Saturday, March 19, 2011

On the Variety of Atheists

P.Z. Myers has a truly absurd attack on a recent post by Jennifer Fulwiler. I was interested in the fact that he seemed to try to contradict a particular proposition (Fulwiler noting that her atheist friends often would conclude that Catholicism is much more fair and reasonable than they had thought when certain misconceptions were cleared up) with a particular proposition (that there are other doctrines that some atheists, not misconceiving them, consider unreasonable), when, reading through the post I suddenly realized that the latter wasn't intended to be a particular statement: almost every point Myers makes is false unless we postulate that all atheists are atheists for the same reasons and have the same views. Since the evidence that this is false is extraordinarily easy to find, it's difficult to distinguish anything in the post from outright raving. This is especially so since it's a bizarre strategy to take in response to Fulwiler's post: she is identifying things Catholics should not assume of atheists, and therefore is not committed to any substantive positive claims about atheism in general (and all her positive claims about atheists are illustrations and examples from her own case prior to her conversion and from atheist friends she's talked to). The rational response to such a thing, if one disagreed with it, would be to defend claims contrary to claims made by Fulwiler; but Myers responds with the claims (he doesn't actually provide anything in the way of arguments) opposing Fulwiler's claims by contradiction. Making such a rookie mistake in critical reasoning while calling someone "bubble-headed" is (at best) ill-considered. (One does have to smile, though, at the preciousness of the little rhetorical tricks, so transparent a baby could see through, scattered throughout Myers's post; for instance, using the phrase "she says" to insinuate, quite without evidence, of course, that she might not really have ever been an atheist.)

But this phenomenon of a certain kind of atheist talking as if atheists were a monolithic group does raise the interesting question of whether there is any viable and handy classification of the different kinds of atheists. Luke Muehlhauser once had a post titled 17 Kinds of Atheism but (1) this was a little misleading as a title because the categories could all overlap and the post was really about seven different kinds of distinctions one might make among atheists; and (2) it didn't pretend to be exhaustive. I'm not actually sure an exhaustive classification is possible, but it's worthwhile to see if there might be a more useful way of grouping atheists.

Atheism as such is simply the basic claim that "No divine being exists" (let's call this A!). Differences among atheists arise from two sources: (1) the kinds of meta-claim they make about A! and (2) the kinds of principles they accept which support A!. Relying wholly on the second would probably involve us very quickly in a very messy and complicated classification if we tried to be comprehensive, while the latter seems to allow for some relatively clean distinctions, so it makes sense to build the basic skeletal structure of the classification from the first. However, at the same time it makes sense to focus on meta-claims that tell us something about how the claim can reasonably be accepted. I would then suggest, as the very first division:

(I) A! is acceptable simply in virtue of itself.

(II) A! is acceptable in virtue of some other principles.

Now (I) can only be the case if A! somehow shows that its contradictory (let's call it T!) is unacceptable simply in virtue of itself. That is, T! would have to be nonsensical or absurd simply in itself. (I am making an assumption or two about acceptability here. One could hold that (I) is consistent with saying that T! is acceptable simply in virtue of itself, but it's difficult to see how this would work when we get down to details.) Class I atheists hold that theism is self-evidently false. This meta-claim doesn't commit them to holding that T! is gibberish, of course, only that it can be seen to be wrong just in and of itself. Likewise, it doesn't commit them to any particular position about whether T! is obviously false or subtly false; the idea is simply that T! itself is not coherent in some way.

This brings us to Class II atheists. Given that one can hold that conclusions follow from different principles in different ways, or even from the same principles in different ways, we need to focus on the strongest meta-claim that the atheist makes. Given that, I would suggest that we first divide Class II into the following divisions:

(IIa) A! follows from some principles in such a way as to be demonstrated.

(IIb) A! is not demonstrable but nonetheless follows from some principles in another legitimate way.

There are different ways of characterizing demonstration, but the one that seems most useful here is this: Demonstration is rigorous derivation of a conclusion from premises, all of which are definitely known to be true. That is, Class IIa atheists hold that A! is the conclusion of a sound argument that is known to be sound; in yet other words, Class IIa atheists think that theism definitely contradicts facts definitely known to be true.

Given that Class IIa atheists think that they have an argument known to be demonstrative, Class IIb atheists naturally fall into groups according to the following meta-claims (remember, we are not talking about every argument the atheist might make but only how far the atheist thinks his strongest reasoning can take him):

(IIb1) A! follows rigorously from premises that, taken together, are only probably true.

(IIb2) A! at most probably follows from premises that are at least probably true.

Class IIb1 atheists hold that they might have reasons that demonstratively show theism to be false, but will concede that they are making assumptions that, as far as they know, need not be made by a reasonable person in possession of all the facts (they can still hold, of course, that these assumptions are reasonable, plausible, extremely likely, etc.). And Class IIb2 atheists will concede that they don't have any sort of strict proof that T! is false, but will hold that T! is improbable for some reason.

Of course all of this involves ignoring atheists who accept A! but who can't say why A! is true (e.g., because they've never given it any thought); we can gather these atheists together under the label Class III atheists.

Luke's category of 'gnostic atheists' covers Class I, Class IIa, at least most of Class IIb1, and at least some of Class IIb2. His category of 'agnostic atheists' covers possibly at least some of Class IIb1 and probably most of Class IIb2. All the atheists considered here are 'broad atheists' in his sense; 'narrow atheist' is an obvious solecism. How his 'friendly', 'indifferent', and 'unfriendly' categories map on to these classes depends very crucially on the particular theory of justification in play. In the way these terms usually are used, however, they mean something incidental to A! in particular, since they have to do with a person's tolerance for something they deem error. For instance, Feuerbachian atheists, who hold that religion consists of misplaced ethics or moral psychology, wouldn't think that T! is justified in any real sense, and can sometimes be just as uncompromising in rejecting it; but because they hold that much of the rest of the structure of religious thought is reasonable and insightful (even though involving a confusion of two different domains), they are sometimes treated as 'friendly atheists'. The rest of Luke's distinctions are based on issues that are equally incidental to the perceived truth of T! or A!. (They might be important in certain contexts, but they would get their importance from something other than T! or A! and the reasons for accepting or rejecting them.) This is common to most of the classifications one finds on the internet, some of which seem rather random, much as if one classified theists according to whether they were Republican or Democrat, whether they were fideists or not, whether they attend church, whether they were always theists or converts, whether they think children should be sent to public school, and whether they get involved in internet debates about atheism.

Such are the formal distinctions, but with all Class II atheists one would also need some information about the content of the reasons. In general, arguments for A! fall into three roughly delineable groups: (a) arguments that T! is somehow meaningless or incoherent, (b) arguments that T! is superfluous or otiose or arbitrary, and (c) arguments that T! conflicts with some positive fact or evidence (defect and evil tend to be the preferred choice these days, but one occasionally finds others). Depending on how one understands meaninglessness, incoherence arguments tend to be associated with Class I and Class IIa, although one occasionally finds cases of Class IIb atheists that make use of very, very weak forms. If we rule out trivial understandings of superfluity, i.e., cases where something is superfluous only because it is meaningless (and thus cases falling in with Class I), then superfluity arguments are associated entirely with Class II, and most commonly with Class IIb. (Superfluity arguments can be fairly effective at tearing down other arguments, but it is very difficult to make them strong enough on their own to support robust conclusions; most instances in which the argument is associated with IIa are cases where the atheist in question has either obviously misjudged the strength of his argument or has an unusual account of what constitutes proof.) Conflict arguments are found associated with every subclass in Class II. These associations, however, only indicate the typical reasoning behavior of reasonable atheists who have put some thought into the matter; because people can be mistaken about what their reasons actually support, you can at least occasionally find any of these kinds of arguments in any of the classes.

The basic kinds of reasons the atheist actually has play an important role that can't really be ignored. Superfluity arguments tend to be stronger against polytheism than monotheism and incoherence arguments tend to be stronger against monotheism than polytheism; so whether an atheist is surrounded by polytheists or monotheists can potentially have an influence on what arguments he emphasizes, and this in turn can have an effect on which class he actually falls into. Likewise, superfluity arguments tend to be more common in contexts where empirical inquiry is given very high priority, while incoherence arguments tend to be more common in contexts emphasizing pure reason; so the overall rational expectations of the people around him can choose which arguments an atheist emphasizes, and this, again, can influence the meta-claims the atheist is willing to make about A!.

The formal scheme, incidentally, has analogues among theists and agnostics; but the differences in such positions do lead to some differences. For instance, the theists analogous to Class III here fall into two very clear types: principled (i.e., fideists) and unprincipled (usually people who are just theist because they grew up that way, and couldn't tell you why beyond that). It is difficult to draw such a distinction among Class III atheists, although conceivably there are kinds of atheistic existentialism and pragmatism that might be the atheistic analogues of theistic fideism. And the material scheme in each case, of course, is very different. Arguments for T! are much more diverse in character than Arguments for A!; theism is usually handled by Kant's 3+1 division (ontological, cosmological, teleological, moral), but I've noted before that, while handy for classifying the major arguments of the rationalists and empiricists of Kant's day, it can't capture all the significant arguments in history, or even all the significant arguments in play today, without being made so formless as to be next to useless.

Such is my first go at classifying atheisms. Are there any ways it can be improved? Any schemes that do a better job?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Things Too Deep

If any man attempt to speak of God, let him first describe the bounds of the earth. You dwell on the earth, and the limit of this earth which is your dwelling you know not: how then shall you be able to form a worthy thought of its Creator? You behold the stars, but their Maker you behold not: count these which are visible, and then describe Him who is invisible, Who tells the number of the stars, and calls them all by their names. Violent rains lately came pouring down upon us, and nearly destroyed us: number the drops in this city alone: nay, I say not in the city, but number the drops on your own house for one single hour, if you can, but you can not. Learn then your own weakness; learn from this instance the mightiness of God: for He has numbered the drops of rain, which have been poured down on all the earth, not only now but in all time. The sun is a work of God, which, great though it be, is but a spot in comparison with the whole heaven; first gaze steadfastly upon the sun, and then curiously scan the Lord of the sun. Seek not the things that are too deep for you, neither search out the things that are above your strength: what is commanded you, think thereupon.

But some one will say, If the Divine substance is incomprehensible, why then do you discourse of these things? So then, because I cannot drink up all the river, am I not even to take in moderation what is expedient for me? Because with eyes so constituted as mine I cannot take in all the sun, am I not even to look upon him enough to satisfy my wants? Or again, because I have entered into a great garden, and cannot eat all the supply of fruits, would you have me go away altogether hungry? I praise and glorify Him that made us; for it is a divine command which says, Let every breath praise the Lord. I am attempting now to glorify the Lord, but not to describe Him, knowing nevertheless that I shall fall short of glorifying Him worthily, yet deeming it a work of piety even to attempt it at all. For the Lord Jesus encourages my weakness, by saying, No man has seen God at any time.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 10, sections 4 & 5. Today is the Feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Doctor of the Church; his catechetical instructions are probably the best examples of catechesis prior to St. Peter Canisius's, and still hold up well for their clarity, insight, and profundity. St. Cyril was bishop of Jerusalem; we don't know a huge amount about his life, but we do know that he attempted after the Council of Nicaea to take a conciliatory approach, affirming the basic Nicene doctrine but avoiding the controversial term, homoousios: pure Arianism was rejected outright, and Cyril's theology is always consistent with Nicene theology, but he seems to have been in practice a definite supporter of semi-Arian compromises. Many people in the post-Nicene period seriously attempted this approach, but not all with success, and St. Cyril was one of the unfortunate ones in this respect. The Council of Nicaea had given Jerusalem an honorary place with the greatest Sees in Christendom -- Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. But in practice the Bishop of Jerusalem was beholden to the Bishop of Caesarea, a much more important city in the Empire. The Bishop of Caesarea, Acacius, was strongly Arian and seems not to have been pleased by the honor given Jerusalem by Nicaea; any relationship between Cyril and Acacius deteriorated seriously. Acacius called a council that deposed Cyril as bishop, on the charge of selling church property. It isn't clear from what we know whether this charge was contrived or whether Cyril was actually doing it, with the purpose of using the money to help the poor. There is some evidence that the latter was true: that he was selling church objects to help relieve Jerusalem during a famine. But the real motivation seems to have been that Cyril was teaching the Nicene doctrine in his catechetical lectures and homilies. In any case, Cyril was forced into exile in Tarsus. As often happened at the time, a more moderate council, not quite pro-Nicene but semi-Arian and therefore critical of the stronger Acacian position, met at some point later (Cyril attended) and deposed Acacius, returning Cyril to Jerusalem; by pulling strings with the Emperor the Acacians got this reversed, and Cyril went back into exile. When the Emperor died and Julian (the very same Julian known as the Apostate) came to power, Cyril was able to return. He would later by exiled again by the pro-Arian Emperor Valens, but was able to return when Gratian became Emperor. He eventually voted for the homoousion clause at the First Council of Constantinople, thus finally breaking away from the semi-Arian compromise.

Four Entered Pardes

A very famous passage in the Talmud (Hagigah 14b) tells us that four sages entered Pardes: Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, Aher, and Akiba. All four were very important and well-known students of Torah.

When Shimon Ben Azai entered Pardes, he died. Ben Azai was famously pious, studying Torah day and night; and his death was a tragedy. Elsewhere in the Talmud (Sotah 49a) we are told that so great was he as a student of Torah that diligent study of Torah died with him and in another place (Berakhot 57b) that he was so pious that even seeing him in a dream is a sign that you yourself will become more pious. Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints.

When Shimon Ben Zoma entered Pardes, he became insane. Ben Zoma was famous for precise, well-balanced interpretation of Torah. In another place (Berakhot 57b) the Talmud tells us that he was so wise that even seeing him in a dream is a sign that you yourself will become more wise. Finding honey, he tried to eat more than his fill.

When Elisha Ben Abuya Aher entered Pardes, he began 'to cut the shoots,' which is a Talmudic idiom for teaching heresy. Aher entered Pardes and lost his way; more than that, he led others astray. Rabbinical tradition suggests that his heresy was believing that entering Pardes gave him license to ignore Torah and, worse, that because only God truly was, all things, even evil actions, were simply God Himself. Others suggest that he came to believe that there were two Gods. But Aher had not been a lesser rabbi than the others; indeed, he was regarded as greater still than either of the other two. But he let words take the place of truth.

So the first three of the four who entered Pardes. But the last, Rabbi Akiba, entered Pardes and left it in peace. Akiba himself would have denied that he was in any way superior to his companions. He had been an illiterate shepherd who only began to study Torah because the woman he loved insisted that he do so. And despite the fact that he was a good man, there is no reason to think that he was morally better than the others. So what was the difference that made it so that Akiba could enter and leave Pardes without harm? Some say it is because he alone had made the effort before entering Pardes to leave signs that would lead him back. Others say it is because he was more steeped in Halakhah. But I wonder if it really was that he alone of the four was truly a rabbi: drawn to God by his love of God, he taught others and drew them along behind him. Thus he did what a teacher does: having learned great things, he returned to teach them. Because he still had students to teach, he could not simply give up his life like Ben Azai; because he taught, he moderated what he learned to what he could teach, and thus did not overfill his mind like Ben Zoma; because he truly taught Torah, he would not allow himself the license to ignore it in favor of following his thoughts wherever he pleased, as Aher did. Once past the wall, only the one who loves to teach returns safely.

This post is due in part to Arsen Darnay's meditation on paradise here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nations Mix with Their Primeval Dust

To A Gentleman And Lady On The Death Of The Lady’s Brother And Sister, And A Child Of The Name Of Avis, Aged One Year
by Phillis Wheatley

On Death’s domain intent I fix my eyes,
Where human nature in vast ruin lies:
With pensive mind I search the drear abode,
Where the great conqu’ror has his spoils bestow’d;
There, there the offspring of six thousand years
In endless numbers to my view appears:
Whole kingdoms in his gloomy den are thrust,
And nations mix with their primeval dust:
Insatiate still he gluts the ample tomb;
His is the present, his the age to come.
See here a brother, here a sister spread,
And a sweet daughter mingled with the dead.
But, Madam, let your grief be laid aside,
And let the fountain of your tears be dry’d,
In vain they flow to wet the dusty plain,
Your sighs are wafted to the skies in vain,
Your pains they witness, but they can no more,
While Death reigns tyrant o’er this mortal shore.
The glowing stars and silver queen of light
At last must perish in the gloom of night:
Resign thy friends to that Almighty hand,
Which gave them life, and bow to his command;
Thine Avis give without a murm’ring heart,
Though half thy soul be fated to depart.
To shining guards consign thine infant care
To waft triumphant through the seas of air:
Her soul enlarg’d to heav’nly pleasure springs,
She feeds on truth and uncreated things.
Methinks I hear her in the realms above,
And leaning forward with a filial love,
Invite you there to share immortal bliss
Unknown, untasted in a state like this.
With tow’ring hopes, and growing grace arise,
And seek beatitude beyond the skies.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Poem Draft

No Poet

He alone is Shahanshah who speaks the butterfly;
the poet strives, and hopes to be, such a king before he dies.
To be a poet this must be: but such is far too high for me.

He alone can give true song whose word enchants with love
even sorrow on its throne, to bring the dead above.
To be a poet this must be: ah! such is far too high for me.

He alone has holy art who bids the dead come forth,
who lowly soldiers' servants heal with words of boundless worth.
To be a poet this must be: yet such is far too high for me.

Spring Break

Getting Spring Break off sounds nice in theory, but as a teacher the reality is that it can easily become just another long pile of work and chores, in part because people make the assumption that you will obviously have time to do things since you have Spring Break off. Some things have come up that will likely keep me busy into the middle of next week. Posting will continue to be light, although a few things will come through here and there.

In the meantime, since I posted one folk rock song that had been in my head, here's another that has been in my head:

The brazenness of Lord Darnell's wife in proposing a sinful action at church is unfortunately not so very uncommon, but fortunately for the human race it usually doesn't end quite so violently.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Winds Wander, and Dews Drip Earthward

The Changeling
by James Russell Lowell

I had a little daughter,
And she was given to me
To lead me gently backward
To the Heavenly Father's knee,
That I, by the force of nature,
Might in some dim wise divine
The depth of his infinite patience
To this wayward soul of mine.

I know not how others saw her,
But to me she was wholly fair,
And the light of the heaven she came from
Still lingered and gleamed in her hair;
For it was as wavy and golden,
And as many changes took,
As the shadows of the sun-gilt ripples
On the yellow bed of a brook.

To what can I liken her smiling
Upon me, her kneeling lover,
How it leaped from her lips to her eyelids,
And dimpled her wholly over,
Till her outstretched hands smiled also,
And I almost seemed to see
The very heart of her mother
Sending sun through her veins to me!

She had been with us scarce a twelvemonth,
And it hardly seemed a day,
When a troop of wandering angels
Stole my little daughter away;
Or perhaps those heavenly Zingari
But loosed the hampering strings,
And when they had opened her cage-door,
My little bird used her wings.

But they left in her stead a changeling,
A little angel child,
That seems like her bud in full blossom,
And smiles as she never smiled:
When I wake in the morning, I see it
Where she always used to lie,
And I feel as weak as a violet
Alone 'neath the awful sky.

As weak, yet as trustful also;
For the whole year long I see
All the wonders of faithful Nature
Still worked for the love of me;
Winds wander, and dews drip earthward,
Rain falls, suns rise and set,
Earth whirls, and all but to prosper
A poor little violet.

The child is not mine as the first was,
I cannot sing it to rest,
I cannot lift it up fatherly
And bliss it upon my breast;
Yet it lies in my little one's cradle
And sits in my little one's chair,
And the light of the heaven she's gone to
Transfigures its golden hair.