Take Philosophy Seriously (Tip 7 of 10 For Reaching Out To Religious Believers)

Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers

1. Don’t Call Religious Believers Stupid.

2. Make Believers Stay on Topic During Debates.

3. Don’t Tell Religious Believers What They “Really Believe”.

4. Clarify What Kinds of Evidence Warrant What Kinds of Beliefs.

5. Help Break The Spell Of Religious Reverence.

6. Don’t Demonize Religious People’s Motives, Focus On Their Objective Harms.

7. Take Philosophy Seriously.

When religious believers accuse atheists of having no rational basis for ethics, no metaphysical answers, or no account of the meaning in life, etc., they are raising serious and legitimate philosophical questions for us to address. While atheists should push back against demonizing attempts to “Other” which imply that we are in practice especially amoral or immoral, nonetheless we should not at the same time evade the serious questions about the intellectual foundations of our philosophical and practical views by claiming these are only ever raised to villainize us.

It is one thing to rightly assert our social and political rights to be treated equally and not marginalized as second class citizens or slandered as an untrustworthy segment of society. Yet, it is another thing to wrongly ask exemption from answering difficult philosophical questions about our positions. And if we had historically done a better and more vigorous job of making the range of positive godless philosophical approaches to the world known, the false accusation that atheism offers nothing of philosophical, moral, or emotional sustenance would be false on its face to people, instead of sounding so plausible to so many of them.

Atheists (and, really, all reflective people) need well-developed understandings of what (if anything) makes moral norms objectively binding, of what (if anything) makes good things objectively good, of what the best decision procedures for moral actions are, of how best to inculcate good values in the future generations, etc. These are deeply serious questions of enormous potential importance to the future of humanity. Detailed, deeply insightful answers have been developed, can be developed, and are being developed by truly cutting edge philosophers past and present, and their work should be studied vigorously by atheists.

Atheists should not be impatient with the questions’ difficulties and just declare the issues simple matters of common sense, defaulting unreflectively to some dogmatic assertion of either the obviousness of contemporary secular Western morality or of the obviousness that all morality is relative. What is especially embarrassing  is when the same atheist does both—makes morally indignant arguments against religious beliefs and in the next breath dogmatically assumes moral relativism and blithely dismisses the prospect of moral truths altogether. Not having a mastery of all the complexities of a difficult subject can be frustrating, but that is not an excuse for just dismissing the topic as serious or as difficult and giving superficial answers instead. That’s what creationists do with biology and philosophy. Atheists need to be as literate in philosophy (and especially in ethics) as they are in biology.

Atheists should never allow themselves to be complacent and wave away serious questions just because they are not scientifically resolvable or because they require difficult and sometimes ambiguous philosophical choices. And it is not philosophers’ fault that philosophical questions frequently admit of indeterminate solutions which often raise as many questions as they answer. It’s not like we’re just assholes who just don’t know when to leave well enough alone. The natures of the concepts and the limits of the tools for understanding make these issues difficult. But it is irresponsible to deal with this sometimes maddening complexity by evading the hard, technical work of developing the best and most nuanced answers possible. The questions do not vanish if we simply avoid them. All that happens in that case is that our thinking is sloppier and less scrupulous, and false ideas out of sync with reality are more likely to propagate and have harmful consequences.

Where they are uncertain, atheists should be honest, rather than pretend they have firmer intellectual justifications and consistencies than they actually do. Neither should they try to downplay the questions as illegitimate or merely offensive when they are really just philosophically challenging. And I, for one, encourage strongly against atheists just defaulting to relativism and nihilism out of a specious assumption, promoted by the religious to their own benefit, that without religious belief there can be no basis for objective values or morality. If you really do want to thoughtfully defend such relativism or nihilism, then others have every right to ask you about the tenability of your ethical views for the future. What would a self-consciously relativistic or nihilistic atheistic culture look like? What would it tell its kids? How would it satisfy people’s desires for wise guidance in the difficult tasks of character formation and articulating the best notions of justice, etc.?

And atheists should accept that at least some metaphysical questions are legitimate.

Metaphysical questions arise from rigorous investigations into the implications of concepts that we are most committed to, both logically and scientifically. And tentative metaphysical speculation is valuable, even if must be tempered and qualified. There is nothing inherently illegitimate about the religious believers’ insistence we address some of the questions they think are important. Their own answers to metaphysical and moral questions may be, in many ways, very unpalatable, childish, implausible, anti-scientific, outdated, superstitious, immoral, stagnant, regressive, closed-minded, fallacious, authoritarian, and dogmatic. But pointing that out is not enough if we cannot produce anything better.

Atheists also need to take questions of meaning seriously and respond to important questions about how we would pass on narratives of meaning and values to future generations in the necessary systematic ways if we have no recourse to the mechanisms long provided by religious institutions.

And, finally, it is worth stressing that a great deal of attack on faith beliefs is essentially philosophy. It involves arguments from epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, logic, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophy of religion. Philosophy is integral to developing not only a coherent picture of the world and not only an effective reply to religious demands, but also a massive arsenal of means for critiquing and exposing false ideas—including and especially faith-based ones.

Your Thoughts?

8. Both Refute The Best Counter-Arguments You Can Think Of And Create Gestalt Shifts.

9. Be Unapologetic, Rigorous, Patient, And Gracious With Religious Believers.

10. Love Religious People.

My own views on metaethics are sketched in posts such as the following:

What I Think About Metaethics

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Goodness Is A Factual Matter: Goodness=Effectiveness

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods And The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Can Good Teaching Be Measured

Philosophy Can Debunk Myths About Atheism

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality. Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1369962643 erikjensen

    I will certainly admit to being a philosophical simpleton. I have two responses to the idea that if we don’t have a magic man in the sky, everyone would just go around stealing, murdering and raping. First, I ask if they have seen atheists they know personally doing these things more than others. Second, I ask if they have any empirical data (crimes rates, etc) that show godless societies are worse than godly ones. I have never had anyone present good evidence that either of these things are so.

    Maybe it’s just laziness or maybe it’s impossible, but I never feel the need to defend my morality as rational.

  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    “There is nothing inherently illegitimate about the religious believers’ insistence we address some of the questions they think are important. Their own answers to metaphysical and moral questions may be in many way very unpalatable, childish, implausible, anti-scientific, outdated, superstitious, immoral, stagnant, regressive, closed-minded, fallacious, authoritarian, and dogmatic. But pointing that out is not enough if we cannot produce anything better.”

    That’s true only in the sense that being able to say “I don’t know” is definitely “something better” than a implausible, anti-scientific, etc. answer. I’m not sure if that was your intent though–in this post, it sounds like you think any answer is better than no answer. But I think it’s pretty obvious that a bad answer can be even worse than no answer. (If you think otherwise, I’d like to hear *why* you do. This post contains a lot of assertions, without much explanation of why you think the way you do.)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes, “I don’t know” is better than a bad answer. My point was that we need to admit that good answers are needed in general and not just point out that religions give bad answers. I did call for honesty in cases where the ill-prepared atheist does not have a good idea of anything better:

      Where they are uncertain, atheists should be honest, rather than pretend they have firmer intellectual justifications and consistencies than they actually do. Neither should they try to downplay the questions as illegitimate or merely offensive when they are really just philosophically challenging.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

    Many people want norms that are “objective” and “absolute.” Very few can give a coherent meaning to these qualifiers as applied to norms.

    Which means the serious questions are more about the motivation, and how that rhetoric works, than trying to meet its poorly-defined demands.

  • Beth

    Atheists also need to take questions of meaning seriously and respond to important questions about how we would pass on narratives of meaning and values to future generations in the necessary systematic ways if we have no recourse to the mechanisms long provided by religious institutions.

    This is a very important question. How do you answer the question about passing on narratives of meaning and values to future generations?

    • usagichan

      I’m not sure about that one. One of the things that I am searching for to pass on to my own children is not to pass on my narratives and values, but the tool set to discover their own narratives and develop their own values. That is not to say I disagree with the bulk of the post, merely that I feel that in the context of religion what is passed on as

      narratives of meaning and values

      is not what I want to pass on to the next generation. Philosophy is extremely valuable as it provides a framework for asking questions and evaluating arguments – that is the legacy I would have for my children, not the extension of my beliefs and values to a time where they have long since lost their appropriateness.

      Of course it could be that this questioning, this ability to understand and create one’s own narrative is exactly what you mean by the quoted text (which is why I prefaced my comment with “not sure”). Also I realise that there are important questions of cultural identity that can only be satisfactorily addressed in the context of historical narrative – I am not advocating a blank slate approach, but more an approach that challenges new generations to find themselves, rather than tells them who they are.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      You are unquestionably inculcating far more beliefs and far more values than that. You do not (I am guessing) hope your kids question their ways into patriarchal, authoritarian, superstitious, violent, sociopathic, or narcissistic, intolerant, racist, homophobic, trivial, materialistic values and you likely have a good idea of what kinds of values would fall into those camps.

      Autonomy is a value, egalitarianism is value, liberty is a value, etc. Of course I advocate an openness to perpetual values reconsideration (that is, after all, the essential value of Nietzsche’s philosophy which colors so much of my own thinking). But what is sloppy and dangerous is if we do not adequately inculcate the hard won virtues of enlightenment and lose all sorts of values when the younger generation just takes their fruits for granted and discards them as unnecessary or imprudent, etc.

      Enlightenment liberalism is a set of values, which must be deliberately and coherently cultivated. It is not just an empty void of values that wants to encourage value-creation in whatever form whatsoever and refuses to judge anything.

    • usagichan

      When you said

      what is sloppy and dangerous is if we do not adequately inculcate the hard won virtues of enlightenment and lose all sorts of values when the younger generation just takes their fruits for granted and discards them as unnecessary or imprudent, etc.

      I disagree entirely – what value do all of these things have for my children if they accept them simply because I tell them to accept them. Unless I teach them how to evaluate ideas and make their own judgements as to their merits I am no better than the religious hierarchies that insist on passing their values on through the exercise of patriarchal authority.

      As for worrying that

      kids question their ways into patriarchal, authoritarian, superstitious, violent, sociopathic, or narcissistic, intolerant, racist, homophobic, trivial, materialistic values

      did you miss the evaluating arguments in my original reply. If I try to simply inculcate my values, all I am teaching them is to follow another authority (me). I consider it my responsibility to teach them why I hold those values, and why I think they are valuable and useful, and indeed if my children adopt any of the values you quote I would consider that a failure – but the failure would be in not giving them sufficient critical skills in evaluating ideas, not a failure to enshrine my values in their lives.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      That’s a good question. I am trying to think of a post where I directly address the issue but most of what I have already spelled out is just the need for this, not a clear program for how to do it. I intend to write posts that are more specific as I feel more comfortable I’ve cleared the space for them. So, consider this a promissory note in the meantime. I will get to it in due time!

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

    Daniel Fincke writes:

    Atheists also need to take questions of meaning seriously and respond to important questions about how we would pass on narratives of meaning and values to future generations in the necessary systematic ways if we have no recourse to the mechanisms long provided by religious institutions.

    Those are serious questions. But to hold that they should have a bearing on religious belief already makes the mistake of faith. “Only if I believe x, do I receive (or think I can receive) benefit y” is a recipe for self-deceit. Benefits from a belief rarely constitute evidence for it. To the extent that atheism stems from a desire for self-honesty and rationality, the right answer to “without a god, where do you find meaning?” is: What does that have to do with the factual question of whether or not there is a god?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      1. Irrespective to whether there is a god, the meaning question is legitimate in itself. When atheists don’t get this, we look stupid and impractical to believers when we need not.

      2. The reason that the meaning question comes up in the context of religion legitimately is that as a matter of fact, many millions or even billions of people find their religious traditions to give them the symbols and the narratives and myths which answer basic questions of origins, meaning, and values. Whether or not they overestimate the role of religion in actually doing this for them or whether or not the stories religions tell are actually of high quality or are even coherent, quite a few people are convinced that religion offers these things and atheism does not. Just attacking religion’s ability to provide these things is insufficient to prove atheism’s positive constructive abilities.

      3. We are not only debating with people whether there is a god. We are debating whether their religions are net positives or net negatives. Quite a few people will allow a little falsehood in their lives if the perceived payoffs in happiness, in overall moral flourishing, and sense of spiritual meaning is high. Debunking falsehoods is not enough, showing a coherent alternative truthful narrative that justifies the choice to be more truthful in practical, meaningful ways is important too.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

      I’m going to take the points in reverse order:

      3. We are not only debating with people whether there is a god. We are debating whether their religions are net positives or net negatives.

      Bluntly, no. We can’t even begin to discuss whether a particular religion at a particular time and place was a net positive or net negative without plunging into a host of hard, historical problems. Is there really a tie between the Puritan work ethic and western wealth? If the Methodist founder George Whitefield had not re-introduced slavery to Georgia, would the Confederacy had risen and forced the US Civil War? (And if it hadn’t, does that mean slavery would have lasted longer here?) If Wilberforce, influenced by Whitefield, hadn’t crusaded against slavery, how much longer would it have lasted in the British empire?

      It is foolish to say that religion’s impact is always negative or always positive. The bare attempt to sum up the arc of a particular religion in an intellectually defensible fashion requires a historical depth and eye that is rare. Atheists who try to make such sweeping claims a part of their atheism sound to me not much unlike religious believers, who are so confident that their religion has been better for the human race than the alternatives. Often largely in ignorance of its history!

      2. The reason that the meaning question comes up in the context of religion legitimately is that as a matter of fact, many millions or even billions of people find their religious traditions to give them the symbols and the narratives and myths which answer basic questions of origins, meaning, and values. Whether or not they overestimate the role of religion in actually doing this for them or whether or not the stories religions tell are actually of high quality or are even coherent, quite a few people are convinced that religion offers these things and atheism does not.

      Religion does offer these things. More, it offers meaning and values nicely pre-packaged. That is one of its chief attractions.

      And atheism does not do that. At least, no atheism worth the name. What atheism does in this regard is two things. First, it asks whether a package of meaning and values and promises, nicely wrapped and marketed, is ever worth the suspension of disbelief demanded as its price? Note that suspension encompasses not just all sorts of factual matters religious adherents take on faith, but also how that package was made and is maintained. The atheist answers that it is more important to look at things fully and honestly, than to enjoy the (sometimes real) benefits of that package. Those who want that kind of package more than honest vision will continue to believe. Rather than trying to offer a package as enticing, we should be pointing out that it is precisely the trade they are willing to make for it that is the difference between believers and non-believers.

      The second thing atheism does is allow people to look at how meaning and values actually work. Yes, we should expose some of the myths the religious propagate. People who give up religion don’t turn into rapists and murderers when they no longer fear a god’s rules. What they find meaningful shifts, but doesn’t disappear. But those facts never should be sold as an all-encompassing Answer. Because we don’t have that to offer.

      Just attacking religion’s ability to provide these things is insufficient to prove atheism’s positive constructive abilities.

      I don’t think we should attack religion’s ability to provide these. I think the best we can do is expose the nature of the trade made. Many people will make it, anyway. They will view “a little” self-deception as fair price for the comforts of communion, choir, incense, and a hope for life after death.

      An “atheist movement” that made a similar offer of pre-packaged values and meaning would, if successful, turn into just another form of religion. Its gods might not be the traditional gods. But the blindered belief and movement psychology would work much the same. Objectivism provides one example of that. As was movement Marxism. “Man qua man” and “historical dialectic” are not that far removed from Apollo and the Norns, respectively.

      The atheism I defend is something quite different. It doesn’t compete with religion, and doesn’t play on the same field. It doesn’t have a goal. It doesn’t sell its benefits for society. Its members aren’t drawn to it because of its comforts or relative popularity. It is merely each individual working to avoid “a little self-deception,” regardless of what that purchases in return.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      These are all interesting and well-articulated points and I agree with most of them.

      Where our fundamental disagreement seems to be is that you want to argue that people should essentially go traditionless. There is an either/or you have which I want to resist which posits that you can only have tidily ordered meaning/beliefs/values packages necessarily bound up with myths, superstitions, and faith-beliefs or you can have a disastrous totalizing atheism inimical to true open-minded inquiry (like Objectivism or Marxism) or you can make atheism into only its simplest most innocuous and innoculating role as a freer from the self-deceptions of overly-ambitious meaning-spinners.

      What I am interested in is robust multiple traditions which fill the inevitable void for community and meaning and spiritual discussion not with dogma and over-confidence but with core commitments to rationalism instead and a core acceptance of the possibility of other differing judgments about the good (and in some cases, differing goods). All of this has to happen though within classic political liberal values that make a pluralistic society which prizes the autonomous flourishing of individuals according to their consciences possible. And I think that as much as such tradition can perpetuate and progress itself (and has to a large degree perpetuated and progressed itself) informally, in a “ground up” way, that nonetheless coherent narratives about the legitimacy and moral necessity of certain of its core principles need to be developed. Human practices are fragile things, they can break from generation to generation. For example, young people today grow up in a world where it is no longer an automatic assumption as it was a generation ago (if not during the long brutal era of slavery) that systematic torture is fundamentally contrary to American values.

      We need more robust, conscientious debate and community inculcation of values than we will have if we put the churches out of business. And we need a better kind of debate than the faith-based, superstitious, authoritarian regressive or stagnating kind that happens in most churches.

      We need to learn from the mistakes of Objectivists and Marxists but not abandon the project of developing coherent traditions with coherent mechanisms for teaching at least inculcating the basic fundamentals of liberalism and exposing kids to robust, even if competing, ideas about how to fill in their conceptions of the good which they are so autonomously freed up to pursue.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

      I agree completely with the desire for a tradition of norms that gets propagated across generations. I’m not even opposed to calling this a “civic religion.”

      It’s an open question how well that works, absent ties to actual religion. One reason the religious right in the US has seen a degree of success is that it is able to divorce its mythical “real America” from this nation’s actual civic traditions of the last century and half, demonizing everything from the 14th amendment to social security. That is the power of myth. Histor is messier, and propagating civic tradition on the basis of history is a bit tougher. I agree it is a worthy fight to engage.

      However, that is not atheism. Many in the religious community are our allies in it. Some atheists aren’t. So when you write this:

      There is an either/or you have which I want to resist which posits that you can only have tidily ordered meaning/beliefs/values packages … or you can make atheism into only its simplest most innocuous and innoculating role as a freer from the self-deceptions of overly-ambitious meaning-spinners.

      My response is that there are a variety of ways open to atheists to build social tradition, find meaning, and teach values to their children. But that atheism doesn’t determine a choice among those. Or require any of them. Atheism is that “simplest most innocuous” thing. Not because these grander things are wrong. Nor because atheists don’t pursue them. But because they have only a loose coupling to what atheism is about. So, yes, by all means, advocate:

      …the project of developing coherent traditions with coherent mechanisms for teaching at least inculcating the basic fundamentals of liberalism and exposing kids to robust, even if competing, ideas about how to fill in their conceptions of the good which they are so autonomously freed up to pursue.

      You can be a liberal as well as an atheist. As am I. But as a philosopher, you shouldn’t confuse the two!

  • John Morales

    Atheists (and, really, all reflective people) need well-developed understandings of what (if anything) makes moral norms objectively binding, of what (if anything) makes good things objectively good, of what the best decision procedures for moral actions are, of how best to inculcate good values in the future generations, etc.

    Written like a philosopher, only sloppily.

    I need to breathe, but I don’t need any such well-developed understanding.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I find it remarkable how much atheists think that values just appear from the ether without any deliberate guidance by anybody. “It’s just like breathing”. No, it’s not. I am not saying that values are formed in an entirely (or predominantly) top down way but they are formed in ways that are not natural and if they are not tended to with care, they can deteriorate.

    • eNeMeE

      Camels with Hammers

      “It’s just like breathing”. No, it’s not.

      as a reply to John Morales

      I need to breathe, but I [do not] need any such well-developed understanding.

      Something seems to not be in order here…

    • John Morales

      How do you infer that from what I wrote?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      If you don’t want to be misunderstood, perhaps you could do the trouble of providing more arguments and less pithy insults in your two sentence dismissals of my arguments.

    • John Morales

      My first sentence states a personal opinion in two clauses; I do not think it ambiguous.

      My second contrasts an appropriate use of the term ‘need’ with an inappropriate one, and furthermore indicates which is which.

      I note you have evaded my simple question. :)

  • Andrew G.

    Until philosophers start agreeing on something other than the importance of philosophy, there are rather strict limits on how seriously it’s possible to take both them and the “discipline” of philosophy in general.

    In fact there are good scientific reasons to distrust philosophy as generally practiced, based in our knowledge of our own cognitive limitations. Science beats philosophy because it accepts reality as being the ultimate arbiter, not reason; we can even predict based on known psychology that disciplines which don’t adopt a fundamentally scientific approach will not reliably produce objective knowledge.

    As an example, take the following data from the philpapers.org survey, which is the responses from “Target faculty” limited to those whose area of study is given as meta-ethics:

    Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?
    42 / 102 (41.1%) Accept: moral realism
    17 / 102 (16.6%) Accept: moral anti-realism
    15 / 102 (14.7%) Lean toward: moral realism
    10 / 102 (9.8%) Lean toward: moral anti-realism
    7 / 102 (6.8%) Accept an intermediate view
    6 / 102 (5.8%) The question is too unclear to answer
    3 / 102 (2.9%) Accept another alternative
    2 / 102 (1.9%) Agnostic/undecided

    This clearly indicates that meta-ethics as a discipline has yet to produce anything which can rightly be called “knowledge”, since not even a majority of its faculty members can confidently assert a position one way or the other about a foundational question.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Unilateral agreement in broad strokes like “moral realism: yes or no?” is not there but that does not mean that there are not a lot of points of convergence among philosophers. It is striking to me when I read Plato how clear the basic questions and the possible positions he stakes out were and how much they remain the basic poles we revolve around today.

      But again, philosophy is not a science, but that does not mean it is an endeavor that should be skipped or taken lightly or trashed as useless. If you think the faculty in metaethics need to do a better job of finding methods to lead to universal agreement before claiming any kind of credibility (as though agreement is the only standard of knowledge and not correctness), then that’s fine but it does not invalidate my point that serious, rigorous thinking about the questions is in order and that it is a responsibility for atheists to think harder about it. It’s just that you want better methodologies so that somehow metaethics could be transformed into a science.

      The bottom line is this: This is not an issue of science vs. philosophy where science can “beat” philosophy. They are not in competition. Scientists don’t have any better metaethics than philosophers or philosophers would no longer be in the metaethics game (or we would only be there in very specific supporting roles), just like things are anywhere else that science has made decisive strides to remove philosophical ambiguities (like in physics, biology, psychology, etc. disciplines which spun off from philosophy when empirical methods became powerful enough.)

      And the questions of metaethics remain, in the meantime, while our best tools are philosophical and not yet empirical (if they ever will be empirical) and in lieu of decisive, universally agreed upon answers, we still need the best possible answers for the time being. And philosophy is not a useless pseudo-discipline for its lack of agreements, since numerous constructive paradigms and distinctions have been generated or formulated philosophically which have created a greater deal of clarity, regardless of whether they have produced simple up or down votes to be unanimous on survey questions.

      People will need to say things about values and need recourse to theoretical constructs if they are to debate fundamental questions about how to order our society and our lives and how to understand the connections between our norms and our natures. These conversations, with all their numerous practical implications, are going to happen and they will not politely wait until empirical science has figured out how exactly to displace philosophy as the most resourceful investigator of the questions. The day science “beats” philosophy on this and forges unanimous agreements, we metaethicists will gladly accede to science’s takeover of the discipline as we have with its celebrated takeovers in numerous other areas of investigation. But until then, it’s our job, and a lot of people do amazingly insightful and clarifying work on it which deserves much wider influence and debate in the public sphere. For even if we cannot yet settle the issues, we can make the various positions on them stronger and subtler and more truthful as far as they go.

    • Andrew G.

      (as though agreement is the only standard of knowledge and not correctness)

      Agreement doesn’t imply knowledge, but lack of agreement implies lack of knowledge. We expect reliable truth-finding methods to produce agreement.

      I would suggest that if a question has been around for 24 centuries without getting a good answer, then perhaps we need to be a bit more open to the possibility that it’s the wrong question, or at least that we might be looking in the wrong place for answers.

      As for science vs. philosophy, perhaps what philosophers should be doing is actively taking on scientific ideas and looking for ways to apply them, not waiting for scientists to perform a takeover (and in the meantime deriding any attempt at introducing scientific ideas into philosophy as “scientism”). Yes, there are questions (especially in practical ethics) which need to be answered in the meantime, but that also implies that any answers to such questions have to be treated as conditional.

      I should stress that I didn’t say we should ignore philosophy altogether, and we certainly shouldn’t ignore philosophical questions (even if our best answer is only “philosophers of all stripes have been asking that one for 2400 years without agreeing on an answer”). But people who found some sort of certainty in religion probably aren’t going to find the same thing anywhere in philosophy.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Well, personally, I am rather staggered by some of the brilliance of the distinctions that I have learned from studying metaethics. I know I write as a partisan as an aspiring metaethicist. All I can say is that I wasn’t one at first. I was something of a moral nihilist and emotivist when I first left Christianity behind. It was having to teach Philosophical Ethics semester after semester and it was really chewing over what Nietzsche was saying about ethics as part of my original goal—to write on his epistemology—that led me to be so impressed with what I have found to be a wealth of clarity and insight in moral philosophy and metaethics, precisely as it is functioning.

      Also, considering that moral philosophy was not done nearly as freely during Christianity’s reign as it has since, there has been a relatively short time frame to develop quite a lot of tools for answering questions. And a lot of the apparent “total disagreement for 2400 years” is really a matter of different experiments in taking different aspects of the truth of value to sophisticated systematic conclusions. Doing that has yielded insights that are interesting and may never have been worked out if we just dismissed certain trails as ultimately futile and so not worth going down. Exploring each competing approach to ethics so thoroughly has led to a situation where increasingly we can not only reconcile competing systems in many ways but when we do so incorporate their numerous valuable insights that they generated on “wrong paths”.

      So, yeah, I argue that there is a kind of progress. It’s not certainty, but that’s a wrong goal to begin with. What atheists need to offer in reply to religion is not desperate, fearful dogmatism which puts in over-confidence stop gaps out of insecurity. What we need is atheist engagement with a thoughtful conversation which yields many insights and improvements and much edification, even as it admits of a never fully sealable open-endedness.

      As for whether philosophy is asking the wrong questions when it asks inconclusive ones? I don’t think so. I agree with you that philosophers should allow as much empirical “impinging” on our turf as would promise to break our stalemates. I support the experimentalism of the “experimental philosophy” movement as it figures out as it goes how exactly philosophers should better incorporate psychological research and better do it themselves, as an integral part of solving philosophical problems. I spend weeks on the evolution and psychology of morality with my students before I ever get into straight up metaethics with them. It’s important stuff and can avoid the pitfalls of scientism.

      Yet some questions, normative questions are legitimate questions, which I think have objective, factual answers (at least in some cases), and yet they are philosophically resolvable (if at all) and not quite solvable through the statistical methods of science.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    My problem with discussing philosophical issues with goddists does not involve ethics. Rather I have to deal with logical fallacies covered in Phil-101.

    ● Special pleading: Everything was created except for one thing.

    ● Question begging: You want proof of a creator? Just look at his creation.

    Argumentum ad populum: Millions of people believe in god, they can’t all be wrong.

    Argumentum ad baculum (argument from fear): If you don’t do what I tell you god tells me to tell you, you’ll spend eternity in Hell. (Calvinists have an interesting dodge for this one: Do whatever you please, you’re probably going to Hell for all eternity and there’s nothing you can do about it.)

    Argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to authority): My religious master says you atheists believe such and so and he never lies, so you MUST believe it.

    Argumentum ad consequentiam (appeal to consequences): Belief in god makes people happier. Therefore it is better to believe in god.

    ● Argument from personal incredulity (William Lane Craig’s favorite argument): I don’t understand how the universe started, therefore god.

    Plus many others I’m too lazy to give examples of, like non sequitur, equivocation, false dichotomy, straw man, no true Scotsman, etc., etc., etc.

    Ethics and morality often do appear in conversations with goddists (you don’t believe in god so there’s nothing to stop you from being a serial rapist-murderer). But more often other philosophical questions happen as well.

    • Sarah

      “Argumentum ad consequentiam (appeal to consequences): Belief in god makes people happier (p1). Therefore it is better to believe in god.”

      It seems like Sam Harris would agree with that, given P1.

  • Andrew G.

    Incidentally, what book or other educational resource on philosophy would you recommend for a new or potential deconvert?

    • Tom Clark

      I know of none out right now, but I plan to write one in about five to ten years.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      This is a good question, I want to think about it and write about it in the future. Sorry for not having a good answer right away. The only thing I would say for now is that John Shook’s The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between) is superb for a potential deconvert and I suspect Christine Korsgaard’s The Sources of Normativity may be an accessible metaethics text with a lot of meat to it.

      I also humbly recommend regular readership of Camels With Hammers too. :)

  • Tom Clark

    To be fair, some philosophy is just stupid. For example, Descartes’s crap about not trusting your senses because you might be dreaming. The obvious solution is that you will eventually wake up and think “Oh, it was a dream.”

    • http://www.themindisaterriblething.com shripathikamath

      I do not think it is stupid as much as it might be useless.

      OK, Descartes says that the only thing we can know is that we exist.

      Now what?

      This might all be a dream.

      OK, now what?

      So technically we cannot know anything for sure.

      Which to me is a conversation ender and goes no where to show that a three-in-one god born of a virgin exists.

      Which is why I often find it useless. I am sure it has uses, in philosophy and epistemology, but those are not every day debates

  • http://www.themindisaterriblething.com shripathikamath

    I think this is good advice. However, I question how widely applicable this is.

    Do most religious believers justify their god with philosophy? Isn’t it a far cry from establishing a first cause (through the kalam argument for instance) and then jumping to “therefore marriage is between one man and one woman”?

    Is it not more appropriate to stay away from philosophical discussions to begin with, at least as far as a three-in-one god born of a virgin is concerned?

  • http://watts-corner.blogspot.com Watt

    I don’t really take philosophy that seriously. It’s a mix of anthropocentrism, emotion, and pragmatism. If “right” and “wrong” really didn’t “exist” in some absolute transcendent sense, then… I have yet to see any explanation of how anything would be any different from how it is now.

    As much as we all have shared interests, we have empathy and all that, and we can appeal to common interests and even emotional leanings toward “fairness”. In as much as we don’t, we can’t, and that’s it. Those are the limitations. As far as explaining things to children goes, presumably they’re dependent upon adults and innately desire approval, affirmation, and acceptance into the culture in which they live.

    As far as what I love and hate goes, I’ll admit that that’s just my reaction to things, but in as much as others can relate in any given case, they do. Otherwise they don’t. If I’m being totally formal, I admit that I can’t define “right” and “wrong” so that they mean anything other than a human reaction to human circumstances, and to my knowledge, philosophy has done no better. I learned more about “Right” and “Wrong” from The Selfish Gene than I did from any philosopher who really Believed in them.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X