Christianity and Caricature

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 18, 2009 in General Atheism

jesus_caricature

In a recent post, I summarized1 standard Christian doctrine as the belief that…

…a magical super-being spoke the universe into existence and revealed himself to ancient, ignorant people through the virgin birth of a man-god who did party tricks, got killed, then rose from the dead and flew off into the sky.

Cartesian called this a “crude caricature,” and I responded by showing that every piece of that description is literally true about standard Christian doctrine, so I was not attacking a straw man.

But a caricature is different than a straw man, Cartesian points out. I may not be attacking a straw man, but have I made a crude caricature of Christianity anyway? A caricature is:

a picture, description, etc., ludicrously exaggerating the peculiarities or defects of persons or things.

Cartesian says:

The Christian worldview is broad, deep, and complex. There are many details about it that have been left out of your caricature, and it is those details that… make the Christian worldview as attractive as it is (for example, they explain why Jesus had to be God and man, why he was killed, why he was raised from the dead, why he ascended into heaven, etc.). To pick up on the few peculiarities (out of context) and exaggerate them as you have done is what produces the distorted, inferior, and humorous effect.

So the first objection seems to be that I have picked on particular defects of Christian faith, exaggerated them, and left out the attractive parts of Christianity, much as if I had made a caricature of Heidi Klum by exaggerating her peculiar cheekbones and left out everything that makes her attractive.

A second objection I’ve heard is that while my description may describe Christian beliefs truly, the words I chose – like ‘magic’ and ‘party tricks’ – have negative connotations. It would be better to use phrases like ‘supernatural’ and ‘turned water into wine with transcendent power.’

A third objection is that I must not understand Christian doctrine if I would summarize it as I have above.

I certainly could be wrong on all these counts. I’m not generally a sensitive guy, and I do enjoy strong rhetoric ala Christopher Hitchens. So let me consider these objections one at a time, and see if they persuade me.

Objection 1

The first objection is that I have made a caricature of Christian faith by ignoring important points of the Christian worldview and exaggerating others.

What have I ignored? I left out long and complex theological explanations for why God is magical, why God revealed himself to ancient, superstitious people, why God came to earth through a virgin birth, why his incarnate body was killed, why he rose from the dead, and so on.

And what have I exaggerated? Here, it’s hard to tell. I could cut out the ‘party tricks’ line, but everything else has been pretty important to billions of Christians throughout history. What about God being supernatural and super-everything? Pretty central. What about God creating the world and revealing himself to the people of the Middle East? Pretty central. What about virgin birth? The churches have clung to that one tenaciously. What about Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension? Pretty damn central, I think. So I don’t think there’s any distortion here.

I wonder what one-sentence summary would not count as a caricature of Christianity? I certainly couldn’t explain the intricate details of Christian theology in one sentence. Let me try a summary Christians might like. Christianity is the belief that “Humans are condemned to hell by their own sin, but God loved humans so much that he sent his son Jesus to be killed in our place, after which he rose in power and offers eternal salvation to those who follow him.”

But even this is a crude caricature by Cartesian’s standards. It leaves out hugely important things like:

  1. God is the one who created the universe.
  2. God is a supernatural being.
  3. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good.
  4. God created humans in his image.
  5. Sin is disobedience to God’s commands, which he gave us in Scripture and wrote on our “hearts.”
  6. God endowed us with invisible, eternal souls.
  7. God’s “son” is actually just God, the same person, but also kinda not.
  8. Jesus is no longer on earth, but in heaven – the supernatural kingdom of God where there is no pain.
  9. Jesus was born of a virgin and gave healing, exorcism, and moral teaching while on earth.
  10. God’s will can be found in the canonical Jewish Bible, but that has been superseded by his will expressed in the canonical New Testament.

Moreover, my “friendlier” summary specifies a particular theory of salvation that hundreds of millions of Christians reject. Many Christians could say I have “exaggerated” the penal substitution view of salvation, or perhaps the existence of hell, while not saying enough about arguably more central points, like God being the supernatural, all-powerful, all-good Creator.

It seems to me that any summary of something so vast and complex as the Christian worldview is going to be a “caricature.”

For example, someone could summarize my worldview by saying, “So, you believe the universe just is, that human consciousness is a random accident of evolution, that our experiences of moral knowledge and free will are delusions, and that we should build conscious super-robots and let humans die off?”

I would say, “Yes, and if you have time, I’d like to explain why I believe those things…”

Obviously, this is a ‘caricature’ of my worldview, but it is accurate in the things that it does say, and we both understand it leaves out a great deal because it’s just one sentence. At least I am honest to admit that, as far as that one sentence goes, it is what I believe, and I am willing to defend it.

So maybe the ‘party tricks’ phrase was a cheap shot, even if it is true about what Christians believe. But I don’t think my description of Christianity was a ‘caricature,’ except in the way that that all one-sentence summaries of complex worldviews must be. Any summary of Christianity exaggerates some things and leaves out most things. I think it’s important to be honest about your whole worldview, and perhaps especially the embarrassing parts.

My belief that we should build conscious super-robots and let humans go extinct could be very embarrassing, but I am honest that this is what I believe and defend.

So maybe it’s not the fact that I focus on some parts of Christian doctrine and leave out others. That’s inevitable. Maybe the problem is the words I chose, which brings us to…

Objection 2

So maybe if we remove the ‘party tricks’ line, my statement is about as true a summary of Christianity as any other. It hits lots of the really central points, but of course it misses some, and it certainly misses all the complex theology behind any one-sentence summary of Christianity that could be given. And yet, it could be that I have used inappropriate words.

Cartesian writes:

Luke: you chose “magical” because of its connotations. You chose it because it sounds ridiculous, silly, laughable, etc… “Super-being” has the same defect, I believe, though to a lesser degree. The connotation that you’re playing on here, it seems to me, is our association of “super” with “superhero,” “Superman,” and other creatures of fiction.

So is it wrong to use words like “magic” and “super-being” to refer to God because of their negative connotations, even though they are literally correct?

And I might ask, “Is it wrong to use words like ‘trascendent’ to refer to an ancient semitic sky god polluted with Platonism because such words connote too much respect?”

Eheffa points out that my language…

…may unnecessarily provoke Christian believers but it also illustrates how much of the Christian ideology is founded on simple time-worn mythological or legendary themes that speak to our deepest & most primitive desires.  Your trivializing these ideas by the use of fairy tale & juvenile terms essentially robs them of some of their power to control our opinions & thoughts…

…The respectful language you are being asked to use only validates the Christian assertions & perpetuates its power over the imagination.

I wonder whether the Christians offended by your language would also consider similar language describing the convicted fraud artist Joseph Smith & his invisible “magical” disappearing golden plate to be offensive.  Would describing the flying horse that  Muhammad used to ascend to heaven as “magical” , provoke the same reaction?  I suspect, it is only when it is  our own  sacred ox being gored, that we will protest the use of anything but the most respectful authorized language.

Try this. Imagine it was not Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity that dominated world religions, but instead Greek polytheism, Norse polytheism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Imagine the Greek polytheists were especially influential in the USA, and had made serious inroads in politics, the university, and especially in high school classrooms. Would you hold back from “calling out” their religion as an ancient superstition founded on fairy tales and magic? Or would you respectfully work your way through their strongest arguments using only the respected philosophical/theological language approved by the Zeus-worshipers?

Frankly, I wonder if I’m being too generous spending most of my time on the ‘respectful’ approach to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

I wrote earlier that in many cases, careful and respectul reasoning can open people’s minds. So I do a lot of that, here. But with certain people, only a slap in the face with the true brunt of what they really believe will wake them up.

I know this because this is what it took for me to examine my own religion with the same criteria I used on every other religion. When I finally admitted that I had an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend named Jesus, only then was I able to look at my faith with an open mind. This realization didn’t destroy my faith – not by a long shot! I was sure I would find the truth in some kind of god, even if it wasn’t the Biblical Yahweh. Only much later did I become an atheist, and it didn’t have to turn out that way. I could have very well started this new, more honest quest for truth and then found that the arguments for the existence of my invisible, magical, wish-granting friend named Jesus really were compelling. Certainly, somebody like William Lane Craig thinks his arguments for all this are compelling.

So I think connotive words serve a purpose. If you can’t admit to your beliefs except when they are described in your preferred (and self-generous) terms, then maybe you need to re-examine your beliefs.

But maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to test this. Go ahead – mock my beliefs in negative, connotive language. I think that if what you say about my beliefs is literally true, I will have no trouble admitting that what you’ve said is true – even if I have some things to add and defenses to give. Really, go ahead. I won’t criticize you for it – I’m literally asking for it, right now.

Objection 3

Another objection was that I never understood Christian doctrine if I think it preaches that “a magical super-being spoke the universe into existence and revealed himself to ancient, ignorant people through the virgin birth of a man-god who did party tricks, got killed, then rose from the dead and flew off into the sky.”

But once again, I already showed how all that was literally true about mainstream Christian doctrine. And of course I am aware of how Christian theologies explain all that, and how some theologies reject certain parts of it. I’m not an expert in Christian theology, but I’m roughly aware of how things developed from Paul to the gospels to the Apostolic Fathers to Augustine to Anselm to Aquinas to Luther to Schleiermacher to Barth to Caputo – and that’s more than most Christians can say, that’s for sure.

A brief tangent

Another relevant point is made by reader Lee A.P.:

We do not have to always pretend that we do not hold harsh opinions against each other. I think Luke kisses more Christian ass than any other atheist blogger on the net. You guys can get over it.

I think Lee has a point, though I wouldn’t say I “kiss Christian ass.” I am harsh with bad atheist arguments not because I want to kiss Christian ass, but for the exact same reason I am often harsh Christian arguments – because I care about the truth! For example, I have an upcoming post on the pervasive hypocrisy displayed by atheists when they defend moral realism with the exact same argument strategies they outright reject when they are used to defend theism. I don’t do that because I want Christians to link to my defense of what they’ve been saying all along – though that is nice. No, I write such articles because I fight against bad thinking everywhere, whether it strengthens “my clan” or not. I have no loyalty to atheism, only to probable truth.

Final thoughts

So for now, I reject the force of all three objections. But I still could be wrong. I could be missing something. Maybe I’m guilty of the same oblivious intellectual stubbornness of which I’m accusing many Christians. If so, I’m hoping you, my readers, will point it out to me, and I’m hoping I will be able to see where I am wrong. I think we can both teach each other some things. Remember, that’s one of the reasons why I write this blog.

So, readers: lay it on me! I think we can make some progress, here.

  1. Actually, I never meant this as a summary of Christian doctrine, but for the sake of co-education, let’s pretend I did. []

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{ 73 comments… read them below or add one }

Hylomorphic May 18, 2009 at 11:25 pm

“Try this. Imagine it was not Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity that dominated world religions, but instead Greek polytheism, Norse polytheism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Imagine the Greek polytheists were especially influential in the USA, and had made serious inroads in politics, the university, and especially in high school classrooms. Would you hold back from “calling out” their religion as an ancient superstition founded on fairy tales and magic? Or would you respectfully work your way through their strongest arguments using only the respected philosophical/theological language approved by the Zeus-worshipers?”

One would have to address their strongest arguments, of course.

You make a very common mistake when you confuse the tales of the Greek poets for Greek religion. Myth was related to religion, but it was hardly central, and there was much debate about how the myths should be interpreted.

Furthermore, it’s not as if Greek religion was less sophisticated than Christianity, though it was certainly less organized. The ancients thought as carefully about religion as they did any other subject.  And indeed arguments for and against the existence of the gods were entertained.

Actually, I suspect Greek religion would be far easier to defend than Christianity. After all, it lacks a great number of Christian absurdities–no virgin birth, no resurrection, no universal, cosmic deity implausibly selecting a minor Levantine tribe as his Chosen, etc. And some of the greatest minds in history could be mustered in its support. I’d rather have to debate Paul or Luther than Plato or Aristotle.

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Haecceitas May 19, 2009 at 12:00 am

Do you think that it’s God’s actions in general that fall within the category of “magical”? Or are you talking about situations where people request help from God and consequently God intervenes? I’d say that calling the latter “magic” would be kind of understandable, since it includes invoking a supernatural force for one’s own purposes. However, to say that God is “magical” is a bit misleading even according to the definitions that you linked to. I might be missing some nuances since english isn’t my first language, but the first definition (“The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.”)  seems to imply an indirect rather than direct relationship between one’s intentionality and the causal powers that are used. Isn’t that what “invoking” means?

To call Jesus’ miracles “party tricks” would be to fail to see the deep symbolic and theological meanings associated with them. The point was not to just impress people. At least, I doubt that many well-informed Christians would think so. For example,  let’s take the turning of water to wine. It’s probably not a coincidence that the water was contained in vessels that were used for Jewish ritual washings. The comparison between that and the wine in a wedding feast might be intended to communicate something about the differences between the old and the new covenant. (Whether or not the story was based on a historical event — though I think it is.)

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Theo May 19, 2009 at 3:27 am

On your brief tangent there were rare qualities I saw that really needs commendation. I am a theist who frequently debates on issues such as atheism vs theism but I’m tired of people merely defending their biases rather than defending truth. Taking an unbiased view would lead to you getting flamed from both parties but enduring such a stance has worked well for my intellectual development, which I am sure you have already noticed within yourself. Although I am a Christian and former atheist, it saddens me to so many of them act as though critical thinking is sin; they believe that faith is the belief in belief itself when biblical faith is the EVIDENCE of things not seen. I therefore disagree with William Lane Craig (whom I greatly admire!) on his point of experiencing God as an evidence of His existence (feelings never supersede facts) and I think the religious world is where it is now because its followers don’t think…they feel. As a result of this I see a silver lining in the dark cloud of my previous belief and that silver lining is Critical Thinking. I would like to see good thinking even if it has to be injected with the syringe of atheism for I believe that this is the only way to arrive at truth…to think your way to it. You now see the reason I get flamed by believers, the only problem… I applied critical thinking to atheism.
 

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Ben May 19, 2009 at 5:53 am

This is a great post.  All too often Christians react to things that are entirely accurate.  For instance, if you say they talk as though they are married to god and then point out that the Bible literally portrays them as the bride of Christ, how in the world are they going to complain? 

Like you, I actually appreciate a dead on “caricature.”  If someone can actually broadside me with a description of my position that sounds absolutely ridiculous at face value and in fact describes what I think…that’s valuable to me.  That’s accountability.  That’s like the whole point to get you to take a step back and think…am I nuts?  Am I sure these crazy sounding claims are actually defensible?  Do I really have my feet on the ground here?  Of course, on the other hand you get really horrible, flakey and bigoted caricatures that misrepresent things so badly as to not even be worth responding to.  For example, one may present an argument from evil in a highly dispassionate manner that articulates why it is implausible that a good, all powerful, all knowing deity is responsible for the spiritual health of the humans of earth.  Time and time again, Christian after Christian will summarize, “So basically what you are saying is that God didn’t do things how you want them done,” as though the nature of anything I say hinges on trivialities of human experience.  Or they accuse me of “complaining” as though I actually think God exists to complain to.  Such summaries might actually resonate if I could tell their unspecified theory of divine management from the chaotic anything goes world we apparently live in.  I honestly don’t think a good god is at work here tending our souls towards salvation any more than I think a cosmic basketball coach is secretly preparing everyone for the afterlife NBA.  Am I complaining to the basketball coach I don’t think exists?  Am I mad I didn’t get to play more basketball as a kid?  Is the jury still out on whether or not most of us will be harlem globe trotter material by the end of our days?  I don’t think so. 

Christians don’t tend to even put themselves into the argument as stated and test their summaries or rebuttals to see if they even work.  They just react…like people who are married to their god and have a very limited tolerance for considering divorce. 

So yeah, I get really tired of the misrepresentation and the lack of fairness and honesty…the lack of self awareness and such from my Christian opposition in debate land.  I like how you carefully dissected one such iteration of that bullshit.  I know this is a value war and has ultimately little to do with argument and evidence, so actually being kind to Christian bloggers is important, but at some level bullshit is bullshit.  And I have just as much trouble as everyone else trying to justify why exactly their brains can’t put one thought in front of the other even in just hypothetical terms. 

Ben

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Lorkas May 19, 2009 at 6:00 am

lukeprog: For example, someone could summarize my worldview by saying, “So, you believe [...] that we should build conscious super-robots and let humans die off?”

Is this a typical part of the naturalist worldview?

We should probably have more reasoned discussion about this. Personally, I think that humans should become super-cyborgs, and I find “robots” to be a thoughtless caricature of my view of the cyborg salvation.

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lukeprog May 19, 2009 at 6:19 am

Cyborg salvation! I like that.

I don’t think this is typical of naturalist worldviews. I suppose transhumanists are aware it will happen and could be beneficial.

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cartesian May 19, 2009 at 6:34 am

Hi Luke,
You said:
>>The first objection is that I have made a caricature of Christian faith by ignoring important points of the Christian worldview and exaggerating others.>>

You admit that you did ignore the explanations of why God is “magical,” why he appeared to an “ancient and superstitious people,” why the virgin birth, why he was killed, why he rose from the dead, etc.  These omissions added to the effect of the caricature.

I’ve already explained why I think it’s lame to persuade by connotation with words like “magical” and “ancient and superstitious people.” If by “magical” you just mean “supernatural,” why not just use “supernatural”? The answer, it seems to me, is that you’d prefer to use “magical” because of its weirdo implications. You like to lump Christianity in with seances, conjurers, sleight-of-hand, crystals, potions, witches, etc. purely by rhetoric and not by argument, while disingenuously claiming that all you really mean is “supernatural.”

And the same goes with “ancient and superstitious people.” Why mention that they were ancient and superstitious, unless to incline us to believe that they were somehow stupider and more credulous than we are and therefore not trustworthy? Religion is still going strong, if you haven’t noticed. Modern humans seem as inclined to believe the miraculous claims of religion as the ancients were. There are far more Christians believing in the virgin birth now than there were then, for example. And what do we know that they don’t? That virgins tend not to have babies? That water tends not to turn into wine? That dead people tend to stay dead? Surely they knew all these things. So I see no reason to believe that they were stupider or more credulous than we are. So I don’t think you ought to describe them as “ancient and superstitious,” since that connotes “stupider and more credulous.” You should actually ARGUE for your beliefs, and not try to convince us via rhetorical ploys.

You also asked:
>>And what have I exaggerated? Here, it’s hard to tell. I could cut out the ‘party tricks’ line, but everything else has been pretty important to billions of Christians throughout history. What about God being supernatural and super-everything? Pretty central.>>

By describing God as a “super-being,” as I’ve explained before, you’re playing on the connotations of that word. We associate it with “superhero,” Superman,” etc. Thus, the distortion characteristic of a caricature.

>>What about God creating the world and revealing himself to the people of the Middle East? Pretty central.>>

Sure, that’s a better way to put it. But that’s not how you put it. You said that God revealed himself to “ancient, ignorant” people. I just explained above how that’s a rhetorical ploy. It distorts the description of Christianity via its connotations, and adds to the caricature.

>>What about Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension? Pretty damn central, I think. So I don’t think there’s any distortion here.>>

Again, that’s a better way to put it. But that’s now how you put it. You said that Jesus was a “man-god who did party tricks, got killed, then rose from the dead and flew off into the sky.”

You’ve already admitted that “party tricks” was a cheap shot. I hope you can also admit that it leads to a distorted, inferior, and humorous picture of Christianity, i.e. a caricature. And I hope you can see how “flew off into the sky” produces the same effect. And if you were to present this description of Christianity to someone who knew nothing about it, they would sure have a lot of questions, e.g. How was he killed? How/why did he rise from the dead? Where did he go in the sky? By leaving out these explanations, you produce a distorted and inferior picture of Christianity. This adds to the caricature.

You then provide an friendlier one sentence explanation of Christianity, and conclude “It seems to me that any summary of something so vast and complex as the Christian worldview is going to be a “caricature.””

First, even if you’re right, then in the end you agree with me that your original description was a caricature.

Secondly, I think you’re wrong. To be a caricature, it’s not enough for a description to omit details and explanations. The description must “ludicrously exaggerating the peculiarities or defects of persons or things,” according to your own definition of “caricature.” The description you provided, while incomplete, doesn’t ludicrously exaggerate the peculiarities or defects of Christianity. So it doesn’t count as a caricature, by the definition you yourself provided a few lines before.

Omitting details just by itself doesn’t necessarily produce a caricature. I could produce a sketch of Heidi Klum that fairly represents her beauty, even though naturally much information about her face will be lost due to the nature of sketching. This wouldn’t be a caricature. But if I were to exaggerate the peculiarities and defects of her face in order to produce a humorous effect, I would have a caricature.

This description of Christianity is like the sketch that fairly (though incompletely) represents Heidi’s beauty: “Humans are condemned to hell by their own sin, but God loved humans so much that he sent his son Jesus to be killed in our place, after which he rose in power and offers eternal salvation to those who follow him.”

This description of Christianity is like the sketch that exaggerates the peculiarities and defects of Christianity in order to produce a humorous effect, i.e. a caricature: “…a magical super-being spoke the universe into existence and revealed himself to ancient, ignorant people through the virgin birth of a man-god who did party tricks, got killed, then rose from the dead and flew off into the sky.”

———————–
About the second objection, you asked:
“So is it wrong to use words like “magic” and “super-being” to refer to God because of their negative connotations, even though they are literally correct?”

If you’re interested in presenting arguments that persuade us for the right reasons, then yes. If you’re interested in persuading by any means necessary, including rhetorical ploys like exploiting connotations, then no.

(On the side, on your view shouldn’t you just go count up desires in order to answer this question about what’s right and wrong? Or are you just using your mysterious sixth sense here to intuit moral properties, a sense which you yourself deride?)

I think “godless” is a good example of persuading by connotation. Say a theist were to refer to his atheistic debate opponent as “my godless opponent” throughout the entire debate. The primary definition of “godless” is “having or acknowledging no god or deity; atheistic.” But of course the secondary definition is “wicked; evil; sinful.” By using “godless” in this way, the theist may persuade people purely by playing on the connotation of “godless,” all the while disingenuously claiming that he meant just the first definition. I think that would be a rotten debate tactic, and I would hold that theist in very low esteem.

I think you’re doing the same thing with “magic,” “super-being,” “man-god,” “ancient, ignorant people,” etc.

You also asked:
>>And I might ask, “Is it wrong to use words like ‘trascendent’ to refer to an ancient semitic sky god polluted with Platonism because such words connote too much respect?”>>

Personally, I don’t think anyone should use the word “transcendent” because it’s obscurantist and nobody really knows what it means.

>>Go ahead – mock my beliefs in negative, connotive language.>>

Um, no thanks. I bet there are a lot of theistic bloggers who would be happy to oblige. But I’m not inclined to do that, and I don’t think I’d be any good at it.

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Lee A. P. May 19, 2009 at 6:49 am

Luke,

You are probably the most even handed atheist “blogger” out there I believe and that is why I used “Kiss Christian ass”.  I could have said it in a more drawn out, and specific way just as you could have with each and every one of your “barbs” in the straw man blog but I was already getting myself into an off topic discussion (I’m bad about that) about hell,  Catholicism and the invisibility of Jesus so I just left it at that.

Sometimes people deserve to get their ass kissed. I kissed the ass of universal salvation believers in the previous blog too because I think their belief is tolerant and serves a real and fair sort of justice even if I disagree with them on almost everything — and I do.

I am 30, became a non believer at 19 or 20, and I was using bad arguments and bad scholarship on boards when I was your age. I might have been spewing some Mirthras/Jesus crap when I was 23. I was probably more angry than you and once that wore off then I was able and actually interested in disspassionately digesting arguments from both sides. 

Because you are so generally even handed with the issues I am happy to see a bit of Hitchens-esq type tone from you every now and again.

You are way ahead of the game. Your are probably the best young non-theist mind I have seen on the net since Peter Kirby. Hows that for kissing ass?

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lukeprog May 19, 2009 at 7:07 am

Lee A.P.,

Thanks. Of course I always knew what you meant by “kissing Christian ass,” and I appreciated that line. :)

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Mark May 19, 2009 at 7:24 am

“I care about the truth! … I have no loyalty to atheism, only to probable truth.”

We all search for truth but what we accept as evidence and where we decide to end the quest and “make a conclusion” is necessarily governed by our preconceptions, perspectives, and motivations.   Only in mathematics can someone get beyond perceptions and motivations.  OK for the mathematician while working on math, but what are the rest of us to do?

Psalm 18:24-27 The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless,  to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the crooked you show yourself shrewd.
You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.

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Lorkas May 19, 2009 at 7:40 am

Cartesian deploys the repetitio ad exhaustum argument better than anyone I’ve ever heard of.

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Haukur May 19, 2009 at 8:29 am

Hylomorphic, nice defense of paganism there. I’d only add that the Stoic theology would, like the Platonic one, be hard to refute and I think both would be substantially harder than the Christian one. Since even in our world, WLC wins all his debates, I think the atheists in this hypothetical pagan modern world would have their work cut out for them.

On reflection, Platonism might be the hardest possible thing to refute – since it’s absurdly complicated and not committed to defending any particular superstition.

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Lorkas May 19, 2009 at 8:39 am

Haukur, I never got a response from Dr. Erlandsdottir regarding her dissertation. You suggested that you might have an electronic copy, if I remember correctly–would you be willing to email it to me?
My email address is lorkastampflor at hotmail dot com.

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Haukur May 19, 2009 at 8:44 am

Ah, I don’t *have* an electronic copy but I might be able to acquire one. Give me a few days and I’ll contact you.

You mentioned having trouble reading the homepage of that nice little cult I belong to. You can at least view the pictures:

http://asatru.is/Starfsemi/Ljosmyndiatenglar.htm

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Haecceitas May 19, 2009 at 9:07 am

Ben:
For instance, if you say they talk as though they are married to god and then point out that the Bible literally portrays them as the bride of Christ, how in the world are they going to complain?  Like you, I actually appreciate a dead on “caricature.”

Do you really think that the Bible literally portrays Christians as the bride of Christ?

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Silas May 19, 2009 at 9:07 am

I know the creator of the universe, the most powerful, perfect being imaginable, so vastly loving that everything pales in comparison. I feel him. I can communicate with him.

What do I do on a Tuesday afternoon? I read lukeprogs blog. Oh my, this atheist writes caricatures!!! His summary of the Christian worldview is slightly rude…kind of!!! I’ll just spend the whole day typing on my computer about how “disproportionate” his summary is, just like this  caricature of Heidi Klum’s face is!!! I love Heidi Klum!!!

Now that’s a caricature.

Or is it?

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cartesian May 19, 2009 at 9:15 am

Lorkas,
You said:
>>Cartesian deploys the repetitio ad exhaustum argument better than anyone I’ve ever heard of.>>

What did you mean here, exactly? I do find that I’m repeating myself a lot, but I take it that’s because Luke and others keep bringing up stuff I’ve already talked about. I don’t blame them for missing some of what I’ve said, since many of my comments are quite long.

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Lorkas May 19, 2009 at 9:22 am

Cool. I’ll be looking forward to it.

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Lorkas May 19, 2009 at 9:31 am

It was a joke, cartesian. However, you are repeating arguments that have already been addressed. Repeating an assertion after an objection is raised against it does not make the assertion more true.

Lukeprog has made a response to your accusation. What was your response? Repeat the accusation, louder this time. It’s as if you think it necessary to respond, even if you have nothing new to say. Having the last word is not what’s most important in a conversation.

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Lorkas May 19, 2009 at 9:32 am

Haecceitas: Do you really think that the Bible literally portrays Christians as the bride of Christ?

More than that, it characterizes those who worship other gods as unfaithful wives and prostitutes.

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Haecceitas May 19, 2009 at 9:36 am

Lorkas: More than that, it characterizes those who worship other gods as unfaithful wives and prostitutes.

Certainly not literally.

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Lorkas May 19, 2009 at 9:40 am

Certainly not, but the author considered it to be true in some sense, to be sure.

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cartesian May 19, 2009 at 10:07 am

Lorkas,
You said this:
>>Lukeprog has made a response to your accusation. What was your response? Repeat the accusation, louder this time.>>

I think we disagree about how the dialectic has gone. I thought it went roughly like this:
– Luke gives a description of Christianity.
– Cartesian objects that it is a caricature, and that Luke is persuading via connotation, a rhetorical ploy.
– Luke says that everything in his description is true, and that he’s not attacking a straw man.
– Cartesian says that’s not the point: caricatures ludicrously distort, ignore explanatory context, and highlight or exaggerate imperfections for a comic effect. And, using words like “magic” persuade via connotation, a rotten rhetorical ploy.
– In this most recent post, Luke wonders what he ignored (but answers his own question), what he exaggerated, and how any one sentence summary of Christianity could fail to be a caricature.
– In my most recent response, I tell him what he exaggerated, and how a one sentence summary could fail to be a caricature.
– In this most recent blog, Luke wonders if it’s really wrong to use words like “magical,” even though they’re literally correct.
– In my most recent response, I tell him the answer is “yes,” and I explain why, using the example of “godless.”

So while I admit that the dialectic is advancing very slowly (probably since Luke and I are both stubborn), nevertheless I think it is advancing. That’s contrary to what you claimed.

Also, I responded to your stuff about selling all our possessions in the Dr. Laura thread.

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Anselm May 19, 2009 at 10:36 am

Silas: I know the creator of the universe, the most powerful, perfect being imaginable, so vastly loving that everything pales in comparison. I feel him. I can communicate with him. What do I do on a Tuesday afternoon? I read lukeprogs blog. Oh my, this atheist writes caricatures!!! His summary of the Christian worldview is slightly rude…kind of!!! I’ll just spend the whole day typing on my computer about how “disproportionate” his summary is, just like this  caricature of Heidi Klum’s face is!!! I love Heidi Klum!!!Now that’s a caricature. Or is it?

Yes, Cartesian appears to be wasting his time in an attempt at rational, civil discourse with the atheists on this blog, and your comment is the best evidence of that.  However, in the interest of Christianity, it is quite helpful that atheists embrace this technique of communicating in the manner of obnoxious jerks; it makes it much more likely that atheism’s influence will be crippled.

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Reginald Selkirk May 19, 2009 at 10:40 am

Luke … beware the dark side.

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cartesian May 19, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Silas: I know the creator of the universe, the most powerful, perfect being imaginable, so vastly loving that everything pales in comparison. I feel him. I can communicate with him. What do I do on a Tuesday afternoon? I read lukeprogs blog. Oh my, this atheist writes caricatures!!! His summary of the Christian worldview is slightly rude…kind of!!! I’ll just spend the whole day typing on my computer about how “disproportionate” his summary is, just like this  caricature of Heidi Klum’s face is!!! I love Heidi Klum!!!Now that’s a caricature. Or is it?

Which is more pathetic: spending time responding to pallid criticisms of one’s worldview (as you say I’m doing), or spending time responding to responses to those pallid criticisms (as you’re doing)?   ;-)

The Urgent Advocate of Indifference is a rare and paradoxical beast, but I’m glad to have finally seen one in the wild. Let me know how that goes for you.

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eheffa May 19, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Anselm:
“However, in the interest of Christianity, it is quite helpful that atheists embrace this technique of communicating in the manner of obnoxious jerks; it makes it much more likely that atheism’s influence will be crippled.”

I’m not sure that anyone (Christian or atheist)  can come close to the sort of vicious rhetoric spewed by JP Holding & his Triablogue kindred.  If you wish to see “crippled” in action,  try suggesting that the Moses legend predated the 2nd millenium BCE & see what civil discourse it evokes from these defenders of the holy  faith.
……………………………………………………………………………………………..
In Luke’s defense, I think that there is a place for  using alternative language to describe the arbitrarily sacred – those themes or ideas which are held to be so lofty as to be exempt from normal critique or mundane adjectives.   “Jesus” (who is with me every moment and knows my every thought & deed)  is on so many levels,  indistinguishable from an “imaginary friend”.  This language bites because it is onto something that those who hold to a Christian faith would perhaps rather not acknowledge.  I would suggest that the parallels to the  juvenile “imaginary friend” are more than superficial.  For those favorably disposed to having their “Lord” privy to their every thought, this relationship provides comfort & a sense of meaning in an otherwise anonymous & lonely landscape.  It is an attractive idea that meets a real human need.  That people would accept this premise without much debate or critical scrutiny goes without saying, but when it is trivialized by calling it “imaginary”, those same people will feel scandalized by the flippancy and more than a little threatened by its accuracy.

-evan

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Jeff H May 19, 2009 at 2:49 pm

I find myself, as usual, agreeing with both sides of the argument. I agree with cartesian that what Luke has set up is a caricature – it uses language that intentionally draws negative connotations. But I also agree with Luke that there is a time and a place for this sort of thing. Often it can come as a jolt – it’s like satire, in that it’s intended to criticize for the purpose of correction. A good satirist can set up a scenario that you can laugh at and say it’s ridiculous – until you realize that you yourself believe the same thing. And I’m a fan of satire.

But this sort of caricature/satire is useful only in some situations. I don’t think it should be used in the typical debate forum, because it sets up the possibility of attacking a straw man. The debate gets siderailed (as it has here) to discussing whether “magical” is an appropriate term to describe God, instead of discussing the real arguments. If God doesn’t exist, does it matter that he would be magical if he did? Of course not.

But ultimately, I would say that as long as the “opponent” has the opportunity to dispute the caricature, it’s fair game. If Luke had the final word in a debate and brought up this caricature then, I’d say it was a cheap shot. However, if he said it in his opening statements, I’d see it as a strategic move. The important thing is to be fair to your opponent and allow them to address it by saying, “No, this is not what I believe, because…” or “Yes, that’s exactly right, and here’s why…” If they have that opportunity, then I think it’s reasonable and fair.

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danielg May 19, 2009 at 4:00 pm

1. This is a case of being right by the letter of the law, but not the spirit.  The obvious intent of such a presentation seems to mock.  Your use of such words as magical, super, ignorant, fly off, etc. all contain value judgments, if not connotations that you seem happy to include.

2. While you focus on the external events of Christianity, you don’t focus on God’s intent in such events, the problems it proposes to solve, the explanatory power of the xian world view, nor the events and teachings that are not of supernatural character.

It’s like me defining atheism using similarly loaded words.  What I find ridiculous about atheism, you would not like me to describe in terms similar to yours.  It’s that simple.

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Anselm May 19, 2009 at 4:57 pm

eheffa: I’m not sure that anyone (Christian or atheist) can come close to the sort of vicious rhetoric spewed by JP Holding & his Triablogue kindred. If you wish to see “crippled” in action, try suggesting that the Moses legend predated the 2nd millenium BCE & see what civil discourse it evokes from these defenders of the holy faith.

I am happy to condemn uncivil discourse spouted by Christians; what is disturbing is that the atheists here are unwilling to do the same to their side.

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eheffa May 19, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Anselm: I am happy to condemn uncivil discourse spouted by Christians; what is disturbing is that the atheists here are unwilling to do the same to their side.

Fair enough…

Uncivil discourse is unbecoming to either side of a debate.  Luke’s language, although provocative, does not strike me as “uncivil”.  Disrespectful maybe, tongue in cheek for sure, but his overall tone & willingness to be corrected, suggests a reasonably humble  attitude that is often lacking in these sorts of discussions.

In a similar fashion, I suspect that when people resort  to using the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” style mockery of Theistic beliefs, it comes across as offensive to Theists.  As a former Theist myself, I once  wondered  how these people could be so boldly sacrilegious & effectively abandon all hope of even squeaking by in a Pascal’s wager final assessment.  I now see that they derive their boldness & mocking tone by recognizing that the pious fabrications of their  religiously inclined fellow man are not worthy of unquestioning respect or awe.  The Mormon Holy underwear & the Leviticus sanctions against mixing linen & wool would be quite humorous if they did not also include the attitude of contempt for those of us who are eternally lost to their god’s favor. 

Mockery (however gentle) is sometimes the first step in pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes.

-evan

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Lorkas May 19, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Anselm: I am happy to condemn uncivil discourse spouted by Christians; what is disturbing is that the atheists here are unwilling to do the same to their side.

I guess you didn’t read my first post on the thread that started it all, in which I described this sort of rhetoric as demagoguery, and you also must have missed Jeff H’s point two posts above yours, which also expresses a similar opinion. I think that the point made by cartesian is valid. There’s room for demagogues on both sides of the debate, but it doesn’t seem like this is the place for demagoguery, and I don’t think that this was a very effective iteration of it anyway (no offense to you lukeprog, but I think your argumentative skills are less akin to Christopher Hitchens than to the more logical and philosophical atheists).

Lukeprog, I would recommend (for whatever my .02 are worth) that you minimize this strategy in the future–not because it’s a bad strategy, but because you are so much better at reasoned argument than at mockery. It’s not necessary for every advocate of atheism to use every strategy for arguing against religion.

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Lorkas May 19, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Luke, could you do a post on Pascal’s Wager?

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Ben May 19, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Haecceitas: Do you really think that the Bible literally portrays Christians as the bride of Christ?

Yes, I actually believe the Bible says that all true Christians can fly up into the air and assemble themselves like Voltron into a mega-bride in order to combat this guy:  four-headed atheist monster.

Less focus on something less trivial next time, eh?  Oops, I guess that’s what all these comments are about.  *shrug*  My bad.  Carry on then.

Lorkas: More than that, it characterizes those who worship other gods as unfaithful wives and prostitutes.

Indeed. 

Ben

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David May 19, 2009 at 6:51 pm

danielg: 2. While you focus on the external events of Christianity, you don’t focus on God’s intent in such events, the problems it proposes to solve, the explanatory power of the xian world view, nor the events and teachings that are not of supernatural character.It’s like me defining atheism using similarly loaded words.  What I find ridiculous about atheism, you would not like me to describe in terms similar to yours.  It’s that simple.

I always boggle at the attempt to persuade atheists  to consider “God’s intent.”  You do realize that before the intent of your invisible friend can be considered, your invisible friend must be proved to exist.  No bootstrapping, please.

And, I believe the last part of Objection 2 in Luke’s post specifically asked for a description of atheism full to the gills with satire and crude caricaturization.  You win no points for that attempt at playing the victim.

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lukeprog May 19, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Cartesian,

I agree that our dialogue is progressing, and I don’t have the impression it’s advancing slowly at all. On the contrary, it’s progressing more quickly than I have time to keep up with!

Let me try to recap.

I wrote that Christians believe that “a magical super-being spoke the universe into existence and revealed himself to ancient, ignorant people through the virgin birth of a man-god who did party tricks, got killed, then rose from the dead and flew off into the sky.”

You said this was a “crude caricature.” I thought you were complaining that I attacked a straw man, so I showed that each part of my statement was literally true about what Christians believe.

You then explained what you meant by caricature – that even though my description might be literally true about Christian belief, it presents a distorted picture of the Christian worldview because it (1) leaves out important things, (2) exaggerates other things, and (3) uses highly connotative language.

You also said (4) it does not seem I ever understood Christian theology.

In response to (1), I wrote that all one-sentence summaries of an entire worldview must leave out tons of important stuff. So this ain’t much of a complaint.

In response to (2), I showed that everything in my description is pretty damn important to Christians – except for Jesus’ party tricks, which I’m happy to drop. So, dropping that, I don’t think I’m exaggerating anything.

Another point is that I never meant my statement to be a balanced one-sentence summary of Christian doctrine. Rather, I just listed a bunch of actual Christian beliefs as they came to me. I could have come up with another list of Christian beliefs and it would also (necessarily) leave out tons of important stuff but still sound quite absurd (because there is little in Christian doctrine that is not absurd). As it is, the list I happened to spout out turned out to hit almost nothing but really important and relevant parts of Christian doctrine (the exception is the ‘party tricks’ phrase).

In response to (3), I wrote that sometimes connotative language can be helpful in seeing the truth about our own beliefs. I also said that if it is wrong to describe things with overly-dismissive connotative language, it might also be wrong to describe them with overly-respectful language. My connotative language is intended to trivialize Christian doctrine because, in the end, it’s a massive superstructure built up over many centuries around what was once a very simple set of superstitions about a sky god and the end of the world and an epic battle in a magical realm and all that.

Cartesian, if your friend believed in Zeus, and you thought these beliefs were harming him, you might talk to him about it on the level of the most sophisticated Zeus theology that had been developed. But every now and then you might try to nudge him and say, “Are you sure you’re not just worshiping an magical, lightning-tossing sky god?” And he might object, “Well we don’t consider him a sky god anymore, and we don’t think he actually has a human-like form and throws lightning… how dare you try to trivialize my sophisticated theology by using connotative words!” Or, if you’re lucky, he might one day realize that he does believe in a magical, lightning-tossing sky god, and reconsider.

Ben put it this way:

__ Like [lukeprog], I actually appreciate a dead on “caricature.”  If someone can actually broadside me with a description of my position that sounds absolutely ridiculous at face value and in fact describes what I think…that’s valuable to me.  That’s accountability.  That’s like the whole point to get you to take a step back and think…am I nuts? __

I see that kind of value in connotative language, too. Do you not?

A quick thought about “magic.” What unifies seances, magic potions, witches, magic crystals, incantations, animist sacrifices, witch doctors, and God is that… well, they’re all magic! That’s what magic is, yes! So I don’t see the problem with “lumping” them together when, well, they all answer (properly) to the same word – whether you prefer ‘supernatural’ or ‘magic.’ If your answer to “How did God raise Jesus from the dead?” is nothing more than “He just did. Poof. Like that”, then, my friend, that is magic, plain and simple. I actually see the word ‘supernatural’ as an attempt to unfairly distance Christian magic from other types of magic. But if the answer is still just “poof!” then that’s magic, plain and simple.

In response to (4), well, I simply deny it. I’m no theologian but I did study theology a lot growing up and I knew it better than most Christians. I’m a pastor’s kid, remember. I lived and breathed this stuff every day for 21 years. I read the Bible from cover to cover and read hundreds of Christian theology-for-teenagers books. I went to Bible study and discussion groups and I usually enjoyed the ones where I got to discuss these things with educated pastors like my dad.

cartesian: If you’re interested in presenting arguments that persuade us for the right reasons, then yes. If you’re interested in persuading by any means necessary, including rhetorical ploys like exploiting connotations, then no.

Cartesian, I’ve written before that though I spend a lot of time writing in-depth about very serious arguments – come on, what other atheist blogger is attempting anything like my ‘mapping the Kalam’ project? – I also do many other things on this blog. One of these things is to ridicule religion (and also bad atheist arguments, by the way), because sometimes ridicule gets through to people where respectful argument does not. I don’t want people to change their minds because of ridicule, but I think ridicule can (for some people) be a good way to break down the brainwashing so that they are ABLE to look at the arguments as fairly as possible, without their mountainous biases stacked so high against them. This is what I appreciate about times when people mock my own beliefs. If I can take the mocking, and analyze what they say, and agree to the parts that are literally true even if they aren’t the words I would use, then perhaps I am NOT deluded, after all.

cartesian: (On the side, on your view shouldn’t you just go count up desires in order to answer this question about what’s right and wrong? Or are you just using your mysterious sixth sense here to intuit moral properties, a sense which you yourself deride?)

No, no intution here, if I can avoid it. I am trying to do some applied ethics here, though of course it would be nice if somebody had devoted 20 years of their life to properly count up all the effected desires and see how it works out for ridicule. What I’m doing is making a guess and an (extremely informal) argument that occasional ridicule of easily-ridiculed positions may in fact fulfill more desires than are thwarted. I could be quite wrong about this, and am listening to your objections. If you want to persuade me that ridicule is always wrong, then using desire utilitarianism to prove it is certainly your best strategy when talking to me, so have at it…

cartesian: I think “godless” is a good example of persuading by connotation. Say a theist were to refer to his atheistic debate opponent as “my godless opponent” throughout the entire debate. The primary definition of “godless” is “having or acknowledging no god or deity; atheistic.” But of course the secondary definition is “wicked; evil; sinful.” By using “godless” in this way, the theist may persuade people purely by playing on the connotation of “godless,” all the while disingenuously claiming that he meant just the first definition. I think that would be a rotten debate tactic, and I would hold that theist in very low esteem. I think you’re doing the same thing with “magic,” “super-being,” “man-god,” “ancient, ignorant people,” etc.

Hmmm. Maybe one difference between us is that I actually think the connotations for my words are appropriate for Christianity. Let’s say the atheist being debated was not a particularly evil person. In this case, the use of ‘godless’ connotes something that is not true about the person.

But in the case of Christianity, I think the religion actually does fit the connotations of the words I used. How about magic? Yeah, Christianity really is just hocus-pocus magical nonsense like paganism and shamanism, it’s just that it was dressed in sophisticated theologies much later.

I think God really is similar to “Superman” in that the concept seems to have evolved first from the idea of a vaguely human person who was extra powerful. After that, he just kept getting “super-izedd” with extra super-powers. Now he can not only accept sacrifices and control the local weather and local childbirths, but he can also appear to us in amazing forms. A bit later, now he can rule over the other gods. A bit later, he actually controls the whole earth – in fact, he created it. Much later, he becomes Platonized and Anselmized. He kept getting extra super-powers and super-qualities.

I think similar things are true about the notion of ‘man-god’. What else is it when a God comes down and impregnates a virgin who gives birth to a flesh-and-blood man who also has some god-like powers?

As for ancient, ignorant people, well… I don’t see how you can argue with that. These people did know way less than us… about childbirth, about natural law, about evolution, about weather, about the continuous and vast replacement of supernatural explanations with natural ones. Remember, this was before Newton, and before we all lived in a world where we benefit from scientific knowledge all day long, and supernaturalism has yet to provide surprising but true knowledge about the world.

Well, that was probably a mess but I gotta run! I look forward to your response.

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lukeprog May 19, 2009 at 8:05 pm

Pascal’s Wager. I suppose I should cover that, right? I wish I didn’t have to… :)

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Lorkas May 19, 2009 at 8:15 pm

cartesian: So while I admit that the dialectic is advancing very slowly (probably since Luke and I are both stubborn), nevertheless I think it is advancing. That’s contrary to what you claimed.

I was mostly objecting to the lengthy repetition of where the argument has already been, not meaning to imply that the argument wasn’t getting anywhere. I’ve thought about it, though, and decided that it’s probably helpful given that this argument has gone on over 3 separate blog posts.

I stand rebuked.

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Ben May 19, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Luke,

It seems to me that many sophisticated Christians may spend so much of their intellectual time convincing themselves that overviews like your “caricature” don’t apply that to bring things back around to ground zero will simply always strike them as insult.  To be fair, there are a lot of angry atheists out there that may use the same or similar words and have every evil, hateful intention to merely inflict as much emotional damage as they can (and they have their xtian counterparts, too).  Naturally, as someone else pointed out in the above comments, context is what is relevant.  I do understand that, as a thoughtful atheist, I’m inheriting the sins of many many atheists who came before me and so I try to cut Christians a break when they overreact.  But when they can’t get back on course, it seems my empathy has been wasted and they are simply preset to never listen again (note: I’ve learned to just stopping talking when they get their “evil switch” flipped).  If Christians don’t want to be labeled as credulous fools just because other Christians are who believe the same things, then naturally they need to be open to different varieties of atheists who may say similar things that aren’t meant to be inflammatory. 

As I think you said in your last lengthy comment, how is it really fair to never use the term “magic” again when talking about Christian beliefs?  It’s not like they are going to get into the mechanics of God’s magic powers, believe that there are even mechanics to God’s magic powers, and they’re not going to stop believing in miracles (the exploits of those magic powers) either.  Even the most intellectual Christians are stuck and permanently stuck with that position until God starts doing something like reliably healing amputees with his magic powers via the prayers of only Christian evangelists.  That’s just how it is.  If using the term “magic” makes it sound stupid, it’s because it so greatly conflicts with our background knowledge and that’s the whole fricken point. 

I would even defend your “party tricks” bit since believing Jesus did miracles is also an intrical part of validating his status as God.  The rhetoric trivialises it correctly I think in contrast to the obvious lack of similar sympathy God has in general for all sorts of people with worse ailments and conditions than Jesus happened to have mercy on in the gospels when it actually looked like he cared.  Christians would like to have some extreme blinders on there (if the sample range is all human history) to pretend like Jesus gets credit for showing up and for three years doing what is *overall* the equivolent of a few party tricks…just as you said.  If they can’t recognize that as a valid observation…oh well.  Obviously there isn’t going to be a realistic conversation if tough important questions are just going to get blown off as “slander.”

Modern Christianity just has a monopoly of really bad over-developed magical thinking and the inappropriate levels of confidence backing that is what yields the offense.  Even if there is something more to their case, they need to understand that is exactly what it looks like from the outside in this modern world where science (not sorcery) has been extremely successful and they need to step up to that plate rather than be offended. 

Ben

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Haukur May 20, 2009 at 1:50 am

lukeprog: “Are you sure you’re not just worshiping an magical, lightning-tossing sky god?”

I have a really hard time picturing a pagan getting offended by that, whether modern or old. Of course we worship lightning-tossing sky gods. Duh! Some might object to the word ‘magic’ but even this is embraced by the largest neo-pagan movement, Wicca. Hey, have a bumper sticker:

http://www.northernsun.com/n/s/5862.html

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blindingimpediments May 20, 2009 at 3:05 am

“For example, someone could summarize my worldview by saying, “So, you believe the universe just is, that human consciousness is a random accident of evolution, that our experiences of moral knowledge and free will are delusions, and that we should build conscious super-robots and let humans die off?””

you really think that morality and free will are delusions? like in the same way as a belief in God is a delusion?

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 4:39 am

blindingimpediments,

Free will is an illusion, yeah. That’s not even controversial among philosophers and neuroscientists anymore. And I do believe in morality, I just don’t think our evolved moral sense – the “conscience” – can tell us anything about morality.

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Lorkas May 20, 2009 at 5:17 am

Haukur: I have a really hard time picturing a pagan getting offended by that, whether modern or old. Of course we worship lightning-tossing sky gods.

I just read the story of the theft of Thor’s hammer. I can’t believe Thor dressed up as a woman :0

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Haukur May 20, 2009 at 5:36 am

Lorkas: I just read the story of the theft of Thor’s hammer. I can’t believe Thor dressed up as a woman :0

Indeed, there we have a cross-dressing, lightning-tossing sky-god, no less.

There’s a much darker story (with some BDSM undertones) about Odin cross-dressing in order to impregnate a princess . It’s found here (search for “Rinda”):

http://omacl.org/DanishHistory/book3.html

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Lorkas May 20, 2009 at 6:22 am

*blink*

Poor Rinda. No means no, Odin!

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Haukur May 20, 2009 at 6:42 am

Lorkas: Poor Rinda. No means no, Odin!

Also notice the gods’ reaction. They decide that this time, Odin has gone too far because “by his stage-tricks and his assumption of a woman’s work he had brought the foulest scandal on the name of the gods”.  In other words: It’s not the rape, it’s the cross-dressing.

To get slightly back on topic, it’s possible to enjoy the myths and discuss them in a lighthearted manner but still pray earnestly to the gods and attend the public religious ceremonies. It’s Christianity that’s decided to nail its feet to the floor and insist that it is a true religion if and only if its sacred stories are actually historical truth.

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Lorkas May 20, 2009 at 6:55 am

Yea, I thought that was funny as well. Also kind of surprising, since it was the other gods who suggested that Thor dress up as Freya to fool Thrym.

Anyway, the point is that Thor kicks Jesus’s ass.

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Haukur May 20, 2009 at 7:00 am

Yeah, the Eddas portray the gods differently than the Gesta Danorum does.

Lorkas: Anyway, the point is that Thor kicks Jesus’s ass.

Here’s one version of that idea: http://imgur.com/MFUOV.jpg

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Mark May 20, 2009 at 7:56 am

Regarding myth, morality, evil, etc. some of you may enjoy the presentation mentioned here. 

Dr. Peter Kreeft presents 10 Insights into Evil from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”

I just finished relistening to it, having first heard it 7 years ago.

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Chuck May 20, 2009 at 10:20 am

Luke, 

When you say that free will is an illusion, do you mean it in the sense of being free to make any choice, or would agree that we have “limited freedom” to make choices based on our upbringing, level of education, ability to reason, etc?

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Chuck May 20, 2009 at 10:37 am

I guess what I’m asking is this. If free will (in the limited sense I described) is an illusion, then maybe desires are illusions as well. Do you think desires are illusions?

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 11:01 am

Chuck, it seems to us that we have contra-causal free will, but I believe we do not.

Desires might be illusions, but I think they probably exist. The belief-desire theory of intentional action has great predictive success. But only neuroscience will tell us for sure if beliefs and desires actually exist.

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Free Will!! May 20, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Lukeprog: “Free will is an illusion, yeah. That’s not even controversial among philosophers and neuroscientists anymore.”
 
Really? That free will is an illusion isn’t controversial among philosophers and neuroscientists anymore? How could you know that? Did you conduct a poll on this? Did someone else?
 
I should have thought that compatibilism is the most common view among these groups. And of course most compatibilists are compatibilists because they believe in free will.

“And I do believe in morality…”
 
Maybe you should write a post about how morality could be real even though free will is an illusion. How could we have obligations and duties, if we’re not free? I don’t think my computer has obligations or duties, or is praiseworthy or blameworthy, and that’s because I think my computer doesn’t have free will.
 
If we’re just like computers – totally determined – why think we have duties or obligations? Why think we’re praiseworthy or blameworthy?
 
 
“I just don’t think our evolved moral sense – the “conscience” – can tell us anything about morality.”
 
Interesting. And yet you say you’re into “desire utilitarianism.” Do you think desires are valuable? (Yes, you do.) Do you think they ought to be satisfied? (Yes, you do.) How could you know such things, unless by your moral sense/conscience? It seems to me that you’ve just undercut your own (and indeed any other!) moral view.
 
Your beliefs about free will, our moral sense, and morality seem to be in quite a great deal of tension.You should give some or all of them up.
 
 
“only neuroscience will tell us for sure if beliefs and desires actually exist.”
 
Haha, that’s hilarious. I think you’re unduly deferential towards neuroscience. You may as well defer to them on whether you yourself exist. If there’s anything we know for sure, it’s that we exist, that we believe stuff, and that we desire stuff. If neuroscience delivers some contrary verdict, so much the worse for neuroscience.

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Lorkas May 20, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Free Will!!: If there’s anything we know for sure, it’s that we exist, that we believe stuff, and that we desire stuff. If neuroscience delivers some contrary verdict, so much the worse for neuroscience.

In what sense do you mean that desires “exist”? Of course it’s obvious that we perceive ourselves to exist and to have beliefs and desires, but what does that mean? That, it seems to me, is the question that we have to defer to neuroscience on.

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blindingimpediments May 20, 2009 at 2:58 pm

“For example, someone could summarize my worldview by saying, “So, you believe the universe just is, that human consciousness is a random accident of evolution, that our experiences of moral knowledge and free will are delusions, and that we should build conscious super-robots and let humans die off?””

No free-will huh. that’s a tough pill to swallow. i’m not sure if i can accept that, but i guess if what you are saying is true, perhaps i’ve been preconditioned to not be able to believe in such truths; so in the end i guess i don’t really have a choice in the matter anyways and i am just simply cursed with a congenital disability that blinds me from truth.

In addition, i do not quite understand your statement that “we should build conscious super-robots and let humans die off”. perhaps i am misinterpreting it but it seems to me that you are advocating the building, promotion and ultimate survival of a super race of artificial intelligence over the inferior biological race of humans. if that is the case, then i don’t quite understand why you are trying so hard to convince humans to change their predetermined religious beliefs and keep them from killing each other. if i was to adopt your goal, i would think it be more efficient to allow the religious to kill themselves off in a holy war, to terminate the disabled, poor and those who have congenital defects like mine (i.e. not able to comprehend or believe in real truth) and to save the scarce resources of this planet to sustain the elite humans who are predetermined and able to know and understand truth so that they can ultimately devote themselves to the creation of an advance super-race of robots and then commit mass suicide after having achieved their goal. but maybe i’m wrong, maybe i’ve misinterpreted what you have said, or maybe i have just failed to see a more intricate plan that this blog provides which will ultimately achieve your “diabolical?” scheme.

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Free Will!!: I should have thought that compatibilism is the most common view among these groups. And of course most compatibilists are compatibilists because they believe in free will.

I don’t know of any compatibilists who believe in contra-causal free will. That’s why they’re compatibilists, not metaphysical libertarians.

Free Will!!: Maybe you should write a post about how morality could be real even though free will is an illusion.

Sure, I’d love to.

Free Will!!: How could you know such things, unless by your moral sense/conscience? It seems to me that you’ve just undercut your own (and indeed any other!) moral view.

Moral knowledge is gained the same way we gain knowledge about quantum mechanics. We do not close our eyes and ask our “inner sense” about the truths of quantum mechanics.

Free Will!!: Your beliefs about free will, our moral sense, and morality seem to be in quite a great deal of tension.You should give some or all of them up.

No, they’re actually compatible. If you want to understand my theory of morality, read my short book on it

Free Will!!: Haha, that’s hilarious. I think you’re unduly deferential towards neuroscience. You may as well defer to them on whether you yourself exist.

I defer to neuroscientists on questions in their domain. If beliefs and desires exist, they exist in brains. That’s the domain of neuroscience.

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Free Will!!: If there’s anything we know for sure, it’s that we exist, that we believe stuff, and that we desire stuff. If neuroscience delivers some contrary verdict, so much the worse for neuroscience.

“If there’s anything we know for sure, it’s that there is such a thing as ‘now’, and if Einstein’s theory succeeds and proves this wrong, so much the worse for Einstein.”

Having a really, really strong feeling that something is true does not make it true.

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 7:49 pm

blindingimpediments: In addition, i do not quite understand your statement that “we should build conscious super-robots and let humans die off”.

I’ll write a post about this sometime.

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Silas May 21, 2009 at 3:31 am

Are there any good articles supporting your position on free will? Any arguing against? I’m genuinely interested.

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Lorkas May 21, 2009 at 5:20 am

lukeprog: Having a really, really strong feeling that something is true does not make it true.

Thank you.

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 5:55 am

Silas,

The literature on free will is vast. But if you read and digest the Wikipedia page, you’ll know more than 99% of all people know about free will. After that, try Four Views on Free Will.

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Lorkas May 21, 2009 at 8:49 am

One formulation of the free will problem.

(at the end of the video)

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 9:16 am

Hi Luke,
I’d like to pick up on a few things you said.

>>I don’t know of any compatibilists who believe in contra-causal free will. That’s why they’re compatibilists, not metaphysical libertarians.>>

Compatibilists think that free will is compatible with determinism. Many of them think that we do have libertarian free will (I take it that’s what you mean by “contra-causal” free will). David Lewis, for one, was a compatibilist who believed in full-blown determinism, but also believed that we very often have the ability to do otherwise than we in fact will do.

>>Moral knowledge is gained the same way we gain knowledge about quantum mechanics. We do not close our eyes and ask our “inner sense” about the truths of quantum mechanics.>>

Interesting. So what sort of experiments did you run to confirm your moral belief that desires are valuable, or that they ought to be satisfied, or whatever your view is? I can’t see any such experiment that one could do. So I think you’re committed to using your much-derided moral sense.

>>I defer to neuroscientists on questions in their domain. If beliefs and desires exist, they exist in brains. That’s the domain of neuroscience.>>

So if credible neuroscientists told you that there are no beliefs, would you believe them?
DILEMMA:
– If not, then you don’t actually defer to neuroscientists as you say you do, since you wouldn’t believe them on this issue you claim is under their purview.

– If so, then still you don’t actually defer to them as you say you do, since you admit that you’d still have beliefs even after they told you there are no such things.

>>“If there’s anything we know for sure, it’s that there is such a thing as ‘now’, and if Einstein’s theory succeeds and proves this wrong, so much the worse for Einstein.”>>

This is pretty unfamiliar terrain for me, but I always took it that Einstein (supposedly) taught us that there is no PRIVILEGED “now.” That is, all points in time are equally real. But he certainly didn’t teach us that “the present moment,” as we use the phrase, doesn’t refer to anything. It does refer. Right now it refers to 12.13pm.

>>Having a really, really strong feeling that something is true does not make it true.>>

I don’t think the argument was “I have a really, really strong feeling that there are beliefs and desires. Therefore there are beliefs and desires.” I don’t think there was an argument at all. I think FREE WILL!! just pointed out that obviously, there are beliefs and desires. That’s one of those self-evident truths that don’t stand in need of any argument.

Everyone thinks there are such truths. Otherwise arguments would never get anywhere. You presumably think one of those truths is “Desires are valuable” or something like that. And maybe you accept that “we ought to proportion our beliefs to the evidence.” And probably you believe that you exist. But you don’t accept these beliefs on the basis of any argument, and you don’t accept them on the basis of a really crappy argument like “I have a really, really strong feeling that p. Therefore p.”

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 9:27 am

Oh, and I was also still curious about this:

You said:
Lukeprog: “Free will is an illusion, yeah. That’s not even controversial among philosophers and neuroscientists anymore.”

FREE WILL!!! said:
“Really? That free will is an illusion isn’t controversial among philosophers and neuroscientists anymore? How could you know that? Did you conduct a poll on this? Did someone else?

So how did you know that? Did you conduct a poll? Was a poll conducted? Or are you just guessing?

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 10:38 pm

cartesian: So how did you know that? Did you conduct a poll? Was a poll conducted? Or are you just guessing?

I think my wording was too strong. Certainly, the subject of free will is controversial. What I meant to say is that the rejection of free will is not unusual at all among neuroscientists and philosophers of mind.

My statement that illusionism about free will is “not even controversial… anymore” is a weak one, based on my own readings and the few times I’ve read that (1) most neuroscientists investigating the problem have concluded that free will does not exist, and that (2) a lesser majority of philosophers of mind do not believe in contra-causal free will anymore. But both could easily be mistaken. Perhaps if I read more stuff by metaphysical libertarians, they would be spouting opposite estimated statistics.

In any case, I’m sure you’ve done more reading on the subject than I have, cartesian.

cartesian: Compatibilists think that free will is compatible with determinism. Many of them think that we do have libertarian free will (I take it that’s what you mean by “contra-causal” free will).

How is a theory of contra-causal free will compatible with a theory that everything is caused?

cartesian: So what sort of experiments did you run to confirm your moral belief that desires are valuable, or that they ought to be satisfied, or whatever your view is? I can’t see any such experiment that one could do. So I think you’re committed to using your much-derided moral sense.

This is a huge issue I would one day like to write a big-ass book chapter on.

Morality is not a purely scientific endeavor. There must be some philosophy involved, to help determine which theory of morality best fits our language. The questions about which theory of morality ALSO fits what exists in the world – well, those are scientific questions.

I think morality is about reasons for action. Some may think this is insufficient – that for us to talk about ‘morality’ we must use a theory that includes motivational internalism or intrinsic prescriptivity or something. I understand that, and if that’s what morality is then I am a moral nihilist. But I think we can strip the ‘error’ out of our moral theories and still keep the useful parts of moral language – just as we kept talking about atoms even though they are not indivisible, and we kept talking about malaria even though it is not ‘bad air.’

Desire utilitarianism thinks that morality is about reasons for action. That fits with the broad assumptions of moral language. The theory also accounts for the 3 categories of moral action (obligated, permissable, forbidden), ‘guilty mind’, superogatory actions, and many other moral concepts.

Then, with regard to the empirical question, we ask: What reasons for action actually exist? It is an empirical question whether the wills of gods exist, whether intrinsic values exist, whether categorical imperatives exist, whether universal social contracts exist, etc. It just so happens that none of these things exist.

Desires, on the other hand, are reasons for action that DO exist. If you put your hand on a hot stove, you have a reason for action to remove your hand, and the only reason for action to move your hand is your desire to not be burned.

Now that is ‘reasons for action’ talk in a non-moral sense, so obviously I have a lot more to explain. But that’s all I have time for right now. I haven’t been happy with how I’ve been explaining how reasons for action can have descriptive and prescriptive force at the same time, so I’m still developing that and hopefully I will one day be able to publish an article that argues for this properly.

cartesian: So if credible neuroscientists told you that there are no beliefs, would you believe them?

I have a hard time imagining how beliefs could not exist. There might be purely philosophical arguments that prove that beliefs exist. Desires seem more uncertain. Is a thermostat’s behavior best explained by its belief that it is 72-degrees inside the room and its desire that it be 65-degrees inside the room? That’s a major part of how we infer the existence of beliefs and desires in humans… But if thermostats have ‘desires’, what ARE desires? What the heck does a thermostat have in common with a human brain?

cartesian: This is pretty unfamiliar terrain for me, but I always took it that Einstein (supposedly) taught us that there is no PRIVILEGED “now.”

Right. Another way to put it is that there is no universal now, no universal clock ticking all matter and energy through time at the same pace. It is a prephilosophical intuition (even a ‘certainty’, maybe) that such a universal clock exists, but it is an empirical result that the universe does not work this way.

cartesian: That’s one of those self-evident truths that don’t stand in need of any argument.

I’m quite skeptical of this notion that there are self-evident truths beyond those that are literally incorrigible (“I am appeared-to blackly”, “I am experiencing what appears to me as a chair”, etc.), probably because such a stance is so often abused to justify everything a person wants to believe in but cannot actually justify. Also, there’s the historical fact that many things which were once self-evident to all turned out to be false.

cartesian: Everyone thinks there are such truths. Otherwise arguments would never get anywhere. You presumably think one of those truths is “Desires are valuable” or something like that. And maybe you accept that “we ought to proportion our beliefs to the evidence.” And probably you believe that you exist. But you don’t accept these beliefs on the basis of any argument, and you don’t accept them on the basis of a really crappy argument like “I have a really, really strong feeling that p. Therefore p.”

I do not think desires have intrinsic value. What is true is that if I have a desire that P, and S can bring about P, then S has value to me. But that is an analytic truth about the meanings of the words “value” and “desire”, not a synthetic truth.

I probably believe something like “we ought to proportion our beliefs to the evidence,” but I don’t think that is self-evident. Nor should it be defended on the basis that it is self-evident to some people.

I also believe that I exist, but not because this is self-evident or because of strong feelings. While trying to avoid the very slippery ideas of “I” and identity, I will suggest that the best explanation for my experiences (which is all I have) and the one that requires the fewest number of hypothesized entitites is one that says some kind of “I” exists.

But the question of how to defeat absolute skepticism without referring to (unincorrigible) properly basic beliefs is a hugely difficult one and I am probably not taking the problem seriously enough. Oh, how I wish I had time to study everything!

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Pete May 22, 2009 at 4:28 am

just a quick clarification:

“cartesian: … Compatibilists think that free will is compatible with determinism. Many of them think that we do have libertarian free will (I take it that’s what you mean by “contra-causal” free will). David Lewis, for one, was a compatibilist who believed in full-blown determinism, but also believed that we very often have the ability to do otherwise than we in fact will do.”

No compatibilist thinks that we have libertarian free will since, by definition, libertarians are incompatibilists. And surely, compatibilists reject “contra-causal freedom” – as do many modern libertarians, like e.g. robert kane (kane would never say that our free choices “go against” natural causal processes; instead, he thinks that they are realised by indeterministic neural events).

On the other hand, most compatibilists (like e.g. David Lewis) hold that we have the “ability to otherwise”, since they interpret “being able to do otherwise” in a way that is compatible with the truth of determinism.

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 9:29 am

Hi Luke,
Thanks for the response. In it, you said:

>>What I meant to say is that the rejection of free will is not unusual at all among neuroscientists and philosophers of mind.>>

I’m with you on that. But I hasten to add that the problem of free will is a philosophical problem, and most neuroscientists are not trained in philosophy. This causes them to make some really bad arguments about free will (ask if you’d like examples). I don’t think we should listen to them when it comes to free will.

I said this:

cartesian: Compatibilists think that free will is compatible with determinism. Many of them think that we do have libertarian free will (I take it that’s what you mean by “contra-causal” free will).

You replied:
>>How is a theory of contra-causal free will compatible with a theory that everything is caused?>>
I guess I should have waited to hear what you mean by “contra-causal free will” and “determinism.” Apparently by “determinism” you mean “everything is caused.” (Interesting, since I’m guessing that you are a determinist. Please keep that in mind when you consider the first premise of the Kalam argument!) I know that this is a common use of the word, but that’s not how I (or most philosophers I know) understand the term. I take determinism to mean something like this: the laws of nature plus the state of the universe at any time t entail the state of the universe at any other time t*. You’ll find something like that definition here:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/
 
I’m still not sure what you mean by “contra-causal free will.” Do you mean that free will requires that our actions have literally no cause? If so, you’re right, having contra-causal free will is not compatible with the view everything is caused. But if that’s what you mean, then we were talking past one another, since no libertarian I know wants to hold such a bizarre view about free will. Libertarians I know would say that free will requires some sort of control condition, or some sort of alternative possibility condition, or both. How libertarians spell these conditions out determines whether they are incompatibilists or compatibilists.
 
I take the control condition to be something like this: our actions are free only if they were caused by us, and not necessitated by the external state of the universe plus the laws of nature. My free actions have to be “up to me,” so to speak. And if my actions are all entailed by the state of the universe plus the laws of nature 100 years ago, and those things aren’t “up to me,” it would follow that none of my actions are free. So clearly, I think, that’s going to be an incompatibilist view of the control condition. And I think the alternative possibility condition shoudl be spelled out roughly like this: our actions are free only if we could have done otherwise than we did. I think that one’s actually compatible with determinism, weirdly enough.
 


I went on to ask this:

cartesian: So what sort of experiments did you run to confirm your moral belief that desires are valuable, or that they ought to be satisfied, or whatever your view is?

You said:

>>I think morality is about reasons for action. Some may think this is insufficient – that for us to talk about ‘morality’ we must use a theory that includes motivational internalism or intrinsic prescriptivity or something. I understand that, and if that’s what morality is then I am a moral nihilist.>>

I’m not totally sure what you mean by “motivational internalism” or “intrinsic prescriptivity.” Do you not believe anything at all resembling “desires are valuable” or “desires ought to be satisfied”? If not, how is your view a view of morality? (Maybe that’s what you meant when you said you’re a nihilist.) If so, what sort of experiments did you run to confirm your belief that desires are valuable (or whatever)?
 


I gave you a dilemma:

cartesian: So if credible neuroscientists told you that there are no beliefs, would you believe them?

I said that if the answer is “no,” you don’t defer to neuroscientists as you say you do. And likewise if the answer is “yes,” there again you don’t defer to neuroscientists as you say you do. What’s the response to this dilemma? Which horn do you take? Can you go between the horns? Or do you give up the view that you should defer to neuroscientists when it comes to whether or not beliefs exist?


>>Is a thermostat’s behavior best explained by its belief that it is 72-degrees inside the room and its desire that it be 65-degrees inside the room? That’s a major part of how we infer the existence of beliefs and desires in humans… But if thermostats have ‘desires’, what ARE desires?>>
 
I don’t think thermostats have desires or beliefs. They have states that are somewhat similar or analogical to beliefs and desires, so we speak metaphorically of them having beliefs and desires, just as we say things like “My speedometer says I’m going 60mph.” Speedometers don’t actually say anything. That’s just metaphorical. Likewise with thermostats.
 
>>Another way to put it is that there is no universal now, no universal clock ticking all matter and energy through time at the same pace. It is a prephilosophical intuition (even a ‘certainty’, maybe) that such a universal clock exists, but it is an empirical result that the universe does not work this way.>>
 
I have no such intuition. I think people (including me) have the intuition that the present moment exists, but that’s perfectly compatible with what Einstein taught us. So I don’t think Einstein gave us defeaters for any of our prephilosophical intuitions.
 


>>there’s the historical fact that many things which were once self-evident to all turned out to be false.>>
 
I’ve also heard this asserted (many times). But upon investigation, I can’t find even one compelling example. Do you have any?
(The best one I can find is the naive-comprehension axiom, but I have a story to tell there about the illegitimate nature of “does not exemplify itself” or “is not a member of itself” or however you set up the axiom and the resulting paradox.)

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 9:37 am

Pete,
I said this:
“cartesian: … Compatibilists think that free will is compatible with determinism. Many of them think that we do have libertarian free will (I take it that’s what you mean by “contra-causal” free will). David Lewis, for one, was a compatibilist who believed in full-blown determinism, but also believed that we very often have the ability to do otherwise than we in fact will do.”
 
You replied:
>>No compatibilist thinks that we have libertarian free will since, by definition, libertarians are incompatibilists.>>
 
This seems to be a terminological dispute. If that’s how you want to use “libertarian,” alright. But I take libertarianism to be a view just about free will, and I take it that there are many people who call themselves libertarians and yet who disagree about the nature of free will.
 
For example, I know self-described “libertarians” who think that free will just requires that we cause our actions, and that we have the ability to do otherwise. But they are also compatibilists, because they think that this notion of free will is compatible with determinism (I’m inclined to agree with them).


>>And surely, compatibilists reject “contra-causal freedom” – as do many modern libertarians, like e.g. robert kane (kane would never say that our free choices “go against” natural causal processes; instead, he thinks that they are realised by indeterministic neural events).>>
 
I don’t know what you guys mean when you say “contra-causal free will.” Is it the view that freedom requires that our actions be uncaused? Or is it the view that freedom requires that our actions not be necessitated by prior events? Or is it, as you say, that freedom requires that our actions “go against” natural causal process? (What does that “go against” mean there?)
 
This conversation would probably be more fruitful if we took the time to define our terms.


>>On the other hand, most compatibilists (like e.g. David Lewis) hold that we have the “ability to otherwise”, since they interpret “being able to do otherwise” in a way that is compatible with the truth of determinism.>>
 
Yeah, as I understand Lewis, he thinks that we have freedom, and that freedom requires the ability to do otherwise, and that our actions be caused by us. That sounds like full-blown free will to me, so I’m calling it “libertarian” free will. But you seem to use “libertarian” so as to entail “incompatibilist.” But once we’re clear on our terms, we can agree with each other.

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lukeprog May 22, 2009 at 6:02 pm

cartesian: I hasten to add that the problem of free will is a philosophical problem, and most neuroscientists are not trained in philosophy. This causes them to make some really bad arguments about free will (ask if you’d like examples).

Yes, I’d love to see some examples! Though, not because I particularly plan on disagreeing with you.

cartesian: I’m not totally sure what you mean by “motivational internalism” or “intrinsic prescriptivity.” Do you not believe anything at all resembling “desires are valuable” or “desires ought to be satisfied”? If not, how is your view a view of morality? (Maybe that’s what you meant when you said you’re a nihilist.) If so, what sort of experiments did you run to confirm your belief that desires are valuable (or whatever)?

Two big debates in meta-ethics are over whether motivational internalism and intrinsic prescriptivity are required for a theory of action to be a moral theory. Motivational internalism is the view that moral beliefs must provide some motivation toward moral action (even if they do not outweight other motivations). I think motivational internalism is false, and some people think that means I must be a moral nihilist. I disagree. Others think that any theory of moral realism must explain how certain acts have an intrinsic “ought-to-be-doneness” about them. I deny that there is an intrinsic “ought-to-be-doneness” about anything, and yet I assert that moral values exist.

“Desires are valuable” only to those who have them. Or rather, if you desire X, then X has value to you. I also would not build a moral theory from the notion that “desires ought to be satisfied.” (Also, I prefer the term ‘fulfilled’, since ‘satisfied’ generally means (to moral philosophers) effecting a mental state while ‘fulfilled’ means effecting a state of affairs in the world. I find too many problems with mental state theories.)

What I do claim is that desires are the only things that provide reasons for action. You only have a reason for action to look both ways before you cross the street because you have certain desires that can be thwarted by failing to do so.

Most moral theories say that our reasons for action come from other things – like God’s will or categorical imperatives or intrinsic values. But these things don’t exist, so those moral theories are false. Desire utilitarianism makes only true claims. It claims that desires provide reasons for action, that certain desires tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart, and that other desires tend to thwart more desires than they fulfill. These are true claims about things and relationships between things that really exist. This true theory goes on to explain a great deal of natural phenomena that fits very closely with our moral language, which is why I think it makes for a good moral theory. But if you don’t think it’s a “moral” theory, it doesn’t matter. The theory still makes true claims about things that exist. If we decide not to call Pluto a planet, that doesn’t change anything about how planet formation happens.

cartesian: I gave you a dilemma: “So if credible neuroscientists told you that there are no beliefs, would you believe them?” I said that if the answer is “no,” you don’t defer to neuroscientists as you say you do. And likewise if the answer is “yes,” there again you don’t defer to neuroscientists as you say you do. What’s the response to this dilemma? Which horn do you take? Can you go between the horns? Or do you give up the view that you should defer to neuroscientists when it comes to whether or not beliefs exist?

If science proved that beliefs do not exist, I would say something like “I am experiencing what I used to call a belief that beliefs do not exist.” But I won’t spend more time on this; I do think beliefs exist. I can’t even imagine what it would mean for science to discover that beliefs don’t exist.

cartesian: there’s the historical fact that many things which were once self-evident to all turned out to be false.>> I’ve also heard this asserted (many times). But upon investigation, I can’t find even one compelling example. Do you have any?

The belief that the universe is fairly small. The belief in gods. The belief that we have free will. The belief that we have a cognitive sense for detecting moral values. The belief that demons cause disease. The belief that certain races and a certain sex are of lesser moral value.

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Daniel May 23, 2009 at 3:11 pm

“But with certain people, only a slap in the face with the true brunt of what they really believe will wake them up.” Interesting statement. By who’s standard are we determining that it is what they really believe? From who’s point of view are we looking? That’s right: atheism. How is that more correct?

And just for the record, I don’t think it would be right to speak of any person or religion in this manner. Hindu, Buddhist, or otherwise.

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lukeprog May 23, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Daniel,

I’m talking about objectively evaluating what people really believe. Do you believe Jesus is your friend and he is invisible. You objectively believe in an invisible friend.

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Reginald Selkirk May 29, 2009 at 12:52 pm

The thing that confuses me is that “Caricature” does not contain an H.

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lukeprog May 30, 2009 at 9:43 am

Reginald,

I know! Every time I typed the word I wanted to type an H.

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