The entirely parochial judgment of Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is doing his Brendan O’Neill act. There is no view from nowhere, therefore no claim is better founded than any other claim, it’s all just likes and dislikes.

 [D]espite invocations of fairness and equality and giving every voice a chance, classical liberals, like any other ideologues  (and ideologues we all are),  divide the world into “us” and “them.”  It’s just that rather than “us” being Christians and “them” Jews or vice-versa, “us” are those who subscribe to the tenets of materialist scientific inquiry and “them” are those who don’t, those who, in the entirely parochial judgment of liberal rationalists,  subscribe to nonsense and superstition.

“Entirely parochial” is it. So it’s entirely parochial to prefer evidence-based engineering to the magic kind?

I’m not criticizing liberals for standing up for, and with, their own,  only for pretending that they are, or could be,  doing something else. Liberals know, without having to think further about it, that those who oppose global warming on religious grounds are just ignorant nuts; and they know that those who deny the Holocaust, no matter what so-called facts and statistics they marshal, are just bad people; and they know that those who want creationism taught in the schools are just using the vocabulary of open inquiry as a Trojan horse.

That’s shockingly ignorant as well as smug. I’d like to see him tell Richard Evans that nonsense about the Holocaust; I’d like to see him tell Barbara Forrest that nonsense about creationism.

But the desire of classical liberals to think of themselves as above the fray, as facilitating inquiry rather than steering it in a favored direction, makes them unable to be content with just saying, You guys are wrong, we’re right,  and we’re not going to listen to you or give you an even break. Instead they labor mightily to  ground their judgments in impersonal standards and impartial procedures (there are none)  so that they can pronounce their excommunications with clean hands and pure — non-partisan, and non-tribal — hearts.

Not for the first time, I have a strong desire to see Stanley Fish in a situation where this kind of irresponsible coat-trailing would be an unaffordable luxury because he depended on the findings of properly conducted inquiry for his very life.


Bifurcated epistemology is doing it wrong

PZ is doing another talk tomorrow, at the American Atheists National Convention. Subject: “Scientists! If you aren’t an atheist, you’re doing it wrong!” Regular commenter (here as well as there) julian disagreed.


I’d say if a philosopher’s not an atheist they’re doing it wrong but a scientist can be whatevs so long as they’re sufficiently ignorant of things outside their area of expertise.

I disagreed with that. [Read more…]

What Ehrman actually says

Richard Carrier takes a look at Bart Ehrman’s article at the Huffington Post on the did-Jesus-exist question. One point Richard makes jumped out at me, because the same thing jumped out at me in Ehrman’s book.

Mistake #2: Ehrman actually says (and I can’t believe it, but these are his exact words):

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

He actually says we have such sources. We do not. That is simply a plain, straight-up falsehood. I can only suppose he means Q or some hypothesized sources behind the creedal statements in Paul or the sermons in Acts, but none of those sources exist, and are purely hypothetical. In fact, barely more than conjectural. There is serious debate in the academic community as to whether Q even existed; and even among those who believe it did, there is serious debate about whether it comes from Aramaic or in fact Greek sources or whether it’s one source or several or whether it even goes back to Jesus at all. [Read more…]

Reducing the influence of religion in the world

Victor Stenger’s talk on the panel at Moving Secularism Forward is at the Huffington Post, and I think it’s clear that he doesn’t think religious belief should be “eradicated” by sword and fire, but rather that it should be undermined and diminished over time by better ways of getting at the truth.

Scientists have to help the rest of the secular community to work toward reducing the influence of religion to the point where it has negligible effect on society. I don’t believe this is impossible. Astrology and the reading of sheep entrails are no longer used to decide on courses of events, such as going to war. Why can’t we expect the same for the imagined dialogues with an ancient tribal sky god that at least one recent president has used to justify his actions?

See? That’s not about force, or literal eradication. Divination and astrology haven’t dwindled to minority pastimes through coercion, they’ve been displaced by better methods and (up to a point, alas) by education.

Most scientists do not realize that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. This is not because they have thought about it. It is because they prefer not to think about it.

Fundamentalists know science and religion are incompatible, since science disputes so much of what is in the Bible, which they take as the literal word of God. To them, science is simply wrong and must be Christianized. A well-funded effort exists to do just that, while most scientists sit on the sidelines because they prefer not to get involved.

But science and religion have always been at war, and always will be. One of yesterday’s speakers said that he did not like to use the word “religion” but rather called it a “belief system.” Well, there are different kinds of belief systems. Science is a belief system based on reason and evidence. Religion is a belief system based on bullshit.

And one way for religion as a belief system to loosen its grip is for more people to point out that it’s based on bullshit.

Religion would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about going to church socials and celebrating rites of passage. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It instills superficial beliefs which, having been adopted without reason, cannot be displaced by reason. Magical thinking ignores evidence and favors whatever opinion is the most convenient or socially acceptable.

And by doing that, it gets things wrong. There really is a downside to getting things wrong. I can’t stress this enough.

Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. And religion is not going to change its commitment to nonsense. And that is why I call upon scientists and all thinking people to focus their attention on reducing the influence of religion in the world, with the goal of the eventual fall of foolish faith. The future depends on it.

See? Reducing the influence, not eradication.

It seems like a good goal to me.

Belief as pickpocket

I’m amicably disagreeing with Ron Lindsay at his CFI blog, where he is amicably disagreeing with Vic Stenger and PZ Myers about something both of them said at the Sunday morning panel in Orlando two weeks ago. (I was on the same panel.)

Both Stenger and Myers made various recommendations about objectives on which secularists should concentrate, but they both agreed on one point: they both asserted we should aim to eliminate or eradicate religious belief… [Read more…]

What is belief

A stack of interesting comments on the thread about getting it; about whether or not it took; about the feeling of belief. It’s interesting that they all converge, those by people like me who as far as they can tell never got it, and those by people who did get it at some point but then dropped it or flung it away. They all converge on how elusive and rare it is. Of course this isn’t a random sample, to put it mildly, and people who currently get it would produce very different comments. But the idea that this thing is elusive is interesting all the same.

It’s caused me to think that we mostly (we current non-believers) don’t really “believe” things much at all, not in the active, feeling sense that “getting it” is about. That’s not what we do with…what to call it: the furniture in our heads. Data; information; items received. [Read more…]

More than one valence

Something I’m ambivalent about:

On the one hand, there’s the value of being reasonable, and trying to see all sides of a question. There’s the value of not getting things wrong by being too one-sided; by confirmation bias; by seeing everything the way you see everything and so becoming blind to other ways of seeing everything. That’s different from the more political value of giving everybody a fair hearing, and letting people pursue the good in their own way as far as is compatible with the rights of others. The value I mean is epistemic and cognitive.

On the other hand there’s the value of countering a very loud, dominant, hegemonic, majoritarian, conformist brand of conventional wisdom.

Those two things are in tension. Hence my ambivalence.

On the one hand, as an atheist I think I have a duty to try to consider ways in which theism can be a good thing. On the other hand, as an atheist I also think I have a duty to help spread the minority view that theism is on the whole a bad thing, especially with regard to free inquiry.

Those two things are in tension.

The trouble is, there are already whole trainloads of people willing and eager to say that theism is wonderful and atheists suck. There are whole trainloads of people like that even in the UK and Australia and Canada and other places lucky enough to be more secular than the US, but in the US they also have a firm grip on the mainstream.

Given that fact I think we need a lot of unadulterated atheism just to make atheism more available. From that point of view, I actually don’t want to talk about ways in which theism can be a good thing. I want to insist that conventional wisdom notwithstanding, it isn’t.

But there’s always the nagging little voice in my ear droning away about confirmation bias and group psychology.

It’s a pain in the ass.

Second-guessing subjective experiences

Mark Vernon wrote a response to Julian’s Heathen’s Progress series. It’s got to do with the fact that cognition is embodied, which Vernon somehow takes to mean that subjective convictions are trustworthy, or something along those lines.

…the modern sceptic is suspicious of subjective convictions. They fixate on the many ways in which individuals can be self-deluded, and forget that they can also be wonderfully discerning. They miss truths that can only be known by acquaintance, which is to say, by letting them in. [Read more…]

The uses of commitment

As I was saying… in free inquiry one doesn’t want taboos, to put it mildly. In political commitments, however, one does (in a sense).

What sense? Maybe the most basic one, the one you learn slowly as a child: that other people have minds too, and they are different from yours, and you can’t treat them just any old how.

Or maybe Google’s is a better version: don’t be evil. Or that of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. Or the first clause of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

That’s a commitment rather than a fact, and everything depends on it, and it implies some taboos. To make equal rights of all humans a reality as opposed to a pretty phrase, it’s necessary to make certain kinds of behavior and discourse taboo. Calling people “niggers” or “wogs” wasn’t taboo at all a few decades ago, and now it is. I had thought that calling people “cunts” or “twats” was taboo now, but it turns out to be not as taboo as it ought to be (not as taboo as “nigger” or “kike” for instance).

That’s a taboo much more than it is a matter of free inquiry. I don’t think that by itself is a genuine problem for free inquiry (does free inquiry need to call people cunts? No.), but other taboos can be. There are subjects that are notoriously minefields, and that is obviously inimical to free inquiry into those particular subjects.

But I don’t conclude from that that therefore atheists/freethinkers who have egalitarian commitments are doing their atheism or free thinking wrong. It would be the other way around. Atheists and freethinkers who had no egalitarian commitments would in my view be the wrong kind of atheists and freethinkers, however good (tightly argued, carefully thought through, eloquently expressed) their atheism and free thought might be. They would still be atheists and freethinkers, certainly, but I wouldn’t want them as comrades. That’s all the more the case if and when they become active in their freedom from egalitarian commitments – when they take to sneering at the very idea of feminism (i.e. at the very idea of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family including women).


BioLogos snares an MIT physicist

Via Sigmund at WEIT, an MIT physicist offers part 1 of a series on “scientism.” Yes really, an MIT physicist. I know, I know.

He (Ian Hutchinson) gives the gist in the first para.

One of the most visible conflicts in current culture is between  “scientism” and religion. Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism. And if that is so, then scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake. [Read more…]