2013

“It’s arrogant to claim to be an atheist, since you can’t know that God (or gods) does not exist. It’s much more intellectually respectable to be an agnostic.”

I’ve come across that sort of claim in a couple of places on the net recently. What could it mean? Time for another post in the series on bad arguments.

Bad argument: Atheists must show beyond all doubt that ChristianGod or MuslimGod doesn’t exist

Perhaps the speaker is some sort of conventional believer, like a Christian or a Muslim or whatever. They think that it’s up to someone calling themselves an “atheist” to demonstrate with that the Christian (or Muslim) God doesn’t exist, and do it so convincingly that there’s no possibility that the atheist could be mistaken. It seems the theist is either saying the atheist has got something wrong, or saying that nobody should call themselves an atheist.

Say that an atheist thinks that the Christian God probably doesn’t exist. The theist might claim that the atheist has acted wrongly in ignoring Christianity’s claims on them, because this is only “probably”, not “certainly”. But the theist’s claim relies double standard, since nobody else is held to that standard of certainty before they’re allowed to act on a belief (the conventional theist certainly isn’t). Possibly what’s going on here is that the theist thinks the atheist should be more like them: it looks like there are believers who argue the mere possibility that their belief is true justifies their continued faith. I’ve talked about the “virtue” of faith and discussed whether God might be fond of soft cheese before, so I won’t go into that again here.

(The famous atheists who are often called arrogant don’t claim certainty, of course.)

Perhaps the theist doesn’t think the atheist has been unreasonable (given the atheist thinks it’s unlikely that God exists, it’s fair enough that they don’t go to church or whatever), but thinks that people who haven’t attained certainty shouldn’t be defined as “atheists”. Luckily, the theist doesn’t get to define atheism.

Bad argument: An atheist must deny the existence of anything that anyone has ever called a god

“Well, I’ll say it simple: a god is someone with enough power to say ‘I am a god’ and make other people agree. Mortal wizard, lich, emperor, dragon, giant, leftover bit of chaos… it doesn’t really matter what it is underneath. What matters is that it has the strength to enforce its claims.”
– Rebel Theology, from Tales of MU (Tales of MU is basically “50 Shades of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”, so be advised that some parts of the book are sexually explicit, although the linked chapter isn’t)

If The Man’s definition of a god is the one we’re using, it’s much more likely that there are gods (pretty certain, in fact, since people have probably convinced other people of their godhood at various points in history).

Spot the godThere are people who identify gods with love or the feeling they get from looking out into the night sky or with the quantum vacuum (trigger warning for physicists: linked post contains quantum woo-woo). In these cases it seems fine for the self-described atheist to say “that isn’t what I meant” or “I don’t dispute that those things might/do exist, but it seems silly to call them gods”.

Some statements which look as if they’re claims about the existence of gods end up saying nothing more than an atheist might say, with some god-talk tacked on purely as decoration. As Simon Blackburn’s lovely (and short) piece on Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion has it:

Philo the sceptic says that we cannot understand or know anything about a transcendent reality that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature, while the theists like Demea say that we cannot understand or know anything about the transcendent reality, which is God, that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature. Since the inserted clause does not help us in the least, the difference between them is merely verbal.

Cleanthes, the intelligent design theorist in the book, says that complete mystics are “atheists without knowing it”. Since some sophisticated theologians, like Hume’s Demea, call themselves theists, perhaps Cleanthes is a bit presumptuous. You can see his point, though: it’s odd that someone might be called a theist though they only differ from an atheist in calling some mysterious thingy “God”. Perhaps we should be a bit more resistant to the idea that anyone can “identify as” anything: that way lies Tumblr.

But we perhaps we shouldn’t assume that even people who go to church and say the Creed are assenting to a set of propositions (previously) or that their expectations of what will actually happen differ from those of an atheist (previouslier). If we still call those people theists, why not Demea?

Anyhoo: Philo and Demea are both agnostics (“we cannot … know”) about something, but just because Demea has called it “god”, it’s not clear that Philo couldn’t justly claim to be an atheist (though in the book, he doesn’t, of course).

Good argument: you can’t know what’s out there

Philip Pullman said:

Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.

The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.

But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.

So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.

This seems fair enough. But often criticism of atheists is phrased like this:

Bad argument: you can’t know that there isn’t an X out there

where “an X” is some particular thing which would be hard to detect, like an immaterial being who made stuff but then doesn’t intervene, say. The problem with this is that the speaker hasn’t got enough evidence to even suggest X. Sure, we can’t rule out X, but what about Y or Z or a vast number of other possibilities? Why mention X as something special to be agnostic about? Often it’s because X looks like a god from a conventional religion, tweaked to be even less detectable. But that’s no reason to think that X is especially likely to exist. The error here is called privileging the hypothesis.

To anticipate a possible objection: a lot of people saying “I believe in X” may provide evidence to differentiate it from Y and Z. But we need to be careful about what X is here, as the range of things that people refer to as “god(s)” is pretty wide. Some gods (the conventional theist ones) have a whole lot of believers but have good arguments against their existence, so claims that an atheist who accepts those arguments should call themselves agnostic about those gods seem to be you must prove it beyond doubt arguments. “I believe in gods which are invisible gremlins in the quantum foam: you can’t show that those don’t exist” is privileging the hypothesis.

Like Worms in the Belly of Some Great Beast: Family Values and Crusader Kings II | Ruthless Culture
Civ-type strategy video games encourage the player to see through the eyes of the self-perpetuating bureaucracy. Mentions the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Via Gareth Rees.
(tags: games politics hobbes oligarchy civilisation society charles-stross)
Omniorthogonal: Hostile AI: You’re soaking in it!
Unfriendly AI is already here, in the form of corporations.
(tags: ai corporations unfriendly)
Hume 10 —Atheists Nil
Simon Blackburn on Hume’s Dialogues: "So is Hume himself an atheist? The word does not fit, and he never so described himself. He is much too subtle. Philo the sceptic says that we cannot understand or know anything about a transcendent reality that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature, while the theists like Demea say that we cannot understand or know anything about the transcendent reality, which is God, that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature. Since the inserted clause does not help us in the least, the difference between them is merely verbal. And this is Hume’s conclusion."
(tags: religion hume atheism philosophy david-hume simon-blackburn)
Riker sits down | MetaFilter
Commander Riker has a way with chairs. The YouTube video is doing the rounds, but I’m linking to the Metafilter thread as it contains comments from "The Riker Who Mounts the World", as well as links to Wil Wheaton’s take on it.
(tags: chair funny enterprise riker video star-trek)
Bad ideas from dead Germans | Meaningness
"Outside of traditional Christianity, most of what counts as religion and “spirituality” in America nowadays is actually recycled German academic philosophy from two hundred years ago. This might sound absurd, or irrelevant. In this metablog series, I hope to show that it is true, and that it matters."
(tags: german philosophy spirituality idealism)
From Otherkin to Transethnicity: Your Field Guide to the Weird World of Tumblr Identity Politics
CHECK YOUR NON-OTHERKIN PRIVILEGE.
(tags: privilege identity-politics tumblr otherkin)

So, those blighters at Google are getting rid of Google Reader at the beginning of July. I currently use it. What should I use instead?

I read my feeds on a variety of devices so it’d need to be something which shows the same subscriptions wherever I’m reading from. That’s probably a web-based reader, I guess.

Most of my feeds contain text rather than pictures. I’ve got them sorted into various folders. Sometimes I read them by folder, sometimes (mostly on my phone) I read them as an uncategorised stream, sometimes I read one feed at a time. I do read on my phone, so it needs to have a decent mobile site or an Android app.

Please advise.

The nuclear deterrent and reasons for its replacement
Interesting discussion from UK armed forces people on Trident and whatnot. Found in a comment on the aforementioned Charles Stross blog post.
(tags: Vulcan nuclear Trident ICBM SSBN V-force war)
Free Speech on the Internet: Silicon Valley is Making the Rules | New Republic
Google, Twitter, Facebook and the new global battle over the future of free speech
(tags: law twitter speech google islam censorship facebook)

Changing my mind on nuclear disarmament – Charlie’s Diary
Charles Stross argues against renewing Trident.
(tags: trident nuclear disarmament charles-stross war)
Coding, Fast and Slow: Developers and the Psychology of Overconfidence
"I’m going to talk today about what goes on in inside developers’ heads when they make estimates, why that’s so hard to fix, and how I personally figured out how to live and write software (for very happy business owners) even though my estimates are just as brutally unreliable as ever." via Andrew Ducker
(tags: software programming scrum estimation daniel-kahneman)
What Martial Arts Have to Do With Atheism – Graeme Wood – The Atlantic
Sam Harris on martial arts, meditation and atheism: "No one’s ever accused me of being an optimist, but I think reason and intellectual honesty will win. They’re just too useful."
(tags: religion atheism martial-arts meditation sam-harris)
How Not to Die – Jonathan Rauch – The Atlantic
Many doctors aren’t good at having "the Conversation". A doctor uses film to illustrate patients’ options at the end of their lives.
(tags: film ethics death health medicine intensive-care)

THE EXPLODING TOILET and Other Memories
"And in one of those dreaded realizations pilots are advised to avoid, that insulation between cockpit calm and atmospheric anarchy looks thin indeed. An extrapolated horror: the riveted aluminum planks bending apart, the wind rushing in, explosive depressurization, death, the first airliner — no, the first vehicle — in history to crash because of an overflowing toilet." This guy tells a good story. Via marnanel
(tags: flying toilet pilot aircraft funny)
Secrets of FBI Smartphone Surveillance Tool Revealed in Court Fight | Threat Level | Wired.com
by a court case. Those guys have some nice kit.
(tags: eavesdropping FBI spying bugging surveillance interception)
The Boston Marathon Bombing: Keep Calm and Carry On – Bruce Schneier – The Atlantic
"But our brains are fooling us. Even though this will be in the news for weeks, we should recognize this for what it is: a rare event. That’s the very definition of news: something that is unusual — in this case, something that almost never happens. "
(tags: terrorism bruce-schneier security)
PSA: Ignore the news – Charlie’s Diary
The reading the news is bad for you: a timely reminder.
(tags: television news tv media charles-stross)

How to do it right
How to do it right
Over at What Should We Call Swing Dance, someone posted an image macro about how it’s a bit crushing when someone turns down a dance with you and then goes and dances the same song with someone else. There’s a bit of etiquette (which is shared among the partner dances I’m familiar with) that if you turn someone down, you respond as if you didn’t want to dance that song anyway (“I’m tired, I’ll sit this one out”, “I hate Big Bad Voodoo Daddy”) and then sit out for that song, even if you really refused because you don’t particularly want to dance with that person right now. Conversely, if you do go off and dance the song with someone else, it’s a pretty deliberate signal that you don’t want the orignal asker to ask you again, ever ever. (One can also achieve this with the manner of one’s refusal, of course, but this is an advanced skill: Nikolas Lloyd has a training video).

It being Tumblr, this meme gets called out as heteronormative (Oh Tumblr! Never change!) because the caller-out is a woman who mostly leads but is in one of those rare scenes where there are too many guys (who also mainly lead), and doesn’t like the implication that it’s rude to turn them down when they ask her to follow.

Is there such an implication? Only if the caller-out then goes on to dance that song. The etiquette (and the meme) does not say it’s rude to turn people down. But it does seem like there’s room for some improvement here.

Core Etiquette Addendum 1

Everyone's a winner
Everyone’s a winner
If some people are willing to switch (as we call it in my subculture) but most people have a preferred role, and someone is asked to dance the opposite role to their preference, it seems that one could (a) see whether the asker will dance that role instead, and if not (b) dance with someone who will, with no loss of face for the original asker. I hereby declare that people who do this are Not Rude.

Erratum

There is a further bit of etiquette (not so far referenced in any image macros, as far as I know) which just plain says its rude to turn people down. I agree that this is problematic (as we say on Tumblr). I think it’s usually propagated by dancing teachers in an effort to make dancing more friendly and less cliquey, but you shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for refusing extended physical contact with people you don’t want to have that contact with. The etiquette is exploitable (as we say on 4Chan) by bad actors: see this educational video (Tumblr users: trigger warning for satire).

I cast Summon Shitstorm!

There is a wider question of why it is that men usually lead and women usually follow and whether this is a good thing, but again, Lloyd sorted that out a while ago, so there’s probably no more room for debate about it, I’d’ve thought.