The Morality of Challenging Belief in God

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 6, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

dawkins in bowtie

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

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Luke has given us his account of why the New Atheists have failed and how to defeat religion in one easy step.

Which raises the question: Why?

I believe that the proposition, “At least one God exists” is almost certainly false. Furthermore, having studied philosophy for 12 years in college, I have a fairly good grasp of the arguments for and against the existence of God. Yet when people come to me with an intent to debate the existence of God, I tell them I do not care enough to do so. The subject is not important enough to me.

Why does Luke have a blog dedicated to the question of whether or not there is a God? Why is this not a blog dedicated to the existence or non-existence of Sasquatch, or the Loch Ness Monster, or the proverbial Martian tea kettle?

What makes this subject worthwhile?

Is creating and maintaining one of the most widely read blogs on the internet on the subject of atheism really what a person with good desires would be doing with their time?

Recall, desirism allows for three moral categories when it comes to actions; that which is obligatory, that which is permissible but not obligatory, and that which is prohibited. In morally evaluating whether a person with good desires would work on a site such as this, one does not have to prove that it is morally obligatory. It is sufficient to prove that it is morally permissible.

One of the arguments for moral permissibility is that it refers to those actions that we would not want everybody to do, but we also have reason to encourage some people to do them. It is morally permissible to become a physician, for example. If everybody did it, we would be in bad shape. We would have no engineers, no electricians, no judges, no police officers, no construction workers, and no farmers. It would either be the end of us, or a lot of people would have to spend their time doing work the rest of us condemn.

At the same time, we need to have some doctors. So, becoming a doctor is something that is morally permissible. If becoming a doctor earns a person any moral praise, it is only in virtue of our interest in promoting a general desire to help others, and not specifically with claiming that being a physician is the only morally legitimate occupation.

So, maintaining a site and delivering arguments relevant to the existence of God is morally permissible, but so is a site devoted to arguments for and against the existence of Sasquatch.

One could also argue that the proverbial right to freedom of speech means that this site is permissible – in the same way that a neo-Nazi site can be permissible. Yet, the neo-Nazi site is not a site that a person with good desires would run. In fact, desirism would hold that the neo-Nazi site is morally prohibited. However, the right to freedom of speech – the general aversion to responding to words alone through violence – means that the only legitimate response to the immorality of running such a site is condemnation, not violence. The right to freedom of speech does not make the neo-Nazi site permissible in the sense in which I am using the term here.

My interest in arguments about the existence of God comes to the surface when I encounter somebody who seeks to perform acts of violence against others and they justify their violence by means of an appeal to religion.

By “acts of violence,” I am not only talking about things like flying passenger planes into sky scrapers and walking into a market wearing a bomb. My phrase includes authorizing the government to use violence against others by passing particular legislation (when that that legislation is being supported on religious grounds). Both of these types of acts share a common characteristic. These are both instances of people claiming, “I am justified in using violence against those who are like you because God wants me to do violence against people like you.”

Whereas people who believe in Sasquatch are typically not people who are devoted to committing acts of violence (including the violence of the state in the form of legislation) against others, there is more and stronger reason to be interested in a site that is devoted to debunking religious myths than sites devoted to debunking Sasquatch myths. This gives the former more value than the latter.

Luke began his presentation identifying some of the accomplishments of the New Atheists – that they have given atheism a voice and given a great many atheists the confidence to step forrward. Though we did not mention this specifically, we can measure their effect in the membership growth of atheist organizations and the growth in the number of campuses hosting atheist organizations.

However, one of the things that the New Atheists got right that Luke did not mention is that they have drawn attention to the fact that acts of violence are done in the name of God on a regular basis. Flying into skyscrapers is, perhaps, the most traumatic example Americans have experienced in recent years, but it is as common in this country as passing legislation against homosexual marriage and attempts to punish public school teachers who refuse to assent to the myth that creationism is science.

The New Atheists correctly identified the reason why this subject is important.

I believe that this fact too often escapes the attention of some debate and even on some arguments for or against the existence of a God.

Person A states, “P; P implies Q; Therefore, Q”, where P is the proposition that God exists and Q is some act of violence ranging from terrorism to legislation that gives direction to government’s tools of violence.

Person B responds, “P is false”.

Then, we get Person C telling Person B, “Be quiet. Person D also believes P, but he believes that P implies not-Q and he is very sensitive to anybody asserting that P is false. It upsets him.”

If Person B were to state, “Everybody who believes P also either believes P implies Q or is morally indistinguishable from those who believe that P implies Q”, then Person B is a expressing a bigoted extension of condemnation beyond the group to which it legitimately applies.

However, we are talking here about a case in which Person B is not over-extending his condemnation. He is stating the simple position, “P is false, so all attempts to justify violence with an appeal to P are to be rejected as unsound.”

We have good reason to demand that Person D, in this case, acquire enough emotional maturity to be able to handle the fact that others disagree with him. The principle that we are not permitted to question any belief held by people lacking the emotional maturity to handle disagreement would leave us with a society where only the beliefs of the emotionally mature may be challenged. Specifically, we risk forming a society where scientific claims can be questioned in virtue of the fact that scientists can handle the fact that others think they are wrong, whereas religious beliefs cannot be questioned in virtue of the lack of emotional maturity on the part of many who hold religious beliefs.

More important is the fact that, in coddling Person D’s immature sensibilities, we are prohibiting people from raising a legitimate objection to those who believe Q – that particular acts of violence are justified.

So, why should we concern ourselves with questions about the existence of God? Why is it more important than questions about the existence of Sasquatch?

Answer: Because the proposition “God exists” is widely used in arguments in which the conclusion is that some act of violence is justified. Asserting that no God exists implies asserting that the acts of violence committed in the name of God are not justified. This applies not only to criminal acts of violence, but also to those acts of violence where religious people seek to make laws that have the effect of directing the government’s tools of violence.

The fact that the world contains emotionally immature people who cannot handle challenges to their belief in God does not justify condemning those who challenge that belief. It justifies condemning the emotional immaturity of those who cannot handle debate on the subject. If somebody wants to defend P, then they should defend P. They should not be permitted to get away with, “You may not challenge P because Johnny gets upset when you do that.”

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Gregg May 6, 2010 at 6:54 am

An argument for challenging the God belief (and other weakly-justified beliefs that are held strongly) from a DU perspective: The desire to strongly hold, believe, and defend beliefs despite lack of evidence or evidence to the contrary may thwart other desires via acts motivated by these beliefs due to epistemic negligence. This strong possibility of thwarting desires are reasons for action to condemn those who hold such beliefs.

This argument applies to all poorly-held beliefs by the willfully ignorant or obstinate. Thus, should it not be morally obligatory to condemn those who hold beliefs more strongly than the evidence dictates?

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Alonzo Fyfe May 6, 2010 at 8:07 am

False beliefs tend to bring about a great deal of desire-thwarting.

However, it is also the case that we cannot expect perfect rationality. Perfect rationality takes too much time and resources. Instead, we must rely on systems of belief formation that are faster, but less accurate, leading to the occasional false belief.

In light of this fact, we need some system to distinguish between beliefs that deserve greater scrutiny and those that, while they may be false, are not worth investigating further.

Beliefs that lead to a conclusion Q where Q is some act of violence (whether terrorism or the violence of the criminal justice system directed through legislation) clearly classifies as beliefs where we have many and strong reasons to demand greater scrutiny.

This is precisely why religious arguments are not allowed in a court of law. It seems quite odd, but people seem quite confortable with the fact that scripture is not permitted as evidence of “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt” for any claim made in a court of law.

Legislatures ought to be made to follow the same standard.

Yet, there is no justification for morally condemning the person with a strongly held belief that is not itself dangerous. There is no good reason to condemn the person who holds that kind and generous individuals will enjoy a happy after-life. There are more important
beliefs to be concerned with.

If the goal is to condemn anything that falls short of perfect rationality, then that must necessarily mean condemning everybody, because none of us have the time and resources necessary for perfect rationality.

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GG May 6, 2010 at 8:57 am

I philosophy itself as valuable.
But isn’t philosophical issues as post-modernism isn’t worth time on this blog?
Rorty, philosophy of language, epistemology… etc?

Atheist, Agnostic, Theist…is there even a point looking for the truth anyways?

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al friedlander May 6, 2010 at 11:08 am

“Specifically, we risk forming a society where scientific claims can be questioned in virtue of the fact that scientists can handle the fact that others think they are wrong, whereas religious beliefs cannot be questioned”

This reminds me of the Russell quote, that goes along the lines of ‘the intelligent are full of doubt’ (not at all implying that I myself am intelligent. Far from it, actually.)

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ichthyscredo May 6, 2010 at 11:29 am

Check out my Blog post: “Why are Atheists so angry?” http://bit.ly/a1kher Tell me what you think – don’t feel the need to be gentle!

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noen May 6, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Lovely strawman you built there Alonzo. Mind if I burn it to the ground?

“I believe that this fact too often escapes the attention of some”

Yeah, it never occurred to anyone before that some people use religion to justify violence. But really? Calling liberal believers “immature” for not joining with you in your hate filled tirades against religion? Wow.

“We have good reason to demand that Person D, in this case, acquire enough emotional maturity to be able to handle the fact that others disagree with him.”

No, shouldn’t YOU be the one to work on the maturity thing? Here is why:

You claim that conservative religious folk assert that God exists, therefore we should enact X social policy. Atheists reply that God does not exist therefore we should not enact X social policy.

But Liberal religious folk come along and say that while they believe God exists they don’t agree that is necessarily follows we should enact social policy X. Then Atheists attack Liberal religious folk for not being atheists or something.

Wouldn’t a better strategy be to join with the liberal religious to work against the conservative faction?

That would be the “adult” thing to do, giving up your own narcissistic desires for a larger goal.

“Answer: Because the proposition “God exists” is widely used in arguments in which the conclusion is that some act of violence is justified. Asserting that no God exists implies asserting that the acts of violence committed in the name of God are not justified.”

Wouldn’t a smarter strategy be to ignore the question of God’s existence and focus instead on the false conclusion that God demands social policy X?

Aw hells no we can’t do that. WE MIGHT BE EFFECTIVE!

“The fact that the world contains emotionally immature people who cannot handle challenges to their belief in God”

Being an arrogant asshole who calls anyone who believes differently than you do about religious matters “emotionally immature” is the very height of emotionally immaturity. But by all means please do continue your failed strategy. It works so well!

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Gregg May 6, 2010 at 3:58 pm

@ Alonzo:

…we need some system to distinguish between beliefs that deserve greater scrutiny and those that, while they may be false, are not worth investigating further.

If the goal is to condemn anything that falls short of perfect rationality, then that must necessarily mean condemning everybody, because none of us have the time and resources necessary for perfect rationality.  

Thanks for the reply, Alonzo. I’ve greatly appreciated your work.

I agree with much of what you’ve said, but I’m not seeing how it comes from a DU perspective.

You speak above of choosing to condemn people based on the consequences of certain beliefs. Yet, from a DU perspective, is it not people holding the desire to ignore contrary evidence or rationality who should be condemned? While false beliefs can thwart many desires, one who harms with a false belief but yet acted to the best of her knowledge would probably fall outside the scope of condemnation.

I think that an analogy to your classic example of the truck driver holds here.

As you’ve stated in your other writings, a truck driver who fails to secure his load properly should be condemned because he should know better and his negligence may lead to harm. Furthermore, he should be condemned regardless of whether anyone was hurt by the unsecured load. Similarly, a person who doesn’t secure her beliefs properly should be condemned because she should know better and her epistemic negligence may lead to harm.

Now, I’m not saying that we can be perfectly rational about everything (or even anything). But what I am claiming is that showing a tendency to blatantly disregard evidence and rationality falls well within the scope of morally condemnable negligence. And the desire to disregard such things is wrong regardless of what beliefs it leads to (UFO abductions, astrology, certain economic policies, or god belief): either way, it’s a desire that has the tendency to thwart other desires, and thus is condemnable from a DU perspective.

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lukeprog May 6, 2010 at 4:46 pm

noen,

If Alonzo has written hate-filled tirades against religion, I have not seen them.

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RA May 6, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Noen,

If you want to defeat an argument, you need to at least pay attention to it. It’s really hard to do if you don’t

Calling liberal believers “immature” for not joining with you in your hate filled tirades against religion? Wow.

He didn’t call liberal believers immature. He called people that can’t handle having their religion countered immature. Just because they don’t want us to do it and claim religious authority is no reason to respect their position and worry about offending them.

In other words, we shouldn’t just be respectful of their argument because it is based on biblical principal.

Hint: That might mean not respecting the right to teach Sunday school in science class just because people are offended by the concept of evolution. Or maybe allowing torture because our govt is doing God’s work.

But Liberal religious folk come along and say that while they believe God exists they don’t agree that is necessarily follows we should enact social policy X. Then Atheists attack Liberal religious folk for not being atheists or something.

He’s saying that we should base our decision on whether social policy X is good policy or not. If it meets the most good desires which means produces the most public good. It doesn’t have anything to do with atheist and religious folks. That’s your own creation. If the liberal religious folks disagree based on the policy, there is no objection.

…giving up your own narcissistic desires for a larger goal.

The man’s whole moral concept is based on giving up narcissistic desires for the greater good. At least try to follow along.

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piero May 6, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Noen:

No, shouldn’t YOU be the one to work on the maturity thing?

Being an arrogant asshole who calls anyone who believes differently than you do about religious matters “emotionally immature” is the very height of emotionally immaturity. But by all means please do continue your failed strategy. It works so well!  

Medice, cura te ipsum.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 7, 2010 at 6:09 am

Calling liberal believers “immature” for not joining with you in your hate filled tirades against religion?

I did not call liberal believers “immature”. I called people who cannot handle the fact that others question their beliefs “immature”. It is their sensibilities that we are told make us wrong for us to challenge belief in god.

You claim that conservative religious folk assert that God exists, therefore we should enact X social policy. Atheists reply that God does not exist therefore we should not enact X social policy.

Again, no. It does not follow from the fact that no God exists that the policy in question should not be enacted. That depends on the policy.

It’s like the person who claims, “I have checked my horoscope and it says that the plane is going to crash.” It would be absurd to argue that, “Because astrological assumptions are false, the plane will not crash.” I make no such argument, either about crashing planes or social polcies.

I do say that the claim that the plane will crash, and the claim that the social policy is justified, are not sufficiently well supported. And when the latter includes call to do threaten violence against others, either in the form of terrorism or the (threats of) violence that provide the foundation for law enforcement, the lack of justification is particularly problematic.

Wouldn’t a smarter strategy be to ignore the question of God’s existence and focus instead on the false conclusion that God demands social policy X?

As it turns out, I think it is the smarter choice and is the option I choose in my own writing. As I state at the start of this blog, I do not concern myself with whether God exists. Instead, I focus on the problems with “P implies Q” (the existence of God implies that the social policy is justified). Which is often just as problematic as the proposition that God exists.

However, I was not writing about my blog, I was writing about Luke’s efforts – notably his speech on how to the New Atheists fail and how to defeat religion in one easy step.

Being an arrogant asshole who calls anyone who believes differently than you do about religious matters “emotionally immature” is the very height of emotionally immaturity.

Again, if you actually were to read the posting, I was referencign an argument that claimed to show that it is wrong to question belief in God. That argument requires the assumption that those who believe in God are emotionally immature. In many cases, that assumption is false. However, even when it is true, it still runs aground on the fact that those people for which it is true should acquire some emotional maturity.

There is nothing in the argument that states that it is always true.

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noen May 7, 2010 at 9:06 am

Alonzo Fyfe
“I did not call liberal believers “immature”.”

You absolutely did.

“Then, we get Person C telling Person B, “Be quiet. Person D also believes P, but he believes that P implies not-Q and he is very sensitive to anybody asserting that P is false. It upsets him.”"

Perhaps you were confused by your own use of a single person in your example. We are of course not talking about individuals here, we’re talking about groups of individuals.

Group “D” represents those people who are offended by the strident and aggressive tactics employed by the New Atheists but who nevertheless are not social conservatives. They are potential allies. I am saying that if you, not you personally, why would you think that?, I’m saying that you, group “B”, the New Atheists, should consider dropping the arrogant attitude and instead try to enlist group D to join you against the socially conservative religious.

When you, group B, the New Atheists, attack belief in God you are perceived as attacking everyone, group A and group D, who believes. I understand that you would like to play your semantic games and try to shift blame. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how you are perceived. Succeeding in this world depends on how you manage how others perceive you. Not on playing logic games.

“It’s like the person who claims, “I have checked my horoscope and it says that the plane is going to crash.” It would be absurd to argue that, “Because astrological assumptions are false, the plane will not crash.” I make no such argument, either about crashing planes or social polcies.”

Again, it doesn’t matter. Why? Because we are not talking about planes and astrology. Nobody cares about astrology. People DO care about their religious beliefs and if you are perceived as attacking them they will oppose you even if it means crashing the plane.

Try imaging yourself in the plane. It’s going to crash if we don’t do X. The astrologers on the plane recommend we not do X based on their belief system. There is a group D on the plane who believe in astrology but could be persuaded to do X and save the plane and all our lives.

But you, the New Atheists, insist on attacking all those on the plane who believe in astrology. This alienates group D, they don’t join you in adopting policy X and the planes crashes. You die.

But at least you get to be pure.

“As it turns out, I think it is the smarter choice and is the option I choose in my own writing.”

Very good, but you haven’t really dropped that arrogant stance that has lead to the failure of the New Atheists. Luke is wrong, the New Atheists did not fail because they didn’t have powerful enough arguments. They failed because they are almost universally despised for being flaming assholes.

But you don’t get that do you?

“Again, if you actually were to read the posting, I was referencign an argument that claimed to show that it is wrong to question belief in God. That argument requires the assumption that those who believe in God are emotionally immature.”

Yeah…. that ain’t ever gonna work though is it. Calling people emotionally immature because they fight back when you viciously attack them is unlikely to ever get you the love and adulation you desire.

You have a choice. You, New Atheists, can either continue your current strategy of being complete and total social pariahs (but we are right!) or you can choose a different strategy. One where you give a little to get a little. Loose the attitude and try to make friends with your political allies.

What am I saying. You’ll never do that.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 7, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Noen

Your last set of responses are so off base that they warrent the judgment that you are seeing what you want to see rather than what is there.

It is surprising to me that some people seem to be able to hold up a red ball and insist that it is green simply because for some reason he psychologically needs it to be a green ball.

This association of “Person D” to mean “All liberal theists” exists only in your imagination. There is absolutely nothing in what I wrote that supports that interpretation.

Against that interpretation, there are sections of the post where I warn against overgeneralization – of the bigot’s fallacy of taking what is true of a subsection of the population and applying it to the population as a whole.

You seem to be talking about religious liberals who decide to hold their alliance as hostage – people who say, “We have this shared view on the common good. However, my working with you to promote the social good is contingent on your agreement not to criticize my religious beliefs.” This attitude represents the type of emotional immaturity that I talk about.

When I defend desirism I am, by necessity, also saying that the act-utilitarians, Objectivists, Kantians, subjectivists, nihilists, emotivists, social contract theorists, Rawlsians, and any other who holds a conflicting view are wrong. You seem to want to interpret this as an attack.

Fortunately, quite a few of them are quite emotionally mature. They are not at all willing to let the plane crash simply because I state that there are no intrinsic values or categorical imperatives or they are violating (what is true in) the is/ought distinction.

You are the one saying that religious liberals are not like this – that they are incapable of having an emotionally mature discussion of a subject without getting so worked up over the fact that others share a different view that they would be willing to let the plane crash.

My view is that the vast majority of religious liberals are like those who hold the competing moral views I discussed above. They react to the claim that God does not exist the way the Kantian reacts to the claim that categorical imperatives do not exist or the social contract theorist reacts to the claim that since the social contract is not real then it is not morally binding. They can debate these subjects on an emotionally mature level.

None of us – including the emotionally mature religious liberal – has any reason to coddle the emotionally immature religious liberal who would rather see the plane crash than live in a world where others express the belief that their God does not exist.

We simply have no need to coddle those types of people.

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ichthyscredo May 7, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Check out part two of my blog post”Why are Atheists so angry?”: http://wp.me/pUHmd-J Thank you to those who have commented!

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TaiChi May 7, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Alonzo,
I’ve written a couple of posts on Desirism, here and here.

The second one is critical of your derivation of ‘ought’ statements from ‘is’ statements. Since I’m anxious that I’ve represented you properly, and that my criticisms are correct, I’d appreciate your thoughts, at least on the second one.

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lukeprog May 7, 2010 at 8:32 pm

That’s a great post, TaiChi; I do hope Alonzo finds the time to respond.

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GG May 8, 2010 at 12:20 am

@TaiChi

Because David Hume said it does not make it perfect, just wiki it.
Hume is pointing the problematic side of the issue.
A value is a certain type of fact, and you can derive an ought from an is in many cases.
If Desires form values, you derive ought (value) from its (desire) without saying (this is what I understood from luek’s podcast).

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TaiChi May 8, 2010 at 1:33 am

That’s a great post, TaiChi; I do hope Alonzo finds the time to respond.  

Thanks, Luke.

@TaiChiBecause David Hume said it does not make it perfect, just wiki it.
Hume is pointing the problematic side of the issue.
A value is a certain type of fact, and you can derive an ought from an is in many cases.
If Desires form values, you derive ought (value) from its (desire) without saying (this is what I understood from luek’s podcast).  

GG, I’m quite satisfied that values can be derived from facts, and I think Fyfe’s very good on this – he makes the dichotomy look downright silly. I’m also satisfied that you can derive an ought from an is. What I dispute is that Fyfe has shown that a specifically moral ought can be derived from an is. I’ve not decided either way whether it can be done.

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GG May 8, 2010 at 1:56 am

@TaiChi
From what -I understand- from my listening to luke’s podcast:
Many people desire not to be raped (is), creates a universal moral value (ought) according to this system.
Something that is RIGHT (moral value) is a obligation for action according to it, by it’s own definition.
-The problem of motivation is something else.

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J.C. Samuelson May 8, 2010 at 7:42 am

Alonzo,

Much to sympathize with in this post, particularly the last part expressing frustration at people who want to protect religious ideas from criticism. Not sure I would’ve characterized it as “emotional immaturity” but that’s not what I wanted to bring up.

I’ve followed some of your arguments (and Luke’s) in favor of desirism in little more than a casual way over the past couple years, and I find them interesting, but to be up front I’m not convinced. That said, here I just want to pick up on one probably minor point you made in this comment thread:

False beliefs tend to bring about a great deal of desire-thwarting.

Indeed they do. However, they also bring about a great deal of desire-fulfillment in the sense that billions of people are able to derive from religion the very benefits they expect, and without expending much effort. Even if those benefits are largely the result of a placebo-type effect rather than a “true” or “pure” result of belief, on a practical level it doesn’t matter.

The real question I have is really a bit more broad than that, but stems from that issue: What sort of moral equation would you use to determine whether the false beliefs bring about more harm than good?

Note that I’m NOT offering this in any way as a defense of religion. Just because someone gets a benefit from religion doesn’t mean I think religion is a good or worthwhile thing.

I’m sure it’s been brought up before (please link me to an answer to this, if there is one already), but it seems to me that the notion of desire-fulfillment/desire-thwarting is fraught with the same kind of troubling ambiguities and inconsistencies as moral arguments based on well-being and suffering; i.e., the happiness metric.

Am I wrong?

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GG May 8, 2010 at 8:04 am

@J.C. Samuelson

Yes religion fulfills desires,
But it’s a false belief.

Would you be happy if you wife was cheating on you without you knowing? it is an illusion of happiness from this belief (that she is loyal) and not actual happiness.

The belief that leads you to the conclusion is deceiving,
so are you really happy (conclusion) or you are in a illusion of happiness (since the beliefs are false)?

My question about desireism is why any desires should be considered universally when acting on moral issues, and how do they become universal?

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RA May 8, 2010 at 8:51 am

JC,

Does it really matter? After all, desirism is a moral theory. It provides the idea for how humans come to moral decisions. It seems clear that humans are not acting on their ideas that morals are universal truths. So how are they acting on them?

Maybe religion has been a good for mankind. Does that mean that we cannot live without it or that it is really the basis for those moral decisions? If there is no personal God then Christians are really acting on an atheist moral theory and thinking they are acting on a religious one. The question is which one and on what basis?

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J.C. Samuelson May 8, 2010 at 8:53 am

@ GG,

The belief that leads you to the conclusion is deceiving, so are you really happy (conclusion) or you are in a illusion of happiness (since the beliefs are false)?

What is the material difference for the person having the experience of feeling happy? I’m not convinced there is one. If I’m not aware of my wife’s behavior, I may have the illusion of happiness, but that’s not the least bit disappointing since I’m also blissfully and completely ignorant of the fact that my happiness is merely illusory. My disappointment would only come about – and the attendant feeling of “true” unhappiness – after learning about the behavior, so the question becomes: was I really happy to begin with, or was I really unhappy the whole time without knowing it?

It just seems a little silly to quibble over the authenticity of happiness, since for the person having the experience there is no difference. How (and perhaps more importantly, why) would someone go about testing to see if the happiness being felt is authentic?

Yes, I’m familiar with Alonzo’s argument (from his online book, I believe) that given a choice between illusion and reality, we would all choose not to be deceived. I think that’s a given. But I don’t think the example he provided is all that great, or perhaps applicable in all cases.

If you recall, a person is given the choice between a parent leaving a child with an alien abductor to be tortured for eternity – and be brainwashed with the belief that the opposite is true, for the sake of being happy – or to have the child live a full & happy life even as the parent is brainwashed into believing (s)he is being tormented for an eternity. The point being that, given the choice, we would all choose the latter even if it leads to unhappiness for ourselves.

The key element in this story is that we are given a conscious choice; we are fully aware that we are choosing between illusion and reality. A person who is experiencing happiness isn’t presented with binary options like this, so it doesn’t seem meaningful to question the authenticity of one’s felt happiness.

In any case, it seems silly to argue over the authenticity of an emotional response. Emotions themselves remain authentic, even if they stem from a false belief, IMHO.

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GG May 8, 2010 at 9:24 am

@J.C. Samuelson

“was I really happy to begin with, or was I really unhappy the whole time without knowing it?”

-Was I all really right to begin with or really wrong without knowing?

A belief is like happiness, its a mental stance which you take on your terms (If I’ve seen it = it’s there; if my wife is loyal = I’m happy).
If I believe that something does not exist (I have seen with my eyes = there is no tree there), yet it does (I got confused with another location) – does it change it’s ontological state? No.
Was it a false idea ALL along? Yes!
To hold a +true+ mental stance, it must correlate with reality.
So no you were not happy according to my view.

(or did I confuse epistemological arguments with ontological? feedback appreciated)

Does the analogy help?
I hope so :)

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Jeff H May 8, 2010 at 10:23 am

A belief is like happiness, its a mental stance which you take on your terms (If I’ve seen it = it’s there; if my wife is loyal = I’m happy).
If I believe that something does not exist (I have seen with my eyes = there is no tree there), yet it does (I got confused with another location) – does it change it’s ontological state? No.
Was it a false idea ALL along? Yes!
To hold a +true+ mental stance, it must correlate with reality.

So no you were not happy according to my view.

(or did I confuse epistemological arguments with ontological? feedback appreciated)

Does the analogy help?
I hope so   

I think there’s a very big difference between beliefs and emotions. Beliefs have an obvious truth value that can be associated with them – they can correspond to reality or not.

Emotions, on the other hand, don’t seem to have anything like this. I could perhaps say, “I’m feeling happy” while really I’m feeling angry, but that is still an evaluation of the truth of that statement rather than an evaluation of the emotion itself. The emotion, whatever it is (anger in this case), is just there. It may be based on misinformation, but it cannot be itself “true” or “false”.

If I am experiencing whatever biological/psychological states that produce happiness, then as far as I’m concerned, I am “truly” happy.

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noen May 8, 2010 at 11:25 am

Alonzo Fyfe
“This association of “Person D” to mean “All liberal theists” exists only in your imagination. There is absolutely nothing in what I wrote that supports that interpretation.”

It would probably help in my estimation of your character and honesty if you refrained from lying about me and falsely attributing quoted material you just made up to be mine. You place in quotes the claim that I said: “All liberal theists” when the fact is I never said any such thing.

“Against that interpretation, there are sections of the post where I warn against overgeneralization”

Yes, I know but that was not my point. It doesn’t matter that you would like to be allowed to attack other people’s beliefs and yet never be subject to a counter attack. It doesn’t matter that you would like to have abstract debates on Kant or Nietzsche or whatever.

People take religion personally whether you like it or not.

“You seem to be talking about religious liberals who decide to hold their alliance as hostage – people who say, “We have this shared view on the common good. However, my working with you to promote the social good is contingent on your agreement not to criticize my religious beliefs.””

Uh, yeah, that’s how political compromise works. When one joins with others who differ with one’s political beliefs one voluntarily gives up launching ideological attacks on members of one’s coalition “for the greater good”, for higher goals.

People who demand that they alone are right and posses the TRUTH are rightly despised and seen as the narcissists they are.

“My view is that the vast majority of religious liberals are like those who hold the competing moral views I discussed above. They react to the claim that God does not exist the way the Kantian reacts to the claim that categorical imperatives do not exist”

That’s because they have manners. I promise you, they will not come to your aide when you need it. You (New atheists) have alienated everyone.

No one likes you.

Let that sink in. You are alone. You have no political allies. But hey, that’s ok because you don’t mind. You’d rather be right than survive. Good luck with that.

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GG May 8, 2010 at 12:38 pm

@Jeff H

When someone says “I’m happy” he means “I’m feeling the emotion of happiness” – this could not be false.
But the belief leading to this could be.
What is the influence of the reason for the effect of the reason (beliefs creating happiness)?
I will explain.

In state of mind YES you are happy (emotion), but in actual you were experiencing the illusion of happiness?

Similar to the Freudian coining of the term “illusion” (something that someone wishes to believe & believes, in spite of lack of evidence – a belief unjustified/false).
—Guy happy since his wife is a loyal wife while she was not—.
In our case it’s a false belief (that causes emotion) – that makes you believe your happy = Illusion.

Yeah, I my argument sucked from the start.
A false reason does not effect the state, if one does not know that – so your happy.

Eventually you should choose in this debate between valuing happiness & reality.

But then I ask why should any one value illusionist happiness?
Then reality is suffering what not try to change that?
Are you jealous of a drunk person?
I dunno this just does not speak to me, I want to REALLY do things with my life & responsibility.

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J.C. Samuelson May 8, 2010 at 7:27 pm

@ RA

Does it really matter? After all, desirism is a moral theory. It provides the idea for how humans come to moral decisions.

Well, since the defining characteristic of desirism is that it revolves around the contrast between the fulfillment or thwarting of desires as a basis for its moral calculus, I would say it probably does matter, or at least seems to from where I’m sitting.

Then again, as I said I’ve only looked at it in a slightly more than casual manner, and certainly have not read all the arguments.

Maybe religion has been a good for mankind. Does that mean that we cannot live without it or that it is really the basis for those moral decisions?

Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t. It’s hard to say but I think it’s a mixed bag, and in any case is a part of the reality we live in. Of course, this does not mean we can’t live without it, and does not mean religion provides a tenable basis for moral decision-making.

My questions/concerns – at this time – simply involve false beliefs and their capacity for desire fulfillment or thwarting without judging the basis for those beliefs.

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J.C. Samuelson May 8, 2010 at 7:28 pm

@ GG

There does seem to be a bit of confusion or tension between the epistemology vs. the ontology of emotional states, and it seems that Jeff H said much of what I would’ve said.

Basically, I’m not convinced you can assign a truth value to an emotional state in the same way you could with a belief. I’m not even sure why anyone would want to. Since we are more or less always primed for an emotional response, the potential exists to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing our tails.

Without belaboring the point, as a thought experiment imagine a discussion with someone in which you’re trying to convince them that the emotions they’re feeling aren’t real. In fact, take it a step further and imagine you’ve convinced this person to undergo some lab testing for emotional responses to determine their authenticity. What do you think the data from the tests would reveal?

I’m on board with the desire to experience real emotions stemming from real stimuli. I’m just not sure each has the same – or even a similar – capacity for validation.

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Justfinethanks May 9, 2010 at 9:49 am

noen:You (New atheists) have alienated everyone.
No one likes you.
Let that sink in. You are alone. You have no political allies.

No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.

-President Bush I, 1987

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.

-President Elect Obama, 2008

I don’t think your idea that atheists have somehow decreased in social or political standing is really supported by the facts. Were it not for atheists making noise throughout the past decade, do you really think the newly elected president would feel the need to recognize this minority?

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Steve May 10, 2010 at 2:20 am

Neon stated : But really? Calling liberal believers “immature” for not joining with you in your hate filled tirades against religion? Wow.

What if this was refrazed as :But really? Calling liberal slave owners “immature” for not joining with you in your hate filled tirades against Slavery? Wow.

I disagree that the new atheists have failed.Sure they may not have met the intellectual side of the argument.But we have had intellectual argument around for many years,mean while the popes still kept quietly moving their priestly molestors on elsewhere.So much for intellectual argument.Its long proved its not enough on its own.It was intellectual argument alone, that failed with bringing about reform of slavery.The loud protesting equivalent of new atheists were needed, of the new loud anti slavery protestors, before many actually bothered listening properly in any great depth to what the intellectual types had been often suggesting for so very many years.

So as Neon says, many folks do find the new atheists not quite so appealing.But im sure for awhile plenty didnt find those actively protesting against slavery quite so very appealing either.

But just because some people dont find something quite so appealing doesnt always simply prove that its wrong.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 10, 2010 at 11:25 am

J.C. Samuelson

Yes, I’m familiar with Alonzo’s argument (from his online book, I believe) that given a choice between illusion and reality, we would all choose not to be deceived.

I have no such argument.

I have an argument that states that internal-state theories of value cannot handle the fact that some of us will choose not to be deceived.

However, in that argument I would claim that some people will choose the deceived option – because they have a desire that “I am happy” but not a desire “that the child is doing well.”

If you recall, a person is given the choice between a parent leaving a child with an alien abductor to be tortured for eternity – and be brainwashed with the belief that the opposite is true, for the sake of being happy – or to have the child live a full & happy life even as the parent is brainwashed into believing (s)he is being tormented for an eternity. The point being that, given the choice, we would all choose the latter even if it leads to unhappiness for ourselves.

Not all of us. There are selfish people who would not care at all about the welfare of the child.

However, internal state theories would have to conclude that all of us would not choose to make ourselves unhappy. The fact that they get this prediction wrong – the fact that many people would select the well-being of the child over their own happiness – suggests that there is something wrong with those theories.

This example aims to support the proposition that we act so as to make true the propositions that are the objects of our desires, rather than seek happiness or some internal state. It does not aim to prove that we all desire the welfare of others.

[False beliefs] also bring about a great deal of desire-fulfillment in the sense that billions of people are able to derive from religion the very benefits they expect, and without expending much effort.

False beliefs bring about comforting internal states, to be true. Insofar as a person desires a particular internal state, they fulfill desires. However, they do not fulfill desires in terms of making true what they claim to be true.

A person’s desire for eternal life-after-death is not fulfilled by religion. It only fulfills the desire to avoid the sadness that accompanies knowing that one will die.

A person can acquire happiness by believing that somebody “got what he deserved” in the afterlife in terms of divine punishment for evils done on earth. However, this fulfills his desire for happiness. It does not fulfill his desire for justice. Because the belief that the person “got what he deserved in the afterlife” is false, and cannot be made true.

Living in an experience machine where one believes that one is a great leader, while one is actually floating in a vat hooked up to a computer that is fulling one’s brain with images, may well stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. However, it will not fulfill the desire to be a great leader. It cannot make that proposition true. This is why the person who actually desires to be a great leader would find the experience machine unfulfilling.

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J.C. Samuelson May 10, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Alonzo

I have no such argument.

I have an argument that states that internal-state theories of value cannot handle the fact that some of us will choose not to be deceived.

I stand corrected. It was not my intent to overstate your case. ‘Some’ people might choose to be deceived.

Having said that, however, doesn’t change the thrust of the point I was (perhaps clumsily) trying to make, which is essentially that it occurs to me that a person’s internal state need not accurately reflect an external state in order to pass as an authentic state to both the person experiencing it and a disinterested observer.

Living in an experience machine where one believes that one is a great leader, while one is actually floating in a vat hooked up to a computer that is fulling one’s brain with images, may well stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. However, it will not fulfill the desire to be a great leader. It cannot make that proposition true. This is why the person who actually desires to be a great leader would find the experience machine unfulfilling.

(Jumping to this because it gets us – me – to the crux of the difficulty as I see it more quickly.)

What I would argue is that unless the person in your experience machine is presented with persuasive alternatives, the truth question is moot. The choice between truth and falsity only applies when the person is aware that there is a choice at all to begin with, and then has the opportunity to consider the evidence and persuasive value of each.

In your example that I unintentionaly abused, if the alien overlord chooses for the subject without his/her knowledge, the subject will live with the consequences and believe to be true whatever (s)he has been brainwashed to believe to be true by the alien overlord. If (s)he is given no alternatives, there is no tension between desires, Ergo, no dilemma, demonstrating what I think is a weakness in desirism.

This might be an ill-informed judgment, I admit, but the crux of the problem is that your example requires full disclosure to the subject to work. In a theoretical framework and involving abstracts like religion this might be just fine, but as a matter of applied ethics it seems flawed, because in the real world, full disclosure is often difficult to obtain, if available at all.

Example:

To all appearances, my wife is faithful, and as long as she plays her role well, and I am not otherwise given cause to question her fidelity, I remain authentically happy, even if I am laboring under a delusion. You could argue that I could choose to question her fidelity anyway, but what would my motivation be? To know that I’m truthfully happy?

What if, in the process of trying to learn whether I’m really and truly happy or not (based of course on the notion that fidelity is the determinant), I destroy my marriage due to having made it clear to her that I don’t trust my wife, even though I learn in the end that she is, in fact, faithful? Was this a moral pursuit? Does my desire to learn the real, honest-to-goodness truth justify the thwarting of my desire to have a happy wife? Does it justify the thwarting of her desire to have a husband who loves & trusts her, even if it fulfills her desire to know the truth about him as well?

Bottom line: How does one perform the ethical calculus here without imposing some sort of arbitrary value on which desire is most important or valuable?

Sincere questions all.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 11, 2010 at 6:26 am

The choice between truth and falsity only applies when the person is aware that there is a choice at all to begin with, and then has the opportunity to consider the evidence and persuasive value of each.

I am talking about a person who has a choice. I am talking about the person who is given the opportunity to enter the experience machine. The experience machine promises to create the internal state that the internal state theorist says we are all striving for. Yet, most people reject it. this shows that most people with a choice are not seeking the internal state. They are seeking to make true the proposition that is the object of their desire – which is something that the experience machine cannot create.

Or, in the case of the evil person giving the parent the option between the false belief that their child is well versus the false belief that the child is being tortured. In this situation, again, people do not choose the best internal state. They choose to make true the proposition that is the object of their desire (that their child is well.)

At the moment of choice there is full disclosure. A part of what is promised is that the agent will be made to forget something they knew at the moment of choice. Yet, this does not change the fact that she knew it at the moment of choice.

To all appearances, my wife is faithful, and as long as she plays her role well, and I am not otherwise given cause to question her fidelity, I remain authentically happy, even if I am laboring under a delusion. You could argue that I could choose to question her fidelity anyway, but what would my motivation be? To know that I’m truthfully happy?

Why do I need to come up with a motivation?

There are people who say, “I am happy. If he/she is having an affair, I don’t want to know about it.” This person has a weak aversion to their partner being unfaithful, but a huge aversion to knowing that their partner is unfaithful, so they act to fulfill (to prevent the thwarting of) their strongest desire.

What if, in the process of trying to learn whether I’m really and truly happy or not (based of course on the notion that fidelity is the determinant), I destroy my marriage due to having made it clear to her that I don’t trust my wife, even though I learn in the end that she is, in fact, faithful? Was this a moral pursuit?

I do not think that you are talking about morality ought here. I think you are talking about practical ought. This is a distinction between what will fulfill the desires of the agent, versus what will fulfill the desires that people generally have reason to promote using social tools such as praise and condemnation.

I can’t offer practical advice to this agent because I do not know the relative strengths of his values nor do I have information needed to judge the possibility of various outcomes.

Does my desire to learn the real, honest-to-goodness truth justify the thwarting of my desire to have a happy wife? Does it justify the thwarting of her desire to have a husband who loves & trusts her, even if it fulfills her desire to know the truth about him as well?

I still think you are confusing a desire to know the truth with a desire that the propositions that are the objects of one’s desires being true. A desire that P, and a desire that I believe that P, are two different desires. It is possible for the first desire to be thwarted under conditions where the second desire is fulfilled (and vica versa). We are not talking about any type of conflict here. We are talking about two different desires.

Bottom line: How does one perform the ethical calculus here without imposing some sort of arbitrary value on which desire is most important or valuable?

Sincere questions all.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 11, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Bottom line: How does one perform the ethical calculus here without imposing some sort of arbitrary value on which desire is most important or valuable?

Any “imposing some sort of arbitrary value” is another way of saying “making stuff up”.

The way desires are evaluated is the same way everything else is evaluated – movies, houses, neighbors, communities – by their capacity to fulfill desires. The only difference is that, instead of evaluating some state of affairs relative to desires, this type of evaluation looks at desires and compares them to other desires.

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