A Rabbit, Meaning, and Purpose

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 16, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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These days as I go to work I often see a rabbit in a field that I walk beside.

When I first saw this rabbit it this spring, it could have fit comfortably in the palm of my hand. It has grown some since then. It continues to live one day at a time. However, some day, it will die.

Thinking about the death of animals in the wild often troubles me. I suspect that it is often a very unpleasant thing. Cancers and tooth decay, broken limbs and predators, none of them grant an animal a particularly comfortable death.

My cat does not realize how lucky he is.

Anyway, during this rabbit’s life – which I hope to be long and pleasant and, when it must end, to come to a quick and easy end – the question of its ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ will not come up. It will not even be asked. And the rabbit’s life will be no better or worse as a result.

Which leads me to ask: Where did we get this concern over a life that has ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’?

I know where we got our desires to have sex, to eat, to drink, to stay warm (but not too warm), and to care for one’s offspring. The rabbit shares those concerns.

I can also figure out things like how we learned to avoid that which causes us pain. Once something causes us pain once, it is useful to learn an aversion to that which resulted in pain. This way, one can learn to avoid the pain rather than be saddled with the unpleasantness of dealing with its effects.

That is to say, I can understand the source of malleable desires – desires that are learned from experience. That which was once a means to avoid pain and obtain pleasure becomes, with enough reinforcement, an end in itself. It becomes its own reward.

But I do not see where we get this desire for a life of “meaning” and “purpose”.

I understand even less how service to a God or that which is permanent has gotten attached to “meaning” and “purpose” when there is no necessary connection to be drawn here. Why does a life lack meaning and purpose when it does not serve God, or when its effects are temporary?

This, to me, is like taking a collection of marbles and saying, “Only those that are sky blue or have a diameter of 0.45 inches are valuable”. It raises a question that begs for an answer, “Why these qualities? What makes them so special? And where did they get their specialness?”

Well, actually, for many people these are not the things that give a life “meaning” and “purpose”.

They think of service to a divine being and decide that if such beings exist, they should be able to take care of themselves. They do not need the service of a weak and fallible mortal.

They think of permanence and they note that the child that they have comforted is happy now, is laughing now, and while the laughter may not be permanent, it will stay true until the end of time itself that, at this moment, a child was happy.

Ultimately, when we think about “meaning” and “permanence”, I invite you to think of a woman devoting huge amounts of time each day to the care of sick and abused children, providing them comfort and love, seeing that they are well fed and protected.

Then, I want you to imagine pulling back a bit from this image and seeing that woman merely going through the motion of caring for children in a large and empty room. While she insists that the children she comforts, protects, feeds, and teaches are real, they are figments of her imagination.

This illustrates the “meaning” that we find in a life devoted to the service of a God. There are those who look at this and see that it provides no meaning at all. Yet, when one comforts, protects, feeds, and teaches a real child and improves the quality of a real human life, this has real meaning and real purpose.

You cannot get real value from an imaginary God.

Compared to this, the rabbit has a more meaningful and fulfilling life. The bunnies that it raises and protects are real.

Our yearning for meaning and purpose appears to be learned. This overriding concern with “service to God” and “permanence” – concepts that no animal can comprehend, let alone value – are things people learn to value, not things that they value naturally.

If they are learned, the question arises, “Are there any good and strong reasons to teach children to have these concerns?”

We can think of one possible explanation of the fact children are taught to have these concerns. It follows the principle, “First, give them the disease. Then, sell them the cure.”

Actually, it is not even a cure. It is not even a treatment. What gets sold to the person who is given this “disease” is a cosmetic cover-up of the symptoms. It may feel good and look good but that is all it provides.

There is no God, so there is no way to fulfill a desire to serve God. There is no God, so no God has given us a list of commandments to obey or a list of requirements that give our lives “meaning” and “purpose”.

These commandments and concerns have all come from human beings. Those human beings taught others to “serve God”. However, what this actually boils down to when you take all of the myth and superstition out of it is, “Serve me, for I know the will of God. I will tell you what God wants.”

Yet, with no real God providing any real instructions, the preacher tells you what he wants. He assigns his own value and interests to God. Contributions to God are placed into his bank account. Instructions from God are directions from the priest or the church as to how they think you can best serve the Church – and the people who run it.

I am not speaking about a conspiracy here – about people secretly meeting in smoke-filled rooms discussing ways to manipulate a gullible public. The people taught to value and serve God eventually get invited into the leadership, where they continue to believe that they are serving God. And while they become the beneficiaries of the contributions in wealth and gain the power to direct the actions of others with their sermons, they grasp desperately to the belief, “This is not for my benefit, it is for God.”

We can see in this why the successful religious institutions are ones that put their energy into getting hold of the children – to mold and shape young brains with ideas such that they will spend their adult life in service to God – meaning, that they will become servants of the Church and those who run it.

But the “reasons for action that exist” to continue and perpetuate these practices is to serve the interests of the Church and those who lead it. Its real-world “reasons for action” behind the continued existence of these practices is to infect people with affections that will have them providing church leaders with economic support, as well as political and social obedience.

Today, as I head off to work, I hope to see that rabbit again. I would like to know that it is well for another day. Its life may not be permanent, and it may not serve God, but at least it is real.

It will not spend its life going through the motions of obtaining imaginary goods in an empty room. In that, its life promises to have more meaning and purpose than the lives of some of those who can understand the terms.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Kaelik December 16, 2010 at 6:03 am

I had hopes when you expressed concern about why we even care about meaning and purpose.

But then of course you went right ahead and just declared that actions have meaning and purpose for everyone because you like them, and don’t because you don’t.

Get back to me when you have a coherent definitions of meaning and purpose.

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Mike N December 16, 2010 at 6:04 am

I’ve wondered in the past if religion created the search for meaning rather than the other way around.

Since the earliest religions could be seen more as a way of bringing communities together and preparing people for the things they needed to do to stay alive (hunt, kill etc), it could easily be argued that the whole “religion as an explanation for the meaning of everything” came much later on. Perhaps it was a direct result of people no longer treating religious stories as simply allegories or an aid to meditation and instead regaring them as a literal description of the facts.

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Alonzo Fyfe December 16, 2010 at 7:24 am

I equate “meaning” and “purpose” with “value”.

Value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires, where desires provide the motivating force – the “reasons for action” – to realize particular states of affairs.

So, either (1) “meaning” and “purpose” consist in the same relationships, (2) “meaning” and “purpose” exist but they have no value, or (3) “meaning” and “purpose” do not exist.

These are just differences in languages. None of them say anything different about the world, and debating which option to use is like debating whether one should speak “French” or “English”.

I used option 1.

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Polymeron December 16, 2010 at 8:36 am

Whoa, whoa, WHOA!

“Our yearning for meaning and purpose appears to be learned. This overriding concern with “service to God” and “permanence” – concepts that no animal can comprehend, let alone value – are things people learn to value, not things that they value naturally.”

Um, no? How did you conclude this?
The first part of the statement is simply false. Yearning for meaning and purpose are universal for our species; it has in fact been shown that lacking a sense of purpose can be highly debilitating, regardless of upbringing or religious background. I can recommend several books on the subject.
It is true that god is sold as a “purpose”, but it does NOT follow that the need for purpose is learned!

A simpler hypothesis would be that, in order to maximize our intelligence’s effectiveness, a purpose-driven way of thinking helps. It would make evolutionary sense to have humans who think in terms of permanent effects, because if the shelter you build crumbles the next day, then your benefit from it is much lesser. So we think in terms of modifying our environment, rather than achieving temporary effects. People have an innate disdain for actions that are quickly reversed. That does not mean that such actions are valueless – that would be the genetic fallacy – but neither does it suggest that we are doing this to ourselves.

I think you should check your assumptions before drawing such conclusions…

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Joe Navy December 16, 2010 at 10:32 am

Well done Alonzo,
I officially have a man crush on you…

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Kaelik December 16, 2010 at 1:39 pm

“I equate “meaning” and “purpose” with “value”.”

Good, now apply this:

“This, to me, is like taking a collection of marbles and saying, “Only those that are sky blue or have a diameter of 0.45 inches are valuable”. It raises a question that begs for an answer, “Why these qualities? What makes them so special? And where did they get their specialness?””

to this:

“Yet, when one comforts, protects, feeds, and teaches a real child and improves the quality of a real human life, this has real meaning and real purpose.”
vs
“You cannot get real value from an imaginary God.”

If one values an imaginary relationship, then how is that any less valuable than a “real” relationship (in which the relationship is in fact between the woman and her conception of the children, which is often quite different.)

Why does one woman’s desires not count for giving value? Because you don’t like it? How does that make sense?

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Jayman December 16, 2010 at 4:25 pm

I understand even less how service to a God or that which is permanent has gotten attached to “meaning” and “purpose” when there is no necessary connection to be drawn here.

In this context, the religious believer is speaking of a meaning or a purpose that transcends this earthly life. Sharing God’s purpose gives one’s life a transcendent purpose.

Why does a life lack meaning and purpose when it does not serve God, or when its effects are temporary?

It isn’t that it lacks any and all meaning or purpose, it is that it lacks a transcendent purpose.

They think of service to a divine being and decide that if such beings exist, they should be able to take care of themselves. They do not need the service of a weak and fallible mortal.

Anyone who believes in the God of classical theism rejects the notion that God needs humans to take care of Him.

I am not speaking about a conspiracy here – about people secretly meeting in smoke-filled rooms discussing ways to manipulate a gullible public.

While it may not be a conspiracy, you’re clearly depicting the members of the church from a cynical atheistic perspective. There’s no mention of selfless preachers, believers sincerely searching for God, charitable donations to causes outside of the church, the fact that most church leaders (e.g., elders, deacons) make no money, the fact that members of a church can vote democratically on what the church will do, etc.

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Joseph December 17, 2010 at 5:03 am

Jayman

Calling something transcendent doesn’t make it necessarily real.

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Paul December 17, 2010 at 8:08 am

Yes, without God, we have no transcendent purpose.

We’re not that important. We live for such a short time on one little damp rock around some average star in one of those galaxies in a sea of nothingness so immense we can’t really comprehend even an incredibly small part of it.

But enjoy it while you can.

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faithlessgod December 17, 2010 at 9:39 am

Jayman

“In this context, the religious believer is speaking of a meaning or a purpose that transcends this earthly life. Sharing God’s purpose gives one’s life a transcendent purpose.”
And as such is not a real value, purpose or meaning. Transcendent meaning is another term for meaningless or at least imaginary meaning, since it refers to relationships with fictional entities, there is no real value there.

“It isn’t that it lacks any and all meaning or purpose, it is that it lacks a transcendent purpose.”
The usual term is ultimate purpose. Since there is no such thing theists have to pretend there is in order to justify needing a God to provide this pretended, transcendent purpose.

They think of service to a divine being and decide that if such beings exist, they should be able to take care of themselves. They do not need the service of a weak and fallible mortal.

“Anyone who believes in the God of classical theism rejects the notion that God needs humans to take care of Him.”
Not necessarily so. For example esoteric Judaism about the salvation of god, not oneself nor humanity. In that view, god was shattered in the creation of the universe and it is up to us to rebuild god, since each of us containing remaining piece , a spark of the divine.

“While it may not be a conspiracy, you’re clearly depicting the members of the church from a cynical atheistic perspective. There’s no mention of selfless preachers, believers sincerely searching for God, charitable donations to causes outside of the church, the fact that most church leaders (e.g., elders, deacons) make no money, the fact that members of a church can vote democratically on what the church will do, etc.”
And what have any of these to do with the question of ultimate value?

A selfless preacher could be preaching bigotry and hatred, as well as imaginary values, so what that he is selfless?

Sincerity is insufficient, their sincerity could be abused by preachers (selfless or not), being sincere means one is not deliberately lying but not does not preclude self-deception nor intellectual recklessness or negligence.

Charitable donations outside the church happen outside the church from believer and non-believer to charities run by non-beleivers. No ultimate values required there.

Some church leaders make no money but others do , including sometimes, their superiors, so? There are volunteers to all sorts of secular organisations that don’t make any money either. Again what has this to do with ultimate or transcendent value?

As for members of a church voting democratically what about the world largest church, the catholic church? And again what has this to do with the topic at hand?

Your arguments are normally more to the point than this, you can do better I hope.
Jayman(Quote)

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Jayman December 17, 2010 at 4:42 pm

faithlessgod:

And as such is not a real value, purpose or meaning. Transcendent meaning is another term for meaningless or at least imaginary meaning, since it refers to relationships with fictional entities, there is no real value there.

That’s besides the point. Alonzo asked how God has become attached to purpose. I responded by pointing out that God is attached to ultimate purpose because God is transcendent.

Since there is no such thing [as ultimate purpose] theists have to pretend there is in order to justify needing a God to provide this pretended, transcendent purpose.

Or, more likely, theists believe in God and believe that this God can provide an ultimate purpose to life.

Not necessarily so.

The esoteric Judaism you describe is not classical theism in the Aristotelian-Thomistic sense of the term. I doubt Alonzo’s notion of “service to God” corresponds to the notion held by most theists reading this blog. If Alonzo wants to make a comment relevant to his theistic readers (and their atheist neighbors) he should understand the beliefs of those theists.

And what have any of these to do with the question of ultimate value?

Not much. That section was meant to correct Alonzo’s erroneous views on religion. The corresponding section from Alonzo’s post tells us far more about him than it does about religion in general.

A selfless preacher could be preaching bigotry and hatred, as well as imaginary values, so what that he is selfless?

So it means that he is not necessarily preaching what he selfishly wants. Alonzo implies that preachers are generally selfish. While there are undoubtedly selfish preachers it is not the case that preachers are generally selfish.

Sincerity is insufficient, their sincerity could be abused by preachers (selfless or not), being sincere means one is not deliberately lying but not does not preclude self-deception nor intellectual recklessness or negligence.

The sincerity of believers means, contrary to Alonzo, that they are not “grasp[ing] desperately to the belief” that they are serving God. We really believe we are serving God. Above, you make the same mistake by assuming believers “pretend” that ultimate purpose exists when we really believe it exists.

Charitable donations outside the church happen outside the church from believer and non-believer to charities run by non-beleivers. No ultimate values required there.

Donations given in the church often are given to entities outside of the church. But this means that even if religious believers’ actions do not have ultimate purpose they still have some purpose. For example, serving God by running a soup kitchen still has some purpose even if it does not have ultimate purpose. It is not true, contrary to Alonzo, that the life of a believer in ultimate purpose has less meaning and purpose in it than the life of a rabbit.

There are volunteers to all sorts of secular organisations that don’t make any money either. Again what has this to do with ultimate or transcendent value?

So, contrary to Alonzo, religious leaders are not merely trying to provide themselves with economic support and socio-political power.

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Peter December 19, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Very interesting thread. thought I’d put in my two cents worth.

It seems as though Alonzo is failing to recognise (yeah that’s right, recognise with a ‘s’) his own beliefs when he talks about people “pretending” to believe in God. This is completely based on his assumption that God does not exist. God may exist, or may not exist. You could even throw a “santa claus” style hypothesis that God exists only if we believe he exists, and he doesn’t if we don’t. Alonzo is basically projecting his own beliefs as reality, and then assuming that if anybody else has a different belief, they are wrong or are “pretending” even though they know the “real truth”.

I put the following questions to Alonzo to ponder. If he has a thought is it real? does it have value? If he has an epiphany but does not tell anyone, does this have no value because we can’t see it in the “real world”? If believing in God gives a person’s life “purpose” and “meaning” to them, does that have no value because it might not be true? (if God is too hard for Alonzo to swallow due to his beliefs, replacing God with “Santa Claus” would be just as valid in terms of the point I am making)

How can you define “real” when the only thing we can possibly ever achieve is what we believe to be real?

It seems to me that faithlessgod has a much better handle on this issue, because he acknowledges that he is limited by what he is willing to believe. Alonzo can not escape that atheism is no more and no less a valid belief than one in God.

One possible counter argument to the “conspiracy but not really theory” argument, is that God may well exist, but we just have no way of communicating accurately with God until we die. The fact that some people use “God” to propell their own self interests does not prove that God is not there. It can be thought of as “quoting God out of context”, which can happen (in theory) just as easily as “quoting Alonzo out of context”.

As an aside, Polymeron’s argument “A simpler hypothesis would be that, in order to maximize our intelligence’s effectiveness, a purpose-driven way of thinking helps….” is clearly a circular argument because it pre-supposes a purpose (to maximise our effectiveness), which it then goes on to justify with another purpose to achieve this purpose.

My personal view is that the reason we feel the need to a purpose in our life is due to the basic survival instincts we have, so in this sense it’s not much different from Polymeron’s argument. But thinking about it, it turns into a “chicken and egg” problem. This is because one can think of the instinct to survive as a derivative of having a sense of purpose “we must survive until we achieve our purpose”, or the other way around “we must have a purpose in order to survive”. ahhhh! I can’t see an obvious argument for preferring one over the other.

I think I would be best described as an “agnostic” (damn fence sitter, I know) but I actually think the better word is to describe my “religion” is “Bayesian” (or possibly “tosser who knows how to talk a lot of crap” :)).

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Polymeron December 19, 2010 at 9:32 pm

“As an aside, Polymeron’s argument “A simpler hypothesis would be that, in order to maximize our intelligence’s effectiveness, a purpose-driven way of thinking helps….” is clearly a circular argument because it pre-supposes a purpose (to maximise our effectiveness), which it then goes on to justify with another purpose to achieve this purpose.”

> This is false. I am not presupposing a purpose at all.
I am, rather, making the assumption that our intelligence can have more evolutionary benefit the more effective it is. My argument is that purpose-driven thinking is a more effective use of intelligence in the evolutionary sense; which would make the hypothesis that purpose-driven thinking is evolutionary in origin and therefore at least partially innate rather than learned, which was Alonzo’s claim.

Evolution by natural selection is not a purpose-driven process, as far as we can tell. It operates by sheer force of statistics – if something has a better chance of propagating its properties, we expect to see those properties propagate. This also means that the survival instinct can (and most obviously did) evolve without requiring a purpose behind it – simply because creatures without it are less likely to pass along their genes.

If you think any of this is wrong please explain why.

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cl December 21, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Jayman,

FYI: disagreement with faithlessgod may result in you being falsely accused of racism.

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cl December 21, 2010 at 12:46 pm

As far as Alonzo’s post goes, I think the same of it as I do Bill Craig’s argument in Luke’s post Meaning and Death: nonsense. I think more atheists need to call Alonzo on his preaching.

In fact, Alonzo uses the same fallacious reasoning as Craig. The only difference is that they’re on opposite sides of the same coin: Craig argues that atheists can’t have real meaning or purpose in life without God. Fyfe argues that theists can’t have real meaning or purpose with God.

It gets worse:

There is no God, so there is no way to fulfill a desire to serve God. There is no God, so no God has given us a list of commandments to obey or a list of requirements that give our lives “meaning” and “purpose”.

Does Alonzo know that? Of course not. He believes that, and here he is – like any good fundamentalist preacher – pushing his beliefs on the rest of us; using his beliefs to sustain truth claims about the real world we all share; and – in the case of desirism – using his beliefs as justification to shower condemnation on those who do not share them.

Can there be any greater sins against rationalism?

I think that because Fyfe is an atheist, many atheists let their firewalls down. As a result, when Alonzo slaps a Scarlet A sticker on Craig’s bottle of premium grade snake oil, the virus of illogic slips in undetected.

Let the buyer beware!

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cl December 21, 2010 at 1:11 pm

As far as the thread is concerned:

But then of course you went right ahead and just declared that actions have meaning and purpose for everyone because you like them, and don’t because you don’t. [Kaelik]

Glad you caught that. I “like” how Alonzo completely eschewed your first objection in favor of a lesson on semantics. I wonder what he’ll say to your second objection, or if he’ll even respond? Nonetheless, bravo to you: keep pressing.

The first part of the statement is simply false. Yearning for meaning and purpose are universal for our species; it has in fact been shown that lacking a sense of purpose can be highly debilitating, regardless of upbringing or religious background. I can recommend several books on the subject. [Polymeron]

I agree, but fear that your suggestion might fall on deaf ears because it would not facilitate Alonzo’s atheist preaching.

That section was meant to correct Alonzo’s erroneous views on religion. The corresponding section from Alonzo’s post tells us far more about him than it does about religion in general. [Jayman]

I agree, although I’m unsure of what, exactly, this tells us – aside from the facts that Alonzo has deep-seated prejudice against believers and is inconsistent in his application of reason.

It seems as though Alonzo is failing to recognise (yeah that’s right, recognise with a ‘s’) his own beliefs when he talks about people ‘pretending’ to believe in God. This is completely based on his assumption that God does not exist. [Peter]

While I extend to you a hearty “bravo,” I suspect that Alonzo simply doesn’t care. I’ve made the exact same objection you just made, several times – to no avail. You know, the whole “as a dog returns to its vomit” thing.

Alonzo is basically projecting his own beliefs as reality, and then assuming that if anybody else has a different belief, they are wrong or are ‘pretending’ even though they know the ‘real truth’. [Peter]

Yes, yes, and YES. The problem is, despite the fact of people telling him so, I honestly believe Alonzo just doesn’t get it. If Alonzo does get it, then it might be the case that he simply doesn’t care — and that, IMHO, is much worse than casual negligence. In the same way a puerile fundamentalist often cannot see outside the box of their own beliefs, Alonzo operates thus. The only difference is, Alonzo proffers his illogic as reason, and a significant subset of atheists seem to swallow it whole.

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Peter December 22, 2010 at 10:11 pm

I suppose I stand corrected on Polymeron’s point. I was taking a different slant on what he said (in terms of explaining our desire for meaning and purpose). But with the additional explanation, the argument no longer appears circular to me. But this does make the “evolutionary” argument seem less relevant to answering the question of why we feel the need to have purpose and meaning in our lives, only that having the desire for meaning or purpose is an advantage in terms of natural selection. This is what I meant by “circular” (although I think that this is not an appropriate term in light of Polymeron’s extra comments), the argument only tells us that if our “purpose” is to evolve more than any other species, then have a desire for meaning will help us to achieve the purpose.

And in response to cl’s post, thanks for the support, and perhaps also thanks for the heads up about the stubbornness (is that a word?) of Alonzo. I think it is quite funny how some don’t like to acknowledge even the possibility that they could be wrong? If this really is true of Alonzo, then perhaps the name “common sense” atheism is not the best title. To me it surely is a fundamental part of “common sense” (what is common sense anyway? logic? common knowledge?) to consider the possibility that you could be wrong.

I also had a wondering, is there an atheist equivalent to “the bible”? as in a set of agreed values and principles (such as “the principle of the lesser of two evils”) that one is to be guided by in order to be a “good” atheist (although some may object that the bible does these things). Although I think I am digressing, this may be better put as the subject of a new post.

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Polymeron December 22, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Now I see your point. Indeed, were I to posit that evolution has a purpose based on my own need for purpose (which may well be evolutionarily evolved) – that would indeed be circular.

As it is, I think we can expect evolution to create a need for purpose in species whose intelligence is their main asset, whether evolution itself is purpose-driven or not.

“I also had a wondering, is there an atheist equivalent to “the bible”? as in a set of agreed values and principles (such as “the principle of the lesser of two evils”) that one is to be guided by in order to be a “good” atheist (although some may object that the bible does these things)”
> There can’t be such a thing more than there is the bible of the people who don’t believe in unicorns. Sure enough, atheists do have many belief systems, with varied principles and values. But those are unrelated to atheism itself.

The only commandment in the atheist book is “once you believe in a god, you stop being an atheist”. That’s actually not even a commandment, just an observation ;)

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cl December 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Peter,

I think it is quite funny how some don’t like to acknowledge even the possibility that they could be wrong? If this really is true of Alonzo, then perhaps the name “common sense” atheism is not the best title. To me it surely is a fundamental part of “common sense” (what is common sense anyway? logic? common knowledge?) to consider the possibility that you could be wrong.

Well, I think most people at least tacitly imply the possibility. That is, who wants to be so arrogant as to actually claim they can’t possibly be wrong? The problem – as I see it – is that in this case – and I’m in a “metadebate” context here not necessarily this isolated post – we’ve had multiple instances of people explaining quite eloquently where Alonzo [and Luke for that matter] go wrong. Many of those are either eschewed, met with empty dismissal, or the most preposterous of false allegations about the “motives” and “moral character” of their interlocutors. Don’t get me wrong – Luke and Alonzo also get things right plenty of times, but that shan’t excuse the aforementioned problems IMO.

Speaking specifically of this post, well… same thing. Valid points have been made, and so far Alonzo’s response is tantamount to a lecture on semantics. I mean, the guy’s using the same argument everybody crucifies WLC for, and only a few even call it. Blinders? Who knows.

Either way, looking forward to 2011.

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JoeK December 27, 2010 at 6:02 pm

I think it is quite funny how some don’t like to acknowledge even the possibility that they could be wrong? If this really is true of Alonzo, then perhaps the name “common sense” atheism is not the best title.To me it surely is a fundamental part of “common sense” (what is common sense anyway? logic? common knowledge?) to consider the possibility that you could be wrong.

If you browse around this blog a bit, I think you’ll find that Luke has a fierce commitment to discover whether he is right or wrong, and follow through on the consequences. He looks at the evidence and follows where it leads, revising his beliefs as appropriate — which process led him to the atheist position, starting from evangelical Christianity. I don’t know about Alonzo, but considering the closeness of their collaboration, I suspect he shares the commitment to align his beliefs as closely as possible to the available evidence. That’s the opposite of being unwilling to consider the possibility of being wrong.

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Peter December 27, 2010 at 9:36 pm

JoeK, I do take your point, but I was merely responding to the above comments left by other bloggers, and I explicitly qualified the more general statements I made in the quote you used, by saying “if this really is true of Alonzo….”. What I was saying earlier was that Alonzo (apparently) did not acknowledge the assumptions which underlie his argument, presenting them as “facts”. For example, Alonzo writes “You cannot get real value from an imaginary God.” – something which I cannot see as being true in general. I think the word “wrong” is a poor choice on my part (“…consider the possibility that you could be wrong”) because it doesn’t properly convey what I meant. I think its more that there is a lot of implicit beliefs which are under pinning Alonzo’s argument. To take the above statement “You cannot get real value from an imaginary God” as an example , there is the vague term “real value” which means different things to different people. From looking at the examples he uses, it seems to have something to do with being agreed as being “of value” by an external party (the deluded woman’s work has “no real value” to an external party not involved in the “illusion”). Thus whatever Alonzo’s means (or assumes) when he says “real value” is something implicitly defined to him, and not made explicit in the article (although I could imagine that one could write an encyclopedia on the definition of “real value”). This may seem somewhat tedious, but given that atheism does not really have an agreed set of values and principles (I may be wrong on this point), it gives Alonzo an incredibly broad discretion to use whatever values he wants in order to support his argument. I’m not saying that Alonzo is deliberately doing something like this, just that without an explicit definition of what “real value” means from his perspective, it becomes quite difficult to understand precisely what he is trying to say. Kaelik picked up on this on the first response to the blog.
To his credit, Alonzo does acknowledge the apparent arbitrariness of value “…Why these qualities? What makes them so special? And where did they get their specialness?…” but he fails to acknowledge this arbitrariness when he makes his argument. The obvious question to me from this is then: Why do the deluded woman’s actions have no “real value”? Isn’t this just as arbitrary as “the marbles which are sky blue have value”? IMHO the only way to remove the arbitrariness is to give a definition to value. One loose qualitative definition that could be useful might be “the value of something is defined by what people are prepared to do to obtain, destroy, capture, protect, or support that something.” This definition is obviously not a universally applicable one, and given that it’s off the top of my head it may have problems. Applying this to the deluded woman, shows that her life, while ultimately an “illusion” when we know the “truth” (which we never “truly” do, for this “revelation” could easily be another “illusion”) certainly has some value under this definition, because she is willing to do many things to protect and support the “children”.
It would be good to see Alonzo give a definition of what he means by “real value”, and then show how his argument is consistent with his definition.

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JoeK December 28, 2010 at 7:58 am

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your response. (BTW, is it just me, or is the comment preview really broken? It’s only showing me fragments of what I actually wrote, so I hope this all gets through intact.)

JoeK, I do take your point, but I was merely responding to the above comments left by other bloggers, and I explicitly qualified the more general statements I made in the quote you used, by saying “if this really is true of Alonzo….”.

OK. I wasn’t clear about the target of your criticism, partly because you took exception to the blog’s name, perhaps implying a more wide-ranging criticism than was intended.

What I was saying earlier was that Alonzo (apparently) did not acknowledge the assumptions which underlie his argument, presenting them as “facts”.

For Alonzo, they probably qualify as “facts”, if by that we mean “true beyond reasonable doubt given the evidence at hand”.

This difference in standards of evidence causes a lot of (unnecessary?) friction between atheists/skeptics and their interlocutors. If you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, say, the existence of gods, and you’ve concluded, based on the evidence available to you, that they probably don’t exist, then this counts as a fact for you. You are unlikely to feel it necessary to qualify every aspect of your reasoning with “this is an assumption that could be wrong”, when for you that probability is very small. Furthermore, because you are a skeptical rationalist, the possibility that you might be wrong is absolutely central to your world-view, and therefore you are unlikely to bother to point it out very frequently.

To the non-skeptic, those who think contingent truth can be definitively established in the same sense that mathematical theorems are, this kind of rhetoric appears arrogant. And in some cases, of course, the vestments of rationality comprise only a thin veneer around true arrogance; but I don’t think that’s the case with Luke, and probably not Alonzo.

For example, Alonzo writes “You cannot get real value from an imaginary God.” – something which I cannot see as being true in general.

I am tentatively in agreement with your statement (“[not] being true in general”), because I think sometimes people do extract or derive true value from imaginary things. I’ve learned really valuable things about myself and human relationships by reading fiction, for example (or possibly I’ve adopted aspects of fictional characters as my own, with a cover story — not acknowledged even by me — of “discovering” those aspects in myself; the result is largely the same, and it seems to me an example of getting “real value” from something imaginary).

I think the word “wrong” is a poor choice on my part (“…consider the possibility that you could be wrong”) because it doesn’t properly convey what I meant.I think its more that there is a lot of implicit beliefs which are under pinning Alonzo’s argument.To take the above statement “You cannot get real value from an imaginary God” as an example , there is the vague term “real value” which means different things to different people.From looking at the examples he uses, it seems to have something to do with being agreed as being “of value” by an external party (the deluded woman’s work has “no real value” to an external party not involved in the “illusion”).

But here I disagree. The pertinent point is that if the woman is getting “value” from her illusory activities, that value is false because it is based on a false model of the world. Her activity is not actually benefitting any children, so any sense of satisfaction that she gets from taking care of illusory kids is a lie. This is quite different from the experience I describe above, where I am gaining insight from a fictional world that I am aware is imaginary. In that scenario, my model of the world is correct, and the value comes from my appreciation of the mapping from the fictional world onto reality.

Thus whatever Alonzo’s means (or assumes) when he says “real value” is something implicitly defined to him, and not made explicit in the article (although I could imagine that one could write an encyclopedia on the definition of “real value”).This may seem somewhat tedious, but given that atheism does not really have an agreed set of values and principles (I may be wrong on this point)

No, you’re right — it’s an ongoing research project :-) But Alonzo has a theory that looks promising in desire utilitarianism, which is part of the context of this post that perhaps you may be overlooking.

, it gives Alonzo an incredibly broad discretion to use whatever values he wants in order to support his argument.I’m not saying that Alonzo is deliberately doing something like this, just that without an explicit definition of what “real value” means from his perspective, it becomes quite difficult to understand precisely what he is trying to say.Kaelik picked up on this on the first response to the blog.
To his credit, Alonzo does acknowledge the apparent arbitrariness of value “…Why these qualities? What makes them so special? And where did they get their specialness?…” but he fails to acknowledge this arbitrariness when he makeshis argument.
The obvious question to me from this is then: Why do the deluded woman’s actions have no “real value”? Isn’t this just as arbitrary as “the marbles which are sky blue have value”? IMHO the only way to remove the arbitrariness is to give a definition to value.

I am not qualified to say much about Alonzo’s views, but I suspect that the basis of his argument would be along the lines of, “The woman’s actions have much less value than would non-illusory actions of the same type, because non-illusory actions contribute to the fulfillment of many more actual good desires (where “good” === “tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart”) than do her illusory actions. Not only are her illusory actions not fulfilling the actual desires of any real children, they aren’t even fulfilling her own presumed desire to help real children.”

One loose qualitative definition that could be useful might be “the value of something is defined by what people are prepared to do to obtain, destroy, capture, protect, or support that something.”This definition is obviously not a universally applicable one, and given that it’s off the top of my head it may have problems.Applying this to the deluded woman, shows that her life, while ultimately an “illusion” when we know the “truth” (which we never “truly” do, for this “revelation” could easily be another “illusion”) certainly has some value under this definition, because she is willing to do many things to protect and support the “children”.
It would be good to see Alonzo give a definition of what he means by “real value”, and then show how his argument is consistent with his definition.  

I think he’s made a serious attempt to do that, on atheistethicist.blogspot.com. Give it a look.

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JNester December 29, 2010 at 11:10 am

“If you browse around this blog a bit, I think you’ll find that Luke has a fierce commitment to discover whether he is right or wrong, and follow through on the consequences.”

Are you new around here? What you describe is definitely selective.

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JoeK December 29, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Are you new around here? What you describe is definitely selective.  

Er… New-ish, I guess? I’ve been reading CSA fairly regularly for a little less than a year, IIRC.

By “selective”, do you mean that it’s your perception that Luke is not interested in aligning his beliefs with evidence? If so, I’d be interested to know why. Are there particular posts you’d suggest I look at?

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Peter December 30, 2010 at 3:59 pm

JoeK,

“But here I disagree. The pertinent point is that if the woman is getting “value” from her illusory activities, that value is false because it is based on a false model of the world. Her activity is not actually benefitting any children, so any sense of satisfaction that she gets from taking care of illusory kids is a lie. This is quite different from the experience I describe above, where I am gaining insight from a fictional world that I am aware is imaginary. In that scenario, my model of the world is correct, and the value comes from my appreciation of the mapping from the fictional world onto reality.”

I agree with your disagreement (weird I know) in part, apart from one point: how does the observer know the “truth”? Once you start talking about “illusions” of “reality” then defining what is real and what is an illusion is almost (but not quite) pointless. For what stops the story from extending to:
“the woman is caring for children… then we zoom-out and discover that she is actually deluded (how did “we” make this discovery?)…. but then we zoom-out some more, and find that it is in fact actually “us” who is deluded, and the woman is helping real children, we just cannot see them because of our delusion.”

I believe it is a similar situation to asking the question: “how can you be absolutely sure that you are not delluded?”. The answer (in my opinion) is that you can never be sure (for absolute reality does not exist in our minds, only what we perceive reality to be.)

So I am in agreement (i.e. I am wrong) that IF we are correct in assuming the woman is deluded, then what she does has less value than if she was helping real children.
But that’s a big “if”. From the way the story goes, it sounds like we were “deluded in believing the woman” then we “step back” and then we are “in reality about not believing the woman”. Who’s to say it is not the other way around: we are “in reality” (the children are real) then we “step back” and become “deluded” (the children are fake). I see no argument from Alonzo that the flow necessarily must go the way he describes it. And for me this example is at the heart of his argument about why “believing in God” can serve no “real purpose”. The analogy is : the “woman” is representing “the true believer” and the “zoomed-out” observer is representing “the informed observer” who knows the “real truth”. But how can Alonzo claim that athiests are in the position of the “observer”? Couldn’t they just as easily be the “true non-believer”?

And thanks for the pointer towards Alonzo’s description of “real value”. I haven’t read it yet, but intend to over the next few days. But it would still be nice to have a sentence or two saying “here is what I think real value is….” and have a link to details, rather than expect us to know the details of what he has written (and further to summarise these details in the same way that he has). From what you are saying it seems that Alonzo is aware himself that his meaning of “real value” to himself may not be fully formed in his own mind, and thus not unreasonable to request him to acknowledge this.

And this stuff is dangerous (blogging, not the content of the article), very addictive (or maybe that’s just me!)

Another small issue that I have with athiesm is why does athiesm get the “common sense” slogan? I don’t see how believing in something is a violation of “common sense”? In fact I think it seems quite sensible to believe in something because observation will only get you so far. (That’s rich coming from an agnostic I know; I just can’t commit myself to be a “true non/believer” and would rather acknowledge the limitations of what I can and can’t know). Maybe athiesm is more flexible (by “flexible” that I mean willing to respond/change) to new evidence? But I would speculate that this is because athiesm is not settled in what it stands for apart from a non-belief in a God, so in a way it has to be more flexible than other religions. (speculation again) If athiesm was an institution (in the same way other religions are) it probably would be less flexible to change just like most institutions, religious or not. Apologies if I am “out-of-scope” with this paragraph. The link is incredibly flimsy with the above discussion, given that Alonzo criticises the belief in God (it is quite smooth how he does it), rather than simply stick to the topic of why we have a yearning for meaning and purpose. I feel that this leaves the door open for criticism back towards athiesm.

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JoeK January 1, 2011 at 2:52 am

I agree with your disagreement (weird I know) in part, apart from one point: how does the observer know the ³truth´?Once you start talking about ³illusions´ of ³reality´ then defining what is real and what is an illusion is almost (but not quite) pointless. For what stops the story from extending to:
³the woman is caring for children¥ then we zoom-out and discover that she is actually deluded (how did ³we´ make this discovery?).

We looked. The “zooming out” represented (or so it seems to me) a
shift from the personal subjective viewpoint of the woman, to a
third-party viewpoint from which the childrens’ non-existence is
obvious.

but then we zoom-out some more, and find that it is in
fact actually ³us´ who is deluded, and the woman is helping real
children, we just cannot see them because of our delusion.´

How are we (plural!) all going to be deluded the same way? If
multiple parties agree that, nope, those kids ain’t really there — then
that is pretty strong evidence that they’re not really there.

(Disclaimer before the next section: I am not an epistemologist, just
a sane person.) We can actually know things about the world — not
with the 100% certainty with which we can know logical truths, but
certainly “beyond reasonable doubt”. We can look at the evidence and
notice when it contradicts our model of the world. To deny this leads
quickly to solipsism or other absurdities.

I believe it is a similar situation to asking the question: ³how can
you be absolutely sure that you are not delluded?´.The answer (in my
opinion) is that you can never be sure (for absolute reality does not
exist in our minds, only what we perceive reality to be.)

Yes, but it is certainly possible to bring our representations of the
world into better alignmnent with reality. As Isaac Asimov wrote,
“[W]hen people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When
people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you
think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as
thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of
them put together.”

So I am in agreement (i.e. I am wrong) that IF we are correct in
assuming the woman is deluded, then what she does has less value than
if she was helping real children.
But that²s a big ³if´.From the way the story goes, it sounds like we
were ³deluded in believing the woman´ then we ³step back´ and then we
are ³in reality about not believing the woman´.Who²s to say it is not
the other way around: we are ³in reality´ (the children are real) then
we ³step back´ and become ³deluded´ (the children are fake).

I see no
argument from Alonzo that the flow necessarily must go the way he
describes it.

Alonzo is describing a scenario in which the woman is
deluded
, and then asking if there is value in her actions. It’s
that way because that is the situation he describes and wants to
discuss. If he wanted to discuss the scenario where the kids were
real and everyone else was deluded about their non-existence, then
that’s the scenario he would have described (and in that case, of
course, her actions would have value). To argue that it
might be the other way is, I think, to miss the point.

And for me this example is at the heart of his argument
about why ³believing in God´ can serve no ³real purpose´.The analogy
is : the ³woman´ is representing ³the true believer´ and the
³zoomed-out´ observer is representing ³the informed observer´ who
knows the ³real truth´.But how can Alonzo claim that athiests are in
the position of the ³observer´?Couldn²t they just as easily be the
³true non-believer´?

No, because the evidence from the actual real world doesn’t seem
to support the hypothesis that supernatural things exist. In my experience,
almost all atheists fail to believe in gods for the same reasons that
you (presumably) fail to believe in, say, Chinese water dragons –
there is no reason at all to believe in them.

[...] Maybe athiesm is more flexible (by
³flexible´ that I mean willing to respond/change) to new evidence?

“Atheism” isn’t anything but a failure to believe in gods. I think
many — perhaps most — atheists arrive at that unbelief by considering
evidence; whereas most religious people believe in their religion
because of indoctrination. (That last point is clearly demonstrated
by the fact that the strongest determiner of one’s religious beliefs
is one’s parents’ religious beliefs. [PS -- I wanted to provide a citation
for this, but I wasn't able to find one in short order, and I think it's
pretty obvious anyway. But if you really want a reference I'll look
harder. Tomorrow.]) So it is likely that an atheist is more likely to
respond to evidence by changing her world-model to fit that evidence
– bringing “what [she] perceive[s] reality to be” into closer registration
with “absolute reality”, if you will. As opposed to the religious response,
which often seems to be: deny or try to explain away or suppress evidence
that doesn’t fit the religious world model.

But I would speculate that this is because athiesm is not settled in what
it stands for apart from a non-belief in a God, so in a way it has to
be more flexible than other religions.

No, I think it’s because people who are interested in what real-world
evidence implies are more likely to end up being atheists. Reality
has a well-known atheist bias, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert.

(speculation again) If athiesm
was an institution (in the same way other religions are) it probably
would be less flexible to change just like most institutions,
religious or not.Apologies if I am ³out-of-scope´ with this
paragraph.The link is incredibly flimsy with the above discussion,
given that Alonzo criticises the belief in God (it is quite smooth how
he does it), rather than simply stick to the topic of why we have a
yearning for meaning and purpose.I feel that this leaves the door open
for criticism back towards athiesm.  

I don’t see how “atheism”, per se, could ever become an institution,
any more than “disbelief in unicorns” could become an institution.
There certainly are institutions that explicitly advocate atheist
positions, though. And sure, institutions generally are resistant to
change. Even the scientific community, which pretty much has
“Updating our world-model to fit the evidence since 1000BC” printed on
its business cards, can be pretty resistant to change when faced with
evidence that challenges entrenched thinking and interests. That
resistance isn’t even necessarily a bad thing — it means that good
theories (those that describe and predict accurately) are hard to
overturn without very compelling reasons. Even so, we have examples
where very established scientific theories were overturned by radical
alternatives that had the evidence on their side
relativity overturned Newtonian mechanics, for example.

But religion has literally no evidential support — the
amount of confirmatory objective evidence in favor of theism is at
the level of statistical noise. (If you disagree, I’d be happy to consider
any evidence you can produce.) And that wouldn’t be a problem if
religions weren’t also hugely powerful social institutions that strongly
influence public policy, and which get away with doing so by
claiming that they are completely above any kind of judgement
based on real-world considerations. This is, in my opinion,
horribly damaging to our society in many ways. [Rant about the
evils of "abstinence-only" sex "education" elided.]

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Peter January 2, 2011 at 1:56 am

We looked. The “zooming out” represented (or so it seems to me) a
shift from the personal subjective viewpoint of the woman, to a
third-party viewpoint from which the childrens’ non-existence is
obvious.

I understand that “we” looked, but are “we” not succeptible to the same type of scenario? What gives the third party the privileged position of knowing the “real truth”. You mention later that this is justified because there a many “third parties” and only one woman. But this does not carry over when using this example to make God vs no God comparisons, because there will likely be lots of “women/people” helping the children, and fewer “third parties” (because there is more believers than non-believers of God).

Alonzo is describing a scenario in which the woman is
deluded, and then asking if there is value in her actions. It’s
that way because that is the situation he describes and wants to
discuss

I agree that this is what Alonzo is doing, and I have no issue with the way he describes the example. But my issue is how he makes the leap from the example of the woman to the God/no God case. My point is that the “atheist” could just as easily be the “woman” in the example. Alonzo hasn’t given a justification for the “third party” necessarily being correct. There is basically just two different perspectives, and how do “we” know which to chose as “correct” apart from a supreme self confidence that we are right.

“Atheism” isn’t anything but a failure to believe in gods

I would say that this more accurately describes an agnostic. I would say that “atheism” is a belief that no God exists. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one I think.

But religion has literally no evidential support — the
amount of confirmatory objective evidence in favor of theism is at
the level of statistical noise

Failure to find something does not mean that something isn’t there. I would also suggest that just because evidence of God hasn’t found (satisfactory to enough people) doesn’t mean we should stop looking. I’m not sure if it counts as “evidence”, but certainly a reason for having theism is that it can provide a source of inspiration for people, and give them a sense of community (although this can be achieved in other ways). God also gives people someone to talk to in true confidence.

This may be true (I can’t think of anything), but I’m not sure that this means that believers in religion are “ignoring the evidence” (though they may be taking account of “evidence” that isn’t really there). You would need to go further (from an atheist perspective) and gather evidence that existence of a God is impossible. I don’t think there is evidence of this either. In “rational terms” I would say that the existence of God is undecidable from what evidence there is: not enough evidence to confirm, and not enough evidence to rule it out.
I think the difficulty is in answering the question: How does the world change between one with a God and one without? Given that we are only able to observe at most one of these “worlds”, the other with be largely based on our beliefs.

And that wouldn’t be a problem if
religions weren’t also hugely powerful social institutions that strongly
influence public policy, and which get away with doing so by
claiming that they are completely above any kind of judgement
based on real-world considerations.

I would suggest that you could replace “religions” with “government” or “big business” or any other institution which has the power to influence people on a large scale. I’d put this more to the existence of the “institution of religion” rather than the existence of “religion” itself. I’d say it is the people in religious power rather than the religion itself that is the issue, just the same as it is the people running government rather than the idea of government.

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Polymeron January 2, 2011 at 3:06 am

Peter,

You would need to go further (from an atheist perspective) and gather evidence that existence of a God is impossible.I don’t think there is evidence of this either.In “rational terms” I would say that the existence of God is undecidable from what evidence there is: not enough evidence to confirm, and not enough evidence to rule it out.

I disagree. The atheist is under no obligation to disprove god.

We can’t disprove the existence of an invisible teapot orbiting Jupiter either; “not enough evidence to confirm it, not enough evidence to rule it out”. But that does not mean that the two positions – that it exists or it doesn’t – are equivalently plausible. In the absence of evidence, it is more useful to assume it doesn’t exist.

The burden of proof – of showing extraordinary evidence – falls squarely on the shoulders of those making the extraordinary claim. Otherwise we’d be sitting here all day disproving leprechauns and banshees. And just because something is not disproven, does not make it likely nor plausible.

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Peter January 3, 2011 at 1:36 am

In the absence of evidence, it is more useful to assume it doesn’t exist.

I would suggest that for God, assuming that he exists is useful to many people. It gives people something to believe in. And I think comparing God to unicorns or pixies is a bit disrespectful of those who do believe in him.

The burden of proof – of showing extraordinary evidence – falls squarely on the shoulders of those making the extraordinary claim.

And why is the existence of God “extraordinary”? It does provide an explanation (which one can take or leave) of why some things are the way they are.

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polymeron January 3, 2011 at 2:09 am

Peter,

I would suggest that for God, assuming that he exists is useful to many people.It gives people something to believe in.

> It’s very important not to get caught in a confusion in terms, otherwise our discussion would be purely semantic. So to clarify, I’m using the word “useful” in the sense that it has a higher chance of corresponding to reality as we can interact with it.

I have no interest, at current, in disputing that people derive utility from believing in god even if he does not exist. I *am* contending, however, that at least some of us should strive to know the truth – for instance, those of us who are setting policy, or who are researching other ways in which the world works so we can improve everyone’s life. So as I see it we are discussing whether or not it is actually the case that god exists.

If you think that point is unimportant I don’t see what we have left to discuss; if you think the point is not debatable then discussion is pointless; if you agree that the point is important and is permissible for discussion, then I’d rather not get sidetracked to the discussion of whether or not people should believe in god until AFTER I’ve established what the likelihood of this actually being true IS.
Are we on the same page here?

And I think comparing God to unicorns or pixies is a bit disrespectful of those who do believe in him.

> How can this be disrespectful to people, when I have made absolutely no value statement regarding those who hold this belief? Or anyone else, for that matter? Clearly ideas cannot be insulted. Why should people take offense that I am comparing one non-disprovable idea to another? Specifically, the context in which I was making the comparison is:
1. Both the god hypothesis and leprechauns/banshees have not been disproved.
2. I am not expected to disprove leprechauns/banshees in order to profess a lack of belief that they exist.
3. Your argument claims that I *am* expected to do the same in order to profess a lack of belief that god exists.
2&3 are an apparent double standard.

4. As a corollary to the above, the number of things one does not believe in is infinite. It is thus impractical for one to require formulating a proof of such things not existing in order to disbelieve that they exist; unless some general disproof can be found (unlikely).

Either explain why anyone should take offense at this, or grow a thicker skin. Beliefs are meant to be tested. It is not my own flaw if others are unwilling to bear the thought of someone doing so.

And why is the existence of God “extraordinary”?It does provide an explanation (which one can take or leave) of why some things are the way they are.  

> Because the God Hypothesis (as usually understood) postulates an unchanging, eternal, physically-influencing yet immaterial, all-benevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing being.
ANY of these six traits would be considered extraordinary since we have not ONCE observed anything possessing them. Claiming that a being exists which demonstrates all six is therefore that much more extraordinary (even without trying to find contradictions in these terms), and requires substantial evidence.
If I have been overgeneralizing and your hypothesis does not include any of these six traits, feel free to better define what your hypothesis is, and then I might be inclined to agree that it does not require extraordinary evidence.

So. ARE we still on the same page here?

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Polymeron January 3, 2011 at 2:16 am

I should probably also add a few words ( but only a few this time, I promise) on this:

It does provide an explanation (which one can take or leave) of why some things are the way they are.  

An explanation is only as good as the experiences it predicts and the possibilities it prohibits. An explanation that prohibits no possibilities, that is, a hypothesis which explains all outcomes equally well, provides zero knowledge. It is, rather, a renaming of ignorance in the guise of an explanation.
If the God Hypothesis prohibited any possibilities, it would be testable. So go ahead and say what cannot possibly happen if this hypothesis is true. Otherwise it is not actually an explanation.

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JNester January 3, 2011 at 8:48 am

JoeK: “By “selective”, do you mean that it’s your perception that Luke is not interested in aligning his beliefs with evidence?”

Of course not. “Selective” doesn’t mean “yes Luke is interested” or “no Luke is not.” You’re thinking in black and white. When I read your comment I perceived it as naive, a la “Oh Luke is all about following the evidence where it leads.” Does he do this at times? Sure. Other times, he resists the evidence and arguments just like a closed-minded Xtian. That’s why I ask if you were new around here.

“Are there particular posts you’d suggest I look at?”

The Sam Harris book review comes to mind, as does most any of the posts about morality where Luke literally gets spanked and has nothing to say. When people ask Luke to do with morality what he did with religion he fumbles. All I’m saying is don’t believe the hype.

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JoeK January 3, 2011 at 10:36 am

JoeK: “By “selective”, do you mean that it’s your perception that Luke is not interested in aligning his beliefs with evidence?”

Of course not. “Selective” doesn’t mean “yes Luke is interested” or “no Luke is not.” You’re thinking in black and white. When I read your comment I perceived it as naive, a la “Oh Luke is all about following the evidence where it leads.” Does he do this at times? Sure. Other times, he resists the evidence and arguments just like a closed-minded Xtian. That’s why I ask if you were new around here.

OK. Thank you for clarifying.

“Are there particular posts you’d suggest I look at?”

The Sam Harris book review comes to mind, as does most any of the posts about morality where Luke literally gets spanked and has nothing to say. When people ask Luke to do with morality what he did with religion he fumbles. All I’m saying is don’t believe the hype.

Well, I do actually try not to believe things (including hype) without sufficient evidence, but (like everyone) I’m not perfect. I’ll check out the Harris review, in an earnest attempt to reverse my obvious tendency toward becoming a drooling Muelhauser fanboy. (Please insert a sufficient number of (-: to offset any perceived over-use of sarcasm in the previous sentence. )

OTOH the example of a “post about morality where Luke gets spanked” that springs immediately to mind, is the “Sexy Scientists” kerfuffle, in which case Luke did defend himself, but ended up changing his mind in response to his critics.

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JNester January 3, 2011 at 10:46 am

JoeK: “Please insert a sufficient number of (-: to offset any perceived over-use of sarcasm in the previous sentence.”

No worries you didn’t strike me as an asshat so it’s not needed.

“OTOH the example of a “post about morality where Luke gets spanked” that springs immediately to mind, is the “Sexy Scientists” kerfuffle, in which case Luke did defend himself, but ended up changing his mind in response to his critics.”

Luke caved to a bunch of feminist bullshit. I think that post is an example of Luke failing, not succeeding. That a bunch of broads took offense to pictures of hotter chicks doesn’t mean Luke did anyone any harm.

If you have any questions I’ll check back but otherwise, enough for me on this one. Happy new year, JoeK.

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JoeK January 3, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Luke caved to a bunch of feminist bullshit.

That… seems like an ironic statement, considering you told me I was “thinking in black and white” in a previous post. But I’ve pretty much seen enough of this thread, too, so unless you want to get into it about feminism, I’ll wish you happy new year as well, JNester.

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Luke Muehlhauser January 3, 2011 at 7:24 pm

“Luke caved to a bunch of feminist bullshit.”

As I recall, I called the feminist bullshit “bullshit” and instead caved (very mildly and without certainty) to a desirist argument.

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