What Kind of a Rationalist Idealizes Personally Abusing Opponents Into Submission Like An Authoritarian?

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post articulating my perception that New Atheism is a moral movement at its core. Ostensibly, atheists in the movement have been arguing that adherence to a principle of truthfulness is more important, in most cases, than believing false or unsubstantiated things that we might find pleasing, ennobling, or otherwise personally beneficial. While we are highly focused on publicizing the evils religions do and making sure they are accountable for the ways that faith and religiosity themselves are responsible for unique sorts of evil consequences, we are also a movement of people that dismisses the good religions do as irrelevant to the issue of religious truth. In other words, even were the goods brought by faith and religiosity to be on net a greater contribution to humanity than the evils they bring are a detriment, nevertheless we would have reasons to oppose faiths as simply false. And we would have reason to criticize promulgators of faith-based ideas as purveyors of falsehood. Regardless of whether those falsehoods’ effects are on the whole pernicious or positive, we tend to argue lying is simply wrong and living without truth is inherently bad.

So, we are typically, at least as I have interpreted us from what we’ve said, a movement that is more interested in critical reasoning and scrupulous truthfulness than simply any one propositional claim. We are not a movement that exists simply to reject belief in gods. We are a movement that exists to argue there’s something wrong with believing against the evidence or believing propositions with greater strength than the reasons for holding them warrant. We are, in a word, against “faith”.

We are also, I have thought, in principle defined by our opposition to authoritarianism in thought and deed. I have taken us to be saying that there is something pernicious about “because I said so” as a reason for actions, beliefs, and values. All authorities must be able to ground their truth claims and moral commands in rational appeals which are assessable by each unique reasoning individual independently. Moral authority and intellectual authority require “showing your work”. They require explaining to a free mind why that mind must accept your commands and your conclusions. And any who presume to be moral or intellectual authorities must submit themselves to the most unsparing skeptical analysis, and do this repeatedly so that we never believe outdated or otherwise refutable premises simply out of habit or traditionalism.

If you agree with me that these principles are what the movement should be about, then I interpret that as agreeing with me that this should be a rationalist movement. If you think that the meta-declarations of prominent members of the movement have, in the main, indicated that this is already the aspiration of the movement, then I think that means you agree with me that the movement has been proclaiming itself as essentially a rationalist movement already.

The movement focuses on atheism for a specific reason. It is the proponents of religious faith who are explicitly and unabashedly opposed to letting all propositions come under thorough rational scrutiny before being believed. It is they who actively argue that reason is not only limited in its ability to know or prove everything (which even we rationalists accept) but that sometimes we should wholeheartedly embrace that which we want to believe with greater strength and conviction and behavioral commitment than evidence warrants. In fact, they are those who explicitly reject that genuine skepticism should ever be rigorously applied to their core, identity forming beliefs and values.

While there are many more ways to be irrational than merely by adhering to a religious faith, in religious faiths we see irrationalism itself celebrated with the most baldfaced acceptance of   unjustified beliefs, moral and social authoritarianism, and traditionalism all as good (and even “holy”!). So the rationalist’s clearest opponent, by which to define herself, is the proponent of faith. And as faith props up theism and theism props up religion, rationalists have grouped together under the banner of atheists and objectors to religion.

As rationalists we reject the widely appealed to premise that “it matters neither what you believe nor how you come to your beliefs as long as you are a good person who makes a net positive contribution to the world”. Of course, we would certainly find it preferable that someone be a good person motivated by their faith rather than that they be a bad person motivated by their faith. But, nonetheless, we think it would be better if they were a good person because of well-formed true beliefs rather than because of beliefs that are ill-formed and/or false. For this reason the existence of good religious people, even were they shown to make up the preponderance of all religious people and even were religion on net to be shown to contribute greater good than evil to the world, is not a basis for us to approve of faith or the religions built upon it.

I consider myself generally a “rationalist” because I have become convinced that matters of both truth and moral values are best resolved through rigorous rational reflection rather than through the often capricious interplay of social and political dynamics. I have been a part of the atheist movement because I have thought of it as a movement of people who want to prove that beliefs and values can and should be both determined and disseminated through reasoning processes rather than through the irrational methods preferred by the religious. When I have stood up against false religious beliefs or homophobia or sexism or racism, etc., I have thought that my activism was not just about the rightness of my position on those issues but my principled commitment to thinking about them scrupulously and arguing for them in a way that relies on reason rather than irrational emotional appeals. I have seen this concern not only to advocate the right conclusions but the right methods of reasoning about them to be what the rationalist atheist movement has to offer activism that other activists, concerned only with outcomes by any means, might not care about.

For example, many feminists or proponents of gay rights don’t care at all whether someone is religious so long as their beliefs and values favor gay rights or a feminist conception of women’s rights. But we New Atheists are the ornery ones who have been demanding not only the right conclusions but the right methods of getting there.

This is why I’m a bit disappointed by the wide disconnect between many members of the movement and me over my call for us to argue with people in ways that respect their intellectual consciences rather than personally abuse and shame them. As far as had always thought, this morally principled commitment to freedom of conscience, rigorous skeptical analysis, and reliance on reason to come to the right conclusions was the very raison d’être of the movement. We didn’t just want people to stop believing in gods. We wanted people to stop believing dogmatically. We wanted to stop people from being persuaded through emotionalistic appeals and authoritarian bullying. We wanted people to genuinely and openendedly think for themselves and come to agree with us out of their commitment to critical thinking.

And I have had so many people insisting to me we must have the right to emotionally berate people with abusive insults (not evidence susceptible moral charges, which I fully favor–but outright denigration of their persons) in order to cower them into submission, make them socially afraid to think, feel, or question in certain unacceptable ways. I have had it repeatedly argued to me that we should essentially try to emotionally subordinate people through threats of ostracism and vilification if they commit the unforgivable thought crime of not agreeing with our rational arguments.

Essentially, if they persist in not recognizing the force of our reason, we are supposed to feel entitled to try to coerce them emotionally with the threat of demonization, denigration, and shunning. In essence we are supposed to feel entitled to presume to reduce them to mental children who need to be emotionally twisted into a fearful obedience. And not only this but we are to see our paternalistic role as their emotional trainers as best fulfilled through verbal abuse, rather than through firm but respectful moral arguments and moral charges capable of rational substantiation. So not only are we to see fit to act as people’s parents, we are encouraged to act like abusive, authoritarian parents who use threats and shaming and verbal denigration to train their children.

I have been accused of being moralistic and condescending for advocating passionately for certain moral suggestions and trying to devise a pledge that could serve as a basic blueprint for what genuine rationalistic arguments would be like. But I have not tried to twist anyone’s emotions out of frustration with their reason. I have made moral arguments, pitched to people’s reason, their sense of fairness and their responsibility to recognize the dignity, rationality, and freedom of intellectual conscience of their interlocutors. I have been calling for the rationalist community to live up to its purported belief that beliefs and values should be determined rationally and that rigorous skepticism should always be welcome, regardless of the alleged sacredness of the propositions under consideration.

In return, I find a lot of people who will abandon commitment to rationalism out of an apparent fear that it will not win every argument. I am afraid people are signaling to me that they are more committed to winning a political and social war using whatever tactics necessary than committed to reexamining their beliefs and values. I am afraid they are unwilling to embrace the annoyance of their opponents’ free consciences to disagree by demanding ever more arguments before fully capitulating. I am afraid they do not see those with deep disagreements as a welcome challenge to constantly reassess, refine, and prove their beliefs anew. I am afraid they do not have much confidence in reason at all after all to be persuasive and would gladly use the full repertoire of socially and emotionally manipulative religious tactics to inculcate and enforce their beliefs and insulate them from criticism. I also am afraid that they are not willing at all to accept the numerous minor victories one can accomplish in a given argument but rather, like absolutists, they demand a wholly unrealistic (and probably irrational) capitulation from their ideological enemies in any given conversation. I am afraid they have no patience at all with letting people end an argument having made a few concessions and then going off to think for themselves before finally agreeing to more. I am afraid, at least from what they are saying, that that is not enough for many people. They want to lash out and vent at their intellectual opponent for the audacity of not surrendering completely or of arguing with equal force to their own.

I hope I am wrong. But these are the impression I am getting from those who want to morally legitimize routinized abusive discourse.

Please disuade me of the impression if it is false, if it misrepresents your position. Please explain to me how verbal abuse, insults, refusal to find common ground and argue from common beliefs and values with people, refusal to charitably interpret their words but instead seize on their worst possible implications and hastily make the most serious moral charges against them, etc. are all compatible with rationalism, intellectual humility, skepticism, and non-paternalistic, non-authoritarian respect for freedom of conscience. Please explain to me how eschewing the commitment to those practices is a matter of promoting critical thinking and rationalism. Because I don’t see how it is possible. 

I don’t think I was asking anything extraordinary in my civility pledge beyond writing out what it would take for us to ethically live up to all our endless talk about the value of critical reason and truthfulness above all things and all our purported disdain for religions’ appallingly manipulative irrationalism and authoritarianism. I understand that emotions have to be a part of values arguments to some extent. But there are ways to appeal to emotions that are rational and respectful of people’s freedom of conscience and ways that are outright irrational and abusive. That a supposedly rationalistic movement is so filled with people who not only do not see this distinction but are outright hostile to it is, to say the least, disillusioning to me. I am, honestly, flabbergasted that many of my suggestions are being treated as unbelievable burdens, handicaps, obstacles to persuasiveness, and requiring moral sainthood to pull off when most of them are, essentially, the minimum expectation understood by scholars in the academy for how to carry out a genuinely rational discourse. A community of self-professed (and not to mention self-congratulatory, “more-rational-than-thou”) “critical thinkers” should not see it as a presumptuous and alien request to be asked to live up to them. This should already be what we freely do.

If you outright believe that reason is impotent to adjudicate between values claims, and that they are at their core rationally unjustifiable but rather so emotional in character that we really need to use whatever emotional tactics we can to bash them into people’s heads around all their rational resistances, then are you really against faith in principle or just against those with different faiths than your own? Are you only against faiths rooted in different values? If so, why oppose members of religious faiths who share your values simply because of the falsehood of their beliefs, if all that ultimately matters to you is whether people’s behaviors lead to positive outcomes and not whether they form their beliefs in a way that involves an increase in their critical thinking abilities?

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.

  • http://www.ragingrev.com Matt Oxley

    I’m still working on my response to your civility pledge and the multitude of responses to it, but you’ve really pointed out a ton of the problems I have with the atheism movement today – especially in how it is embodied by people that don’t know how to have a polite conversation with people that simply don’t see the world the way they do.

    As great as he was I think we almost have to blame Hitchens for some of this, every time he used snark or a smartass remark to nab an opponent it blew up and got spread around via meme…but his best moments were quickly forgotten. Dawkins has moments just like this too.

    So long as PZ and his ilk are praised by every internet atheist that hits their blog I don’t see rational discourse being the thing we are known for, unfortunately, but being another part of the great circle jerk of internet atheism.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      I think we almost have to blame Hitchens for some of this

      It hurts me to admit I think you’re right.

  • The Vicar

    Well, in answer to the question you have used for the title: probably most of us/them (I don’t know whether you would actually grant me that title), at some time or another. If you have never encountered someone so utterly, utterly foolish that you did not have the desire to just yell “STOP SPEWING YOUR STUPIDITY ALL OVER!” at them until they were finally cowed into submission, then it means you haven’t actually been paying attention to a lot of the religious/political pundits out there.

    The question isn’t “who WANTS to do this” but “who ACTUALLY does this”.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Of course we have that desire emerge out of frustration. When someone won’t listen to reason, our brains are inclined to try plan B: shouting those reasons louder to try to rattle them. But as rationalists, we should theoretically at least acknowledge the ethical ideal that we continue to rely on reason and not trash that ideal explicitly and disregard it in our behavior routinely.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Okay, I changed the title. (And I switched the title’s myopic emphasis on verbal abuse to the real issue, personal abuse in general, of which verbal abuse is obviously only a subset.)

  • Laurent Weppe

    I am afraid [...] I am afraid [...] I also am afraid [...] I am afraid [...] I am afraid [...] I hope I am wrong

    Well: you’re right: enjoy this frightening reality: would be atheistic dictators who until recently had to lay low now openly show themselves and the people who got pissed when they realized that there will never be any “Great Atheist Triumph” where everyone turns into atheists joined ranks with them.

    And they will not disuade you: they will lie to you -and you will see through their lies- or they will throw more insults at you, and you’ll get hurt in the end anyway.

    Oh, eventually there will be a falling out between the social dominators and the merely pissed: heads will cool down, the worst elements will be slowly but surely driven to the fringes and American atheists will make peace with the fact that they will have to share the universe with the religious till extinction do us part. Until then, well, you’d better get used to the idea that you will get drawn in the schoolyard fistfight whether you like it or not.

  • ctcss

    The more I see Dan talking about things like this, the more I see the problems that humans have consistently faced regarding human frailty and shortcomings over the millenia. The kinder and the more principled and rational his plans and his pleas become, the more I see the basic stuff of religious idealism expressed in them. In many ways I think this is good. If serious non-believers and serious believers actually start to understand that they are basically in favor of good behavior and good thinking, we will all be the better for it.

    I’m just curious Dan, do you feel any sense of irony when you make an impassioned plea for kindness, respectfulness, humility, charitableness, fairness, justice, etc. and not start to recognize that these same values are core to solid religious thought and practice as well? And if so, why not mention these commonalities as you make these points to show everyone (both believing and non-believing) that maybe we are not each other’s enemies at all, but rather potential friends who all too often misunderstand one another.

    We really need to start healing these foolish rifts.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      They’re moral ideals. Of course some religious people adhere to them. Others don’t. But yes the civility pledge deliberately is written in such a way as to be adoptable by religious people if they wanted. Not a word of it is atheist specific.

    • ctcss

      “They’re moral ideals. Of course some religious people adhere to them. Others don’t. But yes the civility pledge deliberately is written in such a way as to be adoptable by religious people if they wanted. Not a word of it is atheist specific. ”

      You are correct. None of this is religious specific or atheist specific. And that’s what gets me every time I see you asking people to consider them. I keep wondering how many humans (both believers and non-believers) will both humbly, freely, willingly, and unfailingly adopt them. Because, at least as I see it, the failure of people to not live up to their high, moral ideals, is not a failing of the moral ideals stated in their religious or non-religious ethical/moral principles, but rather the fact that human failings are apt to cause all humans to fall down when faced with the choice of rationally and charitably choosing the high road, or going with base instinct and predilection.

      As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      I don’t so much mind that people are fallible and will fail. I know I have and I will. It is inevitable.

      What’s disturbing to me is that many will not even accept these moral standards as legitimate or show any self-reflection about their failures to live up to it in serious cases where some introspection could heal serious rifts and lead to far more interesting, substantive, debates.

    • http://nfactor.ca mikmik

      Yes. It should start with our common humanitarian values. This is more important than pure rationalism.

    • Bugmaster

      @mikmik: I disagree. If you are not thinking rationally, you have no reliable way of knowing whether any given action will advance your core values. In fact, it will be difficult to figure out what your values even are.

  • Not Arthur

    I’m not optimistic about PZ Meyers et al. They seem to have the idea that insistence on being civil is a tool of the man to oppress people. They openly mock people who are worried about civility on their blogs, and I think are specifically anti-civility (how does one argue civilly with this???).

    On the one hand, I can almost sympathize. They see (for instance) a group that prevents homosexuals from marrying based upon some religious tradition, and that group is incapable of defending the position outside of a religious context, and instead goes into the waters of “well leviticus something something”. That response is quite infuriating, and I can understand the desire to openly mock it rather than engage it because the people doing it are causing real harm, and engaging it seems to hit a brick wall.

    But, even if this is the appropriate way to argue with those people, the net is cast way to far. I almost hate to bring up feminism because the topic is fast approaching official dead horse status on atheist blog wars, but it seems to be the stereotypical example. Someone can say “I think a woman and a man (and an intersex individual and a transsexual and… whatever other category there is) of equal abilities should have access to equal pay offs for their work, but I disagree with specific ideas or methods of 2nd/3rd wave feminism and here’s why (here’s why)” and this is enough to trip the trap and get yelled off the blog.

    • RowanVT

      If we saw more of that, maybe we wouldn’t come across as so hostile. Those people are few and far between though. What I see are people who insist that because I have a vagina, I am not as intelligent as a man. I’m not a good skeptic. I belong at home instead of work. I should absolutely love and want children and be gentle because I’m a woman.

      When you see that constantly, when you are arguing over the basic ideas of “Women: Human, or walking incubators?” being polite gets you absolutely nowhere.

      Here’s an example:

      When I had long hair, people liked to touch it. It’s wavy, and has pretty copper highlights during summer, and it used to be down to my butt. I would regularly turn around and find people fingering my hair. When I asked them politely to stop, I’d get responses like “Oh, but it’s so pretty”… as they continue hanging onto my hair. It took me time to extricate myself from an extremely uncomfortable situation.
      I got rude about it once. A guy was petting me and I said “Please don’t touch me” but he ignored my request. So I responded with a snarl and a “Don’t fucking touch me, dickhead” and he got offended… but he backed off right away.

      That’s how I feel when people come to argue feminism (in the forms of “but what about the menz” and “bitches lie about rape” and “women ARE unequal”). They do not respond to, and they don’t deserve polite responses.

    • http://nfactor.ca mikmik

      Yup.

    • DSimon

      Rowan, that situation sounds completely sucky and more than a little threatening, and you made the right call there telling him off like that. But I don’t think your metaphor works well for most arguments online.

      If someone says the literal words “bitches lie about rape”, then I’m right behind you for giving up on them. But if they say something else, even if that something else has “bitches lie about rape” as (apparently) an unspoken subtext or consequence, I think it’s worth it to give them some charity.

      You’d expect or at least hope for the same from them in the reverse situation, i.e. where they think you’re getting at “we should set up a matriarchy” or something similarly ridiculous, because some trolls came by earlier and started saying that.

    • DSimon

      Argh, read my previous comment and realized I sounded like I was saying that statements that imply sexist stuff are just fine as long as they’re not ultra-explicit, i.e. that dog-whistling is fine. I don’t mean that, I think it would lead to rampant unchecked assholery.

      My argument is that everybody deserves at least one shot. Yeah, many (or even most) people who come on feminist blog posts and argue will turn out to not be intellectually honest, or even to be outright trolling. But even if that pattern matches well, we owe it to ourselves to be optimistic about people who disagree with us, if only because we wish they would do the same back. The whole Prisoners’ Dilemma cooperate-until-betrayed approach.

      But, the requirement I propose is only one shot of charity, per person. I don’t think an unconditional civility requirement is a good idea, except perhaps in explicitly philosophical or meta-rationalist blogs. Social pressure is justified in some cases, and fighting against privilege bias is one.

  • mikespeir

    Sentimentally, I’m very much on this page. I have to wonder, though, What is ridicule, and is there any way to avoid it in a discussion where the basal assumptions are so wildly divergent?

    • http://nfactor.ca mikmik

      I just stick to my guns(lol) and never diverge from pointing out logical fallacies they use, places they contradict themselves. I ask them why they are so angry. I ask them why they are so uptight because, I tell them, ” I always thought people with integrity and justice put there efforts into promoting the things they are proud of, not getting defensive and insulting.
      I most of all tell them that they make very poor examples of skeptic, and that they aren’t even a skeptic because skeptics question everything, most of all themselves.
      This isn’t any sort of specific tactic. I mostly ask them why they don’t ever address my points of contention with pragmatic retorts and empiricism, because hey, avoidance is almost as good as admitting defeat.

      That sort of thing, because, and this is important, I consider the belligerent mouthpieces to be a vocal minority, and as far as I know, anyone that is watching/reading and respects reason is probably being impressed by my approach. I mention this to my adversary/ies. I always draw attention to what they are doing, because they want the focus on us, and for us to get defensive. You cannot win then.
      I never, ever, put up with an insult, and I get angry if they slander me. I use that word a lot also; slander and defamation.

  • Steersman

    Interesting post again, and I can certainly sympathize with the difficulties in ensuring civil discourse. However, in at least the broadest sense, I think, as you suggested, it is quite true that there are going to be cases where “reason is impotent to adjudicate between values claims”. For instance, the American Civil War which was, at least in part, predicated on very different views on slavery.

    And even outside of those extreme cases, I expect that there are still going to be others where recourse to the courts or civil actions are going to be required, ones where it will be a serious challenge to ensure rational and civil discussions, where “gut feels” and emotional attachments and erroneous interpretations are going to provide substantial hurdles. Somewhat apropos of that, you might be interested in this passage from Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain:

    As we saw in the previous chapter, politics is filled with self-justifying rationalizations. Democrats see the world through liberal-tinted glasses, while Republicans filter it through conservative shaded glasses. When you listen to both “conservative talk radio” and “progressive talk radio” you will hear current events interpreted in ways that are 180 degrees out of phase. So incongruent are the interpretations of even the simplest goings-on in the daily news that you wonder if they can possibly be talking about the same event. Social psychologist Geoffrey Cohen quantified this effect in a study in which he discovered that Democrats are more accepting of a welfare program if they believe it was proposed by a fellow Democrat, even if the proposal came from a Republican and is quite restrictive. Predictably, Cohen found the same effect for Republicans who were far more likely to approve of a generous welfare program if they thought it was proposed by a fellow Republican. In other words, even when examining the exact same data people from both parties arrive at radically different conclusions. [pg #263]

    And, a little closer to home, it seems that a significant part of what is roiling the waters at the intersection of atheism, skepticism, and feminism are some very different conceptions of what constitutes sexism. Seems to me that it might be of some benefit if you were to transition from the somewhat academic analyses of the process to a discussion of that question, even if only as a case study in the application of your generally quite reasonable principles of civil discourse.

    • Laurent Weppe

      For instance, the American Civil War which was, at least in part, predicated on very different views on slavery.

      On the contrary: the American civil war is the textbook example of bad faith and deliberate lies masquerading as divergent points of view.

      Slavery existed to allow slave owners to eat and drink and play and party and fuck and rape as much as they wanted with as little effort as possible. It was one of the purest manifestation of the political systems meant to satisfy the crass wants of a parasitic class of hereditary aristocrats.

      All the arguments in favor of slavery were not the product of an irreconcilable worldview, but of the southern aristocrats’ realization that their very lifestyle was not sustainable without slavery: so they lied about it, hence Calhoun’s “Positive Good” and other bullshit: the conflict was neither ideological nor philosophical: both sides knew that slavery was immoral, it’s just that the leaders of the pro-slavery camp refused to let go their enormous, abject privileges and their grotesquely easy life, so they played dumb, and pretended to believe that the system was inherently virtuous.
      And when Lincoln was elected, like every petty tyrant driven into a corner, they abandonned what little pretense of civilized conduct they still had and sent uniformed thugs killing their opponants.

      Do not confuse “I failed to convince this person” with “This person knows I’m right but decided that it’s in her interest to do the wrong thing”.

    • DSimon

      I’d put good money that the slaveholders had actually convinced themselves that they were good, rather than just pretending outwardly. People don’t usually like to think of themselves as the villain.

  • Hilary

    Welcome to human nature: in-group good, out-group bad. Did you really think atheists were different? Did you really think logic and logic alone would be enough to convince people to treat with respect others they fundamentally disagreed with? If your primary goal is to turn a theist into an atheist, how really is that different then Christian prosylazation? “My paradigm of reality is right, this is how I prove it, yours is different, therefore wrong, therefore it has to change.”

    Have you ever considered how that sounds to minority religions? I’m Jewish, and five out of thirteen holidays are in some way centered on an attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Three of the five are historically verifiable, one (Yom Hashoah/Holocaust rememberence day) commemorates something still in living memory. I have friends who are Holocaust survivors – if Hitler couldn’t destroy their faith, who are you to call them to abandon a religious heritage they paid a price to keep higher then anything you will ever be called on to pay. Libby Anne is the first atheist I’ve seen on Patheos who even bothered to realize there is a difference between modern Jews and tribal Hebrews of ~4,000-3,000 years ago. For her graciousness in actually asking us what we believe, do, and why instead of assuming just reading a bad translation of the bible is enough, she’s gotten an amazing response.

    What about First Nations people, Native American tribes? They’ve held on to the remnants of their religious tribal heritage through centuries of attempted genocide. But if they can’t prove their beliefs in a greater Spirit to your or any other atheists satisfaction, they should just give it all up? And replace it with what?

    I do want to thank you for trying to get rid of the word ‘stupid’ in this discussion. I honestly appreciate that effort.

    Hilary

    • MountainTiger

      I don’t think that Dan is unaware of in-group/out-group dynamics. Instead, he consistently argues that the tendency to let off allies easily and harp on the weaknesses of opponents is not a good way to determine truth even though it is a common pattern in human interactions. Insofar as he makes this argument, I agree with him wholeheartedly.

      When you represent the though process of atheists who try to convince others that atheism is true as, “my paradigm of reality is right, this is how I prove it, yours is different, therefore wrong, therefore it has to change,” you elide two fundamental questions. First, are some paradigms better representations of reality than others? Second, is it better to think true things than false things? If, in fact, “paradigms of reality” accord to reality itself in different degrees, and it is better to think true things than false things, then convincing a person to adopt a truer paradigm of reality is good. If you disagree with one or both of the premises, then I can see objecting to the thought process outright; if you agree with both, it seems to me that the questions that remain concern what methods of understanding reality and spreading that understanding are useful.

      I can see how groups that are or have been subject to persecution might object to having beliefs that were targeted by that persecution challenged, but I don’t think that the history of persecution against Jews (who I am quite aware are not the same as ancient Hebrews, thank you very much) creates an exception to the importance of rationally examining beliefs. The same applies to Native American religions, Christianity, Islam, and any other religion that has been persecuted at one time or another. This does not necessarily mean that people should abandon all elements of their religious culture, only that they should abandon false beliefs and any harmful practices that those beliefs encouraged.

    • Ed

      I don’t know who Hilary is, but this is one of the most thoughtful (and obvious) comments I have seen on this blog. I almost want to cry. Thank you.

      Ed

    • DSimon

      Hilary, we’re not asking people to give up their culture, we’re asking them to reconsider hypotheses about the world that we’re pretty sure aren’t correct. It ought to be just as okay to do that about religion as it is about politics, science, and craft.

  • http://nfactor.ca mikmik

    “For this reason the existence of good religious people, even were they shown to make up the preponderance of all religious people and even were religion on net to be shown to contribute greater good than evil to the world, is not a basis for us to approve of faith or the religions built upon it.”

    However, there is no reason to quell it if their intentions are secular. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, and I have a bit of a hard time supporting condemnations of Christianity that lump everyone together like they are all Young Earth Creationist Fundamentalists out to cow everyone into submission.

    I have many very good people as friends and ‘colleagues’ that spend their lives making low wages, just to help others, with no expectations. I respect that.

  • Peter

    Yes! Yes, lots of people “demand total capitulation” in online discussions. Yes, lots of people treat arguments as a way to score imaginary points instead of as a way to reach a consensus.

    And that’s why your calls for civility above all else are so problematic. Because people are grand masters of twisting words to justify their own behaviour, and all your pledge will do is give cover to people who treat arguments as a way to score imaginary points.

    But that doesn’t imply that I’m in favour of nonstop invective and bile; let’s all please drop that false dichotomy. The alternative I choose is to behave decently. Frequently that means being civil. Sometimes it doesn’t. Always it means looking for common ground with people who are arguing in good faith. Sometime it means realizing that common ground isn’t there. And quite frequently it means recognizing that people aren’t arguing in good faith, and not giving those people cover by insisting the form of the discussion is more important than the consequences.

    • RowanVT

      So, can you tell me how exactly I should respond to people to reach a ‘consensus’ on such topics as “Women: Humans or Incubators?” and “Vaginas: Do they make someone less skeptical?”

      Sure, no one has come out directly for discussions on those issues, but a lot of what I face as a woman boils down to those things. So please, tell me how to politely discuss my status as a human being with people who see me as ‘less’ so that we can reach a consensus.

    • Peter

      No, I can’t tell you how to discuss that politely and I’m never going to ask that you do so. If I’ve given you the impression that I would then I’ve gotten seriously off-message.

      I’m quite firmly in the “fuck your civility” camp; I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that civility is the mask indecency wears in public. If someone questioned my status as a human being I wouldn’t feel obliged to be polite, to say the least. I’m sure as hell not going to try to hold you to a higher standard. That would be me holding the form of the discussion as more important than the consequences to you, and I sincerely hope I never do something that shitty.

  • Ariel

    As far as I had always thought, this morally principled commitment to freedom of conscience, rigorous skeptical analysis, and reliance on reason to come to the right conclusions was the very raison d’être of the movement.

    Some older discussions on Greta’s blog come to my mind. I was arguing then that skepticism, reason and truth are implausible candidates for the role of the primary motivation for a mass movement. They look excellent on the standards, they are nice as a professed “raison d’être” of one’s actions, but in practice that’s not what moves us. Too dry and academic for that. I think Greta herself was more realistic when she indicated anger (that old devil!) as a better primary mover. Recently I’ve been rereading this wonderful old rant. Remember? She was ready to acknowledge that

    anger is a difficult tool in a social movement. A dangerous one even. […] Anger is valid, it’s valuable, it’s necessary… but it can also misfire, and badly.

    But then she wrote:

    Are you really looking at all of this shit I’m talking about, a millennia-old history of abuse and injustice, deceit and willful ignorance — and then on the other hand, looking at a couple of years of atheists being snarky on the Internet — and seeing the two as somehow equivalent? Or worse, seeing the snarky atheists as the greater problem?
    If you’re doing that, then with all due respect, you can blow me.

    Reading the piece now I think she was under the illusion that in this special case (the atheist movement) anger can be controlled. You know – although it’s dangerous, the atheists can tame it and direct it into prescribed, desirable channels. I wonder if she still believes it, with anger blowing up everywhere in the atheists’ own faces.

    Dan’s words once again:

    That a supposedly rationalistic movement is so filled with people who not only do not see this distinction [between respectful and abusive ways of appealing to emotions] but are outright hostile to it is, to say the least, disillusioning to me.

    I’m sorry. I mean it. I remember your old posts about losing your faith and I can’t help wondering whether something like that is not happening right now, in front of our eyes.

    • baal

      Greta’s comment under values the harms of ‘just being snarky’. Worse (and I’m not saying Greta makes this argument, she actually counters it from time to time), the ‘I’m just being snarky’ defense gets mis-used in a set/subset way. um, less jargon expression of the same idea: “all dogs are mammals not all mammals are dogs.” To wit, since a great harm (1000′s of years of religious oppression) doesn’t compare to a small harm (one person being snarky), all instances of me being snarky are not harmful. Some snarks are not harmful (dogs are mammals), all snarks are not harmful (every mammal is a dog).

  • http://www.darwinharmless.com darwinharmless

    Dan, I’ve given some thought to your civility pledge, and I support the basic concept. But I went with the Dessert Tortoises with Bolt Cutters pledge instead. My problem is that your pledge would prevent anybody from using belittling language, such as calling the Bible the Buybull, or referring to god as the magical faerie in the sky or Jesus as the zombie god. These things are highly offensive to believers, but they are intended that way. It’s not that anybody thinks a believer will change their mind because of ridicule. It’s more like, as one commenter said, a debate between Obama and Romney. Obama has no intention of changing Romney’s policies or opinions. He just wants to make the man look bad to the viewers. That’s were ridicule and offensive derision has value.
    Dan, you seem to think that people change their minds because of rationality and logic. Some do. Sometimes. But most people use rationality and logic to support their pre-existing ideas, and simply ignore facts or arguments that contradict their beliefs. Rational argument will never change their minds. But often they are creatures who really need the support of their group, really need to have others affirm their beliefs. They want to feel that they are among the blessed, the special, the chosen, the ones with the answers. It’s not that I want to bully them into changing their mind. It’s more that I want to strongly demonstrate that I do not support their world view. Ridicule and derision are tools to do this. So is contempt. If somebody says something that is egregiously stupid, and flies in the face of obvious evidence, they should have this pointed out to them. I agree that I shouldn’t call them stupid. But I certainly can make fun of the ideas they present, and given that they identify with those ideas, this is highly offensive behaviour and carries the implication that they are stupid. Not civil at all, no matter how much I might want to be civil.

  • Bugmaster

    Being a rationalist does not automatically entail having certain beliefs, or behaving in a certain way. Instead, being a rationalist simply means striving for the most efficient method of accomplishing your goals.

    The problem is that Dan and the PZ/FTB crowd have different goals.

    Dan’s goal is to persuade people. To this end, he seeks to engender a calm and rational atmosphere, where debate can flow freely, and where the best ideas will win.

    PZ’s goal, on the other hand, is to make social life easier for women (and minorities, etc.) as soon as possible. To this end, he seeks to create an extremely hostile online (and, hopefully, offline) environment for misogynists, in order to permanently keep them out. He doesn’t care about persuading people, he cares about creating safe spaces for the underprivileged.

    The problem is that a). both of the goals are (more or less) justifiable, and b). they are diametrically opposed. You can’t both treat people with respect and bully them at the same time. Therefore, I do not foresee and end to this debate any time soon; or, in fact, ever.

  • John Moriarty

    I think I’ll print and frame this post Dan, bravo!

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Thank you, John.

  • qbsmd

    “people are signaling to me that they are more committed to winning a political and social war using whatever tactics necessary than committed to reexamining their beliefs and values”

    I’ve proposed before, somewhere, that pretty much everyone in the atheists and skeptics movement agrees with the ideas of atheism, skepticism, secularism, and humanism, but prioritize them differently. The different priorities reflect the sides we take on various disagreements.

    For example, the “new atheists” tended to prioritize atheism; the intention of their writings was to persuade people to be atheists or become public about atheism. The accomodationists seemed to prioritize secularism, especially as applied to the teaching of evolution. They took issue with the new atheists using scientific arguments for atheism, not because they were wrong but because it could potentially blur the line between science and atheism and make it harder for them to attract religious allies to secular causes.

    Your quote above describes the difference between people who prioritize humanism over skepticism. If someone’s goal is to get more people to agree with humanist principles, perhaps using political tactics rather than intellectual debate is the best strategy. Maybe in that case silencing people who disagree is a rational goal.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Your quote above describes the difference between people who prioritize humanism over skepticism. If someone’s goal is to get more people to agree with humanist principles, perhaps using political tactics rather than intellectual debate is the best strategy. Maybe in that case silencing people who disagree is a rational goal.

      No, if this was about humanism, formation of people into compassionate, rather than abusive, people would be the goal.

    • Laurent Weppe

      @ Dan

      Part of the problem comes from the idea that, since the religious reactionaries were the ennemies of both atheists and humanists, an atheist would be an humanist by default: its the classic “the ennemy of my ennemy” fallacy

      Instead, once atheism became more visible, atheistic authoritarians who until then had had the choice between laying low or pretending to be good ol’ christian boys took advantage of this fallacy and where welcomed in a place where they did not belong to begin with.

    • Bugmaster

      @Dan: I think you are dealing a disservice to the Atheism+ crowd. While it’s true that they’re not interested in changing hearts and minds in the short term, they are not bullying people out of spite. Instead, they believe that the current situation of the underprivileged groups is so dire that we don’t have time to wait for people to become gentler and kinder; we need to act immediately, and decisively. In addition, they believe that the number of people whose minds could be changed within our lifetimes is negligible.

      In other words, they really are sincere, and they do have good intentions…

  • Laurence

    One of the ways to make people stop doing things is the make an environment inhospitable to whatever it is that they are doing. There are better ways and worse ways to achieve this. You don’t have to be abusive and insulting to accomplish this, so I don’t see anything wrong with using social avenues to try and stop problematic behavior. There is simply no way that you are going to be able to rationally convince everyone not to behave harmfully to other people, so we have to use appropriate and workable emotional and social techniques. If rational dialogue solved everything, then there wouldn’t be any problems at all. For instance, it didn’t become socially unacceptable to say the N-word because of rational dialogue. It came about because it slowly became shameful and degrading to do so. These are moral and emotional reasons but not necessarily rational reasons (I guess it depends on what you mean by rational).

    Also, I always really hated the term “rationalist” used in this way, but this is because I think of a rationalist as somebody who thinks that we can come to knowledge solely through reason which is obviously not the case.

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

    Dan wrote:
    > If you outright believe that reason is impotent to adjudicate between values claims, and that they are at their core rationally unjustifiable but rather so emotional in character that we really need to use whatever emotional tactics we can to bash them into people’s heads around all their rational resistances, then are you really against faith in principle or just against those with different faiths than your own?

    Dan, quite a number of us have made clear that, yes, we do indeed agree with Hume that it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” It seems to me that part of your distress here is due to a failure to acknowledge that we really, truly, emphatically do disagree with you on that.

    Indeed, it seems to many of us that your contrary view (i.e., that reason can ultimately “adjudicate between values claims”) is so obviously and absurdly false that it can only be due to an extraordinary ignorance of modern science. Indeed, I take it for granted that our view is overwhelmingly dominant among both top scientists and top philosophers. (Now that could actually be tested, by polling top scientists and philosophers! I’ve had enough contact with top academic scientists – at leading universities, among Nobel laureates – that I would be very surprised if I am wrong about the scientists. But as to philosophers, well, perhaps you can enlighten me with your impressions there.)

    Your and our difference of opinion on this issue of the nature of values is indeed going to have consequences for our actions and behavior: I am, frankly, stunned that you, as a philosopher are surprised by this.

    So, are we “really against faith in principle or just against those with different faiths than [our] own?” as you rhetorically ask?

    Well, we have made a choice to oppose faith when concerning matters of fact. Since you think matters of values are rationally resolvable, I suppose you think our failure to engage in attempts to rationally resolve values means we are resorting to faith when it comes to values.

    But, we see this sharp fact/values distinction as implying that values just have to be a matter of choice, for you as well as for us – not a matter of faith but just a matter of honesty.

    You’re engaged in projection here: you accuse all of us of being unwilling to truly and honestly engage our opponents, but it is really you who is unwilling to grapple with the fact that your views on values are not generally shared among atheists.

    In all honesty, I find that most Christians are better able to see where their opponents are coming from than you are able to see where most of us are coming from. It appears that you have retained the values objectivism you had as a Christian, with even less justification for that view than Christians have.

    Sorry to be so blunt, but I am not sure how to express this more diplomatically.

    All the best,

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

    Dan,

    As you know, I am sympathetic to your point that many of PZ’s crowd are being unnecessarily rude. However, glancing over your post again, I do think I get a clearer idea why even many of us who do not share the behavioral proclivities of the denizens of Pharyngula nonetheless also disagree with you.

    For example, you wrote:
    >I consider myself generally a “rationalist” because I have become convinced that matters of both truth and moral values are best resolved through rigorous rational reflection…

    Well, as a scientist, I find this phrase “rigorous rational reflection” awfully weird. “Confrontation with external evidence” – now that is a slogan I can sign up to! But, quite frankly, “rigorous rational reflection” sounds to me like Aquinas, Plantinga, etc: stuff to which the only proper response is laughter and sneering.

    Now, I know you do not like laughter and sneering, but, what seems to count for “serious rational reflection” among philosophers seems to me about on the same intellectual level as serious arguments for astrology or phrenology.

    Again, I apologize for being so blunt, but I’ll give your own postings on the supposed basis for objective values as an example: You notice that most of us who disagree with you have not bothered dissecting your arguments in detail. Part of the reason is that, for people who are scientifically trained, your arguments just seem so bizarre that there is not much point in engaging them in detail: there is a temptation to just yell at you, “Don’t you know that this weird way of ‘arguing’ was proven to be a failure way back in the seventeenth century and replaced by a new and better way of thinking?”

    A lot of the guys at PZ’s are scientifically trained, and I am sure that many of them, reading your posts, would indeed think “word salad,” “woo-woo,” and all the other derogatory slang terms that boil down to “discredited pre-scientific modes of thinking.”

    Of course, lots of philosophers would like to lure those of us who are scientifically trained into the quicksand by insisting that we “argue” for our view in terms acceptable to philosophers. But, considering the enormous and obvious success of science and the obvious failures of philosophy (for two thousand years!), there is not a very large number of scientists who feel any obligation to abandon proven ways of discovering truth for the methods you philosophers employ.

    That is why I keep urging you to go to the trouble to learn science and why I urge you to learn calculus: Calculus is not an end in itself; however, calculus is the language of physics. And, modern late-twentieth/early twenty-first century science is reductionist: you cannot “get” chem or biology or geology or astronomy unless you “get” physics.

    Ed Feser, although he is on your side of this debate, does see the issues a bit more clearly than you do. As Ed has lamented:

    …it is worthwhile recalling the “mechanistic” conception of the natural world… On this conception, the world is devoid of what Aristotelians call formal and final causes: there are in nature no substantial forms or inherent powers of the sort affirmed by the medieval Scholastics, and there is no meaning, purpose, or goal-directedness either. The physical world is instead composed entirely of inherently purposeless elements (atoms, corpuscles, quarks, or whatever) governed by inherently meaningless patterns of cause and effect. All the complex phenomena of our experience, from grapes to galaxy clusters… must somehow be explicable in terms of these elements and the causal regularities they exhibit.

    and as Ed has further pointed out :

    The history of the West over the last four or five centuries – revolution after revolution, one authority, institution, or standard collapsing after another – can be seen as the gradual unfolding of the implications of the mechanistic, anti-classical, anti-Scholastic philosophical… revolution inaugurated by Bacon, Galileo, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, et al.

    The real split here is not theist vs. atheist: it is modern scientific patterns of thought vs. older patterns of thought. Part of the reason you are confused by the reaction you are getting from many atheists is that you assume that you and we are on the same side.

    We’re not.

    All the best,

    Dave

  • Laurent Weppe

    In my comment of the “Don’t call people stupid post” post, there was a point I did not point toward, and “thankfully” Dave the Physicist Übermensch of Hard Science gives me the opportunity to come back to it.

    ***

    As you may have noticed, Dave is pretty much calling you a moron who should learn his place and accept to submit to his gloriously superior intellect. Yes, I know, he uses “polite” euphemisms and dances around the forbidden words, but come one, we’re all above eleven years of age around here, we can all see through the obvious cheap wordsmithing, although some may be too polite and/or shy to say so openly.

    And his little rants filled with passive-agressive false coutesy are, if you pardon the expression, a gift from heaven, as they allow me to point that postulating that you’re talking to someone stupid so easily leads to a very pernicious form of anti-intelluctalism and mental sloth, reinforced by a hefty amount of sectarian supremacism.

    ***

    Dave cheap shots at Aquinas and philosophy in general are transparent: realizing that he lacks the erudition to challenge Aquinas or even you, and refusing both to start a loosing fight and to do a prudent withdrawal to gather more data and knowledge, he opt to make a show of dismissiveness if not open contempt meant to create the illusion that he refuses to engage deeply with philosophers’ arguments because he is so utter fuckingly certain of his own established intellectual superiority that he does not even feel the need to prove his point.

    I, for one, don’t buy this bullshit, even for one micro-second:
    This

    You notice that most of us who disagree with you have not bothered dissecting your arguments in detail.

    is little more than a coward’s chestbeating: “I could beat you any day of the week, but you’re not worth the effort“, and of course, any answer that you might concoct, esppecially if it tends to be very long and exhaustive will be dismissed as “bizarre” and worthy of little more than sneers: the advantage of being on the receiving end of an argumented rebukes instead of, say, a punch straight to the face is rebukes are easy to ignore.

    ***

    Now, this does not mean At all that I think that philosophers should be put of a specific pedestal (I’ve expressed several time how much I despise Plato, his dismissal of empiricism and his über-elitist political masturbations among other things), or that they claim should be always studied as if they existed in their own parallel universe where scientific progress does not exist, but Dave’s conclusion:
    This is not my jargon, This is not my culture, and I’ll never make any effort to try to understand and engage it and encourage anyone who listen to me to follow in my step by proclaiming it to be a failure not worth any serious discussion” embodies the unholy trinity of anti-intellectualism, intellectual sloth and sectarian supremacism toward which the “Don’t bother talking to them, they’re stupid” mantra leads.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Dave’s been expressing his contempt for me and for all of philosophy since the summer. I’m not oblivious to it but I don’t treat it as tantamount to being incivil and calling me a “moron” since essentially the question he is raising is the very legitimacy of philosophy. There are those who doubt the worth of philosophy (including some philosophers). I cannot unilaterally censor that position simply because it entails a harsh and contemptuous conclusion, for so long as the points are made in good faith and without personal animosity or the creation of a hostile environment for philosophers as people, etc. If I shielded myself or other philosophers from challenges to our legitimacy because that was inherently insulting then I’d have to put religions off limits to criticism too. Among many other harshly criticizable endeavors.

      As long as it does not get personal, people can speak their minds about their reasons for believing that truth can or cannot be found in either one place or another.

      Much as I think Dave is wrong and problematically closedminded in various ways, I don’t feel personally attacked (his contempt for me is really only a specific instance of his generalized contempt for the philosophical endeavor entire and I don’t take it as malice against me as a person). Nor do I imagine any philosophers would feel bullied away by what he says (they wouldn’t be very good philosophers if they weren’t capable of coping with the scoffing scientism-oriented philosophy haters), so his remarks are fair game (if not at all fairminded).

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Laurent wrote to me:
      >As you may have noticed, Dave is pretty much calling you a moron who should learn his place and accept to submit to his gloriously superior intellect.

      I think it would be fair to call that a lie.

      Dan and I have discussed in the past his having volunteered that he has never chosen to learn calculus. That makes it impossible to understand science. I think it is fair for me to raise that key issue.

      No, I certainly do not think Dan is a “moron.” I do think he is ignorant of certain things that he himself has said he is ignorant of.

      It is very telling that Dan has had a great deal of trouble convincing people who frequent his comments section, people whom one would think would tend to be sympathetic to Dan, of his views on either his civility pledge or the supposed objectivity of values.

      Maybe instead of claiming that I was secretly trying to call him a “moron,” you should consider the possibility that I actually meant what I said.

      I will admit that I do kind of relish watching the mean-spiritedness that you, Dan, and PZ’s pals exhibit in the atheist blogosphere: it guarantees that none of you will ever have any significant influence in society at large. And that is a very good thing.

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

    Well, Dan, you make my point for me. You and I do very strongly disagree, but I have not slandered you, used crude language towards you, etc.: I have simply explained, as clearly and bluntly as possible, why I think your approach is horribly flawed.

    And, yet, you say I have “contempt” for you.

    No. I rather like you. I think you are reasonably intelligent. As I have said before, I actually think you make more valid points in your arguments about the objectivity of value than most philosophers make, although I still think your position, in the end, is wrong-headed.

    No, there is really one central point on which you and I have substantive differences: I think the methods employed by philosophy are proven failures. And, my witnesses for that are philosophers themselves – no one has more harshly condemned the theories of philosophers than other philosophers.

    Back in July, I raised the following question with you:

    Can you give a handful of results in philosophy that are generally accepted among the overwhelming majority if contemporary philosophers and have been for the last few decades, that are about substantive issues about the real world (i.e., not just “Plato made some mistakes”), and that are not already obvious to ordinary people (i.e., non-philosophers).

    No one could come up with any examples, not a single one.

    It would of course be extremely easy for a physicist, astronomer, biologist or mathematicians to come up with such examples from their own fields.

    Of course, maybe I just did not ask any philosopher as smart as you!

    So, by all means fill us all in on some of these important, well-established, non-obvious results of philosophical work that have been generally accepted for decades among philosophers.

    I’m really not trying to show you up here: I really, sincerely would be interested in hearing some examples. I really am disappointed that, so far, no philosopher I’ve asked has been able to provide any.

    You could not give any such substantive, non-obvious results: the best response you could give was: “It means that our debates involve a lot of advanced distinctions that are illuminating even if they are not conclusive. Our issues are not the same as in other fields, our “progress” is not the same as in other fields.”

    Indeed, it is not.

    Perhaps, Dan, the one thing that you might acknowledge is that in one respect I am indeed emulating most philosophers: i.e., my intransigent criticism of the majority of philosophers!

    All the best,

    Dave

    • DSimon

      Dave, you may not be aware of this, but it is generally considered impolite to put signatures at the end of blog comments, as your name is already listed at the top of the post. By repeating it at the bottom with a “Sincerely,” or similar, as though you were writing a letter, you are (likely unintentionally!) expressing a sarcastic tone.

  • Ariel

    PhysicistDave

    I will admit that I do kind of relish watching the mean-spiritedness that you, Dan, and PZ’s pals exhibit in the atheist blogosphere: it guarantees that none of you will ever have any significant influence in society at large. And that is a very good thing.

    I sort of share the sentiment, although I would exclude Dan from your list. I understand that you are angered by his comment, but I don’t think it’s fair to insert him here.

    Can you give a handful of results in philosophy that are generally accepted among the overwhelming majority if contemporary philosophers and have been for the last few decades, that are about substantive issues about the real world (i.e., not just “Plato made some mistakes”), and that are not already obvious to ordinary people (i.e., non-philosophers).

    No one could come up with any examples, not a single one.

    I could produce examples, but they would be disappointing to you. The reason for the expected disappointment is in my opinion that the assumptions behind your question are … well, very questionable (to put it rather delicately). So I will explain what is wrong with your question. From the discussion you will be able to guess very easily what sort of examples I would give, when pressed.

    When you ask about results in philosophy, your assumption seems to be that philosophy is in fact methodologically distinct from other disciplines or that its subject matter is peculiar enough to make it clearly distinct. Given such an assumption you ask about specifically philosophical results. And the problem is that as things stand now (i.e. given the facts about what people employed at philosophy departments actually do) such an assumption is (imo) indefensible. Methodological unity? Many of them are using formal methods, indistinguishable from the methods employed by mathematicians. Some of them are doing empirical research (try to google “experimental philosophy”). Some of them are engaged in interpreting formal or empirical results. Others are engaged in (what I would assess as) preliminary discussions about possible research programs. And still others are crazy and one is left wondering what they are being paid for :) Forget methodological unity, please; it exists only in your head. Unity of the subject matter? ROTFL. There is a bunch of issues – wildly disparate ones – which are traditionally called “philosophical”. You see, traditionally is the keyword. You want to search for a deeper unity and a hidden wisdom in the tradition lumping together (at one department) an analysis of modality, musings about the sense of life and interpretations of quantum physics? God bless you then and good luck!

    As for me, I would say that the difference between a contemporary philosopher and someone coming from another discipline reduces quite often to the difference of background and motivation. An example? You have a given formal system of modal logic. The philosopher, the mathematician and the computer scientist are considering this system. (Please keep in mind that each of the three could have invented it!) Then they say:

    Philosopher: Nice! Let’s see whether it corresponds to our ordinary modal intuitions, or maybe to modal intuitions of Leibniz!
    Computer scientist: Nice! Now let’s try some model checking!
    Mathematician: Nice! Let’s see what sort of algebraic semantics it admits!

    At this moment consider please: which discipline can boast the system itself as its own? Does the answer depend on who created the system (the lover of Leibniz, the model checking weirdo or the algebra buff) and with what motivation? And perhaps most importantly: do we need an answer at all?

    Perhaps you will be tempted to say “it’s formal, it’s a calculus, so it’s not philosophy”. Dear Dave, if you decide to decree formal methods out of existence in philosophy, it’s your right to use the word “philosophy” in such a way. I mean it. Only keep in mind that the others also have rights: in particular, they have a right not to give a fuck about your own proposed usage of this word :) The fact is that various philosophically (in the loose, traditional sense) motivated formal results were obtained by people from philosophy departments. You want to define them away as non-philosophical? Please be my guest. I don’t care; neither I can see a reason why anybody should.

    Last remark: if all you say was intended only as meaning “there is a lot of gibberish produced in departments of philosophy – possibly more than at other departments”, then I would agree without any reservations.

    All the best to you too!

    • Bugmaster

      Firstly, I could think of several questions that a layman, such as myself, would assign solely to the province of philosophy and no other. For example:

      * Morality/Ethics: Why (if at all) should I strive to do the right thing ? How do I know what the right thing to do is ? Is there even such a thing as “a right thing to do” ?
      * Aesthetics: What does it mean for a thing to be beautiful ? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder ? Does it matter which beholder ?
      * Metaphysics: Do empirically unfalsifiable entities (f.ex. certain kinds of gods) exist ? Does it matter ? How could we tell ?

      I would consider such issues to be “peculiar enough to make [them] clearly distinct”, and therefore the province of philosophy — but, of course, I could be wrong.

      Secondly, as far as I can tell, one feature that makes philosophy distinct from physics is that it is not constrained by any kind of an external world. The conclusions any given philosopher reaches depend on her assumptions; and since every philosopher is free to assume whatever she wants, it’s unlikely that two philosophers would ever reach consensus on any issue. Physicists don’t have this problem, because they can test their conclusions against a shared physical reality, and if someone reaches a conclusion like “rocks fall upward”, that physicist is wrong regardless of the elegance of her hypotheses. IMO this is a pretty big methodological difference between philosophy and physics (though possibly not math).

    • Ariel

      Bugmaster

      Firstly, I could think of several questions that a layman, such as myself, would assign solely to the province of philosophy and no other.

      Let’s see.

      * Morality/Ethics: Why (if at all) should I strive to do the right thing? How do I know what the right thing to do is ? Is there even such a thing as “a right thing to do” ?

      In this field I’m a layman too. Dan will be more competent. With this reservation, I’m inclined to say: these are interdisciplinary issues. It’s especially clear with the second one – psychology and sociology, perhaps even biology would have a lot to say. Poor philosophers can’t do it – by the decree of the Elders they are not allowed to do empirical research! In case of the first question, decision theory could be quite important. But this is a pretty formal stuff, so … I guess philosophers are prohibited to work on it as well, on pain of losing their methodological virginity :) Poor fellows!

      * Aesthetics: What does it mean for a thing to be beautiful ? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder ? Does it matter which beholder ?

      A layman here as well, but with the same impression as before: it’s interdisciplinary. Psychology and sociology again, even empirical linguistics perhaps (your “what does it mean …” etc.).

      * Metaphysics: Do empirically unfalsifiable entities (f.ex. certain kinds of gods) exist ? Does it matter ? How could we tell ?

      Gods? Oh, here I’m an expert at last! (We all are, aren’t we?) But seriously: interdisciplinary like hell. How about fine tuning arguments, with information from physics absolutely vital? How about the import of theory of evolution and biological discoveries? Philosophers’ sole domain? You must be kidding.

      Secondly, as far as I can tell, one feature that makes philosophy distinct from physics is that it is not constrained by any kind of an external world.

      Only if you decide to define away all known examples of claims which are traditionally called “philosophical”, while being clearly constrained by external world (like “a man is a tabula rasa” and many others). What’s the point of adopting such a definition?

      Let me make it clear. From my point of view about the only context where the question “what is philosophy” is still worth asking is that of the university administration and organization. Do we want to have departments of philosophy? Do we want them to attract students? Do we want to pay the staff (and how much :))? If so, why? In order to answer such questions it doesn’t pay off to look for “the only true definition of real, one hundred percent Philosophy, faithful to our intuitions”. People have intuitions about philosophy? Great. Screw them. Let’s have a look instead at what is actually going on in philosophy departments and let’s decide whether we want it to continue. It was my impression that Dave, with his disdain for philosophy, tried to go in this direction when he demanded results; he simply chose a rather bad way to do it.

      My sincere apologies for being so brutally practical.

    • Bugmaster

      > It’s especially clear with the second one – psychology and sociology, perhaps even biology would have a lot to say.

      Sorry, which one is “the second one” ? I’m not sure which statement you’re referring to. That said, one could argue — as some philosophers do — that while psychology/sociology/biology could tell us why people (or other animals) prefer to do the right (or the wrong) thing under certain circumstances, these sciences have nothing to tell us about what the right thing is, and why we should care at all. For example, it’s pretty obvious that most humans care about a limited number of their fellow humans to varying degrees, and we can discover some social or biological mechanisms that power these caring emotions — but are we right to care about people at all ? If so, which people should we care about ? I’m not saying that I have an answer, obviously, only that such questions have traditionally been the province of philosophy.

      > How about the import of theory of evolution and biological discoveries? Philosophers’ sole domain? You must be kidding.

      That is why I specifically narrowed the topic to unfalsifiable entities, such as the Deist god, for example. Many people do, in fact, believe in supernatural entities whose actions (if any) cannot a priori be detected objectively. Do such entities exist ? Does it matter ? Physics can’t answer such questions, since it only deals with observable things.

      > It was my impression that Dave, with his disdain for philosophy, tried to go in this direction when he demanded results; he simply chose a rather bad way to do it.

      From what you’d posted so far, it almost sounds like you’d be ok with abolishing philosophy as a separate discipline, and rolling its various branches into physics/math/sociology/etc. Is that right, or did I get a wrong impression ?

    • Bugmaster

      (My apologies for the less-than-stellar formatting of my post; I’m figuring out the markup syntax empirically rather than philosophically :-) Looks like it’s a subset of HTML though, so I’ll stick to that from now on)

    • Ariel

      Sorry, which one is “the second one” ? I’m not sure which statement you’re referring to.

      I referred to the second question from your previous post:

      (1) Why (if at all) should I strive to do the right thing? (2) How do I know what the right thing to do is ? (3) Is there even such a thing as “a right thing to do” ?


      By the way: I didn’t intend to argue that each philosophical problem can be subsumed under some other discipline. The point was rather that (fortunately!) these problems rarely live in isolation from issues investigated in other disciplines. Moreover, it’s (IMO) a very bad idea for philosophers to build their professional identity by stressing how distinct and separate (and crazy) their discipline is. To take your own example: would you like to finance from your own pocket a discipline for which investigation of a priori undetectable gods serves as the main raison d’être? Sorry, but to me it looks like an efficient way of committing an academic suicide.

      From what you’d posted so far, it almost sounds like you’d be ok with abolishing philosophy as a separate discipline, and rolling its various branches into physics/math/sociology/etc. Is that right, or did I get a wrong impression?

      By “abolishing philosophy” you mean liquidating philosophy departments? No, that’s not what I want. But I would be more than ok with philosophers engaging more directly in interdisciplinary work – both formal and empirical. I think that philosophical background in such a cooperation can indeed bring profits, e.g. sensitivity to certain types of problems. It’s been quite a success with formal sciences, so why not with the other ones? (Although from what Dave wrote, cooperation with physics looks like a disaster :)) E.g. why not join cognitive science projects, with engagement in empirical research, instead of doing armchair philosophy of mind? Some people I know made such a choice, and it looks like a good move to me.

      The big question is of course what general strategy should be adopted. To mention just one possibility: even now at some universities you are not allowed to begin with philosophical studies; first you must study something else. The idea is that you should learn something concrete before you start studying philosophy. Sounds like a good solution to me. It may permit to avoid the worst possible scenario, realized only too often: philosophy for philosophers and about philosophers (commentaries to Plato, Kant or Wittgenstein, ad nauseam).

    • Bugmaster

      I referred to the second question from your previous post: … “How do I know what the right thing to do is ?”

      I agree that biology and sociology can tell us a lot about the mechanisms that power our moral intuitions; but, traditionally, it was philosophers have dealt with the question of whether our intuitions are correct.

      Sorry, but to me it looks like an efficient way of committing an academic suicide.

      There are tons of theology departments out there — well-funded ones, too — that would claim otherwise. This brings me to my main point:

      But I would be more than ok with philosophers engaging more directly in interdisciplinary work – both formal and empirical. I think that philosophical background in such a cooperation can indeed bring profits, e.g. sensitivity to certain types of problems. … E.g. why not join cognitive science projects, with engagement in empirical research, instead of doing armchair philosophy of mind?

      But then, Dave’s question becomes more relevant: what’s so special about philosophy ? How is it better than the regular interdisciplinary studies, such as cognitive science ?

      One way to answer this question is to say, “science and math are both branches of philosophy”, but IMO such an answer is disingenuous (or possibly merely mistaken).

      Another answer I can think of is that philosophy tackles non-empirical questions (such as “what is justice”, etc.). The problem with this answer is that once you start dealing with concepts and entities that a priori cannot be detected in any way, it becomes very hard to stop, and you end up with theology departments endlessly discussing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin (metaphorically speaking). One unfalsifiable concept is as good as any other, as far as reality is concerned.

      You say that philosophy can “bring sensitivity to certain types of problems”; can you list some of these problems, and explain why philosophy as a discipline is best equipped to detect them ?

    • Ariel

      I agree that biology and sociology can tell us a lot about the mechanisms that power our moral intuitions; but, traditionally, it was philosophers have dealt with the question of whether our intuitions are correct.

      The information how these intuitions function may influence quite substantially what we will want to mean by “correct”.

      There are tons of theology departments out there — well-funded ones, too — that would claim otherwise.

      You are right of course. Christians will want to give money to theology departments. But who will want to fund philosophers and why anyone should? The more isolated and crazy the philosophers’ self-identification basis is, the smaller chances you have for a satisfactory answer.

      what’s so special about philosophy ? How is it better than the regular interdisciplinary studies, such as cognitive science ?

      Did I say it’s better? No, I didn’t. What’s so special about philosophy? My opinion: in areas where philosophy is at its best, nothing at all :) apart from the fact that some issues are traditionally called “philosophical”.

      You say that philosophy can “bring sensitivity to certain types of problems”; can you list some of these problems, and explain why philosophy as a discipline is best equipped to detect them?

      Sure. I will give two examples, the first one rather old, the second one quite new.

      1. Can we build a formal system capturing Brouwer’s intuitionistic conceptions?
      Ok, it’s going to be a tip of an iceberg. Perhaps you heard about Brouwer. He had this view that mathematical objects are mental constructions; and the question was whether such an idea can be expressed by formal, mathematical means. Although Brouwer himself was hostile to it (it seems that he was quite happy with the “no” answer), his student Arend Heyting developed the first formal systems of intuitionistic logic and mathematics. Later there was a lot of research on the properties of Heyting’s systems. I would say that it’s an example of philosophy doing a good work: you start with some rather vague philosophical intuitions, and you motivate a mathematician (Heyting) to notice a quite specific, formal task to be performed. That’s a sort of sensitivity I had in mind. Fruitful … even if you don’t believe yourself – like Brouwer – that the formal task in question is worth performing!

      2. What are the formal properties of axiomatic truth systems?
      A tip of an iceberg as well. Axiomatic truth systems are in vogue now, there is a lot of research going on in the area, and my point is that the directions of this research depend to a large degree on properties which are seen as philosophically important. I mean: you can investigate such systems from various angles – it’s your choice. But in practice the emphasis on specific issues (like conservativity, ordinal analysis, or – more recently – speedup) came usually with philosophical motivation in a quite traditional style. Hearing these motivations you would take a deep breath and say “oh my, but this is philosophical!”. Seeing the results, you might be inclined to call it math. That’s again the sort of sensitivity I had in mind, doing its work.

      Sorry, I know it was all probably too condensed, but I hope it conveys at least a general idea.

    • Bugmaster

      The information how these intuitions function may influence quite substantially what we will want to mean by “correct”.

      Not necessarily. For example, there are some very powerful reasons why our intuitions tell us that the Earth is flat, yet the correct answer is that the Earth is round(-ish).

      Christians will want to give money to theology departments. But who will want to fund philosophers and why anyone should? The more isolated and crazy the philosophers’ self-identification basis is, the smaller chances you have for a satisfactory answer.

      IMO no one should fund theology departments, either. The question that Dave is posing is not, “how should philosophers behave in order to maximize funding”, but “should we fund philosophy at all”. I agree with what you said, but if (taking the extreme view here) philosophy is an intellectually bankrupt discipline (akin to theology), then we want it to look “isolated and crazy”.

      Sure. I will give two examples, the first one rather old, the second one quite new.

      Admittedly, I am neither a mathematician nor a philosopher, but to me these examples look more like math than like philosophy. In both cases, philosophers provide the initial intuitions, and then mathematicians develop the formal systems, building upon the work of their predecessor mathematicians (e.g. Godel). In this case, I would be tempted to classify philosophy (as it currently exists) as a useful subset of math, not as a standalone discipline.

      As I said, though, I am neither a philosopher nor a mathematician, so it’s hard for me to judge. Is there something about the two cases you brought up that makes philosophy uniquely equipped to generate the new ideas ? Are there other such examples, in other disciplines besides math ?

    • Ariel

      The question that Dave is posing is not, “how should philosophers behave in order to maximize funding”, but “should we fund philosophy at all”. I agree with what you said, but if (taking the extreme view here) philosophy is an intellectually bankrupt discipline (akin to theology), then we want it to look “isolated and crazy”.

      My point was that to answer that second question (“should we fund philosophy at all”) we must look at what the philosophers are actually doing, without putting too much weight on our preconceptions. If from the start you decide to define philosophy as isolated and crazy, then obviously you will have an answer, but it’s simply a bad idea to start with such preconceptions.

      these examples look more like math than like philosophy. In both cases, philosophers provide the initial intuitions, and then mathematicians develop the formal systems, building upon the work of their predecessor mathematicians (e.g. Godel).

      But it happens quite often that after providing the initial intuitions, both philosophers and mathematicians do the formal work. Then there is a question of interpreting the formal results, and here again philosophers have their say, which in turn provides new philosophical motivations, provoking more formal work, and so on. It’s all mixed together and the separation is very artificial.

      In this case, I would be tempted to classify philosophy (as it currently exists) as a useful subset of math, not as a standalone discipline.

      Classify as you want, but what’s the point? What should we do with such a classification? How useful is it? Try to translate your classification into practical issues, like organization of our universities. Should such philosophers be transferred forcibly to (the dungeons of) math departments? I would favor a less invasive solution: creating institutes or centers within existing structures familiar to them. (E.g. something like MCMP in Munich.) Group together similarly minded people, while giving also a clear signal to the students what sort of education they can count on.

      Is there something about the two cases you brought up that makes philosophy uniquely equipped to generate the new ideas ?

      Philosophy as a discipline with a lot of pretensions and nebulous essential properties? No. My answer would be the same as before: as it happens, questions about the nature of mathematical objects and the nature of truth are put by tradition in the huge box labeled “philosophy”. Students of philosophy get acquainted with discussions on these topics, they soak with texts stressing the importance of these questions, they are motivated to treat them as worth asking. Sometimes it pays off (as in the examples I gave). Only too often it doesn’t (and that’s why I’m not totally unsympathetic to Dave).

      Are there other such examples, in other disciplines besides math?

      Perhaps not on such a scale. But I’m not a proper person to ask what happens e.g. between philosophy and physics or biology. I know that some people (e.g. in ILLC in Amsterdam) are engaged in empirical investigations, covering issues on the border of linguistics and philosophy. Hopefully we will have more and more of it.

  • mas528

    The problem I have with Dave’s screeds is his obvious ignorance. I’ll tell you a fantastic success of philosophy: Science. Logic as well. The coordinate system.

    Mental masturbations? What did you think relativity sprang forth complete from Einstein’s brow?

    Do you know three and for valued logic? Ignoramus. I don’t mean to be mean*, but do you know just what a number is? Commutativity? Associativity? Why the order of operations is what they are? Or do you base the calculus on faith and tradition? I have read some of whitehead and Russell. it gives me confidence that what I am doing rests on a foundation of logic.

    Oh, and if you try to invoke Godel here, that means you do not know what Godel said.
    *I lied there.

  • julian

    At least you’re not pretending to be on good terms with anyone anymore. The resentment feeds both ways it seems.

    Still nice to see some honesty.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

    At least you’re not pretending to be on good terms with anyone anymore. The resentment feeds both ways it seems.

    Still nice to see some honesty.

    I’m on good terms with anyone who will be on good terms with me. This post is not about resentment, it’s a clarification of what principles I thought the movement is about and a request for others who seem to disagree with me about the interpretation of those principles to explain how various things they have defended or tried to justify engaging in square with those principles.


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