Lord Cthulhu Comes To Camels With Hammers: An Interview With PZ Myers


PZ Myers of Pharyngula needs no introduction. The interview with him below was done as part of a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. Please donate to this worthy organization! And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Daniel Fincke: How did Pharyngula get so massive? As a blogger, knowing how hard it is to both generate and sustain traffic, I am just amazed at the traffic you have going through your blog. What was it? Was it crackergate? Was it the prominent mention in Richard Dawkins? Was it your awards? When did you really see things take off to rarefied blogosphere heights and what was your reaction? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you talk about this.

PZ Myers: You know how they say there’s no such thing as an overnight success? It’s true.

I’ve got the logs somewhere, and know the broad trends in traffic at Pharyngula. It just slowly started to rise, and when you plot it month to month, it’s practically linear. Little blips like a link from Reddit or getting expelled from Expelled have a big effect when you look at traffic day to day, but they don’t make a big difference in the big picture. So nope, no simple cause. Just persistence and reliability and building an audience.

I tell people all the time — don’t bother looking at your traffic logs. Write what you want because it’s what you want to write, and if no one comes to read it, write it for you. It’s the only way to be happy doing this blogging thing.

Daniel Fincke: I saw you balked pretty hard yesterday at Plantinga claiming that the New Atheists think evolution proves God does not exist. Now, I got that part of what you were saying was that the concept of God is incoherent and I think you were taking issue with the word “prove” as being too strong. But I’m not sure, so I’d like to clarify what you would think of this argument I use.

The theory of natural selection shows that gene variation, including mutations, combined with environmental competition for resources over millions of years can generate all the different species we observe. That process looks like it has chance involved in it since mutations seem to be random, i.e., they do not always or even usually generate anything particularly special and can sometimes be harmful. The process looks like it depended on truly random variations over time that were then selected not randomly but not intelligently but “naturally” by the environment.

So, given all these facts, to hypothesize an intelligent designer also being involved in the a process that looks like it has randomness + mathematically explicable natural selection patterns to it is as superfluous as saying “lightning is caused by an electrical discharge. And Thor.” A personal and all knowing god looks so completely unnecessary and counterintuitive to the dynamics we are observing as to be worth discarding.

Now that’s not a proof and I concede deistic god arguments or other cosmological arguments need a separate refutation. But would you agree with me that evolution gets us that far? Far enough to say we know as well that God does not guide evolution as we know that Thor does not cause lightning—even if that is not 100% certainty?

Or do you think the facts of evolution and its dynamics only more modestly refute the personal god hypothesis?

PZ Myers: I think Richard Dawkins would agree with me that the only kind of god even remotely compatible with the scientific evidence is the deistic god — not the kind of personal being most Christians seem to believe in.

The process of evolution is largely driven by chance and circumstance, and we can model it quite well and leave out Supreme Diddlers entirely. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that, for instance, Xordaxians visited the planet 6 million years ago and jazzed up some ape genomes with traits that put them on a track to live in an intelligence-rewarding niche…but that ain’t the god the Christians worship, either. The personal god is not only unnecessary and counterintuitive, though — it also makes no sense to call an alien gene-jockey a “god”.

That’s one of the reasons I reject the whole god-concept. They have to tell me precisely what they mean by “god”, or stop using the term.

Daniel Fincke: I agree. So, let’s cover something we disagree about. I am all onboard with us atheists making pretty much any true, philosophically and cogently sound argument against gods that we can. I am all for atheists risking offending people when that is because those people are oversensitive or expect undeserved deference for their religious beliefs. I am also all for using any number of harsh specific accurate descriptors to denounce the evil that people do. I am willing to pull no punches in calling the illogical “illogical” and the false “false”. I want atheists to be vocal, I want us to be proud, I want to be willing to have difficult, even tense conversations with believers for the sake of truth and truthfulness.

But I am completely against name-calling because I think it is degrading, distracting, and inaccurate. There are so many precise ways to specify someone’s incorrectness that can be backed up by evidence. But adding “idiot” to it adds nothing but an insult. It adds no evidence, it gives the other person nothing to consider, it’s just a punch in the face. And it is bullying and encourages the kind of tribalism that I can’t stand.

So, this is all to say, why bother with name-calling when more precise words, which can be tethered to evidence and arguments, and not give people a legitimate excuse to deflect attention to your actually condescending tone, would do? This is the one place where as much as I admire your blog and your acumen as a thinker, I feel uneasy reading you.

PZ Myers: First thought that comes to mind: why are you trivializing physical violence, like a punch in the face, by comparing it to a verbal insult? An insult isn’t even a threat.

Second thought: “idiot” is actually a very precise word. It says exactly the message I want to communicate, that the person promoting a particular idea is clearly not very bright to be doing so.

There are ideas that are damaging and destructive and clearly do great harm in the world. I cannot be gentle and accommodating in the face of freaking lunacy being promulgated by ignorant or malicious persons, and I will not soft-peddle it by being polite to stupid people.

I’m also committed to honest expression. If I feel contempt for someone, I’ll let them know.

Daniel Fincke: I don’t think I am trivializing physical violence. You risk trivializing emotional violence. And don’t underestimate the way that dehumanizing language is the first step towards dehumanizing behaviors. People can be very hurt and they have a right to be, when disrespected by words.

PZ Myers: Their feelings can be hurt. Again, don’t promote this confusion between real violence and words.

This is not to say feelings aren’t real — of course they are. But sometimes you have to metaphorically slap people’s feelings hard to get them to wake up.

Daniel Fincke: “Idiot” is not a specific word in that you know that the smartest people in the world believe some dumb things. It has nothing to do with intellectual ability but the wrong premise getting stuck in your head or a miseducation or a normal cognitive error, etc. It is usually not accurate to call people idiots.

I don’t mind you expressing contempt. Calling someone a misogynist and abusive or authoritarian or a charlatan or a thousand other more precise and defensible words are all ways to convey contempt for them. But there are certain words that are understood to be simply insults.

So to me discourse in a democracy means respecting everyone’s right to speak and to be considered a formal equal. On that level they do not deserve to be denigrated with pure insults. But their misogyny, their charlatanism, etc. can be called out in no uncertain terms. How do we maintain minimal civility for a discourse that is not about compounding hatreds if we use terms that are purely insults and not harsh factual descriptors?

PZ Myers: Sometimes, I don’t want civil discourse. There’s no point to politeness when you’re arguing with people who profess uncontroversially bad ideas.

Daniel Fincke: I’m not conflating the physical and the emotional. But how much feminist, anti-racist, and LGBT discussion is about the power of language and the importance of language and how even words that are not intended to hurt people can do serious damage and perpetuate ugly power systems or exclude people, etc.

Our entire view of the world is encoded in our language and in our choices of words. This is why regardless of what I intend I can exclude someone with fairly typical, everyday language.

My point is not that you cannot hurt people’s feelings. Calling them any kind of accurate ethically denunciatory word runs the risk of hurting their feelings. Heck, even a logical, neutral word (to me) like “absurd” caused a Christian I knew who otherwise claimed to like my writing to unfriend me in a huff. And I told him, no, I’m not taking that word back. It was perfectly defensible in the context. The historical argument we were having was not even a debate in history.

So, I am not about just protecting feelings. Piss off believers all you want by calling them out on nonsense or evil.

What I am bothered by, and I think gives us a justly bad reputation when atheists do it is, is language that says you are beneath engaging as an equal. Now you may say, “we’re not all really equals”. And that’s true. But normatively, the agreement in a civil society is to treat all people with that minimum respect. Respect his bad ideas? No. Respect his evil actions. No. Respect his character? No. But you can denounce all those things without resorting to one of the words that in our language signifies “Other to be discounted as beneath contempt.”

Hold people in contempt. That says, I respect that you can do better as a minimally rational and ethically capable human being and look, “you’re saying absurd things and perpetuating downright evil.”

But name-calling, as I experience it and see it affect others says this person is not even worth respecting as a fellow human being, they’re Otherable. And again, that’s the road to further ugliness if that thought gets too deeply seated in a tribe’s mind.

And, again, it completely distracts from the arguments we make, which are vitally important. And we lose the moral high ground.

So, I get that we can hurt feelings. I get that we can express honest and justified contempt. But treating people as though they are beneath contempt in the civil square is what I think of as inappropriate. Regardless of however you might feel about it.

PZ Myers: So, don’t.

Daniel Fincke: I think of the New Atheist/accommodationist divide as fascinating because I think that even though some of the most prominent atheists on the New Atheist side are ambivalent to philosophy in the abstract, essentially we on the New Atheist side are actually dividing from accommodationists in our uncompromising commitment to philosophy.

We take our stand that matters of ethics, matters of metaphysics, matters of epistemology, and matters of philosophy of religion are worth having public fights over. The accommodationists have no problem with science at all. They are more than willing to fight for science. It is the philosophical implications of the science and the philosophical and ethical consequences of religions that they treat as unimportant.

Do you tend to agree or disagree with my characterization of the New Atheist side of that debate as a commitment to philosophy primarily? Is that what you understand yourself to be doing?

PZ Myers: Personally, I’m a guy with an appreciation of philosophy, and think it’s important to understand both science and atheism. Among the New Atheists, you’ve certainly got Dan Dennett, who probably thinks philosophy is important. Is it a general property of the New Atheists? I don’t think so. We just had the examples of Lawrence Krauss and Hawking dismissing philosophy altogether. Then there are philosophers like Michael Ruse who are clearly way out there with the accommodationists, and Pigliucci, who is in a category of his own, neither New Atheist nor Accommodationist.

So I don’t think you can draw a boundary as sharply as you have here. It’s more complicated than that. I’d like to think that the New Atheists were philosophically aware, but I’m not confident about saying so.

I think the bigger difference between the two camps is sociological. We’re willing to see the problem of religion as a root cause of the conflicts between people and reality, and would like to extirpate it; the other side likes religion, and just wants to prune back the more troublesome symptoms.

Daniel Fincke: Yes, the way I look at that is that the Ruses of the world are just willing to sell philosophy down the river. I find it appalling. I read an (excellent) philosophical article of his from back in the day and one thing about it just is so false. He claimed essentially that “the truth cannot set you free”, no matter what we learn about the world we will just be wired with our moral tendencies and so even if we learn that morality is not really real (as he thinks and I would disagree about) we will inevitably have morality. But all I could think is, yeah, but what kind???

If someone says to you, PZ, I have no interest in gods and down the line I’m with you on ethical issues. I just want a place I can lose myself in rituals, discuss philosophy, celebrate holidays, learn how to meditate, have a community, raise my kids with values rooted in reality and not fables, and sing songs. And I want to do all this stuff together. I want to still do this like a religion but around a modern understanding of truth and the good.

How do you advise this person?

PZ Myers: What a weird mix. Why are they asking me? This sounds like a reasonably sensible person with some quirks (meditation and rituals? Bleh, not my thing), but it seems like they’re already in the freethought camp. Why not join a liberal Jewish community, the UUs, the humanists? Everything other than that meditation and ritual stuff you can find by joining a bowling team, or playing D&D, or working in community theater, too.

Also, why do them all together? My local fitness center offers courses in meditation, the school has evening courses in the arts and philosophy, we have clubs dedicated to each of the things in the list. Even if you’re in a church you’re not going to be singing while meditating while talking philosophy while teaching the kids.

This sounds like a contrived question that pretends that all these things associated with church (often falsely) need a church-like substitute as an umbrella organization. But you don’t! The question is playing into the institutional mythology of religion.

Daniel Fincke: Well, I’m not pretending those things need the same umbrella but saying it could very well be possible that some people want everything they’re used to getting from church but without the church. People are attached to church. This is a reality I want to grapple with, even if with an all too perfectly contrived hypothetical meant to tease out one’s views.

PZ Myers: Except people don’t get all those things from a church! The defenders of religion love to throw out those laundry lists of all the wonderful things church accomplishes for them…but the reality is that to most people, church is drudgery. They go once a week on Sunday morning, they send the kids to choir or Sunday school, but otherwise, church isn’t a doorway to social fulfillment. It just likes to pretend it is.

The interview below was done as part of a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. Please donate to this worthy organization! And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

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