Friday, August 19, 2005

Ramblings on the State of Modern Atheism

Atheists divide into four groups (theists, of course, divide into a similar set of four; indeed, one finds a similar four on each side of almost any issue under discussion):

(1) Rational atheists
(2) Reasonable atheists
(3) Muddled atheists
(4) Irrational atheists.

What I am calling 'rational atheism' is serious reason-based atheism, i.e., what I have in a previous post called real Freethinking. These are people who have taken the trouble to be informed about the issues surrounding the question of God's existence, who have thought forcefully and seriously about them, and have come to the conclusion, on the basis of serious arguments, that God does not exist. Their numbers have varied considerably, but they have always been relatively rare; most people don't have the time or interest, and many of those who do end up on the opposite end. Reasonable atheists I call 'reasonable' because, despite not having done the same serious investigation of the matter, (1) they do have reasons for being atheists; (2) those reasons are of the sort that even a theist could say, "I don't agree, but fair enough" (sometimes, perhaps, even dropping the "I don't agree"); and (3) when it comes up, they are able to engage in rational discussion of the matter. (2) is the key one; and every honest theist who has discussed the issue with any significant number of atheists has come across such reasons. Thus some atheists have pasts where a theist can see that it's really not surprising that they are atheists; some have looked at some of the arguments and reasons, but while they may be sympathetic to some of them, they just in all honesty don't find them convincing; some have reasons for being an atheist that are interesting, but little more than vaguely suggestive. And so forth. Muddled atheists are those who fall short of being reasonable atheists in some way, but have some redeeming feature, so that you have to give them points for trying to be reasonable. The majority of atheists are either reasonable or muddled, and that's not surprising, I think; this is usually the case, whatever the position. Irrational atheists are those who, for whatever reasons, have made themselves simply incapable of discussing the matter rationally. (Note, by the way, that I didn't say that it was impossible to discuss the matter rationally with them. Whether you're a rational/reasonable theist talking to an irrational atheist, or a rational/reasonable atheist talking to an irrational theist, another's irrationality shouldn't be making you irrational, however reasonable your frustration may be. Always the question is: Why should you suddenly be irrational just because others are? There can be no good answer to such a question.) It is a curious feature that the atheists who insist most loudly that they are rational and their opponents irrational clearly fall into (4); I think this may be an asymmetry between atheists and theists, because the theistic analogue of (4) is usually the group that tries to insist that they're right to be irrational. Be that as it may, except in unusual circumstances rational and reasonable atheists don't repeat over and over how rational they are; they just go about being rational and reasonable. Likewise, they don't usually repeat over and over how irrational their opponents are. The situation isn't unique to atheism; on most issues one finds that the people who try from the start to label the other side as irrational are the irrational wing of their own position. It must be allowed that this isn't always the case; but it's almost always so. It should be noted, by the way, that the above division into four does not rigorously correspond to any pattern of intelligence or education; you find all four at every level. Some very simple, self-educated atheists are profoundly reasonable or even rational; and some very intelligent, well-educated atheists are astoundingly irrational on this issue, whatever they might be on other issues.

I confess I sometimes feel sorry for atheists; they used to be so rationally impressive and now we really have to hunt to find the genuine rational atheists. There are still some recognizable stalwarts, but it's really to the point where informed theists sometimes have difficulty taking atheism seriously anymore. Many of the old arguments that were given pride of place have been shown to fail, and those that haven't have often been shown to be difficult to defend. It could change in a moment, of course, (it's difficult to pin down causes, but one can with some plausibility argue that the primary causes here are social rather than rational) but at present the situation is very bad for atheism as a rational position, in the above sense. It's actually been this way for some time, and has been getting worse. And if you're inclined to be skeptical of my analysis, given the obvious potential for bias, some atheists are also inclined to recognize the problem. In fact, the best analysis of the situation, in the sense of getting straight to the heart of the matter is Quentin Smith's article, Metaphilosophy of Naturalism. (Smith, I think, has good claim to being one of the small handful of rational atheists; his work on the issue is well above par.) I don't entirely agree with the details of his analysis, since I'm not convinced there was ever a 'redefinition of naturalism', but much of it is certainly sound (he's quite right, for instance, about Hume partly giving away the store in discussing the ultimate foundations of science -- which I would argue is the real subject of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion -- within the context of natural theology), and all of it is well worth reading by everyone interested in the topic.

So where does it leave us? I think it leaves us (and by 'us' in this case I mean both theists and atheists) with the definite worry of a growing influence from atheists who are simply muddled, and perhaps also a worry that there might be a growing influence from people who are simply irrational. This does no one any good, even the muddled and the irrational themselves. The best hope of muddled and irrational people on any topic is to be outnumbered [this should be 'outweighed'; the issue is voice, not quantity--ed.] by reasonable people from whom they can pick up good habits (rational people, in the strict and limited sense noted above, drive the arguments that trickle down to others, but they are always too rare to make much difference on their own). Likewise, it does rational and reasonable atheists no good always to be having to compensate for muddle and absurdity. Finally, it does theists no good to have to waste time on the confused or perverse that could be spent more fruitfully for everyone in discussion with the reasonable and rational.

So it seems late Friday night. I can't guarantee even that I'll see it in the same light tomorrow morning. But I thought it was worth a bit of blogging.

Wisdom from Confucius

Tzu Chang asked Confucius about benevolence.
Confucius said, The ability to enact the five everywhere under heaven is benevolence.
Asked to elaborate, Confucius said,
Courtesy, tolerance, trustworthiness, quickness, and generosity.
With courtesy there is no mockery.
With tolerance there is support from the people.
With trustworthiness there are entrusted responsibilities from the people.
With quickness there is merit.
With generosity people can be employed willingly.

Lun Yu 17:6


This is an awesome website:

An Atlas of the Universe

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The More Melancholy Duty of the Historian

The great law of impartiality too often obliges us to reveal the imperfections of the uninspired teachers and believers of the Gospel; and, to a careless observer, their faults may seem to cast a shade on the faith which they professed. But the scandal of the pious Christian, and the fallacious triumph of the Infidel, should cease as soon as they recollect not only by whom, but likewise to whom, the Divine Revelation was given. The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Crispin Sartwell on Degrees of Belief

I thought I would post this, since I mentioned Newman and degrees of belief in a recent post:

So I arrive at a final move: I will simply bite the bullet. There are no degrees of belief. This view was famously defended by Newman in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. (What Newman terms `assent,' I call `belief.' `Assent,' however, is felicitous; it relentlessly emphasizes the verific orientation of belief.) He writes: "We might as well talk of degrees of truth as of degrees of assent." And in a passage that anticipates several of the dominant themes of this book, he writes: "if assent is acceptance of truth, and truth is the proper object of the intellect, and no one can hold conditionally what he holds to be true, here too is a reason for saying that assent is an adhesion without reserve or doubt to the proposition which is given" (114).

Now this seems to contradict the obvious fact that there are degrees of commitment involved in belief. But Newman suggests an admirably clear solution to this problem, one that I have already mentioned in passing. To "partly" or "conditionally" or "to some extent" believe that p is not in fact to believe p at all, but to believe the proposition, for example, that p is more probable than not. And one believes that proposition unconditionally. At the heart of each tentative belief, there is a belief that is held with no tentativeness, although the object of that belief is not p, but a proposition that embeds p. As Newman says: "certainly, we familiarly use such phrases as a half-assent, as we also speak of half-truths; but a half-assent is not a kind of assent any more than a half-truth is a kind of truth. As the object is indivisible, so is the act" (116).

From Crispin Sartwell, Knowledge Without Justification (unpublished, although parts have previously appeared in various journals), chapter 1.

Sartwell's an interesting character, something of a brilliant philosophical eccentric who isn't afraid to take unpopular positions; his epistemological position is epistemic minimalism, i.e., he denies that justification is a requirement for knowledge (as you could perhaps have guessed from the title of the draft). Always interesting reading. He has a regular syndicated column. He's also a blogger.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Simultaneous vs. Instantaneous

It is astonishing to me how many people confuse 'simultaneous' with 'instantaneous'. But the two are nothing alike.

(1) 'Instantaneous' means 'occurring in an instant' or 'occurring at an instant'; 'simultaneous' means 'occurring at the same time'.

(2) Instantaneity is not a relation; event E can be instantaneous in itself simply by occurring in an instant (assuming that it's possible for an event to occur in an instant). Simultaneity, however, is a relation: A can't be simultaneous on its own; it has to be simultaneous with something. A and B, however, can be simultaneous.

(3) Events that are simultaneous can last a short time or a long time. For that matter, there's nothing to prevent two events from being simultaneous for all time. This is obviously not so with instantaneous.

I notice the confusion a lot when people are talking about simultaneous causation; they are constantly assuming that 'simultaneous causation' means 'instantaneous causation'. But, naturally, this is not so.


Brother Roger, founder of the Taizé community, was stabbed to death during prayer services last night. The Taizé community was founded during WWII to provide refuge for Christians of all denominations; it has also inspired a massive worldwide Taizé movement, devoted to the style of prayer and liturgy used by the community. (HT: Hugo Schwyzer)

I noticed that the August Bible meditation on the Taizé website was for the following passage, which seems a good comment on Brother Roger's passing:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"

"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."

Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"

He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


* In Who Can't Be Rational?, Aaron Cobb argues that, on the assumption that belief should be proportioned to evidence, one can't be externalist, fideist, or pragmatist. I'm sympathetic to the argument, but I don't think there are degrees of belief, and if there were there's no obvious reason to think that they could be put in clear proportional relation to degrees of evidence, and if they could it would clearly be irrational to follow the maxim of proportioning (the degree of) belief to (the degree of) evidence, because that would mean not being certain of things about which any rational person is certain. I am in agreement with Newman on that regard. But it's an interesting argument. (HT: FQI sidebar)

* Besides discussing infinite regress over at Clark's, I've contributed a bit to the discussion of Pascal's Wager over at Richard's.

* At "Ralph the Sacred River," Ed Cook discusses Sufjan Stevens and a Biblical Image.

* Miriam Burnstein at "The Little Professor" notes examples of how we insist that everyone who isn't us must be unhappy, in Agony! Misery! Woe!.

* Timothy Sandefur at "Positive Liberty" tells us what he likes about the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

* Will Confucianism be making a comeback in China? And will any of those involved ever answer Jonathan Dresner's important question? We shall see....

* Jamie at "Ad Limina Apostolorum" is in Cologne for World Youth Day.

* A search recently came upon an old post in which I had put up the following mnemonic rhyme:
Sir, I bear a rhyme excelling
In mystic force and magic spelling
Celestial sprites elucidate
All my own striving can't relate.
Or locate they who can cogitate
And so finally terminate. Finis.

I had put it up as a riddle, asking what it was a mnemonic for; and nobody took me up on it, so I thought I'd put it up again. The reward for the answer: the satisfaction of knowing the secret of the rhyme.

Two Poem Drafts

Morning Meditation

I taste the flowing honey of the sun's own youth,
the water of light pouring down on thirsty leaves.
I have sipped Aurora's dew; it nourished and refreshed.

A Saturday Morning Walk

Saturday I wandered far,
seeking here and there,
exploring newer places,
questing for I knew not what
in the morning promise of rain.

A good woman gave me two peaches,
omens of peace and immortality;
they were sticky in my hands,
the juice running freely,
rich with the sweetness,
the hope, that all fruit carry,
the hint of richness preserved
for the seed and for our taste.

The night before had been dark,
sheltered from moon and star,
or so my dreams had said.
But the darkness was a rolling darkness,
a seminary of life and hope,
like the darkness of the earth
feeding the growing root.

My memory held this all;
my thoughts looked out on the world,
seeing that it was good;
and my will hoped for glory
in the rising of the sun.

In such moments we are God-like,
more than dust in the desert,
more than words writ on water;
on such mornings we live,
and our life is a vibrant emblem,
a whisper sent down from heaven,
creation's word engraved with letters.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Natural Vaticination and a Golden Chain

It's been a while since I've posted anything from this weblog's namesake, so here's section 252 of Berkeley's Siris.

There is a certain analogy, constancy, and uniformity in the phenomena or appearances of nature, which are a foundation for general rules: and these are a grammar for the understanding of nature, or that series of effects in the visible world whereby we are enabled to foresee what will come to pass in the natural course of things. Plotinus observes, in his third Ennead, that the art of presaging is in some sort the reading of natural letters denoting order, and that so far forth as analogy obtains in the universe, there may be vaticination. And in reality he that foretells the motions of the planets, or the effects of medicines, or the result of chemical or mechanical experiments, may be said to do it by natural vaticination.

By the way, although this is just a guess, I think Berkeley may have had this passage from the Iliad in mind when he coined the term 'Siris' by Anglicizing a Greek word for cord or chain:

Hearken unto me, all ye gods and goddesses, that I may speak what the heart in my breast biddeth me. Let not any goddess nor yet any god essay this thing, to thwart my word, but do ye all alike assent thereto, that with all speed I may bring these deeds to pass. Whomsoever I shall mark minded apart from the gods to go and bear aid either to Trojans or Danaans, smitten in no seemly wise shall he come back to Olympus, or I shall take and hurl him into murky Tartarus, far, far away, where is the deepest gulf beneath the earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth: then shall ye know how far the mightiest am I of all gods. Nay, come, make trial, ye gods, that ye all may know. Make ye fast from heaven a chain of gold, and lay ye hold thereof, all ye gods and all goddesses; yet could ye not drag to earth from out of heaven Zeus the counsellor most high, not though ye laboured sore. But whenso I were minded to draw of a ready heart, then with earth itself should I draw you and with sea withal; and the rope should I thereafter bind about a peak of Olympus and all those things should hang in space. By so much am I above gods and above men.

That's from Iliad 8 (you can see the Greek at the same site). Zeus, of course, is the speaker. Plato mentions in the passage in Theaetetus (153c). Another place where seirais are mentioned is Josephus's Antiquities (Bk. III, section 170), where the word is applied to the chains on the high priest's garment; but I don't know if Berkeley would have been thinking of this. The Homeric passage is certainly close to what Berkeley intended. (For which, see his poem On Tar.)

Merely Guessing

Touched off by Jacob Weisberg's recent article in Slate (Evolution vs. Religion: Quit Pretending They're Compatible), there has been quite a bit of discussion of the issue of evolution vs. religion. The post that seems to get all the most important links together in one place seems to be at Telic Thoughts. The discussion includes comments by Julian Sanchez, Timothy Sandefur, and PZ Myers. I don't have much to say about it beyond these two points:

(1) Many of the people discussing the matter are rather obviously muddling together religious belief and religious argument; in particular, they are saying things about particular religious beliefs that can only apply to particular religious arguments. The issue is an important one because one can have multiple arguments, even multiple types of arguments, for any given belief; if a discovery makes a particular argument impossible, it doesn't necessarily affect the belief at all. This point is all the more relevant given that there is no single design argument. I think Darwin has a nice letter (I forget to whom, but it can be found in Francis Darwin's collection of Darwin's writings on religion) in which he recognizes that there are at least three types of biologically relevant design arguments, and that his discovery doesn't impact them all in the same way. He thinks, rightly, that it blocks design arguments of the straightforward sort usually associated with Paley. Darwin, who unlike some of his successors actually knew something of the matter, recognized that this was the only design argument that his discovery made impossible; for others additional considerations like the problem of evil would have to be brought into play.

(2) The comments on religion made by some of the people in the discussion does more to show that they have taken no trouble actually to research the matter before spouting off about it than anything else. Fair enough in the blogosphere; but if you don't at least know something about what distinguishes general concourse (concursus), conservation, and extraordinary intervention, you should at least recognize that you don't know enough to be doing anything more than merely guessing.

Wherein I Am an Isolated and Schizophrenic Belgian Waffle

You're The Poisonwood Bible!

by Barbara Kingsolver

Deeply rooted in a religious background, you have since become both
isolated and schizophrenic. You were naively sure that your actions would help people,
but of course they were resistant to your message and ultimately disaster ensued. Since
you can see so many sides of the same issue, you are both wise beyond your years and
tied to worthless perspectives. If you were a type of waffle, it would be

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Well, that's a characterization of me that I honestly haven't heard before.

A Rough Theory of Religious Doctrine: Second Part of the Second Part

As I've ssuggested previously, perhaps my primary problem with Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust is his account of quasi-propositions . The arguments for the quasi-propositionality of statements about supernatural agents appear to be three: (1) they are counterintuitive, in the technical sense; (2) they admit of variable interpretation; (3) they admit of open-ended interpretation. These arguments seem to be used independently; the first one certainly is, and although the relation between the other two is a bit less clear, they are in themselves distinct issues. However, if we took these arguments seriously, just about every belief would be a quasi-propositional nonproposition: not only claims about supernatural agents, but other counterintuitive (schema-inconsistent) claims like certain claims in evolutionary theory (e.g., about common ancestors for distinct folk kinds), physics (e.g., about the nature of singularities), literature, ethics, and so forth. Likewise, it isn't clear why variability in the interpreting of statements would be relevant to the question of whether or not the interpretations themselves are propositional (propositions are statements only on one theory of propositions, a theory Atran can't consistently hold). Were we to apply these arguments with logical consistency we would be forced to say that virtually everything we call a belief, with the exception of some mathematical statements, some logical statements, and some empirical statements, are nonpropositional quasi-propositions. It would be an extreme emotivist's utopia.

The open-ended interpretation argument, however, is more interesting. It does not show that there are no propositions in these cases; but it does show that there is much more going on than a purely propositional account could allow. And one of the redeeming factors of Atran's account is that he recognizes this and does not (as many might be tempted to do) take this as a sign of their inferiority. There are, of course, a lot of perfectly meaningful statements that are clearly non-propositional (commands, for instance), and which could be called quasi-propositional; a theory of religion that doesn't recognize their importance, both in the field of religion and in other fields, will clearly be flawed. I would suggest that we regard Atran's account, i.e., of all counterintuitive religious beliefs as quasi-propositions, as based on an equivocation between religious beliefs and religious doctrines. The equivocation is very easy to make, and is quite common. I've attempted to rough out what would be involved in religious doctrine, and that was the point of the previous posts in this series. And while it might well be that the account I've given needs adjustment and perhaps even reworking, I would suggest that something like this not only fits the facts to which Atran appeals but also fits better with most of the conclusions he actually wants to draw than his own quasi-propositional account, which is vague, poorly supported, and not even clearly consistent.

Take for instance, this interesting passage from the conclusion of the work, discussing the pedagogical use of the solar system analogy in science:

Science aims to reduce the analogy to a factual description, where the terms of the analogy are finally specified, with no loose ends remaining and nothing left in the dark: atoms are scientifically like solar systems if and only if both can be ultimately derived from the same set of natural laws. Whereas science seeks to kill the metaphor, religion strives to keep it poetic and endlessly open to further evocation. In the case of religion, these metarepresentational ideas are never fully assimilated with factual and commonsensical beliefs. They are always held metarepresentationally: they are displayed, discussed, interpreted, and reinterpreted as doctrines, dogmas, sacred texts, or "norms" that further illustrate beliefs and bheaviors rather than describe beliefs and behaviors. The fact that religious beliefs do not lend themselves to any kind of clear and final comprehension allows their learning, teaching, exegesis, and circumstantial application to go on forever. (p. 277)

Now, if this is taken as about religious beliefs, it isn't a particularly reasonable thing to say; the parallel is thrown off, because the scientific analogy would be taken pedagogically (how it illustrates beliefs) and the religious case would be taken non-pedagogically (as belief itself). Actual religious beliefs do, in fact, lend themselves to clear and final comprehension and their "learning, teaching, exegesis, and circumstantial application" don't go on forever: they are quite definite, vary from person to person, are not reinterpreted (beliefs really aren't the sort of things that admit of reinterpretation). But let us take 'beliefs' here as a loose term for doctrines. Then much of the statement makes sense. As I've noted before, religious doctrines are pedagogical; thus the parallel works. Religious Core Symbols are, indeed, like the solar system analogy in how they function, but the difference Atran claims gives us the right idea about them: Core Symbols aren't ever fully assimilated to factual and commonsensical beliefs; they are "displayed, discussed, interpreted, and reinterpreted as doctrines, dogmas, sacred texts, or 'norms' that further illustrate beliefs and behaviors rather than describe beliefs and behaviors"; and it is true that they don't lend themselves to final comprehension and that this means that "their learning, teaching, exegesis, and circumstantial application" can go on indefinitely.

One can do something similar with other passages in Atran; and, except in a few cases which conflate belief and doctrine in a way that can't be saved, they make much more sense understood this way. Thinking in terms of religious doctrine rather than religious belief has the added advantage of overcoming a weakness of Atran's quasi-propositional account, namely, that Atran is far too quick to deny that religious beliefs admit of inductive and logical support. Any reading of Avicenna, Aquinas, Scotus, Maimonides, Teresa of Avila, Spinoza, Butler, or any number of others will show that the evidence is not so clearly on the side of Atran's conclusion. Looking at the matter from the perspective of religious teaching rather than belief avoids the dubious claim about verification, and the extremely dubious claims that it would require us to make about the history of theology and philosophy, e.g., that (say) Scotus was simply confused in thinking he was dealing with propositions. At the same time, it allows us to see more clearly how many of Atran's claims (which are often plausible and reasonably supported) can be true even given the existence of religious propositions about supernatural agents.

All of this is only a suggestion, but I think that if we look at the matter this way, we can both overcome a number of weaknesses in Atran's argument and accept the basic points he wants to make.

History Carnival No. 14

The History Carnival is up at "Philobiblon"; Natalie Bennett did an excellent job with it. There are posts on everything from Tisha B'Av to the Babylonian Revolution, from Isaac D'Israeli to George Gaylord Simpson. My post was the one I did on Elizabeth Anscombe and Harry Truman.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Sounds Good to Me

According to Diogenes Laertius, the cynic Diogenes used to make the following argument:

(1) All things belong to the gods.
(2) The wise are the friends of the gods.
(3) Friends hold all things in common.
Therefore, all things belong to the wise.

When he asked friends for money, he told them he wasn't asking for charity but for what they owed him.

There are several stories about when Diogenes was sold into slavery; when asked by the auctioneer what he was good at, Diogenes replied, "Governing men," and told the auctioneer to say that in case anyone wanted to buy a master.

In another anecdote, Diogenes was asked whether he believed in the gods, and he replied, "How can I not, when I see someone as godforsaken as you?"