The Blindfolded Leading the Blind

thRichard Dawkins is willfully ignorant.

In reaction to the suggestion that he actually learn something about the subject on which he presumes to justify a total rejection, he simply demands that he needn’t learn “fairyology” to know that fairies don’t exist. But, presumably, one first needs to know what fairies are before one can make that call.

And that is precisely what theists keep trying to explain to Dawkins–that he fundamentally misunderstands what the word “God” means.

But Dawkins isn’t hurting for people to rush to his defense. I’ve heard many people claim that there is no such thing as the New Atheists. But, whatever we’re calling them, there is a large group of self-identified atheists out there who agree that Dawkins doesn’t have to know what he’s talking about in order to know that he’s “almost certainly” correct.

P.Z. Meyers is another member of the supposedly non-existent New Atheists, who created what may be the most famous of their defenses for willful ignorance. In what he dubbed the “Courtier’s Reply“, he compares theists to defenders of the emperor’s imaginary clothes (from the famous Hans Christian Anderson story) who complain that one needs to study the intricacies of fashion before insisting that the man is nude.

This all seems rather like intellectual seppuku. It never seems to occur to Meyers (or Dawkins, who quoted the piece approvingly on more than one occasion) that the theists aren’t saying anything like “you don’t know enough about fashion”. We are saying something much more like “that guy’s not the emperor, try the palace”.

But Dawkins is having none of it. He doesn’t need to read books about God, or even listen to the reasons he’s been given why his critiques are completely off the mark, in order to know he’s seen through the great deception. To actually look into the matter before proclaiming intellectual superiority would apparently be as silly as studying “fairyology”.

But the problem isn’t that these two men demand the right to remain ignorant. The problem is that so many listen to them as if they actually knew what they were talking about. Whether or not we choose to call the fans of Dawkins, Meyers, and others “the New Atheists”, they’ve long since abdicated any claim they may have had on being champions of reason.

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38 responses to “The Blindfolded Leading the Blind

  • chicagoja

    With respect to people like Richard Dawkins, logic is never really the issue, no matter how logical they try to make themselves sound. There’s an agenda behind the rhetoric so don’t expect him to back off any time soon.

  • David

    I remember watching a YouTube video called the “Four Horsemen of Atheism” or something like that, in which Dawkins suggested that the Virgin Mary was part of the Trinity. Sam Harris makes similar mistakes in nearly every one of his speeches/debates. These aren’t just trivial mistakes or slips of tongue; they show that these guys really have NO IDEA what they’re criticizing.

    • shelterit

      David, don’t spout general swipes. Point to it, and say “There! That is wrong!” What you’re doing is the intellectual version of a “your momma” joke, and it can’t be refuted except by tremendous amount of guessing on the other part. If you have a complaint – an actual, real complaint – it should be *easy* for you to point, and then ask others to comment on that thing you’re pointing to. Otherwise, you can be considered a troll, or an ignoramus, or worse. And I don’t want that to happen, especially not in an environment such as this in which we at least *try* to move forward and have an honest discussion about stuff that matters.

      • David

        “If you have a complaint – an actual, real complaint – it should be “easy” for you to point, and then ask others to comment on that thing you’re pointing to”

        I made a claim about a specific claim that Richard Dawkins made, and I listed the title of the video in which he made said claim. The only way I could have provided more direction to people would have been to list the time of the video in which Dawkins made the claim, but I was leaving a comment on a blog, not engaging in a formal, academic debate; so I wasn’t going to go rewatch the hour-long video just to do that.

        Dawkin’s cluelessness on such a fundamental topic in Christianity should not be surprising in light of his and other prominent atheists’ assertions that they don’t need to understand Christianity in order to criticize it – which is an absolutely remarkable statement for people who profess to be all about science and reasoned debate.

        • thesauros

          David – I thought your point was very clear. Dawkins has also said that, “Perhaps Jesus was mistaken,” about being God. Ya, “I thought I was God. Honest, I did. Boy, was I wrong!”

          Two thousand years to explain the Jesus of the Bible and “Maybe He was mistaken” is the best that atheists can do. Sad.

        • Ray R.

          If Dawkins was wrong about everything he ever said about Christianity , it would not move the assertion that Christianity was true one nanometer closer to fact . Is that the best you theists can do ? Sad .

        • David

          The post didn’t attempt to establish the truth of Christianity. There are many other posts on this blog that do that, but this one specifically addressed the claim often made by atheists that they don’t need to understand something in order to criticize it.

        • Ray R.

          Again , if you are attempting to assert that Dawkings has Christianity figured out “wrong ” , so what ? What does it matter if if one angel , or twenty , can dance on the head of a pin ? Who cares about the particulars of a delusion ? A delusion is a delusion .

        • David

          Considering the way atheists like to talk about how supremely logical they are, it’s funny to see how often they make the fundamental logical fallacy of assuming their conclusion. Sorry, Ray R., but you can’t win an argument simply by calling your opponent delusional. That’s something you have to prove, and, in order to prove it, you have to understand what your opponent is saying.

        • Ray R.

          I am not making a fantastical assertion of the existence of the supernatural . The burden of proof is yours and yours alone . I eagerly await . ( though I won’t hold my breath) .

        • Persto

          Ray R.

          You said this: “Who cares about the particulars of a delusion ? A delusion is a delusion.”

          So, are you saying Christianity is false and God does not exist?

          If so, I hate to break it to you, hoss, but those are claims about the world and, as such, have a burden of proof.

          Regards

        • Debilis

          If you aren’t interested in the subject, but want something on why theism is more reasonable than the materialist view taken by atheists who demand evidence, try this post, or this one, or this (and its followup). Or you can go all the way back to this.

          There are more, but I think this is enough to show that the claim that a (well-deserved) attack on Dawkins is all this blog has to offer, let alone what all theists have to offer, is out of touch with the facts.

        • shelterit

          So, basically instead of pointing as requested, you now claim that you made specific claims and wants others to chase what you’re referring to? WTF? It’s *very* easy to find a video with that name (or a name like that), however it’s more than an hour long. Could you not be unhelpful, please? Because you’re currently coming off as a jerk.

        • David

          Where did I say that I want people to chase what I’m referring to? That’s entirely up to you.

          Quoting from my initial comment, the claim I made was that “Dawkins suggested that the Virgin Mary was part of the Trinity.” That shows a complete and utter lack of understanding of the religion he criticizes, and is therefore a good example of the general point that Debilis makes in his post. If you believe I’m not being truthful when I claim that Dawkins says this, then I can’t help you because, as I stated previously, I don’t believe it’s worth it to rewatch an hour-long (or more) video just to make my argument a little bit more specific.

          I stand by every word of my initial comment and maintain that my point was clear. As evidence, I point to the replies of Debilis and thesauros which show that they clearly understood what I was saying.

          As for me being a jerk, you’re the one who’s resorted to name calling and compared my example to a yo mama joke.

          I still stand by every word of my initial comment

        • shelterit

          “That shows a complete and utter lack of understanding of the religion he criticizes”

          Provided it is true. Why else would people ask you to point to where he says this? This really shouldn’t have to be that hard.

          “you’re the one who’s resorted to name calling”

          Pardon me, but I haven’t called you anything. I’ve said the behaviour you’re currently projecting is coming off as a jerk (as opposed to you being one). I’m appealing to you for something very simple, and because it’s *that* simple I’m suspecting that your claim is dodgy (or that you’re too lazy), but I’m appealing to you for clarification, like a pointer to where this fandangled claim you make is reported (something more than “over there somewhere”), otherwise, well, you’re a jerk who refuse to engage in a way that’s fair and square. A jerk is someone who says “I heard Bobby say you’re an idiot”, but knowing Bobby’s character I find that hard to believe. “It’s true”, you say, “He said it in a video!” Ok, what video? Where is it? Where in the video? Are you quoting him correctly? Did you understand what he said? And so on. And if Bobby by all accounts said I’m an idiot, then fine, we can move on to the next step in the argument.

          So, you can either be that jerk, or engage in a reasonable way (“here’s the video; look at 23:40 where he says it”) that shines new light, and I will stop thinking you’re being a jerk. Point us to where that is. How else can we tell if you’re telling the truth?

          Or are you saying that asking for that evidence of your claim is too much to ask?

        • David

          Ok, I’ve reluctantly found the point in the video where Dawkins makes that claim. The video title is “The Four Horsemen Discussion – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens (1 of 2)”. Start at 14:35.

        • shelterit

          Thanks, much appreciated. I’ll have a view, and I’ll ridicule him appropriately. 🙂

        • Persto

          Hahahaha!

          Alexander,

          Did you find it? Just read ‘The God Delusion’ if there is further doubt about Dawkins’ prejudice or ignorance on philosophical matters.

          Also, I have followed your comments fairly closely on this blog the last few days and I must ask by what right do you feel so sure God does not exist? By what right do you have faith in your judgement? Can you prove God does not exist, my friend? If so, then I think you will become a very rich man indeed. It is true that you are able to give, as am I, a reasoned argument against God, but in the end your attitude to it will have to be determined by balancing faiths–your faith in yourself against your faith in the theist’s opinion. However, cogent your argument against God, however impossible it is for you to commit yourself to the theist’s beliefs, there must always remain a doubt. The doubt that your faith in yourself is not unjustified in the face of the faith of those who claim to have experienced revelations. Some might even call this the doubt of the agnostic. In light of that doubt one must ask, why is it that when all else fails most women and men appeal to the much misused concept of God? Perhaps, it has some universal appeal, huh? Should this keep you up at nights? No, not necessarily, but it should cause some intellectual hesitation.

          Of course, there seems to be in theology, specifically, epistemological problems writ large, but, in truth, that is the case for every metaphysical system. The advantage of existential theology–which is, it seems, is Debilis’ theology–is that it can be most successful where science is least successful. Admittedly, philosophy has the advantage of being, it appears, somewhere in the middle or at least is the point where theology and science meet regarding philosophical implications and presuppositions, yet, even though theology and science meet at points and, perhaps, even overlap at points they do not share a very close relationship. So, it is philosophy’s duty to step in and learn what is most useful from both disciplines and, potentially, bridge the gap. (perhaps the gap is unbridgeable. Maybe so, but that is an issue for another day.) It does seem that theology can be of use where science is of least use. Science deals with the physical concerns of man, and it attempts to answer human problems of survival, more or less. It is most successful telling us how to survive; not how to live. In this sense, it is not surprising that in most naturalistic ethics human survival is the ultimate concern, as Harris all but shouted in his The Moral Landscape. But women don’t want to just live but live well and that is where the rubber meets the road it seems. Science is least able to tell us how to do this because it does not deal with the meaning and purpose of life. On the contrary, science deals with measurement and observational testing. Science has never been concerned with the essences and attributes of things; it has ignored, as far as I am aware, the question of what it is to be something. There is no objectivity in the ‘substance’ of magnitudes. Hence, science is least able to shed light on this area of existence. Philosophy and theology must step in and shed light on the ultimate context of meaning within which scientific investigation is carried on, but theology does not offer detailed insight into the workings of natural phenomena because that is where science is most effective. Theology is furtherest removed from the direct quantification, measurement, and testing which is so profitable in science, but theology does ask questions about the ultimate existential concerns of man and seeks to answer them. In truth, theology of the sort I am speaking about is nothing more than an elaboration of Paul’s hymn of hope. It is a theology of hope. This view is theological as well as anthropological, it entails a cosmic and historical myth as well as a view of man. It is that hopeful image of man pointing beyond himself to the ultimate horizon. And, from my readings, this is the message that Debilis is conveying.

          In this sense, it may seem that the Christian and the atheist are not that far apart and they are not, in a way. Both the Christian and the atheist, in this sense, when told to look for the divine will see nothing or the Kluft–to borrow Heidegger–but the difference is that the Christian sees the hiddenness of God as God, which is where faith comes in, of course, but that is an aspect of their metaphysical system that is not being placed within the natural order of things in any substantial way–the fundamental starting point is one where the scientific method is incorporated in the metaphysical vision that life is the central category. Theists, of Debilis lot, just have faith that the abyss is not a barrier for God, but only for them. I assume the common objection will be that faith is blind faith or willful ignorance. This reminds me of Clifford’s declaration that: “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” While I sympathize with this view, I don’t think it is a very strong philosophical position because it has become increasingly clear that many of the fundamental beliefs of western culture lie beyond proof of this sort. Perhaps, even some of these unprovable beliefs are a working force within science itself. Besides, as Tennyson observed, “For nothing worthy proving can be proven, Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise, Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt.”

          Regard

        • shelterit

          Hiya, just a quick note to say that your major comment requires a fair response, of which I haven’t got time today (deadlines and actual work), but I’ll deal with it tomorrow. Stay tuned.

        • Persto

          I understand. No worries.

          Regards

        • Ray R.

          Nice bit of intellectual Ju-Jitsu there . However , your argument fails because assertions made without evidence , can be dismissed without evidence . The ” god ” assertion can be dismissed without hesitation due to there not being a single shred of evidence extant .

        • David

          “assertions made without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

          Because there is no evidence for that assertion, I hereby dismiss it without evidence.

    • Debilis

      I think there are many who don’t have any better an idea. I’m hoping that more start learning.

  • Persto

    Ray R.

    “assertions made without evidence , can be dismissed without evidence . The ” god ” assertion can be dismissed without hesitation due to there not being a single shred of evidence extant.”

    What a tiresome line this is. It is equivalent to the old rebuttal: “God works in mysterious ways.” Of course, the ‘God works in mysterious ways’ line does succeed in answering some questions, but it does so at a considerable cost. What the reference to God’s mysterious ways does is admit that not only can one not know God, but one cannot even understand or rationally argue the matter. It solves the problem, at the cost of ending the discussion altogether.

    The same can be said for the overly-common phrase ‘assertions made without scientific evidence, can be dismissed without scientific evidence.” You are right that I cannot provide scientific evidence that proves God’s existence, but you cannot provide scientific evidence that disproves God’s existence. In fact, that was kind of my point to Alexander. Science neither affirms or denies God’s existence; it cannot even comment on it. Of course, some people think the natural sciences create a positive environment for faith, and others think that the natural sciences have negative implications for faith. But science does not prove anything, either way on this issue. The question about God cannot be settled, solely, on scientific grounds.

    All your line does is end the discussion about God’s nature and existence by announcing the issue as unanswerable. Fine, but if that is your position then you must abandon the discussion about God altogether or if that is not your position, then you must attempt to answer it on other grounds.

    So, either, kindly take your leave or offer up your non-scientific evidence and join the discussion.

    Regards

    • Ray R.

      That is my point . You and other theists are making an extraordinary claim . I am asking for your extraordinary evidence . Not philosophical convolutions , not , ” personal experience ” BS , but solid , empirical evidence for your your astounding , extraordinary claim of magic , actual magic , existing within our cosmos . I await ….

      • Ray R.

        Yeah , that’s what I thought .

      • Persto

        What extraordinary claim are you talking about? I have not made a claim. I have only suggested that we talk about it, which, by your standards, we cannot do.

        Ray, I challenge you to apply that same standard to your daily life.

        “Yeah , that’s what I thought.”

        Huh?

        Regards

  • shelterit

    Comment to David:

    “I must ask by what right do you feel so sure God does not exist?”

    I find this a puzzling question, and don’t know if I should take it at face value, or convert it from one religious language into a less religious one, or what?

    “By what right do you have faith in your judgement?”

    Allow me to explain just how removed from my reality this question is. I do not believe in any rights. At all. None. Zilch. Is there any way that you can rephrase the question with that in mind?

    “Can you prove God does not exist, my friend?”

    Can you prove Krishna does not exist, my friend?

    “[…] but in the end your attitude to it will have to be determined by balancing faiths–your faith in yourself against your faith in the theist’s opinion.”

    How so?

    “However, cogent your argument against God”

    Um, going to stop you right there. I don’t argue against your god. I argue against anything outside of the natural world. Ok, go on;

    “[…] however impossible it is for you to commit yourself to the theist’s beliefs, there must always remain a doubt.”

    Why? Do you have doubts about your position?

    “why is it that when all else fails most women and men appeal to the much misused concept of God?”

    Evidence by?

    “Perhaps, it has some universal appeal, huh?”

    A belief in something outside of our power to yield justice, and as an answer to things we as of yet don’t understand? Yes, indeed; we humans have a knack for not accepting not knowing stuff, so where we don’t know stuff, we make stuff up. All the time. All over the world. We’re *that* good at it.

    “The advantage of existential theology–which is, it seems, is Debilis’ theology–is that it can be most successful where science is least successful”

    That sounds like the biggest “god of the gaps” argument I’ve ever heard. Not sure what you’re trying to say here?

    “Science deals with the physical concerns of man, and it attempts to answer human problems of survival, more or less.”

    If that was the case, then science would have stopped a very, very, very long time ago. No, there’s obviously something else that drives it, mostly an uncontrolled appetite for figuring stuff out, of being ultimately curious about things.

    “It is most successful telling us how to survive; not how to live.”

    What, now? This seems just so absurd on its own as science doesn’t tell us anything.

    “Philosophy and theology must step in and shed light”

    Must they?

    “[…] but theology does ask questions about the ultimate existential concerns of man and seeks to answer them.”

    And so does scientists. And philosophers. And my kids. And my neighbours. And, well frankly, most people. So I don’t understand why you think religion has some special place in that regard?

    “This reminds me of Clifford’s declaration that: “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” While I sympathize with this view, I don’t think it is a very strong philosophical position because it has become increasingly clear that many of the fundamental beliefs of western culture lie beyond proof of this sort.”

    Like?

    • David

      Why is the comment addressed to me? I didn’t say any of those things you responded to.

    • Persto

      Alexander,

      “Is there any way that you can rephrase the question with that in mind?”

      Why are you so confident that your judgement on this issue is sound? Why are you so certain that the other person is wrong? What is your argument for God’s non-existence?

      “Can you prove Krishna does not exist, my friend?”

      No, and that was my point.

      “How so?”

      Are you absolutely certain God does not exist? If not, then you must balance faiths.

      “I argue against anything outside of the natural world. Ok, go on;”

      Is God outside of the natural world? If so, then you are arguing against God or, if you prefer, the supernatural.

      “Why? Do you have doubts about your position?”

      Yes, everyday. I fear nothing as much as I fear certainty about my beliefs. Certainty is exactly what the fundamentalists and Communists have. A true thinker must be prepared, as William James said, “(…) never to have done with doubt on these subjects, but every day to be ready to criticize afresh and call in question the grounds of his faith of the day before(…)” I think you are falling prey to dogmatic postulations that build upon the philosophical view that science studies reality in its entirety, however, the danger in this method is that, as E.A. Burtt pointed out, “more often than not a philosophy that is held unconsciously is also held uncritically.” Popper all but said the same thing about methodological naturalism. We must remain honest. And if we are to remain honest we must remember the necessity of keeping our feet on the solid ground of natural operations as the foundation of our philosophical speculations. While also remembering that there is an existence outside of scientific measurement, prediction, and control. We cannot veer too far in either direction, but must remain honestly positioned in our speculations.

      “Evidence by?”

      My presence in hospital rooms and funeral homes. But, also, the fact that nearly two out of three people report that they’ve felt angry at God during a time of crisis, according to a study in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And, another study revealed that the most sizable increases in religious belief typically occur among people 58 and older, according to a report released by the University of Chicago. As Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey of the social science research organization NORC at the University of Chicago stated, “This suggests that belief in God is especially likely to increase among the oldest groups, perhaps in response to the increasing anticipation of mortality.”

      “so where we don’t know stuff, we make stuff up.”

      It is an obvious point that humans are myth-making, but isn’t that far too simplistic an explanation? Are we not also myth-craving animals? The power religion holds over humanity is unique. Of course, there are no guarantees of truth with religion, but the impact of religion shows, as does anthropological studies, that humans are myth-making as well as myth-craving animals. It appears that humans need an explanatory theory, if only a Big Myth, to assist us through the long dark journey of existence, whether it be Marxism, Nazism, religion, environmentalism, astrology, or conservatism. As Stephen Crane so wisely noted, the reason people don’t love the Universe as much as they loved God is because the Universe doesn’t love them back. Furthermore, another question might be: why are there, in the words of Lowith, “creatures endowed with the capacity for reflection and emotional perceptiveness of a high order in a universe to which these characteristics have no positive relation.”? In my opinion, the reason naturalistic atheists aren’t nihilists, for the most part, is that they find the spiritual, albeit subjective, meaning to life that transcends the individual, as Tillich emphasized. All humans are ultimately concerned with the nature of existence; not physical existence, but, as Tillich stated, “(…) the reality, the structure, the meaning, and the aim of existence.” For someone it may be atheism itself or writing or whatever, but there is something that person does and thinks, and most everyone does and thinks, that gives spiritual meaning to their lives, outside the naturalistic scope. For theists, it is God; for atheists it is something else; for naturalists it is something else; for Democrats it is something else; for Republicans it is something else; for teachers it is something else; for professional athletes it is something else. But, usually, it is something for which a purely deterministic/naturalistic viewpoint must fail to take into account. Your life and my life have greater meaning than solely genetic propagation because we think they do for some unnaturalistic reason, and the preponderance of humanity, from janitors to presidents, think in this way as well. That is what I was getting at.

      “Not sure what you’re trying to say here?”

      Keep reading. The thought was only beginning at that point.

      “No, there’s obviously something else that drives it, mostly an uncontrolled appetite for figuring stuff out, of being ultimately curious about things.”

      Inconsistent much? One moment science is dispassionate and the next it is ultimately concerned–odd language for a materialist, by the way. I am not trying to be rude, but your ability to miss a point is starting to become annoying. Let me try and put it another way: The most integral component of science is that only tangible objects and phenomena are studied. Obvious examples include heat and plants. Less obvious examples include magnetism and neutrons, although we cannot see or feel magnetism and neutrons we can construct instruments that detect them reliably. Having said that, there are certain concepts that are inappropriate for the scientific method like morality and ethics. Morality and ethics have no chemical composition, no mass, no magnetism, no polarization states–they are not tangible. Science can study, measure, analyze, and describe the factors that cause sexism or racism, but it cannot say whether these actions are wrong or right; moral or immoral. Consider the issue of assisted dying. Incurable diseases, particularly in their final stages, can cause terrible pain and suffering, which may last for several months or years. And science has developed drugs that can arrest breathing so that a person dies painlessly. Science can even tell us the metabolic effects of using these drugs, but it cannot tell us whether it is right or wrong to use them to help a person die and avoid pain. That, my friend, is within the domain of ethical philosophy, even if it is just a personal ethical philosophy.

      “This seems just so absurd on its own as science doesn’t tell us anything.”

      Truly? Nothing? Huh? I should remember this. Although, one must also remember, that science defines life in simple mechanical terms. Science tells me that I am merely a body of cells, cells that almost entirely change every seven years. So, here I am, a conglomeration of elementary particles, organized at a series of levels of complexity–atoms, molecules, cells, organs, etc. Struggling to survive, to reproduce, and to build my life around stable communities. That is what science tells us. But that does not speak about the ‘essence’ of life. Science cannot say that my future is not myself, but my children and whatever heritage I can scrap together to leave them. Science cannot say how best to live the good life because the ‘essence’ of life is not amenable to scientific measurement or quantification. Goodness, hope, and value are things which science cannot speak on, but they are things which are most integral to what has become universally understood as the nature of humanness and being human.

      “Must they?”

      Yes, what was it you said earlier, ahh, oh yes, “science doesn’t tell us anything.’

      “So I don’t understand why you think religion has some special place in that regard?”

      Did I say that? Also, I am talking about existential theology not religion. I think you are suffering from a misapprehension of theology. I am talking about theology within a metaphysical-existential setting in which it is regarded as an attempt to discover the meaning of human existence. It seems you are talking about theology within the communal-confessional setting in which the utmost importance is placed on the conceptual explication of the Christian faith. In other words, despite its apologetic and kerygmatic functions, it is theology that takes place in the church and for the church.

      The idea of existential theology is that it is metaphysical, in that it presupposes a view of the composition of reality, and it is existential in that it seeks the meaning of life given this is what is ultimately the case about reality. In a sense, viewed within in this way, philosophy is quite different from theology. Philosophy concerns itself with being, but it only deals with the idea of being itself; whereas existential theology deals with the meaning of being for humanity, as Tillich explained. So, in this sense, it is quite irrelevant whether one is a Christian or not or even whether one is religious or not. Now, I am not saying that this sort of theology is not related to philosophy or that it cannot be related to other forms of theology. No, all I am saying is that it is looking at things from a different perspective than philosophy or confessional-communal theology. And, in that sense, it is concerned with the meaning of human existence and the resources for fulfilling that meaning, while most philosophy, that I am familiar with, is fundamentally concerned with the theoretical construction of reality and most other forms of theology are only concerned with these concepts within their own community.

      I feel that you think the existential theologians wants to impose God on humanity. They do not. They merely ask people about their existence–its nature and needs. They only offer them a way, not between God and no God, but between self-sufficiency and dependence, between self-interest and responsibility. They offer a path that some people find is not offered by Darwin’s Nature. A path that seems to offer meaning and direction, and the decision to accept this idea of life is taken on faith. Not blind faith, but well-reasoned faith. Faith that interprets existence. A faith that seems to free them from the world and its menaces and opens themselves and the world up for a transformation in the here and now.

      “Like?”

      In everyday life, when the evidence for important propositions is often unclear, we must live by faith or cease to act at all. Although, we cannot make leaps of faith just anywhere, sometimes practical considerations force us to make a decision regarding propositions that do not have their truth value written on their faces.

      I feel this comment has not settled anything between us. But, as Joseph Joubert once remarked, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”On that account, there remains, important intellectual issues that lie in the overlapping borderlands of science and religion. These issues are human questions that are important not only to theologians and scientists, but to the average person walking the streets of the urban metropolis and the rural town. The philosophical questions about God, human purpose, goodness, death, and the good life are, at the present moment and to a large degree, unanswerable questions, but, as human beings, they are questions we cannot avoid. The intellectual endeavor to answer humanity’s most important questions and address, appropriately, the human issues involved in the science and religion discussion is going to require a more cultivated understanding of the other side’s concerns; not just a dismissal of them out of hand. Furthermore, after all is said and done, there should remain room within the modern worldview for what St. James defined as “pure religion and undefiled.” Still and all, scientists and theologians, both, must remember, as Cardinal Gasquet remarked to Pope Pius XI, we are none of us infallible.

      I hope this answered some of your questions.

      Regards

      • Alexander

        Hiya, I’m going to cut things a bit short in order to tie up some loose ends her and there ;

        “Why are you so confident that your judgement on this issue is sound?”

        Unlike the religious person, I’m not certain about much at all. On a good day I can agree to a solipsistic fundamental state of everything we do, and in that world this whole argument is moot. On a different day I just want to get out of bed, and accept reality, at least, as a way to try to agree with people around me that it indeed exists, and use this as a minimum point of consensus; I am an entity of flesh and bone, and I walk the Earth. I accept the empirical evidence for that. That is my starting point.

        Everything else, everything outside of that accepted empiric world needs convincing outside of a persons mental model. I reject anything objective, for example.

        “What is your argument for God’s non-existence?”

        There’s too much to list here, but the lack of evidence is of course key, the vague definition of what “god” is supposed to even be, the concept of anything being omnipotent, or the strange notion that a being as powerful and super as such a god often is told to be somehow cares about who I love, what to wear, or condones to genocide, rape and slavery.

        But the biggest argument is of course that I’ve never needed that explanation, neither to explain me, my feelings and thoughts, nor the state of the cosmos. Why should I believe in something I clearly don’t need?

        But we can dig further; I’m not afraid of death, and I don’t need the comfort from it. Death is a direct result of poor evolutionary mechanisms driving us, and I accept that I am only human who wishes that I sometimes wasn’t.

        “Is God outside of the natural world?”

        Again, your question is odd and makes little sense to me. No, your god is not outside the natural world. As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing.

        “Certainty is exactly what the fundamentalists and Communists have”

        Great! We share at least this belief. I have no certainty beyond the epistemology I’ve chosen to accept, but I also accept that this is an intellectual platform in search of truth rather than it being, in any shape or form, true.

        “We cannot veer too far in either direction, but must remain honestly positioned in our speculations.”

        And, indeed, my honesty paired with a hunger for truth is what keeps me here, talking to you guys. I’m not making a case for atheism, I’m making a case for truth, just like I suspect you guys are making a case for your religious platform. And, surely, we’re trying to meet half-way for some agreements, yes?

        “nearly two out of three people report that they’ve felt angry at God during a time of crisis”

        For that to make sense they already presuppose there being a god. I, on the other hand, have never been angry with god, by virtue of him not existing.

        “Inconsistent much? One moment science is dispassionate and the next it is ultimately concerned–odd language for a materialist”

        Hmm. No, I think you’re just falling into the trap of thinking that science and scientists are somehow disjoint from each other. Scientists cry themselves to sleep at night, too.

        ““This seems just so absurd on its own as science doesn’t tell us anything.”
        Truly? Nothing? Huh? I should remember this. ”

        Nop, science tells us nothing. Scientists who interpret the empirical evidence might tell you something, but science itself does not. Do not conflate the two; scientists are humans, and only humans can tell you anything from empiric evidence.

        “Science tells me that I am merely a body of cells”

        I’m going to be nitpicky here; No, science doesn’t tell you this. Either a scientist will tell you this, or you are interpreting empirical data yourself. Meaning is not part of science; meaning is a people thing. Your body is, indeed, a body of cells, but what that means is a human job; you can define “merely” any way you like, but science does not tell you what is “merely”, it just tells you what it finds.

        “when the evidence for important propositions is often unclear, we must live by faith or cease to act at all”

        Then you need to define “important presupositions” and “unclear”. Surely we both agree that we have faith that the sun will rise in the morning? Even in the distant path when the understanding of what the sun is and how the Earth spins around it, back when we could say “it isn’t clear how or why the sun does this”, we have faith that it does so based on pure empiricism; we experience it everyday, all of us. That is a very different faith from the religious one based on no empirical evidence at all.

        I keep coming back to this; what can we agree to exists, and how can we define those things that we don’t agree to?

  • Persto

    Alexander,

    I just want to apologize for the late reply. I have had a very busy week of class and I haven’t had much time to respond.

    “Unlike the religious person,”

    All religious people?

    “Everything else, everything outside of that accepted empiric world needs convincing outside of a persons mental model. I reject anything objective, for example.”

    So, morality is relative for you? This smells like Hume’s skepticism, which is outrageous, but, seemingly, irrefutable, I’ll admit. Oddly enough, even Russell found Hume’s skepticism difficult to accept. Most metaphysicians would admit that attempting to refute Hume is something of a favorite pastime lol.

    Now, I think you are headed towards Hume’s skepticism, but I want to be certain, so I am going to summarize Hume’s skeptical position to see if you agree with the position I outline. Most people accept that every justifiable belief must be a relation of ideas i.e., a statement of math, logic, trivial conceptual truth, or a matter of fact, which can be confirmed by appeal to our senses. The problem you will see is that Hume realizes the severity of this acceptance and the embarrassing number of our fundamental beliefs that do not allow justification either by reason or experience. For Hume, simple ideas are derived from simple impressions. So, if I claim that there are objects of a certain kind–oranges, say–I must identify the simple ideas and impressions upon which my supposed knowledge is based. In Hume’s mind, a metaphysical claim about the existence of God or ‘essences’, must either be preapproved to identify the ideas and impressions upon which the claim is based, or that claim or claimant must show that it is nothing other than a relation of ideas; otherwise the claim cannot be justified.

    As I am sure you know, most metaphysical doctrines cannot be defended by either of the methods allowed by Hume. They are, by their nature, beyond the everyday experience, so they are not based on impression nor are they based a relation of ideas that can be demonstrated by a simple logical or mathematical proof. Therefore, they cannot be justified. The problem for you and Hume is that this approach extends way beyond debatable metaphysical claims and even undermines a large part of the beliefs that are most essential to humanity’s everyday experience as well.

    Hume singles out three beliefs in a simple but effective manner: the idea of causation, one event bringing about or causing another event. From this we get the deterministic philosophy, which is, in truth, just the philosophy of every event has its cause(s). Also, known as the principle of universal causation. All of us invoke this principle every time we explain anything, e.g., the car won’t start.

    The second one flows from this one. We on a daily basis think beyond our immediate state and predict the future and explain the past. But to do so, we must also believe that our observations of the present will have some relevance in the future, that we can in fact draw valid inductive generalizations from our experience. You do this all the time, I presume, at least I do. For instance, I expect the sun to rise within the hour. Why? Because it has always has, and the almanac says it will and so on. In making such a prediction, we must presuppose a principle of induction, that is, that what has always held in the past–laws of nature–will hold in the future.

    The last one is the belief that a physical or material world exists independently of our impressions and ideas. Hume maintains that our belief in the existence of anything is no different from, as Hume said, “the idea of what we conceive to be existent.” All of these beliefs are tied together. Causation is the central tenet of all reasoning, that is, it attempts to connect all separate ideas in a single belief. But Hume comes down on this like a ton of bricks. He refutes both the principle of universal causation and the principle of induction by showing that neither can be defended either as a ‘relation of ideas’ or as a ‘matter of fact.’ Hume, just like you, said all human knowledge must be one or the other, but after it was all said and done, cause and effect reasoning, the very basis of reasoning, I might add, could not be a relation of ideas nor a simple matter of fact. Hume, of course, goes into more detail, but, in the end, ascertains that there is no ‘solution to the skeptical doubts.’ Hume’s philosophy, if it is to be employed, means an end not only to philosophy, but to all rational inquiry and all claims that we can know anything–even that the sun will rise tomorrow. So, the greatest empiricist of them all tried to restore common sense, what you seem to be trying to do by following in his footsteps, yet, it ended in the least commonsensical philosophy ever devised. A person that does not believe in the world or that the future will not resemble the past would probably be crazy–although Hume was rather jolly, but Hume understood his speculations were callous and ridiculous. Surely, our intellects are not so out of joint with everyday experience or our philosophy so far removed from practical life? This is the inevitable conclusion of your approach, I’m afraid, because that ’empiric world,’ which is your ‘starting point’ is compromised by the very criterion you utilize to undermine metaphysical claims.

    “Why should I believe in something I clearly don’t need?”

    If you don’t believe in basic beliefs or ultimate postulates or objectivity then I can’t help you here. Pascal remarked that some of us were made so as we cannot believe. Maybe that is you. Beliefs are propositional. They are true or false. If you think something is true, then you will believe it. If not, then you won’t. That’s the whole story. In my mind, an individual cannot make herself believe something that is false, contrary to the opinions of James and Pascal.

    “I’m not afraid of death”

    I am happy to hear it. This, however, does not strengthen your argument.

    “There’s too much to list here”

    The arguments you listed have been refuted by logicians, metaphysicians, and philosophers of religion a hundred times over. We could discuss these issues in more detail if you wish, but, seeing as how my comment is already long, I will not elaborate on any of these in this comment.

    “No, your god is not outside the natural world.”

    “Your God”? I challenge you to go back through all of my comments and find where I said I was a traditional theist or, for that matter, a theist at all.

    Okay, the God we have been discussing this entire time is a metaphysical concept, which, by its very nature, makes it outside the everyday, right? I mean, part of your initial objection to Deb was that there is no empirical evidence for metaphysical claims. Now, you are saying that God is not a metaphysical claim? I am lost. I’ll rephrase. Do you think the God that we have been talking about for the last week or so is a metaphysical concept? If so, then how in the hell can you say that God is not beyond nature? Please elaborate.

    “As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing.”

    In addition, saying ‘there is no such thing(as God)’ is a claim about the world and, as such, carries a burden of proof. It strikes me as extraordinarily inconsistent that you go from a very skeptical viewpoint, a suspension of judgement, in the words of Sextus, to the definite–and therefore from the skeptical perspective, dogmatic–view that God does not exist. Could you explain this?

    “this is an intellectual platform in search of truth rather than it being, in any shape or form, true.”

    I respect this.

    “And, surely, we’re trying to meet half-way for some agreements, yes?”

    I would hope so.

    “I, on the other hand, have never been angry with god, by virtue of him not existing.”

    Well, not to be discourteous, but I wasn’t talking about you, was I. I said, in my initial comment, that in times of crisis most men and women appeal to the much misused concept of God. You asked for evidence of this. I provided it. Who cares if they presupposed God!

    Once again, though, the last portion of your sentence is a claim about the world and, as such, carries a burden of proof.

    “No, I think you’re just falling into the trap of thinking that science and scientists are somehow disjoint from each other.”

    Not my point. Science, by its very nature, is dispassionate and not ultimately concerned. Am I right? Additionally, I went much further in-depth in the subsequent portions of the statement you quoted in an attempt to explain precisely what I meant.

    “and only humans can tell you anything from empiric evidence….Either a scientist will tell you this, or you are interpreting empirical data yourself.”

    So, science is subjective? Is this what you are saying? Are you trying to be cute? Science is designed in such a way that it is as unambiguous as possible. Of course, there is always nuance and ambiguity present in any endeavor, even a scientific endeavor, but the scientific discipline strives to be as straightforward as possible, so that when two different people look at the same data they arrive at the same conclusion. You are right, that scientists don’t always agree and there are usually a number of slightly varying interpretations regarding a particular data set, but, in every case, they are looking at the same data. That data is science and it is, most assuredly, telling me, and every other person who analyzes it, something about the world.

    You can’t just interpret scientific data anyway you please. Science tells me what is the case about the natural world and, you are right, I create my own meaning out of what science describes about that natural reality. Science tells me that about 55% of my blood is plasma and that the cells of every human body almost entirely change every seven years. Out of these descriptions of natural reality I can extrapolate meaning, of course, but the basis of that meaning is grounded in what is in no way a random interpretation. The scientific enterprise is one of near impartiality, at least impartiality is the desired standard. If I am following you correctly, you are suggesting that anyone can interpret the data in any way they choose. That is not true and science is not nearly as subjective as you would seem to be indicating.

    “we have faith that it does so based on pure empiricism; we experience it everyday, all of us.”

    Pure empiricism, evaluated by the same standard as you examine God, does not possess any reason to warrant assent to it and cannot serve itself as the reason for belief. If I concede to you that things appear to you in a certain way, what reason will you adduce for going beyond that to an assent ( that is, to a belief) that they are that way? Any reason you care to bring forward is inevitably going to rest upon some large claims about the world, claims that are surely not more, but rather less compelling than the experiences that led you to say that things appear to you thus and so.

    “That is a very different faith from the religious one based on no empirical evidence at all.”

    Firstly, the only religious person whose beliefs are not based on empirical evidence at all are the fideists–Kierkegaard, Tertullian, Calvin–and neofideists–Plantinga. That is not the faith of most intellectual Christians and certainly not the sort of faith I am speaking about. The faith I am speaking of has a very strong philosophical and scientific tradition: St. Thomas, Berkeley, Plato, Spinoza, Aristotle, Leibniz, Plotinus, Kant, Anselm, Epicurus, Samuel Clarke, Schelling, Bacon, Hobbes, Voltaire, Newton, Mendel, Planck, Descartes, Swinburne, and Tillich are just a few persons that I can think of off the top of my head that did not and never did possess the sort of faith you are talking about but, still and all, managed to believe in God. There are multiple definitions of faith; just like there are multiple definitions of atheism. And it is important to determine what sort of religious person or atheist one is in order to establish just what claims that person can make about the world and her position. As I have already told you, by *denying* the existence of all gods or of a specific god or gods you are making a claim about the world. Not only is that position a belief itself, which can directly influence and justify action, it also has a burden of proof, which you have not met, as of yet. Also, in your mind, how is religious faith–a faith that interprets existence–distinct from everyday faith?

    Secondly, perceptual beliefs, self-evident propositions(there is a world), analytic truths(2+2=4), uncontroversial reports of your own memory( I had breakfast this morning.), and also the holding of incorrigible beliefs(I am now conscious or I feel pain in my leg.) These beliefs arise in us directly and not as a result of inference and are often described as basic or foundational. They are beliefs that are rational to hold in appropriate circumstances and they are grounded in and justified by those circumstances. This is foundationalism, an intellectual tradition of which I am a member. The idea being that ‘good reasons’ will ultimately have to appeal to premises that are basic in the sense that they are not derived from further premises. For self-evident or analytic propositions believing them follows from understanding them; they can be basic for anyone. However, with perceptual and incorrigible beliefs, and those based on memory, the individual’s and the community’s–in the case of religious belief—experience is all-important. These beliefs reflect experience, and such experience is ultimately unique to each individual. And so for such a belief to be basic is for it to be basic for someone. For the basicality of these beliefs is relative to the believer’s range of experience or information. Of course, our own experiences often overlap: We all see a stump and we all believe we see a stump on the basis of our experience. But it is still true, that what counts as basic for me depends upon the content of my experience.

    In my estimation, it is possible to think and to experience the universe, and ourselves as a part of it, in both religious and naturalistic ways. For those who sometimes experience life religiously, it can be entirely rational to form beliefs reflecting that mode of experience. At the same time it is equally rational for those who do not participate in the field of religious experience not to hold such beliefs, and to assume that these experiences are simply projections of our human desires and ideals. In other words, we are facing an issue of fact which is at present veiled in ambiguity, so that both belief and disbelief at present carry with them the risk of profound error. The believer risks the possibility of being self-deceived and the non-believer risks shutting out the most valuable of all realities. Given this choice, William James would urge, and surely with reason and evidence, that we have the right to choose for ourselves. People are therefore justified in holding beliefs that are grounded either wholly in their own religious experience or in the experience of the historical tradition to which they belong, this being in turn confirmed by their own much slighter range and intensity of religious experience. It seems that we stand, as finite and ignorant beings, in a universe that both invites religious belief and yet holds over us the possibility that this invitation may be a deception.

    “what can we agree to exists, and how can we define those things that we don’t agree to?”

    On this account, if we are going to properly ask whether God exists we need to define precisely what we are asking. Does exist have a single meaning, so that one can ask, in the same sense, “Do flying fish exist; does the square root of minus one exist; does the Freudian superego exist; does God exist?” It seems that we are asking very different kinds of questions in these different cases. To ask whether a flying fish exists is to ask whether a certain form of organic life is to be found in the oceans of the world. On the other hand, to ask whether the square root of minus one exists is not to ask whether there is a certain kind of material object somewhere, but is to pose a question about the conventions of mathematics. To ask whether the superego exists is to ask whether one accepts the Freudian picture of the structure of the psyche. To ask whether God exists is to ask–what exactly? Not, certainly, whether there is a particular object. Is it to inquire about linguistic conventions? Or is it to inquire about a great mass of varied considerations, perhaps even the character of our experience as a whole? What, in brief, does it mean to affirm or deny that God exists?

    Apologies for the length.

    Regards

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