. We don’t have many atheists groups here either and I think it’s partially because we aren’t usually ostracised here (at least from my experience, perhaps living in a very small countryside village things are different). What I want to say is that in the US people use Church as community but in many places it simply isn’t like that and in the future things might change.

  4. Blondin says

    Oh, tell it, sister!

    This post is definitely another one of your ‘keepers’, Greta.

  5. says

    I think the problem here is that Alain de Botton is not using ‘religion’ in the way that you are, Greta. From what I can tell, he’s using it to mean something like ‘systems for articulating and mediating sacred meanings’, and not a set of empirical claims about the world, to be treated as a hypothesis and tested against ‘naturalism’. Essentially, to compare religion by de Botton’s definition against scientific knowledge is to commit a category mistake.

    Whether or not you accept his definition is up to you, but this entire rant, though a well-argued defence of finding reality interesting, is a (surely unintentional) straw-man argument, as it attacks a claim that de Botton has not made.

  6. eric says

    I must admit, its gotten relatively more boring over time. After all, folk used to get tortured and burned at the stake for answering that question wrong or being suspected of thinking the wrong answer. THAT was an exciting time to be a heathen, pagan, or freethinker!

    Now, nonbelievers or wrong believers just get marginalized for it in first world countries, and the murder rate for heresy or wrong belief is way down in third world countries. Why, practically nobody is physically assaulted for wrong belief at all any more (cough Pennsylvania last halloween cough). How mundane the question has become!

    (/sarcasm…what an ass)

  7. Graeme says

    @Simon Frankel Pratt

    If AdB is using that definition of religion – and not referring to actual religions at all – then he’s a poorer writer than it at first appears. He’s writing an article on CNN, so I imagine most readers are going to associate the word religion with actual religions and the properties of same. If he’s going to use an esoteric definition instead of the generally accepted one, then he should really mention that in the article. You yourself admit that your interpretation is only based on “what you can tell”.

    I’m also not entirely sure why it doesn’t matter that “systems for articulating and mediating sacred meanings” might not be true. As far as I’m aware, there’s been a lot of issues regarding the articulation and mediation of sacred meanings that have caused a great deal of trouble in the world. If the system, or the premises on which it is built are flawed, I’d think re-examining them would be prudent. Thus the substance of Greta’s article would apply just as much.

  8. says

    And here I thought no one had picked up on that article. Guess I’m not very savvy when it comes to following atheist/freethought/etc. blogs. I posted a brief paragraph about it on the 18th and forgot about the article after that.

    “I don’t think I live in the same universe as the person who wrote this. I’m glad I don’t because he seems to have a rather dreary outlook on life. He also seems to have an odd desire to feel like part of a flock of sheep (and I mean sheep in a negative way – mindless follower). I’d certainly agree society can learn something from religion, even something positive, but I disagree with de Botton’s ideas.”

    Great post, Greta.

  9. says

    @Graeme

    A survey of dictionary definitions I could find off of google suggests that things like sacredness, community-building, morality, collective behaviours, and other sorts of meaning-related things are part or all of a definition of religion, depending on which ones you find. Anthropologists/sociologists, philosophers, and psychologists often entirely omit hypotheses about the physical world from their definitions for religion.

    Here is Durkheim’s definition: religion is ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community [comprising] all who adhere to them’.

    So de Botton’s definition of religion, if it is what I think it is, is hardly esoteric. It does contrast strongly with how many in the atheist and sceptical thinking community define religion, though. That might be our bad, and not his.

    The reason why asking whether or not claims about the sacred are true is boring is because if you use truth in a kind of scientific sense, they’re all false. There is no way to verify, falsify, or abduce the claim ‘human wellbeing matters’ for example.

    As you point out, though, many people have done many horrible things because of their particular sacred principles, and how they respond to others who do not share them. To me, the ‘non-boring’ question is how to have meaningful discourse on religion without intolerance, dogmatism, or exclusion.

  10. piero says

    @Simon Frankel Pratt:

    I think the problem here is that Alain de Botton is not using ‘religion’ in the way that you are, Greta. From what I can tell, he’s using it to mean something like ‘systems for articulating and mediating sacred meanings’, and not a set of empirical claims about the world, to be treated as a hypothesis and tested against ‘naturalism’. Essentially, to compare religion by de Botton’s definition against scientific knowledge is to commit a category mistake.

    What does “articulating sacred meanings” mean? What does “mediating sacred meanings” mean? What does “sacred” mean”? What does “sacred meaning” mean?

    De Botton is an unending source of hot air. He could make quite a career in a public lavatory. None of his statements makes any sense at all. No wonder he does not care about the “truth” of religious claims: he could not differentiate between “truth” and “wishful thinking” if his life depended on it.

    In fact, de Botton’s position is but a recycled copy of the “non-overlapping magisteria” first put forward by Gould. I can tolerate Gould’s original nonsense, but de Botton’s second-hand nonsense is just too much.

  11. Graeme says

    @ Simon Frankel Pratt

    “To me, the ‘non-boring’ question is how to have meaningful discourse on religion without intolerance, dogmatism, or exclusion.”

    I fail to see how any discourse on religion could have any meaning if you’re going to avoid the subject of whether there’s any truth to them. Religions make truth claims and people believe them. These truth claims are even now being used to make policy decisions, which negatively effect people to varying degrees – up to and including death. If we just forget about attempting to show the falsity of such claims it just makes it more difficult to change the situation.

    Yes, it’s a question that has been asked hundreds of times, but it remains important. Just because AdB chooses to ignore the sizeable – albeit apparently uninteresting – elephant in the room doesn’t mean the rest of the world does.

  12. says

    Piero, typically sacred meanings are ones which are held based on faith, which are to a certain degree not questioned, which are subject to hermeneutical rather than analytic analyses (‘what does this mean?’ rather than ‘is this valid?’). ‘Mediators’ of the sacred would be people who tell us answers to questions like ‘what does it mean to be good?’ and ‘what does it mean to be human?’

    If you’re interested in reading up on how the idea of the sacred influences human decision-making, you might want to start with Jonathan Haidt and Scott Atran.

  13. says

    Graeme,

    Religions don’t make truth claim (see ‘reification fallacy’). People make truth claims. Definitely, problems arise when people justify their religious principles on empirical claims which are false. But religious communities typically display a great flexibility of interpretation, too. There’s a great speech by the late and greatly lamented Benazir Bhutto in which she delivers theological arguments for equality for women, for example.

    Typically, people are most likely to accept that some of their beliefs are false if they feel like doing so does not require them to abandon other beliefs that are foundational to their identity. I recall one friend saying that he clung to theism for years only because he thought that without a god, morality could not obtain. From what I’ve been able to deduce from the psychological literature I’ve read, besides personal experience, having a discourse in which truth claims are separate from moral claims (cf. Habermas on ‘modernity’) are most likely to allow someone to be consistently self-critical.

  14. Daniel Schealler says

    But if you’re bored then you’re boring

    The agony and the irony, they’re killing me

  15. Stacy says

    I think the problem here is that Alain de Botton is not using ‘religion’ in the way that you are, Greta. From what I can tell, he’s using it to mean something like ‘systems for articulating and mediating sacred meanings’

    In other words, he’s a pretentious git engaged in mental masturbation.

  16. David Evans says

    I haven’t read de Botton’s book, but based on a quick look at the CNN article I think he is being misunderstood here. In the very next paragraph after the “boring” quote he says “To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given.”

    In other words, to him the question of religions’ truth is boring because he has already decided what he thinks about it. Surely other atheists can identify with that? If I say “I’m bored with discussing the truth of astrology” does that make me an astrology-accommodationist?

  17. J. J. Ramsey says

    Some truths can very well be boring. “1+1=2″ is pretty much old hat. “The sky is blue” are “water is wet” are, for the most part, not that interesting. If one is an atheist who is familiar most of the arguments for and against God and has long since found the debate lopsided in favor of atheism, then the question of whether religion is true can easily be boring, because it’s old news and a settled matter. None of that is equivalent to saying that “truth is boring” in general, or that having a reality-based view of the world is unimportant.

  18. Stacy says

    Oh.For.Fuck’s.Sake.

    but based on a quick look at the CNN article I think he is being misunderstood here.

    Take more than a quick look, David Evans.

    Read carefully these two paragraphs from the article:

    We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise

    Secular society has been unfairly impoverished by the loss of an array of practices and themes which atheists typically find it impossible to live with. We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages. We can’t build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude

    In the first, de Botton offers at least two unevidenced and highly problematic claims: 1) that religions were invented to help humans live in harmony 2) That secular society is unable to provide emotional support or promote social cohesion, or is at least less “skilled” at “solving” these human needs than religion.

    In the second, he claims that “atheists typically find it impossible to live with” the word morality (I assume he means we don’t like making moral judgments, but he’s a sloppy writer and it’s hard to tell,) and we “have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude” (again, it’s difficult to parse that very precisely, but I’m pretty sure atheists generally have no problem expressing gratitude. We just don’t express it to God, ’cause, you know, we don’t believe he exists.)

    de Botton has little regard for truth, but a great deal of regard for the sound of his own voice. If the article can be boiled down to the point “but there are good things in religion, too!” yes, thanks Alain, most of us will admit that. Dan Dennett, for one, has some substantive things to say on the subject. de Botton doesn’t.

  19. carlie says

    It does contrast strongly with how many in the atheist and sceptical thinking community define religion, though. That might be our bad, and not his.

    You really think so? Go out on the street and ask 10 people or so what religion is and see if they come up with your definition or if they say something involving God.

    In the very next paragraph after the “boring” quote he says “To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given.”

    Oh wait, looky there. He says religion means something God-given, too.

  20. J. J. Ramsey says

    Stacy: “de Botton has little regard for truth”

    Maybe, but you haven’t shown any evidence for it. You’ve shown evidence of him being wrong, but even those who do value truth can be wrong, at times wildly so.

    You certainly haven’t refuted David Evans’ point, or justified how de Botton’s words can reasonably be interpreted as indicating that he thinks truth in general is boring or irrelevant.

  21. Tony says

    Simon Frankel Pratt:

    Religions don’t make truth claim (see ‘reification fallacy’)

    Ok, not being familiar with this fallacy, I had to check:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification_(fallacy):
    Reification (also known as concretism, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity.

    Having no idea what your religious background is, all I can say is that I’m unaware of enough evidence one way or the other to determine whether or not religious texts are supposed to be taken literally or metaphorically. However, when you have a text that start out like this:

    In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

    it stands to reason that one could take it literally or as metaphor. Unfortunately, the bible doesn’t exactly give instructions on what is supposed to metaphor and what’s literal. Which explains why there are so many variations of the bible. The reification fallacy doesn’t apply here because no one knows the whether the bible is literal or metaphorical. Moreover, there are more than enough believers that treat the cherry picked portions of the bible as if they were true (I shouldn’t need to point out examples of parents beating their children to death with a rod; adam and eve; homosexuality being treated as sin; women being subservient to their husbands).
    It might be more proper to say “Religions make claims that some see as truth and others see as metaphor”.

  22. Tony says

    J.J. Ramsey:

    You certainly haven’t refuted David Evans’ point, or justified how de Botton’s words can reasonably be interpreted as indicating that he thinks truth in general is boring or irrelevant.

    ?? Just reading this:
    Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

    should be more than enough to come to that conclusion. Given that public policy, morality, ethics, sexuality, gender roles and more are treated by a large number of believers as being defined in the bible (just using christianity as an example here) and held up as absolute truths, the most *important* question to be asked should be “Is religion X true?” Starting off by treating a massively important question as if it’s boring shows the level of “care” he has for truth.

  23. Stacy says

    @J.J. Ramsey, I think the claims he made are evidence that he has little regard for the truth: atheists are frightened of the word morality? We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission? We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude?

    This isn’t an accurate representation of New Atheism. Furthermore, he doesn’t provide any evidence or justification for this characterization, he simply asserts it as fact.

    He’s not just wrong. He’s spinning a self-serving narrative without regard for how well it corresponds to reality.

  24. drdave says

    @7 Simon:

    I think the problem here is that Alain de Botton is not using ‘religion’ in the way that you are, Greta.

    The idea of “articulating and mediating sacred meanings” is just another way of saying “making stuff up that requires the supernatural”. So I think it is very similar. For example, the other day, Russell Blackford wrote concerning de Boton’s book “Religion for Atheists”:

    What I got out of it is that religions are comprehensive, totalitarian systems in which everything (art, architecture, music, the order of everyday life) is integrated and bent to a single purpose, with no room to manoeuvre except what the system itself provides. In other words, religions are even scarier than you thought.

    And de Botton wants the atheists to develop their own totalitarian system to bring us “the order of everyday life”. That is a scary proposal indeed.

    Atheists and humanists will develop the social constructs for satisfying our personal and interpersonal needs, but it is a bottom up, and thus an inherently messy enterprise, rather than a hierarchical top-down imposition.

    Perhaps that is what offends de Botton.

  25. Stacy says

    I will admit to being prejudiced against the man. This is the guy who had a temper tantrum over a negative review in the New York Times, and told the reviewer “I will hate you till the day I die.”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/5712899/Alain-de-Botton-tells-New-York-Times-reviewer-I-will-hate-you-until-I-die.html

    The cruel diatribe that triggered de Botton’s meltdown?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/books/review/Crain-t.html?pagewanted=all

  26. J. J. Ramsey says

    Tony, I already pointed out why de Botton saying, “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true’” is insufficient to lead to your conclusion. A question can be boring simply because it’s long been settled — and for de Botton, that is clearly the case.

    Stacy: “I think the claims he made are evidence that he has little regard for the truth”

    No, what would be evidence that he has little regard for the truth would be evidence of him willfully telling falsehoods rather than being just incorrect.

  27. Stacy says

    No, what would be evidence that he has little regard for the truth would be evidence of him willfully telling falsehoods rather than being just incorrect.

    No, not unless you define “little regard for truth” as “deliberate lying”. Which would be evidence that you have little regard for the meaning of words.

    If he doesn’t much care whether what he says is true or not, then he has little regard for the truth, whether or not he’s deliberately trying to deceive anyone.

  28. mnb0 says

    “The naturalism says that the universe is the way it is because of a chain of physical cause and effect.”
    This is actually incorrect. According to Quantum Mechanics and specifically Heisenberg the fundamental principle of the universe is randomness. That (eg the nuclear bomb) is what me made an atheist.

    @24 “because no one knows the whether the bible is literal or metaphorical.”
    Oh yes, Ancient Historians do know. Compare:

    http://www.livius.org/ea-eh/edges/edges.html

    from about the same time.
    The Bible is metaphorical. God is a metaphor.

  29. Sheesh says

    drdave,

    The idea of “articulating and mediating sacred meanings” is just another way of saying “making stuff up that requires the supernatural”.

    You beat me to this hilarious snippet, and I like your response, but I was just going to say “articulating and mediating sacred meanings” is just another way of lying.

  30. J. J. Ramsey says

    Stacy:

    No, not unless you define ‘little regard for truth’ as “deliberate lying.”

    Not quite. I define having “little regard for truth” as being willing to either lie or to deliberately say something that one has no good reason to believe is true. If someone tells a falsehood, even a really big one, it is not evidence of such willfulness, because someone could just be out of touch with reality. Catching someone in a lie, on the other hand, is evidence of such willfulness.

  31. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

    If de Botton had said “the most boring question to me” then nobody would raise an eyebrow. But when the wannabe Pope of Atheism makes a unilateral statement apparently encompassing either all atheists or everyone in the world, then he and his fanbois shouldn’t be surprised if people with other opinions disagree.

  32. karmakin says

    Personally, I find the argument of existence quite boring myself. As there’s no good argument for it, it’s a one-sided debate, nothing interesting is EVER said, to be honest.

    Now, what’s a lot more interesting to me is what the various concepts of God and what they mean in terms of morality and thought patterns and biases and all that. The big problem with this discussion, of course, is that the people that De Bottom say we should emulate (that is, more liberal religious folks), do their very best to obfuscate all of this.

    Yes, even liberal/religious progressive groups make truth claims. That they do not MEAN said truth claims is irrelevant to the fact that that they do.

  33. Stacy says

    Not quite. I define having “little regard for truth” as being willing to either lie or to deliberately say something that one has no good reason to believe is true.

    There are all sorts of ways in which somebody can show little regard for the truth (think of the sort of incoherent postmodernism Sokal parodied). But I don’t want to derail the thread. I think the second part of your definition fits de Botton well enough: de Botton has shown himself willing to say things that he has no good reason to believe are true.

    someone could just be out of touch with reality

    So? Unless somebody is mentally ill, being “out of touch with reality” is a symptom of having little regard for what’s true. A Christian Scientist does not willingly lie when she declares that the material world is an illusion. She believes it. It is still a fair criticism to say that she does not have sufficient regard for what is true.

  34. Greta Christina says

    If de Botton had said “the most boring question to me” then nobody would raise an eyebrow. But when the wannabe Pope of Atheism makes a unilateral statement apparently encompassing either all atheists or everyone in the world, then he and his fanbois shouldn’t be surprised if people with other opinions disagree.

    ‘Tis Himself, OM @ #36: Yes. This. Ding ding ding ding ding!

    Here’s the thing. If someone says that the question “Is there a God?” is boring because it’s already settled and the answer is obviously “No” — okay. A case could be made for that.

    The problem is that billions of people have not reached that conclusion. It might be a settled question for de Botton — but it is most emphatically not a settled question for the majority of people in the world. Or rather, it is a settled question — but it’s settled in the wrong direction. So some atheists are actively engaged in trying to unsettle that question. We think religion is (a) mistaken and (b) toxic, and we’re trying to persuade people out of it

    And de Botton is telling us to knock it off. He isn’t just saying, “I’m personally less interested in trying to persuade people that religion isn’t true, I’m more interested in figuring out what people get out of religion and finding secular ways to provide it.” He’s saying, “All other atheists should be doing exactly this same thing.” And he’s saying it with some unbelievably ugly slurs against other atheists that are straight out of the atheophobic handbook, and that feed directly into some of the most common bigoted myths about us.

  35. Greta Christina says

    Oh, as for this, from Simon Frankel Pratt @ #7 (and similarly elsewhere):

    I think the problem here is that Alain de Botton is not using ‘religion’ in the way that you are, Greta. From what I can tell, he’s using it to mean something like ‘systems for articulating and mediating sacred meanings’, and not a set of empirical claims about the world, to be treated as a hypothesis and tested against ‘naturalism’. Essentially, to compare religion by de Botton’s definition against scientific knowledge is to commit a category mistake.

    Whether or not you accept his definition is up to you, but this entire rant, though a well-argued defence of finding reality interesting, is a (surely unintentional) straw-man argument, as it attacks a claim that de Botton has not made.

    Piffle. de Botton is not talking about abstract modern theology deepity religion. He’s talking about religion as it’s practiced on the ground by billions: “sermons,” “morality,” “community,” “art and architecture,” “gratitude,” “ritual,” etc. He’s saying that atheists need to look at what people get out of religion and offer secular alternatives — which nobody’s disagreeing with and lots of us are already working on. And he’s claiming that gnu atheists are ignoring this question — which is total bullshit. But he’s very specifically talking about the real-world religions that people actually participate in.

  36. Thinker says

    This reminds me of a verse I wrote a while back on Cuttlefish’s old site about the difference between the religious and naturalist worldviews:

    If you find the stuff in the bible reliable,
    and you trust the clerics: “It’s all we can know!”
    If you in your pew with your missus think bliss is
    sitting still, never moving, then how will you grow?
    You’re proud you’ve accepted, not doubted, what’s touted:
    that Truth is eternal and never will change
    while we find the iconoclastic fantastic
    and your static worldview as something quite strange.

    If Old Truth is wrong, well, let’s face it: replace it
    with models that fit data better – no sweat!
    To us, it’s a quest never-ending: ascending
    the shoulders of giants, to see further yet.
    If you cannot see what is grand in expandin’
    the body of knowledge we humans can share
    and, frankly, if you think exploring is boring
    as Hell, then in our view, you’re already there!

  37. Contrarian says

    @Stacy #30:

    I would submit that liars actually care deeply about the truth. The purpose of lying is to deceive the target, so a liar must understand what is true and what is not in order to conceal what is true.

    People who care little for truth are not liars. People who care little for truth are bullshitters, in actually the most precise sense of the word.

  38. says

    How I love to hear Greta rant on these issues. Most of us know de Bottom is a dillweed. But Greta shines a light on it that puts it all into perspective.

  39. Nurse Ingrid says

    de Botton seems to inhabit a universe in which Rick Santorum is NOT a serious candidate for the U.S. presidency. In other words, sadly, not the real one.

  40. says

    It is absolutely NOT “Atheism’s” job to provide community for people. It is not Atheism’s job to do anything. Atheism is simply a reaction to a claim.

    This fear people have when leaving religion is a fear instilled in them BY religion. That is the fear that without God and the Church, you are alone, and you have no moral compass or comfort. I think we are smart enough to realize that we of course DO have a moral compass, and that artificial compass of religion was, of course, made by People in the first place.

    But think about what cults do. In order to take over an individual, they isolate them. This is what religion and Church tries to do. When you are part of a Church, all of a sudden this is how Community is defined. When you leave a church, bang, no community.

    This is a bald-faced lie.

    People have made themselves secular communities since the beginning of church. Maybe we all don’t have a community, but maybe some of us are actually selling the community we actually are in short, because we have been told this bull about Church Fellowship.

    Anyone here in a band? A choir? An orchestra? A team? A Bookclub? A Salon? Or a Barbershop or Beauty salon, for that matter–some of us know what I mean. Gun club (ew, lol). Special Interest society? Comicon? Dark Shadows Fanatics? County Fairs? CITY COUNCIL? Do any of these require religion? Don’t think so.

    Sure, you might say they ALL fall short of the support that Church Fellowship provided. Think of the free babysitting. Oh, yes. The free babysitting. I think about that a lot, being one of those babysitters handed around my church “family,” exploited like you wouldn’t believe. Good Christian Parents who stayed out ’til 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning. My compensation at most was a dollar an hour–in the eighties.

    But the family support! The Hotdish! The JellO! Sure, that was fun. But why do we need religion to make Ambrosia Salad and Lasagna?

    I never felt supported by my church “family.” What I saw was drama. I saw a lot of busybodies who thought it was their business what a girl wore, who she dated, and where she worked. Whether or not she was a “slut.” How terrible it was that the “Joneses” got divorced (he was beating her). Why couldn’t she have been a better wife and gave him what he needed?

    And you know what? Secular communities can have all those busybodies too. You can make all the atheist communities you want. It’s just that we have to get off of our non-joiner butts to make them. I did. There’s a great group that was made specifically for “non-joiners” called “The Church of the SubGenius.” Praise “Bob,” a church for kooks, nonbelievers, and people who will BELIEVE ANYTHING!

  41. says

    Greta @ 40,

    I absolutely agree that de Botton is talking about how religion is practiced and understood amongst the religious, but I disagree that this practice can be understood in the way that you seem to understand it, which is that religion is a set of empirical hypotheses about the world.

    I’m reminded of one point Jonathan Haidt raised in a recent editorial: ‘The new atheists treat religions as sets of beliefs about the world, many of which are demonstrably false. Yet anthropologists and sociologists who study religion stress the role of ritual and community much more than of factual beliefs about the creation of the world or life after death.’

    I think de Botton is talking about religion not in terms of its propositional content but in terms of its functional effects, which, all the bigotry justified in religious terms nonwithstanding, is to cement a set of special moral principles (sacred values) into the minds of adherents and bind a community around them.

    This is totally uncontroversial for social scientists.

    I do think that this discussion, and your response as a public intellectual, raises an interesting question about terminology. From what I’ve been able to tell, a focus on the propositional content of religion is something us North Americans evince more than people in other cultures. For example: the Hebrew slur ‘ein lo elohim’ (‘He has no god’) is usually meant to convey an absence of moral awareness, rather than metaphysical atheism. Even in the UK, ‘religion’ is understood as something highly cultural amongst most people I have interrogated on this issue. So we have a situation in which a public intellectual is using a term in the way that most social scientists would, and in the way that many regular people would, but in a way that his audience – the New Atheists – typically do not.

    Should the obligation be upon us to try to figure out what he means? Isn’t this strategically unwise of him? I definitely wish he’d used the term ‘humanism’ rather than atheism, but then, his audience identifies at New Atheists, as I understand.

  42. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Simon Frankel Pratt #47

    I’m reminded of one point Jonathan Haidt raised in a recent editorial: ‘The new atheists treat religions as sets of beliefs about the world, many of which are demonstrably false. Yet anthropologists and sociologists who study religion stress the role of ritual and community much more than of factual beliefs about the creation of the world or life after death.’

    Not being an anthropologist or sociologist, I’m less interested in the role of ritual, etc. than the belief sets. I know that incense was used in funeral services to hide the stink of rotting corpse and, quite frankly, that ranks up there with knowing the names of the Seven Dwarfs for interest.

    I’m more interested in Pope Benny lying about condoms and AIDS because Benny thinks every time someone uses a condom then Baby Jesus cries. I’m more interested in the creationists wanting to teach mythology in schools in place of science. I’m more interested in the misogyny of Abrahamic religions. All these things effect people much more than the Sistine Chapel ceiling. People are affected by Bach’s Mass in B minor, they are effected by religiously justified homophobia.

  43. J. J. Ramsey says

    Stacy:

    I think the second part of your definition fits de Botton well enough

    Not quite. There’s a reason I referred to “deliberately say[ing] something that one has no good reason to believe is true.” It’s one think to say things that one has no good reason to believe are true. Unfortunately, well-meaning people do that far too often. On the other hand, to deliberately say something that one knows might be false is, as both Contrarian and Harry Frankfurt put it, bullshitting. For de Botton to fit the “second part of [my] definition,” you have to show that he intended to say something that could be wrong.

    Offhand, I suspect that de Botton is probably putting too much weight on his own personal experiences. de Botton is a Swiss-born resident of Britain, so he’s likely used to an irreligious social environment. Someone like that could easily find the question of God’s existence boring. He and his fellow atheists might very well have “We have grown frightened of the word morality” because it’s become associated with the Mary Whitehouses of the world and other social conservatives. And if he’s familiar with hipsters who think that True Art(TM) is supposed to be incomprehensible or offensive, then I can see why he might make the overgeneralization that “we” are averse to “the idea that art should be uplifting.” Hanlon’s Razor seems at least adequate to explain de Botton’s words (and that’s the tack that Hemant Mehta seems to have taken with him).

  44. Greta Christina says

    I’m reminded of one point Jonathan Haidt raised in a recent editorial: ‘The new atheists treat religions as sets of beliefs about the world, many of which are demonstrably false. Yet anthropologists and sociologists who study religion stress the role of ritual and community much more than of factual beliefs about the creation of the world or life after death.’

    Simon Frankel Pratt @ #47: And yet again, I say: Piffle. Gnu atheists treat religion as a set of beliefs and as a cultural phenomenon. It is a cultural phenomenon, with ritual and community and so forth, that is built, in large part, around a set of beliefs.

    We are interested in the set of beliefs because we think they’re demonstrably mistaken, and because we think they do tremendous harm: significantly more harm than good. We are also interested in the cultural phenomenon because — among other reasons — we want to understand what people are getting out of religion, so we can do a better job providing secular alternatives.

    As I said in the O.P.: If all de Botton were saying was “Let’s pay attention to religion as a cultural phenomenon and figure out what people get out of it,” very few people would find that controversial. The problem lies with his smug, self-righteous, ill-informed accusation that gnu atheists are not already doing this — when the reality is that we are, to an intense and even obsessive degree. The problem lies with his ugly accusations that we don’t care about morality and art and so on — accusations that feed directly into a well-established body of anti-atheist bigotry. And the problem is with him starting the whole mess off with a patronizing, dismissive trivialization of the truth.

  45. Oxblossom says

    Beginning with Nurse Ingrid, fear, fear, fear mongering, the USA and it’s presidential race are certainly not “the Universe.” The “reality” is that people, we ourselves, nations come and go. And a problem more generally is that so much of Western thought and criticism is concerned with yes’s and no’s, to no avail. The Buddha didn’t necessarily proclaim as true that to escape human suffering (while still somewhat alive [definitions?]) was to be everyone’s goal. He merely postulated to himself that this was perhaps possible, for him, in a certain way that was merely fit to his day and age, and who knows? maybe for others as well. You could follow him if you wanted. I’m sure he loved having followers (for company), but “no”, one of his tenants, the liking and the disliking had to be abandoned. That much was demonstrably “true.” I mean when you’ve suffered enough, not caring is a luxury to be devoutly wished. But can we answer the question of whether or not Hindu/Buddhism is atheistic “in the Western sense,’ or not? Some Westerners probably surely have already,(I appologize for my lack of education); readers, please “enlighten” me. Of course I’m not bothering to distinguish between theory and actual practice (by their millions). Useless (TO ME!) What would it mean to a Hindu, this “atheism?” Do you know? Hindus are “humanity” too.

    But in spite of all the presumably good intentions, I am (often!) surprised at how willing our people are to overlook the, albeit, not overwhelmingly “good” things that religion has done to date, in favor of being really nasty about it (I realize/recognize that this is a kind of defense, and not necessarily or universally an overreaction, but . . . and that is what this is really about, absolutism.)

    We can check Wikipedia here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharma for the many many related meanings and usages of the word “dharma.” Still, taking into account these many, sort of distinct, meanings, one can definitely “get a feel” for its overarching meaning and significance. It was 30 years ago when my Indian prof had us read “fuzzy categories” and I’m still wondering what it was all about. Reminds me that a commenter above/below? used the word “obfuscation” more or less as if it were always a bad thing. I have to agree with one of the first commenters that there is a “category” mistake here. There always is with apples and oranges. And of course, I have no way of knowing my correctness in thinking that not everyone’s smart enough to figure this out. (sorry? :-0 ) There are times and situations where it is indeed germain to compare apples and oranges. They are both “fruits” after all. Here? I don’t know why everyone is not more often interested in the philosophy of language itself. If governs us as nothing else could.

  46. Your Name's not Bruce? says

    “From what I’ve been able to tell, a focus on the propositional content of religion is something us North Americans evince more than people in other cultures.” Well maybe we North Americans are on to something. Sometimes the propositional content of religion is actually damaging to real, live human beings. Sometimes it is a matter of life and death.

    So Mormon pushing of Prop 8 in California, Catholic interference in contraceptive health care coverage, the murder of people in Africa for “witchcraft” and lethal Afghan Muslim outrage at burning a book is the result of “cement(ing) a set of special moral principles (sacred values) into the minds of adherents and bind(ing) a community around them”? And the factual content of these values is not important? Would any of these bad outcomes have arisen without the “propositional content” being inculcated in and believed by adherents? These sorts of actions come through blind obedience to religious dogma, with maybe some “community building” to foster the right “us vs. them” mob mentality needed to follow through and carry out the actions required. Not all religious “communities” get together for good reasons or in healthy ways. Not all people have a choice of not joining, or at least no choice free of unpleasant consequences of varying degrees of severity depending upon how strictly the community in question follows the “propositional content” of its holy book.

    If AdB wants to go do his thing, then he should go ahead and do it. Nothing is stopping him. We don’t have to agree with him, and if he says silly, or untrue things we certainly won’t.

    Unless of course he succeeds in becoming Atheist Pope: then we’ll have no choice….

  47. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Oxblossom #52

    But can we answer the question of whether or not Hindu/Buddhism is atheistic “in the Western sense,’ or not? Some Westerners probably surely have already,(I appologize for my lack of education); readers, please “enlighten” me. Of course I’m not bothering to distinguish between theory and actual practice (by their millions). Useless (TO ME!) What would it mean to a Hindu, this “atheism?” Do you know? Hindus are “humanity” too.

    Hinduism is hardly atheistic even in the “Eastern sense.” With a plethora of deities, each appearing in multiple avatars and incarnations, it’s more god-ridden than most religions. Buddhism is supposedly atheistic. However while Buddha is officially not a god, having multi-ton, gold-plated statues and rituals dedicated to him makes the distinction between god and not-god difficult to see.

  48. Daniel Schealler says

    Simon Frankel Pratt @ #47

    Please read this article. It’s not all that long.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/12/14/a-common-atheist-delusion

    Important part:

    I think I’d call this the Atheist Delusion. Many of us find it really hard to believe that Christians actually believe that nonsense about Jesus rising from the dead and insisting that faith is required to pass through the gates of a magical place in the sky after we’re dead; we struggle to find a rational reason why friends and family are clinging to these bizarre ideas, and we say to ourselves, “oh, all of her friends are at church” or “he uses church to make business contacts” or “it’s a comforting tradition from their childhood”…

  49. Azkyroth says

    From what I can tell, he’s using it to mean something like ‘systems for articulating and mediating sacred meanings’, and not a set of empirical claims about the world, to be treated as a hypothesis and tested against ‘naturalism’. Essentially, to compare religion by de Botton’s definition against scientific knowledge is to commit a category mistake.

    If so, then, knowing full well both that Greta’s is the definition of “religion” both that atheists actually reject and that the majority of religious people at least nominally adhere to, particularly in specific “high-impact” special cases, it is de Botton who is committing a category error by using the term “religion” this way. Just like I would be committing a category error by talking about how my ice cream has a hole in them and then acting surprised when no one realizes that by “ice cream” I mean my socks.

  50. Azkyroth says

    Having no idea what your religious background is, all I can say is that I’m unaware of enough evidence one way or the other to determine whether or not religious texts are supposed to be taken literally or metaphorically. However, when you have a text that start out like this:

    You’re misunderstanding Pratt here. He’s saying that “religions” are abstract entities and that it’s not [in a very, and unreasonably, literalistic sense] correct to speak of them as taking actions. In other words, he’s dishonestly pretending to be unfamiliar with the concept of a “metonym“* and mistaking this for being clever.

    *I assume he is merely pretending because implying that he might be dumb enough to genuinely be unfamiliar with metonymy would, of course, violate the policy against personal insults…

  51. Azkyroth says

    Tony, I already pointed out why de Botton saying, “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true’” is insufficient to lead to your conclusion. A question can be boring simply because it’s long been settled — and for de Botton, that is clearly the case.

    Is there the slightest indication that this is how he meant the statement to be interpreted?

  52. Azkyroth says

    No, what would be evidence that he has little regard for the truth would be evidence of him willfully telling falsehoods rather than being just incorrect.

    Well, let’s see, he alleged that atheists:

    have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages. We can’t build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude

    What conceivable motive could one have to bend so far over backwards to be charitable to de Botton that one fails to recognize these as deliberate falsehoods? (Or, alternatively, just how thick and ignorant do you think he is?)

  53. Azkyroth says

    Catching someone in a lie, on the other hand, is evidence of such willfulness.

    What WOULD you accept as evidence that de Botton was knowingly lying?

  54. Oxblossom says

    Thank you. I am somewhat enlightened.

    I’m going to agree with the commenter who suggested that deBotton is (to some extent) a careless writer. But I came to this not being particular about who his audence is meant to be.

    Anyway, love ya, all of ya. Hope y’all can actually make your living by being really smart. I’d wish the same for myself.

  55. Frottage Cheese, OM says

    Hi Greta. XOXO.

    Now, is it perhaps a bit unwise of you to link each of 6 words within a sentence (“What atheists can learn from religion”) to a post within the FfTB blogging circle jerk?

    Does this not just serve to show the world that FfTB is, indeed, just one big, circular, self-serving, cash-obsessed, mutual-wanking echo chamber? Echo chamber? Echo chamber?

    TL;DR You’re an idiot, no?

    See ya!

  56. Stacy says

    @J.J.Ramsey

    It’s one think to say things that one has no good reason to believe are true. Unfortunately, well-meaning people do that far too often.

    So? If the behavior is common and the actor is well-meaning, the description “little regard for the truth” somehow does not apply? I beg to differ.

    Besides, de Botton is not some ordinary Joe. He’s a highly educated man who writes books about ideas and gets interviewed on CNN and potentially has the ear of millions. If he expects to be taken seriously by a group of people who use high and fairly exacting standards in assessing truth claims, he has to do a damn sight better than that CNN article.

    I’d also like to point out that you’re repeating yourself, and you haven’t engaged my argument.

    On the other hand, to deliberately say something that one knows might be false is, as both Contrarian and Harry Frankfurt put it, bullshitting.

    Go back and reread what Contrarian wrote. He said that liars know they are lying, and that people who have little regard for the truth are bullshitters. I have not accused de Botton of lying. Bullshitting is a perfectly good description of what he does.

    For some reason you feel the need to defend de Botton and you’re tap-dancing around making a big deal out of the fact that he’s (presumably) not deliberately lying. I’m not going to engage you further; call it agreeing to disagree if you like, but I think you have difficulty reading for comprehension.

  57. says

    Greta @ 51,

    I think you’ve got it backwards. I think that rather than being a way to organise ritual and community around a set of beliefs, I think religions permit the organisation of beliefs around communities. What I mean is, I think the particular ideas one is likely to find in a given religion depends mainly on the social structure within which it is found. Think about the sort of religion one finds in tribal areas of Central Asia or Africa, then compare it to the sort of religion found in, say, Sweden, where 70% of the population identifies as ‘Church of Sweden’ but only 15% of those believe Jesus was the son of God.

    In addition to Jonathan Haidt, I can name Scott Atran as one social psychologist whose work has shown the causal power of social structure and conflict in determining the form of people’s beliefs, in terms of how hardline they are.

    Try imagining religions not as sets of beliefs with customs and rituals revolving around them, but as the opposite: customs and rituals with sets of beliefs revolving are them. Treat it as a thought experiment. You might be very surprised at what occurs to you.

    @53,

    Let’s not be hasty in ascribing blame to the propositional content of religion for these bad behaviours. I mean, it might be the causal factor. What we have are behaviours, and justifications offered for them. Consider an alternative explanation, where beliefs are themselves shaped by social structure. In Steven Pinker’s recent book, he talks about how ‘red states’ with strong conservative trends tend to have weaker government, and their populations tend to be more individualistic and quicker to resort to honour-driven pattenrs of conflict behaviour. These are environments in which, absent effective authority, customary laws become paramount for maintaining social order – and customary law is notoriously conservative, brutal, and restrictive in gender norms.

    Not coincidentally, tribal environments are also the origin for most mainstream religions in our society today.

    @56,

    Of course people actually believe in all these things. That doesn’t mean that it is their beliefs which guide their actions. I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, for example, and it is a pretty comprehensive refutation that all or even most of our behaviour is rational, considered choices based upon what we believe about the world. Furthermore, social identity theorists have found that societal conditions will also determine the extent to which an individual person will question group-level narratives, when those narratives are the foundational to group cohesion.

    Over and over again, a review of actual social science on religion draws our attention to the priority of community cohesion and continuity as being prior to and constitutive of belief, at least in terms of critical thinking and dogmatism.

  58. Stacy says

    Try imagining religions not as sets of beliefs with customs and rituals revolving around them, but as the opposite: customs and rituals with sets of beliefs revolving are them. Treat it as a thought experiment. You might be very surprised at what occurs to you.

    I don’t buy it. We’ve been able to trace the birth and development of a number of religions over the last hundred and seventy years or so. Among them: The Mormons. Spiritualism. Christian Science. Scientology.

    These faiths crystallized out of sets of beliefs. The Church of LDS and Scientology were founded by con artists; Spiritualism, the New Age of its day, was a fairly heterogeneous movement based on ghosts and dubious ideas about Eastern spiritual teachings; Christian Science (whose founder may have been deluded or may have been another con) was and remains belief-centered–its rituals, such as they are, are bland and nearly indistinguishable from mainline Protestantism, and its believers are quite ordinary and mostly blend easily into mainstream society, but its teachings are far from mainstream in several striking ways.

    Sets of teachings and axioms around which self-selected communities grew. That’s the opposite of what you’re arguing.

  59. Sara K. says

    “It is one of the great tragedies of my mortal life that I’m going to die before the great mysteries of our time are answered.”

    Quoted for beauty. And truth, of course, because the truth is important.

    While I do not actually want humanity to go extinct anytime soon, deep in the bottom of my heart, I figure the silver lining of humanity going extinct within my lifetime (or very shortly after the end of my lifetime) is that I would know how the story of humanity will end.

  60. Daniel Schealler says

    Try imagining religions not as sets of beliefs with customs and rituals revolving around them, but as the opposite: customs and rituals with sets of beliefs revolving are them. Treat it as a thought experiment. You might be very surprised at what occurs to you.

    I’m not entirely sure that I believe this view is a accurate.

    But okay. For the sake of argument, let’s put on the ‘ritual wags the tail of belief’ lenses.

    So: Considering religions as customs and rituals with sets of beliefs revolving around them.

    Those beliefs are still just as false, absurd and potentially harmful as they were in the first scenario.

    They the cure of bad ideas is still the robust critique of those ideas.

    Absolutely nothing meaningful has changed by adopting this change in perspective.

    If anything, this should actually reinforce the approach of the gnus. If the beliefs really are only of secondary concern, then we should expect that persuading people out of bad beliefs should be even easier since that was never the point to begin with.

    However, this isn’t what we see on the ground.

    People will cling to beliefs, specific beliefs, in the teeth of mountains of evidence to the contrary. Young-earth creationism is the obvious one, but there’s more.

    Try convincing your average, off-of-the-street Christian believer that heaven is just a cultural metaphor and that funerals, weddings or baptisms are just social rituals with no underlying metaphysical importance.

    See how far that gets you.

  61. J. J. Ramsey says

    Stacy:

    If the behavior is common and the actor is well-meaning, the description ‘little regard for the truth’ somehow does not apply?

    Read what I wrote. I was making the distinction between someone saying something unfounded without realizing it and someone saying something unfounded on purpose.

    Stacy:

    I think you have difficulty reading for comprehension.

    Get the log out of your own eye.

  62. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Daniel Schealler #68

    If anything, this should actually reinforce the approach of the gnus. If the beliefs really are only of secondary concern, then we should expect that persuading people out of bad beliefs should be even easier since that was never the point to begin with.

    Shaking a rattle and shouting “ooga booga” to drive out evil spirits provides the show that de Botton thinks atheists who aren’t him so desperately need. The evil spirits themselves are inconsequential.

    People will cling to beliefs, specific beliefs, in the teeth of mountains of evidence to the contrary. Young-earth creationism is the obvious one, but there’s more.

    Thank you, Daniel, for articulating why the sociological and anthropological approach to religion is inconsequential to gnu atheists. The difference between a witch doctor’s rituals and an exorcist’s rituals may be interesting to the anthropologist and sociologist but are actually of little interest to the believers. The witch doctor’s and exorcist’s followers believe in the existence of evil spirits, possession of bodies by evil spirits, the need to get these spirits out of the body, and the efficacy of the rituals. Those sorts of beliefs are what we need to remove from cultures. Get people to stop believing in evil spirits and the rituals will disappear.

  63. says

    To be honest, I’m tempted to agree with de Botton on this, but not the way he thinks. Some other commenters touched on this, but it is boring to ask a question for which the answer is “no.” However, that doesn’t make asking that question either rude or unnecessary. I’m a musician and I’ve been teaching a friend mandolin. I hate scales. They’re boring. They’re repetitive. They’re dull. I practice them every day because they make me a better musician, and those tthat hear me hear better music. I have my friend practice scales every day, too, though she also finds them boring. I also fence and hate running drills by myself or, worse, with my friend since we could be fighting one another instead. But we do the drills, despite how boring they are because they make us better fencers.

    What de Botton misses is that just because something is boring doesn’t mean we stop doing it. And you know what? Teaching scales to a new musician or running drills with a new fencer is kinda fun because it’s still fresh and interesting to them and they may have a question or comment you’ve never thought of.

  64. Azkyroth says

    Read what I wrote. I was making the distinction between someone saying something unfounded without realizing it and someone saying something unfounded on purpose.

    When a person’s level of education and experience, and/or the degree to which the person implicitly or explicitly claims to speak with authority, are such that he or she could be reasonably expected to know or have made reasonable efforts to determine that the statement is unfounded, then actually being unaware that it was unfounded would require a level of negligence that is basically indistinguishable from deliberate intention. Recklessness implies at least latent malice.

  65. Ariel says

    And the sound you’ve been hearing over the last couple of days has been the tops of atheists’ heads coming off.

    Yes, that’s the sound we’ve been hearing. And what’s the reason for that?

    This comment is an attempt to provide my own diagnosis. My experience tells me that it happens very rarely (if at all) that the respect for truth is a primary motive for someone’s deep engagement and moral fervor. If (in everyday life) I want to identify someone’s motives, I look primarily in other places: a wallet, family situation, prestige, sensitivity to suffering, a person’s pants (yes, that also) … and so on. Cynical? Maybe, but it usually works. And you know, if someone tells me “Oh, but I do it for the love of the Truth! Truth is soooo important and overwhelming and interesting! That’s what motivates me, that’s what justifies my actions, how dare you even suggesting otherwise!”, then … oh … then I smell a politician and I back off, politely of course, why not :-)

    J. J. Ramsey #20 suggested that some truths can be quite boring. Good point, but it doesn’t explain the anger provoked by de Botton’s article. What does explain it?

    An answer I propose is this: an appeal to truth is used frequently as a handy rhetoric device. In case of problems, an atheist activist can turn Truth into his last bastion. S/he can always say: “What I’m saying is true, and that’s what justifies and motivates me! Truth is my cherished value, I’m a champion of the Truth!”. After such a retort is given, typically the debate begins about the truth/falsity of religion, and here the atheist is on a safe ground again. From a psychological point of view, my deep suspicion is that this retort is usually a pure and unadulterated bullshit, but it pays off and it’s a good political strategy.

    De Botton’s crime consists in admitting unashamedly that it’s not Truth that makes him tick. Moreover, he seems to suggest (implicitly, yeah, but clearly enough) that Truth is also not what makes his fellow atheists tick. How rude of him! How impolite to demolish a handy and useful, political retort, always within our reach! What else can be done in such a situation than to crucify a devious jerk? What else, really?

    Ok, that’s my tentative diagnosis :-) Now tell me, dear angels: is it really Truth that makes you tick? Is your fervor really motivated by the fact that naturalism hypothesis is so “entirely fascinating” and “freaking awesome”? Oh, sure it is! And even if it isn’t, please lie to me: it would feel lonely to be the only angel on the whole ftb.

  66. Stacy says

    An answer I propose is this: an appeal to truth is used frequently as a handy rhetoric device. In case of problems, an atheist activist can turn Truth into his last bastion.

    Damn, girls and boys, the jig is up! Ariel’s got us all figured out. We don’t really care about this silly “truth” thing. Aside from (for starters) Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, James Randi, or (for example), any of the authors of the blogs handily collected right here on FtB, atheist activists never worry about “truth”, what it is or how to figure it out. Pay no attention to all the atheist activists who have pointed out, repeated and at length, with detailed arguments, that the best way we humans have to figure out our world and solve our problems is to apply philosophical naturalism, reason, and critical thinking (broadly, “skepticism”) and methodological naturalism (broadly, “science”), because those are the only reliable ways we have to find “truth”. That’s not what we’re about, really.

    Ya got us there, Ariel. Yeah, an appeal to truth is just a handy rhetorical advice. It’s not at all, like, what we’ve been saying, day in and day out, for, oh I dunno, fucking forever.

  67. Stacy says

    [meta:

    Greta, maybe it's just this thread but it's my impression that your trolls are hands-down the dumbest on FtB. Congratulations! I hope you get a prize, at least ;)]

  68. Stacy says

    Simon, I hear you. But to be fair, he argues eloquently for the epistemology we promote, even if he doesn’t always apply it very well.

  69. J. J. Ramsey says

    Azkyroth:

    When a person’s level of education and experience, and/or the degree to which the person implicitly or explicitly claims to speak with authority, are such that he or she could be reasonably expected to know or have made reasonable efforts to determine that the statement is unfounded, then actually being unaware that it was unfounded would require a level of negligence that is basically indistinguishable from deliberate intention.

    First off, the degree to which one claims to speak with authority is irrelevant here. Any damn fool can speak with authority, and far too many do. Education and experience are more relevant, but de Botton’s are not as helpful to you as you might think.

    What is de Botton’s level of education? A Master’s Degree in Philosophy and some doctoral research that he abandoned in favor of a writing career. What is his experience? Well, he writes books whose critical reception has usually been mixed, and has made some TV documentaries. Would I expect him to know about philosophy? At least to a fair degree, but I’d probably put more trust in his background knowledge on that subject than his actual philosophical reasoning, especially given the end of graduate career and the reception of his writings. I’d expect him to know about arguments for and against God, but not to be any more educated in the anthropology of religion than an amateur — that is, I wouldn’t expect him to be a Pascal Boyer or Scott Atran (and what he says about religion seems to indicate as much). I’d expect that he’d think he’d know about atheists based on his experiences in university. I’d also expect those experiences to be not be as good a sampling of atheists as de Botton thinks.

    Contrary to your assertion, I see nothing in de Botton’s background that requires his errors to be explained by willful negligence. Simply the garden-variety error of assuming that one’s own experiences are a representative sample is enough. In short, in your attempt to show malice on de Botton’s part, I think you’ve given him too much credit.

  70. says

    At the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, Stephen Colbert said ” … reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

    One might say reality also has a well-known non-theist bias.

  71. Debbie says

    “But when you open your piece by saying that “the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true.’”?

    I don’t have to pay attention to a damn thing you say after that.”

    And by not paying attention, you entirely miss what he meant by that. The reason AdB is saying the question is boring is NOT because he doesn’t care about truth, but because he sees the question as being answered. His starting point is,”Of course there’s no God, of course there are no deities or supernatural spirits or angels, etc.”

    He’s not saying that it’s not important whether or not something is true. He’s saying that for atheists the supernatural claims and the doctrines and the dogma are already dismissed, and the question no longer needs to be answered ad nauseum. Rather, what comes next?

  72. Azkyroth says

    And by not paying attention, you entirely miss what he meant by that. The reason AdB is saying the question is boring is NOT because he doesn’t care about truth, but because he sees the question as being answered.

    Really? Where did he say that?

  73. Debbie says

    “Really? Where did he say that?”

    Second paragraph of his book, immediately following the paragraph where the ‘boring question’ quote is also found. His CNN article is a summary of the argument of his book.

  74. sqeecoo says

    Debbie is right, AdB’s point is basically that debunking religions is boring – we are already convinced they are not true. The interesting question is what we can learn from them.

    There is some merit to what he says (though I would say I disagree that the “debate is over”). Still, Greta is right that he expresses himself poorly, and doesn’t really say much that is new.

  75. Ariel says

    Stacy #74 and #75

    Oh, the observation was really simple; I’m puzzled how you could miss the point so completely.

    We don’t really care about this silly “truth” thing.

    The observation I made was: my everyday experience tells me that truth rarely (if ever) is a primary motive of someone’s activity and moral fervor. Do you deny it? Is your experience that different? This is not to say that no one (atheist activists included) “never worries about truth”; the thought was rather that it’s usually a secondary matter. To take a simple example: imagine that your best friend’s husband has an extramarital affair. Should you tell her? Or is it better to wait until they settle the issue among themselves? A champion of the Truth would think: yes, I must tell her, because it’s the truth, and truth is the value I cherish. And my observation was simply that we rarely think and act that way; in practice whatever we decide, other factors take precedence. Is that really so complicated?

    Pay no attention to all the atheist activists who have pointed out, repeated and at length, with detailed arguments, that the best way we humans have to figure out our world and solve our problems is to apply philosophical naturalism, reason, and critical thinking (broadly, “skepticism”) and methodological naturalism (broadly, “science”), because those are the only reliable ways we have to find “truth”.

    Dear Stacy, it’s one thing to accept philosophical naturalism as a way to true beliefs, and quite another to raise a standard of Truth and carry out a crusade with “truth for everybody!” as the main slogan. The first is science/philosophy; the second is politics. My diagnosis was: de Botton distanced himself from that sort of politics, and the cohorts recognized an alien and felt compelled to spank him for that. And yes, I supported him: the slogan, handy as it is, sounds hollow also in my ears.

    It’s not at all, like, what we’ve been saying, day in and day out, for, oh I dunno, fucking forever.

    That’s the nicest one! ‘The leading figures of our movement have been saying this-and-this (“oh I dunno, fucking forever”), therefore it must be so! The bloggers in their passionate debates present themselves as the warriors for the Truth, therefore it must be so, you dumb troll’! Yeah, of course. You remember perhaps, that in my last post I wrote that when confronted with appeals to Truth as a motive for one’s actions, “I smell a politician and I back off, politely of course”. Your comment, dear Stacy, is so charmingly naïve that … no, I can’t help being polite to you :-) Cheers.

  76. Bruce Gorton says

    Ariel

    Should you tell her?

    Yes. She is your friend, she is making bad decisions based upon incomplete data.

    Okay, I’m in South Africa so that shifts the reason away from being a respect for truth and towards protecting my friend from a jerk engaging in high risk behaviours without her knowledge.

    But anyway, the reason truth is of primary importance isn’t because it is our major motivator, but rather because it sets our motivations.

    Before you can solve any problem it requires you to identify it – and without honest data we can’t really do that.

    If someone believes in something false, it is acting as a motivator towards actions which are not necessarily the actions they would have chosen if they had an honest handle on the situation.

    Think of how many Americans will vote for politicians who promise to stop regulating corporate environmental standards, and start regulating their sex lives because those politicians are “proud Christians” fighting “moral decay”.

  77. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Ariel #73 & 85

    I’m particularly impressed with how you know every other atheists’ motivations much better than we do ourselves. All this time I thought I was arguing with goddists because I thought they were delusional and needed exposure to reality. Now, thanks to you. I understand that I was just doing it as something to do to keep me off the streets at night.

  78. Azkyroth says

    …is this, perchance, the same Ariel who posts at Pandagon somewhat regularly?

  79. Daniel Schealler says

    Ariel

    Your comment, dear Stacy, is so charmingly naïve that … no, I can’t help being polite to you Cheers.

    *deep breath*

    *deeper breath*

    *one more*

    Okay.

    Right. Trigger moment passed.

    Moving on.

    You’re point out that any kind of moral argument rests on emotive reasoning?

    We know that already.

    You’re pointing out that the GNU emphasis on truth as a moral principle is an example of moral argument – and that therefore it also rests on emotive reasoning.

    We know that too.

    The commitment to truth takes place at different levels. It is both a dispassionate ideal and a moral imperative.

    We argue for truth for both of these reasons.

    So yes. You can point out that we have more than one reason to argue passionately for truth, that either of these reasons may become the more important depending on context, that emotions are involved, that it is intertwined with many other issues that are also deeply important such that – while distinct – they also cannot be entirely separated…

    Well, yes. Of course. Well done. Have a cookie.

    Truth is not the only thing that matters.

    Truth is not the only thing that is important.

    But truth matters very much. It is very important.

    The part where you’ve veered off course is to imply that, because we have more than one motive, because we are complex, because we can care about more than one thing, because we can care about one thing for multiple reasons, that somehow this means that our professed commitment to truth as an ideal is disingenuous.

    Emotionally? I’m pissed off and insulted by this – both the allegation itself, and also by the sanctimonious tone you’re taking with people here.

    But truthfully? You’re wrong. Your implication is untrue and unjustified, and may be dismissed as such.

  80. says

    Thought on the last bit of the thread: we seem to be over-presuming people’s day-to-day actions to be based on rational calculation and big-R Reason misunderstands the social character of how people operate (which is a constellation of different factors working in concert.) We make lots of decisions every day, and if we were to presume that people sat around and worked out the most reasonably optimized solution for every choice given a set of vague-ish values which aren’t really products of reason themselves, it’d be impossible to practically function. So, the incongruence can be explained by assuming that not every decision is made that way. Instead, we make a decent number, if not most, of our decisions spontaneously and without thinking about them too much or often very rationally, instead choosing based on aesthetics, feelings, etc etc etc. That doesn’t mean reasoning can’t be helpful under some circumstances or that it’s metaphysically groundless or whatever, but that on a practical level, it’s just not how people work most of the time, and we need some way to account for that. Is that fair?

    So, that said, I’m a little disturbed by your last paragraph, Greta. You’d really choose Augustine as your ally before Sartre? I suppose the modern/postmodern divide is one way of drawing the intellectual battle-lines of the current age, and it’s a popular one, but that doesn’t seem to be particularly if our goal is the strength of the atheist movement. One of the strengths of The God Delusion, imho, was not the arguments against the existence of God, but rather Dawkins’ arguing for the existence of an atheist identity, community, and discourse. People outside the rationalist tradition have identified as and argued for atheism for a very long time (Sartre, Marx, Nietzsche, to name a few, the list goes on) and their thought has been incredibly important in trying to navigate the world after the death of God in a way that is substantially different from Christian tradition. To deny their voice in this sphere is to presume that questions of metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology are already firmly settled within atheism, which is definitely not true.

  81. nemothederv says

    Interesting approach Alain de Botton has. I think I’ll adopt it.

    From now on any argument that I cannot win I will simply declare boring or unimportant. This way I can dismiss other people’s opinions without making an effort or having to think. This will be especially useful when I don’t feel like listening.

    I wish I had started this earlier. This bubble feels so warm and safe.

  82. J. J. Ramsey says

    nemothederv:

    Interesting approach Alain de Botton has. I think I’ll adopt it.

    From now on any argument that I cannot win I will simply declare boring or unimportant.

    Let’s see now. Alain de Botton said

    (1) “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true,’” and

    (2) “To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. It seems clear that there is no holy ghost, spirit, geist or divine emanation.”

    Given this, should I conclude that you think that he declares the question of religion’s veracity unimportant because he wouldn’t be able to argue that religion is false? Are you a theist?

  83. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Stephen #90

    You’d really choose Augustine as your ally before Sartre? I suppose the modern/postmodern divide is one way of drawing the intellectual battle-lines of the current age, and it’s a popular one, but that doesn’t seem to be particularly if our goal is the strength of the atheist movement.

    Since I have little respect for the postmodernists (Sokal’s hoax shows how much of postmodernism is more involved in sophistry and anti-rationalism than trying to advance social organization and understanding) I’m more impressed by Augustine than Sartre as philosophers. Yes, I’m aware that Augustine was a bishop and Sartre was an atheist. So what?

  84. nemothederv says

    #92 ramsey

    No. I’m not a theist,
    I’m just lazy.
    I won’t discuss whole question of whether religion is true or not. Doesn’t really matter anyway. Right?
    If I disagree on one thing he says it doesn’t mean I disagree on everything.
    In fact, it’s more the attitude, the soft laziness of his approach to the topic, that I was being sarcastic about.

    Also, just because you can’t win an argument doesn’t mean you’re wrong. You may simply be faced with someone who will not listen or cannot understand. I think we’ve all been there before at some point.

  85. Ariel says

    Well, well. If you don’t mind: fun first, serious discussion later.

    FUN:

    Daniel Schealler #89

    *deep breath*

    *deeper breath*

    I’m with you, holding your hand, brother.

    You’re point out that any kind of moral argument rests on emotive reasoning?

    No, that was not my point.

    You’re pointing out that the GNU emphasis on truth as a moral principle is an example of moral argument – and that therefore it also rests on emotive reasoning.

    Wrong again.

    You can point out that we have more than one reason to argue passionately for truth, that either of these reasons may become the more important depending on context, that emotions are involved, that it is intertwined with many other issues that are also deeply important such that – while distinct – they also cannot be entirely separated…

    Missing the point continues.

    Well, yes. Of course. Well done. Have a cookie.

    I’m sorry that I can’t return the compliment. No cookie deserved. Bad reading skills.

    But truth matters [link] very much. It is very important.

    I do not discuss with links. If you have an argument, formulate it.

    The part where you’ve veered off course is to imply that, because we have more than one motive, because we are complex, because we can care about more than one thing, because we can care about one thing for multiple reasons, that somehow this means that our professed commitment to truth as an ideal is disingenuous.

    The whole point, which you (very consistently) missed is that I don’t believe in a commitment to truth as an important motive for a political movement. The real use of such a ‘commitment’ is (IMHO) employing it as a slogan on a banner, and to steer away the discussion from uncomfortable topics. More on that in my answer to ‘Tis Himself, OM below.

    Emotionally? I’m pissed off and insulted by this – both the allegation itself, and also by the sanctimonious tone you’re taking with people here.

    Have a taste, then, of your own medicine. [This is general, not personal. I haven’t been following your own comments. But I find a lot of sanctimonious tone in ftb discussions.]

    Azkyroth #88

    …is this, perchance, the same Ariel who posts at Pandagon somewhat regularly?

    Nope. Ftb is the only English language discussion site where I comment. No time for more. And even here it’s basically only Greta and Camels with Hammers (few and sporadic exceptions). Azkyroth, I included your remark in the “fun” stuff because I find this obsessive preoccupation with tracking the ‘enemies’ posting at other places (you can find examples of this phenomenon quite regularly here) somewhat funny. Please forgive me.

    MORE SERIOUS STUFF:

    ‘Tis Himself, OM #87

    I’m particularly impressed with how you know every other atheists’ motivations much better than we do ourselves. All this time I thought I was arguing with goddists because I thought they were delusional and needed exposure to reality.

    Fair enough. My answer is: that’s what we normally do, you shouldn’t be surprised. You have a group in front of you, claiming that they want to achieve this-and-this aim with these-and-these motivations. A political party, perhaps. And you must decide: do you buy it? Well, of course I don’t know about your strategy (maybe – as Daniel Schealler seems to suggest – you buy it immediately on pain of sounding ‘insulting’ ;-) ), but that’s (among other things) what I do: I sieve it through my own experience, my own knowledge of the people. I ask myself a question: are such motivations plausible? How often do I meet people acting (consistently, for longer periods of time) for the reasons professed by the group? Then comes an exemplification: how often do you meet people acting (consistently, for longer periods of time) with “truth” as the moral value being their primary motive? I don’t know (of course) how you answer, but my own answer is: so far I haven’t met anyone satisfying such a standard. My experience is rather that truth is instrumental for achieving other aims. I understood de Botton as expressing this basic insight: let’s leave the truth alone (especially that we think it’s settled), let’s concentrate on other issues; if possible, without prejudging the outcome. If that’s what he says, I like it. That’s it.

    By the way: your “[they] needed exposure to reality” sounds to me like a crucial phrase. De Botton (I guess) would say: let’s leave the truth alone (we know it and discussing it is boring exactly because we know it) and let’s concentrate on whether ‘they’ really need such an exposure. Do you have a problem with that?

    Bruce Gorton #86

    But anyway, the reason truth is of primary importance isn’t because it is our major motivator, but rather because it sets our motivations.
    Before you can solve any problem it requires you to identify it – and without honest data we can’t really do that.

    Such an approach (in my opinion) amounts to the admission that truth is instrumental. You do not fight religion because it’s wrong; you fight it because (in your opinion) it creates problems/doesn’t permit you to solve any problems. In short: you fight, because you think that religion is harmful. And your task is to convince others about that. If so … what’s wrong with de Bottons article? I understand of course that he stresses some beneficial aspects of religion (which may be irritating), but his overall strategy should be to your liking: he proposes after all to concentrate on the question whether religion is (all things included) harmful or beneficiary. What’s the problem with that? What’s the fuss? I think you owe us a diagnosis of the (very!) nervous reaction of the atheist blogosphere. (Well, I offered mine.)

    Good night to everybody!

  86. Tony says

    nemothederv:

    I won’t discuss whole question of whether religion is true or not. Doesn’t really matter anyway. Right?

    You must live on an island where the negative impact of religion and other superstitious belief has been kept at bay if you feel it doesn’t matter. For my part, as an atheist, the question is 99.98% settled. However, as a humanist, I see the disastrous effect religious thought has on humanity, and recognize that it’s a dangerous meme that needs to be overcome. Finding some way to help believers question their dogmatic beliefs (i.e. questioning what’s true and what’s not) really really matters.

  87. Stacy says

    Dear Stacy, it’s one thing to accept philosophical naturalism as a way to true beliefs, and quite another to raise a standard of Truth and carry out a crusade with “truth for everybody!” as the main slogan

    And “Truth for Everybody!” is the main slogan of–who, now?

    This is relevant to the present discussion–how, exactly?

    That’s the nicest one! ‘The leading figures of our movement have been saying this-and-this (“oh I dunno, fucking forever”), therefore it must be so!

    Aw, that’s cute. That’s all the empirical evidence anyone needs to know you’re dishonest, sweetie pie.

    Did I mention those leaders of our movement as an appeal to authority?

    No, I clearly did not. I named them in reply to these words of yours:

    An answer I propose is this: an appeal to truth is used frequently as a handy rhetoric device. In case of problems, an atheist activist can turn Truth into his last bastion

    You can kinda tell that’s what I was responding to, ’cause, y’know, I placed those words of yours right there in blockquote at the tippy-tip-top of my comment.

    My point (since you’re obviously slow, I’ll spell it out for you again) was that “appeal to truth”–is not a rhetorical device or a “last bastion” those of us who despise de Botton’s specious twitterings have retreated to because we’ve nowhere else to turn. On the contrary, the disagreement Greta articulated is essential. Determining the truth of claims–especially religious claims–is our raison d’etre. Disagree all you like with the appeal to empiricism you’ll find from Sagan to Dawkins and Dennett–but the fact remains, those of us who’ve rolled our eyes at de Botton (including Greta) aren’t making some politic appeal to “truth” because we think it sounds good or somethin’. And if you’d been paying attention, you’d realize that.

    No wonder you feel a need to defend AdB. He’s got an inflated sense of his own cleverness and a condescending prose style, too.

  88. Stacy says

    By the way: your “[they] needed exposure to reality” sounds to me like a crucial phrase. De Botton (I guess) would say: let’s leave the truth alone (we know it and discussing it is boring exactly because we know it) and let’s concentrate on whether ‘they’ really need such an exposure. Do you have a problem with that?

    Um, yes. Yes, I have a problem with the patronizing way you’ve phrased the question. And, yes, I think they need the exposure.

    Those of us who live in these loosely United States of America deal with the effects of religious belief every day. So do people in countries dominated by Islam. So do people in Israel.

    And don’t you dare scare-quote “they”. “They” are my friends and neighbors. And I for one used to be one of “them”. “They” sure as fuck aren’t de Botton’s friends and neighbors–he’s a privileged schmuck who’s spent his life in a rarefied atmosphere. And by the sounds of it, so are you. Get bent.

  89. Stacy says

    By the way: your “[they] needed exposure to reality” sounds to me like a crucial phrase. De Botton (I guess) would say: let’s leave the truth alone (we know it and discussing it is boring exactly because we know it) and let’s concentrate on whether ‘they’ really need such an exposure. Do you have a problem with that?

    Um, yes. Yes, I have a problem with the patronizing way you’ve phrased the question. And, yes, I think they need the exposure.

    Those of us who live in these loosely United States of America deal with the effects of religious belief every day. So do people in countries dominated by Islam. So do people in Israel.

    And don’t you dare scare-quote “they”. “They” are my friends and neighbors. And I for one used to be one of “them”. “They” sure as fuck aren’t de Botton’s friends and neighbors–he’s a privileged schmuck who’s spent his life in a rarefied atmosphere.

  90. Daniel Schealler says

    @Ariel

    I’m sorry that I can’t return the compliment. No cookie deserved. Bad reading skills.

    What you’re mistaking for bad reading skills was actually my attempt at applying the most generous reading of your argument that I could manage. While flawed, my original interpretation of your message at least started off with some points that were true enough (if somewhat obvious).

    Now that you’ve clarified your position, I can see that your actual argument is even worse than what I originally thought it was. It’s just trivially incorrect.

    I don’t believe in a commitment to truth as an important motive for a political movement.

    That depends entirely on the movement, doesn’t it?

    The commitment to truth is both an important goal of our movement as well as one of the most important motives for us creating such a movement in the first place.

    So relative to our movement, your belief is mistaken. The commitment to truth is very important to our movement, both as a motive and as a goal.

    Dismissed. Again.

  91. SallyStrange: bottom-feeding, work-shy peasant says

    I’m confused. Ariel is saying that Gnu Atheists aren’t being truthful when they maintain that truth matters, that truth is a value in and of itself. In fact, he seems to be maintaining that nobody is sincere about valuing truth. Yet, the assertion itself is a truth claim. I guess, if we are to take Ariel at face value, we can assume that he doesn’t personally value truth, therefore he could easily be lying when he asserts that nobody values truth, and that he’s making this assertion in service of some ulterior motive. Discrediting Gnu Atheists, for example. Or just for shits & giggles. Who knows? It’s impossible to tell since Ariel, like everybody else (as per his claim), doesn’t value truth.

    Anyway, the fact that accurately evaluating reality is ultimately something we perform in service to other ethical values, such as helping our fellow human beings, doesn’t mean that the claim that truth matters is false.

  92. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Ariel #95

    My experience is rather that truth is instrumental for achieving other aims. I understood de Botton as expressing this basic insight: let’s leave the truth alone (especially that we think it’s settled), let’s concentrate on other issues; if possible, without prejudging the outcome. If that’s what he says, I like it. That’s it.

    The question of the truth or falsity of religion may be settled for de Botton, you, and even me. But when I’m discussing the existence of gods with goddists then the question is not settled. It’s being disputed. You and de Botton may want to discuss other issues, but that’s your particular desire. When I’m talking to goddists about religion then truth becomes a vital, nay a paramount, issue.

    What other issues interest you are your affair. De Botton apparently wants to discuss his complete and total misunderstanding of every atheist who isn’t him. I’d rather discuss economics or sailing. However when the topic of religion is being discussed with goddists, then we’re forced to discuss what we think is true. In fact, I try to discuss what I think is true regardless of what the topic is. I suspect you do as well. Perhaps even de Botton, if he’s feeling up to it, wants to be truthful.

  93. says

    Since I have little respect for the postmodernists (Sokal’s hoax shows how much of postmodernism is more involved in sophistry and anti-rationalism than trying to advance social organization and understanding) I’m more impressed by Augustine than Sartre as philosophers. Yes, I’m aware that Augustine was a bishop and Sartre was an atheist. So what?

    It seems to me like “Augustine was a bishop and Sartre was an atheist,” and therefore the latter is (a) more likely to agree with your political agenda viz the public influence of religon and (b) more likely to be the wellspring of an interesting conversation for the rationalist atheist because you both agree on the basic premise “That god is not” is enough of a “so what,” and I’d like you to explain why, if the fight you want to have is atheism, why you would choose to ally with rationalist theists before atheists. Or even irrationalist theists, for that matter, who are also more likely to care about atheists being given a discursive place because most “postmodern” (a big and loaded term that doesn’t really describe much) theists care about pluralism and epistemological modesty and all that, among being some of the strongest fighters on behalf of the oppressed (the liberation theologians of South America or Catholic worker organizations or etc.) Now, if the fight you want to have is against the “forces of unreason” or “the relativists” or what have you, that’s fine — though I strenuously disagree that’s the fight you should care about — but in that case you shouldn’t say that you care about secularism and you definitely shouldn’t fight against the religious right, who would be among your strongest allies in attempting to crush irrationality. I think you should care about atheism before big-R Reason, for the reasons I’ve laid out above.

    I’d also contend that the intellectual history and tradition of atheism matters, or at least should matter, a little bit for modern atheism. These were people willing to declare a rejection of God in the public forum long before the development of New/Gnu Atheism and were placed at substantial risk by doing so. Those thinkers are incredibly important in the development of atheism to now (Marx being the origin of the argument against religion as a tool of mollification and enslavement of consciousness) and are substantially more helpful for the modern atheist trying to develop her personal philosophy or in trying to understand atheism as a movement. Further, philosophy is empty and vapid if divorced from its heritage. Again, if you care about atheism I think you should care about these people and what they thought, as Chris Hitchens did when he included Marx, Emma Goldman, Freud, and Salman Rushdie in his compendium of atheist thought.

    And the Sokal humdrum “shows how much of postmodernism is more involved in sophistry and anti-rationalism than trying to advance social organization and understanding” about as much as the Bogdanov brothers getting a nonsense paper into a reputable, peer-reviewed physics journal “shows” that physics is actually just a melangee of meaningless symbols and empty formulae that correspond to nothing whatsoever in the world. Meaning, not much if at all. I’d be happy to explain to you why Sokal is basically useless as an example case for a lot of reasons, but I’ll only dedicate the energy into writing it up if you’re really interested. But, to offer brief comments: (a) anti-rationalism is not inherently bad, and I’d like you to defend why you think so if you do,(b) Sartre is definitely not a “postmodernist,” either in his existentialist phase or his Marxist phase, and (c) “postmodernism” is a really unhelpful and broad term to use. What are you objecting to? Neo-historicism? Deconstruction? Lacanian psychoanalysis? 90′s-era queer theory and performativity theory? Post-Marxism? Deleuze and Guattari, whatever you might want to classify their work as? Nietzscheanism? What are you talking about?

  94. says

    Oh, also:

    Daniel #101

    The commitment to truth is both an important goal of our movement as well as one of the most important motives for us creating such a movement in the first place.

    So relative to our movement, your belief is mistaken. The commitment to truth is very important to our movement, both as a motive and as a goal.

    As an atheist, I don’t think truth is very important to our movement. I don’t think a bad thing being true makes it not bad and not worth fighting against. Our movement is interested in fighting against religion in the public sphere because religion is bad. I happen to not think that religion being true or not has anything to do with that. I’d like to know why you think that religion’s being true or not has any bearing on whether it’s worth opposing.

  95. DSimon says

    I’d like to know why you think that religion’s being true or not has any bearing on whether it’s worth opposing.

    If religion were true, then we would in general be better off acting as though it were true. For example, if it were actually the case that God existed and would send you to eternal torment if you didn’t spend Sundays in church praying, but would otherwise send you to eternal bliss, then we would be better off spending Sundays in church praying.

    However, if that premise were false, then spending Sundays in church would just be a waste of time.

  96. Daniel Schealler says

    Stephen

    I’d like to know why you think that religion’s being true or not has any bearing on whether it’s worth opposing.

    1) Truth for the sake of truth is a good end in itself (argument from truth as a foundational value)

    2) Truth enables us to maximize our potential to achieve our goals and minimize the potential for unintended harm (argument from consequences)

    Both of these reasons are important. How important each one is and which of them is more important than the other will vary depending on context.

    One of the primary defenses religion has for itself is immunity to reality checks – which in turn is part of what enables religion to do so much harm. A commitment to truth is one way of forcing a reality check onto religion.

    I don’t think a bad thing being true makes it not bad and not worth fighting against.

    That was an idiotic thing to write.

    If a bad thing is true, then we must understand the truth of it first in order to change it.

    My mother had cancer recently. My mother having cancer was a bad thing. But it was also true.

    She could have buried her head in the sand and pretended the problem wasn’t there.

    But she didn’t.

    Instead she had the lump checked out by professionals, accepted the diagnosis, and sought the best treatment we could afford – a combination of surgery and chemo.

    She’s come out of it fantastically well. As far as anyone can tell, my mother has no cancer left in her body. Obviously you never really know and it could come back – but she’s living in the best of all possible post-cancer-diagnosis worlds right now.

    This was achieved by looking a bad truth in the eye, accepting it, planning how to deal with it, and then implementing that plan effectively.

    Just because a thing is true does not make it good. But accepting truths is an inherently good thing – especially in those situations where the truth is bad.

    We have to understand reality if we’re going to change it.

  97. DSimon says

    [...]anti-rationalism is not inherently bad, and I’d like you to defend why you think so if you do

    It sounds like you’re using “rationalism” in a way that’s unfamiliar to me. When I say “rationalist epistemology” I mean the concept that (a) there exists a single objective external reality, and (b) the proper approach to knowledge is to develop models that accurately predict what reality does as closely as possible.

    And as I understand it, “postmodernist” epistemologies differ from that on the first point; they argue that there is no such thing as a single objective reality which is shared by everybody.

    I’d like to ask you to check these definitions and describe if/how they differ from the ones you’re using. Before we can go any further, let’s make sure we’re talking about the same concepts.

  98. SallyStrange: bottom-feeding, work-shy peasant says

    I don’t think a bad thing being true makes it not bad and not worth fighting against. Our movement is interested in fighting against religion in the public sphere because religion is bad. I happen to not think that religion being true or not has anything to do with that. I’d like to know why you think that religion’s being true or not has any bearing on whether it’s worth opposing.

    This leaves you in the difficult position of justifying why a religion where people do nothing but gather, pray, and collect money which they then donate to food kitchens is “bad.”

    I maintain that it’s worth it to oppose even religions that espouse nothing but peace, love, and happiness because their epistemology is flawed. If “my fictional friend says it’s good to help sick babies” is a valid way to reason about how best to live in the world, then on what basis can we criticize “my fictional friend says that gays are evil and should not be allowed to live among civilized people”? We know that it’s “good” to help sick babies because we hold that relieving suffering, rather than causing it, is a moral good, and helping sick babies relieves suffering. We know that discriminating against gay people is bad because not allowing gays to marry or live in certain areas causes suffering rather than relieving it, and being in love and having sex with someone of the same gender does not cause any suffering.

    You are a perfect example of how fellow atheists can be lousy allies in the fight to make the world a more rational, humane place.

  99. SallyStrange: bottom-feeding, work-shy peasant says

    And as I understand it, “postmodernist” epistemologies differ from that on the first point; they argue that there is no such thing as a single objective reality which is shared by everybody.

    I’m no scholar, but I thought that postmodernism does not imply that objective reality does not exist, merely that the filters we all have as humans with limited brains ensure that we can never gain full access to that objective reality. An entirely uncontroversial proposition, to my mind. In fact, it’s quite useful to keep in mind that we don’t have a full grasp on reality.

  100. DSimon says

    Sally, indeed, but the thing is is that’s a fact about the map, not the territory, which makes a big difference in regards to the best way to work around the problem and get as accurate a map as we can. For example, we can try to study our own brains carefully and come up with ways to correct or at least dodge the various defects.

    If there really were different objective realities for different subjective experiences, then trying to reduce cognitive bias wouldn’t help at all; it would simply switch one subjective reality for a different one.

  101. Stacy says

    @Stephen,

    I don’t think a bad thing being true makes it not bad and not worth fighting against

    I think you should clarify what you mean here. I mean, I could see what you meant if by “true” you meant, real. Cancer is real, but it’s worth fighting.

    But when we speak of something being true or not, we’re talking about a judgment about claims people make about reality. “If guns were outlawed there would be less crime in the U.S.” No, “if guns were outlawed there would be more crime, as honest citizens would be less able to protect themselves.” As a skeptic/atheist, I don’t think guns are “bad”–my position on this issue is going to depend on whether or not I think one of these claims, or neither, is true. And, as a skeptic/atheist, there are certain methods I’m going to be using to judge between these competing claims.

  102. says

    SallyStrange #109

    This leaves you in the difficult position of justifying why a religion where people do nothing but gather, pray, and collect money which they then donate to food kitchens is “bad.”

    Granted, I probably don’t. This seems fine to me.

    I maintain that it’s worth it to oppose even religions that espouse nothing but peace, love, and happiness because their epistemology is flawed. If “my fictional friend says it’s good to help sick babies” is a valid way to reason about how best to live in the world, then on what basis can we criticize “my fictional friend says that gays are evil and should not be allowed to live among civilized people”?

    I never contended that the sort of generic Evangelical Christian approach to morality is one that I support or think is legitimate. I am arguing that it is more productive and more ethically honest to argue that helping sick babies is good for x or y reason or that hating gay people is bad for x or y reason, instead of arguing that helping sick babies is good because god doesn’t exist. Different situations ought be understood and addressed in different ways.

    So, for example (to pick a perhaps more helpful case) suppose it were true that god (a) existed and (b) deemed women to be subservient to men on grounds that Eve ate the apple first &c &c. At least for me, that wouldn’t stop me from fighting for / asserting women’s equality both in the political sphere and discursively, threat of Hell be damned. {/pun} I think that’s indicative of the disconnect between the truth question and the ethical question: the issue is not whether or not god exists in this situation, because that doesn’t affect what I do. Rather, the relevant question is about whether or not I’m okay with going to Hell for arguing / doing certain things. That question has more to do with the cost/benefit of living according to one’s ideals / threat of punishment and reward, which different people can answer differently, with the decision fundamentally being an ethical and not an epistemological one. Am I wrong here? Why is there a necessary and objective link between epistemology and ethics? I don’t think that doubting such a connection makes one a bad faith actor in the movement or somehow enables the perpetuation of suffering. In fact, I think it provides better and more efficacious grounds to oppose suffering and inhumanity, because it doesn’t involve getting tied up in an unfinishable epistemology fight before proceeding to any ethics.

    DSimon #108

    And as I understand it, “postmodernist” epistemologies differ from that on the first point; they argue that there is no such thing as a single objective reality which is shared by everybody.

    This is complicated. Some people who get labeled as “postmodernists” do believe in some sort of common reality (Lacan being a good big example, insofar as he argues that there is a common psychosocial ground to human experience; there is a very long and storied tradition associated with the realist/idealist debate in Marxism and Existentialism and whether or not an objective epistemological ground exists. What I’m talking about when I talk about “rationality” or big-R Reason is the idea that there is this thing, Reason, which exists external to human beings and can give human beings access to complete, universal, and objective capital-T Truth about the (noumenal?) world or things in it. If you’re familiar, I’m using it in a way that’s fairly similar to Max Horkheimer’s usage in “The End of Reason” as a kind of means to achieve assumed ends, which distinguishes the rationality I’m talking about from “instrumental reason” of the sort that applies to the medical case Daniel brought up, which has nothing to do with the objective facts of the world as such but rather with a self-consistent field of facts / statements / lowercase-t truths. In very short, my complaint is that a slavish and totalizing devotion to reason as the one and only way of understanding the world (a) limits human experience and reduces the importance of the human, (b) ignores the uncertainty inherent in all language and perceptual experience, and (c) makes it hard to understand and thus fight against oppressive structures of power, especially when the oppressors claim to be on the side of Reason and Truth. I, and almost no person who is categorized as a “postmodernist” and no one that Sokal and Bricmont attack in their book, think instrumental reason is inherently a bad thing or doesn’t have any use at all.

  103. Bruce Gorton says

    If so … what’s wrong with de Bottons article?

    Well, why do we view religion as being harmful? It is not simply because of the beliefs we think are wrong in it.

    It is because it encourages authoritarian thinking – it is because of the sermons, the ‘moral education’ and suchlike. We do not want a religion of atheism, because we recognise that we can be wrong – and by adopting those aspects of religion we run the risk of creating genuine atheist dogmas.

    And by declaring the truth of the foundational point defining atheism not just boring, but the most boring question one can ask, we increase our risk of forming dogmas around false data.

    The single most important question one can ask of anything is “Is this true?”

    Declaring something dull is a way of saying “Don’t think about this” – and that is a very dangerous thing to say.

  104. says

    Stacy #112

    I think you should clarify what you mean here. I mean, I could see what you meant if by “true” you meant, real. Cancer is real, but it’s worth fighting.

    But when we speak of something being true or not, we’re talking about a judgment about claims people make about reality.

    This goes to the distinction between big-R Reason and instrumental reason I was talking about in my post above. In short, both of the “if” statements you proffer about guns are varieties of instrumental reason, meaning that given my metric of judging success is efficacy and presuming that I want less people to be killed by gun violence, I could use instrumental reason to determine the best path to my given solution. What I have a problem with is trying to reason your way to “Death is inherently bad.” I don’t think you can do that. Which, I guess, means I was using “true” more in your sense of “real,” to clarify the above post if it was a little over-jargony.

  105. Steve Schuler says

    Chill, Children!

    Greta’s indictment of Alain de Botton is just politics as per usual in Greta’s Atheist Funhouse.

    If Greta had any deep concern for “truth” then I’m confident that her introduction to her post, “Diversity and the Best Atheist Blogger Award – Please Don’t Vote for Me”, would have read entirely differently than it did, that is if “truth” means making statements that comport with reality.

    Alain de Botton? I don’t know too much about him, but that Greta regards him as being unworthy to be counted amongst her allies doesn’t do much to dissuade me from giving him a listen.

  106. Stacy says

    @Stephen:

    Which, I guess, means I was using “true” more in your sense of “real,”

    Yes, you were. And it’s not mere “jargon”–it changes the point entirely.

    I am arguing that it is more productive and more ethically honest to argue that helping sick babies is good for x or y reason or that hating gay people is bad for x or y reason, instead of arguing that helping sick babies is good because god doesn’t exist

    Whoever has said that helping sick babies is good because god doesn’t exist? What does the one have to do with the other?

    Unless you think it would never occur to anyone that helping sick babies might be a Good Thing without a god telling you to do it, I can’t see the connection.

    People need to determine, as best they can, the truth about reality. They’re going to need to choose between competing claims about the nature of reality. Without going too far Off Topic, it seems clear that unless you have a basically decent epistemology, you’re not going to be able to figure out WTF is the best thing to do in any given situation. Now,

    What I have a problem with is trying to reason your way to “Death is inherently bad.” I don’t think you can do that.

    Bitch, please. If life is overwhelmingly painful for you, your death, freely chosen by you, may not be inherently bad. Otherwise–all animals have evolved to avoid death. It’s pretty basic. And simple empathy + an awareness that society would be pretty fucked up for both me and you if human beings didn’t respect one anothers’ desire to live leads me to something approximating “Death is inherently bad” (in any meaningful, non-mental masturbation sense).

    Why is there a necessary and objective link between epistemology and ethics?

    Because epistemology is crucial to determining both our ideals and the weapons we use to fight for them. Otherwise we’d be spending all our time fighting dragons that don’t exist, or fighting cancer (which does exist)using mojo and vitamin C.

  107. Stacy says

    …And that epistemology, I contend, is really what New Atheism is about. At its most basic and important, we’re less about “God doesn’t exist” and more about how do we determine whether or not god exists? And the reason that question is important is because “God” is shorthand for ultimate reality.

    P.S. I apologize for my use of the word “bitch”, above. I meant it to be humorous, but it’s a slur. I was wrong to use it; I’m sorry.

  108. says

    Stacy #118

    People need to determine, as best they can, the truth about reality. They’re going to need to choose between competing claims about the nature of reality.

    No you don’t. Not necessarily, anyways, and not as a prerequisite for ethics. Ethics doesn’t need justification; it’s a series of claims that rests on distribution of responsibility. That has nothing to do with any actual truth about reality. Can you justify this claim more?

    Bitch, please. If life is overwhelmingly painful for you, your death, freely chosen by you, may not be inherently bad. Otherwise–all animals have evolved to avoid death. It’s pretty basic. And simple empathy + an awareness that society would be pretty fucked up for both me and you if human beings didn’t respect one anothers’ desire to live leads me to something approximating “Death is inherently bad” (in any meaningful, non-mental masturbation sense).

    Reasons Why Death May Not Be Inherently Bad, The Short and Sadly Incomplete List:

    (1) Suffering may not be a bad, or bad all the time (indeed, some virtue ethicists contend that suffering is the source of character or greatness);

    (2) Or, suffering can stay a bad thing, and one might think that life allows for suffering and therefore should end;

    (3) I may believe martyrdom, or other subsumption of valuing life to some other cause (such as allowing oneself to be killed during a political demonstration or by hunger strike), has value;

    (4) Death, and the anticipation thereof, is the only way to claim one’s individuality and authenticity (Heidegger);

    (5) Death and the option of suicide allows for the assertion of radical human freedom (Camus et al)

    (6) The pain argument that you brought up;

    (7) You can sensibly argue that death is preferable to slavery;

    (8) The argument that risking death is integral to recognition and fully becoming human (Alexandre Kojeve makes this argument, in fact arguing that society wouldn’t exist if at some point people always respected one another’s desire to live)

    That, plus I’m curious about your response. How do you reason to empathy or social order as goods? Also, why does “all animals having evolved against it” says anything about its being good / bad? (There are a number of different parasites that cause their hosts to actively risk their lives, plus the case of North Atlantic salmon mating patterns, plus the development of multifarious animal body parts that allow for the distribution of mass pain/death, but specific evolutionary points are kind of a nonsequitur.) In short, yes, I agree that how you perceive the world has an effect on how you live and how you act. Nothing about that claim assumes that you need anything more than a consistent framework, let alone access to the Universal Truth of the World. This is why I’m okay with instrumental reason but very skeptical of objective Reason. What’s your basis for conflating the two?

  109. says

    Stacy #119

    …And that epistemology, I contend, is really what New Atheism is about. At its most basic and important, we’re less about “God doesn’t exist” and more about how do we determine whether or not god exists? And the reason that question is important is because “God” is shorthand for ultimate reality.

    Okay and that’s a fine thing to believe individually (however wrong I might think you are about that) but that does throw me, a lot of people around the world, and a very, very large subset of historical atheist thinkers out of the movement. Is that the sort of movement you want, just in terms of coalition-building and efficacy? It seems like you’re going to get more sympathy for the avowed political ends of the atheist movement from people like Sartre than you’re going to get from rationalist theists like Augustine, however much you personally agree with their epistemologies. I’m also not quite sure how it’s really an atheist movement at that point rather than a rationalist one. There is a long tradition of using “god” as shorthand for “ultimate reality” (this is what Derrida is talking about when he talks about the “transcendental signified,” and some more modern readings of Descartes will read his use of the word “God” this way), but that usage mostly comes from the critique-of-rationalism camp and is mostly used to suggest some sort of linkage between God-as-framework and Reason-as-framework. Which you’re welcome to do, but I’m not sure that’s quite where you want to go.

    (Also, for all watching: I hope that, at least in part, this conversation has been some kind of substantiation of the argument in favor of discussions with anti-rationalistic-sympathetic atheists being more productive than those with rationalistic theists.)

  110. says

    ‘Also, for all watching: I hope that, at least in part, this conversation has been some kind of substantiation of the argument in favor of discussions with anti-rationalistic-sympathetic atheists being more productive than those with rationalistic theists’

    How are you using ‘rationalistic’ here?

  111. DSimon says

    What I’m talking about when I talk about “rationality” or big-R Reason is the idea that there is this thing, Reason, which exists external to human beings and can give human beings access to complete, universal, and objective capital-T Truth about the (noumenal?) world or things in it.

    This strikes me as being a strawman; as you describe it, nobody I know of would say that they believe in that, and I know a lot of people who describe themselves as aspiring rationalists.

    In particular, rationalism is very much about provisional conclusions rather than absolute certainty or “capital-T Truths” (whatever that means). You try and make the best map you can, even though no map can perfectly match the territory.

    [...]devotion to reason as the one and only way of understanding the world (a) limits human experience and reduces the importance of the human,

    This strikes me as being both false and irrelevant.

    False because it’s not as though rationalists ignore or deride personal experiences and human emotions. Rather, they assign these things appropriately low value as evidence about the external world outside human minds, same as any other evidence without a significant causal link to the proposition in question.

    Irrelevant because rationality doesn’t oppose human experience; you can still go out and create or experience beautiful art, it’s just that it’s a bad idea to try to use that art to justify statements that have nothing to do with it.

    (b) ignores the uncertainty inherent in all language and perceptual experience

    I strongly disagree. Rationalism is big on (a) using math instead of natural language to avoid exactly the problem you mention, and (b) investigating cognitive bias and the physical limitations of the human brain in order to deal with the errors they introduce, or at the very least to reduce confidence in our beliefs to the degree that they’re affected by these things.

    and (c) makes it hard to understand and thus fight against oppressive structures of power, especially when the oppressors claim to be on the side of Reason and Truth.

    I don’t think this makes sense; by this reasoning, we should take morality less seriously because sometimes oppressors claim to be on the side of morality.

    I, and almost no person who is categorized as a “postmodernist” and no one that Sokal and Bricmont attack in their book, think instrumental reason is inherently a bad thing or doesn’t have any use at all.

    I disagree with your implication here that there are occasions where the best possible choice is doing something that contradicts instrumental reason. That would be silly, but for a rather ho-hum reason: if a choice is validly justified against some desired ends as the best possible way to get to those ends, then that is the instrumentally rational way to go.

    And anyways, I thought we were talking about epistemological rationality, not instrumental rationality.

  112. says

    DSimon, it sounds very much to me as though you are conflating the notion of rationalism with a particular methodological position; that is, a kind of neopositivist phenominalism. This may or may not be conscious, but it is contentious. From what I can tell, Stephen is emphasising the ways that our own langauge, and our own models, constrain our perceptions and emphasise some observations over others without warrant.

    I’m not quite sure what precisely he would offer as an alternative, as opposed to a critique, but there is certainly a credible tradition within the philosophy of science to support the sort of reflexivity he advocates.

  113. Stacy says

    Okay and that’s a fine thing to believe individually (however wrong I might think you are about that) but that does throw me, a lot of people around the world, and a very, very large subset of historical atheist thinkers out of the movement.

    Yes, and I think that may be the difference between “New Atheists” (“Gnus”) and people like de Botton (and, presumably, you.)

    And, I don’t think we’re “throwing you out of the movement”–but it does point up some serious disagreements.

    I’m also not quite sure how it’s really an atheist movement at that point rather than a rationalist one

    I think the terms are still being worked out. It can get confusing. It is a rationalist movement; and a skeptical one. Atheism, it seems to me, is a conclusion rather than a starting point, but it’s been pushed to the forefront because god-belief has been so pernicious. And, I suspect, because humans no longer need it, de Botton’s claims (that religion offers us something unique that secular society doesn’t) to the contrary.

    Is that the sort of movement you want, just in terms of coalition-building and efficacy?

    Yes. I’d rather build coalitions on a commitment to truth–or the closest to it we can get, empirically-speaking, given our regrettable human limitations. Have you not noticed this rift in our movement before? Where have you been, Stephen? lol.

  114. DSimon says

    DSimon, it sounds very much to me as though you are conflating the notion of rationalism with a particular methodological position; that is, a kind of neopositivist phenominalism. This may or may not be conscious, but it is contentious.

    This is certainly possible, I’m only mildly familiar with the terminology within philosophy. Can you go into more detail about the difference between rationalism and neopositivist phenominalism?

    From what I can tell, Stephen is emphasising the ways that our own langauge, and our own models, constrain our perceptions and emphasise some observations over others without warrant.

    My own response to this is that we have really solid math on how induction and self-updating predictive systems are ideally supposed to work. Through comparison to that we can often detect and correct the mistakes introduced by human error.

  115. says

    DSimon,

    As I encounter it, the term ‘rationalism’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the nitty-gritty of epistemology. Basically, I tend to see ‘rationalism’ used in the following ways:
    -the calculation of optimal choice based on cost-benefit analysis
    -the development of teleological institutions in society
    -the normative exhortation that we should engage in cost-benefit analysis, to be as systematically logical as possible
    -the evaluation of claims according to the principles of logic

    I think it’s the last of these that you are thinking of. But when it comes to a discussion of how it is that our minds ‘hook up’ to reality and what kind of warrant we have for knowledge or truth claims, the principles of logic are not really questioned. If you ever encounter some hand-waiving pomo who claims that both P and not-P can be true, chances are they are nevertheless going to maintain that the law of non-contradiction obtains within systems, and that there can be more than one independent, different, and equally warranted system of knowledge.

    The reason for this is that many philosophers will say that because our experiences of reality are particular to the position from which we observe, we cannot separate our descriptions in a way that can make them about reality but not also, fundamentally, about ourselves at the same time.

    Neopositivist phenomenalism is, simply put, the belief that our observations provide information about reality independent of our own minds, and that by systematically testing hypotheses which seek to establish law-like claims that where X happens, Y follows, we gain true knowledge of reality and of causality. However, this knowledge is still not for certain a reflection of what is actually real, because it is nevertheless contingent upon observation and sense-data only.

  116. DSimon says

    Simon:

    -the calculation of optimal choice based on cost-benefit analysis
    -the development of teleological institutions in society
    -the normative exhortation that we should engage in cost-benefit analysis, to be as systematically logical as possible
    -the evaluation of claims according to the principles of logic

    Hm, in order:

    1. Agreed, with a particular emphasis on utilitarian analyses. However, I have to add the caveat that a perfect cost-benefit analysis would be really hard because human values are really complicated; the best we can do for now is estimate peoples’ utility functions.

    2. I’m not sure I follow this one. If you mean developing societies with a mind towards achieving particular overall goals, then tentatively agreed, on the grounds that the inverse (developing societies without goals) doesn’t seem at first glance to make sense.

    3. If by “logic” you mean only deductive propositional logic, then I disagree; most of the time, induction is more useful. However, if by “logic” you mean rigorous math in general, then I agree.

    Also, I want to be careful to differentiate being as logical as possible from doing as much calculation as possible; different situations require different levels of epistemic precision, and spending too much time truth-finding and not enough time getting other stuff done is a bad idea. Quick human intuitions are often useful, provided that you give their output an appropriate level of trust.

    4. Agreed, same comments as for #3.

    From my experience with these terms, 1 and 3 are “instrumental rationality”, and 4 is “epistemic rationality”.

  117. DSimon says

    However, this knowledge [from neopositivist phenominalism] is still not for certain a reflection of what is actually real, because it is nevertheless contingent upon observation and sense-data only.

    If there’s stuff out there that we can’t interact with, can’t gather evidence about, and can’t even implying anything about based on available data, then that would be weird and interesting but seems to have no practical significance of any sort.

  118. says

    DSimon,

    The classic example – if I recall correctly – of something we can’t actually observe in any way, and therefore cannot infer, but nevertheless think is real, is ‘gravity’. We never see gravity. You could say that what we call ‘gravity’ is simply a very robust relationship between other observable factors, but a realist would say that gravity is an actual thing, because without it being a thing, we have no way to explain what’s going on in certain causes. Another example would be the idea of social structure, which isn’t observable but which many social scientists consider to be real, because if it isn’t, certain sets of cases make a lot less sense.

    Practically speaking, I think the distinction is very, ahem, academic outside of physics and possibly sociology.

  119. Azkyroth says

    Nope. Ftb is the only English language discussion site where I comment. No time for more. And even here it’s basically only Greta and Camels with Hammers (few and sporadic exceptions).

    Interesting. Let’s just say their argumentation style and general perspectives are…similar.

    ‘enemies’

    Don’t flatter yourself, darling.

    Please forgive me.

    No.

  120. Azkyroth says

    We never see gravity.

    Gravity affects detectable objects in detectable, fairly consistent ways. Of course we “see” gravity, except for the most blockheadedly literal interpretations of “see” in which “seeing” something is literally taken to mean “a proportion of reflected photons from the object, sufficient to trigger enough of the right kind of nerve receptors to form a signal the visual cortex of the brain rearranges into a somewhat coherent image, is absorbed by at least one human retina.” Which, insofar as it attempts to conflate the vagaries of language (AKA, “the REASON we use math to describe stuff involving gravity in the place”) with actual conceptual confusion, is…well…par for the course, given your attempt to abuse metonymy above.

    I would suggest one not argue from a position of such blockheaded literalism, lest I be forced to observe that literalism in general tends to annoy the young, including legal minors, and, literally speaking, a synonym for “annoy” is “molest.” But honestly, you’ve offered such disingenuous sophistry so consistently that I don’t even want to bother. I’m done with you.

  121. DSimon says

    Simon, I have to agree with Azkyroth’s conclusion on this one, if not their tone. The question of whether or not gravity is “real” is just the result of linguistic confusion.

    My standard for a good epistemology is accurate predictions. Our model of gravity is extremely strong by that standard.

    Social structure models should be justified or discarded similarly. Understandably, because the systems being modelled are much more complex, we can’t expect as high a degree of precision in sociology as we do in physics; however, we can and should still expect good accuracy.

  122. Ariel says

    Stacy #97 (and also Daniel Schealler #101 at one place)

    And “Truth for Everybody!” is the main slogan of–who, now?
    This is relevant to the present discussion–how, exactly?

    Oh, boy. For a start, have a drink and a quote from PZ.

    Are we to live in a society that values truth, or one run by idiots like de Botton, who think the truth is irrelevant, in which we are governed by and our children taught by people who promote falsehoods? Who live their entire lives guided entirely by disproven myths and falsehoods, and evangelize that nonsense intensely?

    You can check also recent discussions on Camels with Hammers, with Daniel trying to promote (interestingly, as usual) the idea of intrinsic – not just instrumental – value of truth. But in order to understand what I had in mind, consider first of all the following most characteristic fragment from Greta:

    For me, and for most other so-called New Atheists, the question of whether religion is mostly helpful or harmful, while important and interesting, is largely a secondary concern. My primary objection to religion is not that it’s harmful. My primary objection is that it’s wrong.

    You think that “Truth for everybody!” as the main slogan is a strawman? Go on; have a quarrel with Greta.

    Aw, that’s cute. That’s all the empirical evidence anyone needs to know you’re dishonest, sweetie pie. Did I mention those leaders of our movement as an appeal to authority?

    Stacy, my pumpkin, I didn’t really mean it as an argument from authority. Much worse than that, I’m afraid. Naïve gullibility was the charge. You want more? Fine. In what follows I will blend you together with Daniel Schealler, because you both produce basically one and the same reply.
    Stacy:

    the fact remains, those of us who’ve rolled our eyes at de Botton (including Greta) aren’t making some politic appeal to “truth” because we think it sounds good or somethin’. And if you’d been paying attention, you’d realize that.

    Daniel Schealler

    Now that you’ve clarified your position, I can see that your actual argument is even worse than what I originally thought it was. It’s just trivially incorrect. […] The commitment to truth is both an important goal of our movement as well as one of the most important motives for us creating such a movement in the first place. So relative to our movement, your belief is mistaken. The commitment to truth is very important to our movement, both as a motive and as a goal. Dismissed. Again.

    Hmmm, let’s reconstruct the argument. Assume that someone has doubts about a motive M professed by a group G (say: the general worry is that M doesn’t look like a sort of motive that produces mass movements. Or G could be a firm producing goods with the professed motive like “we do it mainly for the people to appreciate the truth about high quality of our products!” :-). Whatever.) How to dismiss such a doubt? I know! I know! After reading Stacy and Daniel I saw the light! The argument is:

    - G is obviously a group working for a motive M.
    - Therefore M is a proper sort of motive for groups, contrary to what the skeptic says. Doubt dismissed!

    Excellent! It works! It always works! Count me as one of the GNUs starting from today. Let’s kill the giraffes together and annihilate the zebras!

    No wonder you feel a need to defend AdB. He’s got an inflated sense of his own cleverness and a condescending prose style, too.

    Stacy, my prose style depends on who I’m talking to. Maybe you noticed, maybe not, but even here I discuss e.g. with Tis Himself, OM or Bruce Gorton in a very different manner. If a pumpkin like you accuses me of trolling, and then produces such “wonders of wonders” as above, then all I can say is: welcome dear and enjoy the results :-)

  123. says

    “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.””

    Replace “religion” with any of these words and see what the response is: cancer, the Matrix, white privilege, anti-Semitism, misogyny, the Catholic sex abuse scandal, gobal warming, burning Korans…

    well the list goes on. Whether or not a thing is boring is irrelevant to its importance.

  124. llewelly says

    Anthropologists/sociologists, philosophers, and psychologists often entirely omit hypotheses about the physical world from their definitions for religion.

    A time honored way of avoiding conflict. Don’t talk about anything that actually fucking matters.

    They define religion in such a way, because they seek to avoid conflict. And there is conflict tied to “hypotheses about the physical world” because it is precisely those hypotheses which affect the lives of religious people – and the people who interact with them. The vast majority of religious people have a literal belief in supernatural entities, a literal belief in the ability prayer or other rituals to affect medical outcomes, to save them from disasters, to protect their loved ones, to help them do well on a test, and a million other things. And religious people demand adherence to a particular creed, because they believe their supernatural entities will harm those who do not follow said creed. Mormons don’t object to gay marriage out of a search for meaning. They believe there is an afterlife, and they believe people who are heterosexually married will be treated quite differently in that afterlife. They believe there are people in that afterlife, who are desparately suffering because they don’t have the right kind of marriage, and they believe people in the after life are communicating with good faithful Mormons “down here on Earth”, and asking them to perform marriages and other ceremonies “down here on Earth”. And Mormons believe “Heavenly Father” will make their lives (and the afterlives of dead people) materially better if they go perform those ceremonies for dead people.

    It is not surprising that anthropologists, who often depend on the people whose culture they are studying, to avoid conflict – after all, conflict may result in the anthropologist not getting food, water, or essential information about the environment they live in. Conflict can even result in an anthropologist getting killed for religious reasons (though, if memory serves, that has not happened in decades).
    It is not surprising that sociologists, philosophers and psychologists would re-define religion in a conflict-avoiding matter. They often rely on grants and other forms of charity to fund their work. And they too rely on co-operation with the people they study. Conflict may mean they don’t get those grants, or do not get that co-operation.
    But in seeking to avoid conflict, they avoid the very things which matter most to religion; they avoid the reasons which drive religious conflict.

  125. Ariel says

    ‘Tis Himself, OM #103

    However when the topic of religion is being discussed with goddists, then we’re forced to discuss what we think is true. In fact, I try to discuss what I think is true regardless of what the topic is. I suspect you do as well. Perhaps even de Botton, if he’s feeling up to it, wants to be truthful.

    Yes, we do discuss this with the believers (personally I’m not a fan of a term “goddist”, but let that pass) and indeed sometimes we have no other choice than to engage in such a discussion. I suspect even de Botton would agree. I don’t think this is an issue. The issue is rather what’s in there for us and what’s in there for the believers. I reconstruct de Botton’s position as:

    (a) The practice shows that from such discussions we don’t learn much new stuff (his “boring” phrase. This I think is quite explicit in his text.)
    (b) We could learn more if we tried to better appreciate positive aspects of religion, without concentrating overly on its truth/falsity (also very explicit)
    (c) Fighting against religion in the name of truth is a misguided idea (not so explicit, but I suspect that would be indeed his view)
    (d) It is doubtful if religion (all things considered) is harmful (cf. his “Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone”)

    Now, what do you think provoked the whole fuss? In my opinion it was (c). The “boring” phrase, understood in the sense of (a), seems palatable, what do you think? Part (b) provoked (at most) haughty answers of the sort “Yes sir, we know about these aspects, who are you to teach us!” – the familiar sort. Nothing new. My impression was (and still is) that it was (c) which was a sore spot. Combined with (d), it gives you few reasons to engage passionately (gnu style) in public debates, apart from evident cases of social harm. Do you agree that (c) was indeed the sore spot, responsible for the outburst?

  126. Chad says

    I enjoyed this article and agreed with it. But then when I read de Botton’s article, it didn’t seem to me that you were both arguing about the same thing. It seems to me that de Botton wasn’t saying that truth is boring. He was saying that truth is *perceived to be* boring. And that is most definitely true, and is a major problem for Atheists. This is in many ways a problem of language and framing, as well as a problem of not fully addressing certain issues. From my own experience, I have found that truth is about as not boring a subject as you can find. But I’ve had to find that in spite of the dry, academic ways in which truth is presented by most Atheists (something which I am also guilty of, so this is meant as constructive criticism).

    Interesting then (and perhaps a bit ironically), your article then goes on to do exactly what I think de Botton was suggesting to Atheist’s. To try to re-frame the pursuit of truth in a way that demonstrates that it is far more amazing, miraculous and fulfilling than anything that religion could ever provide.

  127. Chad says

    On the flip side, let me point out that de Botton has his own messaging issues, and that is why we’re having this discussion. This is not the first time where I’ve heard some member of a movement or discipline say something that comes across as “you all are doing it wrong, and I’m the smart one who figured it all out for you.” That is arrogant, and people generally see the arrogance and ignore the message. And the arrogance should be called out. It is especially offensive when there are examples of what the person is talking about already in action. It can be a good thing to write an article which states where you think a movement should go, but have the decency to point out examples that demonstrate that the movement does already get this idea to some degree, especially when they are not hard to find. The goal is to push the movement in the right direction, not to be able to take credit for being the “genius” that came up with the direction (especially when you didn’t). Even the title was a bit condescending – Atheists tend to know more about religion than most religious people. That being said, it is often useful to be able to read past arrogance and stupidity and possibly take something of value away.

  128. Greta Christina says

    Reminder to everyone in this conversation: Please stay civil. No personal insults, and please keep the snark to a minimum. (This includes sarcastic use of endearments as obvious condescension.) Thank you.

  129. SallyStrange: bottom-feeding, work-shy peasant says

    Ariel, typically when you want to put forth the proposition that Group G is professing to be motivated by Motive M, but is in reality motivated by Ulterior Motive U, you present evidence that shows how U is informing the actions and words of G. I do it myself all the time vis-a-vis Christian opposition to abortion, where M = save the babies and U = punish the sluts. Here you’re saying that for Gnu Atheists, M = truth is an intrinsic good and U = handy rhetorical device, desire for one-upping one’s opponents, something like that. Maybe if you’d spend less time snootling* down your nose and more time explicating your no doubt crystal-clear hypothesis, the rest of us would be less hostile to you. Failing that, you’re basically just calling us liars, and if you can’t take me or any other gnu at face value, then there’s not much point in having a conversation, is there?

    *New word, I just made it up

  130. Stacy says

    You think that “Truth for everybody!” as the main slogan is a strawman?Go on; have a quarrel with Greta

    You’re right. I reacted too quickly. I saw “Truth for everybody!” as a simplistic reduction of our position. On second thought, I’m willing to accept it as a slogan.

    Stacy, my pumpkin, I didn’t really mean it as an argument from authority

    No, you accused me of making an argument from authority. And your lengthy analysis following the above statement continues to miss evade my point.

    One more time. You said:

    an appeal to truth is used frequently as a handy rhetoric device. In case of problems, an atheist activist can turn Truth into his last bastion.

    You claimed that we’re “appealing to truth” as a rhetorical device or “last bastion”; that truth is not a cherished value of ours. I responded by pointing to the fact that anybody who reads what we’ve written can see that questions of truth and its value are at the forefront of our movement.

    Now, you obviously disagree with our “appeal to truth”. Perhaps you think “truth” is not an interesting or important goal. And you apparently think that we are dishonest–that we’re not really concerned with truth, philosophical naturalism, skepticism, and all that other stuff we constantly talk about. That we’re actually concerned with something else. You haven’t said what that something else is, nor have you made a case for our dishonesty. No matter; I was simply pointing out that it’s empirically false to claim that we turn to truth as a “last bastion” or mere rhetoric.

    G is obviously a group working for a motive M.

    I addressed our goals and values, not our motives.

    Therefore M is a proper sort of motive for groups, contrary to what the skeptic says. Doubt dismissed!

    This was not my argument, or Daniel’s. Your obvious skepticism about our motives is beside the point.

    Stacy, my prose style depends on who I’m talking to.

    Really, Ariel? Who were you talking to in your post at #73?

    You are dishonest.

  131. says

    Sallystrange,

    I think you’re overstepping with that conclusion. If I can show simply that from what we know about how people work, M is unlikely to be the true cause around which G organises, I don’t need to adduce any competing U. I can simply say ‘M doesn’t seem to be it, and we should enquire further as to what U might be’.

    To take your example, I think that U very well might be ‘punish the sluts’ in some cases, but that a better account would probably propose U1, U2…Un and that the set of these things will differ per person or community. We might focus on one particular U as Very Bad, of course, but that isn’t the same as saying that we’ve found the correct answer. ‘We don’t know’ or ‘We only know a little’ should be sufficient to critique ‘We know’.

  132. Stacy says

    Clarification–I wrote:

    Your obvious skepticism about our motives is beside the point.

    I was not arguing from the fact that we hold them for the correctness of our axioms. I was arguing that we hold them and that they’re not spurious. Your obvious skepticism about how “proper” our motives are is beside the point.

    (Not beside the point to Ariel, of course. But he hasn’t actually made anything like a coherent case.)

  133. says

    Stacy,

    It is possible that ‘truth’ could be seen as an essentially contested concept, in the Rawlsian sense, wherein we all have some idea of what we’re talking about but where particular conceptions of it differ? Depending on your position, you can define truth in different ways, and there are definitely a plurality of credible definitions, at least amongst philosophers. There is certainly no consensus on what ‘truth’ means. Furthermore I think that almost any ‘worldview’ or ‘religion’ is likely to suggest that truth is a cherished value, whether or not they define truth as you do or whether or not the things that they believe actually are true according to you or to them. Given this, it makes perfect sense to understand an appeal to truth as a powerful rhetorical device. I’m not necessarily as cynical as Ariel about our motives, conscious or unconscious, in making it, but it would be naive to suggest that we aren’t aware of what a slippery notion it is.

  134. DSimon says

    Simon, I don’t think there’s any good reason for the meaning of “truth” or “reality” to be contentious. From http://yudkowsky.net/rational/the-simple-truth there’s a great quote:

    “Frankly, I’m not entirely sure myself where this ‘reality’ business comes from. I can’t create my own reality in the lab, so I must not understand it yet. But occasionally I believe strongly that something is going to happen, and then something else happens instead. I need a name for whatever-it-is that determines my experimental results, so I call it ‘reality’. This ‘reality’ is somehow separate from even my very best hypotheses. Even when I have a simple hypothesis, strongly supported by all the evidence I know, sometimes I’m still surprised. So I need different names for the thingies that determine my predictions and the thingy that determines my experimental results. I call the former thingies ‘belief’, and the latter thingy ‘reality’.”

  135. Stacy says

    Simon, we’re forced to use “truth” as a shorthand*. I don’t see any way around that.

    Ariel isn’t pointing out that the appeal to truth is a powerful rhetorical device. He’s using “rhetoric” in the sense of “Language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful.” He’s saying that we’re using an appeal to truth dishonestly.

    * Gnus are promoting a particular epistemology, the one that seems to work best (note: not perfectly, but best) in determining the truth value of claims.

    We aren’t just offering a competing claim, where they say “God exists” is true, and we say “God doesn’t exist”. We’re saying, it’s important to look at the evidence for and against these claims. We’re promoting our way of looking at evidence.

  136. says

    DSimon,

    The debate over the meaning of truth has several dimensions. First, it has an ontological dimension. What categories of reality are available? Is there an objective, mind-independent reality? Then it has an methodological. How can we access these categories? Is there a category that is accessible through intuition, for example? There is an epistemological dimension. How can we be certain of our knowledge claims? For example, if there is an intuition category, or some other kind of wholly subjective category, how can we infer, test, or abduce (google that term if you don’t recognise it!) knowledge claims?

    This leads to several possible understandings of truth. Yudkowsky’s is definitely the most common, most practical, and in my opinion most generally useful one. But it isn’t going to be sufficient or appropriate for certain discussions. These discussions might only happen within niche discourses, such in academia, but they nevertheless relate to trying to understand the epistemic warrant to our knowledge in a very important way: how and what can we know? If this bores you, there is absolutely no reason for you to feel obligated to explore these discussions, but it is still important to recognise that they take place, and that you might stumble into one without realising it. The most eminent philosophers have struggled with ‘truth’ since they first tackled the idea, and that is the best possible indication that it is indeed a contentious concept. Unless you think Yudkowsky has actually figured out how to end the discussion, though I’d suggest this is a conclusion that takes quite a bit of, erm, chutzpah to advance.

    Stacy,

    I’m not disputing that we can’t avoid the term truth. I’m saying only that we should be sensitive to the possibility that our interlocutors are using it to mean something entirely different than what we take it to mean, and that it is therefore possible that we are all talking past one-another. As for what Ariel means by rhetoric, while I get the sense that he’s talking about persuasion, I’m not sure he thinks that they are wholly insincere. I’d appreciate him clarifying that, unless I’ve missed something entirely, which is possible.

    Gnus promote an epistemology that looks something like a strange mishmash of positivism and realism, from what I can tell. It works best, at a general level, for producing claims that appear true according to a kind of definition of ‘true’ similar to what DSimon, Yudkowsky, and hopefully most reasonable people use in most kinds of discussions and dilemmas. I think this is definitely relevant to discussions of whether or not God exists, but I also think that there are discussions of religion where this kind of understanding of truth is not applicable. In particular, discussions of morality, metaphysics, and intersubjectivity require use to start being more pedantic and exacting. Again, this might very well not at all be the level at which most people talk about religion, but it is important for us to recognise when it is.

  137. Ariel says

    Hello again,

    I’m sorry guys and girls, but the fun is over (for the reason: see #142). From now on I restrict myself to pure matter-of-fact comments. My apologies Greta for contributing to the Pharyngulization of this thread. (I remember you saying some time ago that Pharyngula-style discussions can be fun, and indeed they can :-), but it is your blog, with your rules, and I will abide.)

    Stacy:

    You’re right. I reacted too quickly. I saw “Truth for everybody!” as a simplistic reduction of our position. On second thought, I’m willing to accept it as a slogan.

    Fine.

    You claimed that we’re “appealing to truth” as a rhetorical device or “last bastion”; that truth is not a cherished value of ours. I responded by pointing to the fact that anybody who reads what we’ve written can see that questions of truth and its value are at the forefront of our movement. (…) Your obvious skepticism about our motives is beside the point

    First about what I claimed.

    My first post #73: “it happens very rarely (if at all) that the respect for truth is a primary motive for someone’s deep engagement and moral fervor.” Read also later: “if someone tells me “Truth (..) motivates me (..) … then I smell a politician …” and so on. I asked also: “Is your fervor really motivated by the fact that naturalism hypothesis is so “entirely fascinating” and “freaking awesome”?”

    My second post #85: “The observation I made was: my everyday experience tells me that truth rarely (if ever) is a primary motive of someone’s activity and moral fervor. Do you deny it? Is your experience that different?”

    Compare also #87, where ‘Tis Himself, OM didn’t have the slightest problem with understanding what I say, and asked a (obviously valid) question: “I’m particularly impressed with how you know every other atheists’ motivations much better than we do ourselves”.

    My post #95: “The whole point, which you (very consistently) missed is that I don’t believe in a commitment to truth as an important motive for a political movement.”

    Stacy, how many times should I repeat this before you get it? Why do you distort what I said? Do you really think that I deny that the gnus present “questions of truth and its value at the forefront of our movement”, so that you have to “point that fact” to me? Of course they present it that way, I stated it already in my first post clearly enough for anybody who can read. And the whole point is that I find it motivationally hollow. I’m at a loss with you, Stacy, like a woman who says “no” eleven times and is still interpreted as saying “yes”. My “obvious skepticism about our motives is beside the point”? Then what point are you discussing and why the hell with me?

    By the way: you don’t read not only what I say, but also what Daniel says. A quick confrontation.

    Stacy:

    This was not my argument, or Daniel’s. Your obvious skepticism about our motives is beside the point.

    Daniel Schealler #101:

    The commitment to truth is both an important goal of our movement as well as one of the most important motives for us creating such a movement in the first place.

    Good night!

  138. Ariel says

    Oh, Stacy and Simon: I saw your later exchange only after I send the last post. It’s very late here (after midnight) and I will try to answer tomorrow. Good night again!

  139. Stacy says

    Do you really think that I deny that the gnus present “questions of truth and its value at the forefront of our movement”, so that you have to “point that fact” to me? Of course they present it that way,

    (Italics mine.)

    No. Clearly you deny that gnus truly do value “questions of truth and its value”. And that is what I’ve taken issue with in my argument with you. I pointed out that we’ve put a great deal of work into promoting those values.

    All you’re doing is repeating, over and over, that we don’t really value what we’ve worked for and say we value. You haven’t offered any evidence for that accusation.

    My obvious skepticism about our motives is beside the point?

    Yes, in this slippery little summation you tried to pass off as my argument:

    G is obviously a group working for a motive M.

    Therefore M is a proper sort of motive for groups, contrary to what the skeptic says. Doubt dismissed.

    –You tried to claim that I was speaking of “motives” when I was addressing our goals and values.

    Your contention, that we have motives that have nothing to do with our commitment to truth, based on the fact that you find said commitment “motivationally hollow” amounts to nothing but an argument from incredulity.

    Then what point are you discussing

    For the point I was discussing, see above.

    and why the hell with me?

    Good question! I think you’re thoroughly dishonest, and I’m sure if you had anything interesting to say about motives you’d have said it by now, so there’s no point in talking to you any further.

  140. DSimon says

    The most eminent philosophers have struggled with ‘truth’ since they first tackled the idea, and that is the best possible indication that it is indeed a contentious concept.

    That’s an indication that it is contentious, but not necessarily that it should be. In other words, your implication here is an ad populum fallacy.

    Before I go further: by your mention of a “wholly subjective category” I suspect you’re referring to the issues surrounding consciousness. I want to emphasize that I do not think that consciousness is a solved problem; it’s still damned mysterious stuff. The main premise here is that we can avoid that mysteriousness when considering epistemology by thinking in terms of how one would best design a system for dealing with beliefs, rather than trying to introspect on how our own minds do it.

    Unless you think Yudkowsky has actually figured out how to end the discussion, though I’d suggest this is a conclusion that takes quite a bit of, erm, chutzpah to advance.

    Well, it’s not as though Yudkowsky is the primary source of these ideas; I referenced his essay because it’s really good at expressing them. But anyways, yeah, I assert that we have arrived at a point where we can and should end most of the continuing philosophical contentions surrounding epistemology.

    To go over your points individually:

    [O]ntological dimension. What categories of reality are available? Is there an objective, mind-independent reality?

    If there were more than one objective reality, shouldn’t you just describe the whole collection of those realities as the primary objective reality? Even if these sub-realities are causally isolated from each other, it would seem very strange and un-useful to describe them as not being part of the same overall reality.

    To put this another way, I don’t think the idea of “multiple realities” or “multiple categories of reality” is coherent. For example, if you wrote a simulator for a universe that has multiple realities, how would it work any differently from a simulator for a universe that has a single reality that contains a bunch of distinct independent causal networks?

    [M]ethodological. How can we access these categories? Is there a category that is accessible through intuition, for example?

    Yeah, this one is solved, based purely upon our ability to test beliefs for validity, which I discuss below.

    There is an epistemological dimension. How can we be certain of our knowledge claims? For example, if there is an intuition category, or some other kind of wholly subjective category, how can we infer, test, or abduce (google that term if you don’t recognise it!) knowledge claims?

    To reiterate what I said earlier: We can be confident in our beliefs to the degree that the predictions they make are correct. (If you have something that can be usefully described as a belief but does not make any predictions, please explain.) Furthermore, we can describe “correct predictions” unambiguously by using the language of probability, which has gotten quite solid indeed in the last century or so.

    This all basically means that question of how to best acquire knowledge has become an engineering problem. Still a tricky one, since i.e. to actually run an ideal belief-generating system would require way more computational power than is actually available anywhere, meaning we are forced to rely on approximations (for example, some human intuitions) for practical purposes.

    But, at least we’re not stuck with a mysterious problem anymore, just a hard one.

  141. says

    I think you’re thoroughly dishonest

    And once again, I remind people; Keep it civil. No namecalling; no personal insults. Aim criticisms at ideas and behaviors — do not personally insult people. If I have to remind anyone another time, I’m going to start bringing down the banhammer.

  142. says

    DSimon,

    You’re misunderstanding my reason for noting that ‘truth’ is a hugely contentious concept for philosophers. Let me put it this way: the likelihood that there is a simple answer to the question ‘what is truth’ is probably low, given that humanity’s brightest minds still haven’t come to any kind of consensus on one. And even if there is a simple answer, it probably would take a very unusual genius to realise it.

    If you are starting to think that you know the answer, or have found someone else who seems to have it, prudence and humility would dictate that you proceed with great caution and great scepticism. The definition offered by Yudkowsky – that a statement is ‘true’ if or to the extent to which it describes a mind-independent state of affairs – is probably best for most discussions. But as I’ve already said, it becomes very problematic to apply in certain other discussions, particularly those relating to morality, affect, subjectivity, and metaphysics.

    I will not try to further unpack for you the ontological and epistemological implications of the various perspectives and problems in trying to define ‘truth’. These are vastly complex, and I have neither the space nor the qualifications to really hash it out. You might want to do some of your own research though. You earlier scoffed at the notion that there would be honest confusion and debate over whether or not ‘gravity’ is real. Perhaps you’re right to scoff, but wouldn’t it be complacent to assume this without actually figuring out for yourself why presumably bright people who specialise in thinking about that kind of thing aren’t nearly so certain, and appear so absurd?

    You might want to start with Larry Laudan. He has a few very accessible books. I liked Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s neat review of various perspectives in his book ‘The Conduct of Inquiry’ with a particular focus on how they pertain to my field. Besides its obvious relevance to the study of international relations, his presentation would be a good general ‘primer’ on key debates in the philosophy of science.

  143. DSimon says

    Let me put it this way: the likelihood that there is a simple answer to the question ‘what is truth’ is probably low, given that humanity’s brightest minds still haven’t come to any kind of consensus on one.

    I have to continue to disagree that lack of philosophical consensus indicates the difficulty of a problem:

    1. Smart people can still subscribe to un-smart ideas, particularly if those ideas have a long history, if there is social pressure behind them, or if there is not a clear pre-existing standard as to what constitutes a solution. Consider theology for a particularly bad case of this.

    2. Regarding philosophy in particular, consensus doesn’t seem to be something that it produces. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if so it does indicate that knowing that philosophers disagree with each other about X provides no more information than knowing that X is a philosophical issue.

    Historically, topics tend to leave philosophy as they become more about physical science (i.e. the idea of elan vital was part of philosophy, but as we learned more about biology it was eventually discarded) or math (i.e. Greek syllogisms eventually becoming full predicate logic and then higher-order logic). These issues eventually reached consensus among the experts in the relevant fields.

    But for the stuff that stayed, it seems that although new approaches are regularly added, but old ones don’t seem to go away. Is this a fair assessment of the field? As you point out, I’m an outsider, so my view on these matters is incomplete.

    All that said, I will add the books you mentioned to my reading list and give them a shot. I am certainly accept the possibility that I don’t know what I’m talking about; wouldn’t be the first time. :-)

  144. says

    DSimon,

    I think it really depends on the subject of the discussion. Something like ‘truth’ seems to me to be one of those concepts that will never leave the sphere of philosophy for one of the natural sciences. ‘Free will’ is another one, though it has made a partial shift. Most thinkers on it will say something like ‘determinism is trivially true’ then go back to talking about how best to conceive of agency. Incidentally, I think there is still some vibrancy to the field ‘philosophy of maths’, and conversely I’ve had some excellent conversations on consciousness with computing scientists who are well-informed on higher order theory as it pertains to their own work.

    I could tell you my personal positions on something like how to define truth. I have done enough reading and analysis on the subject to feel conversant with the basic positions or paradigms within the literature. But honestly, I’m not really much of an expert and I doubt I’d be able to sow within you much doubt, at least here on Greta’s blog – though if you would like to have an extended exchange with me on my blog, you are welcome to do so, but again I simply suggest that you try to read up on it. I find it both fascinating and quite mind-boggling. And I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an intellectual slouch, minimally capable though I am of comprehending the scope of the philosophical problems which interest me.

  145. Stacy says

    Azkyroth: Good call. (If you’re referring to what I think you are.)

    If you want to elaborate, there’s always TET. I’m outta here.

  146. llewelly says

    Ariel : March 5, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    I’m at a loss with you, Stacy, like a woman who says “no” eleven times and is still interpreted as saying “yes”.

    It is at once ridiculous and insensitive to compare Stacy’s arguments to rape.

  147. Ariel says

    Stacy #154

    You tried to claim that I was speaking of “motives” when I was addressing our goals and values.

    You presented your remarks as a criticism of what I said. My claim (repeated many times) was: truth doesn’t seem a proper sort of motive for a mass movement, and presenting it as such is politics, not reflecting psychological reality. Indeed, I assumed that you are discussing my claim (criticizing it!). Now you say: no, I was talking about something else. God bless you then, Stacy, but if you change the topic, please be kind enough to note it before accusing anyone of dishonesty!

    As for this different topic of yours:

    Clearly you deny that gnus truly do value “questions of truth and its value”.

    Do I? I’m curious what textual basis you have for that? Without cherry picking, please? Without quotes like that one:

    Truth is my cherished value, I’m a champion of the Truth!”. After such a retort is given, typically the debate begins about the truth/falsity of religion, and here the atheist is on a safe ground again. From a psychological point of view, my deep suspicion is that this retort is usually a pure and unadulterated bullshit

    where it is clearly stated that I consider a psychological (motivational, as indicated by the context) point of view … which after dozens of repetitions should be clear even to you?

    Ok: do gnus “truly value” truth? You want me to discuss that? I will. For the first time in this thread. The phrase “to value x” is ambiguous and it is simply not possible to answer the initial question with “yes” or “no” (or even with “I don’t know”) without an attempt at disambiguation. Some possible interpretations (the list may well be incomplete):

    1. To value x is to claim that x is important
    2. To value x is to believe that x is important
    3. To value x is to act in a way that promotes x
    4. To value x is to act with the intention of promoting x (the intention being a primary motive for the action)
    5. To value x is to choose consistently x over other possible outcomes

    There is probably more, but let it be for now. Now let’s consider them in turn.

    As to (1), I think it’s uncontroversial that gnus do indeed value truth in this sense. As to (2), the matter is a bit more complicated, since “belief” itself is an ambiguous notion. Nevertheless, in terms of a questionnaire, I would expect a positive answer. (3) involves an objective assessment of gnus activities (observe: no psychology here, just objective states of affairs) and I’m rather skeptical about it (all this quarrels and xxx-gates – insert for xxx your favorite – serve objectively the promotion of truth??? Hmm.) (4) in my opinion would be false; I believe that motivationally the gnus are no different than ordinary people, who rarely do something with truth being the primary motive. In the case of (5) my guess would be the same as for (4): the gnus are probably no more consistent in this respect then us, lousy accomodationist :-)

    Ok, that was rough, quick, admittedly with a lot of guessing; another long discussion could easily flow from it, I know.

    Just one more thing before I rush to work (no more posts today!):

    Simon Frankel Pratt #151

    As for what Ariel means by rhetoric, while I get the sense that he’s talking about persuasion, I’m not sure he thinks that they are wholly insincere. I’d appreciate him clarifying that, unless I’ve missed something entirely, which is possible.

    Thanks for the question. Yes, the issue is probably more complicated than a simple “lying-sincere” distinction. Of course someone could be plainly lying about one’s motivations and using the lie as an excuse. But political declarations of the sort “we, gnus, are doing all this for the truth’s sake; being helpful/harmful is secondary” (cf. a quote from Greta somewhere earlier in the discussion) may be simply delusional and reflect the wishful thinking of the speaker. Which still doesn’t exclude using such phrases as a matter of convenient strategy. If my earlier words suggested something stronger (a picture of a gnu as a cynical liar), then the words were ill chosen. But probably the suggestion wasn’t that strong if you didn’t interpret me that way.
    Anyway, my everyday experience and general knowledge of the people prohibits me from accepting such declarations at face value.

  148. says

    Ariel,

    I would disagree, at least to some extent, with your suggestion that ‘truth doesn’t seem a proper sort of motive for a mass movement, and presenting it as such is politics, not reflecting psychological reality.’ It seems perfectly reasonable to me that social movements can and have organised around the cause of truth, insofar as they unite behind a message ‘we have the correct answer to a question which society has answered incorrectly and suffered as a result’. This is perhaps a sort of ‘truth plus’. ‘Truth’ is insufficient, but truth plus a set of political goals and plans according to which society is supposed to change once the truth is properly disseminated certainly seem like a plausible description of the New Atheist motive.

    It is, of course, worth remarking that ‘spreading the truth’ with the expectation of progressive change as a result sounds a lot like missionary work.

    It is also plausible to me that individuals within the movement would believe themselves to have the primary motive of ‘speaking truth’ and only the secondary motive of political activism. I mean, I don’t think it’s very likely that these people haven’t folded in a lot of normative and instrumental assumptions, but there is no reason why they should be [self]aware of this. I even suspect that were you to successfully prompt such people to ‘unpack’ the predicted social effects of a greater appreciation for ‘Truth’, you’d get no recognition that the pursuit of these effects are motives equal to their commitment to good critical thinking for its own sake.

    I have a hard time imagining any social movement that is not convinced of the truth of its own message, and so that conviction to me is trivial. It does seem to me a very interesting sort of Enlightenment phenomenon that a social movement would deny its own essentially transformative goals, though, if that is what is happening here.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] »Reality MattersMarch 2, 2012 By Libby Anne 36 CommentsI just read Greta’s recent post, “Truth Is Not Boring,” and this quote stuck out to me:There’s something JT Eberhard says a lot in his talks, and he said [...]

Leave a Reply