My Thoughts On Eric's Wicca and Atheism Experiment

In early December, after juggling 9 classes and a daily blog all semester, I got sick. Eric Steinhart, a previous guest contributor on the blog, stepped in and has been the primary blogger on the site for one month now. He has discussed possible connections between atheists and Wiccans. Thursday was my first day where I haven’t had to grade students since the semester ended, so I was ready tonight to retake the blog and was planning to offer my thoughts on Eric’s experiment while I’ve been gone. Now I see that PZ is disgusted by Eric’s recent series on Wicca here at Camels With Hammers and so I will frame my post as a reply to his serious concerns.

Daniel, having read a few of Eric’s contributions, I am disgusted. Prolix bafflegab, confusion, thinly veiled attempts to rationalize pagan mysticism, and just general longwinded bullshit. Why have you invited him here? He’s awful.

His strongest charge against Eric is the following:

Let’s put this in purely pragmatic terms. We brought you into FtB because we like what YOU write. If Eric had a blog of his own that was full of that same longwinded, tedious nonsense that now fills the bulk of your page, we would not have been at all interested in inviting him here. It’s your choice, but what I see is a once interesting blog that has been filled up with dreary sawdust by a really boring guest blogger. No one is going to kick you out for the experiment, but you face an even worse fate: people will stop reading you.And in terms of content, no, I don’t quite swallow your excuses. the guy is throwing out this massive wall of contradictory incoherence…you can pick and choose and find bits where he’s advocating rationality, and then you can find piles of words where he’s defending Wicca. It’s like “spirituality”: building a new academic definition that doesn’t conform to the way people actually use the words is NOT helpful. It provides scholarly cover for frauds and ignorance.

Eric is a close friend and mentor to me. He is one of my favorite people. And under his direct influence I abandoned a great many irrationalistic tendencies and became persuaded of important metaphysical ideas that made it possible for me to be a rationalist after years as an atheistic irrationalist.  He has a long peer review publishing record, he has published several books with academic presses, and most, if not all, of his metaphysical arguments on this blog have been syntheses of positions advocated by leading metaphysicians. Given the way American book stores are laid out, many readers might hear “leading metaphysicians” and think Deepak Chopra and crystals and other New Age bullshit. And given Eric’s choice of advocating metaphysics by mingling it liberally with posts affirming a pagan religion which is highly associated with those sorts of woo, I am afraid he may have accidentally only further cemented the association between metaphysics and superstitious fraudulence in many atheists’ minds. This would be most unfortunate.

The metaphysics Eric has been spelling out not only has a rich and deeply technical and philosophically powerful history but is supported by mainstream philosophers who write and publish at the most elite (and even the most normal) universities in the English speaking world. It’s not nonsense. It is technical and much of it may be counter-intuitive to a downright off-putting extent to lay readers. But it is developed with a lot of logical and analytical conceptual rigor and ultimately it does have relevance to vital philosophical issues which we should all be able to recognize as important. And that’s why I brought Eric onto the blog—because I wanted him to illuminate metaphysical problems in ways I can’t. I don’t like to write publicly that much outside my specialty. I’m an ethics guy and a Nietzsche guy. I’m not an expert in metaphysics. Eric is. And he wrote an astoundingly good explanation of the problem of why there is something rather than nothing that led to more such posts illuminating metaphysics and showing its value to atheists.

But, since he brought up some very counter-intuitive ideas about metaphysics at the same time that he was giving an alternatingly neutral, sympathetic, and critical account of a (frankly) bullshit belief system (from a literal point of view), I think he pushed some readers (PZ most notably) farther away from metaphysics rather than closer to it. The series’ best audience is probably either those who are already metaphysically versed and who would take an interest in how certain metaphysics are showing up in a new religion, or those Wiccans who want to purge their religion of its frauds and pseudoscience. While I share Eric’s hope that atheists will develop community, rituals, meditation, traditions for transmitting values, holidays, etc. so that those atheists and those who are currently theists who crave and benefit from that stuff do not need to sell their souls to the authoritarian, irrationalist god of Abraham, he probably bit off too much by advocating for such things by pairing them with a literally bullshit religion and a prima facie bullshit metaphysics. His metaphysics is not bullshit. But asking a group of predominantly nominalist atheists to accept certain religious forms as positive, alien metaphysics as sensible, and a woo-riddled religion as affirmable was probably asking for too much all at once.

I think there is a serious place for philosophy of religion of precisely the kind Eric has been doing. One can exposit a false religion and understand how even though it is literally false it can have conceptual structures that work effectively enough for people that they don’t get themselves killed on account of it, but rather actually cut up the world in usefully symbolic ways and provide surprisingly effective practices for various constructive real world purposes. It is really valuable to ask how systematically believing certain kinds of falsehood can have enough practical value to be so widespread and intransigent in humanity. It is really valuable to pry open practices which are wrapped up in false interpretations by those who engage in them and figure out the real psychological mechanisms that make them work. If we can figure out how to get the good mechanisms that religions either exploit or engineer entirely, and how to dull or obliterate the bad mechanisms religions also exploit or engineer but to our horror, then humanity can get the best outcomes going forward.

Now, in academic journals, work describing the conceptual structures and the positive psychological mechanisms of a false religion is hardly likely to confuse readers into false, literal beliefs. And when the smarter practitioners of a false religion read sophisticated accounts of their religions they do often trade-in the lay believers’ falsest interpretation for something more rational (even if still layered with myth).

I’m an academic. I studied at a Catholic graduate school where I knew devout Catholics who love the Flying Spaghetti Monster and find evangelical fundamentalist Christians to be utterly bizarre. And even mainstream Christianity has been drastically moderated over the course of hundreds of years by non-literal and progressive theologies. We do not live in a theocracy (yet). And a large part of why that is is people who were at least nominally Christian who found ways to convince their fellow believers to stop drowning people over disputes about how old people should be when they’re supposed to be baptized.

So political and theological reformers from within faiths do make a dent. Today’s average Christian says a lot of watered down gooey stuff that drives fundamentalists up trees. There is an effective role that reinterpreting religious categories in philosophically more justifiable ways can play in the great tug of war between rationalism and irrationalism. Some people are too psychologically bound in their religious beliefs for infuriatingly powerful cognitive reasons to abandon the symbols or language of their religious traditions. Those people sometimes do moderate and change their beliefs in ways that let them keep the language and traditions they are irrationally attached to. Sometimes such people even make it all the way out of the traps of faith and authoritarianism through such baby steps.

So Eric’s express, oft-repeated goal has been to show Wiccans how they can have what they at least claim to want—a naturalistic, experimental, non-authoritarian religion—in ways that are genuinely rational and stripped of the woo which Eric calls a “sickness”. Eric wants to appeal to actual Wiccans. He does not want to alienate them by using derogatory terms because he is explicitly trying to explain to them how they could still be Wiccan and yet embrace their reason more appropriately.

But does this give cover to frauds—even accidentally—as PZ charges? Do the moderates mix just enough truth in with the falsehoods to be an even more enticing lie that prevents people from escaping to the truth, and increases the total numbers in the pews so that the fundamentalists are not isolated and alone? Do the moderates prolong the process of ending the hegemony of authoritarian faith over the majority of people’s minds?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. I think the people PZ rightly has a problem with (and I do too) are those who want to pay no attention to the consequences of literalists’ falsehoods and consider them beneath refutation. They are happy to equivocate and mean one thing when they speak and let the lay people mean another thing when they use those very same words and to never correct the lay people. They are happy to defend the lay people’s confusions on grounds that such people can do no better intellectually or gain practical benefits such that the falsehoods are no big deal. And worst of all they denounce all of us who popularize to the lay person that they can be critical thinkers too by calling us mean-spirited elitists. They treat us like bullies picking on the dumb kids when we are precisely those who are telling those “dumb” kids that they can think for themselves and that they don’t have to remain ignorant and mentally under subjection to frauds.

So, yeah, when academics patronize the people in the pews and then have the gall to call us atheists elitists, my blood boils. And when they want to brush the problem of fundamentalism under the rug as though it were not serious because they refuse to stare the reality of sheer irrationalism and (in some cases) brutality in the eye and acknowledge its existence for fear of being “judgmental”—then, well, fuck that shit. Fundamentalism is real and false and dangerous. And it is giving cover to frauds to not acknowledge that and not to fight it full force.

Part of fighting it full force means not hiding comfortably in an ivory tower while charlatans are the go-to people for ethics and metaphysics for ordinary people. That means scientists of all kinds and philosophers—since ethics and metaphysics falls under our purview—to come into the public square and give people a proper education to correct for the lies being spread on Sunday mornings.

I have seen Eric as writing in that vein because he has consistently been explicit that literal falsehood is literal falsehood and the literal falsehoods cannot be simply forgiven because there are also conceptual truths they metaphorically express. He has repeatedly called for Wicca to purge its irrationalism. I leave it to you readers to judge if he made those appeals unequivocally enough that any Wiccan would know precisely where he stood on that issue.

Yes, he has also advocated atheists adopting practices and terms developed by Wicca. I do think atheists should develop alternative communities to theistic ones and I don’t mind if they take on “religious” character as long as they scrupulously avoid authoritarianism, faith-based believing, superstition, misogyny, homophobia, patriarchy, cultishness, irrationalism, out-group hatreds, exclusivity, sectarianism, blind traditionalism, and related vices. Should they borrow from pagans? Some already do as Eric has shown and various of our readers have attested.  I know many atheists who have taken readily to talking about the solstice around the major North American holiday season. Eric has chronicled many other adaptations of existing traditions atheists have tried. I’d rather we did things from scratch. But I don’t see the problem with taking existing celebratory rituals and holidays which harm no one but which emphasize things of genuine, rationally defensible value and adopting them as constructive practices that families and communities can enjoy rationally. It’s probably way too far to try to suggest atheists should do this as an explicitly “Atheistic Wicca” but I have found it interesting to see Eric speculate about the possibilities, such as they are.

I hope the series has not given cover to frauds but that it has helped atheists to think through some metaphysics, to think about how they can build traditions which can attract people away from Abrahamic monotheism and meet the psycho-social needs of atheists who miss what religions uniquely provide, and to understand what we are dealing with with this growing Wicca religion in America.

If any one has slipped further into error by accident through this experiment then I apologize and only hope that enough more people have come to greater clarity about the truth to compensate.

Your Thoughts?

 

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.

  • John Morales

    [meta]

    Blogging can be a roller-coaster ride, no?

    (I, for one, am very pleased to have you in FtB)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      hahahaha Thanks John, I’m happy to have you here too! And (meta) I’m still happy. I like rollercoasters.

  • Enkidum

    I’m glad your back. I don’t really share PZ’s concerns, but I just wasn’t all that excited by the Wicca stuff. Nevertheless, I’m glad you fought back (both here and in PZ’s comments).

  • SAWells

    “The metaphysics Eric has been spelling out not only has a rich and deeply technical and philosophically powerful history but is supported by mainstream philosophers who write and publish at the most elite (and even the most normal) universities in the English speaking world.”

    The idea of God has a rich and deeply technical and philosophically powerful history and is supported by mainstream theologians who write and publish at the most elite and even the most normal universities in the English speaking world. It is, however, wrong.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The idea of God has a rich and deeply technical and philosophically powerful history and is supported by mainstream theologians who write and publish at the most elite and even the most normal universities in the English speaking world. It is, however, wrong.

      This is not even a comparison. Making it in philosophy means meeting far more rigorous technical and logical criteria than making it in theology does.

    • sawells

      It is, in fact, a comparison, and you cannot dismiss it just because it is unflattering to your field.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      No, the description does not hold because we have more stringent standards of evidence. Granted, they’re not even close to those of hard sciences. That’s the problem of the nature of our subject matter, not any lack of devotion to rigor. These are murky issues and brilliant people can disagree.

      But we don’t just accept “The Bible says x so therefore it’s true”. We don’t give any special credence to such arbitrary posits or to superstitious texts, etc.

      The metaphysical, epistemological, logical, and ethical intuitions we defend have to stand up to pure reason and be consistent with natural science. We are hard thinkers. More professional philosophers wind up atheists than professional scientists for good reasons.

      It’s a totally different ballgame from theology. I’ve studied both. It’s night and day.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

      No, the description does not hold because we have more stringent standards of evidence.

      Judging from Eric’s post so far, no you don’t.

    • Matthew Orlando

      Starting to smell like special pleading in here…

    • sawells

      You’ve also said this about Eric:

      “He has been vetted. His dissertation won an award where he competed across the whole university, including the sciences—a rare distinction for a work of scholarship in the humanities. He is on peer review panels, he’s published a lot, etc., etc. He is not irrational and it is a waste of his solid efforts to just dismiss them because they don’t do everything they can to fully persuade me.”

      Eric has his T-shirt saying “I is serius philosopher, my ideas is serius”, so we must take his ideas seriously. Sorry, no. Ideas stand or fail on their own merits.

  • Ace of Sevens

    My main problem with Eric’s series is a tendency to use symbolic logic to obfuscate instead of clarify ambiguity. If you can’t follow the rather dense symbolic logic, then you don’t really understand him and can’t disagree with his points.

  • sawells

    “And he wrote an astoundingly good explanation of the problem of why there is something rather than nothing that led to more such posts illuminating metaphysics and showing its value to atheists”

    Since we know that it is possible for the universe to exist, but there is no evidence that it is possible for the universe not to exist, it is unclear that the “problem of why there is something rather than nothing” actually exists in the form that Eric wants it to. He keeps insisting that there is an immanent power which allows things to continue to exist rather than succumbing to nonexistence, but there is no evidence that the universe actually works that way. You say his posts are “illuminating metaphysics”, but they are not, they are expounding Eric’s personal metaphysics, which is not the same thing.

    Are you sufficiently open-minded to consider the possibility that someone you respect and admire as a thinker may, in fact, be wrong?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Are you sufficiently open-minded to consider the possibility that someone you respect and admire as a thinker may, in fact, be wrong?

      Of course I think Eric may be wrong. If you read my comments just yesterday I laid out several lines on which I find his account bewildering and missing explanation. My point is to establish that he is not a crank of the order PZ’s accused him of being. It’s a matter of establishing his basic deservingness to have a public platform and not be dismissed as though he were Deepak Chopra.

      I have told you repeatedly that when I defend Eric’s credentials and the legitimacy of his approach in general and when I vouch for him personally all I am doing is situating that he deserves to be heard out and not treated contemptuously. That’s never a blanket endorsement of all his views.

      I think he is right about a lot and I think he is deeply thought provoking even when I don’t understand some of the premises he lays out without explanation.

      But I have expressed numerous reservations about affirming numerous of his propositions. I haven’t expressed every hesitation I’ve had because (a) I want to be careful to not be frequently stepping on my guest’s toes, (b) I’ve been busy, and (c) I have been giving him time and room to further develop certain lines of thought before criticizing.

    • sawells

      He has a public platform. You are giving it to him. He can say whatever he wants. Then when he’s said it, we can all read it, and judge it, and respond. Yay internet!

      What’s bothering me is that (a) he’s systematically not responding to specific criticisms which, left unanswered, invalidate his arguments; (b) he, and you, systematically misrepresent my criticisms as being, for example, hostile to metaphysics in general – which seems to function as an excuse for not actually responding to problems with Eric’s metaphysics specifically; (c) on those occasions when he can be pinned down to any specific factual claim he’s generally turned out to be wrong, e.g. on issues regarding inflationary cosmology, and more recently regarding evolutionary theory, and the glib and superficial claim that “our brains are hard-wired for religion”; (d) he, you, and Verbose Stoic routinely use the argument that X (e.g. immanent creative power of being) must be an idea worth taking seriously because it has been taken seriously by philosophers, instead of justifying X on its own merits, and setting X equal to God shows that this justification fails; (e) Eric routinely equivocates between “religion” and “social and cultural practice”, indeed he’s pretty clearly equated them, but the example of the birthday party shows that there can be well-established communal social and cultural practices which aren’t religious. He even recently described atheism as “the religion of mental hygiene”, which I found to be a laughable argumentum ad Humpty-Dumpty: words shall mean what Eric wishes them to mean, neither more nor less. Consider his restrictive definition of theism such that polytheism is not a form of theism.

      I could go on.

      You keep cajoling me to take Eric’s ideas seriously. I take them seriously enough to read them, understand them, find the point where the argument fails, and point it out. I don’t, by default, think that his arguments deserve “respect” until they’ve earned it.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Again, I have never said you’re not entitled to those disagreements. It’s just your contempt I’ve challenged.

      And again, I have expressed reservations on many points with Eric. I asked him for a defense of the principle of plenitude. Later that day he said it was a priori derivable but could be proved through two empirical considerations. Then in the comments of that post he disowned those arguments and said they were merely hypothetical. I called him on that for being confusing and hard to pin down both at the time and again yesterday.

      I have expressed suspicion about his attempt to argue from ethical and teleological considerations to claims about what kind of worlds must or must not exist.

      I expressed my dissatisfaction with the romanticism of paganism and the ways that the traditions he has talked about seem artificially about the harvest calendar and a connection to the natural world as opposed to the civilized world which leaves me cold as a city person.

      I expressed reservations about the dangers of gender essentialism in talking about the god and the goddess as a basic fundamental dichotomy in nature.

      I quibbled with him on his definition of atheism and theism and some of his applications of it.

      I have expressed doubts that attempts to make Wiccans sufficiently rational will be any more ultimately successful than comparable attempts to make Christianity rational. The implication of this question was serious—it was whether Eric’s whole project is in vain.

      I was unequivocating in rejecting his accusation that atheists were committing the “No True Scotsman Fallacy” in saying an atheist cannot believe in God. I repeatedly defended atheists’ rights to define atheism as a normative term without being accused of being in denial about something.

      And if I were to go through each post I could probably find numerous other places to criticize him that I didn’t mention. He doesn’t always clearly specify what is his own metaphysical position and what is an argument he is just trying to educate people about. He does use the definite article and say “The” Atheist Wheel of the Year when he should present his hypothesis with the indefinite article instead (as I think you criticized him for). I don’t share some of his blanket criticisms of atheist agitation as wholly negative.

      So, yes, SAWells, I acknowledge that you’re not a crackpot or a troll. I have only ever criticized your creating a hostile environment with personal attacks on him and some of your remarks which have come off as blanketly anti-metaphysical. That’s about as far as rebuking you or trying to curb your commenting has gone. The rest is disagreeing with you on particular points. And I think if you look at the record, I have raised many objections to Eric. And I have been, for the record, restraining myself out of the desire to let my guest feel comfortable that he can do his thing with minimal interference from me. I am sensitive not to be censorious. And, I have found that many of my initial hesitations with different things Eric says have been overcome after he has explained himself further. Patience has often paid off for me when reading him and sometimes I think he has answered your questions in subsequent posts and you’ve not really responded to that either.

      Finally my main puzzlement with your objections is why, if you understand what metaphysics is and what its value is, you persistently hold it to scientific standards or worry that what Eric is doing metaphysically is “bad science”, when it’s just not trying to be science. That’s been my alarm bell that you’re not getting what is happening. It’s not been an unwillingness to listen to you or a disagreement with everything you’ve said.

    • KG

      You’ve pointed out more than enough glaring holes and indeed utter absurdities in Steinhart’s metaphysics in this one comment to make it quite obvious that reading him is a complete waste of time, and contempt for his inane and irrational dribblings is thoroughly justified.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      No, I strongly disagree with you about that. I’m sure there are arguments I’m sure Eric could marshal for many of the things he says. But there is limited time and he has had other fish to fry. He does not need to get lost in answering every criticism or he can never finish the project he’s actually working on.

      Secondly, even if he is wrong sometimes there is still value in his overall sweep of perspective. As a philosopher I am used to reading people who I think have glaring problems but from whom I learn an immense amount anyway. I also am used to waiting patiently for a philosopher to get around to answering my objections when it fits his or her system best.

      He has been vetted. His dissertation won an award where he competed across the whole university, including the sciences—a rare distinction for a work of scholarship in the humanities. He is on peer review panels, he’s published a lot, etc., etc. He is not irrational and it is a waste of his solid efforts to just dismiss them because they don’t do everything they can to fully persuade me.

    • KG

      I couldn’t give a shit about his academic record – what he’s posting here is drivel. Your own analysis confirms my evaluation of its prolix irrationality, gained by reading a few of the posts in the series. Come on: the “Principle of Plenitude”? Srsly?

    • SAWells

      Actually in some places I have pointed out that his metaphysics is just wrong on logical grounds. When he has made scientific claims, they have also been wrong. In other places I have made the most basic rational-skeptical criticism of his claims, viz. (i) is there any positive reason to believe that this claim is true? and (ii) if it were false, how would you know?

      On a separate note I have pointed out that some of his claims about the nature of Being and Existence are inconsistent with the actual existence of certain actual beings. If his metaphysics contradicts actual results from physics then it’s wrong. Calling it meta- is not a get out of physics free card.

    • ACN

      (e) Eric routinely equivocates between “religion” and “social and cultural practice”, indeed he’s pretty clearly equated them, but the example of the birthday party shows that there can be well-established communal social and cultural practices which aren’t religious.

      This was a major point for me also.

      It seems like he has…word issues? I think part of it is that he’s either trying intentionally to be provocative by using words like “spirituality” and this equivocation on what exactly he means by “religion” that SAWells points out, or that he’s trying to salvage these words from the theists.

      Either way, it’s served to obfuscate any points he’s been trying to make.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I don’t think he wants to be intentionally provocative usually. Occasionally he seems to. In the case of “spirituality” I think it was an instance of being overly congenial to the Wiccans who would be reading. A year ago he and I had a long debate where he insisted to me that “spiritual” cannot escape its woo connotations, that he had tried to write and specify it in different ways in his work and was always misunderstood. I was puzzled when he chose the word yesterday and he seemed ready to take it back right away in the comments when he said he preferred the word askesis instead.

      In other cases, he is using terms in highly specified technical ways that he is accustomed to using as a professional philosopher. He sometimes makes assumptions because he has an extremely intricately developed view of many issues and might forget how strange his unique and personally developed outlook is. I do this too sometimes—I’ll say something that is just an obvious, basic truth in my head and then get hit for it by people who find it not so intuitive or who drastically misunderstand to what I am saying. I have to correct for this a lot on the blog and it leads to a lot of new posts for me.

      It is an adjustment to learn your audience and what qualifications you need to make for them to understand you.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      So, in order:

      a) And yet I don’t recall you replying to my comment earlier as to why your issue with subatomic particles and them coming into and out of existence and what it meant for Eric’s point about power would in fact in any way affect his position if he simply accepted that they did lose that imminent power. In general, it isn’t always clear that your arguments actually have any impact on his position whatsoever; you tend to toss out counters as if it is obvious that they cause problems, but sometimes they don’t seem to.

      b) There are times when you seem to be more interested in attacking his overall project than in refuting his arguments, or as Dan just said in using physics to rebut metaphysics. Both of these might indicate that you aren’t really paying attention to the metaphysics.

      c)It’s unclear that he is factually wrong in many of those instances, or at least factually wrong in a way that matters. I, for example, found your response to the evolution argument puzzling because while he might have been wrong on that, it didn’t seem to actually mean anything to his actual argument; it wasn’t wrong in the right way to matter for his argument. But Eric can indeed make factual errors. As for the “brains wired for religion” argument, you have not demonstrated that that is a factual error beyond you not liking it, or finding exceptions to it (you perhaps being one) as far as I have read (although I admit that I’ve been skimming it).

      d)I can only recall using an argument anything even remotely like that once, which is hardly routine. And even in that case, it was against a claim that all Eric was doing was citing names; the point was that his quotes indicated a lively philosophical debate with some quite deep thought involved, not to be simply dismissed blythely. I also disagree with your argument that replacing X with God changes things, because I accept that Eric’s stance could be wrong — I think much of it is — but also that there is often more to theological claims than the naive observer might think … which is why there has been so much theological and philosophical discussion of it.

      e) So, Eric may well be wrong to make that move. However, you never did demonstrate that the sort of social event that a birthday party is could do the work socially that religions do, and so again did not demonstrate that Eric is not right that something like a religion is necessary. You’d need more development to make your criticism an actual argument. Hard to do in a comment thread, yes, but please do not suggest that your example is unequivocably proof that Eric is wrong.

      Now, I certainly do not agree with a lot of what Eric is saying. But some of the objections are bad objections. For example, take the point about atheists that believe in God. I pointed out myself that that was problematic, but then countered others who were saying that it was just ridiculous that there was a problem that needed to be addressed. For my troubles, I was accused of advocating the stronger point that I disagreed with. That’s not an example of good argumentation. Just because I think that some objections are missing a real issue does not mean that I think the solution is correct, and that is what you accuse Dan, at least, of doing.

    • SAWells

      “And yet I don’t recall you replying to my comment earlier as to why your issue with subatomic particles and them coming into and out of existence and what it meant for Eric’s point about power would in fact in any way affect his position if he simply accepted that they did lose that imminent power. In general, it isn’t always clear that your arguments actually have any impact on his position whatsoever; you tend to toss out counters as if it is obvious that they cause problems, but sometimes they don’t seem to.”

      At present it appears that Eric is actually incapable of using his ideas about the Immanent Creative Power of Being, which creates and sustains all things in existence, to even discuss the actual coming-into-being, existence, and exit from being of something that actually exists. If he made any response whatsoever then I could argue with him; since he doesn’t, I’m content to let the vacuity of his position speak for itself.

      On the cave fish, you were arguing in the wrong direction, I’ve responded with a specific citation to Godel’s argument on the other thread.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      As turnabout is fair play, let me analyze this purported counter to Eric’s comment.

      I presume that when you say that you know that it is possible for the universe to exist, you base it on the argument that it does exist. But then you say that you have no evidence that it is possible for the universe to not exist. Fair enough as far as it goes, but it does lead to the question of what that is supposed to mean, and what stance are you trying to take. About the only one that matters is that you are trying to suggest that the universe is a necessary thing, in that it has always existed and can never cease to exist. This, of course, is a strong metaphysical claim that cannot be proven empirically, so you’re right into the same sort of speculation as Eric’s “Immanent Power” argument. Note that it also doesn’t follow from your data; you know that it is possible for the universe to exist because you know it does exist, but that does not mean that it has always existed and will always exist, or else if you see a car you would have evidence that IT has necessary existence as well. You can claim that it is a car and cars don’t have necessary existence, but that’s a philosophical claim since I could easily counter that you don’t know if you haven’t encountered that first car with necessary existence.

      You can deny that the universe must have necessary existence, but the instant that you stop saying that it does have necessary existence even to an argument that it simply might have necessary existence you end up admitting that it is possible for the universe to not exist, and thus providing the evidence or at least the argument that you were claiming you didn’t have.

      Additionally, there indeed is evidence that it is possible for the universe to not exist. First, if we take the traditional interpretation of the Big Bang theory the universe came into existence at that time, and if something can come into existence then at one point it did not exist and therefore it is possible for it to not exist. The Big Crunch theory provides similar evidence. Second, multiverse theory implies that universes can come into and out of existence in at least some of its interpretations, and the only way out of assuming that some universes might not have always existed is to assume that all the multiverses have necessary existence, and so all of them always exist. This is, again, a metaphysical move that might undo a lot of the benefits of a multiverse theory.

      You can deny that this is evidence, but then I have to ask what you consider to be evidence, or what could be evidence for that contention. If you limit it to the empirical, good luck getting any of that … but that does not make it a non-existent problem.

    • SAWells

      That was a lot of words to show that you also have no evidence that it is possible for the universe not to exist.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      Another clear example of how you do not actually read the things you reply to:

      1) I pointed out that unless you think you know that the universe has necessary existence, you also think that it is possible for the universe to not exist.

      2) I demonstrated that the Big Bang, Big Crunch, and multiverse models imply it under their more traditional interpretations.

      3) I also asked that if you didn’t consider this evidence then what exactly was it you expected in terms of evidence.

      And your reply being nothing more than “I didn’t think so” clearly means that you didn’t read or address anything I said. Why, then, should we believe that you are interested in serious discussion? Or it is just me you have a problem with?

    • SAWells

      “1) I pointed out that unless you think you know that the universe has necessary existence, you also think that it is possible for the universe to not exist.”

      And I respond as always that there is no evidence that it is possible for the universe to not exist. That some of us imagine we can think of the possibility of it not existing… is not evidence. We know it does exist; we don’t know that it could possibly not.

      “2) I demonstrated that the Big Bang, Big Crunch, and multiverse models imply it under their more traditional interpretations.”

      No, you didn’t demonstrate any such thing. You made an incorrect assertion about cosmology. Firstly, standard big Bang theory simply says that the universe used to be a lot hotter and denser and has been expanding and cooling. There is a point beyond which our current theories and evidence can’t go and we do not know what if anything was “before”; indeed best current theory indicates that “before” may not be a meaningful concept near the initial singularity. To equate that to “the creation of the universe” is a common error but not one based on the science. Secondly, multiverse ideas at present barely rise to the standard of hypotheses, let alone theories, and are void of support.

  • Dunc

    Well, I’ve been enjoying it. He’s come up with some ideas I find interesting and thought-provoking, and whilst I have had some criticisms, they’ve been fairly superficial. But then I’ve been trying to dig out the usable metaphysics and effective practical psychology within neo-paganism, Buddhism, Taoism and various forms of ceremonial magic for most of my life, so I’m pretty primed for this sort of thing and I’m entirely happy to try and peer beyond the surface of such beliefs and practices. It also maybe helps that I’m a “native” atheist rather than a de-convert, and that I live somewhere where the sort of fundamentalist Christianity which apparently conditions many American atheists views of religion is almost entirely unheard of.

    He has chosen a very tough row to hoe with this audience though…

    Oh, and I’ve been finding it much more interesting that the entirely predictable crowd-pleasing over on PZ’s blog. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t really light my candle these days.

  • KG

    I’d be quite prepared to read about metaphysics – I make some use of formal ontologies in my own work – but I’m certainly not going to wade through what is effectively a book about Wicca, in which I have not the slightest interest, to do so.

  • http://infinitegames.tumblr.com infinity

    So I’ve been fairly critical of Eric in his series of posts. I’ve criticized his claims about Wicca and sexual equality, and I’ve been disappointed that he’d make such claims without investigating things like, say, how Wicca deal with intersex and trans* individuals. And I disagreed with his logical definition of atheist, though I tried my best to point out to other commenters that his logic was sound under that definition.

    But it seems that whenever an atheist philosopher writes about the philosophical architecture behind certain religious beliefs, that philosopher has to place explicit disclaimers at the beginning of his/her posts to make it clear. It should be sufficient, as Eric did numerous times, to praise with qualification (obviously this is woo!) and critique with qualification. I mean, it isn’t anything new that many skeptics view philosophy with distrust and disdain, but every philosophical essay shouldn’t have to explicitly state “I am not a wiccan! I am not a theist! I am merely examining philosophical architectures” when that is what is done within the posts.

    It reaches the point where some commenters on PZ’s blog were criticizing philosophy because “philosophers don’t use the scientific method.” No, duh. Scientists do. But guess who came up with the scientific method? That’s right, philosophers!

  • cnjnrs

    I’m very interested in metaphysics, but not from a point of view that is so explicitly sympathetic to religion, especially a specific one that I don’t know very much about. I understand that my very lack of knowledge of Wicca may be considered a good reason to use it as an example, but ultimately, given the amount of time I have to read blogs, posts with “Wicca” in the subject are just not posts I am going to read. With apologies to Eric, I wouldn’t mind his having his own blog elsewhere that you link to on occasion. That said, it’s certainly not going to prevent me from reading your own blog posts.

    It may be the case that “the series’ best audience is probably either those who are already metaphysically versed” – this is obviously not me. (That other audience is even more obviously not me.) So I was wondering if you could suggest some other metaphysics-related reading material for those of us objecting to this Wicca series.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The standard introduction metaphysics text is Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy)

      No Wicca in it. :)

    • http://infinitegames.tumblr.com infinity

      A standard textbook for less than $60-70? Say it isn’t so…..

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      hahahaha Philosophy texts are usually cheaper than others.

    • cnjnrs

      Yes, I was pleased about that too. ;)

  • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    I do think atheists should develop alternative communities to theistic ones and I don’t mind if they take on “religious” character as long as they scrupulously avoid authoritarianism, faith-based believing, superstition, misogyny, homophobia, patriarchy, cultishness, irrationalism, out-group hatreds, exclusivity, sectarianism, blind traditionalism, and related vices.

    I haven’t read all the Wicca stuff – even as a philosopher myself I find much of it interminable. But I wanted to reaffirm this aspect of what Eric has been doing. I do think it is generally wise to see if religious traditions (including traditions like Wicca) have something to offer nonreligious people in their search to build communities based around Humanist values. Many of the things religious communities do are not going to be useful or valuable, but some might be, and it’s certainly worth looking!

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    He does not want to alienate [Wiccans] by using derogatory terms because he is explicitly trying to explain to them how they could still be Wiccan and yet embrace their reason more appropriately.

    And there are PLENTY of people in the Pagan community — Wiccans, Witches, Druids, Asatruar, Hellenics, etc. — who share exactly the same goal: embrace our beliefs and the legitimate emotional desires that underlie them, without losing touch with reason or reality, and without letting ourselves be conned by any of the rank bullshit that, yes, we know exists in the Pagan community.

    But does this give cover to frauds—even accidentally—as PZ charges?

    PZ makes this charge all the fucking time. He’s like a stopped clock in this regard, and whether he’s right depends on when you read his commentaries. Sometimes well-meaning Pagans give cover to frauds, and sometimes we actively attack them. Some of the booths you see at a Pagan event get lots of business, and others get quietly ignored, and if you look at the products on sale, you can rather easily see why some sell like hotcakes and others don’t. The problem with “new” atheists like PZ is that they start by lebelling all religious/spiritual beliefs “irrational,” then go on to conclude that since they’ve given all of them the same label, they must all be the same; therefore (for example) the Muslim firefighters who died on 9/11 were just as “irrational” as Mohammed Atta, and the Christian plaintiffs in the Dover case are just as “irrational” as the creationists.

    I’m not big on metaphysics, and I didn’t follow any of what Eric wrote here; but I do know that there are a lot of ideas and practices in “metaphysics” and “mysticism” that are known to have real, tangible benefits in people’s lives in the real world, independent of any belief in supernatural beings. I also know that ALL religions have stories that are obviously not literally true, but tell very important truths in non-literal ways. I get a feeling that even if Eric is dead wrong, he’s not wrong for the reasons PZ described.

    I believe we Pagans share common goals with atheists: we share a legitimate interest in religious freedom; we share contempt for the authoritarianism, backwardness and insanity that does so much harm under the cover of religion; and we share the acknowledged need to use reason to debunk all forms of harmful irrationality and dishonesty, including that within our own religious communities. I rarely (if ever) hear Pagans dissing atheists for being atheists, and I find it sad, silly, and disgraceful when atheists like PZ blindly piss all over people who have done them no wrong.

    • John Morales

      The enemy of my enemy, eh?

      (Hm)

    • abb3w

      Pretty much.

      After all, the historical sense of “Freethought” included non-traditional Christians such as liberal Quakers.

      And, as a practical matter, having 50% of the votes helps for social change. While the “Nones” are around 16%, and growing on a logistic curve against birth cohort, the fraction of Atheists within the Nones remains about a tenth. Adding Agnostics gives perhaps another fifth, and Deists another quarter. For effective political power to make sustained changes via the political process, you need a majority of the culture to go along with the policy. The fastest way to do this is to find other groups which share similar policy goals (if not motives), and figure out how to work together.

      So, we continue down the spectrum. Wiccans is a just few steps past the Discordians, Subgeniuses, and Pastafarians. Personally, I prefer the Quakers, but I suspect there’s more Wiccans these days.

    • grung0r

      The problem with “new” atheists like PZ is that they start by lebelling all religious/spiritual beliefs “irrational,” then go on to conclude that since they’ve given all of them the same label, they must all be the same; therefore (for example) the Muslim firefighters who died on 9/11 were just as “irrational” as Mohammed Atta, and the Christian plaintiffs in the Dover case are just as “irrational” as the creationists.

      You are confusing your favored ethics with rationality. It would be just as irrational to say: “We should love all people because they are rainbows” as it would be to say:”we should kill all people because they are rainbows”. People aren’t rainbows, full stop. Any conclusion one draws from that fact is irrational, regardless of whether that conclusion is ethical or beneficial. If the Muslim firefighters who died on 9/11 decided to do the things they did based on their belief that a middle eastern warlord and pedophile had the secrets of the universe revealed to him 1400 years ago by a magical invisible man in the sky, then yes, they were equally irrational, regardless of the fact that they were ethical and Atta was not.

      I also know that ALL religions have stories that are obviously not literally true, but tell very important truths in non-literal ways

      How is this different from any work of fiction, regardless of it’s pedigree or age? To pull a bad movie out of the hat, I can come up with important truths that Porky’s II has to tell, as inditing the patriarchal system in which we live, for instance. But while that may be a truth for me, would people really be wrong in seeing it as a celebration and enforcement of that very patriarchal system that I see indited? Obviously not. Remember this the next time you put ancient religious babble on a pedestal. Maybe you scratch out a nice meaning from “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” if you juck and jive and stretch enough, but most people are going to take from it exactly what it says: Go murder some motherfucking witches. God loves that kind of thing”.

  • colin hutton

    It *is* possible to give a coherent explanation of what Eric is trying to do; as demonstrated in this post. Why can’t Eric do so? Is it he, or mataphysics, that is the problem?

    • Ace of Sevens

      Yes, this. Why is Daniel better at explaining Eric’s goals and responding to his criticisms than Eric himself?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      My guess is that I think much more like the average Freethought Blogs reader than Eric does.

    • colin hutton

      A number of ambiguities can be read into that reply!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      HA! Well, I don’t mean them. I think Eric is much better at thinking like a professional philosopher than I am and so he naturally expresses himself in a technical philosophical vocabulary and sometimes probably assumes it is more obvious than it is to outsiders. He is already for the most part making things far more accessible and readable than what you’d find in peer reviewed metaphysics. But nonetheless he is comfortable in his categories, they’re well-developed categories among metaphysicians and even as he strips away jargon he still just thinks in those ways. And he gives people benefit of the doubt that they’ll get it or be willing to catch up by using the references he provides if they don’t.

      Plus Eric is not an evangelical atheist or an activist atheist or a New Atheist of any kind, really. So, he does not naturally and habitually send the signals that assure such readers, and they are on a hair trigger to attack anyone who does not send those signals clearly enough when talking about religion. No accommodation! In fact the need for these signals, the connection of the signals to almost creedal propositions, and the penalties people suffer for not giving the right signals is one of the symptoms of religiousness Eric sees in (what I call) identity-atheists.

      Now, I naturally give off the signals for a couple reasons. When I started blogging I had no idea there was an atheist community. I had a few brief (but utterly galvanizing) experiences reading just parts of the books by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. But long before them, I spent a process philosophy class in graduate school derailing the lecture complaining that Whitehead’s “God” was an equivocation that was confusing since normal people believed in the gods of superstition. Well before I had encountered any other passionate atheists or heard any atheist memes, I just had those concerns that it was dishonest to refer to the philosophers’ god with the same word the people in the pews used for their imaginary friend.

      Without any atheist community to encourage me, I just would be the guy who got into arguments with religious people and wouldn’t let things just slide. I just was like this. It was a consequence of coming out of fundamentalist Christianity (though I wouldn’t have called it such when I was a fundamentalist Christian) that I defined Christianity as that extreme and everything else as a dishonesty unwilling to own up to the truth of atheism.

      When I started blogging it was in part because I would post so many things on FB agitating against theists doing awful things in public. When I hit the blog it was with a vengeance. I was on a mission to counter the barrage of pro-theist memes. And so I reflexively just gave heavy qualifications to what I said so that no one would could possibly confuse what I said for an endorsement of any kind of theism or faith whatsoever. I wasn’t trying to reassure identity-atheists, I just simply was one—and it was reassuring. And next thing I knew I realized, “Wow, there’s this massive community here and they’re my natural readers.” I didn’t know that in advance.

      And then I was immersed in the community through the blog and then through Facebook connections and being immersed you get persuaded of various points that are particularly emphasized in our community that outsiders (even other non-theists like Eric) just might not get, you learn what all the controversies are and what pisses atheists off—basically you learn and share a basic worldview and you know how to effectively communicate within that shared worldview when disagreeing with others who share it.

      Finally though, going back to the first thing I said about Eric. I’m not like Eric. As a philosopher, I am not good at thinking technically. I have a habit of rederiving ideas every time I think them and just rarely take to the received categories of discussion. On account of this, I am relatively bad at sending signals to other professional philosophers that I am one of them. I don’t very often word things the way the community has developed its jargon and paradigms to say things. Instead I constantly go back to square one and try to derive each idea from premises I could give to the man on the street, premises which assume nothing massively controversial or technically developed over hundreds of years. In this way, even though I know plenty of philosophy, my vocabulary and my framing are not very jargon riddled or, comparatively speaking, technical.

      And, so, philosophers ignore my blog for the most part. Despite his having made far fewer posts on here, Eric’s posts have been picked up by philosophy blog carnivals without our even submitting them two or three times. And nearly every time I have submitted an article for a philosophy blog carnival they have just ignored it! I have a PhD in philosophy and teach at 5 schools and write as much philosophy online as almost anyone does. And yet I don’t send the signals that assure wary philosophers stopping by that I speak their language, get what they’re doing, am one of them.

      It’s frustrating, but that’s where I am. I am embracing my strengths—bringing philosophy to a level that educated lay people can learn and engage with it and have it connected to issues that they care about. I love doing this. And privately, I’m trying to catch up with the arcane terms of the contemporary discussions in the research so that I can translate my ideas, developed in my own idiom, into a form that analytic philosophers will appreciate and which will signal sufficient technical mastery for their approval.

      Finally, I write in a very dialectical manner and have for a long time. After every sentence I’m thinking about how someone might disagree with it or misinterpret it and building my whole argument around cutting off all those issues at the pass. This means I write very long, but very thorough stuff, and it means that a good 90% of the time I have the gratifying experience of readers asking new questions and raising new challenges rather than forcing me to repeat myself or to defend the very premises of my arguments. I naturally qualify everything to prevent misunderstandings in advance. It’s methodical to me. The audience is with me as I write and so when I write well they feel gratified to see I saw their concerns and at least tried to address them, and then they can go raise what I missed. One of my professors said my writing has a “contested” quality. It’s a great way of putting it—I write like I’m fully aware there are challengers out there.

      Eric does not do that. Eric lays out premises and explores their logical conclusions. He often does not bother to defend the premises or even to specify whether he agrees with them or not. His style is just to launch into laying out an argument out of curiosity. He just explicates. You want support for the premises? Read the books he put in the references, he’s not going to do your homework for you. So, that leaves the portion of the audience that does not feel any special reason to simply trust him or trust philosophy books on metaphysics to feel really alienated and left cold. They can’t get on board with the controversial premises or understand why Eric just put them out there without qualifications or without distancing himself from apparent problems with them. They see him as just pronouncing arbitrarily from on high. Then you make the topics a support of Wicca’s logical structures, a support of a counter-intuitive metaphysics, and a controversial call for atheists to build a Wicca-like religion, and when he is unresponsive in justifying his premises, some people get seriously frustrated. And then Eric observes the “religious” like quality of their demand for purity—no appearances of deviation from truth tolerated for a second—and talks about how they have a religion that makes Truth sacred, etc., and they’re clawing the walls.

      I wouldn’t do those things. I wouldn’t risk antagonizing atheists. Eric’s giving identity-atheists what they give religious people. I am an identity-atheist, it’s not in me to do that and I wouldn’t want to do that if I could. I only antagonize the fundamentalist atheists who most severely want to police atheist discourse for purity because they worry me too. They have the potential to wreck identity-atheism. Too much of identity-atheism is confused for fundamentalist when it’s not. But there’s a strand among us who cross that line into fundamentalism. They’re bad news for us. So I push back against their hostility sometimes.

      But even them I try to reason with. I don’t put an impenetrable bit of symbolic logic to confusingly prove you can both be an atheist and not be an atheist at the same time, and then ridiculously accuse atheists of the No True Scotsman Fallacy when they insist that that’s nonsense. Eric had a good point which was real atheists have messier psychologies than our normative definitions of atheism convey. This served his point that exploring the murkiness of atheist relations to religion is something that deserves to be done. But the symbolic logic to support a confusing assertion and with charges of fallacies to all who didn’t get it was not something that someone deeply passionate about the norms identity-atheists share would do.

  • Chris

    I find the dickish criticism in PZ’s article and in the comment box dismaying, so let me at least offer my support to Eric’s series. I’ve found his metaphysical explications interesting, and helpful in my efforts (poor so far) to understand the ‘God of Classical Theism’ (which seems similar to much of what he is describing here). It amazes me that so many atheists completely lose all sense and reading comprehension whenever they are in the presence of philosophy. Don’t they realize that to neglect philosophy hampers the atheism movement itself? If we’re all a bunch of rubes running around dismissing metaphysics as ‘a bunch of bullshit’, then atheism will continue to have the rug pulled out from underneath it when challenged by theistic philosophers. I see this happen all the time on Ed Feser’s blog, for example. Atheists charge in with the standard ripostes to this or that metaphysics (ripostes which I as an atheist am intuitively sympathetic to), only to then be egregiously whipped and embarrassed in the combox discussions. Many of the theists who comment there have very advanced knowledge of both science and philosophy (and the philosophy of science) – very few of the atheists seem to.

    I am totally sympathetic to the idea that metaphysics might all be a load of bollocks – but the key thing is to say why it is so, and appeals to ‘empiricism’, for example, don’t cut it, because empiricism is itself a philosophical opinion which cannot justify itself without philosophical support. Atheism needs metaphysics of some kind, or at least an understanding of theistic metaphysics. Howls of derision and cries of ‘bullshit’ don’t amount to much outside of the atheist echo chamber.

  • http://marniemaclean.com Marnie

    I found the series interesting but not particularly convincing. What did bother me (and it happened primarily in the comments but it did show up in the posts to a lesser degree) was this tone that Eric had already decided that there was a “good” kind of atheist and the rest of us needed to be brought around to this way of thinking. It was often a subtlety in his word choice, saying something like, “atheists should” instead of “some atheists might.” But I noticed it even more in comments when, for instance, in one of his last posts, he responds to someone who agrees with him as follows:

    Excellent! Beautiful! You’re proving with your life and practice exactly what so many of the atheist nay-sayers deny. Good for you!

    I tried to say this a few times in the comments. Atheism is not a means of understanding a person’s values or culture or needs. You might as well talk about what non-brunettes should do. Making blanket statements about how atheists should be or ought to worship is doomed to fail, and framing atheists who don’t share your values and views as “wrong” is divisive in a way that this series was never initially intended to be.

    I’m glad to have learned some things about Wicca and I don’t see any problems with having series that explore other religions in depth. I think it would have been more effective to keep it at that and make an atheistic religious series its own separate set of posts.

    • abb3w

      He definitely seemed really happy to find even minor signs of agreement.

  • sisu

    So, count me as a reader who totally checked out of this blog based on the Wicca series of posts. I have zero interest in wicca/paganism/”spirituality” didn’t understand what the series was aiming at. I tried to read a post or two and found the writing totally incomprehensible. This might be because I’m not a philosopher? but the few posts I slogged through, I neither understood what he was trying to say, nor why he was saying it.

  • HP

    You know what would be really helpful? If some philospher-blogger would actually demonstrate to non-philosophers what it is that philosophers actually do.

    I’ve been reading philosophy blogs for a while now, and more and more lately I’ve been paying less attention to the actual content and more attention to trying to figure out what’s going on. (As near as I can tell, the really difficult words in philosophy are not words like deontology or a priori, but words like of and for.) I think a lot of the animosity you get from non-philosopher skeptics is about arguing premises and conclusions, while philosophers are interested in the skill with which someone gets from A to C.

    Let me give you an analogy: I’m a trained musician. There are a lot of musicians whose mastery of the craft I admire, even while I don’t particularly care for the music. (For example, the Lawrence Welk Orchestra is an absolute textbook on how to perform music, but it’s not something I would listen to for pleasure.)

    My problem so far is that I’ve yet to see a philosophy blogger make the case for philosophy. It’s just assumed. It would be like me trying to teach music appreciation by telling a metalhead to watch the Lawrence Welk Show. I’m going to be praising the musicianship, and they’re going to be making fun of the clothes.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      A couple of points:

      1) At the risk of seeming like I’m blog promoting, I have a page and a couple of posts at my blog about what I think the philosophical method is and how it differs from the scientific method. I’m not sure that’s what you’re looking for, though.

      2) Why should philosophers at philosophical blogs have to make a case for philosophy? If you aren’t interested in philosophy, then you aren’t interested, and no one is making you read it. Just like the fact that I dislike biology simply means that I don’t study it, but I don’t go around making people make the case for it, or for anything else they find interesting. Historically, there are plenty of things that we rely on frequently that at least had their origins in philosophy, and philosophy is used quite credible and readily in cognitive science and ethics, so as a field it has had important results, but none of that should make you find it interesting. But if you don’t find it interesting, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t interesting; it just means that it isn’t your cup of tea.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks for the suggestion HP. Can you clarify it a bit more about where you lose us?

      For a rough answer in the meantime, philosophers do a lot of different things and each philosopher will characterize what we do somewhat differently. At its core, I would say philosophy is about getting at the essences of things. Now, natural science has gotten exceptionally good at describing things’ essences in empirical and quantifiable terms. That’s fantastic and so much that used to be called “philosophy” has evolved into something distinct called “science”. But there still remain problems that are intractable to empirical analysis. Some of these questions will some day be settled by science. Some of them seem to be of a sort that science’s methods of explanation are ill-suited for. Which are which are matters for debate too.

      On matters that cannot be settled empirically—either for the time being or in principle—what we have recourse to is our intuitions about how different concepts can be distinguished and related to each other. If there are concepts that are presently blurry and contain numerous contradictory or otherwise distinguishable ideas in them, philosophers want to parse out what all those distinct concepts are, how they differ and relate to each other. To take a practical example, the abortion debate made it important for philosophers to distinguish humanity and personhood. In everyday parlance if I say “you can’t kill a human” or “you can’t kill a person” these are functionally equivalent propositions for all intents and purposes. But there are differences between being just genetically human and actually being a person. In fact, you can theoretically imagine people who aren’t humans—like intelligent life from other planets. So, distinguishing humanity and personhood we can then ask, “can you kill a human who is not yet, or no longer, a person?” Now this opens up more room for debate about abortion and euthanasia.

      Getting into difficult questions of concept clarification and distinction has a great deal of value for every “non-philosophical” discipline and so there are philosophers who interface with every non-philosophical discipline. There are philosophers of mind working out different concepts related to what mind is or what thinking is or what consciousness is, etc. They work out hypothetical models that are clarified of contradictions. So when cognitive scientists make discoveries hopefully some of these models and distinctions will help us understand their implications more clearly. And, in the meantime, we can speak as coherently as possible, with as few conceptual contradictions or contradictions of the empirical science if we have a philosophers’ grasp of the relevant distinctions between different ways of believing, different ways of being aware, different ways of “minding”, etc.

      Similarly, we have difficult questions about being and non-being that lead many lay people to theism. They require analysis of our concepts to prevent contradictory views and to prevent views which contradict our best science.

      We have serious normative questions. What does it mean for there to be a true norm? What justifies a belief as worth being called knowledge or not? What justifies an action as worth being called right or wrong? How can we attain genuine objectivity and coherence in these matters? How can we tell science from pseudoscience or determine what a just politics requires? These require taking a lot of our intuitions and figuring out what is true and false in them, how are they consistent and inconsistent, and how can they best be related to our best empirical knowledge.

      Is this rough overview at all helpful?

    • aspidoscelis

      HP wrote:

      I think a lot of the animosity you get from non-philosopher skeptics is about arguing premises and conclusions, while philosophers are interested in the skill with which someone gets from A to C.

      Bingo. PZ’s objections to Steinhart’s posts, AFAICT, boil down to this: PZ has absolutely no interest in Wicca beyond “It’s a religion, right? So how do we go about making fun of them?” So when Steinhart starts examining in detail what exactly it is that Wiccans believe out of genuine curiosity, PZ doesn’t get it. If you’re not calling the religious stupid every other sentence, it sounds like pro-woo propagandizing to him.

    • aspidoscelis

      Expanding slightly:

      If you’re just interested in whether beliefs are true or false, PZ’s viewpoint makes a certain amount of sense. But if you’re interested in understanding exactly what people believe, how they got there, whether or not the underlying reasoning makes any sense, etc., whether or not they happen to be true moves somewhat into the background. This is deeply unsettling to PZ and a lot of other folks in the skeptic community…

  • felicis

    I noticed that Eric used ‘many atheists dislike metaphysics’ to start quite a few of his posts. Yet – his answers to questions about the specifics of the ontology he was using tended to be evasive enough that I eventually stopped asking (and later stopped reading). Perhaps a different experiment would be for him to make a case for metaphysics rather than for Wicca, since he seems more interested in defending metaphysics in any case.

    I think also that if he is going to use a word with a technical definition that might be misunderstood by the layman, he should let us know in advance and provide a link (at least) to the technical definition he is using.

    Overall, I would give him another try – with the caveat that he should also try to write for a non-professional audience.

    • Patrick

      A lot of the time, they can’t do that because part of their project is claiming the word for their own side. That requires maintaining the pretense that their use of the term in question is the normal one, and that readers who misunderstand are at fault. A lot of philosophy is a sort of combative linguistics.

    • http://marniemaclean.com Marnie

      I agree with both felicis and Patrick, that a lot of times it felt like there were semantic games being played. Words like “rational” and “perfect” and even “nature” were used without definition or in ways that were counter to readily accepted definitions. You can make a logically sound argument if you say that the meanings of the words should be presumed to fit what would be necessary to make the argument logical but that’s just begging the question.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

      While you may be right to describe philosophy as “combative linguistics”, I think you are going too far to ascribe not making terms clear as a standard part of philosophy. In general, terms do get used in technical ways, but it’s not always clear — especially in philosophy — when a term needs to be explained and when it doesn’t. I have also seen many cases where claims of “semantic games” are being raised against things I’ve said and my immediate internal reply is “No, I’m talking about what the words MEAN here, really mean!”.

    • http://marniemaclean.com Marnie

      @Verbose Stoic

      I have also seen many cases where claims of “semantic games” are being raised against things I’ve said and my immediate internal reply is “No, I’m talking about what the words MEAN here, really mean!”

      I don’t have any problem with people using language symbolically or in innovative ways, but when you are arguing that a theory is logically and scientifically sound, based on a set of logical “truths” along the lines of:

      1) A=B
      2) B=C
      3) Therefore A=C

      That’s fine if everyone agrees that A truly does equal B and B truly does equal C.

      But if someone says, “well, actually, A doesn’t equal B, A is distinctly different than B.” It’s not really reasonable to then come back and say “Well, I didn’t mean B the way everyone knows B, I mean B as something that is just like A”

      I’m not a philosopher, I’m a layman. When an argument is presented I break down its meaning as best as I’m able and see if it makes logical sense. If you intend to use words to mean something other than the generally accepted definitions, while outlining a theory that “proves” your assertion, I do believe the onus is on you to define what you mean.

    • aspidoscelis

      The relativistic response here might be–”If person X is using word Y in sense Z, Z is simply what Y means in the context of X’s writings.” Or, in a particular example, if Wiccans describe meditation and breathing exercises as “spiritual”, then that is the appropriate word to use for them if you’re explaining how the Wiccan worldview works, whether that’s the word we would have chosen or not.

      Whether that’s what Eric or anyone else involved intends, I do not know. However, substituting your own preferred definition, Z’, for the intended Z is at least a certain way to misunderstand whatever X wrote.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I’m not a philosopher, I’m a layman.

      You’re philosophizing very well, whatever you are.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The relativistic response here might be–”If person X is using word Y in sense Z, Z is simply what Y means in the context of X’s writings.” Or, in a particular example, if Wiccans describe meditation and breathing exercises as “spiritual”, then that is the appropriate word to use for them if you’re explaining how the Wiccan worldview works, whether that’s the word we would have chosen or not.

      Whether that’s what Eric or anyone else involved intends, I do not know. However, substituting your own preferred definition, Z’, for the intended Z is at least a certain way to misunderstand whatever X wrote.

      I think the juggling act that Eric had to perform was to both describe things in Wiccan terms and in reality terms. Where Wiccans believe in something that does not exist, their belief needed to be explicated on its own terms and then the reality they are misinterpreting needed to be explained. Eric was constantly doing this, only he was not doing it in the same posts all the time and most posts did not spell out clearly:

      “In this post I’m going to explain how the Wiccans talk about x, then explain why x does not exist as the literalist Wiccans claim at all but when talking about x the Wiccans are really communicating their sense of z. Here is why z is a great atheistic metaphysical concept or why z is a psychological mechanism or practice worth paying attention to. If they stop believing in x and understand that it is really z, then they can be in touch with reality and their rituals, meditative practices, symbolic language, and celebrations will all be about something real and true and rationalistic, and then they can be used by atheists to get the benefits of religion without all its irrationalistic drawbacks.”

      This was the formula of each cycle in Eric’s series, and of the series of the whole, and it’s a really ambitious and thought provoking approach that illuminates surprising things. Unfortunately, without making the overall formula clear and without starting each post with a “You are here” marker and an overall map of the terrain, some people were seriously put off (both atheists and Wiccans) and suspicious of his intentions.

      What I thought was the upside, however, was that there were a lot of people who confirmed Eric’s thesis that there was room for common ground between pagans and atheists by attesting to how they dumped the woo but kept the rituals when they became atheists, or how they were atheists who still prayed even though they knew no one was listening, or how they came to atheism from Christianity but through Wicca. Such comments revealed that there were a lot of interesting varieties of atheistic religious experience out there which are worth describing and exploring the implications of.

      Eric’s series was an attempt to systematically address what’s going on with precisely these kind of borderland people. He was trying to get outside the strictures of received categories and make sense of what is going on with these non-conventional atheists and pagans, and to speculate about how atheists and pagans can best learn from each other for both their benefits as both groups of people grow quickly in the near future in America. He was arguing that atheists could learn how to be religious without being theistic and how Wiccans could learn how to enjoy their symbols and psychologically helpful practices without being irrationalists.

    • http://marniemaclean.com Marnie

      @Daniel

      Eric was constantly doing this, only he was not doing it in the same posts all the time and most posts did not spell out clearly:…[edited for brevity]

      I really like how you go on to frame the statement and for me, it wasn’t just that Eric didn’t explicitly state those thoughts, it was that frequently, I felt Eric expressed a value judgement about people who accept the premises and people who don’t, or people who embrace metaphysics and people who don’t. I think that’s a lousy way to introduce Wicca to a free thought audience.

      To be fair though, to your point:

      What I thought was the upside, however, was that there were a lot of people who confirmed Eric’s thesis that there was room for common ground between pagans and atheists by attesting to how they dumped the woo but kept the rituals when they became atheists

      I was just as guilty, early on of my own value judgements. I don’t need ritual or metaphysics in my life but reading some of the other comments it is clear that some people do still value aspects of their pagan beliefs but wish to do so, woo-free. I did try to be more careful to state why *I* might not accept the premise or why *I* don’t feel one argument logically follows another. If I am going to accuse Eric of telling me I’m the “wrong” kind of atheist, I can’t be blithely going along doing the same thing to others.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks, Marnie. I think Eric’s congratulations to the non-conventionalists were probably driven by a combination of several things:

      On the most human level, he was probably excited that people’s anecdotal testimonies were confirmations of his theses about possible fruitful overlaps between pagans and atheists and about the existence of atheists who are in need of his kinds of help in giving abstract expression to their ambiguous experience of being both rationalist and non-conventionally religious.

      Secondly, I think he is just genuinely interested in such people and has compassion for their predicament being in an intellectual and religious no man’s land. I think he wanted to be affirmative to them. He himself is not a very superstitious person at all. He’s a very brain heavy person—he’s a philosopher. But he realizes how important other people’s religious impulses are and is very concerned about meeting whatever needs come with them. And he’s very curious about how these people think and was excited to hear them out. For these sorts of reasons, I think he expressed a grateful enthusiasm whenever they’d show up.

      Thirdly, I think the immediate belligerent hostility he frequently meets from reflexively anti-metaphysical and anti-religious atheists created a combative relationship between him and them. In a different context, in a different debate, he’d be just as supportive of them, I imagine. But I take it that he finds them hypocritically fundamentalist and myopic with a low tolerance for anything which deviates from a narrow set of permitted propositions—even if only speculatively. In this context, seeing people who were outside of the suffocating straitjacket of positivistic, anti-religious hostility, probably was a breath of fresh air to him. And, he may have even been especially concerned to affirm the non-conformists also because of the hostility of the most doctrinaire atheists towards any atheists who dare to not be completely anti-religious, or, even worse, to develop religious practices.

      Now, all of that said, there are plenty of atheists who need not be religious because it would be of no benefit to them but who could also understand the value of religion for others and approve of it if only it were rationalistic and atheistic and non-authoritarian and progressive, etc. If such people were the dominant representatives of irreligious atheists—if there were lots of atheists chiming in to say, “you know this isn’t for me, but as long as you don’t repeat the mistakes of authoritarian, superstitious religions then more power to you”, I don’t think he would have become hostile to irreligious atheists. In other words, they started it.

      Plus, I think he made it clear that he thinks that the hostile irreligious atheists are behaviorally religious about truth and in denial about this. I think, as a rationalist, he was put off by not only the self-deception involved in that but the hypocrisy that those most divinizing truth, wouldn’t even be honest enough to admit to it or to seriously and introspectively consider it as a hypothesis.

  • Steve Schuler

    My very limited experience with PZ Myers is that he tends to generates much more heat than light, and in this latest article he maintains that tradition.

    I am a very recent newcomer to Camels With Hammers and have found it to be the most substantive atheist blog that I have come upon. I think that I have much benefitted from Eric’s series of articles and the conversation generated by them. While Daniel has been otherwise occupied and not posting as much as he might usually, I have read a number of Dan’s previous articles linked in the sidebar and found his voice to be a very positive and constructive one making it exceptional in the chorus of anti-religious negativity that seems to be typical of most sectors of the atheist blogosphere.

    I, for one, much appreciate what these guys are doing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist chrishallquist

    Daniel,

    I’d like to second sisu. Part of PZ’s complaint, which you seem not to have picked up on, were that Eric’s posts were not well-written.

    I subscribe to the entirety of Freethought Blogs in my Google Reader, but I don’t automatically read a post unless it’s written by Greta Christina. I scan the headline, first few sentences, sometimes check the overall length, and if it’s a long post that doesn’t immediately hook me, it’s on to the next one. Eric’s posts were, unfortunately, long posts that never hooked me.

    So for example, you write:

    So Eric’s express, oft-repeated goal has been to show Wiccans how they can have what they at least claim to want—a naturalistic, experimental, non-authoritarian religion—in ways that are genuinely rational and stripped of the woo which Eric calls a “sickness”.

    If this had been in the first paragraph (or two) of the first post, I might have actually read the series. But his actual first paragraphs gave me no motivation to do so.

  • jamessweet

    I’ll be honest, I started actively avoiding Eric’s entries even before Camels with Hammers made the jump to FtB. It got so I could tell even without looking at the author if it was Eric writing: If I got more than two paragraphs in without saying, “No no no, that’s not right at all!”, that it had to be Daniel; otherwise, Eric. Seriously!

    I make no judgment as to whether what Eric is doing is valuable or legitimate. I just don’t personally care for it.

    And of course PZ was being a major dick about it… you may not have noticed, but that’s sort of what PZ does. Just as some people like what Eric is doing and some don’t, some people like what PZ does and some don’t. I find it pretty entertaining and often useful. But yeah, his totally lack of nuance sometimes causes him to miss the boat, and he is a complete dick a lot of the time. :shrug:

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    SAWells,

    Let’s reconstruct the comment you were replying to to see how your argument is shaking out. Dan started by talking about Eric’s solution to the problem of why there is something rather than nothing. You replied that it might not be a problem. Your reasoning? Because you know that it is possible for the universe to exist but have no evidence that it is possible for it to not exist. So, presuming that you were using that against his argument, my reply is pretty much as I said in the first one: you are positing that the answer to the question is that the universe might have necessary existence. And sure, that’s a possible answer. It’s even one I favour; I believe that something must have necessary existence for there to be something rather than nothing, and have no objections to it being the universe. But that is not demonstrating that there is no problem, but is instead advocating for a specific solution, one that must be analyzed and argued for just like Eric’s does.

    And it is not uncontroversial. If you consider the universe to be simply the set of all things that exist and not as an entity in its own right, then there is evidence that we could indeed have a null set, which would be nothing enough to cause the problem that you claim we may not have. Additionally, if the universe is an entity then the fact that all of the entities we have encountered so far cease to exist standard generalization gives us reason to ask why the universe entity would be an exception. Surely you won’t accept it as an exception merely because it avoids a problem you want to avoid, right?

    So it doesn’t work as a solution since it needs to be defended, and is not in and of itself a reason to say that we don’t have a problem if it is not treated as a solution. Ergo, that’s not any sort of damaging reply to Eric; again it does not address his argument, but simply brings in a potential counter-argument that merely says “We don’t know”.

    Which is the same thing you did with the Big Bang and multiverse examples. Checking up on it, you are right that it doesn’t strictly talk about the universe being created (although, depending on how we define universe, it might imply that). But all that gets you is saying “We don’t know if the universe is necessary or if it had to be created”, which is the precise same thing you said about multiverses. All that does is, again, get you talking about something that does not address Eric’s argument, and backing you into a strongly held “I don’t know!” position.

    Thus, I repeat: what evidence do you want or expect for it being possible that the universe not exist?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Just a quick note, the post where Eric discussed theories about why there is something rather than nothing that I alluded to was not from the last month. It was from the summer of 2010: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/07/01/6-basic-kinds-of-answers-to-the-question-why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing/

      It may be of interest to your current discussion.

    • SAWells

      I’m glad you now see that the Big Bang theory does not imply a “creation” of the universe.

      I have no idea what would constitute evidence for the possibility of the universe not existing, but if anyone claims to have any I am willing to pay attention.

      My beef is with people who propose “explanations” for “why the universe exists” – e.g. the Immanent Power of Being did it – without actually establishing that the problem exists in a form to which “Power of Being” even _could be_ an answer.

  • Amavra

    I appreciated these posts, though I fully understand why they were not widely received on this blogspot on the internet. That means no offense to either the blog or the blog-group, just it did seem to be somewhat more aimed at people who were already sympathetic to neo-paganism but also skeptical of it. That is a rather narrow group of people I think.

    I have pointed it out to my group to see how they feel about it. We’ve recently had a d division because some supposed high degree Wiccan has started coming and trying to explain how weak our magic is when that has never been the focus of the group anyway. It has really turned a lot of people off, and I think there are more pagans out there who value this kind of rationalism over the woo than one might think.

    I am more interested in metaphysics than I thought, and I will be sure to read from highly regarded philosophers in order to learn more. Metaphysics has been a bit of a loaded word to me since some bad experiences with “grand wizards” in the past (and now again – sheesh). Anyway, I am not sure I am the typical person these blogs are meant for, and I don’t comment often but I enjoy lurking, even over at pharyngula. I appreciated the insights and concerns of Eric, I am more than willing to admit that often I prefer things simply because I like the romantic notions and don’t care overly much if they aren’t strictly rational.

    Ultimately, I understand why many atheists have no patience or use for this kind of stuff. I don’t know if there is a way to be sure what can be helpful or useful for someone unless there is some conversation about it, and I think this was a good start.

  • walton

    I agree with Daniel that metaphysics in particular, and philosophy in general, is an important field, and I am dismayed that some atheists dismiss it out of hand. I’ve enjoyed many of Daniel’s posts on the subject of the foundations of morality and ethics, although I don’t think I agree with him (I’ve got more sympathy with a kind of moral emotivism, although my view on this subject is evolving and I need to read more about it).

    That said, I haven’t been reading Eric’s posts about Wicca – not because of any animosity towards Eric, but because I don’t have a particular interest in Wicca. Unlike many nontheists, I was never Wiccan and don’t move in those social circles, and don’t know a lot about it. I think there is a case for a liberal, non-authoritarian, non-traditionally-theistic religion, but my inclinations in that regard run more to Unitarian Universalism. (Of course some UUs are keen on paganism and earth-centred spirituality, but that isn’t my thing personally.)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks walton. And, of course, I’d never fault anyone for not being interested on account of flat out disinterest. The topics on the blog will be more routinely rotated as usual now that I’m back. Thanks for still checking in at least in the meantime!

  • felicis

    In reference to comments 16.2 (overview of just what is it philosophers do when philosophizing):

    Thanks! My entire background in philosophy comes from a single introductory course taken in the 80′s plus whatever I’ve managed to pick up since then in my random reading habits…

    and 16.5 (Eric’s congratulatory tone):
    I found Eric to be very pleasant in his responses to everyone, even those of us who disagreed with him (or at least asked some tough questions). I got a couple of “Good question!” from him, and while I wasn’t always happy with the responses, I sometimes was as well.

    To put it into a teaching perspective – it’s like we’re a somewhat unruly introductory class who have a strong background in logic and argumentation, but not necessarily in philosophy – thus our impatience with the use of technical language when it’s not specified and our dislike of some statements that may be ‘obvious’ to a philosopher with the background to appreciate all that went into it, but ‘bafflegab’ to those of us without that background.

    I am getting ready to teach calc I for the winter term, and one of the things I need to remind myself to do is to keep away from any discussion of linear operators or Hilbert spaces – even though these concepts are fundamental to the theory, they are far beyond what the students are ready to hear.

    I, for one, would love to have Eric do a series of posts explaining metaphysics at a *basic* level so that we could then perhaps go back to his Wicca series and see what he was trying to get at.

    • SAWells

      Since Eric has said things like “Nominalists will disagree but we don’t have to pay any attention to them”, I don’t think I’ll rely on him to present the field of metaphysics objectively.

    • felicis

      By its very nature, can there be an ‘objective’ metaphysics? I’d be happy with a biased introduction that allowed me to go further on my own later.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Since Eric has said things like “Nominalists will disagree but we don’t have to pay any attention to them”, I don’t think I’ll rely on him to present the field of metaphysics objectively.

      It’s a matter of aims. Of course he can explain arguments for nominalism to people and the arguments which make him reject it. The point of his posts though was to lay out an atheistic ontology he found plausible and to make connections between it and the symbology of Wicca. He wasn’t interested in this round of writing numerous posts on universals, for whatever reason. His acknowledgment of nominalists was just a way of saying, “I’m not working within that paradigm here, that’s another debate.” That’s perfectly legitimate to do given his aims in the series. You have different questions that drive you. So do I! But that does not make it a fault that Eric wrote about what interested him and other readers who have few philosophers of religion writing for them (i.e., the many who exist in the philosophical and religious nether regions between New Atheism and paganism.

  • NDDave

    Given the way American book stores are laid out, many readers might hear “leading metaphysicians” and think Deepak Chopra and crystals and other New Age bullshit.

    It’s certainly a common connection, given the tendency for purveyors of bullshit to try and handwave away any criticism with ‘It’s metaphysics’. However, I tend to consider the term metaphysics in a way similar to as I do the word quantum, as an actual field of thought that is commonly swamped by woo.

    And given Eric’s choice of advocating metaphysics by mingling it liberally with posts affirming a pagan religion which is highly associated with those sorts of woo, I am afraid he may have accidentally only further cemented the association between metaphysics and superstitious fraudulence in many atheists’ minds.

    He was doing a fairly good job of that, yes. Or at least reinforcing the similarities between metaphysics and magical thinking. Not his intent perhaps, but that was the effect it had on me, at any rate.

    since he brought up some very counter-intuitive ideas about metaphysics at the same time that he was giving an alternatingly neutral, sympathetic, and critical account of a (frankly) bullshit belief system (from a literal point of view), I think he pushed some readers (PZ most notably) farther away from metaphysics rather than closer to it.

    The part where he defined atheist in such a way where if someone worships Thor, Odin and the rest of the Norse pantheon and actively believes that they exist, intervene in the world, and reward the brave with an afterlife in Valhalla, they are still counted as being atheist didn’t help, either. I could define atheist as ‘someone who like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches’ and thus turn most of the US into atheists, but it wouldn’t mean much.

  • Sheesh

    Anyone still here?

    Dan, you said this at the end

    psycho-social needs of atheists who miss what religions uniquely provide, and to understand what we are dealing with with this growing Wicca religion in America.

    Taking as granted psycho-social “needs”, can you give us some examples of what religions (as us lay people use the word) uniquely provide, because this is where the friction with anti-religious atheists is coming from. (I guess the caveat here is that something isn’t uniquely religious if you know there’s a secular or humanist example. Humanism isn’t a religion, right? Or is that the confusion, you guys call just whatever you want a religion, like that “truth is a religion to new atheists!” quip?). Personally, living in the American south, post-9/11, I don’t have a lot of room to see religion as anything but toxic. So if there’s some bits “religions uniquely provide” somewhere that don’t deserve to be up against the wall as it were, I’d really like to know.

    Further up thread, a couple commenters were defending “theistic philosophers” (which I guess means philosophers of theism or theology, right?) — if such philosophers aren’t atheist themselves aren’t they by definition charlatans (!!) and deserving of being at least ignored in light of Dan’s explanation here, up thread?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I think that it is distinctively a “religious” thing you are doing when you are some combination or another of a significant number of the following things are all going on: group identity formation, rites for marking major life events with this set apart group, rituals, metaphysical teachings, meditative practices, prioritization of supreme values, feasts, recitations, initiation practices, tests of loyalty, costly signaling systems, ethical formation, and values transmission to children through traditional forms and rites. One could think of more things that create a distinctively religious dynamic.

      Not any one of those things by itself makes for religion, by any means. And not all are necessary for there to be a religion. But it’s the interweaving of (a) ritual practices with (b) fundamental identities with (c) metaphysical systems with (d) inordinate devotion to a set of values with (e) a community which binds people using these four things, that strikes me as unavoidably “religious”. I don’t think the distinctively awful things like authoritarianism, faith, regressive or stagnating forms of traditionalism, irrationalism, theism, dogmatism, patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, racism, nationalism, etc. are necessary for religion. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. There are a lot of non-theistic religions. Monotheism is a peculiar phenomenon, it’s not the be all and end all of human religious expression. We shouldn’t give it that credit. Or be afraid of being called broadly “religious” when we start doing a-e and becoming functionally at least very much like religions.

      Further up thread, a couple commenters were defending “theistic philosophers” (which I guess means philosophers of theism or theology, right?) — if such philosophers aren’t atheist themselves aren’t they by definition charlatans (!!) and deserving of being at least ignored in light of Dan’s explanation here, up thread?

      No, when doing philosophy, theistic philosophers do philosophy, not theology. Just the way theistic biologists like Ken Miller or Francis Collins can do biology when doing biology, not theology. Theistic philosophers, when doing straight up philosophy and not merely philosophical theology, make rational arguments that do not beg the question in favor of completely specious sources as theologians do. They reason from the same set of philosophical ideas that we all have access to. I think they’re wrong, but they make arguments that beg no questions and assume no superstitions or demand allegiance to any spurious ancient texts or religious hierarchy—and so they deserve to be heard out as much as anyone else. And, rest assured, without silencing the philosophical theists in anyway, quite naturally professional philosophers have wound up 84% non-theist. We’re doing okay.

    • Sheesh

      Thanks so much for replying so early in the morning! From what you said though, there’s nothing religions uniquely provide. That’s a relief to me. What with all that naive, hippy “Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too” that I’d like to imagine.


      “I think they’re wrong, but they make arguments that beg no questions and assume no superstitions or demand allegiance to any spurious ancient texts or religious hierarchy”

      And this is kind of my quibble or concern, I know there are some theistic philosophers, and a small minority at that, but if they are double-thinking and bullshitting (telling me something atheistic without special pleading, etc., while actually believing themselves) doesn’t that make them sort of as I said before, charlatans? Can you tell me “God is dead” at the same time you (imo) falsely, unethically hold to God-belief?

    • grung0r

      when doing philosophy, theistic philosophers do philosophy, not theology.

      What exactly is the difference? When someone posits the Ontological argument for god, for instance, it would seem to me to be appropriate to call that theology. But when Eric posits the ontological argument for the immanent ultimate creative power of being, it’s philosophy?

      This isn’t meant to be snarky or combative. There very well may be a difference, but I honestly don’t see what it is.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      As far as I’m concerned the difference between philosophy of religion and theology is that philosophy of religion is not done within the arbitrary dictates of a religious tradition. In other words, there is no special privileging of religious texts or documents. We are just examining our concepts and our knowledge of science, etc. and seeing where it leads us. This theoretically could lead to accepting there is a god of some philosophically discoverable type, completely divorced from any appeals to religious traditions as authoritative evidence for this being. You can think about the philosophy of god—what would an ultimate being be like, etc. from religiously neutral standpoints. You need have no connection to anything theologically arbitrary and tradition bound. Aristotle’s philosophy of god has been adapted by people with wildly different theologies. It’s purely philosophical. It has nothing to do with demi-gods who intervene in human affairs and write books and take an active interest in your sex life. It’s just a metaphysical concept with reasons for it and reasons against it, like any other speculation in metaphysics.

      Further, in a more mundane sense, I meant to say that theistic philosophers can do normal philosophy not just about God but about other topics. Their theism does not have to be relevant to everything by any means.

  • colin hutton

    Dan – thank you for your detailed response to the somewhat cryptic remarks, @12, from me and Ace. I appreciate the excellent further explication of what Eric has been on about. Persuasive, but not enough that I will revisit or go beyond the couple of his posts that I first tried. He does not write well enough to make it worth the effort.

    Notwithstanding my criticism, I have a suggestion for a further/follow-up post from Eric.

    It seems to me that he has missed, right in front of his nose, a promising community around which an atheistic ‘religion’ could be built. After all, it already has around 30,000 enthusiastic members who are dedicated to rationalism and truth. And a number of established orthodoxies and memes. And, unlike Wicca, it is, and promises to remain so, entirely free of woo.

    And I am being entirely serious. An analysis of the Pharyngula phenomenon (and its proprietor!), along the lines of your explanation of what Eric’s intention is, could be fascinating. He should tone down the metaphysical b.s. of course and even then be ready to withstand some ferocious commentary.

  • colin hutton

    Re-reading what I said above, it could perhaps be taken as my being critical of Pharyngula. Not. It and this one are two of the four blogs that I routinely follow. I like the contrasting styles. For example, PZ’s description of someone (a good search facility is overdue at ftb) as a “clueless gobshite” who should “fuck off” lacks the philosophical rigour I would expect to find over here. And may even prove unpersuasive to the target. Doesn’t mean I don’t find it amusing and vicariously satisfying.


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