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Dec 22 2013

Douthat’s Christmas delusion

I see it’s time for Ross Douthat’s Christmas folly. Once again, we get that casual assumption that his personal freaky weird favorite religious myth is utterly true and significant, while reality is a fringe occupation. I wish I knew how that guy got to be a NYT columnist. I suspect we all wonder at the parade of wackaloons who get prime real estate on the esteemed Times’ opinion page.

He’s writing about the Jesus story, of course. The theme of his little essay is that there are three worldviews used to interpret Christmas. There’s the Biblical view, that’s all about the complete picture: gods, angels, people, the whole shebang.

Because that’s what the Christmas story really is — an entire worldview in a compact narrative, a depiction of how human beings relate to the universe and to one another. It’s about the vertical link between God and man — the angels, the star, the creator stooping to enter his creation. But it’s also about the horizontal relationships of society, because it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low.

And then there’s the waffly vague non-Catholic spiritual picture, which doesn’t try to claim that the details are real.

This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.

And then there are those damned atheists.

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

Guess which one he’s going to argue is the right and proper one?

Oh, he tries to put up the illusion of even-handedness. The spiritual view is more flexible, he says, and notice that he acknowledges that atheists can be egalitarian; he also notes that the Biblical view has the problem of “how to remain loyal to biblical ethics in a commercial, sexually liberated society” (Really? That’s the Bible’s big problem? How about why we should believe in its nonsensical stories at all?)

But ultimately, his goal is to snipe at non-Catholic interpretations of the Christmas story. The spiritual New Age version lacks the Bible’s “resources and rigor”, at which point I just about fell off my chair laughing. Rigor? In biblical theology? That word does not mean what you think it means. Both are just arcane rationalizations for whatever they want their religion to mean.

But here’s what you want to see: how does Ross Douthat dismiss godlessness?

The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

I can be fair-minded too. Part of that is actually accurate: atheism does propose “a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory.” That’s our reality. That’s what science tells us about our history and the nature of our existence. We are contingent products of chance events, shaped by necessity, alone (so far) in our universe, with no supernatural agents telling us what to do with our lives. We have had millennia of evidence, of people crying out for help to their imagined heavenly saviors, and they never answer, they never give aid, they never ever do anything that isn’t better explained by natural causes. The concepts of gods and angels fail to harmonize with the reality of human experience, and therefore cannot support any rationale for moral behavior.

The desperate rope-flinging is all done by believers. When confronted with pain and suffering, with our limitations, with our mortality, they’re the ones who conjure up ridiculous rationalizations to try and reconcile reality with their fantasy of a purposeful and benign universe. They look up to a sky where a thin film of atmosphere separates us from a vast, cold, and barren void and invent a grandfatherly puppetmaster to fill the terrifying emptiness.

Atheists turn to one another — our hope lies in substance and reality, not wishful thinking and delusion, and what we know exists are our fellow human beings, our world, and that ultimately we must rely on our interactions with what is, rather than what isn’t, to find happiness and survival. We don’t have absolute answers on how to do that, and we do have to continue to struggle to work out principles to promote that essential cooperation, but it’s absurd for someone to accuse us of absolutism (comparing us to religious advocates, no less, with no sense of irony) while arguing for a literal interpretation of an Iron Age god-myth. And further, to argue that our reliance on human values rather than theological ones is tantamount to trying to bridge a chasm with failed hopes.

You know, we’re not the ones even trying to bridge a chasm separating us from an invisible fantasy-land on the other side at all. We’re here on our side, with each other, trying to build a society that fosters equality right here.

57 comments

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  1. 1
    Karl Mann

    Excellent post.

  2. 2
    Uncle Ebeneezer

    Thank you PZ. That conclusion is beautifully written and so true.

    Douthat got to where he is by being young and conservative. The conservative gravy train is always looking for young writers and Douthat had the bonus of being Catholic in addition to White and Male. There are lots of young Libertarian writers out there but Douthat had the edge of being the more traditional Pro-life, Jesus-freak conservative which is, imo, a large part of why he went from the Atlantic to such a high profile gig at the Times.

  3. 3
    Roderick Joyce

    I second Karl.

  4. 4
    frankb

    Every aspect of Douthat’s Christian narrative (myth) is non-sensical and horrible. Just take the one small example of considering their deity like a human father. A real father that acted that way would be thrown in jail for criminal neglect and child endangerment at the very least. How does this lead to any transcendence from the low to the high?

  5. 5
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher.

    Even if that’s true, so what? Atheism doesn’t suggest that humans are robots with no desires, no goals, no self-awareness, or empathy. Like believers, we build our own morality within the context of our society and experiences, and some of the results are more fundamentalist than others. Atheists just don’t have to spend endless time rationalizing the vast gulfs between our moral views and those written down in the moldy old holy texts that we claim to be following.

  6. 6
    timgueguen

    His Mary example is interesting given that the Catholic Church doesn’t treat much of what is in the Bible as a literal description of events, while the fundie crowd that someone like Osteen is connected to claim to.

  7. 7
    everbleed

    An excellent post. But for PZ, probably not too tough to kick out. After all, the article he critiques is ridiculous and nuts. Totally, freakin’ nuts. PZ eats nuts. They are good for you. Helps the immune system.

  8. 8
    irisvanderpluym

    Douthat:

    Because that’s what the Christmas story really is — an entire worldview in a compact narrative, a depiction of how human beings relate to the universe and to one another.

    No, you ignorant dipshit. The “Christmas story” really is a regurgitated winter solstice celebration.

    He also ponders:

    whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.

    I’ll take the magnificence of a star over the pettiness of a crèche any day. And the shepherd is important because zie is human, and needs no angels’ blessing.

    I let my Times subscription lapse—between Friedman, Brooks, Dowd and Douthat et al., I found could barely keep down my breakfast. Even Krugman is incoherently drunk on the Democratic Party Kool-Aid.

    A real Christmas miracle would be Glenn Greenwald being appointed Editor of the NY Times.

  9. 9
    Ed Seedhouse

    “Once again, we get that casual assumption that his personal freaky weird favorite religious myth is utterly true and significant”

    I’m willing to grant “significant” just because there are so many people who think this way. It still to this day remains a dominant philosophy for most people in the West. A lousy philosophy in my opinion, but still “significant”. It defines and underlies most people’s “common sense” and remains very powerful in our actual lives.

    ‘atheism does propose “a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory.”’

    When people ask me if I really believe the universe is meaningless my response is “Yes, it is – isn’t it wonderful!”

    Things can be just as they are without having to have some extra ulterior reason for being that way. The night sky is wonderful and beautiful just because it is! Not to please some imagined “god”. We see it as wonderful and beautiful just because that’s the way we are! Not because some imagined all powerful entity is showing off and demanding worship for it.

    I’d go further than that though, and say that our “sense of self” actually is illusory. Of course, if we really aren’t “selves” then we can’t have a “sense of self”, can we?. We can have an illusion of “self”, but not a “sense” of self. Whenever I go looking for my “self” I can never find anything to point at and say “that’s me”. We might confuse some sense impressions as our “sense of self”, but that’s confusion, not “self”.

    However I don’t think science has yet actually disproven that we have or are “selves”. It’s only (in my opinion) failed to find any evidence to support the idea that we are. But if you look for something long enough and never find it I think it’s rational to stop believing in it.

  10. 10
    Rey Fox

    When people ask me if I really believe the universe is meaningless my response is “Yes, it is – isn’t it wonderful!”

    There was a Calvin & Hobbes comic where Calvin was pondering with Hobbes about the universe having no meaning and that nothing matters. I just remember his final line, “Or suppose everything matters. Which would be worse?”

  11. 11
    otrame

    When people ask me if I really believe the universe is meaningless my response is “Yes, it is – isn’t it wonderful!”

    Yes. Because

    Oh, Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
    consider all the worlds thy hands have made

    seems cheap and gimcrack in comparison to a universe operating within a set of laws to create what we see around us. In that sense, the “design flaws” I love to mention to my creationist acquaintances become evidence of just how wonderful it all is, that even though it is purposeless and unguided and far, far from a human conception of perfect, we still have all that wonder and awesomeness around us.

    Plus we can have sex with anyone able and willing to consent. Big plus.

  12. 12
    robro

    Very amusing that he accuses someone of syncretism. I can’t think of any system of belief more syncretic than the various Christian cults. The very reason we celebrate the “birth of Jesus” in Western European-based cultures on December 25th is due to syncretism. Romans celebrated the birth of all sorts of sun gods on that day, several of whom were born of virgins, died and were resurrected.

    And note that Orthodox Christians celebrate the day in January (January 7th in recent years). I haven’t determined why they picked that date, and it may move, but I’m sure it’s different because they weren’t dominated by the priest cults of Rome.

  13. 13
    Monsanto

    Is Ross accusing me of being intellectual? Now the cosmologically inharmonic morals is understandable since neither evolution nor morals is part of cosmology, so what is he trying to say? I don’t know how he figured out that my morals are absolute and that I’m unwilling to change as I learn, but my rope-flinging days are over.

  14. 14
    robro

    Here’s a question one of you may be able to answer: The solstice is on the 21st, yet this celebration, which is clearly related to the solstice, is several days later. Is that because it took a few days to determine that the sun was returning, that Sol Invictus was indeed unconquerable? Or has the solstice moved?

  15. 15
    kreativekaos

    Well expressed professor, well expressed. Kudos to you on this one.

  16. 16
    James Anderson

    PZ, I like your takedown of Douthat’s ignorance and silliness. But you and some of the commenters seem to grant to theists that their attitude toward an atheistic worldview is fundamentally correct. To me the real battle is over attitude. Why does the vast emptiness of space have to be terrifying? Instead we can consider it awe inspiring and interesting.

    And I think we should never say to ourselves or to others that we or the universe are meaningless. That implies we have chosen not to value the universe or ourselves. Why would we do that? Our brains flood our families and the universe with meaning; we can’t get away from meaning even if we tried, since it comes from our own heads. It is fair to say, however, that the universe doesn’t have an inherent meaning, and doesn’t need one.

    Also, it’s misleading to say that our sense of self is “illusory”. It took evolution millions of years to build the sense of self in animal brains, and I’m very impressed and grateful!

  17. 17
    otrame

    @ robro

    IIRC it’s because of the change in calendar from Julian to Gregorian, but I could be very wrong.

  18. 18
    brucecoppola

    …it’s also about the horizontal relationships of society, because it locates transcendence…

    I’m sure most of us have had some pretty transcendent horizontal relationships.

  19. 19
    jefrir

    robro

    And note that Orthodox Christians celebrate the day in January (January 7th in recent years). I haven’t determined why they picked that date, and it may move, but I’m sure it’s different because they weren’t dominated by the priest cults of Rome.

    otrame is correct; they do in fact celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, they just never switched over from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one. This means that fixed celebrations such as Christmas occur a couple of weeks later, and moveable celebrations such as Easter may differ by over a month. And Orthodox Christianity was strongly influenced by Rome, via Constantinople. They only fully split from the Roman Catholic church in 1054.

  20. 20
    robro

    otrame & jefrir — So the calendar reform explains why the Orthodox celebrate Christmas in January, which makes sense.

    However, my question was actually why the celebration of the sun’s return, which we call Christmas, is 4 days after the solstice. I believe I’ve read that the sun continues to rise at a later time for a day or two after the solstice, although the days start getting longer. Perhaps in ancient times it took a few days to verify that the sun was indeed returning and winter would eventually end.

  21. 21
    jefrir

    robro, I’d assume difficulty in calculating the exact solstice combined with inadequate calendars that led to a certain amount of drifting – or that it was never precisely tied to the solstice. I don’t know the origins of the date of Christmas (and according to Wikipedia, neither does anyone else), but I did know that the particular part of your comment I responded to was incorrect, so I supplied the correct information. Information that you could have found yourself with a trivial amount of googling.

  22. 22
    konrad_arflane

    @robro: I read somewhere that the 25th is the first day where it is easily observable that the shadows cast by the sun at midday are getting shorter from day to day and not longer. Dunno if it’s true, but I imagine that the exact time of sunrise was difficult to measure with the precision required back then.

    @irisvanderpluym:

    No, you ignorant dipshit. The “Christmas story” really is a regurgitated winter solstice celebration.

    The biblical Christmas story doesn’t tell us the time of year, so no, not really. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that the bit with the shepherds in the fields contradicts the December 25th date, since at that time of year it would be too cold to let the sheep stay in the field overnight.

  23. 23
    robro

    jefrir — Thanks. I google all the time, just not always well.

  24. 24
    Sastra

    In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

    What a basic mistake — it even has a name. The Fallacy of Division “is committed when a person infers that what is true of a whole must also be true of its constituents and justification for that inference is not provided.” If the universe as a whole does not have a meaning (iow it’s not a tool made for a purpose), then that means that no person in the universe has any meaning, their lives have no meaning, their goals have no meaning, and all hopes and joys and experiences and insights are pointless and “illusory.”

    Why? Because we have to trace and anchor every single part into a property of the Whole. Why? Because we do. Duh.

    It’s the reasoning of a very small child and it always makes me squirm in embarrassment for the person making it. There’s no sense of nuance, no recognition of categories, no abstract thinking, no distinction between why a thing exists and what it is for. It’s like a not particularly bright three-year-old insisting that if DADDY didn’t say to do it then it doesn’t count or matter if you do. You need a grown-up in charge so you can do what you’re told or else there is no task to be rewarded or punished for. There’s nothing but a big empty hole where good and evil and right and wrong should be, a chasm which the amoral toddler cannot leap.

    I just love the way Douthat refers to the entire fields of ethics, philosophy, and science as “rope bridges flung across this chasm” — the chasm created when there is no BOSS Moral from which morals can fall or they’re not real.

    No, wait, I lied. I hate it.

  25. 25
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    robro

    However, my question was actually why the celebration of the sun’s return, which we call Christmas, is 4 days after the solstice.

    The short answer is, once again, calender reforms. The longer answer is the Christmans was never on the Solstice. Saturnalia, at one time, peaked on the solstice (the actual celebration lasted 3-7 days depending on the era). The Julian reforms (the establishment of the Julian calendar) set this date as the 25th. By the time that Christmas became the name of the celebration, the calendar had once again drifted away from the solar year (the original reason for the Julian reforms), leaving the solstice on a different date. By the 1500s, it was getting quite far off from the solar year, hence the Gregorian reforms.

  26. 26
    chigau (違う)

    January 6 is Epiphany.
    That’s when the Wise Men showed up with gifts.
    It is a separate Holy Day from Christmas.

  27. 27
    imthegenieicandoanything

    A conservative Catholic is the most stubbornly irritating of creatures still, unfortunately, human. They are, generally, not as impetuously dangerous as most other so-called “religions” but make up for that on the personal level by being insufferably proud of being able to say their wrong is right.

    When someone turns Muslim or Hindu, it isn’t very admirable, while being a converted Jew just seems weird. Still, I grant anyone the freedom to choose a hobby to peacefully be obsessed by – so long as I don’t have to listen much to their prattling or do anything to assist them. Turning Catholic seems to affect people far deeper, as it brings out the insufferable bore in them and poisons every good quality they may have had.

    Still, that’s a side point here. Douthat was probably born an insufferable bore and clueless shit before he was even baptized. He is really a poster child for the stupidity and dishonesty of both Catholics and religion generally.

    The New York Times! What a fucking joke, unfunny!

  28. 28
    Nick Gotts

    an entire worldview in a compact narrative – Ross Douthat

    *chuckle*
    There are in fact two birth narratives for Jesus in the NT: one in the Gospel of Matthew, the other in the Gospel of Luke. They are directly contradictory: the G of L says Jesus was taken from his alleged birthplace in Bethlehem directly to Jerusalem (as soon as his mother was no longer unclean from giving birth to the son of God). The G of M says he was taken from Bethlehem to Egypt to avoid being massacred (Joseph apparently never thought to warn anyone else after God told him to light out). I checked carefully, and I can confirm that Jerusalem was not in Egypt then any more than it is now.

  29. 29
    gijoel

    You shouldn’t really ask astrologers for directions either

  30. 30
    David Wilford

    I think Douthat missed at least one worldview:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVGJgJ5cReg

    Charles Schultz, FTW.

  31. 31
    David Marjanović

    as soon as his mother was no longer unclean from giving birth to the son of God

    That’s fully deliberate, I’m sure: it was put in to emphasise that Jesus was Fully Man®, a being of real flesh & blood, in explicit contradiction to Docetism.

  32. 32
    Scr... Archivist

    Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely.

    Relatively rare?! The secular elements of what is currently called “Christmas” predominate, at least in the United States.

    89% give presents to family members
    86% gather with friends and family for a meal
    80% put up a tree, while 77% decorate their homes in other ways
    79% listen to Christmas music (much of which is secular, and that will only increase with time)
    69% send cards
    61% watch fictional Christmas movies (as opposed to 34% of households which watch Biblical (the other kind of fictional) Christmas movies)

    The pattern I see with these practices is people connecting with their friends and families, in the here and now, regardless of distance, as the year ends. It is far more “horizontal” than praising masters on high.

    Coming in eighth in this particular survey is the most common Christian activity at this time of year, encouraging belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. That was at 58%. Yes, you read that right. Ralphie Parker, Dorothy Gale, and George Bailey are bigger Christmas stars than the one in the Gospels.

    And all the other religious parts of the holiday are lower on the list. Even going to church for the special annual show is a minority activity.

    So Douthat is mistaken that secular worldview as seen through the lens of Christmas is “relatively rare”. Instead, I would argue that the secular part is now more central than the religious part. And that’s a good thing which makes sense in a secularizing society.

    (These figures are from the 2010 LifeWay Research survey, which I linked to in a comment in Greta Christina’s blog a couple of days ago.)

  33. 33
    aaronbaker

    Kevin Drum’s response to Douthat is also worth reading:

    http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2013/12/secular-ethics-are-doing-just-fine-thank-you-very-much

  34. 34
    vaiyt

    no distinction between why a thing exists and what it is for.

    To a Christian, those things are effectively undistinguishable.

  35. 35
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    I think Douthat missed at least one worldview:

    Another massive non-sequitur by a religious apologist….

  36. 36
    mikeyb

    I don’t know who is more irritating – Douthat or David Brooks. I’ll call it a tie. Both are muddling wrong almost all the time in complementary ways.

  37. 37
    Gregory in Seattle

    @robro #14 – It has to do with the precession of the equinoxes. Basically, the earth has a “wobble”, with the axis making a full circle in about 26,000 years. The most notable effect is that the equinoxes and solstices very slowly fall back through the calendar. When the Julian calendar was set, the equinoxes and solstices were on the 25th; because of precession, they have fallen back to fall mostly on the 21st. In a few centuries, they will usually occur on the 20th.

  38. 38
    Gregory in Seattle

    If I am reading his thesis correctly, Douthat is claiming that every non-Christian is an atheist. I expect that would come as a shock to most Muslims and Hindus, which are the second and third largest faiths on the planet. Buddhists…. probably not so much of a shock.

  39. 39
    Allan Frost

    It has to do with the precession of the equinoxes. Basically, the earth has a “wobble”, with the axis making a full circle in about 26,000 years.

    IIRC Zeitgeist: The Movie does a good job illustrating this at the beginning of the movie. You might want to stop watching after that though… unless you like 9/11 conspiracy theories.

  40. 40
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @ Gregory

    every non-Christian is an atheist

    Atheist, from ἀθέοι, reffered to people who did not believe in The True Gods (ie Zeus & Co.)

    The term was used by the Pagans to describe xtians. The upstart xtians’ lack of belief was quite beyond the pale.

  41. 41
    yellowsubmarine

    Is it pronounced “do that” or “doubt hat”? I hope it’s the second one.

  42. 42
    tomtethys

    This is a quotation from Marmion by Sir Walter Scott which, I think, sums up all religious rhetoric and christian theology in particular.
    “Oh what a tangled web we weave
    When first we practice to deceive”.

  43. 43
    brianpansky

    The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

    um, no, that isn’t a criteria for intellectual coherence. (never mind that actually looking at the cosmos reveals the benevolent-god idea and the we-are-why-the-universe-is-here idea to be silly, so any “coherence” problem is all his)

    i think it is worth noting that religion tries to solve all (or many) problems with the same answer (for christians, this is “god”).

    http://idreamofgiygas.tumblr.com/post/56907337614/religions-usually-tend-to-have-a-certain-number-of

    i don’t think this is a good thing. when you get all of your answers from one place (and add in the extra complication that these answers are not tentative, they are final) it’s why religion gets in the way of so many topics, including: science, health, sexuality, politics, etc. it’s set up entirely wrong. it doesn’t allow for learning better models, or shifting views on one topic without interfering with unrelated topics.

    also, moral philosophy might not “harmonize” with cosmology, but neither does furniture design, or ______ (insert something here).

    different subjects sometimes require different answers. i don’t think this should be a difficult concept to grasp.

  44. 44
    samurai

    Nope, Ross Douthat does not mention ‘damned atheists’ in his post.
    Why do you, PZ, put your words into the mouths of other people?

  45. 45
    cope

    robro,

    Here is a nice explanation of the lag twixt the solstice and christmas day.

  46. 46
    hexidecima

    Bets that Doubt-that thinks that the “wise men” visited the manger against all “evidence” in his story book?

  47. 47
    fabianocaccin

    The stars and angels disappear

    We can make stars disappear and no one told me anything?

  48. 48
    Akira MacKenzie

    Samurai @ 44

    PZ didn’t have to put anything anywhere. Like all smarmy, passive-agressive assholes, Douthat was certainly implying it.

  49. 49
    Iain Walker

    samurai (#44):

    Nope, Ross Douthat does not mention ‘damned atheists’ in his post. Why do you, PZ, put your words into the mouths of other people?

    He didn’t put words in anyone’s mouth. He just read for context (which you apparently didn’t).

  50. 50
    Rey Fox

    PZ didn’t put “damned atheists” in quotation marks, so what’s the problem?

  51. 51
    Iain Walker

    Ed Seedhouse (#9):

    Whenever I go looking for my “self” I can never find anything to point at and say “that’s me”.

    Very Humean of you. ;)

    However, the whole “self-is-real” vs “self-is-illusory” debate seems to me to be a product of an old philosophical confusion in which the pros (e.g., Descartes) and the antis (e.g., Hume) make the same mistake – that of reifying impressions based on introspection. Descartes thought he’d identified a “self”, while Hume thought there was no such thing to be found.

    If I want to point to something and say “that’s me”, and be understood as meaning something by it, then all I have to do is point at (variously) my body, my reflection, a picture of myself etc., depending on context. The primary meaning of “self” as a noun is an individual subject of conscious experience, so if you want to point to it, you just point to whatever thing happens to be the subject in question – in our cases, particular members of the species Homo sapiens. Both Descartes and Hume were looking in the wrong place, using the wrong method, based on confused assumptions.

    We might confuse some sense impressions as our “sense of self”, but that’s confusion, not “self”.

    If by “sense impressions” you mean impressions gained through introspection, then yes. Introspection really isn’t a useful or reliable tool for this sort of thing.

    However, once one rids oneself of residual Cartesian assumptions, and understands the expression “sense of self” as meaning something more like “sense of oneself as an individual subject of experience”, then sensory input actually looks pretty essential to forming and maintaining said sense. Our ability to tell where we end and the rest of the world begins? Sense-based. Our ability to locate ourselves relative to other objects in our environment? Sense-based. Our ability to think of ourselves as agents that affect that environment? Sense-based. So while our sense of self isn’t a sense impression of a thing called a self (that’s just a Cartesian, and curiously literal-minded, reading of the phrase), our sense impressions nevertheless form the basis for our sense of ourselves. And that doesn’t strike me as constituting any kind of confusion.

  52. 52
    Inaji

    Iain! It’s great to see you here again.

  53. 53
    Iain Walker

    Thank you! I’m probably just passing through, unfortunately – the days when I had the time to let myself get sucked into lengthy debates are long gone, and since I suffer from the most hideous form of SIWOTI known to humankind, I try and limit any commenting to just the occasional.

    :-(

    (Oh, and just to show my age – Happy Monkey, all)

  54. 54
    Ed Seedhouse

    “However, once one rids oneself of residual Cartesian assumptions, and understands the expression “sense of self” as meaning something more like “sense of oneself as an individual subject of experience”, then sensory input actually looks pretty essential to forming and maintaining said sense.”

    For the life of me I don’t understanding how a combination of impressions from various senses can be called a “sense” apart from the senses that make it up. A belief in “self” I can see. But if a self doesn’t actually exist then there can’t be a sense of self or a perception of self by definition.

    This whole subject involves too many subtleties than we can really deal with here. For one thing I don’t deny that the human organism is aware that it exists in our actual real physical world. But it doesn’t exist on it’s own. It may be a “self” in some sense, but it isn’t a separate self.

    I’ve checked and I find that I don’t actually have any “sense of oneself as an individual subject of experience”. Sorry. For one thing my organism is not separate from the world around it. I don’t mean that as mysticism but as a pure observable physical fact.

    In ordinary day to day life I act as though I have a “self” largely, it seems to me, because the structure of our language insists that the universe is divided into verbs and nouns. And of course that language is a powerful survival mechanism, but it did not evolve to be a precise description of reality, and it isn’t. It evolved to help us survive and as such appears to be a smashing success, at least so far. It describes the world well enough to be a big help in survival and for evolution that’s enough.

    The “I” of my particular language seems to me to be much like the “it” in the sentence “It is raining”. What is this mysterious “it” that somehow does the raining? It isn’t there at all, of course, but is a handy positional tool to allow us to speak concisely without having to describe the whole complex process of raining every time we want to communicate the simple straightforward experience.”

    I think the “self” is an abstraction in other words. As such it is an actual real abstraction that exists in actual real human minds, but not a separate actual real “thing” in the world.

    If you light a candle and see the flame and then go away for a few minutes, when you return you will probably think that the flame is still burning. You will likely think of it as the same flame that it was when you left, but there is of course not one molecule of the past flame left in the present one.

    The flame is merely a relatively persistent pattern of matter. That’s what I think we are, relatively persistent patterns. The patterns that we are are perfectly real, but they are not separate from the world any more than the flame of the candle is separate from the candle.

  55. 55
    Rutee Katreya

    Very amusing that he accuses someone of syncretism. I can’t think of any system of belief more syncretic than the various Christian cults. The very reason we celebrate the “birth of Jesus” in Western European-based cultures on December 25th is due to syncretism. Romans celebrated the birth of all sorts of sun gods on that day, several of whom were born of virgins, died and were resurrected.

    What about the ones that don’t actually suppress the religions who’s practices they use?

    ffs.

  56. 56
    Iain Walker

    Ed Seedhouse (#54):

    For the life of me I don’t understanding how a combination of impressions from various senses can be called a “sense” apart from the senses that make it up.

    “Sense” is a loose term (I thought you were using it loosely too, otherwise I’d have clarified). But a slightly similar usage would be to speak of a “sense of dread” – this is more a combination of impressions than a “sense” as well, but the usage is common enough. In the context of this discussion, however, “awareness of” or maybe even “non-inferential understanding of” might be a better term.

    For one thing I don’t deny that the human organism is aware that it exists in our actual real physical world. But it doesn’t exist on it’s own.

    Of course it doesn’t – an agent without an environment is an incoherent notion. But an agent and its environment are still distinct, in that the agent is an identifiable particular that can be picked out from the rest of the environment, both from the agent’s first-person point-of-view and a observer’s third-person point-of-view.

    It may be a “self” in some sense, but it isn’t a separate self.

    Separate from what? Why should a self be separate from anything unless you’re still assuming something like a Cartesian model?

    I’ve checked and I find that I don’t actually have any “sense of oneself as an individual subject of experience”. Sorry.

    Unless you’re a p-zombie, I’m afraid I find that hard to believe. Do you not have experiences? Are you not self-aware? Are you not able to tell the difference between yourself and other objects in the world, including (and especially including) other subjects of experience? If the answers to those questions are “no”, then you do have such a sense.

    For one thing my organism is not separate from the world around it.

    Of course not, but how is this relevant? It’s a distinguishable individual thing in a world of distinguishable individual things. And you, presumably, are able to make that distinction in your own case as a matter of course.

    The “I” of my particular language seems to me to be much like the “it” in the sentence “It is raining”. What is this mysterious “it” that somehow does the raining? It isn’t there at all, of course, but is a handy positional tool

    There is certainly a debate to be had about whether the first-person pronoun is best construed as a referring expression or as a modifier for certain performative utterances. Or indeed, whether it can function as either in different contexts. However, this is a sematic point rather than an ontological one. The world still contains self-aware agents conventionally denoted by labels such as “Ed Seedhouse” and “Iain Walker”, and they are quite capable of identifying themselves as such. The precise linguistic function of the term “I” doesn’t change that.

    I think the “self” is an abstraction in other words. As such it is an actual real abstraction that exists in actual real human minds, but not a separate actual real “thing” in the world.

    I can’t help thinking of Gilbert Ryle’s classic example of a category error: A group of tourists are shown around Oxford, and they see the colleges, the labs, the faculty and administrative buildings etc. and they then complain that they haven’t seen the university – because they mistakenly think that the university is something separate from its constituent colleges and buildings and departments. If you treat the notion of “self” in the same way (as Descartes and Hume did), then of course you’re likely to conclude that it isn’t real.

    You’re a self-aware agent and subject of experience which is also an organism of the species Homo sapiens and you are capable of identifying yourself as such and of using the first-person pronoun correctly when talking about yourself (even if strictly speaking you’re not using it as a straightforward referring term). If you think that your “self”, or your being a “self”, is something over and above this, then I think you’re in a similar position to Ryle’s tourists. Whether they realise it or not, Ryle’s tourists have in fact seen the university – when they saw the constituent buildings. And you see your supposedly elusive “self” every time you look in a mirror.

    If you light a candle and see the flame and then go away for a few minutes, when you return you will probably think that the flame is still burning. You will likely think of it as the same flame that it was when you left, but there is of course not one molecule of the past flame left in the present one.

    Well, it is the same flame – by the normal criteria for re-identification of flames, which have nothing to do with the specific molecules it contains and everything to do with the spatio-temporal continuity of the chemical reaction. Similarly, one can step in the same river twice, because a river is a geographical feature, not a collection of specific water molecules.

  57. 57
    Ed Seedhouse

    >> It may be a “self” in some sense, but it isn’t a separate self.

    > Separate from what? Why should a self be separate from anything unless you’re still assuming
    > something like a Cartesian model?

    But this seems to be the “sense of self” that most people seem to have. Their model of their “self” is a model of a self that stands apart and is separate from the world. In fact in the normal course of daily affairs that’s what my commonsense model of my “self” is, too. Sometimes when I think about that, the commonsense model seems to go away for some time, and the world feels different to me. But I have a long training in the other view and eventually it creeps back, almost unnoticed.

    Now if the normal everyday commonsense view of “self” that most people act on the basis of is actually wrong, I don’t think that this can be a good thing. We’ve overthrown dualism in the sciences but we still use a purely dualistic view to run our world! We obviously aren’t doing great a job overall of doing that, and I suspect that our delusional views about just who and what we are has quite a lot to do with that.

    I can agree that my organism is a distinct part of our universe and in it our universe has mysteriously evolved consciousness and language. I just think that imagining there is a separate “self” that acts as a separate agent is a mistaken view that most people carry in their minds (and that includes myself much of the time), and that can’t really be a good thing in the long run.

    I think it might be a good thing if science somehow develops a way of freeing people from this illusory “sense” of a separate self quickly and safely. Some Buddhists and Hindus have been trying to do this for a couple thousand years, off and on, but not very well. Not surprising because they haven’t understood science.

    On the other hand I might be wrong and it might be a disaster.

    But we atheists haven’t really freed ourselves from religious superstitions if we continue to carry around unfounded ideas about our “selves” that are inherited from the very religions we are trying to be free of.

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