Monday, February 4, 2008

Truth as a Starting Point

All right, I haven’t yet delved too directly into the atheism topic in this “Month Without God.”  Let me start by saying that (like the most rational of atheists) I do not have any special grievance against religion that I do not have against all the other irrational and fanciful beliefs that plague humanity.  Like the Enlightenment philosophers, I want all the illusions and sentimental fantasies that come between human perception and reality dispensed with.  (Unlike the Enlightenment philosophers — who did not have the benefit of two centuries of Edmund Burke-influenced conservative thought — I do not want to replace those illusions with the first intuitively-appealing deductions and social blueprints out of my own head.)

I just want, though, a world where we admit the potentially unpleasant things at the outset instead of spending lifetimes and vast mental energy trying to run from them — admit that there is no evidence for a God and thus in all likelihood no God, that government doesn’t help anything, that most work is not fun, that most countries are savage hellholes, that members of the opposite sex often aren’t very nice to you, that children are ignorant and tedious, that sports is barbarous and pointless, that fashion is shallow and imbecilic, that animals are mostly mindless and remorseless killing machines upon whom moral concern is largely wasted, and that most of culture is juvenile trash.  There, was that really so hard?  Can we not go on with a smile from there?

These things should go without saying, and then a sane culture could be built in a piecemeal fashion upon this more honest foundation (not from scratch, mind you — again, I am not entirely radical), devoid of most of the political and spiritual creeds that currently plague us.

But, alas, people are stubborn, irrational, and frightened, and so things are not that simple…


Michael Bates said...

My children aren’t ignorant or tedious! And cricket may be pointless, but it isn’t barbarous (the galactic Krikkit Wwars notwithstanding).

Is there any room in your philosophy for the seemingly irrational and pointless traditions and institutions that build social cohesion? Is there space for Burke’s little platoons?

toddseavey said...

The short answer (to perhaps the world’s most complex and important question) is: yes, let’s have little platoons, but for crying out loud, why must they be irrational platoons?

We can recognize the inevitability of some irrationality — instead of guillotining everyone who fails to fit our pseudo-rational master plan — without having to celebrate and encourage irrationality the way the right and the mystical/postmodernist left like to.

Rationality’s not as easy as the _philosophes_ thought and society not as malleable, but that’s no reason to just take a mental vacation and pretend that people rise from the dead, etc.

Xine said...

“a world where we admit the potentially unpleasant things at the outset instead of spending lifetimes and vast mental energy trying to run from them — admit that there is no evidence for a God and thus in all likelihood no God, that government doesn’t help anything, that most work is not fun, that most countries are savage hellholes, that members of the opposite sex often aren’t very nice to you, that children are ignorant and tedious, that sports is barbarous and pointless, that fashion is shallow and imbecilic, that animals are mostly mindless and remorseless killing machines upon whom moral concern is largely wasted, and that most of culture is juvenile trash”

It’s unclear to me why in this laundry list of extremely incomparable things that “things I don’t like” = “things that are irrational and must be done away with.” You are claiming that this list is objective, and objectively true. It’s not. It’s subjective and ridiculously reductive, and in being so presents you as, to be blunt, an egotistical tyrant who won’t be happy until the world adopts *your* preferences and, yes, feelings as transhistorical, philosophical absolutes. Do you really want to look that way?

“Sports is barbarous and pointless,” “fashion is shallow and imbecilic,” “members of the opposite sex often aren’t very nice to you”–you know what? playing tennis isn’t “barbarous,” exercise is healthy, and you of all people shouldn’t think that competition and striving for achievement is “pointless.” Yes, some fashion is shallow and imbecilic, but some if it is creative and beautiful, and requires both conceptual talent and practical skill. While children’s “ignorance” may be objective, their “tediousness” is not, as the poster above indicates. And I think a lot of your readers would not agree with you that they have “often” had poor treatment from the opposite sex, as you suggest is a universal truism.

So, in effect, what we’re left with is the Seavey-centric “I don’t like sports,” “I don’t like fashion,” “I don’t want to have children,” “a lot of women are a pain,” that have somehow been elevated into universal philosophical truths that we all must admit at the risk of being called cowardly, stubborn, and irrational.

Your poster, above, I think, makes a mistake: he asks you whether there’s room in your philosophy for “irrational and pointless traditions that build social cohesion.” I think this is the wrong question to ask. The question is why –when you are mixing up the unequal “there is no evidence for God” with “fashion is stupid” — *you* possess the unique right to tell others that their preferences (sports, fashion, kids, American Idol) are, in effect, philosophically errant–”irrational” and “pointless.”

I’ve asked you a million times why you care if other people believe in God if they don’t bother you with it by restricting your freedoms, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a satisfactory answer. But to me, even your arguments against the existence of God have more body than the slippage I see here, where *your* preferences and dislikes are the philosophical lingua franca we must all embrace before we can go on and create that perfect world.

You’ll get angry with me for saying it, but you’re really looking like a Brown student here. I’m afraid that in your post above I don’t see a lot of difference between the average lefty Brown student’s self-reflective political “correctness” and your self-reflective rationality-correctness. And please don’t say that the difference is that you just happen to be right. I’m also guessing that you’re not g..CONT..

Todd Seavey said...

What I really mean is _if_ or _when_ such grim-sounding and potentially-depressing truths emerge (not necessarily these, about which I’m partly joking), we should never think we have license to deny them simply _because they are unpleasant_.

You can fill in others more to your liking, such as: sci-fi fans are often social misfits, we’re all going to die, aging (in many ways) sucks, etc.

The real gist is: let us face facts rather than weave pleasant illusions around them. As a science/Popper buff, I am of course always open to the possibility that the _specific_ claims I’ve made may be disproven or (undoubtedly) need refinement.

But how dare you call me a Brown alum, you Brown alum.

Dylan said...

Hey (gabba gabba), I like juvenile trash.

From the bottom of my boogity boogity shoe,


Xine said...

..CONT..oing to try to prove historically that fashion is “really” imbecilic.

I may be an irrational coward taking a mental vacation by believing in God, but I’m not so irrational as to think that “science fiction is moronic and lame” is anything other than an opinion, and that others might disagree. That’s not moral or philosophical relativism.

Brain said...

I know a man who has repeatedly stated to me his assurance that he will escape the nastiness of death through the wonders of science, despite having it pointed out to him that this is highly unlikely, with no basis in the current state of the art.

In short, he holds scientific progress, of which he personally knows next to nothing of a technical nature, as a sort of protecting faith. But this irrational belief in scientifically-induced immortality helps him get through the day so I tend not to overly press the point.

Most of our pleasures, be they fashion or sex or sports or food or what-have-you are irrationally based. Man is essentially an irrational creature, of which his rational mind plays only some part in his life.

Rationality and science are not synonymous. One need not even read all of Frazier’s Golden Bough to be convinced that the primitive religious mind was a very rational mind, even if it was completely wrong in its conclusions. Even science is a very shaky foundation to hang one’s epistemological hat on. A recent meta-study found that fully half of all peer-reviewed scientific publications later prove to be fundamentally erroneous in their conclusions.

The truth is a moving target, whatever the mislaid claims of certain popularizers of science may try to otherwise claim.

Todd Seavey said...

While the point about most studies being wrong is an important one that would make my job easier — — if more widely appreciated (so people don’t overreact every time a “new study!” comes out, whether on food or climate change), it’s important to think of science as occurring not in a single flash of insight that reveals things exactly as they are, with no improvements to be made on the resultant model ever (the way people shortly after Newton might have wanted to see life, as amenable to “perfect” and relatively simple systems), but rather in the piecemeal fashion described by Karl Popper.

Studies draw tentative (but rarely _completely_ nonsensical) conclusions, and over time we shoot down the erroneous ones, repeat and confirm the good ones, and slowly build a more accurate picture of the world. That piecemeal — and collective, and somewhat tradition-like — process, rather than one-time, one-man flashes of perfect vision is the usual fashion in which humanity functions and advances as a rational being.

Science has a history and it includes errors, gradually winnowed as in any evolutionary process (metaphorically, not biologically, speaking). In some ways Burke understood that better than his radical contemporaries did — which is why I like science and conservatism (and markets, which also winnow out bad ideas).

Brain said...

But in our daily lives, in our daily decisions, scientific knowledge has limited practical use. Science is great for building a better bridge, generating power more efficiently from coal, or formulating longer-lasting paint, but it has little help in getting you a raise, writing an elegant sentence, cooking a fine meal, or wooing a beautiful woman.

While study and trial-and-error experimentation are certainly useful in these endeavors, we must not discount luck and intuition.

Science and reason have become modern fetishes, totems for mediocre minds to misunderstand and latch onto, just as the crucifix and smiling Buddha might have been in bygone eras. Just as with the Sermons of the Mount and the Four Truths carry valuable lessons that have been misunderstood, so has science and reason been misapplied too often with awful results.

Tim said...

In the Clifford-James debate, it is argued by James that

a skeptical standard of evidence, while of use in science,

might not be always be the right one use in other areas.

Especially, there are precautionary situations where the

consequences of a false negative can be much greater

than that of a false positive. Basically, James argues

himself into “Pascal’s Wager.” Clifford seemed to think

that abandoning a skeptical attitude was gullibility,

whereas James did not always consider a mistaken

belief the worst “sin.” It appears (Xine==James) &&

(Todd==Clifford) — I saw that she wanted to discuss

the harm done (in an old post). I’ll just sit back and


Todd Seavey said...

When people say science is not applicable to all situations, I think they’re correct if they mean we can’t and shouldn’t stop every moment to do a lab experiment, but that does not mean there is any necessary schism between scientific rationality and the sort of rationality employed in everyday life — whereas there is an immense gulf between, on the one hand, all the forms of rationality from science experiments to everyday employment of memory and sense data and, on the other hand, the completely different practice of making up elaborate things (such as a sentient creator force responsible for the universe) based on no evidence.

Taking a precautionary approach to one arbitrarily chosen belief system out of the infinitude of possible ones (Zeus? Scientology? Worship of the death-cult-leading goddess Kali “just in case”?) and embracing it is absolutely insane, and while (not accidentally) the religions that survive over time tend to be ones that don’t make enough blatantly ridiculous claims to inconvenience us much in our daily lives, surely one can easily see the bad things that can happen if one gets in the general habit of believing without reason or evidence, just as one would do well to be wary of someone who said, “I always just trust whatever random strangers on the street tell me — completely and without reservation — and so far nothing bad has happened…”

Christopher said...

“and embracing it is absolutely insane”

I would recommend you stop using “insane” as a descriptions for for “ideas with which I disagree” quite so often (though I often agree with you on your disagreements). The way you use the term to apply to almost any belief in religion or opinion that gov’t can improve society means that you are calling 98% of the world’s people insane. It seems that this would stretch the definition of the term beyond what is meaningful (and people who think that only they are sane while the rest of the world is crazy are typically considered…). “Utterly wrong” or “completely misguided” would get your point across more accurately and make you sound less like Soviet and Chinese communists who declared those who didn’t see the truth of Marxism to be crazy. People can be wrong about something and even disregard obvious evidence against their ideas and not be crazy.

Brain said...

But perhaps reliance on religion is not so insane, but a rational and intelligent choice. The United States has considerable religious liberty, including the liberty not to worship any deity, and yet the United States is a very religious country.

Are you really so much against Halloween, Christmas and Easter? Do you find religious marriages and christenings such odious ceremonies, or are they benign and joyful celebrations of human relations?

Regarding the “general habit of believing without reason or evidence”, the logical fallacy of appealing to authority is one that is made in both religious and so-called scientific circles. Really, just about the entire basis for the ACSH is the appeal to scientific authority: “These scientists have PhDs and Nobel Prizes, so you can trust what they say”. This appeal to authority, while logically fallacious, is also practical. I don’t have the mathematical sophistication to decipher most primary epidemiological studies, but I do get my children immunized based on a very crude understanding of the principles involved, and because I am required to by law and custom.

Then again, the recent study linking circumcision to a decrease in HIV was obviously weak, and yet one wonders how many young boys were ordered surgically mutilated by worried parents because of it.

Certainly, as a conservative, you have a great regard for custom. So why the antipathy to religious custom?

Todd Seavey said...

“Insane” was not meant in a clinical sense, of course, and, boy, would this blog be dry if every term used herein were.

ACSH is not making appeals to authority in the sense that phrase is normally used in taxonomies of bad argumentation but is referring people who’ve actually done empirical research — exactly the opposite of saying “What comes out of the priest’s mouth or the holy text is inherently true without reference to empirical evidence” — but debates about ACSH may be best conducted on their site, to which I must attend for the rest of the workday, seeing some of you afterwards at Lolita Bar (while my pre-written posts about Super Tuesday post automatically throughout the day — with luck not sounding terribly dated).

Adherence to the best conservative moral lessons makes it hard to be a simplistic ideologue but does lead to recognizing the value of at least a few broad principles, including truth-telling and an aversion to lies, errors, undisciplined passions, wishful thinking, naivete, etc. If that leads one part of our intellectual inheritance to be at war with another, so be it, and let us strive to preserve the part that’s useful and true, especially when we can see how the errors in the other part may have come about — a detective-like point made in the book _Atheist Manifesto_, about which I will say a great deal in posts tomorrow…

Todd Seavey said...

Here’s a casual, short piece by Jonah Goldberg about tradition to keep you occupied until I can return to the topic — and I think it captures the chaotic idea that “there’s a lot more going on in there” when it comes to tradition than just the usual short conservative checklist of “God and one or two others things”:

Tim said...

Well, the crux of what I was really getting at is that, even

in statistics, say, there are are other types of decisions

than hypothesis testing. There is making a decision

between two or more signals, for instance, when they are

corrupted by noise. I’d argue that if we are talking about

something non-falsifiable in a conventional sense, we are

talking about something that does not have implications

in the physical sense for choosing either side. As cb

(chuck blake, i guess) pointed out a while back, in a

physical sense this choice is actually neutral and does

not carry information. Your decision to not believe in a

God who does not do anything (for instance), does not

actually carry any physical implications. Since either

side is “equal,” in that sense, choosing between them is

more similar to choosing between symbols than

hypothesis testing (and could be considered to be

physically meaningless).

Thus, if we wish to argue about the goodness or

badness of believing in a generic God for whom we

cannot generate a chain of evidence. even in principle

that must be due specifically to the fact of His

existence, we are forced to argue the psychological and

social consequences. Science doesn’t come into play

here – this is “beyond science,” except in so far as

the frontiers of phenomena that folks have always

pointed out as physically due to “God” have often

fallen to physical explanation.

Todd Seavey said...


You are conflating the truth of the proposition with its social effects and taking a lot of words to do so.

Tim said...

Actually, no – this proposition, if non-falsifiable, is

meaningless in a physical sense. Zero information,

hidden variables that leave the theory that omits

them still a complete description, etc. Evidence might

be irrelevant, but someone like Einstein might argue

that adding in hidden variables and turning a theory

back into something causal might be esthetically


James argument was exactly that if this situation holds,

we have to go on to other means to decide. His

argument was then that it met psychological needs, and

- who knows? – maybe there is a reward. I simply

pointed out that if one wants to continue to argue

about this, it is on terms that involve pleasure, fear,

gullibility, etc. but not evidence. Maybe my “symbol

choosing” comment was gratuitous, but as Christine

pointed out, without falsifiabilty, there is no lack of

symmetry between either side to allow for generation

of evidence, so there can be no argument that this

looks like hypothesis testing.

Tim said...

In short, I’m simply saying that I cannot make sense of

pure atheism. “God” could be defined in lots of potentially

meaningless ways, per Christine.

However, when one adds in aspects of whatever you are

calling God, and it has consequences, that’s when one

can argue.

Todd Seavey said...

People tend to mean something like a vast, non-corporeal intelligence that created the universe when they say “God” — and there is no evidence for such a thing.

Claiming the term is meaningless makes no more sense here than in the case of any other (almost invariably somewhat ambiguous) term in the English language.

Assertions without evidence do not get the benefit of the doubt nor, when they are assertions inconsistent with all other experience — which is of an observable, material universe describable by logic — do they deserve be treated as if they have sneaked into the set of things that can’t be dismissed as unlikely.

Or to put it another way, if you insist that ambiguous terms must be held in some 50/50 quantum state of maybe-truth: The Krobigar is coming to kill you. Little bit worried? I’m not.