On doubt

I’m talking about doubt in a few places at the moment. The feeds of my comments don’t cover stuff outside LJ (I was using CoComment, but decided that was too risky), so here’s where the action is:

Over at Hermant the Friendly Atheist‘s place, top Christian evangelist Lee Strobel turns the tables on us, and invites other Christian authors to ask atheists hard questions about atheism. You can see my responses over there. Greta Christina has some good thoughts on the questions.

The most interesting questions were Plantinga‘s stuff on whether having brains which evolved means we can’t trust them, and Mike Licona‘s question: what would make you doubt your atheism?

Lily the Peaceful Atheist (by the way, what’s with all these atheists being nice and fluffy? I want to be a fundamentalist atheist rationalist neo-humanistic secular militant like my hero, Richard Dawkins) talks about doubting atheism in a two part posting (part 1, part 2). She’s not impressed with Strobel and friends, but rather, talks about the “emotional doubts” of the ex-Christian: the fear of death, and the feelings evoked by Christian music. I understand those sorts of feelings, having had them myself. Still, I’m enough of a scientist (and enough of an evangelical) to want facts rather than emotion.

I said that I ought to be able to doubt atheism, and also other long held beliefs. The problem with saying “I want to doubt” is that it’s a noble statement, but if that’s all it is, it’s useless. As gjm11 says, half the problem is knowing what to doubt. With that in mind, I thought I’d ask you lot:

What should I doubt?

This doesn’t have to be religion/atheism, of course, although you’re welcome to suggest that if you like (<evil grin>).

Here’s a list of stuff I think about religion, philosophy, science and politics, so you can tell me where you think I could be wrong. Anonymous comments are allowed edited: but please sign yourself with some kind of nickname so I can tell you apart from other anonymous commenters.

<lj-cut text=”Stuff I think. Prepare to be alienated.”>Religion/philosophy: The sort of god that I used to believe in almost certainly doesn’t exist. Jesus probably existed, but God’s not saying much these days, so who cares? Non-evangelical sorts of god are too vague to bother with. Philosophically, I am a tentative materialist, and an interventionist moral relativist.

Science: global warming is real and caused by humans, but I don’t know what I personally should do about it. I don’t fly much because it’s dull and the security theatre is frustrating (“Time to spare, go by air” © my Dad), but I do drive to work. David Mackay’s book made me think we should build more nuclear power stations. Homeopathy works by the placebo effect. The MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism. Ben Goldacre is god.

Politically, I’m left wing in that I’m in favour of a social safety net, the NHS, and so on. That said, New Labour have become high-handed and irrational wrt ID cards and other civil liberties issues, and on that basis I won’t shed too many tears when they lose the next election. Capitalism seems to be the least bad way of organising stuff. The Communists and whatnot I see in blogland seem to relish the moment when they’ll take power and hang the oppressors: like Christians talking about hell, the fact that this will never happen doesn’t make it any more morally acceptable. I am not a cultural relativist in the usual sense of that phrase.

I think the US-influenced identity politics that seems so popular here on LiveJournal is often bulshytt, and more interested in piety than achieving its stated goals (see also). As a white, male etc. etc., getting into discussions about it is like stepping on the third rail: unless I’m talking to someone I already know to be rational, it’s not worth the trouble. That said, I think certain classes of people have systematic advantages over others, but sometimes the concept of privilege is misused in the same way that the opposition misuses evolutionary psychology. Men and women are different at the biological level and this influences brains, but popular reporting of this stuff never talks about standard deviations and whatnot.

So, fire away 🙂

64 thoughts on “On doubt”

  1. Most of the “hard questions about atheism” seem to be just “god of the gaps” stuff. My problem with that is that the underlying assumption behind “I don’t know the answer to challenge X about the nature of existence”, or “I don’t have a plausible explanation for Bible verses Y” being one of “Therefore Christianity is true”, because Christianity, for all its infighting, still requires quite specific beliefs in a particular anthropomorphic higher power, which seems to require a very specific and colossal suspension of disbelief.

    What if we grant that there is some kind of magical entity that created the universe? It doesn’t even being to follow that this entity gives the first hint of a flying fuck, if you’ll excuse my French, about humans. A suggestion that we might be like ants to such a being would be overstating the case – people notice ants. If we grant “there is a god” as a premise, I don’t see that as raising the odds of there being anything in Christianity much beyond the assumption of no god. To get to Christianity from there requires a whole lot of working, which strangely never gets to be shown. It still ultimately just makes Bibles bits of paper, and it’s hubris to assume that the universe and its hypothetical creator has any capacity to care about what we think.

    ETA: The short version of that might be summed up as, “No I don’t want to hear about Jehova. Get the hell off my porch!”

    1. Most of the “hard questions about atheism” seem to be just “god of the gaps” stuff

      Yes, I noticed that. I’ve talked about the God of the gaps stuff before.

      One Christian response to this objection would be to show some working in the form of evidence that Jesus was resurrected, say (which some Christians and atheists do spend a lot of time arguing about). Strictly, that doesn’t make the connection between Jesus and whatever created the universe, but it’d add to the evidence if they could manage it.

      1. Strictly, that doesn’t make the connection between Jesus and whatever created the universe

        Perhaps it removes one of the significant zeroes after the decimal point. I’d still feel there were a few hundred left, however.

    1. To doubt atheism? I’m not sure (hehe). It’s the sort of question which it’s difficult to imagine we’ll ever have an answer to. If you define “God” as “the reason why there’s something rather than nothing”, then you’ve not said much else about God (see auntysarah‘s comment, above), and indeed, I don’t think you’ve explained very much. If you say “the Christian God, who was incarnate as Jesus, answers prayers, etc. etc. is the reason why there’s something rather than nothing”, then one might equally ask why there’s that God rather than nothing, or indeed, another sort of God.

      1. Ahh, but I was neither defining God as the reason there’s something rather than nothing (at least not at this stage), and neither was I defining God. I was merely asking whether it would be possible for you to doubt about why there’s something, rather than nothing?

        1. I was merely asking whether it would be possible for you to doubt about why there’s something, rather than nothing?

          In that case, I don’t understand. What belief am I supposed to be doubting?

    1. Perl users burn in Hell forever. That may seem harsh from a human perspective, but an infinite offence deserves an infinite punishment. Of course, when I say “burn”, you shouldn’t understand this to be literal flames, but rather, they are shut out from the presence of Guido (blesséd be he) and made to debug other people’s Perl code for all eternity. Whenever they think they’ve found the right combination of punctuation characters to get a reference to a list of hashes of lists, the boulder rolls back to the bottom of the hill and they have to start again.

      I use Python for scripting stuff. It’s clean and fits in my brain. The language itself has grown a bunch of clever things I don’t know much about (meta-classes, decorators) since I first learned it, but I don’t have to care about those for most of my use of it.

      I don’t write desktop applications for Windows or Linux, so I don’t know what I’d use if I did. At work I write C and the odd bit of assembler. C is probably the least bad thing for what we do (deeply embedded real time stuff). It is cranky and surprising in all sorts of odd ways, but you can write it in such a way that you know what you’re going to get out, and you can get tool support for it on our slightly odd processor.

      1. No, no, you’ve got it wrong. Only *some* Perl users burn in Hell.

        Diligent Perlists, by meditation on Perl koans, gradually reduce the number of keystrokes needed for each script. When this reaches zero, they have achieved enlightenment!

        It is not known what happens to such beings. Some may walk out of this universe entirely. But it is rumoured that some of them, out of their infinite compassion, provide technical help to those suffering in Hell.

      2. Finally, something we can disagree on! 3:->

        Personally I’ve got no stake in Perl. I must have written about ten lines’ worth in my life. I enjoy a lot of Larry Wall’s statements, and the concept of a linguistically-founded programming language is interesting, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

        Which brings me round to Python. Guido seems a bit anti-FP for my liking, though the existence of Python itself seems to have done a lot to increase people’s *pleasure* in programming, which is something I’m all for.

        1. Python has some constructs that are a bit functional, from what little I know of functional programming (I keep thinking I should learn a functional language and then not being arsed: this is clearly a manifestation of belief in belief). Python’s certainly fun.

  2. > David Mackay’s book made me think we should build more nuclear power stations.

    My recollection from hearing him talk is that nuclear isn’t renewable either, and is only a stopgap. Giant solar farms in the sahara are the long-term answer :-).

    > I don’t fly much… but I do drive to work

    The you should follow DMK’s example and quantify which of these is pumping out more CO2. Then you’d know which one to feel guilty about. This doesn’t have much to do with doubt though, sorry.

    > I’m interested in your programming language religious beliefs, can you talk a bit about those?

    Oh yes: do perl users burn in hell?

    -William

    1. My recollection from hearing him talk is that nuclear isn’t renewable either, and is only a stopgap. Giant solar farms in the sahara are the long-term answer :-).

      Yep, Mackay says that, ISTR. The problem is what to do between the oil running out and inventing Mr Fusion. The French seem to be more organised about this than we are.

      The you should follow DMK’s example and quantify which of these is pumping out more CO2. Then you’d know which one to feel guilty about. This doesn’t have much to do with doubt though, sorry.

      My car emits 181 g_CO2/km according to the DVLA. It’s 17.5 km to work, so 35 km to work and back. If I work 47 weeks of 5 days in a year, that’s about 1500 kg of CO2 per year. Flying to Spain and back releases the equivalent of 1322 kg of CO2 per passenger, according to these people, so a single holiday and driving for a year are roughly comparable. Looks like I should take more holidays in the UK.

      I guess it’s not about doubt so much as belief in belief, again: if I believe global warming is real, rather than believing I should believe it, then it ought to affect my actions.

      Oh yes: do perl users burn in hell?

      Yes: see above.

      1. We paid for carbon offsetting on the flight – it seemed a more practical choice than feeling guilty, although there’s some controversy over whether it achieves its aims.

        Some people have likened carbon offsets to Papal indulgences, the difference being that guilt has no effect on global warming at all.

          1. With flights, it’s usually an option when you buy it. For other stuff, I suppose you’d have to work out what your carbon footprint was and make a regular payment. So it’s less straightforward.

    2. Nuclear fission is not “renewable” in that it relies on the finite availability of fissionable materials. The real question is how long would the fuel we have last if we had a nuclear solution (by nuclear solution I mean let’s imagine for simplicity that the whole world is nuclear powered). The question really has two significant components to it:

      1. How much fuel is there? (we can get it in different ways with different levels of cost and difficulty and futureness)
      2. How do we use the fuel? (we can use it in different ways, recycle it, etc)

      The back of an envelope calculations, based on the assumption that we only have access to uranium that is already mined or can be reasonably easily (and cheaply mined) look like this:

      1. Current fuel cycle (LWR, once-through): 827,000 TWh (5.9 years)
      2. Recycling fuel cycle (Pu only, one recycle): 930,000 TWh (6.64 years)
      3. Light water and fast reactor mixed with recycling: 1,240,000 TWh (8.85 years)
      4. Pure fast reactor fuel cycle with recycling: 26,000,000 TWh (185.71 years)
      5. Advanced thorium/uranium fuel cycle with recycling: 43,200,000 TWh (308.57 years)

      So essentially (assuming we don’t manage to easily get uranium out of the sea all of a sudden or something), using existing technology we would need to persuade the world to use pure fast reactors with recycling, and then we’d have about 200 years to come up with something better (e.g. nuclear fusion). This is all very feasible and implementable now with existing technology. The problems that exist are essentially political, not technical (which is not to say they’re not real problems).

      More information over here.

    3. My recollection from hearing him talk is that nuclear isn’t renewable either, and is only a stopgap. Giant solar farms in the sahara are the long-term answer :-).

      Solar power isn’t renewable either! 😉

  3. All those questions were rather disappointing. Like one of the commenters said, the only one missing from the usual suspects was “what use is half an eye”?

    But they all seem to basically miss the point of skepticism as a general approach to living. What would doubting doubt even mean? And the thing about the brains — well, we assume at the outset that our brains fool us — hence double-blinded clinical trials and so on. None of this is new or interesting. Next they’ll be asking about god being the cause of the placebo effect…

    1. What would doubting doubt even mean?

      I don’t think they’re asking atheists to doubt doubt, they’re trying for something which looks a bit like evidence. Now, Barefoot Bum argues that theists and atheists don’t mean the same thing when they speak of “evidence”. I think the Bum is partly wrong about what’s wrong with William Lane Craig’s argument in his debate with Bart Ehrman (see my comments over at Atheist Experience): Craig admits a low prior for the Resurrection, but goes wrong when he doesn’t consider the other explanations, or indeed, use the equations for anything other than mathematical willy-waving. The Bum is right to talk of the role of disconfirmation, because that’s what Craig neglects, along with the theistic evolutionists I’ve mentioned recently. To put it in Bayesian terms, they’re neglecting the probability of the evidence given something other than their hypothesis.

      1. Craig admits a low prior for the Resurrection

        This is simply not true. Craig says,

        It’s the hypothesis that Jesus rose supernaturally from the dead. It is not the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead. [emphasis added]

        The prior plausibility that Jesus rose naturally from the dead is the probability that everything we know about biology and medicine are wrong; so fantastically improbable that a video camera in the tomb would not provide sufficient evidence to rule out clever stage magic. Craig’s Bayesian calculus is completely irrelevant if he admits a “fantastically” low naturalistic prior.

  4. Perhaps there’s more doubting you could do about the merits of rationality? I’m a good 95% signed up to the statements you make above, but I think I may have less agreement than you with the Dawkins fanboys (and they are largely male) who argue that reason is god supreme, and belief/other forms of knowing are ridiculous or stupid. What are the limits of wise use of strict logical rationality? It’s rarely a terribly appropriate tool with which to handle love, for example – in fact, love seems to me to be something that is substantially driven by faith: despite divorce rates or the likelihood of relationships ending, you’re still going to make a go of it anyway. So perhaps faith is not something to be dismissed entirely; where might it be a good?

    And if rationality isn’t terribly useful for our emotional lives (which is to say we shouldn’t abandon it entirely, but that a rational solution to a problem of feeling is little solace at all), can we be sure it’s that good for questions of life’s meaning? “Man is an animal in search of meaning”, yet strict existentialism (the rational solution) doesn’t satisfy many people… I’d doubt whether atheism is fully convincing on these issues yet.

    Finally, there’s an arrogant-Dawkins-atheist tendency to dismiss anyone who does have any sort of religious belief as stupid. However, something that looks like what we’d call religion or spirituality is one of the very few features that is universal across human history and cultures. Atheists need a sympathetic explanation for this (Marx’s ‘opium of the people’ is only permissible if one signs up to the rest of Marxism too, I’d argue! ;), and might perhaps doubt why their minority is so sure they know better than these billions. There’s room for doubt regarding how far one condemns religion – how far and why is it wrong? And what about spiritualities, zen practice and taking religious doctrine/practices as metaphor, not statements of earthly fact but only emotional truth – the thoughtful atheist might want to doubt how & why his own position is exactly better than this.

    What drives a focus on rationality and scientifically-justified atheist position is often a firm belief in truth and reality. Is there room for doubt as to the value of factual truth in all circumstances; is it always wrong to believe untrue things; is it possible to both believe and not believe something at once? In essence it’s a position driven by the human brain’s inherent cognitive flaws and limited reality-perceiving abilities – I sketch it very briefly. But if we’re just not that good at truth & reality, can we doubt that these things are supreme values/virtues?

    I suppose my atheism is not as rigorously thought out as yours (as I was never a believer needing convincing to leave a Christian/other path), and an anthropology degree makes me sympathetic to the complexities and subtleties of things-that-could-be-called-religion.** I’m interested in metaphor theory (an anthro-linguistic thing) and the potentials for fictions and flat-out-untruths for nonetheless revealing things of emotional importance and value. Consequently, I do sometimes feel that some of the atheisms I hear about risk throwing out a small core baby of intrinsic human experience with the bathwater of religious bigotry and factual untruths!

    ** Anthropology of religion is a troubled field, because, try as it might, no-one’s ever managed to formulate a complete and convincing definition of just what religion is in a world of so much diversity. (Is Zen Buddhism religion or philosophy? Can Western approaches to science sometimes take on aspects of religious-style thinking? So many questions!) Defining religion comes to look a lot like psychiatrists defining schizophrenia – no list of symptoms applies to all patients, but “you know it when you see it” is a fairly sound heuristic. Hence my ‘things-that-look-like-religion’ formulations here.

    1. What are the limits of wise use of strict logical rationality? It’s rarely a terribly appropriate tool with which to handle love, for example

      Neglecting evidence-based reasoning in love can result in becoming a stalker or a victim 🙂

      1. Ah, but I said ‘rarely’, not ‘never’! 😉

        Your example is quite right, of course – I suppose I chose to emphasise the difference because I was thinking back to a conversation I had last week with a philosopher friend. She was challenging me to logically define what love was, especially how it was anything distinctly separate from a mashup of lust, liking, familiarity, shared interests/background and so on. And I couldn’t do this satisfactorily, and I don’t think I was missing anything obvious. Rather that love is just so subjective and emotional, and without necessarily any consistency between different people’s experiences of it, that sometimes it doesn’t get on well with logical argument. It’s much too easy to feel A and not-A in love; that’s anti-rationality, right?

    2. I’m a good 95% signed up to the statements you make above, but I think I may have less agreement than you with the Dawkins fanboys (and they are largely male) who argue that reason is god supreme, and belief/other forms of knowing are ridiculous or stupid.

      I’m always fascinated by the “other ways of knowing” arguments because they’re never substantiated. The only “other way of knowing” I know about besides observation is divine revelation, and no-one is ever daft enough to actually bring that up. So what else were you thinking of?

      1. You misquote me: I didn’t talk of other forms of knowing besides observation, I said other forms beside reason. I’ll be kind and assume this was accidental, not a deliberate attempt to discredit my argument.

        Observation doesn’t have to lead to step-by-step logical reasoning; it can also provide a database of experience subconsciously guiding judgements by intuition. Reason, intuition, divine revelation – to these I’d add knowledge defined by tradition, social norms and trust in authority/others (including ‘read it in a book and didn’t work it out from first principles yourself’); emotional ‘reasoning’ (in which you’re thinking things through more than intuition, but it ain’t formally logical and might struggle to convince another); drug/trance-related altered states of consciousness; something like ‘muscle memory’ for some phyical tasks where there’s no conscious concentration at all, not even the feeling of intuition; probably more if I thought for longer.

        All these are other ways of knowing about the world that are neither formal logic nor divine revelation, and I’d argue that you use several of them every single day. (Unless you have actually sat down and reasoned out every single thought you hold from first principles… Which seems too enormous a task to be likely.)

          1. Sweetie, I’m willing to accept that my position mightn’t be 100% formal-philosophy watertight – analytical philosophy’s not my field, anthro is. However, it’s quite clear you’re less interested in having a constructive conversation and explaining what you don’t agree with, and more interested in aggressive point-scoring. I call troll, and I don’t play pissing games.

            G’night.

            1. I don’t play pissing games.

              “…Dawkins fanboys…” “…an arrogant-Dawkins-atheist tendency…”

              No pissing games there, you big hypocrite.

              1. Good grief. Calm down, people. flats is not arguing in bad faith, and hasn’t earned this amount of aggression in reply (FWIW, I’d agree there are atheists who are arrogant, and most of them probably like Dawkins, although I’d question an assertion that Dawkins is himself arrogant).

                Anon, LJ’s comment support for people who aren’t users is crap – please sign your comments with some kind of nickname in the body of the comment, or sign in with OpenID.

                1. Subject: C'est moi
                  The above anonymous comments are mine. Sorry. I’m not used to LJ.

                  It just irritates me when someone starts off hurling insults and then complains that other people are starting a pissing contest.

                  If flats thinks there are other ways of knowing (not just thinking) than a logical appraisal of the perceptual evidence, she’s free to make a positive case.

            2. Flats, (as a Christian theist), I’m quite interested to see where you’re going with this. When you talk about “other forms of knowing” “beside reason”, I’m wondering whether you could expand. For example, could it be said that your example on “tradition” might be a form of distilled community reasoning? Would you posit such a knowledge as being something separate from reason, or a different form of reason? Would you call the kind of discussion that we’re having here an epistemological one? Is epistemology something that anthropologists are trained to think about (that sounds rude, but I just mean to ask whether epistemology is in an anthropologists’s general syllabus)?

              It’s great to hear from an anthropologist on the subject. I’m not an analytical philosopher either, but I don’t find that analytical philosophers hold a key to an entire sets of questions that might be wondered or asked about.

            3. F: There are other ways of knowing.
              B: O rly? Plz don’t say divine revelation…
              F: Reason, intuition, muscle memory (!), heavy drugs (!!)
              B: Gimme an example of something you know from these then.
              F: You troll!

              For someone who is interested in “constructive conversation” that’s pretty impressive. You basically confirmed the suspicion I started with, that all claims for the existence of “other ways of knowing” remain unsubstantiated.

        1. Not trolling at all (and I don’t think brokenhut was either), but genuinely think this is an important point.

          I don’t think you can learn anything about the physical universe using pure formal logic.

          Being ‘rational’ to me means basing beliefs on evidence (including observation). Things you read in books, intuition and muscle memory are all kinds of evidence which may be more or less reliable.

          Logic, mathematics and statistics can only be useful in helping to interpret that evidence well.

        2. The thing about most of these ‘other ways of knowing’ is that they’re short cuts to the same body of knowledge that reason could have given you. Most literally so in the appeal to authoritative prior sources, since in that one you’re grabbing the results of someone else’s use of reason (or whatever). But also many of the others: for instance, I agree that we make subconsciously guided intuitive judgments all the time, but they’re all ultimately answerable to reason and subject to cross-checks by reason – and occasionally, my reason determines that some class of my intuitive judgments is persistently made the wrong way, and I have to try to adjust my intuition to fix the problem.

          So these are interestingly different if you’re a psychologist (because they happen by such different mechanisms) or if you’re interested in the problem of getting close to the right answers under time and resource pressure (intuitive judgments, in particular, are often used when there just isn’t the time to sit down and reason formally). But when the topic of discussion is whether or not there’s a god and related questions, which is something we have our whole lives to sit down and think carefully about, the only interestingly different ‘other ways of knowing’ are those (if any) which access a region of reality that is inaccessible to reason, not those which take short cuts to places that reason would have got you to eventually.

    3. What are the limits of wise use of strict logical rationality?

      At the risk of fangirling Overcoming Bias too much (which scribb1e tells me I might be), I’d say that emotions are just fine for someone who aspires to rationality, or at least, the sort of rationality I’d find interesting, which is working out how the world is.

      Speaking of relationships, I don’t think rationality has much to say about how happy love “should” make a person (that’s something you have to find out about yourself). But it seems rational to say that, yes, everything which is subject to arising is subject to cessation, but it’s the bit in between which is interesting. People may get in to short or bad relationships for bad reasons (for example, perhaps they think no-one who wants a long or a good relationship will ever want them, when for most people this isn’t true), but they might also get into them with their eyes open, as it were. People may acknowledge the risk of a relationship ending but decide that love is worth it. I wouldn’t call that irrational if they’re right.

    4. Finally, there’s an arrogant-Dawkins-atheist tendency to dismiss anyone who does have any sort of religious belief as stupid.

      I don’t think all religious people are stupid (after all, I used to be one 🙂 With regard to a sympathetic account, there’s a body of psychological/anthropological research from people like Boyer which looks at religion as a natural phenomenon which arises out of cognitive tendencies in humans. This isn’t the old “fear of death/social glue” stuff so much as why specific sorts of belief arise. Dan Dennett also wrote a book about it, but it’s a bit longwinded as he spends most of it telling his religious readers not to stop reading and yet can’t quite mask the fact he thinks they’re silly: you can explain Dennett’s central insight in a short essay. People like Andrew Brown over at the Graun like to castigate Dawkins for ignoring Boyer’s stuff (that blog post of Brown’s gets fun when Dennett and Dawkins turn up in the comments). Brown quotes Boyer:

      “In the description of modes of thought and modalities of belief, we find a mistake that is in fact general to anthro­pological descriptions of religious representations. The mistake consists in describing such ideas from an epistemic rather than a cognitive view­point. Describing a set of ideas from an epistemic viewpoint consists in viewing them as an attempt to say something about the world, as constituting some form of knowledge (however vague, inconsistent, or actually false) of the world. For instance, the Fang representations de­scribed above in some detail can be said to constitute a certain view of the supernatural world, which aims to account for otherwise inexplicable occurrences. In contrast, describing a set of representations from a cognitive viewpoint consists in showing what processes lead people to entertain the thoughts they actually entertain. The question of whether they constitute a system, represent the world, explain it, and so on is irrelevant in a cognitive study. Religious representations are almost invariably described in epistemic terms in anthropology. They are ex­plained as abstract intellectual systems, not as mental representations actually entertained by human subjects.”

      Nevertheless, I think the Brown/Boyer approach is problematic when many proponents of religion will tell you that they’re talking about a system which represents the world. It’s possible that this “many” means “evangelicals I argue with, like robhu“, and I’m falling into one of the traps that Brown thinks Dawkins falls into. That is, Dawkins’s failing (in the eyes of “more sophisticated” atheists or agnostics) appears to be taking religious people at their word, but it’s hard to do otherwise without patronising them. To say “The larger point is that almost everything people say about their religious beliefs should be understood as coming from Lorraine Kelly and not from Decca Aikenhead” as Brown does is also, in fact, saying that religious people are… well, if not stupid, at least irrational in the sense that I want to use rationality; although as Brown says, that’s because most people are irrational, including atheists.

    5. Is there room for doubt as to the value of factual truth in all circumstances; is it always wrong to believe untrue things; is it possible to both believe and not believe something at once? In essence it’s a position driven by the human brain’s inherent cognitive flaws and limited reality-perceiving abilities – I sketch it very briefly. But if we’re just not that good at truth & reality, can we doubt that these things are supreme values/virtues?

      It’s not morally wrong to believe untrue things. Our heads don’t explode if we believe contradictory things, or believe without anticipating that the consequences of the belief being true will actually occur. There are probably situations where it is better to be happy than right. Nevertheless, on balance I want to know what the world is like because not to do so seems to leave me exposed to accident or malice (the latter’s especially interesting, as there’s clearly a niche for exploiting people who don’t know what the world is like, which can be occupied by both people and ideas). I want others to know what the world is like because I don’t exist in glorious libertarian isolation: their decisions will affect me, I feel empathy for them, and I’d rather neither of us got caught up by the bad stuff we could have seen coming if we’d only been looking. We’re not good at truth and reality, but I don’t see that as a reason to give up.

  5. Subject: great post
    I have two links for you, one apropos of our earlier exchange about Keller on Hell:

    http://www.redeemer.com/news_and_events/articles/the_importance_of_hell.html

    the other apropos of what you’re writing about now- you can see my entry there, FWIW

    http://poserorprophet.wordpress.com/2009/01/11/3-doubts-a-meme/#comments

    If I had time to spare for online writing right now, I’d be all over this, just want to say I appreciate it in the abstract. As for me, I’ve been reading Comte-Sponville (sp?) and have finally found an advocate for atheism who I find persuasive.

    1. Subject: Re: great post
      The Keller link seems to be an elaboration of what his book says, which I’ve said is (a) unlikely to be what the NT authors thought on the matter, and (b) not backed by evidence in any case. In saying people send themselves to Hell and then claiming Jesus’s death did something important, Keller wants to have his cake and eat it. Every additional claim someone makes is burdensome, and there are plenty of claims:

      • “infinitely dependent we are on God for everything” – So how does anything exist at all if God has withdrawn his presence from it? If good things somehow come from God in this life, why does God withdraw his supportive presence when people die?
      • “Even in this world it is clear that self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness makes you miserable and blind” – Is it? Even if self-centredness makes you miserable, are self-centredness and God-centredness the only two options?
      • “But if, as the Bible teaches, our souls will go on forever, then just imagine where these two kinds of souls will be in a billion years. Hell is simply one’s freely chosen path going on forever.” – Can someone who wasn’t seeking God in life find God in those billion years? If not, why not? If they can, what’s the hurry to convert to Christianity?
      • “Commentators have pointed out that this is not a gesture of compassion, but rather an effort at blame-shifting. He is saying that he did not have a chance, he did not have adequate information to avoid hell.”No he isn’t. The flow of the story is that he first asks for water because he’s being tortured by fire, and when told there’s no hope for him because of the “great chasm”, he begs for his loved ones instead. Keller’s reading is egregious eisegesis, to coin a phrase. Has Keller read Rev 22:18, I wonder? “That is clearly his point, because Abraham says forcefully that people in this life have been well-informed through the Scriptures.” – What does what Abraham says tell us about what the Rich Man’s motivation is? For that matter, is this parable actually about the mechanics of Hell, or an exhortation not to ignore the poor?
      • “Hell is therefore a prison in which the doors are first locked from the inside by us and therefore are locked from the outside by God” – “and therefore”? Which is it? Where in Romans 1:24ff does Paul say he’s talking about the next life rather than this one? Why doesn’t Keller quote Romans 2?

      Keller cherry picks verses to avoid the unpalatable truth that the NT authors thought God himself would judge the unrighteous and condemn them to what we call Hell. There’s some variation on whether doing good things helps you to avoid Hell, but AFAICT Paul thought that people are righteous through faith in Jesus. Paul’s view is now Christian orthodoxy, at least as far as this ex-evangelical is concerned. Keller’s view is a Christian gloss on Buddhism designed for people who rightly perceive that the orthodox view makes God a monster. But what evidence causes Keller to chose it over orthodoxy?

      [Edited for clarity and Cthulhu]

      1. Subject: quibble
        As you should have learned when you read Bart Ehrman, Rev 22:18 is not a profound rebuke for those who try to “save the hypothesis” by the multiplication of assumptions, but rather a threat to scribes tempted to add appendices to the book of Revelation when they copied (and recopied) it for posterity.

        1. Subject: Re: quibble
          I was being a little sarcastic, as I have seen it used as a threat by Christians to other Christians, even though it only refers to Revelation and to people copying the text on that book, as you say.

      2. Your pitting Keller against orthodoxy seems to me a bit wishful.

        What does orthodoxy really mean? We would both agree that no one is simply reading the Bible and doing “what it says.” You have to interpret it. You need a community, or in Christian terms, the Holy Spirit at work in the body of Christ. So we are all postmodernists at this point – “the orthodox reading of scripture” is not fixed but is continually being negotiated across time. It is still being negotiated. (In retrospect, Keller may prove to have been an influential negotiator!)

        Keller’s whole raison d’etre is to be a lucid, articulate advocate for orthodoxy. He has no interest in saying anything that all of his evangelical friends/mentors would disagree with. What he IS interested in is any intersection he can discern between the preoccupations of the contemporary world and the preoccupations of Scripture, so that he can help contemporary Christians feel the import of Scripture for their day to day lives and at the same time do “apologetics,” try to find points of connection between the unattached and this alien (to them) tradition.

        You are not an alien! In your own way, you are remaining faithful to the tradition by caricaturing it and mocking it – maybe “blasphemer” would be a better designation than “apostate.” You’re in the complicated position of adhering to a particular view of what Scripture means *like a believer* without actually holding the beliefs that make such a stance coherent. Your strategy is to try to take Christians at their word and give Scripture enormous authority so as to show how they don’t respect that authority in practice themselves. I don’t buy it. Some of your points are very strong, some are weak, but they all presuppose this notion of mimicry or ventriloquism, – not finding a good analogy – like what matters about being a Christian can be accessed by remote control.

        I propose that for Lent this year you should abstain from this RPG and try to forget Jesus ever existed. Seriously, what’s longest you’ve ever gone since being a Christian without once consciously trying to think like a Christian?

        1. It seems you’re warning me that I might be taking robhu‘s former path of being what I called an evangelical Christian atheist. That’s pretty serious: after all, we all know what happened to him.

          You’re right to say that some of my criticism of Keller’s stuff is objecting to his apparent inconsistency with how I used to read the Bible. That’s because Keller is claiming to be a part of the community that I used to be part of, but as far as I can tell, he’s doing it wrong. I’m not part of that community any more, so it’s possible things have moved on since then. I’d take that as evidence that this community is of human construction, but it does mean I should not call my views of what evangelicals should believe “orthodoxy”.

          Instead, I’d like to talk about how things have moved on. That is, what has caused this change of mind? I’d claim it’s an ad hoc response to modern rejection of the divine right of kings, which lead to a rejection of the right of the divine King (something which at least one evangelical seems to be bothered about). The most important thing for Keller and Lewis is that Christianity spreads. It won’t spread easily to anti-authoritarians who no longer believe God has a right to judge them, so instead, there’s this alternative where people effectively judge themselves. How does Keller know this alternative is right? How would he know if it were wrong? Is there anything which supports it, other than that he wishes it were true?

          I’d argue not, even given a belief that the Bible’s authors were correct (which is my objection to his Rich Man and Lazarus and Romans 1 interpretation). But even if we don’t get into what “orthodoxy” is, Keller makes a number of other claims (those I’ve mentioned in the bullet points) which he needs to back up.

          Your strategy is to try to take Christians at their word and give Scripture enormous authority so as to show how they don’t respect that authority in practice themselves.

          Yes indeed. Most Christians believe in belief more than they actually believe. If your beliefs don’t lead you to anticipate that God will make any difference in the world, our arguments are concluded, and welcome to atheism.

          I don’t buy it. Some of your points are very strong, some are weak, but they all presuppose this notion of mimicry or ventriloquism, – not finding a good analogy – like what matters about being a Christian can be accessed by remote control.

          I’m not sure what your point is here. Are you arguing that non-Christians can’t know what Christianity is? Should we conclude that when Christians describe it, they don’t know what they’re talking about?

          Seriously, what’s longest you’ve ever gone since being a Christian without once consciously trying to think like a Christian?

          I don’t try to consciously think like a Christian most days. The exception is probably when I’m arguing with Christians, in which case I try to experience some sort of empathy, I suppose.

          1. You have a substantive objection to my objection, which I understand as: if Christianity doesn’t have a fixed cognitive content, where it makes assertions about the world that can’t just be changed at the convenience of an individual or an entire culture, then we can all be done with it. It simply has nothing to do with truth.

            My objection to that objection would be weak, in particular ad hominem, and would run along these lines: if you‘re not done with it, how do you expect anyone else to be done with it?

            I don’t try to consciously think like a Christian most days. The exception is probably when I’m arguing with Christians, in which case I try to experience some sort of empathy, I suppose.

            That I have the impression otherwise is probably an example of the myopia of online exchanges. A lot of your thinking about Xianity makes it online; less of your other activities (such as dancing).

            Again, though, my concern is not with empathy: not relating emotionally to Christians, but with (still don’t have the right term or analogy) trying to relate cognitively to Christians. In that respect, your link to the “freud v god II” post is spot on. That’s EXACTLY the problem I’m talking about.

            1. You sound a little like someone else I ran across recently. Halfway though his transition from fundy to humanist atheist, at the liberal Christian stage, Robert Price wrote:

              I warn my ex-Evangelical reader that every time he announces his repudiation of his former compatriots, each time he derides what now seem to him absurd views, every time he becomes resentful over having been “taken for a ride,” he is placing himself, albeit negatively, back into his Evangelical world. Now all of this is quite understandable, even justifiable, since one must “get it out of one’s system.” And, as is well known, a pendulum never stops in the middle the first time. But the ex-Evangelical should look forward to its settling down in the middle eventually. That is, his goal is to put the whole thing behind him, not to continue to be involved with it, fighting the same old battle only on the opposite side.

              I’m not done with it because I think that a lot of Christians (especially evangelicals) need permission to disbelieve, and I wish I’d had permission earlier, and there’s this Golden Rule thing, so…

              By “permission”, I mean that one of humanity’s cognitive biases is that we tend to want to agree with other people near us. A nice thing about the Internet is that we can find other people to be near even if they’re not geographically close to us. So it’s good to have this stuff on the net.

              The other reason I’m not done with it is because it’s fun to debate, of course.

              if Christianity doesn’t have a fixed cognitive content… It simply has nothing to do with truth.

              There are a couple of things I say. One is that Keller looks like he’s making it up as he goes along. There are responses to that: maybe God is revealing stuff as people are ready to hear it, maybe it’s a bit like science where old theories are superseded. To the latter response, I’d say that the difference between progress in science and Keller’s stuff is that scientists need to be able to show they have sufficient evidence to discard the old theory (as well as convincing the incumbent experts, of course: we’re dealing with real people here). To the former, well, I think proponents of progressive revelation have to be very careful that to avoid it becoming an idea which can explain anything.

              The second thing I say is that if you’re someone who doesn’t anticipate that God will act in the world, you’re already functionally an atheist (even if you don’t know it yet: this is Rahner’s theory of anonymous atheism). This comes out of ideas about belief in belief, belief as attire and so on. The trick for overt atheists is not to convince such people that God won’t do anything, because some part of them knows that already (God’s lack of power and non-existent nature being clearly seen from what has not been made), but rather to stop them believing it’s virtuous to assert that God will do something. Showing that they don’t act like people who believe their own assertions might do that, I suppose.

              1. I’m not done with it because I think that a lot of Christians (especially evangelicals) need permission to disbelieve, and I wish I’d had permission earlier, and there’s this Golden Rule thing, so…

                Ha ha, that’s awesome. Very well said, sir.

                And it IS fun to debate.

                Those are two very good reasons. I withdraw my objection.

                In any case, there’s a symbiosis going on here. When I was in high school I thought Camus was pretty cool, and probably aspired to being an existentialist. When I went back to Camus for reinforcements against evangelicalism, I couldn’t help but notice that he was hammering out his philosophy in a more or less constant dialogue with Christianity. This had the undesired effect of making the religion look better. Call it the “worthy opponent” syndrome.

                So, may you hold on to your coolness, and may we hold on to you.

            2. Subject: hit the comment limit: here's part 2
              trying to relate cognitively to Christians. In that respect, your link to the “freud v god II” post is spot on. That’s EXACTLY the problem I’m talking about.

              Let me see if I understand the problem. Brown’s problem with neo-atheist fundamentalist neo-sceptical secularists like Dawkins is, as far as I can tell, not that they’re wrong about whether there’s a God, but that they’re naive. In the Freud vs God post, Brown says that the sort of cognitive hygiene that seems second nature to the neo-atheist is rare, hard work, and that it’s not clear to most people that it’s worth the bother. Given this, you cannot take religious people at their word: when they say they believe a thing about how the world is, they’re making another sort of statement entirely, even if they themselves claim otherwise. Trying to demolish these supposed beliefs about the world isn’t going to make religious people into atheists, because they never really believed them in the first place.

              I think you’re saying that I have the same problem. Maybe I do, and my time would be better spent trying to get kids educated in logical thinking, or something. Nevertheless, the Christianity I knew appeared to be genuinely making statements about how the world is, and I stopped calling myself a Christian when I realised it was very unlikely those statements were true. I don’t think I’m unique, although I may have a very specialised atheist ministry 🙂

              1. Nevertheless, the Christianity I knew appeared to be genuinely making statements about how the world is, and I stopped calling myself a Christian when I realised it was very unlikely those statements were true.

                I should always keep in mind, when I get impatient with your more extended discourses, that you pay us a vital compliment by engaging with our ideas, as if we really took them seriously ourselves. “Hygeine” is a good word in this context.

    2. Subject: Re: great post
      Having beaten up on Keller, I should say that I thought your comment on doubt was interesting. I guess by “apologetics”, you mean arguments that Christianity is true. It does seem that people are less affected by those than by knowing Christian friends. It’s on the way out that arguments seem to matter, as I remember it.

  6. Subject: Atheist women
    User pw201 referenced to your post from Atheist women saying: […] Since graduating, she’s been blogging as Peaceful Atheist (I’ve mentioned her before in my posting on doubt). There’s an article over there specifically on women in atheism. No Longer Quiveringis the blog of two women who were … […]

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