- Hume is the amiable, modest, generous philosopher we need today | Aeon Essays
- Hume believed we were nothing more or less than human: that’s why he’s the amiable, modest, generous philosopher we need now
(tags: philosophy hume)
On Facebook, I ran across a couple of Christian responses to the recent resignation of Tim “Nice-but-Evangelical” Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
A worrying sign
A post by John Stevens, Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, argues that Farron’s resignation is a worrying sign: Farron’s actions as a friend to LGBT people were not sufficient, people were worried about “what Tim thinks” and wouldn’t leave him alone about it.
As Nick Spencer writes, there are two sorts of liberalism. Farron was an example of liberalism as a way of living (or modus vivendi, as we say in the New Statesman) in a pluralist society, but fell victim to people who saw liberalism as a system which itself provides the right answers to moral questions. But taking liberalism as such as system, as Stevens says, opens its followers to the same sorts of criticism that Farron got: can a follower of a system fairly represent the interests of those who disagree with it?
(Unfortunately, Stevens does get dangerously close to using the phrase “virtue signalling”, which should worry him, for is it not written whosoever shall say to his brother, “thou art virtue signalling”, shall be in danger of being a huge arsehole, and that goes double for “snowflake”.?)
Stevens has an interesting argument for liberalism as a way of living: if idolatry is the greatest sin, yet Christians do not want religion imposed by the government as this has historically not ended well (pic related), how much more so (or a fortiori, as we probably say in the New Statesman) ought Christians to allow freedom in law for people to commit lesser sins?
With his mention of a “substantive, even comprehensive” liberalism, Nick Spencer in the New Stateman is gesturing at Rawl’s ideas of public reason. From what I read of this, a liberalism which is what Rawls calls a comprehensive doctrine can’t legitimately be the sole basis for arguments in favour of a fundamental right (such as gay marriage), any more than the religious comprehensive system can be the sole basis for an argument against. As Mariel Johns’s summary puts it,
It is important to remember that secular comprehensive doctrines are not allowed – the same way that philosophical and religious comprehensive doctrines are not allowed. These fall outside the domain of the political. This can be seen if we consider what each type of doctrine might ask with regard to making homosexual relations among citizens a criminal offense. A secular doctrine might ask, “Is it precluded by a worthy idea of the full human good?” A religious doctrine might ask, “Is it a sin?” A political conception would ask, “Will legislative statues forbidding those relations infringe on the civil rights of free and equal democratic citizens?”
I’m not an expert in political philosophy, but this seems to get something important right, namely that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. “What Tim thinks” can only be of political concern if we’re reasoning from a comprehensive doctrine which says our thoughts can be wrong in and of themselves (such as Christianity, or liberalism of the second sort), or if we can show that what he thinks is somehow relevant in reasoning which is not unique to any such doctrine. Only the latter is legitimate, if I’m reading Rawls right.
So, what should Farron have said? Perhaps “What I think is What The Bible Says1, but look at my voting record and see that I don’t seek to impose my views on others, because (insert Stevens’s a fortiori argument here)”. Note that Rawls doesn’t think people cannot bring forward religious reasons (in fact, he thinks they should, in a “cards on the table” sort of way), only that they should then be backed by public reasons (such as “enforcing religion infringes on the civil rights of citizens”, presumably).
This is easy to say in hindsight, of course.
G J Shearer writes that “Arguing that Christians shouldn’t ‘impose’ their views on society is simply a tacit way of saying that someone else should.” But this ignores the distinction between liberalism of the first, Rawlsian, sort, and liberalism of the second, comprehensive, sort. Perhaps Shearer thinks that such a distinction can’t be maintained, and everything must collapse into a fight between competing comprehensive doctrines. But why think that? It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy: if nobody makes the effort to maintain it, it certainly won’t be maintained. Farron’s pursuers harmed our political life by making it harder to maintain it.
Shearer argues that secular liberalism is illogical:
What, in effect, is the logic of secular liberalism? We live in a world heading towards extinction, our consciousness created by blind physical laws and driven by a ruthless will to reproduce and survive, therefore… What? Love each other? Look after the poor, the lame, the vulnerable? A moment’s consideration shows that these conclusions do not flow from the premise.
Hume lives! But his guillotine is a multi-purpose tool (it slices! it dices! it cuts both ways!). Suppose the facts are these: we live in a world ruled by an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent creator, therefore… what? What conclusions about morality follow from these premises? You need to add some other premise (like “we ought to do what God wants/commands of us”), and if you need that, why fault secular philosophers for needing to add theirs (like “we ought to do that which leads to human flourishing” or “the greatest good of the greatest number” or whatever)? All moral systems, including theistic ones, are “illogical” by these lights.
He also wonders whether atheist politicians could explain how “their belief that human life is merely ‘an accidental collocation of atoms’, to use Bertrand Russell’s phrase, fits with the various moral imperatives that drive their politics”. Probably not, because politicians, unlike Hume, are generally crap at philosophy. But, as we’ve just seen, Shearer hasn’t explained why his premises about God lead to his moral conclusions, either.
Shearer ends with a call to Christians to get more involved getting Christian values into law: “it is time that Christians began to unapologetically argue that society is best served by Christian, rather than secular, values shaping the public sphere.” This doesn’t seem likely to end any better than it did historically (pic related).
- Who Was David Hume? by Anthony Gottlieb | The New York Review of Books
- “David Hume, who died in his native Edinburgh in 1776, has become something of a hero to academic philosophers. In 2009, he won first place in a large international poll of professors and graduate students who were asked to name the dead thinker with whom they most identified. The runners-up in this peculiar race were Aristotle and Kant. Hume beat them by a comfortable margin. Socrates only just made the top twenty.”
(tags: philosophy hume david-hume books review)
- Twitter’s missing manual / fuzzy notepad
- Things I didn’t know, as I rarely actually write to Twitter because my impression is that it’s useless for discussion.
(tags: twitter manual)
- What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team – The New York Times
- It’s all about psychological safety.
(tags: collaboration team work employment management google)
- Which God Do Atheists Reject?: David Hume on Straw Gods
- The theist will say that there is Something or Other that Created the universe, but they cannot tell us what this Something or Other was (other than that they call it ‘God’) nor can they say what it means for the Something or Other to Create. At most, as Anthony Kenny argues, they can say that ‘Create’ specifies some unknown and incomprehensible relationship between the Something or Other and the universe.
The atheist can agree to this much. There is some explanation for the universe’s origins. Perhaps future inquiry will reveal the explanation and we’ll be able to fill in the details.
(tags: hume david-hume philosophy theology god atheism)
- Genesis chapter 1 through 1500 years of English – YouTube
- via livredor, a reading of Genesis 1 through 1500 years of English.
(tags: language english bible)
- Whig Party | Britain’s original progressive political party is back
- Crikey. It’s like a Neal Stephenson novel: “The Whigs are returning to British politics. We are going into the 2015 General Election to provide a fresh choice to the British people, and to show that everyone can get involved in politics. Our campaign will be positive and optimistic, both online and in the streets. The Whigs are back. Come and join the party.”
(tags: whig politics election history uk general-election)
- David Hume and the sensible knave | Ask a Philosopher
- Is there a response to Hume’s “sensible knave”, who does evil only when he can be reasonably sure of not getting found out?
(tags: david-hume hume morality knave philosophy glaucon)
- Why I Don’t Read The News Anymore | Thing of Things
- I don’t, either, for roughly the same reasons.
(tags: news ozymandias psychology availability politics)
- A fixed-term hung Parliament? | British Government and the Constitution
- Prof Adam Tomkins explains the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Points out that, while a defeat which is not a motion of no confidence does not allow an early election, nothing compels a Prime Minister to stay in office: Labour could hold the threat of Milliband’s resignation (and the Tories being invited to form a government) over the SNP in order to pass a budget, for example.
(tags: constitution government politics election confidence)
- The British press has lost it – POLITICO
- Even the broadsheets don’t bother to hide the fact that they’re rooting for the Tories because their oligarch owners told them to (except the Graun, of course). No one in my liberal bubble actually reads print newspapers, they just share links to the Graun’s “Comment is Dumb” section on Facebook. Still, I might not be typical, so it’s all a bit worrying.
(tags: press newspapers journalism politics britain election)
- Feminism and The Search for Truth | The Merely Real
- Chana Messinger’s response to the Scott Aaronson thing (on whether feminism hurts geek guys) is the best one. I learned the term “scrupulousity”.
(tags: scott-aaronson nerds feminism laurie-penny chana-messinger)
- Hume and subjective/objective moral values
- A Twitlonger page (which I guess is what we used to call a blog post) about Hume and the varied meanings of “subjective” and “objective” wrt morality.
(tags: hume david-hume subjective objective morality)
- What Color is Your Function? – journal.stuffwithstuff.com
- Interesting stuff about asynchronous programming.
(tags: async programming)
“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.”
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.
“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).
There 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).
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:
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)
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris. – Roger Ebert
The devout can’t abide such sentiments: in the comments on Ebert’s article (republished by Salon following his death), some of them have chimed in, and kept digging (sorry, I couldn’t resist giving that latter one a well deserved kick). Ebert didn’t call himself an atheist, of course, but clearly saw no reason to believe in an afterlife.
This reminded me of Boswell’s visit to Hume as Hume was dying. Boswell writes:
I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘Mr Hume, I hope to triumph over you when I meet you in a future state; and remember you are not to pretend that you was joking with all this infidelity.’ ‘No, no,’ said he. ‘But I shall have been so long there before you come that it will be nothing new.’ In this style of good humour and levity did I conduct the conversation. Perhaps it was wrong on so awful a subject. But as nobody was present, I thought it could have no bad effect. I however felt a degree of horror, mixed with a sort of wild, strange, hurrying recollection of my excellent mother’s pious instructions, of Dr. Johnson’s noble lessons, and of my religious sentiments and affections during the course of my life. I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms; and I could not but be assailed by momentary doubts while I had actually before me a man of such strong abilities and extensive inquiry dying in the persuasion of being annihilated. But I maintained my faith. I told him that I believed the Christian religion as I believed history.
It seems Boswell suffered DOUBT (as the archivist at the National Library of Scotland has it) as a chronic sinus sufferer. Visiting an apparently contented unbeliever on their deathbed can’t be good for your sinuses: you’ll get a worldview defence reaction from all those thoughts about death.
None’s consigned to the pit, to patch-black Tartarus, below –
Future generations need material to grow.
And they, when life is through, shall follow you into the grave,
As those that came before, no less than you, wave after wave.
Thus one thing arises from another – it will never cease.
No one is given life to own; we all hold but a lease.
Look back again – how the endless ages of time come to pass
Before our birth are nothing to us. This is a looking glass
Nature holds up for us in which we see the time to come
After we finally die. What is it there that looks so fearsome?
What’s so tragic? Isn’t it more peaceful than any sleep?
The death panel: Nagel
The Skepticon atheist Death Panel weren’t quite convinced by an argument that nothing has been lost: Julia Galef quotes Nagel (at around 28:22), who points out that we feel that someone who is reduced to the state of a newborn infant by a brain injury has lost something, even though that person was a newborn infant in the past. So I agree with Nagel (and Yudkowsky, who turns out to be a pretty funny speaker) that death is bad. But Lucretius is also concerned with the people who don’t want their corpse to be cremated because they think it might hurt, or who fear a Hell or somehow experiencing oblivion as being entombed forever: as he and Hume and Ebert knew, such fears have no foundation.
- Times Higher Education – Divine irony
- Blackburn’s summary of Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”.
(tags: simon-blackburn david-hume hume history religion philosophy atheism)
- A Christmas Cracker
- “On 16 December 1893, when Parliament had been in continuous session for 11 months and it had been announced that members would have only four daysě°˝€™ recess for Christmasě°˝€”Mr Gladstone received a letter in a neat but childish hand, written on ruled paper, from the infant son of the Earl of Pembroke.”
(tags: parliament history funny politics)
- Good Minus God: The Moral Atheist – NYTimes.com
- Louise M. Antony writes a reasonable introduction to the idea that being an atheist does not lead to moral nihilism. Mentions the Euthyphro dilemma but doesn’t deal directly with apologetical responses about “God’s nature” (but then we’ve dealt with those here before, I think).
(tags: Euthyphro morality ethics philosophy religion atheism)
- Of Hume and Bondage – NYTimes.com
- Simon Blackburn defends Hume from some sillier criticisms, and wonders what philosophy is for.
(tags: simon-blackburn hume david-hume philosophy)
- Talking Philosophy | Religion and science: the issue that won’t go away
- This is great, and has productive discussion in the comments too. Subscribed!
“Recall that the rise of science did not subtract from our pre-existing resources for investigating the world. Rather, it added to them; and the old pragmatic and scholarly methods and the new, distinctively scientific, ones can always be used together in any given case. We need to know whether such claims as that Jesus rose from the dead and that the universe was created by God are plausible when set against what we know overall about how the world works, both through methods that we could have employed anyway and through the distinctive methods developed by science.
When the question is framed like that, surely we don’t think that these claims come under no pressure at all from our best empirical investigations of the world?”
(tags: resurrection russell-blackford philosophy science religion)
- Islam and “Islamophobia” – a little manifesto
- “The extreme right benefits from the availability of politically respectable criticisms of Islamic thought and associated cultural practices. As this goes on, there is a risk that the word “Islamophobia” will be used to demonize and intimidate individuals whose hostility to Islam is genuinely based on what they perceive as its faults. In particular, we should remember that Islam contains ideas, and in a liberal democracy ideas are fair targets for criticism or repudiation. … After all, there are reasons why extreme-right organizations have borrowed arguments based on feminism and secularism. These arguments are useful precisely because they have an intellectual and emotional appeal independent of their convenience to extreme-right opportunists.”
(tags: islamophobia politics religion islam)
- All things to all people, but Christmas is … people – The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
- A very human Christmas to you all 🙂
(tags: religion christmas)