Open Thread: Feedback on The Aura of Infallibility

About two weeks ago, the following comment was posted on the thread “The Aura of Infallibility” by one of the Christians whom I originally quoted in that post.

There were some other discussions going on at the time and it fell off the recent comments list before it could attract any replies, and I thought it deserved some. So, I’m promoting it to its own thread. I’ll write my own response to it (and I’ll contact Matt to let him know about this post) – but readers, what say you?

Hi all,

I am the Matt discussed in the original article. I found this to be quite interesting, as it was an approach to the theistic approach to epistemology that I hadn’t heard, at least not put quite that way. The specious argument that I am making a claim to infallibility myself when I claim to believe in the Bible’s infallibility is really quite stunning when I think about it. The only logical conclusion of such a claim, and the resultant claim that “all knowledge must be provisional” is that none of you know anything at all, in which case why take such an arrogant absolutist tone with those with whom you disagree?

Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, “…I came into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone that is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate’s response is, “What is truth?” This exchange reveals perfectly the two different epistemological approaches here. You said all truth must be provisional. But that means that there is no truth, or at least no way for us to ever know that truth. And if so, then there is no right and wrong, no such thing as evil. There is only what works for me as an individual.

And yet you all know full well that that isn’t true. You know full well that there are things that are evil, regardless of evolutionary processes or survival needs. You demonstrate that over and over in this thread. You act as absolutist as any Pharisee ever did, insulting the intelligence of those who disagree with you, even casting aspersions on our moral character, describing our perspective as “scary” and the like, in direct contradiction to your insistence that all knowledge must be provisional (which sounds like a pretty absolutist statement itself).

Science is not the only source of knowledge. It’s not even the most important one. Within its proper role, science is wonderful, a gift from God to be used to understand His beautiful creation. But each of you have souls, whether you acknowledge that or not, and the image of God within you which teaches you right and wrong, is far more important than science. A good but scientifically illiterate man is a far better man than a scientifically knowledgeable but cruel and deceptive man.

I do not claim infallibility. My views on many subjects have changed. Your arguments on this point are circular. If there is truly a God, and He truly revealed Himself to mankind infallibly, then He can do so in a way which is compelling, and it is no claim of infallibility on my part to say that I have recognized His infallible revelation and submit to it. You say that I am wrong about many things. Why is it somehow different when I say that you are wrong about many things?

Pilate’s statement, “What is truth?” was immediately followed by his order for the crucifixion of a man he himself knew to be innocent, because he felt compelled to do so for his own survival. Was he wrong to do it?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    The specious argument that I am making a claim to infallibility myself when I claim to believe in the Bible’s infallibility is really quite stunning when I think about it.

    It seems spot on to me and protestations about what we know won’t change that.

    The only logical conclusion of such a claim, and the resultant claim that “all knowledge must be provisional” is that none of you know anything at all, in which case why take such an arrogant absolutist tone with those with whom you disagree?

    There’s quite a difference between provisional knowledge that is backed by evidence and, ‘I believe it therefore it is unconditionally true.’

    You said all truth must be provisional. But that means that there is no truth, or at least no way for us to ever know that truth. And if so, then there is no right and wrong, no such thing as evil.

    Are you really trying to claim that without absolute truth there can be no such thing as morality?

    Science is not the only source of knowledge. It’s not even the most important one.

    What other sources are there? We only “know” things through empirical observation, testing, and verification – i.e. the process of science. Any claim to knowledge through revelation is simply false in that we can’t claim to “know” it.

    But each of you have souls…

    Evidence pls, k thx.

  • Scotlyn

    Spot on, OMGF as usual. But I will venture to do some hair-splitting in a slightly different way.

    Matt:

    Science is not the only source of knowledge. It’s not even the most important one.

    Science is not a “source” of knowledge at all – it is a method for subjecting what you think you know, what you wish might be true, what you have heard from other trusted sources, to the fundamental test of evidence. Evidence is the only real “source” of knowledge, but since there is always new evidence coming in – as we discover new ways of examining and measuring the world, and discover new places to to go examine and go measure – our current knowledge is provisional. Also, what we know already usually generates awareness of a whole new set of things we now know we don’t know – new questions that we previously didn’t even realise we would want answers to. Knowing that your knowledge is provisional is not a dismaying prospect for a lot of us – rather it is endlessly thrilling.

    On the other hand, many people (among whom are many of the believers that I personally have had encounters with), are not pleased with the necessarily provisional state of what we can know. They prefer a one-answer-fits-all-questions state of certainty (sometimes lampooned as the “goddunnit” answer). Such people don’t really want a proper answer for this or that particular question, IMHO, what they really want is for all questions to simply go away. Questions seem to cause them pain. Are you among these, Matt?

  • keddaw

    I agree with the idea that atheists have a problem with morality – objective morality that is. I have no idea how anyone can think morality exists in some ethereal realm, like numbers, or think they’re innate and then deny that genetics has given us a random set based on what was good for the species that preceeded us.

    However, a claim that God is infallible seems crazy? Where does this information come from, God? Well who wouldn’t say they were all-powerful and all-knowing? Can we use something else to see if it’s true, how about scriptures? Scriptures presupposes that God wrote the set you are looking at, but any historian will tell you that what we consider the ‘true revelation of the lord’ is in fact a bunch of old tales voted for and altered at various points throughout history. Not to mention that the scriptures contradict each other and often allow or command things that we think are immoral. e.g. Suffer ye not a witch to live. Well, we now know witchcraft isn’t real so what’s that all about? How can an all-knowing, all loving God have left that in there knowing that thousands of woman would be murdered on the basis of that line, or the hundreds of children in Africa being killed now.

    So your argument goes: God is infallible. I know this because it says so in a book. The book must be true because it was written by an infallible God.

  • Dan

    “You know full well that there are things that are evil, regardless of evolutionary processes or survival needs.”

    I don’t think “things” (objects) are intrinsically good or evil. Humans can choose to commit behaviors which could be considered “evil” (in the religious or moral sense of that word), and some of those behaviors may include the use of inanimate “things.” But it’s not the things which are evil.

  • http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/ David Ellis


    The specious argument that I am making a claim to infallibility myself when I claim to believe in the Bible’s infallibility is really quite stunning when I think about it.

    To claim that the Bible is infallible if inspired by an infallible God is perfectly reasonable.

    To claim that the Bible IS infallible though, does seem to imply one’s own judgment on whether God inspired the Bible is infallible. I really don’t see any way to avoid that nor anything in what you’ve said that would suggest otherwise.


    You said all truth must be provisional.

    Truth isn’t provisional. It just is. Its knowledge claims that I hold provisionally (though some are so well founded that in their case this only means that I’m open to being proven wrong no matter how unlikely I think it that this will occur).


    But that means that there is no truth, or at least no way for us to ever know that truth.

    Being open to being proven wrong isn’t an epistemological error. Its simply sensible.


    And if so, then there is no right and wrong, no such thing as evil.

    Being aware that I’m capable of errors of judgment does not entail that there is no right or wrong….only that I’m capable of being mistaken in my opinions on this sort of matter. Surely not a controversial position.


    Science is not the only source of knowledge.

    I’ve never heard a nontheist claim it was. One doesn’t have to perform a scientific experiment to realize one’s hungry, for example. But this brings us no closer to having good reason to consider religious experience a reliable way to form opinions that fit the facts.


    I do not claim infallibility. My views on many subjects have changed.

    That you’ve changed your mind on other matters does not entail that your position on the infallibility of the Bible is reasonable.


    If there is truly a God, and He truly revealed Himself to mankind infallibly, then He can do so in a way which is compelling, and it is no claim of infallibility on my part to say that I have recognized His infallible revelation and submit to it.

    Here we finally get to the meat of the epistemological disagreement. What makes you think that the Bible is God’s Infallible Word? It sounds to me as if you’re suggesting something like what Joseph Smith proposed to his followers to judge whether the Book of Mormon was the Word of God: the burning in the bosom.

    http://www.mormonwiki.org/Burning_in_the_bosom

    Or something like it.

    If not, then please tell us what you DO have in mind. If so, why should this be regarded as reliable in your case when it shouldn’t be for believers in other scriptures as infallible revelations.

  • Scotlyn

    Sorry, midway in comment 2 that should read:

    “also, new evidence generates awareness of a whole new set of things we now know we don’t know”

  • Laine

    You said all truth must be provisional. But that means that there is no truth, or at least no way for us to ever know that truth. And if so, then there is no right and wrong, no such thing as evil.

    This is a misrepresentation. Knowledge is provisional, truth is not. Just because we cannot know truth (for certain, at least) does not necessarily lead to “there is no right or wrong.”

  • Ritchie

    Wow, lots of responses already, covering much of what I wanted to say. So I’ll just focus on one point:

    The only logical conclusion of such a claim, and the resultant claim that “all knowledge must be provisional” is that none of you know anything at all, in which case why take such an arrogant absolutist tone with those with whom you disagree?

    You are very close here. We must, as adults, face up to the possibility that we are wrong about ANYTHING at all. Philosophy particularly waxes lyrical on this. But as ordinary, regular people, we must accept that we make mistakes and sometimes we believe things which turn out not to be true.

    So how can we ever really know anything? Enter the scientific method. Here’s how it works: someone comes up with an idea on the way the world might work (usually based on some observations). This is called a hypothesis. Then they test the hypothesis. This is the key stage – the hypothesis must be testable. That way we can see if it works (ie, if the universe really does function that way). If it does not, the hypothesis is dropped. If it does work, the hypothesis becomes a theory, and it is kept.

    Other people will test the theory too. They will come at it from different angles, try to find flaws, loopholes, exceptions to the rules, whatever. The theory is thus modified, ammended and made more specific. But if at any point the theory is falsified, it is dropped. This is crucial.

    Modern science then is the accumulation of every theory that has been tested and has never failed. That’s what science is – the sum of every theory that works so far. Now it is possible that every theory human beings have ever come up with might be wrong, but there is good reason to think otherwise. Firstly, these theories are tested, repeatedly, constantly, and critically. If they never fail, how can they be wrong? Secondly, they have produced tangible results. We have cars, computers, medicine, we have walked on the moon, decoded the human genome and cloned animals. Every achievement science has produced is testament to the fact that the theories which they birth WORK.

    Trusting science as a means of understanding the world is to put your eggs into an extremely safe, cushioned basket. Without it, we would only have the superstitions of religion – blaming disease and natural disasters on demons and the wrath of spirits, trying to channel auras and divine the future. None of which has ever produced any tangible achievements or evidence that it really WORKS.

    Against this mountain of real world evidence, the fact that you think it’s wrong because you REALLY REALLY believe the Bible is correct seems rather on the arrogant side. How can you so readily dismiss the intellectual achievements of mankind – the fruits of which are all around us?

  • http://theorangesashford.moonfruit.com Steve Bowen

    The specious argument that I am making a claim to infallibility myself when I claim to believe in the Bible’s infallibility is really quite stunning when I think about it.

    Your arguments on this point are circular. If there is truly a God, and He truly revealed Himself to mankind infallibly, then He can do so in a way which is compelling, and it is no claim of infallibility on my part to say that I have recognized His infallible revelation and submit to it.

    Matt is not explicitly claiming infallibility, but it is implicit as Ebon makes clear in the OP because he is convinced his interpretation of scripture is the correct one, despite the obvious fact that there are almost as many interpretations as people who have read them. If as he claims God revealed himself infallibly, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion as we would all agree not only on God’s existence but on everything about him. For Matt to claim he has “recognized his infallible revelation” where others haven’t suggests he is also infallible.

    The only logical conclusion of such a claim, and the resultant claim that “all knowledge must be provisional” is that none of you know anything at all, in which case why take such an arrogant absolutist tone with those with whom you disagree?

    Although Matt recognizes that with a scientific world view “all knowledge must be provisional” he is drawing the wrong conclusion. Just because we may never know an absolute truth does not mean we know nothing. Limited as we are by the way our senses interact with the world we must set error bars on any knowledge derived through them, but epistemologically this is still preferable to “revelation” which has no evidential basis whatsoever.

    A good but scientifically illiterate man is a far better man than a scientifically knowledgeable but cruel and deceptive man.

    True as far as it goes but a false dichotomy anyway. It is also better to be a good scientifically knowledgeable person than to be a good ignorant one.

  • Valhar2000

    The specious argument that I am making a claim to infallibility myself when I claim to believe in the Bible’s infallibility is really quite stunning when I think about it.

    What is stunning about it? You may not say it out loud, but all your arguments are based almost exclusively on the idea that your perceptions are infallible, such as here:

    If there is truly a God, and He truly revealed Himself to mankind infallibly, then He can do so in a way which is compelling, and it is no claim of infallibility on my part to say that I have recognized His infallible revelation and submit to it.

    You claim here that you have perceived something about some god, and that it is abslutely true, and it is the height of arrogance not to accept your claim. How is this not claiming that you are infallible? What if you perception of this god is wrong? Well, it’s not, it simply isn’t. Therefore, you are infallible.

  • StarScream

    I think that it is useful here to mention the old three rhetorical appeals as a means to unpacking the conundrum as to why someone such as Matt would believe as such. To refresh anyone’s memory they are logos, ethos, and pathos i.e. arguments that utilize logic, derive authority from personal character, and appeals to emotion.

    I think in Matt’s case and in many (most typically fundamentalist) religions, ethos is emphasized as the most persuasive mode of argument. You can typically hear it in Christian slogans such as “God doesn’t lie” when speaking about the Bible. They are basing their knowledge claim on the character of God in the form of “Since God doesn’t lie, therefore the Bible is true.” (Even though a logical statement, like all deductive logic, its premise must be true for the conclusion to be.)

    Reliance on ethos is a prominent characteristic of Islamic culture as well. Taner Edis talks about this at length in his book “An Illusion of Harmony.” I wish I could get the exact quote, but I’m home and the book is states away in my dorm so I’ll paraphrase his thoughts about it (Sorry Taner if I mangle it): “Appeals to character as a sign of reliable knowledge is a typically commonplace and comfortable mode of reasoning for humans while appeals to logic can often be seen as elitist and requiring specialized knowledge. Religion is first and foremost a populist enterprise, therefore it is going to utilize populist reasoning.”

    As a former fundamentalist who has close friends still enmeshed in its tentacles, I see and understand how this operates. In the case of fundamentalist Protestantism at least, the believer is constantly encouraged to develop a “personal relationship with Christ.” In many believers this becomes a prominent characteristic of their religion to the point where it is imagined that they are constantly talking to Jesus with their thoughts, words, and actions even in the most mundane daily contexts. Events, again many of which are mundane, are often interpreted in this light such as when a stubbed toe quits hurting, it is the result of Jesus ending the pain, etc, etc.

    Now, since appeals to ethos are grounded in character, believers trust what they imagine their God says as you or I might trust what our spouse or best friend says. Therefore, even when the belief in a infallible Word of God as per the Bible or the Koran is insanely absurd and flies in the face of verifiable evidence, it is still believed as we might trust a family member who is on trial and all the evidence points toward their guilt, but our relationship with them leads us to believe that they are innocent.

    In short, when people base their epistemic structure around ethos as well as imagining their God as a daily part of their lives, logic and evidence and reason are no more likely to convince them than the prosecuting lawyer is going to convince the mother of the accused that their son is guilty. (Of course I’m not making this as a blanket statement about religious epistemology as there is much variation, but I do think it fits when the characteristics are met.)

  • Wednesday

    People have already gotten most fo what I wanted to say, but there’s still this that stands out at me:

    And yet you all know full well that that isn’t true. You know full well that there are things that are evil, regardless of evolutionary processes or survival needs.

    Why is this a “regardless of evolution and survival”? I really don’t see how that’s relevant here. Does he think we will excuse genocide if we get some bullshit ev psych justification? Does he think we don’t distinguish between “shooting a puppy because you are starving and need to eat” and “shooting a puppy because you enjoy watching it suffer and die”?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Valhar2000 — exactly. Perfectly (oops) and concisely and succinctly put.

    This going to sound like self promotion, but I think this discussion mirrors my Xtian missionaries piece beautifully.

    If you perceive God and his revealed truth as infallible, then you are relying upon the infallibility of your perception.

    If you believe that you are being directed by an infallible God, then everything you do and say and think becomes infallible.

    Regardless of the misery and harm and suffering it may cause.

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  • keddaw

    Does he think we don’t distinguish between “shooting a puppy because you are starving and need to eat” and “shooting a puppy because you enjoy watching it suffer and die”?

    The puppy doesn’t.

    Matt makes a reasonable point that we accept truths when they are actually only a reasonable working hypothesis. We accept our senses, while acknowledging they can be mistaken, we accept our memory while realising it is fallible, especially around Christmas nights out. We accept the scientific method as being a way to test and accept hypotheses that pass repeatable falsifiable tests. We accept that time flows in one direction, that causation happens, that what we observe now relates in some way to what has gone before and what is likely to happen in the future.

    None of these things are strictly speaking true, testable or objective. But they are reasonable. It would make no sense to deny causality. What we should do is accept the ‘real’ world as a decent working hypothesis subject to new information being presented.

    You know full well that there are things that are evil

    No, actually we don’t. We have a general agreement on what people in this society think is an evil act, but the people committing those acts often do not. Was every Concentration Camp officer with knowledge of what was going on evil? Is every African Muslim who approves of female (or male) genital mutilation evil? You take your learned and discovered morality and apply it in the way you have* to situations where people haven’t had your experience and call it evil. It is, but it not obvious to that person that in that situation that it is evil. Therefore there cannot be anything that is objectively evil. That does not alter the fact that we should try to have some rational agreement on what is subjectively evil and try to stop people doing those things.

    * Just to be clear, you not only can but should apply your morals to situations in different cultures. e.g. when seeing the stoning of an adulterer you should try to stop it even though that’s their culture. I am just saying you can’t assume that everyone taking part saw it as an immoral act and they were just evil people who enjoyed stoning, they were probably doing something they thought was necessary, however mistaken they may be.

  • anthuswilliams

    I’m a little tempted to go with Pontius Pilate on this one, your perverse accusations to the contrary. Our statements on the provisional nature of truth do indeed mean that we can probably never fully understand the ‘truth’, as it is.

    But we recognize something that has completely slipped past you: there are shades of gray. Your argument that the provisional nature of knowledge precludes all understanding of the world and morality is utter bullshit.

    It’s like Asimov said: “Those who thought the world was flat were wrong. Those who thought the world was perfectly spherical were also wrong. But if you think that both groups are equally wrong, than you are more wrong than both of them.”

    There are gradations of knowledge, my friend, and even if we can never reach a perfect understanding, we can always aspire to a better understanding. The difference between us is we believe in things (more or less) based on evidence, whereas you assert the infallibility of the bible because it appeals to your sense of right and wrong, thereby asserting the infallibility of your own conscience.

  • Polly

    Hello Matt,
    You said:

    I do not claim infallibility. My views on many subjects have changed.

    Do you think you will change your views again, ever, about anything else?
    If so, then “truth” is provisional for you as well.

    You know full well that there are things that are evil,

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me that word is a shorthand way of labeling something I find extremely distasteful to my senses or hurts me vicariously via my capacity for empathy. In absolute terms – which is probably how you mean it – there’s no such thing as evil…or good.

    If we could assign numerical values to behavior, then the terms “Good” and “bad” could be defined in number of standard deviations from the behavioral mean of a given population. As you go further out, left or right, behaviors will FEEL more extreme – either for the “better” or the “worse” because of the rarity one encounters them. This explains why some infrequent but harmless sexual mores are deemed “evil” by religion.
    A population characterized by a mean shifted too far “bad” will self-immolate. Too far “good” and it will be conquered.

    just an idea.

  • keddaw

    Nice post, Polly with just one slight problem at the end:
    A population characterized by a mean shifted too far “bad” will… actually be the mean. Likewise too far “good”.
    You make the entirely understandable view that something close to what you have now is the mean.
    For most people the morals of the society they grow up in are normal and right.
    As an example most people see polyamorism as “bad” yet the vast majority of all known human civilisations have been polygamous, with a very small number multi-husband, and an even smaller number multi-multi. Is it bad? I certainly don’t think so.

  • David

    “You know full well that there are things that are evil, regardless of evolutionary processes or survival needs.”

    Wow, that goes down as “Assertion of the Century.”

    “But each of you have souls, whether you acknowledge that or not,”

    And the runner-up.

  • http://theorangesashford.moonfruit.com Steve Bowen

    something close to what you have now is the mean[...]As an example most people see polyamorism as “bad” yet the vast majority of all known human civilisations have been polygamous,

    Ah! I see. It’s a standard deviation :)

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    I’m stepping out right now for Christmas vacation, and just found out about this new thread this morning. I might be able to give it a little more attention later. But for now, a question, going back to the original claim against me:

    The author of this site wrote recently that forced child marriage is “an evil which no society should tolerate.” (Sorry, no time to find the cite, but I’m pretty sure it’s accurate. Correct me if not.) I happen to agree, by the way. But some questions-

    How do you know? To quote one of your more charming tropes, “Evidence, pls k thks”. What evidence could I provide you with to prove that it is in fact not evil?

    And if you are certain forced child marriage is evil, how is that different from my certainty that Jesus is my savior?

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Also, please define “evil”.

  • http://theorangesashford.moonfruit.com Steve Bowen

    The author of this site wrote recently that forced child marriage is “an evil which no society should tolerate.” [...]What evidence could I provide you with to prove that it is in fact not evil?

    Ignoring for the moment that in defining forced child marriage as evil we are laying ourselves open to a charge of cultural relativism, we can predict that the coercion,the inevitable sexualisation,the separation from parents and other deprivations will have negative physical and psychological consequences to the child. It only requires a degree of empathy and a utilitarian perspective to hypothesise this is morally wrong. If you could supply evidence that children in this situation were in the main happy, well adjusted and content individuals who wouldn’t rather be somewhere else we could discard that idea.
    In other words the view that forced child marriage is evil can be empirically tested. Your belief however that Jesus is your saviour is not. It is a view you hold without any way of testing its truth. It may well be the case BTW that your idea that Jesus is your saviour may have real world consequences for your behaviour and morality, but it says nothing about an actual Jesus or your actual salvation (whatever you conceive that to be)

  • Polly

    keddaw,

    What I meant was: too far “bad” relative to what’s likely to remain stable. There’s a point where too much aggressive behavior or too much passivity endangers the survival of the community. That may even be the reason we see the specific mix of personality types that we do today. Pure speculation to be sure.

    For my part, I refrain from holding strong opinions about others’ private lives regardless of how far they “deviate” from MY mean.

  • keddaw

    Matt, one could reference the physical harm caused to child brides, the lack of opportunity for education and opportunities to pursue personal interests, perhaps some studies that show the psychological damage that can be done to child brides. Less useful would be the increased risk of physical abuse and psychological abuse, the lack of friends and support structure, any evidence of increases in self harm etc.

    All these things are called evidence that do not prove forced child marriage is wrong or evil, but do strongly hint that it is not something we should want for other people. Assuming we want to reduce the harm in other sentient humans.

    This is in no way similar to your certainty that Jesus is your saviour. You have no evidence that it is true, you can show no (reasonable) differences between people that have Jesus as a saviour and those that don’t in terms of happiness (when normalised for education and wealth) unless you think we’re all saved, which just makes you wonder what’s the point if we’re all saved anyway.

    So as a working hypothesis you can say forced child marriage is evil but there is no reason to have a working hypothesis that Jesus is your saviour.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The only logical conclusion of such a claim, and the resultant claim that “all knowledge must be provisional” is that none of you know anything at all

    FAIL. “Provisional” does not mean “nonexistent.” This is an absolutist argument, a false dichotomy. Absolutism is a common fallacious view of many theist arguments: morality must be eternal and absolute, or it may as well not exist. meaning must be objective and eternal or it may as well not exist.

    Pfui.

    There is more than black and white, there are shades of grey in the world.
    There is more than wet and dry, there are various degrees of moist, damp and soggy.

    All of our scientific knowledge about the world is provisional. This includes even our knowledge of the non-flatness of the Earth. Seriously. When I say my knowledge if the non-flatness of the Earth is provisional, I am not saying that knowledge is nonexistent. I am not saying it is arbitrary. I am saying that I must be open to changing my mind about it – when provided with convincing evidence to the contrary. Your failure to produce convincing evidence that would change my mind does not prove that I am close-minded.

    My knowledge of the non-flatness of the Earth is not absolute, but like all scientific findings, it can be expressed as a probability. Our assuredness of the non-flatness of the Earth is much, much closer to 1.0 than to 0.0, so for this example it would be silly to hold back. But still, that certainty will never reach 1.0.

  • Matt Powell

    So then if I could show that forced child marriage was actually better for the long-term health and stability of the society, that would be an argument you’d be open to?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Science is not the only source of knowledge.

    OK, so science is not the only source of knowledge. What other sources are used in defence of religion? How do we know those sources are reliable? Can we test them?

    It isn’t enough to say that the methods of acquiring “knowledge” used by religions are not known to be reliable, they are in fact known to be unreliable. Miracles? Genuine miracles are unknown. Frauds are known. Holy texts? You yourself do not accept the holy texts of other religions, so you must acknowledge that is not a reliable form of epistemology. Inner sense of or communication with God? No, you can find people with such a sense in any asylum. And they all have conflicting claims.

    It isn’t enough to say science doesn’t have a monopoly on knowledge, you must make an active case for your religion’s ability to supply knowledge.

  • Joffan

    I see that anthuswilliams has made the point that I was checking for – knowledge that is provisional is not the same as an outright guess. I second his post.

    A further example – when we assess the harm of (say) a certain chemical by observing its historical effect at various concentrations, and conclude that below some limit “there is no evidence of harm”, we can almost never say “there is zero harm” at such low concentrations. This is sometimes mistakenly taken to mean we have no idea what the true nature of the effect is. However we can say “any harm is below this very low level” which includes zero harm. So our uncertainty has been confined closely, even though some inexactitude remains.

    Back on infallibility – how do you (Matt, or anyone) arrive at the idea that the Bible is infallible? At some stage, you must have decided that either you or some other assessor has assessed every point in the Bible and found it correct. Are you infallible in that assessment? Or the other assessor?

    Beware also of cognitive bias (pdf), which will tend to make it easier for you to reinforce your opinion (can this evidence be interpreted to allow me to keep my view?) than to change it (does this evidence force me to admit a mistake?).

  • Nathan

    Hello Matt -

    First, thank you for responding and remaining civil in the face of so much skepticism.

    That such a comment regarding the vileness of the forced marriage of children was made seems reasonable, regardless of the fallibility of memory. I agree that forced child marriage is an evil, however, it seems likely that the comment came up in the context of the Biblical account of Moses – who imposed just such an arrangement on a large number of (presumably) traumatized young girls – not women, but girls, per the allegedly infallible Word of God, who had just seen their parents, brothers, and elder sisters slaughtered. I do consider that story and those events abhorrent, and would welcome your comments on it, but it is an aside to the general thrust of your comments about ‘knowing.’

    More relevant seems the question of knowing, and how one knows. I can provide ethical guidelines regarding the respect for the dignity of others, and argue from those – with no appeal to Deity required – that the violation of those guidelines is evil, or cruel, or vile, or whichever word you like to best express the concept of behavior that is destructive to both society and the individual. At that point, you can question my guidelines, as to how I ‘know’ they are good.

    Ah! You have me! I don’t. They seem reasonable to me, and those guidelines have been used successfully in other societies, and produce results that are generally in keeping with other, different sets of guidelines … but am I prepared to defend them to the death? No. I’m perfectly happy to abandon them – for better guidelines.

    Ah! You have me! How do I define ‘better guidelines?’ We could discuss this for hours, I suspect. But the point is that I can enunciate what I want from a coherent society, why I consider that good, and discuss how those principles support such goals.

    So then, how is this belief different from your belief that Jesus is your Saviour? I’m willing to discuss and defend mine as a product of principle rather than an ineffable foregone conclusion. I’m willing to change my mind on the subject, if some person can convince me that the forced marriage of children serves some overriding social goal or benefits the individuals involved.

    To turn that around, what general principles or logic led you to accept Jesus as your Saviour? Can you explain them? If someone were to present compelling arguments that Buddha (for example) is a superior Saviour, would you accept Buddha as your Saviour? If so, why? If not, why not?

    I believe the ball is back in your court as to whether these two beliefs – about the forced marriage of children, and about Jesus as Saviour – are sufficiently similar to be of use in this discussion. For my part, I do not think they are.

    Thanks,
    Nathan

  • keddaw

    Matt,

    So then if I could show that forced child marriage was actually better for the long-term health and stability of the society, that would be an argument you’d be open to?

    It would make a utilitarian very open to the idea of it, but I am a libertarian so just because something is good for society does not make me immediately in favour of it. The autonomy of the individual would take precedence in my view. Notwithstanding my anti-marriage views.

    However, if I had grown up in a society where forced child marriage was the norm then I’d be well outside the norm in saying it was wrong.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Matt –

    I find the self-correcting nature of science to be the very reason why it is a more trustworthy source of knonwledge. Simply because knowledge is tentative doesn’t mean it’s non-existent; witness Newtonian physics and its replacement, in certain circumstances, by relativity. Yet JPL still uses Newtonian physics to program the control modules for our robot spacecraft.

    It is religion’s very claim of infallibility that impeaches it as a form of knowledge, imo.

  • Entomologista

    You act as absolutist as any Pharisee ever did, insulting the intelligence of those who disagree with you, even casting aspersions on our moral character, describing our perspective as “scary” and the like

    If you’re looking for people to blow sunshine up your butt about your beliefs, you’re in the wrong place. The reason we say that your beliefs are scary, dangerous, and even immoral is because many people who hold those beliefs can’t seem to mind their own business. Fundamentalist religious people want to codify their religious beliefs into law, and that directly affects people’s lives. When you threaten people’s freedom to choose their own path, people will consider you scary.

    If you believe stupid shit, you’re going to get called stupid. Nobody is obligated to coddle your bad ideas.

  • Lynet

    So then if I could show that forced child marriage was actually better for the long-term health and stability of the society, that would be an argument you’d be open to?

    As a utilitarian of sorts, I would certainly have to consider such an argument. However, there are a few things contained in that phrase “utilitarian of sorts” that might get in the way of such an argument for me. I don’t think it’s worth making a lot of people slightly happier in exchange for making a few people very miserable. So if forced child marriage would make a more healthy and stable society overall in exchange for exposing a few children to dreadful abuse that would make them very unhappy, then this would violate my moral code.

    The second thing that I would have to consider is that utilitarianism, in asking that we maximise good outcomes, requires us to have a notion of what is good. While the esteemed author of this blog goes with happiness as the best answer to that question, I myself would prefer to allow people some leeway to choose their own purposes and sense of what is good in life. Claiming that it would be better to choose a person’s life for them when they are still a child would certainly create tangles with this idea. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be open to arguments on this count, just that I’d be very cautious in adopting an idea which seems to preclude a degree of choice that I had hitherto considered somewhat essential.

    If you’re curious about the details of how I’m coming up with this stuff, I discussed both these aspects of my (current) best description of morality on my old blog here.

    —-

    You’re probably going to get a lot of different answers to your question. I’m glad of that, because it should give you some idea of the different ways in which atheists try to describe what it means to be moral. I might worry, of course, that our differing descriptions would result in irreconciable disagreements about the best way to treat others. Indeed, sometimes they do. Theists have the same problem, however, it’s just that instead of appealing to rationality and/or compassion as you try to convince each other, you have to negotiate differing views of what God wants. I’m not sure it’s an improvement.

    Regarding your original comment, I agree with several other responses here which point out that ‘no certain knowledge’ is not the same as ‘no knowledge at all’. There are shades of grey.

    Thanks for engaging with us, and Merry Christmas from one who is somewhat culturally Anglican by familial ties.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    “If I could show that-”

    Stop right there. See that conditional? If you could show that forced child marriages weren’t damaging to both the children and society as a whole, would that make us reconsider? Well, yeah, I guess.

    But, if I could show that my farts congealed into a magical flying unicorn, we’d be forced to reconsider the existence of unicorns.

    And if the Persians had had semi-automatics, they probably would have beaten the Greeks.

    Your conditional is meaningless since I sincerely doubt there is any argument/evidence that could show forced child marriages as a good. In fact, all available evidence shows it to be bad for both the children and our society at large.

  • CailinBan

    Interesting dialogue!

    I would have thought that the addition of the word ‘forced’ in relation to child marriages was all we need to show that it’s wrong. And as a society we agree that children cannot make such decisions voluntarily. Whether that’s right or wrong is a topic for discussion of course.

  • http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/ David Ellis


    So then if I could show that forced child marriage was actually better for the long-term health and stability of the society, that would be an argument you’d be open to?

    There are other relevant factors besides the health/stability of society in general. One, of course, is the well-being of the child. Another is the inherent value most of us think is to be found in personal freedom. Another is that children lack the cognitive capacity to be ready to enter into such an agreement in an informed way.

    But, regardless, I’d be more than happy to see someone attempt a defense of the proposition you present. I wouldn’t put money on them putting up a good case though.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    David Ellis “Another is that children lack the cognitive capacity to be ready to enter into such an agreement in an informed way.”
    I’m reminded of a tale of a couple of kids who were put in the position of making a decision before having the knowledge of consequences that would illuminate the consequences of making that very decision. The story is doubly troubling as they could only gain that knowledge by making the choice first, thus being either a clear-cut case of entrapment or a vicious catch-22.

  • nogrief

    Hi, Matt
    At first you said:
    “The specious argument that I am making a claim to infallibility myself when I claim to believe in the Bible’s infallibility….”
    Then later you said:
    “I do not claim infallibility.”

    How is it possible that you, an admittedly fallible person, can claim to believe in the infallibility of the bible with absolute certainty?

    Why does a theist’s “absolute”, at least in his own mind, always trump the “absolute” of any who arrive at different conclusions than his?

    That a theist inevitably ends up back where he started in any discussion is the ultimate example of circular argument.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    There’s a lot of interesting responses here- more than I can really deal with, and keep on track. I really want to stay focused on the question of epistemology. I know there have been some calls to justify my own assertions, but I’m not going to do that just yet. Frankly, I didn’t come after you guys- you came after me.

    And for those that call for an actual argument justifying child marriage, well, I’m going to have to disappoint you as well. This is a thought experiment, meant to identify assumptions and presuppositions. And I feel it was a successful one.

    As I understand it, though there were a variety of responses depending on the particular approach of different commenters, there are some common principles. All of you have the problem of values that you can’t really substantiate, but simply assume. Why is the good of the individual supreme, so that harm to an individual can’t be justified by a greater good to the community? Or on the other hand, how can the benefit of the community outweigh harm to the individual? These are all simply assumptions, not subject to evidence or experimentation.

    But essentially, it seems clear that you cannot really support the statement that “forced child marriage is an evil which no society should tolerate.” More representative of your position would be something a good deal more tentative like “it seems to me that given my own cultural preferences, forced child marriage is not best suited for the kind of society that i personally wish to live in, but others may differ.”

    So let’s step it up a notch- how about raping women as a tactic of warfare? What kind of arguments or evidence would be necessary to prove that to be a good thing or an evil thing?

  • Eric

    The M-! Garand most assuredly would have made short work of the closely packed Greek phalanx. Bren guns or BAR’s would have been even better. But the Persians lacked these weapons and lost. Likewise, child marriage loses. There’s no magic evidence that child marriage is really that benefical, so it loses. Child mirrage is wrong. It just happens to be a fact about the world we live in. There may be conceivable worlds where child marriage is hunky-dory. But child mairrage is wrong. Why does it have to be absolutely wrong?

  • Entomologista

    So let’s step it up a notch- how about raping women as a tactic of warfare? What kind of arguments or evidence would be necessary to prove that to be a good thing or an evil thing?

    If women are raped during war the rapist army can pay the fathers of the victims 100 Shekels each and be even-steven, just like the Bible says.

  • Ritchie

    Matt – first of all it might not be my place, but I’d like to say thanks for keeping up with this thread. I imagine it feels pretty daunting having so many people respond, but here’s hoping we get something out of it. Anyway, soldiering on:

    I’ve been trying to figure out what you’re getting at exactly, and I think it’s this: if we must figure out the world through experimentation and evidence, how can we discover MORAL truths? Am I right? For this post I’ll have to assume I am.

    In response I’d say science does not help us uncover MORAL truths. It helps us uncover facts about the world – such as the age of the Earth (13.7 billion years), the causes of disease (germs, bacteria and viruses, not demonic possession) and natural disasters like earthquakes (the movement of tectonic plates, not the wrath of the Almighty).

    When it comes to morality, we look to philosophy more than science, but it still can help. Most atheists I know subscribe to a simple humanistic morality – we should maximise happiness and minimise suffering of us and those around us. Does an act increase happiness (eg, giving money to a homeless man)? If so, it is ‘good’. Does an act cause suffering (eg, forcing children into marriages, rape, etc)? If so, it is bad, or ‘evil’.

    There are shades of grey, of course – some acts cause some people to be happy and others to suffer. But I don’t want to get bogged down here. This is how it works in principle.

    In addition, I’d like to add there is a famous problem with relying on the dictates of a God for our morality (okay, lots more than one…). Does God command it because it is good, or is it good because God commands it?

    In other words, does God simply instruct us to do good things, or is God telling us to do those things what MAKES them good? Is stealing wrong BECAUSE God tells us not to do it, or does God tell us not to steal because stealing is objectively wrong?

    Either way, the theist faces a problem. If acts are right/wrong on their own, then we do not need God. If morality is objective, then we should strive to figure out right from wrong on our own. Just like a child must learn morality for itself rather than rely on a parent to tell it right from wrong its whole life. Alternatively, if things are right or wrong BECAUSE God says they are, then morality is subjective. If this is the case, then we should be able to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. We can make up our own morality (perhaps based on things like whether actions cause happiness or suffering).

  • Sarah Braasch

    The conversation has shifted from infallibility to the search for an objective moral truth. But, I guess they are very much coupled, aren’t they?

    I think that the search for an objective moral truth is much like the search for God. Futile.

    There is no evidence that an objective moral truth exists.

    I get irritated with atheists who dance around this idea.

    I get equally irritated with theists who seem to think that this accusation (the lack of an objective moral truth) is somehow the nail in the coffin of atheism that will drive all of us into the nearest church, as if any religion possesses an objective moral truth. That idea is laughable.

    I think the striving to establish / search for an objective moral truth is an extraordinary waste of time and energy and effort and resources. (i.e. the striving during the Enlightenment to justify concepts of natural law, etc.)

    The reality is: we’re on our own kids. This is not cultural relativism, which I abhor, as I do the notion of group rights. All conceptions of group divisions are arbitrary and, ultimately, meaningless, including nations, races, religions, ethnicities, cultures and subcultures.

    I know some will argue that I am simply establishing a moral truth, but I think the only thing we can reasonably do under the circumstances is to try to maximize individual freedom.

    Leave people to determine their own individual conception of morality, to determine the course of their own lives to the greatest extent possible.

    The maximization of anarchy. Now, I couple this libertarian concept with utilitarianism to the extent that we live in a world with others. We have not the luxury of utter solipsism.

    I don’t think we’re there yet, but I would like to see game theory applied to the law to maximize individual freedom.

    People ask me — you can’t just worry about individual freedom, personal autonomy — what about the greater good of the global society, what about the furthering of medicine, technology, knowledge, our ecosystems? What about the perpetuation of the species as a whole? I think we can take this into account. But, also, the good news is that we’re highly evolved animals, but still animals, not that removed from other primates. People will instinctually cooperate to perpetuate their genes and the species as a whole.

    Also, I think if we do not begin to conceive of ourselves as a global family of individual human beings, instead of divided into myriad competing groups, we will not survive long enough to find this elusive objective moral truth. We are our own worst enemies, because we can’t let go of these ancient superstitions and divisions, which we have imposed upon ourselves, dividing us from one another, which lead us to view one another as the other, as the enemy. At one point, this was useful, from an evolutionary perspective. But, now, it will lead to our demise.

  • http://theorangesashford.moonfruit.com Steve Bowen

    I don’t think we’re there yet, but I would like to see game theory applied to the law to maximize individual freedom.

    Sarah, If you haven’t already I strongly recommend reading Robert Wright’s the Evolution of God. The thesis in a nutshell is that people are cooperative or antagonistic to the extent they are in a non-zero sum game with each other. He builds this argument to trace the “increasing morality” of religion as a parallel to the increasing morality of society as more tribes/regions/nations/races become more dependent on each other, and on the way builds a convincing argument for the way monotheism evolved out of early biblical paganism (Genesis, Exodus etc is palpably polytheistic).

  • Sarah Braasch

    Steve, thank you. I haven’t read it, but I’m going to go buy it now.

    I did just watch him and Christopher Hitchens debate on bloggingheads, which I recommend.

    I have to admit that I found Robert Wright a bit shrill and whiny during the debate, but I still want to read the book, after your comment.

    Thanks so much.

  • Rick M

    first time poster alert…

    Matt, If it can be shown that humans are genetically programmed to procreate and to selfishly protect our own genetic line then rape by males outside of a kin group would be experienced as a negative by the kin group. This genetic imperative is not subject to any rationalization and is therefore objective. Add the Golden Rule (genetically provided empathy?) and we may subjectively conclude that rape as a military tactic can always be morally wrong in or out of a kin group. More broadly, it may be that all of what we experience as right or wrong morally is genetically generated.

  • http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/ David Ellis


    All of you have the problem of values that you can’t really substantiate, but simply assume. Why is the good of the individual supreme, so that harm to an individual can’t be justified by a greater good to the community? Or on the other hand, how can the benefit of the community outweigh harm to the individual? These are all simply assumptions, not subject to evidence or experimentation.

    Morality is not similar in character to mathematics. Moral propositions can no more be proven than I can prove, by logical analysis, that agony is an undesirable state of consciousness—one must simply experience pain for oneself to grasp that fact.

    This is as much true for the theist as the atheist. All are in the same boat in this regard.

    So let’s step it up a notch- how about raping women as a tactic of warfare? What kind of arguments or evidence would be necessary to prove that to be a good thing or an evil thing?

    Can one prove the inherent value of kindness to a sociopath?

    Should anyone expect that we could? Can you?

  • http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/ David Ellis

    The natural response to my comment above will be, as we’ve seen so many times, be:

    “ah ha! You see. Belief in God is like belief in morality. You can’t prove moral propositions but you believe you have justification for accepting them as true. I can’t prove God exists but I have justification for believing he does.”

    The problem is that the existence of God is a fact about the external world. Facts about values are facts that directly involve subjective states. They are fundamentally disanalogous epistemological issues.

  • Ritchie

    David Ellis -

    The problem is that the existence of God is a fact about the external world. Facts about values are facts that directly involve subjective states. They are fundamentally disanalogous epistemological issues.

    A wonderfully-put summary. Morality well be subjective (some people disagree. That’s not important). But we must not confuse objective facts about the world around us which CAN be verified with subjective ‘truths’.

    Even if you choose to accept the morality of the Bible, and thus accept the Bible’s moral ‘truths’, that does not mean it accurately portrays objective facts about the world around you.

    It clearly does not.

  • Scotlyn

    Modus

    I’m reminded of a tale of a couple of kids who were put in the position of making a decision before having the knowledge of consequences that would illuminate the consequences of making that very decision. The story is doubly troubling as they could only gain that knowledge by making the choice first, thus being either a clear-cut case of entrapment or a vicious catch-22.

    Strangely, when I was little I used to picture these “kids” having come into existence at around age 21. But how can you simply “create” a 21 year-old body (or one at any other age) with no prior history – physical, environmental, emotional, socialised by others? They wouldn’t have been human by any measure of the word that we understand. Absolutely (to use at least one word relevant to the OP) absurd.

  • http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/ David Ellis

    What I would say, Ritchie, is that there are truths about subjectivity—but understanding them involves direct, living experience: not a Vulcan-like emotionless process of rational argument.

    Precisely why ethics and metaethics are such thorny philosophical issues.

    The best approach to moral epistemology, in my opinion, is ideal observer theory:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ideal_observer_theory

  • lpetrich

    I’ll quote Matt, who quoted from the Gospel of John:

    Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, “…I came into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone that is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate’s response is, “What is truth?”

    That’s often taken to mean that Pontius Pilate was saying something about truth in general. But from its context, I suspect that it’s shorthand for “What is the truth about that?”

    But it’s hard for me to tell what Matt has in mind. Is he claiming that dogmatic certainty is a virtue? Even being dogmatically certain about something that is demonstrably false or otherwise unjustifiable?

  • keddaw

    David Ellis, using Ideal Observer Theory follow this and tell me if it’s right, or where the error is, please:
    Should person A kill person B for the amusement of a crowd? IOT probably says no. What if the killing was actually in a show and B was never actually killed, merely subjected to special effects and makeup for hours? IOT says yes, probably. But, what if that show cost a lot of money that could otherwise have been used to save thousands of lives abroad, should crowd not have been entertained by actually killing B and using the money to save the thousands abroad? Or should the show simply have not gone ahead as it is immoral to spend money on anything while there is suffering?

    Matt:

    ” More representative of your position would be something a good deal more tentative like “it seems to me that given my own cultural preferences, forced child marriage is not best suited for the kind of society that i personally wish to live in, but others may differ.”

    I would agree with this, but also add in that there is evidence of harm caused by the act and it is actually an intellectual objection I have rather than a cultural one. e.g. Almost everyone on this site will have a cultural rejection to incest whereas I don’t but I do have an intellectual objection to outlawing the practice (and for anyone who screams about birth defects, what if I was talking about two sisters or brothers? And if you allow that then you’re going 180 degrees on gay marriage prejudice.)

    Your attempt to up the stakes by mentioning more severe acts and asking us to justify what we (as individuals I assume, rather than a group) would accept as evidence that something was bad or good seems to have an end game but I’m not sure it will work out the way you think. Morality is more complicated than people think, we have different regions of the brain that all take part depending on the circumstances, so we can take two morally equivalent situations and have completely different ideas about what the moral thing to do is. The only way out of this is to be dispassionate and rationalise all decisions (hypothetical ones at least) and remove teh ‘gut instinct’. To some atheists this results ina utilitarian worldview where if the benefits outweigh the costs it is a good thing. This is usually reduced in extremity by some social factors, e.g. would you kill 100 people if you knew it would save 101? I wouldn’t, a strong utilitarian would, a weak one probably would come up with a justification why not without abandoning utilitarianism. A libertarian would go the other route and say that you should not kill 1 person to save 100, but in the heat of the moment most would and then try to justify it afterwards. Slightly OT, but a great thought experiment in this is the following 3 cases that are, to all intents and purposes morally identical yet elicit massively different responses from people because they affect different moral centres in the brain:
    1. A train is heading towards 4 people and will kill them, you are near the switch that would change the track where someone else is and the train will kill him instead. Do you pull the switch?
    2. Same train heading towards 4 people, but this time you are on a bridge overlooking the track with a really fat guy, if you shove him in front of the train it will stop/derail, saving the 4 people. Do you shove him?
    3. A man walks into a hospital where 4 people urgently need organs to survive. It just so happens the man is healthy and a match for all 4 patients. Should you kill him to harvest his organs?

    Think about all 3 situations logically, they are morally the same, but your reaction to each will be massively different. Now tell me what your religion says you should do in each situation…

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    OK, here’s what I’m getting at-

    This discussion began because I was accused of essentially claiming infallibility because I bellieve that the Bible is infallible. Never mind that I admit that I’ve been wrong about things before and will be wrong about things again. I guess this is some new definition of infallibility. But epistemologically, the claim “The Bible is infallible” is just a truth claim like any other truth claim- the earth is flat or Julius Caesar conquered Gaul. they’re all truth claims. In order to make your accusation against me stick, it would be equally true of anyone who believed anything absolutely. And the original author recognized that, since in his original article he made the claim that all truth is provisional. Myassertion is, that if all truth is provisional, then one cannot truly “know” anything. This depends of the definition of “know”, of course, as many of you have pointed out. But the word typically refers to some level of certitude.

    So what I’ve been doing is testing that claim, “all knowledge is provisional” against certain truth claims, that forced child marriage is evil (a truth claim made by the same author that said all truth is provisional) and that rape as a military tactic was evil. Are those truths provisional? Many have gone off track and attacked the Bible, or made various other tangential points, but this is what I’m trying to determine-do you truly hold a consistent epistemology? If you do, then consistency forces you to state that it’s possible that rape as a military tactic is in fact morally justified or that forced child marriage is in fact a societal good. You don’t have to say that those propositions are likely- you just have to say that they’re possible. Some of you have been consistent, and admitted this.

    But here’s the thing- you know, _KNOW_, that that isn’t true. What the Janjaweed have been doing in Darfur is evil. And everyone knows it, even the Janjaweed. I don’t need to prove this proposition, because everyone knows it’s true. That the act of rape as ethnic cleansing is occuring, that is a fact that would require proof. But that the act, if it is occurring, is evil, is something that everyone knows, and knows instinctively. They know it certainly, infallibly.

    My point is about epistemology. There are things we all know, not by observation, experience, experimentation, or any other means, but that we know by revelation, because that’s the way God made us. God made the Atheist too, even if he denies it. This truth is inescapable. I am not going to attempt to prove this to you any further. Because not only do I believe that this is true, but I believe that you know that this is true, and all your vain protestations to the contrary lead you into absurdity, such as stating the fact that repeatedly raping a ten year old girl trying to get some firewood for her camp in an attempt to destroy that girl’s entire tribe so that you can take their farmland, might be justifiable. To claim that such a thing might be justifiable requires you to put to death your own mind.

    So I am attempting to falsify the original charge against me, that I am claiming infallibility because I claim to know one particular truth claim infallibly. For that claim to stick, it must be necessary that any claim to believe anything infallibly is a similar claim to infallibility, leading you to the absurdist position of admitting possible justification for rape as ethnic cleansing, to pick just one horror out of many that you all know perfectly well to be wrong.

  • keddaw

    such as stating the fact that repeatedly raping a ten year old girl trying to get some firewood for her camp in an attempt to destroy that girl’s entire tribe so that you can take their farmland, might be justifiable. To claim that such a thing might be justifiable requires you to put to death your own mind.

    Or dehumanise the girl. People have done worse for less. Sociopaths also have no care if something is viewed as morally right or wrong. Are we to remove them from the human experience. It is also very possible to do something you absolutely consider wrong while in full control of your faculties and reasoning because it prevents a worse occurance, for example killing an innocent hostage to shoot through her to kill the hostage taker to save the majority of hostages.

    It is this KNOW that is a fallacy. It is a gut instinct, an evolutionary commandment that most people have that doesn’t actually function equally in different circumstances but in the same moral principle. So we ‘know’ that raping a 10 year old girl is wrong because one part of our brain says so but another part can override that for a greater good – but again, not everyone ‘knows’ raping a 10 year old girl is wrong. And among those that do there is a small minorty that don’t care. In some cultures a 10 year old can be a bride. It can be a matter of pride for the father to pass her on to an esteemed tribesman, and an act of life affirming virility for the tribesman to take her virginity. How can it possibly be a universal truth that raping a 10 year old girl is wrong if some parts of humanity actively and joyously engage in it, doing evil acts (to us) while not being evil themselves?

  • Rick M

    There are things we all know, not by observation, experience, experimentation, or any other means, but that we know by revelation, because that’s the way God made us. God made the Atheist too, even if he denies it.

    Change to:
    There are things we all know, not by observation, experience, experimentation, or any other means, but that we know by our genetic makeup, because that’s the way DNA made us. DNA made the theist too, even if he denies it.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    There are things we all know, not by observation, experience, experimentation, or any other means, but that we know by revelation, because that’s the way God made us.

    Yet, you can’t back any of this up, except for appeals to, “You just know it’s true.” Well, no, I really don’t. Many of the seemingly universal (as others point out they may not actually be universal) traits of humans are pretty easily explainable through evolution. The moral behaviors that are exhibited by other primates, mammals, and social animals quite clearly paint a picture that there is some sort of evolutionary adaptation going on. There’s no need to invoke a god, or any evidence to reasonably or rationally do so.

    So I am attempting to falsify the original charge against me, that I am claiming infallibility because I claim to know one particular truth claim infallibly. For that claim to stick, it must be necessary that any claim to believe anything infallibly is a similar claim to infallibility, leading you to the absurdist position of admitting possible justification for rape as ethnic cleansing, to pick just one horror out of many that you all know perfectly well to be wrong.

    Yet, you are making a huge mistake – one that’s been pointed out to you. There are many shades of gray between black and white. That we hold everything to be provisionally true does not mean that it is completely up in the air. We may hold it to be provisionally true that child rape is bad, but it’s pretty well settled (and this is important) due to the real, empirically observed outcomes of such activities. Your personal beliefs on the inerrancy of the Bible are not so well fleshed out. Plus, you are claiming a non-provisional correctness to the Bible. Your argument boils down to, “I might be claiming infallibility, but so are you if you do the same thing, and you must because not doing what I do means that you do the exact opposite.” These claims are false though. Not agreeing to your claims of 100% certainty do not mean that we are claiming 0% certainty.

  • Joffan

    I think the claim that the Bible is infallible is a rather larger claim than that Julius Caesar invaded Gaul, for a few reasons:
    1. The Bible is not a single assertion but a whole collection of statements, assertions and discussion, which do not automatically have the same truth values.
    2. Many statements in the Bible are neither true nor false in any useful sense.
    3. Particular issues arise when this infallibility is applied to statements about future events, since clearly their truth value is unknown at this time.

    So although the discussion of morality is interesting, it isn’t actually relevant. Much more relevant would be to hear how Matt came to this rather breathtaking conclusion of infallibility; what tests he made along the way, how long it took, what interpretation was applied, why the future statements should be regarded in a similar light, etc.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Matt,

    Are you really suggesting that the fact that raping a young girl as an act of war / genocide is wrong is an objective, infallible moral truth?

    That is a surprising claim, given that this act is such a ubiquitous worldwide phenomenon.

    This conversation reminds me of my international law classes on the subject of jus cogens or peremptory norms. These norms are allegedly universally acknowledged prohibitions, which everyone all over the world recognize as non-derogable always and forever. Jus cogens norms include such prohibitions as those against genocide and slavery.

    I would always raise my hand in class and ask, “Really? It seems odd to assert such a claim, when evidence actually supports the contrary. When genocide and slavery are taking place, at this very moment, globally, often with the full support of whichever States.”

    These are just more fairy tales we tell ourselves in an effort to move humanity forward.

    But, if you tell someone something often enough, they do tend to start to believe it to be true.

    Take religion.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Sara Braasch:
    “Matt,

    Are you really suggesting that the fact that raping a young girl as an act of war / genocide is wrong is an objective, infallible moral truth?

    That is a surprising claim, given that this act is such a ubiquitous worldwide phenomenon.”

    Yes. That’s exactly what I’m claiming. The fact that people rebel against that truth doesn’t make it any less true. Truth is not determined by majority vote. It is transcendent, determined by God, not us.

    OMGF:
    “Yet, you can’t back any of this up, except for appeals to, “You just know it’s true.”

    Absolutely correct. I have no evidence to back this up, other than my faith in the trustworthiness of God’s word. I feel no need at all to prove this to you.

  • Dan L.

    Matt, people throughout history have engaged in arranged child weddings and war-time rape. Are you asserting that all these people were A) aware that they were doing evil and B) did so anyway?

    Even those that used the Holy Bible to justify these acts against non-Christians?

    That last fact alone is enough to suggest that if there is an absolute and inviolable source of immorality, the Bible ain’t it.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ok. One last shot, and I’m out.

    Matt, ok — I get it — God is infallible.

    But, perhaps, maybe, just consider, since you make no claims of infallibility for yourself, that your interpretation of God’s revealed Word (including the infallible, objective moral truth that it is wrong to rape a young girl as an act of war / genocide) is mistaken — given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    Are you willing to concede that much?

    Are you willing to admit that your claim that it is wrong to rape a young girl might not be correct because your interpretation of God’s prohibition is in fact fallible, not infallible?

    So, human beings can’t actually know whether God is fallible or no.

  • Dan L.

    Absolutely correct. I have no evidence to back this up, other than my faith in the trustworthiness of God’s word. I feel no need at all to prove this to you.

    Then you’re arguing in bad faith. When I engage in a discussion, I start out from the perspective that the other person just may have an argument that will persuade me. If I didn’t think that, I would realize that the whole enterprise of discussion is pointless.

    But this is interesting. Because you claim to be arguing against the notion that you’re claiming to have an infallible source of knowledge. And then you say straight out that there’s nothing that can convince you that the Bible’s not infallible.

    I’m having trouble reconciling the notion that (1) you are admitting fallibility and (2) you are claiming that the Bible is absolutely infallible and there’s nothing that can convince you otherwise. I can’t reconcile these two facts. If you can’t admit even the possibility of being wrong about the infallibility of the Bible, then you are in fact claiming to be infallible, at least with regards to your beliefs about the Bible.

    Since by your own admission you’re not willing to change your mind, and since your argument that you’re not claiming infallibility rings rather hollow given the fact that you can’t admit the possibility of being wrong, might I suggest you are misleading us about your actual purpose here?

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Sarah,
    Yes,my interpretation of the Scriptures certainly can be and has been mistaken. My views of Christianity have changed on a number of points over the years. I never claim my interpretation to be infallible. I’m not sure how that impacts the central point. God’s infallibility is revealed in Scripture but not exclusively in Scripture. Our own consciences and nature also bear witness. Any God powerful enough to create and design all of the wonders we see around us must be so far ahead of us in His wisdom and understanding, that His knowledge would be inconceivable to us. But this is a separate point, it seems to me.

    I have not offered any extensive defense ofChristianity of the claims of Scripture at all. I am only addressing the accusation that I am claiming infallibility simply because I believe that God is infallible, and the absurdity which is the result of such a claim.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Beautiful. Now go one step further. Are you willing to concede that you can’t actually know that God is infallible or no?

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Dan L.,
    My convinction on the infallibility of the Bible, and that this conviction is not subject to change based on any evidence at all, has been clearly stated since the very first post. This is, in fact, the reason for Ebon’s singling me out for the accusations he made against me in the first place. Your accusation of bad faith is quite puzzling. Why should I be required to submit to your principles when I respond? I never agreed to do so, and I never hid my convictions. Nobody forced you or tricked you into having this discussion. If your assumptions regarding my approach were incorrect, that’s your problem, not mine. I was clear since the beginning.

    Matt

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Your thought experiment fails for the reason I pointed out: it’s a nonsensical hypothetical. It’s actually useful as a Proof-by-Contradiction. If there were arguments/evidence for child rape being good, then we would be forced to confront those arguments/evidence. Since no one can present any, we can pretty safely assume that child rape is most assuredly not a moral good.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Sarah,
    Infallibility means the attribute of being incapable of error. I am very capable of error. When a person claims absolute certainty on one point, that is no claim to infallibility. I do not admit the possibility of error on the subject of God’s infallibility, or on a number of other convictions, such as the infallibility of Scripture or the deity of Christ.

    Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I do not know these things because my own wisdom discerned them, but because God in His grace revealed them to me. If you want to construe that as a claim to infallibility, then i suppose you’re welcome to your claim. But it’s a different use of the word infallibility than people usually mean by that. And really, you’re basically making the argument that it’s impossible for anyone to be certain of anything, which by your own definition is a claim to infallibility since you’re claiming 100% certainty that nobody can know anything with 100% certainty. You are assuming the truth of your own argument, which is itself incoherent and contradictory.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    themann,
    I never said there weren’t any arguments. I just didn’t offer any. As many others have pointed out, child rape is actually a very common tactic of war and a brutally effective one. If I believe that the survival and prosperity of my own community outweighs any harm done to any other community, then I have a pretty good justification right there on utilitarian grounds.

    It’s not a hypothetical at all. It happens all the time.

  • StarScream

    Matt,

    OMGF:
    “Yet, you can’t back any of this up, except for appeals to, “You just know it’s true.”

    Matt:
    Absolutely correct. I have no evidence to back this up, other than my faith in the trustworthiness of God’s word. I feel no need at all to prove this to you.”

    Firstly, thanks for the interesting dialogue. Was I wrong in my initial diagnosis of how you believe, where since you think you know a personal deity, this personal trust (and sources associated with this deity—the Bible) trumps everything else?

    Secondly, you admit you have no evidence to back up your claims yet a quick perusal of your blog indicates that you endorse YEC—a belief system *supposedly* based on evidence. There’s a severe inconsistency here. If you claim that you have no evidence to back up your claims other than your faith in the trustworthiness of God’s word, you can’t consistently engage in evidentiary means of persuasion (i.e. evangelism, creationism) that you clearly try to do. You also can’t criticize other faiths such as Islam that utilize the same “faith methodology” either—as you do in your “Respecting Other Religions” post on your blog.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ok. So let me put it another way:

    On the one, singular point of knowledge of God’s infallibility, you are claiming infallibility.

    Are you willing to concede that?

    The other point we just tackled in another thread — the whole me refuting your claims is NOT we making the opposite claim.

  • Dan L.

    Matt,

    When you’re unwilling to examine your own beliefs or be persuaded as part of a discussion with another party, you are arguing in bad faith. Can you not see how such an arrangement is at best one-sided proselytizing and at worst completely pointless? If I had entered into this discussion with your attitude, no progress could possibly be made on either side.

    Why should I engage you at all if you’re not willing to critically examine the beliefs being discussed? The expectation that others listen to your arguments while you reserve the right to ignore theirs is, by definition, arguing in bad faith. And it is what you are doing by your own admission.

    Let’s formulate the argument more clearly, though. You claim:
    (1) The Bible is infallible.

    First of all, it is not clear what this means. You yourself say that any given interpretation of the Bible is fallible — so how can we know when an interpretation is correct? What is the FUNCTIONAL DIFFERENCE between an errant and an inerrant Bible?

    Moving on, we have the claims:
    (2) Matt Powell believes (1)
    (3) Matt Powell cannot be convinced of ~(2)

    While you may not explicitly claim to be infallible, your position is clearly that you CANNOT BE WRONG ABOUT THE BIBLE’S INFALLIBILITY. How is this different from claiming that your belief in the Bible’s infallibility is itself infallible? This is the source of the accusation against which you are arguing: if you can’t admit that you are mistaken regarding a particular belief, then you are claiming infallibility at least with regard to that particular belief.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    StarScream,
    Note the original discussion to which this thread points regarding YEC. In that argument, I reject evidentiary arguments for YEC as being primary. I believe in YEC because the Bible says so, and that’s the only basis I’m really willing to argue on. That’s not to say there is no evidence for it. But evidence is not why I believe in YEC.

    Sarah,
    On the point of God’s infallibility, I do not admit the possibility of error. I still do not accept your insistence on referring to that as “infallibility” in any sense, for infallibility by its very nature must exgtend to all knowledge. It changes the meaning of the word to refer to infallibility WRT just one topic.

  • Sarah Braasch

    That’s cool. I’m satisfied. Wow. And, it’s not just that point, but at least a handful of points, which you mentioned, on which you claim limited, single issue infallibility.

    Single issue infallibility. No possibility of error.

    Now that is a ballsy claim. And, no evidence required.

    Are you ok with the term single issue infallibility?

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Dan L,
    I don’t accept your definitions. They are merely your own unproven assertions and I reject your right to define under what circumstances I am and am not allowed to discuss something. I never operated under false pretenses.

    And again, insisntence on labeling certainty on one topic as some kind of infallibility twists the meaning of the word, and assumes the truth of your own argument. You’re trying to advance the truth that it is impossible to be certain of anything, which is itself a claim of certainty.

    I’m not going to debate the meaning of the word “infallible”. If you want to say that certainty about _anything_ is a claim to infallibility, then you are advancing the classical skeptical argument, and good for you, but have fun living with the incoherence and absurdity that such an argument entails. As I said to Sarah, such a claim is itself self-contradictory, since you’re claiming 100% certainty that nothing is 100% certain.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Sarah,
    Sure, use what terms you like, as long as they’re well defined.

    Matt

  • http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/ David Ellis


    David Ellis, using Ideal Observer Theory follow this and tell me if it’s right, or where the error is, please:
    Should person A kill person B for the amusement of a crowd? IOT probably says no.
    What if the killing was actually in a show and B was never actually killed, merely subjected to special effects and makeup for hours? IOT says yes, probably. But, what if that show cost a lot of money that could otherwise have been used to save thousands of lives abroad, should crowd not have been entertained by actually killing B and using the money to save the thousands abroad? Or should the show simply have not gone ahead as it is immoral to spend money on anything while there is suffering?

    The question is certainly far afield of the topic we started with—but a good one none the less.

    The honest answer is: I’m not an ideal observer (no one is) and I’m not sure. My opinion as someone who only imperfectly approximates an ideal observer is that we should provide for the needs of the starving before we spend money on amusement….but this is also something that less than perfectly altruistic beings such as humans will not do.

    The practical solution, I think, is something more like what Peter Singer advocates: that we in the developed world should be giving a far larger proportion of our income to charity than we now do. That’s something that’s achievable; especially as a matter of individual choice.
    But this discussion was about the reasonableness of believing the Bible is infallible. We need to get back on topic.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Matt,

    I just want to thank you for being such a good sport about this.

    And, I’m going to leave you alone for a while and stop harassing you.

    Have a good night.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Hello Matt,

    I’ve read your comments and those of other contributors to this thread, and I have a few observations to offer.

    You apparently hoped you could get us to agree that some acts are absolutely wrong, regardless of the circumstances. As I hope you’ve realized by now, we atheists are a much more contentious bunch than that.

    When it comes to my personal views, I’d echo a view raised by many other commenters: moral conclusions are contingent statements. They are not fundamental truths, standing on their own without external justification; they are derived from the facts of the world. This applies even to conclusions as seemingly basic as that it’s wrong to rape women or enslave children in forced marriages. These things are wrong not because they’re abstract Platonic ideals, but because the facts of human nature and psychology are such that those acts produce great suffering and impede human flourishing and well-being.

    If moral conclusions are contingent truths, could there be a world where those acts were right? Yes; that is a consequence of my worldview. But such a world would have to be so drastically different from our own that I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like. Similarly, although I agree it would be theoretically possible to persuade me that such acts were right, you’d have to marshal so much evidence, and overturn so many well-established facts about human nature, that I find the prospect all but inconceivable. But however remote and slender the chance, I (and most other atheists) always acknowledge it to be possible in principle. And if it’s a specific act of rape or slavery, it would be even easier to think of evidence that would convince me no wrongdoing had occurred: for instance, if the people involved were actors, filming a movie or a show, and I had somehow mistaken this for reality.

    All this is in explicit contrast to your worldview, in which you explicitly stated that no evidence of any kind could possibly convince you of the falsehood of certain aspects of Christian doctrine. Although you took great offense to this, I maintain my argument: This amounts to a claim that you yourself are infallible, at least in those areas. That’s what “infallible” means: perfectly immune to error. And I suspect you took such offense to this because you know full well that this claim is unsustainable. No matter how convincing you might find the evidence for Christianity, you are a human being, and humans are fallible; humans make mistakes. Even if you claim that God has somehow miraculously informed you of Christianity’s truth, that is a belief you must acknowledge you could be mistaken about: that you might have mistaken your own desires for God’s voice, or misinterpreted the message he was sending you.

    It’s interesting to me that your approach to religious doctrine is apparently the same as your approach to morality: You feel this strong intuition, something you can’t adequately explain to yourself; and from that, you make the leap to assuming it must be some sort of absolute truth that just arrived in your neocortex through revelation. This is not a valid way to understand the world. Mere subjective certainty, no matter how sincere or how deeply felt, does not tell us anything about the nature of external reality. We must always go and look at the world to see if the facts actually support that belief.

    If you dispute this, consider a case where you’d probably agree with me: I could easily find Muslims who would tell you that they’re 100% convinced of their belief that the Qur’an is Allah’s perfect word. They would insist that their faith is so strong that no possible evidence could dislodge it. I’m sure you’d tell me that their professions of certainty, no matter how vehement, do not change the fact that they’re deeply and fundamentally mistaken. Well, I’d say the same thing about you.

    Lastly, I wanted to comment on your initial claim that abandoning belief in absolute truth leads to a slippery slide into complete moral relativism. This is absurd. As other commenters have pointed out, there are options in between “I believe X is the absolute truth” and “I know nothing whatsoever about X”. Because we are fallible, all knowledge about the external world must always be provisional and susceptible to disproof. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have very high confidence in it, nor that we can’t use it as a basis for action. On the contrary, we have to act on the basis of the best information we have; there’s no other choice. We always run the risk of making mistakes, but again, for human beings, that is not avoidable. What you want to do, I suspect, is claim that you know God’s perfect will and therefore have an absolute foundation for action. But that isn’t a solution to this epistemological problem – it’s a refusal to face the problem.

    The surest proof of this is that the exact argument you make here has so often been used to defend beliefs that were manifestly wrong. In the past, Christians have believed with absolute certainty that God’s will was to hold Africans in slavery. Christians have believed with absolute certainty that God’s will was that women be barred from all positions of political power. Christians have believed with absolute certainty that God did not want the races to mix. Christians have believed with absolute certainty that witches were real and should be sought out and put to death. All those beliefs were wrong, despite the certainty of their holders. Why should we – and why should you – be any more confident that this time you have it absolutely right?

  • http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/ David Ellis


    But here’s the thing- you know, _KNOW_, that that isn’t true. What the Janjaweed have been doing in Darfur is evil. And everyone knows it, even the Janjaweed.

    Are you willing to use the same reasoning in regard to the problem of evil? Most Christians cling to the thin reed of our not being able to absolutely prove that there isn’t some unknown morally justifying reason for God’s allowing extreme suffering.

    But regarding this moral proposition I am, indeed, quite confident that its wrong. That doesn’t mean I claim absolute knowledge that its wrong. I am, for example, not 100% convinced that I’m correct in believing that right and wrong do more than merely state my emotional reactions to these acts—I acknowledge a bare possibility, however small, that I could be mistaken.

    Basically, though there are many things I’m enormously confident are true, there isn’t much, if anything, I call infallibly certain.

  • http://dbellisblog.blogspot.com/ David Ellis

    Besides, the example war crimes is an odd example to choose for someone claiming the infallibility of the Bible when God, in the Bible, orders the slaughter of entire cities down to the last child. It undermines your original claim.

  • cello

    “But here’s the thing- you know, _KNOW_, that that isn’t true. What the Janjaweed have been doing in Darfur is evil. And everyone knows it, even the Janjaweed. I don’t need to prove this proposition, because everyone knows it’s true. That the act of rape as ethnic cleansing is occuring, that is a fact that would require proof. But that the act, if it is occurring, is evil, is something that everyone knows, and knows instinctively. They know it certainly, infallibly.”

    The funny thing about this is that far more people “know” that ethnic cleansing is wrong than they “know” the Bible is infallible. Yet Matt is claiming our hearts should know both these things as true.

    The numbers don’t add up Matt, there must be a reason why that is.

  • Ritchie

    God made the Atheist too, even if he denies it.

    God, or the atheist? :D

    Okay, that’s all quite clear and I for one am following you now. But there is a huge flaw in your premise.

    do you truly hold a consistent epistemology? If you do, then consistency forces you to state that it’s possible that rape as a military tactic is in fact morally justified or that forced child marriage is in fact a societal good.

    Not IS a societal good, but COULD BE a societal good, yes. It is possible. I’ll say so. It is possible that all the evidence I have come across on these topics is flawed. Perhaps every person who has EVER reported being raped and described it in horrifying terms has been lying. Perhaps everyone who reports the detrimental effects of forced child marriage has been lying too. Perhaps rape and forced marriage are positive, affirming, lovely experiences, and every piece of evidence I have to the contrary is inaccurate.

    Possible. Yet TITANICALLY unlikely given the sheer weight of the evidence against this conclusion (testimonies of people who have been through these, the fact that they are illegal, reports, etc) and the total lack of evidence in favour of it.

    You don’t have to say that those propositions are likely- you just have to say that they’re possible. Some of you have been consistent, and admitted this.

    But here’s the thing- you know, _KNOW_, that that isn’t true.

    No. I don’t. I know no such thing. I am passionate that rape and forced marriage is wrong and must be opposed wherever possible. But if I’m honest, I cannot be ABSOLUTELY certain I am right. The weight of evidence that rape and child marriage are wrong is so huge that I feel totally confident in acting as if I did know absolutely that it was so. I am very strongly convinced these things are wrong. But yes, I must allow for the possibilty that my convictions here are mistaken.

    What the Janjaweed have been doing in Darfur is evil. And everyone knows it, even the Janjaweed. I don’t need to prove this proposition, because everyone knows it’s true.

    Do the Janjaweed know it?

    Here’s the problem with your position – if everyone simply KNOWS what is right and wrong, if it has been revealed to them through divine revelation, then why do people disagree on what is right or wrong?

    You have picked rape and forced child marriages as examples because the VAST majority of (if not all) people will come down on one side. What about more thorny issues? Capital punishment. Is that right or wrong? Smacking children to discipline them? Human cloning? And whatever answer you give, why do some people think differently? If God has revealed to you whether these things are right or wrong, why hasn’t he revealed the answer to everyone?

    not only do I believe that this is true, but I believe that you know that this is true, and all your vain protestations to the contrary lead you into absurdity,

    This, I’m afraid, is another gem of jaw-dropping arrogance Ebonmuse chided you for originally. Do you really find it so impossible that you are wrong that you cannot imagine anyone POSSIBLY being justified in disagreeing with you? Is it utterly impossible for sane, rational people to hold any opinion other than yours?

    Just for a moment consider an alternative – that we genuinely believe what we are saying and we just happen to disagree with you. And that perhaps, just perhaps, there is a chance we are right…

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Matt,

    I meant that no one has offered a good argument (or good evidence) that child rape is a “moral good”, not just you. It is, indeed, a common tactic in war, so that weakens any argument for “innate sense of moral goodness”, but that isn’t the argument at hand.

    I feel like I’m not being clear, so let me try to focus my thoughts.

    You posed an “if” question that was suppose to act as a bit of a “gotcha”. “if i could show child rape was a moral good, would you reconsider?” Well, duh, IF you (general sense, not you specifically) could show that, somehow, we would be forced to consider your arguments, and either find stronger counter-arguments/evidence to rebut the claim, or concede defeat. But this hypothetical states the answer in the assumption. It’s like assuming the Bible is infallible and basing all further conclusions from that.

    Oh wait.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Ritchie (and all),
    “Here’s the problem with your position – if everyone simply KNOWS what is right and wrong, if it has been revealed to them through divine revelation, then why do people disagree on what is right or wrong?”

    According to Romans 1, the fundamental error is to refuse to worship God as God, and to worship the creature rather than the creator. Man in his rebellion against God suppresses the truth of God and becomes willfully blind to the truth. So people disagree about these things because of the curse of sin on the world, which causes people to suppress what they innately know.

    Some of you have raised the issue of slavery and genocide in war. I have dealt with this subject tosome degree on my blog-http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com/2004/08/biblical-slavery.html.

    Some of the other kinds of arguments, such as African slavery or burning witches are based on misunderstandings of Scriptures, and I can’t be held responsible for that, I don’t think, anymore than I’d hold you responsible for the actions of atheists like Mao Tse Tong. Scripture itself anticipates that Christian people will interpret it wrongly and use it to justify great evil. God calls us to a constant struggle to better understand what He has said.

    An accusation of arrogance is something I’m quite accustomed to. But I think it’s misplaced. I regard it as an act of pure free grace that God gave me the knowledge of the truth. I have no merit at all to hold up to either you or Him to justify why I’m claiming to know things that you don’t. I don’t regard myself as possessed of a higher IQ or some other innate superiority. “We are saved by grace through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9).”

    But it does requirea true and open willingness to be taught of God. Jesus said, “Ask and it shall be given you. Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened.” I know that you will probably reject everything that I’ve said. That’s not up to me. But I do want to be absolutely honest and clear with you where I’m coming from, as best as I can. I hope I have accomplished that much at least.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Matt,

    You don’t have to explain why people disagree on right or wrong; you just have to explain why Christians disagree. There are at least 2 billion Christians on the planet. What tiny, tiny percentage of them do you think have actually figured out what God really wants? And why is that percentage so tiny? Why is it so hard for people to understand what God wants?

    Do you think it’s because of sin? But that means that God is standing idly by while most people drown in sin they clearly can’t overcome. What would you say of a man who tests his children knowing the vast majority of them will fail?

    No matter how you slice it, God has made his word inaccessible to all but a tiny few. Of which, apparently, you are one. And we are supposed to know you have the truth how? Out of all the millions who claim it’s them?

    It’s not that we’re rejecting what you say. It’s that we can barely hear you over the shouting of the masses of religious zealots, each of whom claim with just as much sincerity and fervor that they have the Truth. And none of you will give us a method to distinguish the truth from the clamor. It’s always just, “No, trust me, I’ve got it right. Ignore those other guys.”

    On the other hand, science does give us a way to distinguish between competing claims. Using that method, we’ve winnowed out valuable truths from mountains of chaff. You hardly ever hear from those aether guys anymore.

    Pardon us, but we’re going to stick with the system that produces results, m’kay?

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Yahzi,

    I never said, listen to me. I said, listen to God. You do that and you’ll know the difference.

    Matt

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    I commend Matt for following this thread. I myself only skimmed the comments looking for Matt’s rebuttles (as all atheist comments would be preaching to the converted in my case). I love hearing your viewpoints, Matt, and I’m afraid I have nothing to add that hasn’t already been said. Just thanks for withstanding such rigorous debate!

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Everybody else,

    There is nothing wrong with the word “evil.” Morality is objective, existing as it does in the context of human biology (although it is not absolute, since different biologies may have evolved different strategies). Evolution has provided us with a range of responses to the pressures of social living. One of those is a disproportionate response to unfairness. We tend to punish cheaters even when doing so costs us more than their cheating did in the first place. This is not as irrational as it seems, since we are protecting not just ourselves but the entire social fabric of trust and cooperation that makes our lives possible.

    Using the word “evil” to refer to these violations of not only personal rights but also the entire social contract, which engender in us extreme moral outrage, is a perfectly reasonable use of the word.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    I never said, listen to me. I said, listen to God. You do that and you’ll know the difference.

    Matt

    But how? How are we to listen to God?

    If the answer is, “Go read a Bible and quietly meditate,” well, guess what. That’s how we got all these dang sects in the first place!

    Tell us how we know it is the true voice of God we are hearing. You can start by telling us how you know it is the true voice of God you are hearing. How do you distinguish it from false gods, demons, or just your own subconscious?

  • Thuampalumpcus

    Unfortunately for me, I only have one voice in my head.

  • cello

    I never said, listen to me. I said, listen to God. You do that and you’ll know the difference.

    Matt – Contrary to any claims of arrogance, I find your posts contain charming humility so I thank you for that.

    In reference to the above statement, why is that listening to God will ultimately mean that the listener will end up agreeing with *you*? You could not allow that someone listened to God and found truth that does not agree with your truth. So claims of your own infallibility still apply IMO.

    Though I agree with you that any claim of absolute truth leads to this same charge, theist or atheist. It’s the catch-22 of absolutist statements.

  • monkeymind

    Matt and all, I hope you’ll excuse me for jumping into the discussion this late in the game…
    Wouldn’t it be more honest to admit that moral clarity is something we all struggle with – theist, non-theist, and agnostic alike – especially when we are concerned with discernment in our own lives rather than judgment and condemnation of others?

    Matt, I have a couple of questions based on bible passages.

    First of all, in Genesis 18, what is Abraham basing his morality on when he challenges God’s decision to destroy Sodom?

    “That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

    So, what is this standard of “right” that even the Judge of all the earth can be held to it? To me it seems pretty clear that the writer of this passage is asserting that there are standards of right and wrong by which even the most powerful being can be judged. Where do they come from?

    OK, another passage, one that you’ve probably encountered before in discussions of Biblical morality: Numbers 31, the destruction of the Midianites.
    Let’s say you are a soldier in the Israelite army guarding the Midianite captives, and you receive the order to kill all the male children, along with all the mothers and pregnant women in your custody. How do you react to this order? Do you simply obey authority? Would it be moral to question or resist this order?

  • Dan L.

    I don’t accept your definitions. They are merely your own unproven assertions and I reject your right to define under what circumstances I am and am not allowed to discuss something. I never operated under false pretenses.

    I don’t care whether or not you accept my definitions. The fact is, it is an inherently lop-sided discussion if you are not willing to critically examine your own beliefs in response to the other party’s argument. I call doing this “arguing in bad faith.” Whatever you want to call it, you are doing it, and it diminishes my respect for your point of view and leads me to be less likely to critically examine my own beliefs (seeing as you won’t extend me the same courtesy). But if you want to be a brick wall, by all means be a brick wall.

    And again, insisntence on labeling certainty on one topic as some kind of infallibility twists the meaning of the word, and assumes the truth of your own argument. You’re trying to advance the truth that it is impossible to be certain of anything, which is itself a claim of certainty.

    “I don’t accept your definitions.” Get it? But you’re wrong, anyway. Again, you claim that
    (1) The Bible is infallible
    is a truth that no amount of evidence or argument can overturn. You claim you CANNOT BE WRONG about this. That you are INCAPABLE OF ERROR:

    Main Entry: in·fal·li·ble
    Pronunciation: (ˌ)in-ˈfa-lə-bəl
    Function: adjective
    Etymology: Middle English, from Medieval Latin infallibilis, from Latin in- + Late Latin fallibilis fallible
    Date: 15th century

    1 : incapable of error : unerring
    2 : not liable to mislead, deceive, or disappoint : certain
    3 : incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals

    Don’t try to tell me I’m twisting the meaning of words when you’re subject to the same criticism, buddy.

    I’m not going to debate the meaning of the word “infallible”. If you want to say that certainty about _anything_ is a claim to infallibility, then you are advancing the classical skeptical argument, and good for you, but have fun living with the incoherence and absurdity that such an argument entails. As I said to Sarah, such a claim is itself self-contradictory, since you’re claiming 100% certainty that nothing is 100% certain.

    So you’re infallible with respect to your definition of infallible as well?

    You’re only able to obtain a contradiction by conflating “knowledge of the natural world,” “moral knowledge,” and “subjective sense of certainty.” These are three different things. We are claiming that knowledge of the natural world is provisional — this does not entail that moral knowledge is provisional (I would say it’s not provisional so much as culturally derived) or that a subjective sense of certainty is impossible (clearly not; we’re all expressing various degrees of subjective certainty here).

    I am 100% certain that there is no such thing as a square circle or a married bachelor. That certainty does not contradict my claim that knowledge is provisional. By definition, bachelors are not married. By definition, circles are not square.

    Consider the following argument
    (1) Knowledge is contingent on mind (by definition of “knowledge”)
    (2) Minds are subject to error
    therefore
    (3) knowledge is provisional

    This simple proof that knowledge is provisional depends only on the assertion (2) that minds are subject to error. Suppose that I am in error about (2). Then we have a contradiction, for if I am in error about (2), it must be true that minds are subject to error (otherwise, I would not be in error). Thus (2) MUST be true, since its negation implies a contradiction.

    Thus, I can be absolutely certain that knowledge is provisional, and the conclusion is not self-contradictory any more so than the belief that squares are not circles or that bachelors are unmarried.

  • Ritchie

    Matt -

    According to Romans 1, the fundamental error is to refuse to worship God as God, and to worship the creature rather than the creator.

    As Yahzi points out, even Christians disagree with each other over moral issues. Are you denying that two people who both worship God will disagree about any moral issue at all? It is impossible for two Christians, sincere and devout in their faith, to disagree about whether, say, capital punishment is right?

    If your assertion of morality by divine revelation were correct, then at least every Christian (assuming for the moment Christianity is the correct religion) would agree on every moral issue. Clearly this is far fom the case.

    An accusation of arrogance is something I’m quite accustomed to. But I think it’s misplaced. I regard it as an act of pure free grace that God gave me the knowledge of the truth. I have no merit at all to hold up to either you or Him to justify why I’m claiming to know things that you don’t.

    I apologise, I genuinely meant no offence calling you arrogant. And I can see that it’s laced with humility too. But you are stil taking it as fact that the Bible is absolutly correct. Shouldn’t the inerrancy of the Bible have to be established BEFORE you place absolute faith in it? Yet on so many basic scientific points the Bible is simply wrong. The glaring conclusion is that the Bible, despite its claims, is not inerrant, no matter how much you or other Christians might believe or wish it to be.

  • Chroma

    My point is about epistemology. There are things we all know, not by observation, experience, experimentation, or any other means, but that we know by revelation, because that’s the way God made us. God made the Atheist too, even if he denies it. This truth is inescapable.

    If you readily concede “revelation” is neither experiential nor inferential, then what’s stopping you from admitting to yourself that you’re embracing childish credulity and insulating yourself with the rationalization that your belief is true-by-magic? Have you lost all capacity to envision alternate possibilities? Have you secluded yourself with self-delusion so far as to permanently damage your critical thinking? Do you, by automatic reflex, read my questions as coming from Satanic inquisitors bent on turning you from God, desperately attempting to force a blow against you in the spirit realm, and refuse to grant I may be sincere and that you may be misguided?

    Seriously: Anybody could be wrong about an important question X, totally wrong in the face of any and all evidence, and close themselves up tight against everything by believing their opinion is supernaturally made correct, transcending all conceivable routes to belief through experience and reason, and thereby sidestepping the epistemic requirement for listening to anything the believer didn’t want to hear or acknowledge. This would be made all the more illusory in the haze of a mystical belief system. And this could be done, in principle, for any question X.

    All this begets the obvious fact that claiming divine/direct revelation is not persuasive, not compelling, not logically sound, not logically valid, not even cogent, not rational, not reasonable, and in the final analysis, an arrogant but ultimately futile rebellion against uncooperative logic and natural epistemology.

    “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”

    I am not going to attempt to prove this to you any further. Because not only do I believe that this is true, but I believe that you know that this is true, and all your vain protestations to the contrary lead you into absurdity, such as stating the fact that repeatedly raping a ten year old girl trying to get some firewood for her camp in an attempt to destroy that girl’s entire tribe so that you can take their farmland, might be justifiable.

    Man in his rebellion against God suppresses the truth of God and becomes willfully blind to the truth.

    Would you agree that a singular instant of honest doubt would disprove your claims? That lends itself well to a universal test that all people of Earth can use: if one has ever experienced even just one sincere, genuine moment of moral ambivalence or confusion over the existence of God – not willfully, but rather in spite of want – then one may discard the entire line of thought that you submit here. It is at this juncture of testing your untenable, extraordinary, and fatally unmanageable claims against my own experiences of personal doubt that I safely say your bullshit “I know you know what I know I know” gimmick is the empty bluff of an individual who has nothing to fall back on.

    (When you accept magical thinking and scripture, you accept much worse moral absurdities than raping a 10-year old girl or offing a tribe: you accept that God basically commanded these kinds of things to the Israelites over and over again, and that they were morally right to do obey – an “obedience” whose lack of any righteous indignation is diametrically opposed to something a freethinker might say in question of rightness, like “such a world would have to be so drastically different from our own that I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like” or “I find the prospect all but inconceivable.”)

  • Mark C.

    Matt,

    My point is about epistemology. There are things we all know, not by observation, experience, experimentation, or any other means, but that we know by revelation, because that’s the way God made us. God made the Atheist too, even if he denies it. This truth is inescapable. I am not going to attempt to prove this to you any further. Because not only do I believe that this is true, but I believe that you know that this is true, and all your vain protestations to the contrary lead you into absurdity

    Since you’ve been talking about epistemology and claim that everyone knows that God exists, I am curious as to your definition of “to know”. Do you subscribe to the Justified True Belief (JTB) definition, for example? Note that this is separate from the question of how we come to possess knowledge. Reading recommendation: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on epistemology (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/). I’m also curious as to your philosophical background when it comes to epistemology. I only have one university course and some outside reading on it to my credit, but I get the impression you aren’t familiar with certain problems in the subject.

  • Mark C.

    Apologies if any of my queries have already been answered… I did read through the entire comments thread, but it takes a while, and I may have forgotten the answers to my questions if they have already been stated.

  • keddaw

    Matt, as a YEC I assume you believe in Adam and Eve – the Bible says so and the Bible is inerrant. DNA evidence shows that it is almost impossible for modern humans to have come from 2 individuals (who, btw. had the same DNA), thus either the evidence is wrong or your interpretation of Genesis is wrong. The Bible remains inerrant. Is that a correct view of your belief?

    Since God is omniscient and omnipotent please explain this: why did God let Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge? The stock answer is so that humans could learn and grow and eventually be as one with God, or closer to God. Given that God knew how much suffering humans would have to go through to get there adn that God is omnipotent why not just create us in that state even if it was with the fake memories that we had gone through the suffering? That seems an objectively evil moral choice. There you go, I found an objective moral after all.

    (1) The Bible is inerrant.
    (2) Matt’s interpretation of the Bible is fallible.
    (3) Any thought/belief/act Matt has in regards to the Bible that is shown to be impossible or massively unlikely means that it was (2) that was the problem not (1).

    Statement (2) insulates statement (1) against any and all criticism.

    Oh yeah, I forgot: (0) God is infallible. Which is doubly protected by (2) and (1) as even when Matt eventually realises (1) The Bible isn’t perfect he can still fall back onto (0) and claim the Bible is man’s best attempt at understanding (0).

  • keddaw

    Matt, as a YEC I assume you believe in Adam and Eve – the Bible says so and the Bible is inerrant. DNA evidence shows that it is almost impossible for modern humans to have come from 2 individuals (who, btw. had the same DNA), thus either the evidence is wrong or your interpretation of Genesis is wrong. The Bible remains inerrant. Is that a correct view of your belief?

    Since God is omniscient and omnipotent please explain this: why did God let Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge? The stock answer is so that humans could learn and grow and eventually be as one with God, or closer to God. Given that God knew how much suffering humans would have to go through to get there adn that God is omnipotent why not just create us in that state even if it was with the fake memories that we had gone through the suffering? That seems an objectively evil moral choice. There you go, I found an objective moral after all.

    (1) The Bible is inerrant.
    (2) Matt’s interpretation of the Bible is fallible.
    (3) Any thought/belief/act Matt has in regards to the Bible that is shown to be impossible or massively unlikely means that it was (2) that was the problem not (1).

    Statement (2) insulates statement (1) against any and all criticism.

    Oh yeah, I forgot: (0) God is infallible. Which is doubly protected by (2) and (1) as even when Matt eventually realises (1) The Bible isn’t perfect he can still fall back onto (0) and claim the Bible is man’s best attempt at understanding (0).

    Also, Matt now has lots of ammunition to prove that atheists support forced child marriage, rape and torture and this will show just exactly how important it is for people to keep their faith otherwise we’d have a breakdown in society. I hope that isn’t how Matt takes it, but their are Christians who would.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Some of the other kinds of arguments, such as African slavery or burning witches are based on misunderstandings of Scriptures, and I can’t be held responsible for that, I don’t think, anymore than I’d hold you responsible for the actions of atheists like Mao Tse Tong.

    Sorry, Matt, but that’s incredibly stupid. The folks who have slaves or burn witches are acting in compliance with the Bible, a book which is the foundational document of your religion, and which you are touting as infallible.

    On the other hand, Mao Tse Tong was not acting in compliance with any atheist foundational document because there is none. He was acting on behalf of his self-interest and his political interests.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Chroma,
    On this one point, you’re absolutely right- I embrace childish credulity.

    Matthew 18: 1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
    2 He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

    I agree- faith does not prove anything. Believing in a lie does not make it true. But I don’t believe that I am believing in a lie. I do not seek to prove, persuade, convince- that’s not really my job. I seek simply to announce, to declare the good news of the kingdom of God, the freeing of the captives, the opening of the eyes of the blind, the liberation of the oppressed, the good news to the poor, as my Savior has called me to, as clearly, humbly and faithfully as I can. What you do with the truth is entirely up to you. It doesn’t really change anything for me if you reject it- I expect that you will, though I always rejoice when one more set of blind eyes is opened. I’ve never seen a man made worse by sincerely believing in real Christianity. I have seen many made better, including myself.

    Here’s my proof, for the whole thing- I’ll give it to you right now. I love Jesus. I know Him. He died for my sins, opened my eyes, saved me from death. I was lost and now I’m found. I was blind and now I see. His sheep hear His voice and follow Him. And I’m His sheep. So I trust Him for everything. He said I should believe the words of Moses, so I do. He said I should listen to the apostles and the prophets, so I do. I trust Him with all of it, even the hard stuff like Numbers 31. It’s a whole lot easier just to accept the limits of my own understanding for the parts I don’t get than it is to turn away from my Lord and Savior because I arrogantly believe I should be able to make sense of everything right now.

    He has filled me with a capacity that I didn’t have before, the capacity to love, to forgive, because He loved and forgave me when I didn’t even know Him. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge what goes on in anyone else’s heart. I know what goes on in mine, though. I don’t believe in Christianity because of the certainty that you need to be saved. I believe in it because of the certainty that I need to be saved. The rest follows.

    Peter said to Jesus, Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.

    If your systems and your science give you comfort and hope and confidence in your understanding, by all means don’t abandon them just on my say-so. But I would just ask this- how’s that working out for you so far? You don’t need to tell me. Just consider it yourself.

    Thanks all for the discussion. I’ve enjoyed it, but I don’t believe I have much else to add.

  • David

    “Here’s my proof, for the whole thing- I’ll give it to you right now. I love Jesus. I know Him. He died for my sins, opened my eyes, saved me from death. I was lost and now I’m found. I was blind and now I see. His sheep hear His voice and follow Him. And I’m His sheep. So I trust Him for everything. He said I should believe the words of Moses, so I do. He said I should listen to the apostles and the prophets, so I do. I trust Him with all of it, even the hard stuff like Numbers 31. It’s a whole lot easier just to accept the limits of my own understanding for the parts I don’t get than it is to turn away from my Lord and Savior because I arrogantly believe I should be able to make sense of everything right now.”

    Replace Jesus with the Buddha, or Allah, or L. Ron Hubbard and you can more or less make the same argument for any religion.

  • ildi

    I don’t think Buddha died for anyone’s sins.

    What a strange notion in general, the basis of Christianity! The whole idea that someone has to die to make up for something bad an ancestor of mine supposedly did… and that someone is actually a form of the deity who created this ancestor to begin with… and this is the best solution this deity can come up with… sounds like a fairly incompetent deity to me. If I were going to worship a god, I don’t think I’d pick this one.

  • David

    “I don’t think Buddha died for anyone’s sins.”

    He lived to teach us how to avoid the suffering of life, death, and rebirth though.

    You could just as well say, “The reason my beliefs are true is that I can feel the wisdom and the truth of The Buddha’s words. His teachings changed my life and made me a better person, etc. etc.”

    Same thing. Doesn’t make anything spiritual that might be gleaned from Buddhism true however.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Yeah. Honestly, as much as I appreciate Matt’s willingness to participate in this discussion and his honesty, it made me really sad. I do feel hopeless, but not for the reasons Matt thinks.

    Those who lay claim to the idea that religion and science can somehow be reconciled or co-exist harmoniously, need to read this thread.

    How do you argue against willful blindness?

    Religion is a denunciation, it is a repudiation of science and the scientific method and evidence based reasoning.

    Unfortunately, it is also going to turn out to be a repudiation of humanity.

  • ildi

    But I would just ask this- how’s that working out for you so far? You don’t need to tell me. Just consider it yourself.

    But I want to tell you! It has been working out great. No more agonizing over doubts, no more wondering why the world is so full of randomly occurring tragedy, no more gratuitous guilt, no more fearing the supernatural, no more simplistic carrot-and stick reward system… the world makes so much more sense now. I feel so lucky to be sentient/sapient in this amazing universe.

    In other words, no God-shaped hole.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    I’m sorry I haven’t addressed all the interesting issues and questions that have been raised. I keep getting blocked by the system here which prevents morethan 12 comments in 24 hours. Please don’t think that just because I didn’t respond to your objection that I have no response. But I don’t think I’ll continue here. If anyone would like to continue the discussion offline I’d be happy to- mattpowell74 at g mail dot com.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    Sarah’s comment about this thread being sad are spot on. You know that feeling you get watching a movie when you realize that a character who you thought was fine is actually insane? That’s how I felt.

    I read “I love Jesus. I know Him. He died for my sins, opened my eyes, saved me from death. I was lost and now I’m found. I was blind and now I see. His sheep hear His voice and follow Him. And I’m His sheep. So I trust Him for everything. He said I should believe the words of Moses, so I do. He said I should listen to the apostles and the prophets, so I do. I trust Him with all of it, even the hard stuff like Numbers 31. It’s a whole lot easier just to accept the limits of my own understanding for the parts I don’t get than it is to turn away from my Lord and Savior because I arrogantly believe I should be able to make sense of everything right now.”

    And I couldn’t help but picture an alternate version of Matt as some maimed, emaciated, mutilated medieval cultist in a tattered robe, missing most of his teeth, his eyes gouged out, but that insane grin of certainty on his face that his dark gods have provided him with. “I love the Master. I know him. The Master took away my sins, he has gouged out my sinful eyes, prevented me from seeing death. I had my own life but now I am devoted only to the Master. I could see the filthy, sinful world, but now I am happily blinded and can concentrate on serving the Master. His slaves hear his voice and cannot help but obey him. And I’m happy to be his slave. So I trust the Master for everything. The Master said I should believe the words of his underlings and priests no matter what they say, so I do. I trust the Master with all of it, even the hard stuff. It’s far easier to convince myself that I am a wretched worm, incapable of thinking for myself when I might disagree with the Master, than it is to turn away from my Master, because thinking for myself would be terribly arrogant, and an insult to the Master.”

    Saying the exact same things. It’s scary stuff.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    “But I want to tell you! It has been working out great. No more agonizing over doubts, no more wondering why the world is so full of randomly occurring tragedy, no more gratuitous guilt, no more fearing the supernatural, no more simplistic carrot-and stick reward system… the world makes so much more sense now. I feel so lucky to be sentient/sapient in this amazing universe.
    In other words, no God-shaped hole.”

    In other words, we are free.

  • Chroma

    On this one point, you’re absolutely right- I embrace childish credulity.

    There’s one thing I’d like to say about this, in the case it is relevant: Taking up a childlike mindset and its traits does not automatically make one an innocent shielded from the criticism and responsibilities of the adult world, nor does it grant a person the right to ignore reality and think immaturely. “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”

    I do not seek to prove, persuade, convince- that’s not really my job. I seek simply to announce, [...]

    I understood and understand that, but I was commenting on your statements anyway because I had something to say about them. Basically, the falsity of your claims are obvious to nearly anybody who reasons soundly and is honest with themselves. Interestingly, you didn’t respond to this point I brought up, but I suppose I won’t belabor it any further (at least without further reason). Moving on to what you “do not seek” to do (I suspect you couldn’t resist):

    Here’s my proof, for the whole thing- I’ll give it to you right now. I love Jesus. I know Him.

    I can tell you something about all of the people I love(d) or know(knew) in my life: I have interacted with them. If they’re still alive, I could in principle initiate interaction with any one of them in a non-vague, non-ambiguous way, at any time, whose only possible interpretations under cogent reason must necessarily presume that these people do indeed exist. To me at least, and to most others that I’ve heard from, these conditions or even extra-charitably more loose ones do not hold up to belief in God from “The Bible.”

    It’s a whole lot easier just to accept the limits of my own understanding for the parts I don’t get than it is to turn away from my Lord and Savior because I arrogantly believe I should be able to make sense of everything right now.

    (1) Accepting the limits of one’s own understanding is not mutually exclusive with not buying religion’s claims.

    (2) Wouldn’t “turning towards” God be limited by your own understanding, e.g. in interpreting God’s intentions in scripture; “His ways are not our ways”?

    (3) What fraction of people on the planet believe they can make sense of everything within their lifetimes on Earth, or even get everything they do work out perfectly correct and accurate? Furthermore, what relevance do these individuals have to the present discussion?

    If your systems and your science give you comfort and hope and confidence in your understanding, by all means don’t abandon them just on my say-so. But I would just ask this- how’s that working out for you so far? You don’t need to tell me. Just consider it yourself.

    I’ll say it: Intellectual honesty has always carried me farther than self-delusion or gullibility.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I’ve lifted the comment limit so it won’t interfere with further discussion, if Matt is amenable to continuing.

  • A. Hall

    The Bible has helped me in my life to be a better person. It is functional to me and seems to me to be without “material” error. It seems accurate to me as to the return of the Jews to the land of Israel and as to many aspects of human nature and behavior. The teachings of Jesus work well for me. The philosophy of Probabalism simply postulates that, lacking perfect knowledge, as humans we make choices based on what seems to work and what seems to be functional and reasonable. About 95 % of all humans are theists. It seems to me that it is reasonable to conclude that our theistic predisposition may be from God. It seems reasonable to me that the complex code of the DNA molecule was designed by an intelligent “code maker”.

  • MS Quixote

    Those who lay claim to the idea that religion and science can somehow be reconciled or co-exist harmoniously, need to read this thread.

    I would be one of those, Sarah, and I’ve read the thread, but I feel as though I’m reaching very different conclusions after reading it than you have. Why do you think that is?

  • Mark C.

    A. Hall,

    It seems accurate to me as to the return of the Jews to the land of Israel and as to many aspects of human nature and behavior.

    Regarding the Jews, their return to Israel needn’t even be a problem under non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic worldviews. When a believer thinks the supreme authority figure says “x will happen in the future”, it would be no surprise if like-minded believers set to work trying to make the aforementioned statement true, especially since they usually think that doing the will of this authority figure is good and desirable. What would be more impressive (i.e. impressive at all, since the aforementioned scenario isn’t) would be if the prophecy were completely unknown until sometime after the events foretold in it were fulfilled. If the prophecy contained extremely unlikely-to-obtain specifics, it would be far better.

    Would you please elaborate on the Bible’s accuracy with regard to the aspects of human nature and behavior that you allude to? I don’t really see that there’s anything impressive in that book on those topics, unlike in psychology textbooks and scientific studies. Do note that if you are referring to, say, a description of humans as sinful and evil, that won’t fly with people who don’t already accept your worldview or something similar.

    About 95 % of all humans are theists. It seems to me that it is reasonable to conclude that our theistic predisposition may be from God.

    First, a tangential note: Whatever views you come up with as a result of such consideration, they need to account for why it isn’t the case that every human isn’t a theist. /tangent

    Others would say it is reasonable that said theistic disposition came from some other god. By what method do we determine the cause of the disposition when so many theisms seek to be unverifiable? Sure, it might be explainable in your system, but as long as there are other systems — not otherwise ruled out — in which it can also be explained, belief in the truth of any particular one of them is unwarranted. Alternatively, one could look to nontheistic explanations, which do exist. What I’m saying is that the disposition (if there really is one, instead of a mere tendency), while it could be evidence for certain worldviews, is not evidence for just one, so we have to look to other facts to determine which worldview is most likely to be correct.

    It seems reasonable to me that the complex code of the DNA molecule was designed by an intelligent “code maker”.

    The use of the word “code” is metaphorical when it comes to genetic material, just as the word “jump” is metaphorical when looking at a graph that suddenly spikes (the graph does not have legs), or just as “feed” is metaphorical when speaking of loading paper into a printer (the paper is not food and the printer does not metabolize anything). If genetic material really were an actual code in the everyday sense of the term, of course we would assume there were a coder responsible for it! The fact that there are biochemically learned people who use the word “code” when referring to DNA and RNA and yet do not assume it was designed easily demonstrates this.

    Now to make my comment somewhat relevant to the discussion: We’re talking about making claims of infallibility and upon what epistemic grounds this can be justified. Statements such as those that I’ve quoted need to be backed up — we need to know how we can discern a theistic world from a nontheistic one, or different theistic ones from each other. As long as logically possible alternative explanations exist for the things you speak of, and as long as you have no non-question-begging reason to accept one view over another, acceptance of any particular view is unwarranted. Accepting one while having no good answer to objections is similar to, if not the exact same as, an implicit claim to personal infallibility on the topic.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Ebonmuse “As I hope you’ve realized by now, we atheists are a much more contentious bunch than that.”
    We are not!

    Matt Powell “Some of you have raised the issue of slavery and genocide in war. I have dealt with this subject tosome degree on my blog-http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com/2004/08/biblical-slavery.html.”
    Roughly, “…genocide is wrong unless God does it or He commands it…”, then you say that you reject Divine Command Theory and that “Rather, I believe that the Bible teaches that morality flows from God’s nature, and God cannot contradict his own nature” (which still puts God on a horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma, just rephrased as “Is it good because it’s God’s nature, or is it God’s nature because it’s good?”).

    Yahzi “One of those is a disproportionate response to unfairness. We tend to punish cheaters even when doing so costs us more than their cheating did in the first place. This is not as irrational as it seems, since we are protecting not just ourselves but the entire social fabric of trust and cooperation that makes our lives possible.”
    And we can’t even claim exclusivity to that. Damn animals. I mean, it’s bad enough that some other animals got thumbs. *grumble*

    MS Quixote “Why do you think that is?”
    Um, you’re not a YEC/crass literalist/presuppositionalist?

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Voice in Thuampalumpcus’ head

    Thuampalumpcus “Unfortunately for me, I only have one voice in my head.”
    Stop jabbing me with a pen.

  • Sarah Braasch

    MS Quixote,

    What?

    You’re seeing reconciliation and harmony? You’re seeing compatibility?

    How so? Was it divinely revealed to you? Because I see no evidence of compatibility.

    I see a conversation that has reached a dead end.

    Matt refuses to allow for his own fallibility. Ok — on a handful of issues, but these are fairly important issues, like the infallibility of god, the divinity of Jesus, the infallibility of the Biblical text, etc., etc..

    He claims infallibility. But, he refuses to provide evidence. In fact, he has none, and he admits that he has none.

    You see this position as compatible with science, the scientific method and evidence based reasoning?

    How so?

    How is this position anything but a repudiation of science?

  • Mark C.

    Sarah,

    “Religion” is different from “the religion/beliefs specific to Matt”. While it might be true that Matt’s beliefs are incompatible with science, it does not follow from that that religion in general is incompatible. Since MS Quixote’s remark to you concerned a statement of yours that used the blanket term “religion” instead of just referring to Matt’s beliefs, I assume MS Quixote was implicitly commenting on this blanket generalization, especially since the only evidential reference you made was to this comment thread.

    It may well be that religion and science are incompatible, but one can’t deduce that from a sample space of one person and his specific beliefs.

    I’m not saying I disagree with the notion that the two are incompatible, though (especially if religion necessarily involves faith or the belief in revelation)… just trying to clear something up.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Yeah, but MS Quixote said that he gleaned the exact opposite from reading THIS THREAD.

    I’m saying — how is that possible?

    Sure — religion can be compatible with science, I guess — if you don’t actually believe in the religion.

  • MS Quixote

    Hey Sarah,

    Maybe I missed a comment or two: if so, point me in the right direction. Matt claimed specifically that he himself is not infallible, but that God is. Do I see this position as compatible with science, the scientific method, and evidenced based reasoning? Of course, I do. I don’t see science having much to say with regard to God’s infallibility, the divinity of Jesus, and perhaps only very loosely with the infallibility of Scripture, if at all.

    I don’t wish to insert words into Matt’s mouth, but what I think he is claiming is that God is infallible, but his beliefs on the matter are not infallible, they’re incorrigible, in an epistemological sense.

    Sure — religion can be compatible with science, I guess — if you don’t actually believe in the religion.

    Very strong assertion on your part. Though not a scientist, I’ve been working on at least two projects for quite some time that most likely will fundamentally alter your view of cosmology and physics; yet I embrace Christianity fully. How can this be? Which deliverance of science, the scientific method, or evidenced based reasoning am I ignoring? To reduce confusion between us, I believe that science and Christianity are compatible because ultimately they will converge at the truth, even though there will be, and has been, some bickering along the way. Why is this position unreasonable?

    BTW, DA folks: a tip of the hat once again for presenting yourselves as gracious hosts to Matt. Somehow y’all manage to argue vigorously, but with class, with very few exceptions.

  • Sarah Braasch

    MS Quixote,

    Honestly, I’m sort of tired of banging my head against a wall.

    You are taking the conversation back to where it started.

    And, you are simply reasserting Matt’s initial assertions.

    I think it is possible to be a scientist and to be religious. This says a lot about the mental state of the individual who claims both identities.

    It says nothing about the compatibility of science and religion.

    I’m out. I think this conversation has run its course. If someone else cares to take up the mantle, feel free.

    MS, feel free to respond as well, but I’ve said my peace.

    I think your last comment is just more affirmation that faith is a conversation stopper.

    Basically, the argument is this: it just is, because it is, because I know it is, and you know it too, but the fact that you won’t admit it means that there is something wrong with you.

    How am I supposed to argue with someone who takes that position? That position is a repudiation of science and evidence based reasoning. That position is a conversation stopper. That position is a dead end.

    Have a great weekend all.

  • ildi

    About 95 % of all humans are theists.

    Um, did you miss the part where the gods these theists worship are vastly different from each other, and have vastly different expectations from their followers? Evidence for religion being a human invention, to me.

    I think it is possible to be a scientist and to be religious. This says a lot about the mental state of the individual who claims both identities.

    It says nothing about the compatibility of science and religion.

    Exactly. People can and do compartmentalize many opposing concepts. So, while it is true that being religious and being a scientist can be compatible, it is not true that science and religion are compatible.

    BTW, philosophers and scientists mean different things when they use the word “evidence.”

    I believe that science and Christianity are compatible because ultimately they will converge at the truth, even though there will be, and has been, some bickering along the way. Why is this position unreasonable?

    Because Christianity (and other religious inventions) did a piss-poor job of it for thousands of years until the scientific method was invented.

  • MS Quixote

    Basically, the argument is this: it just is, because it is, because I know it is, and you know it too, but the fact that you won’t admit it means that there is something wrong with you.

    No worries, Sarah, but to be clear, this is precisely what you’re communicating to me from your side of the fence.

  • Mark C.

    ildi,

    Um, did you miss the part where the gods these theists worship are vastly different from each other, and have vastly different expectations from their followers? Evidence for religion being a human invention, to me.

    Forgot to put that in my response! I’m glad you pointed it out. Some people even go further than the observation about theism and state that so many people believe in God. Well… no, not really, they don’t. Replace the capital with a lower case “g” and put the word “a” before “god”, and yeah, then it’s accurate.

  • Sarah Braasch

    MS Quixote,

    If that’s the message you’re getting from me, it must be because Jesus intercepted the message and then revealed it to you.

    If you want to call me dogmatic, because of my “dogmatic” rejection of dogma, so be it.

    Your comment leads me to believe that you didn’t actually read my comments in this thread. I am the person in this thread the least likely to align myself with any so-called objective, infallible moral truth.

    If I sound angry, it’s because I am. I get angry with the tired rant that atheism is dogma, just like religion.

    Absurd.

  • 5acos(phi/2)

    … I believe that science and Christianity are compatible because ultimately they will converge at the truth, even though there will be, and has been, some bickering along the way. Why is this position unreasonable?

    I believe that careful choice elimination and totally arbitrary guesses are compatible, because they will converge at the correct answers in multiple choice quizzes, even though there will be, and has been, some discrepancies along the way. Why is this position unreasonable?

  • Chroma

    I don’t have any firsthand knowledge what goes on in anyone else’s heart. I know what goes on in mine, though.

    Ah, but you have secondhand knowledge of what goes on in other’s hearts (from God Himself I suppose)? Calling yourself the messenger is a dandy tactic, but it won’t work with thinking people. Check your sources, friend. Not to mention – “the heart is deceitful above all things.”

    The Bible has helped me in my life to be a better person.

    Hmm, perhaps there is such a thing as too much modesty.

    It seems to me that it is reasonable to conclude that our theistic predisposition may be from God. It seems reasonable to me that the complex code of the DNA molecule was designed by an intelligent “code maker”.

    It seems reasonable to me that these speculations are neither cogent nor parsimonious, and lack comparable explanatory power.

  • nogrief

    Hi, Matt (again)

    This has been a great “go-round” for which I thank you.
    I can’t resist making one more query of you. Perhaps it will clear up what I don’t understand in your position.

    Doesn’t your acknowledgement of your fallibility automatically weaken your belief that claims the bible to be infallible? If so, it should be possible for you to state your belief in the bible’s infallibility with the addition of “…but the bible might be wrong.”

    I just don’t see faith being able to trump this logic.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    nogrief (and anyone else to whom this might apply),
    Infallibility is a property belonging to God and God alone. Along with His infallibility goes His omnipotence. So He has communicated infallibly with His creation, and in His grace He has granted that some would see this truth. He has, in the language of the Bible, opened the eyes of the blind. Because of that, I am able to see that the Scriptures are the inspired word of God and it is not possible that I should be in error on that point. Not because of any property which I possess- this is why I insist on refusing to apply infallibility to myself in any sense- but because of God’s perfections. He has perfectly revealed Himself to me, and in His omnipotence has done so in a way that I cannot fail to see it.

    People say, “that argument could be used to prove anything.” That’s fine. I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m explaining to you, since you asked, why I believe what I believe. If you do not find that argument compelling, that’s not my problem. People have asked how I can explain how Christians disagree with each other on so many things, or theists disagree with each other on so many things. And the answer to that is that, first of all, even those who refuse to acknowledge the truth of the Bible have some remnant of the truth in them, so that they are attracted to some facsimile or other of the real God. And the other answer is that, among those who do acknowledge the Bible, we are (as I have said) fallible, and God’s revelation is a process, so we find ourselves in different places, disagreeing about many peripheral matters of interpretation while agreeing on the core.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Dan L, comment #95,
    Your argument doesn’t hold. Your statements about squares and bachelors are indeed definitional matters. Therefore there is a fundamental contradiction entailed in a square circle, making it impossible. But the middle term in your argument is “human minds are subject to error” which is not a definitional truth at all. There is no logical necessity, fundamental to the definition of what a human mind is, that it should be subject to error. We observe that the mind is subject to error, but there is no logical necessity to that. Therefore, you cannot be 100% certain that the human mind, in all circumstances and on all subjects, is subject to error. That is an assumption on your part.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Does God’s whole process of separating the wheat from the chaff sound a lot like a WWII era concentration camp to anyone else?

    He arbitrarily chooses who gets to be slaves and who gets pushed into the ovens.

    When humans do this to other humans we prosecute them for crimes against humanity.

    Matt, you sure are one of the lucky ones. Too bad for everyone else, of course, to whom God has chosen not to reveal himself infallibly. But, I’m sure he has his reasons for relegating most of his Creation to the fiery torments of hell. Shame that he should have decided to create them in the first place though.

    I can see why you cling so desperately to that no possibility of error theology. Wouldn’t be so nice if it turns out otherwise.

  • monkeymind

    “it is not possible that I should be in error on that point”

    Well, I could be wrong, but it sounds like you’re making a claim to infallibility there.
    I get the point that you attribute the impossibility of error to God’s having revealed his infallibility to you infallibly, so you’re not claiming infallibility for yourself. (Gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast, etc. etc. – I got an AWANA pin, once upon a time!)
    This little dodge might be just an eccentric little quirk, but from reading your blog, I get the impression that you’re also pretty confident about God’s opinion on birth control, single payer health care, and lots of other issues.
    You’re confident that the Bible tells us the causes of the economic crisis, for example.(http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com/2009/07/independence-day.html)
    Apparently, lax regulation of the financial market is not one of them – surprise! Rather, it’s because we don’t work hard and save our money as the Bible tells us. You do know that Jesus never reached his full earning potential, don’t you? Most of his financial advice seemed to center on giving 50%-100% of assets to the poor, or else spending it on pedicures, because the poor will always be with us, or something. At any rate most of the evidence points to Jesus being against capital accumulation.

  • Chroma

    He has perfectly revealed Himself to me, and in His omnipotence has done so in a way that I cannot fail to see it.

    Sheesh, the lengths people will go to. Appeal to magic can substitute recourse to reason, because, don’t you know, omnipotent beings can just inject infallible justified-true belief into any mental vessel at whim. (Convenient for the apologist!) Or does the “done so in a way” include any kind of content or quality that could lend itself to logical or minimally cogent apprehension of fact by the receiver of this divine revelation business?

    Anyway, I see two cases for the readers of Powell’s claims: if Powell purports that every individual – or at least himself and his audience – is privy to the same “infallible” and “inescapable” revelation as himself, then the entire true-by-magic scenario he submits can be casually discarded after simple but honest introspection; if, however, he does not claim the same revelation exists for his audience, then he has no legitimate grounds for inducing reasonable belief in his audience, nor indeed has he any force whatsoever in the way of rational and agreeable persuasion, ergo his talking points are moot.

    Bummer.

  • monkeymind

    Oh, I just read my last comment and realized it bodes ill for derailing the thread into political territory.
    The point I wanted to make was that when infallible revelation bleeds into political ideology, the brew becomes toxic, and it looks like Matt Powell has imbibed freely.
    If you look at the history of the Christian right in America, more often than not that the theology was welded on to an existing political ideology and made to fit, rather than the political ideology arising from some infallible, indisputable interpretation of Scripture. Two recent books, Jeff Sharlet’s “The Fellowhip” and Frank Schaeffer’s “Crazy for God” have great insights on this.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    When you use words like “reason”, “science”, “introspection”- there is an assumption behind those words that you never seem to really examine. You assume that your minds are independent, and that you have the ability to reason correctly in your own strength.

    But why is this a valid assumption? Why are you so confident that your logical processes are valid? Why, in particular, do you assume that they are valid enough to denounce me with such rancor?

  • monkeymind

    Chroma, Matt did say he was not trying to convince anyone to believe as he does, but only trying to defend himself from the charge of infallibility. His affiliation is Reformed, which means he believes in some version of predestination, which as far as I have ever been able to understand it, means that some people are just meant to burn. So, no, not everyone will have access to the infallible, inescapable revelation.

    It’s as if a bunch of kids were arguing about the rules of kickball, and one kid says that he has the rule book, but it’s written in a language only he can read, but everyone else has to abide by what he says the rules are. And he keeps changing the rules and not admitting he’s changing them.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    monkeymind,
    When have i changed the rules? Or was that just invective?

    Matt

  • monkeymind

    Sorry, Matt, you have been consistent. I should have been much, much, clearer that the “one kid” I had in mind was the entire Christian right and not you personally.

    I’m a 40-something mom of one*. I can remember when my my devout evangelical Christian mom had ethical dilemmas about working on Sunday and thought abortion was justified in some circumstances. Nowadays most evangelicals could care less about Sabbatarianism, but are obsessed with the evils of abortion. That’s what I mean by changing the rules – and it’s like no one in that community even noticed.

    * (reading your post on Motherhood Dec. 8 2009, I’m a little upset that my decision to limit my family size did not lead to prolonged youthfulness and gratification of lustful desires. Dang, another opportunity wasted… )

  • monkeymind

    Here’s a thought experiment.

    If an extra-terrestrial anthropologist were to conduct behavioral observations of communities of Christians in every century of the Christian era, without reading any texts or doctrine, would she be able to come up with any consistent set of principles guiding the behavior of these communities? Probably there are some, but would they coincide with what most Christians hold to be the key tenets of their religion?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Hello Matt,

    I’d like to repeat a question I raised in a previous comment:

    In the past, Christians have believed with absolute certainty that God’s will was to hold Africans in slavery. Christians have believed with absolute certainty that God’s will was that women be barred from all positions of political power. Christians have believed with absolute certainty that God did not want the races to mix. Christians have believed with absolute certainty that witches were real and should be sought out and put to death. All those beliefs were wrong, despite the certainty of their holders. Why should we – and why should you – be any more confident that this time you have it absolutely right?

    I’m curious how you would respond to this. Do you think that Christians of past eras believed they infallibly knew God’s will on these matters, but were nevertheless mistaken?

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Ebonmuse,
    As I said, we are fallible. Christians make mistakes. There were in fact Christians on both sides of all of those issues, and it was the Bible itself that proved them wrong. There were Christians who denounced the Salem witch trials, Christians who labored night and day to end slavery, Christians who championed women’s rights. Race slavery in particular is not only unjustifiable from Scripture, it is specifically denounced. The issue of witchcraft is a little more complex- if I knew certainly that a person was in league with Satan and using their power to hurt people, then such a person would be richly deserving of legal censure. It’s the “knowing certainly” part that’s pretty tough, and the Bible has strict standards for establishing guilt and heavy penalties for perjury.

    Learning God’s will, as individuals and collectively, is a process. As a Protestant, I don’t accept any human authority as infallible. If someone says that they think my understanding of the Bible is faulty, I’m interested in having that discussion and learning why I’m wrong (subject to normal human pride, of course). But that doesn’t mean everything is up for grabs. God’s infallibility is central to the whole Bible, and central to my own conscience’s witness of His existence. I’m completely committed to the truth of the Bible. But I am not committed to my own understanding of the Bible at every point, and as you’ve pointed out, the history of Christianity makes that very clear. The Bible itself calls our attention to the distortions and misinterpretations that will occur, and instructs us to labor faithfully to understand what Scripture says.

    Again, that doesn’t mean that all truth is therefore up for grabs.

  • monkeymind

    “that doesn’t mean that all truth is therefore up for grabs.”

    Is anyone arguing that it is? We disagree on what constitutes proper concern and regard for truth, on what the proper means are to search for truth. You seem to think personal conviction of divine revelation is a good way to find truth, if I understand you correctly. I beg to differ, based on where it has led so often in the past.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    monkeymind,
    That’s precisely what Ebonmuse and a number of other posters have in fact argued. They have argued that all knowledge is provisional, meaning that anything might change. All truth is up for grabs.

    What truth, in your mind, is not up for grabs, monkeymind?

    Matt

  • monkeymind

    Matt, I don’t have a lot of philosophical knowledge or terminology to throw around but my take is that there is an objective reality that can be appealed to, however limited our grasp may be. We all have beliefs and interpretations of that reality, but some are better supported than others.

  • monkeymind

    Also, I really don’t see how saying “all knowledge is provisional, but objective reality exists” is all that different than saying “all human interpretations of infallible scripture are provisional,” which is what I hear you saying. Correct me if I’m not understanding correctly.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    OK, I can see how I spoke imprecisely. By truth, I meant our knowledge of that truth. But what is different is that I am asserting divine revelation, which makes certain knowledge of that truth possible, while you are left only with your mind, and therefore certainty of any knowledge at all lies outside of your grasp.

    And I would repeat a question I asked a few posts back- how can you have any certainty that your own mind is trustworthy anyway? Assertions of the superiority of logic and reason all require that assumption, that your mind is trustworthy, and this is an assumption that you simply cannot prove.

  • nogrief

    (Matt #1)…Infallibility is a property belonging to God and God alone…

    (Matt #2)…it is not possible that I should be in error on that point…..

    (Matt #3)…He has perfectly revealed Himself to me, and in His omnipotence has done so in a way that I cannot fail to see it…

    How does it elude you that when you make those statements you express what is to you an infallible assertion regarding your claimed knowledge about certain characteristics of your god?
    You may word-jockey all you want but that’s the infallible position you place yourself in with such statements.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    By the way, Ebonmuse, how do you know that race slavery or excluding women from political position is wrong?

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    nogrief,
    You start by assuming your conclusion. If there is no God, then I am claiming infallibility for myself. But if there is a God, and if that God is infallible and omnipotent, then He is perfectly capable of communicating to whomever He wills the truth about Himself in such a way that that the recipient of that revelation would not fail to understand. That does not communicate the property of infallibility to the target of the revelation. But it does communicate certainty.

    You judge my claim on the assumption that you are right about the (non)existence of God. If you’re right, then my claim is absurd. But if not, then I am not claiming infallibility, just that I have been empowered by God to hear the truth and communicate it.

    Matt

  • monkeymind

    Matt, I certainly don’t think that my mind is trustworthy, that is why I would rather rely on the scientific method whenever possible and fact-check what can be fact-checked.
    I think what’s bothering you is the feeling that without divine authority, no moral clarity is possible. I don’t think that’s true, but I do think that there are no short cuts, and history teaches me some skepticism of all who claim divine authority for the actions. (read Twain’s “War Prayer”).
    As far as your Darfur example, “knowing” that something is morally wrong is not the same as “knowing” a fact. Part why we both “know” that raping and killing a 10 year old is wrong comes from the fact that we share the same kind of brain, with a capacity for empathy and apparently inherent knowledge of the concept of “fairness.” I also think part of our “knowing” in this instance comes from cultural advances (tentative and reversal) that our species has made since the Psalmist could utter “happy is he who dashes thy little ones against the stones.”

  • monkeymind

    Typos – should be: divine authority for their actions” and Part of why we both know”

  • monkeymind

    “That does not communicate the property of infallibility to the target of the revelation. But it does communicate certainty.”

    How can a fallible being have perfect certainty? How do you know that God has communicated his infallible truth to you? In an earlier comment you made it sound like it was something you felt or sensed. Doesn’t that require that you believe your mind/emotions are trustworthy?

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    When people believed the earth was flat, they were wrong.

    When people believed the earth was a perfect sphere, they were wrong.

    Someone who believes these 2 beliefs are equally wrong are not even wrong, approaching Fractal Wrongness.

    In other words, our understanding of reality is provisional, but as time progresses we get more and more accurate understandings. Newton’s theory of gravity is wrong, but it is still extremely useful as an approximation for massive, slow-moving objects.

    This in particular stood out to me:

    What is different is that I am asserting divine revelation, which makes certain knowledge of that truth possible, while you are left only with your mind, and therefore certainty of any knowledge at all lies outside of your grasp.

    Firstly, your question to us can just as easily be thrown back at you: how are you certain you have received “divine revelation”, and it is not merely your mind fooling you?

    Secondly, this displays an appalling ignorance of the scientific method, which involves checking and double checking and triple checking, first by yourself, then your immediate colleagues, and then other competent individuals in your field, to make sure personal biases or tricks of the mind or one fluke result aren’t at the heart of the data.

    Thirdly, and most importantly, there is no such thing as 100% certainty. In anything. Granted, I’m not 100% certain of this *rimshot!* but I am pretty sure. Sure enough to not have to worry about that small uncertainty to let it affect my view of the world. See, I suffer from a mix of clinical depression, generalized anxiety, and OCD-like behavior with regard to social interaction. And one of the core aspects of this is an obsessive need for 100% certainty. So my treatment (outside of psychiatric drugs, of course) has been teaching myself to accept uncertainty as part of the human experience. There is no such thing as 100% certainty, and that’s ok. I can’t be 100% certain that my family loves me, but I’m confident enough that I don’t need that certainty.

    On a less personal note, there’s also this little thing called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Sure, I hate people who apply quantum physics where it doesn’t belong, but this principle is one of the core facts about our universe: there is a level of uncertainty in every “fact” in the universe (either the momentum-position or energy-time equivalency).

    100% certainty is an illusion. A phantom that doesn’t exist. All we can expect is “good enough” certainty.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    monkeymind,
    Fairness, empathy, all of these things speak to universals. They speak to truths that transcend culture and biology, things that are simply true. Would it give a wolf a survival advantage to feel the pain he inflicts on a caribou?

    Why should I care what hurt I inflict on others, if it promotes my good? Why should I care how another lump of hydrocarbons feels?

    Yes, my mind is subject to error. I’ve asserted that over and over. Yet if there is a God that is infallible, then He would be capable of making Himself known. He might not care to make Himself known to me in a way that I could prove to you. In fact, this is what He has done. My own knowledge of God is compelling to me. You can continue to call that infallibility, but saying it doesn’t make it so.

    Themann-
    So you’re not certain that race slavery is wrong? You’re not certain that white people aren’t inherently superior to blacks? You’re not certain that it’s wrong to steal from people just because you feel like it? You’re not certain that it’s wrong to cause suffering for another human being just for the fun of it?

    Or, somehow, you’ve arrived at 99% certainty of that? Because of double- and triple- checking the experiments that seem to indicate that truth?

    I’m not even talking about the natural world. I’m talking about your conscience. I’m saying that you know things, not with 99% uncertainty, but with 100% certainty, truths that you don’t need to have proved to you in an experiment, don’t need to be peer reviewed, and don’t stop being true no matter how many other people claim that they disagree or how much evidence anybody gave you or how much benefit you might gain by ignoring them. They’re just true.

    And I’m telling you, that’s God talking to you, through your soul. I urgently implore you to listen.

    Matt

  • monkeymind

    “Fairness, empathy, all of these things speak to universals. They speak to truths that transcend culture and biology, things that are simply true.”

    The fact that I can create abstract ideals of love and truth and justice and beauty is enabled by the type of brain we have. Empathy and justice do seem to be rooted or enabled by our brain physiology, though cultural progress is what enables them to be universalized into values.

    Yet all it would take is a tumor in my pre-frontal cortex to wipe out my capacity for empathy. Scary but true. Even more scary, I’m not absolutely sure that if I had been one of the Israelite soldiers under orders to slaughter Midianite children, that my innate sense of empathy would have won out over cultural conditioning. But I’m absolutely sure it was wrong.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    You sound quite certain about that tumor. How do you know that? What scientific experiments have you done?

    And I take it, when you look at, say, southern slavers, that your response is to accept that they were doing the right thing given their own cultural conditioning?

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Not to mention those Israelite soldiers. Why were their actions wrong? How can you be absolutely sure?

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    So you’re not certain that race slavery is wrong? You’re not certain that white people aren’t inherently superior to blacks? You’re not certain that it’s wrong to steal from people just because you feel like it? You’re not certain that it’s wrong to cause suffering for another human being just for the fun of it?

    Or, somehow, you’ve arrived at 99% certainty of that? Because of double- and triple- checking the experiments that seem to indicate that truth?

    Let me make a quick definition so the fact that I’m using synonyms doesn’t make this more confusing: when I say “certain”, I mean “100% know absolutely”, something that is impossible to have; when I say “sure”, as in “I’m sure of this”, I mean I’m confident enough in it that the level of uncertainty involved is ignorable.

    So I am sure of those things (slavery is wrong, there is no significant difference in intelligence between “races”, stealing is wrong) because I have a system of ethics and morals, one that with others I have developed. I’m also sure it’s not perfect, but it has served me well, and I tweak it from time to time. As to hurting others for fun, clearly you aren’t involved in the BDSM community* ;)

    I’m not even talking about the natural world. I’m talking about your conscience. I’m saying that you know things, not with 99% uncertainty, but with 100% certainty, truths that you don’t need to have proved to you in an experiment, don’t need to be peer reviewed, and don’t stop being true no matter how many other people claim that they disagree or how much evidence anybody gave you or how much benefit you might gain by ignoring them. They’re just true.

    And I’m telling you, that’s God talking to you, through your soul. I urgently implore you to listen.

    Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? If the latter, we can bypass God and discover “goodness” for ourselves; if the former, then there is no true morality and we are at the whims of a supernatural dictator.

    Morality and ethics aren’t, admittedly, found through experiment or peer review; they are developed through philosophy, logic and reason. Any system needs to be internally consistent, as well as consistent with 2 other main criteria: how would the world function with everyone following such a system? and how does this system handle people who don’t follow it? There’s reams and reams of writing on what is morally/ethically right, and simply saying “God sez so” is an insult to our intelligence.

    *I don’t actually think this is what you meant, but I mention it to illustrate a point about my morals and ethics: the cornerstone of any just moral/ethical or political system is consent. Things that are wrong without consent (theft, rape, battery) are fine with consent (taxes/charity, sex, sports)

  • Sarah Braasch

    themann1086,

    Beautifully stated — “the cornerstone of any just moral/ethical or political system is consent.”

    Exactly. Hit the nail on the head.

    And, not just perfunctory consent, but real, uncoerced, informed consent.

    Which is why religion is totally immoral in my book.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    And I would repeat a question I asked a few posts back- how can you have any certainty that your own mind is trustworthy anyway? Assertions of the superiority of logic and reason all require that assumption, that your mind is trustworthy, and this is an assumption that you simply cannot prove.

    Not when our logical rules align with the empirical evidence in an objective and verifiable way, which just so happens to be the case.

    Why should I care what hurt I inflict on others, if it promotes my good? Why should I care how another lump of hydrocarbons feels?

    Cause you’re not a sociopath…I hope.

    Actually, it’s because you are an evolved human being with the evolutionary history of a social animal. It’s also because we have empirical knowledge that societies tend to function well when people cooperate.

  • nogrief

    Thanks, Matt for a very enlightening exchange. You’ve given me further insight into how a believing theist’s mind works things out.
    (BTW, in what follows, I’m just conceding for clarity the use of the capital letters and gender loaded “He” even though I believe the big “IT” of universal dynamics is more appropriate.)

    Theists somehow take unto themselves the ability to ascribe meanings and intents to God’s universal actions both within and outside of all human experiences. They also enable themselves to ascribe all His meanings and intents as are expressed in His word contained in His bible.

    This habit also extends itself to ascribing the meanings and intents of statements of his fellow humans with whom he might be discussing…well…anything! This all requires the highest order of word-jockeying and you are very good at it.

    In my long life I’ve observed that the most usefully expressed thoughts are the ones that, as they say, “cut through the BS.”

    As Robert Frost wrote, “Both read the Bible day and night,. But thou read’st black where I read white.“

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Hello Matt,

    Thanks for your reply. I’d like to delve a little deeper into some of the issues raised by your last comment:

    As I said, we are fallible. Christians make mistakes.

    I hate to be pedantic, but that’s actually not what you said. What you said is that you concede your fallibility on peripheral issues of interpretation, but you insist that you are not fallible on core issues of doctrine. And, apparently, what constitutes a peripheral issue versus a core issue is also decided by you. As I recall, this whole exchange was started by a post of yours long ago in which you argued that a young-earth creationist interpretation of the Bible is absolutely essential to Christianity and non-negotiable (if that isn’t your view, please correct me).

    My point in bringing this up was to illustrate that, just as you claim that certain issues are absolutely essential to a Christian view, that the truth on those issues has been infallibly revealed to you by God, Christians of past eras said exactly the same thing in support of viewpoints that we now agree are wrong. John Wesley, for example, said that the giving up of witchcraft was the giving up of the Bible. Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens said that trying to abolish slavery was trying to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal, and Jefferson Davis said that slavery had been established by decree of Almighty God. John Knox wrote an entire polemic arguing that the Bible clearly forbids women from holding any position of political authority. Judge Leon Bazile wrote that God’s placing the races on different continents was proof that he never intended them to mix.

    These people, in fact, sounded exactly as confident in their beliefs as you sound in yours. They claimed that the evils they defended were established by clear commands of God. They claimed that proper interpretation of the Bible led only to the positions they advocated, and alternative interpretations showed heresy and distrust of God. (It’s worth noting that the “literal” interpretation of the story of Noah’s flood also gave rise to the Hamitic hypothesis, which was used to justify racism for centuries.)

    So, I ask you again: What gives? What mistake did these people make? If their error was that they mistook their own prejudices for God’s decree – if that can happen to sincere, devout, Bible-believing Christians – then what makes you believe you are immune to the same error? If Christians of the past claimed to infallibly know God’s will, yet were mistaken, why can that not happen to Christians of the present?

    There were in fact Christians on both sides of all of those issues, and it was the Bible itself that proved them wrong. There were Christians who denounced the Salem witch trials, Christians who labored night and day to end slavery, Christians who championed women’s rights.

    This is an interesting point, because as I’m sure you know, there are also Christians on both sides of modern issues like same-sex marriage, or environmental conservation, or creationism, or for that matter, whether the Bible is infallible. Many of these people would also claim to be certain of God’s will, despite the fact that they take positions incompatible with yours. Again, how do we judge between these conflicting claims of total certainty?

    …how do you know that race slavery or excluding women from political position is wrong?

    Because these beliefs are grounded in factual claims which we know, with confidence approaching certainty, to be false; and because these beliefs violate principles of justice and equality before the law that are essential to the happiness and prosperity of any society.

    I’m saying that you know things, not with 99% uncertainty, but with 100% certainty… And I’m telling you, that’s God talking to you, through your soul. I urgently implore you to listen.

    That, again, is an interesting claim. Because if there were any moral principles I’d even consider claiming 100% certainty about, they would be principles like, “Justice can never be done by punishing an innocent person for the crimes of a guilty one,” or, “No deed committed by a finite human can ever merit eternal punishment.” Should I consider these beliefs to be the voice of God? Or did you mean this passage to come with a footnote indicating that our inner moral convictions should not be given any weight if they clash with your interpretation of Christianity?

  • monkeymind

    “You sound quite certain about that tumor. How do you know that? What scientific experiments have you done? ”

    Well, after some sleep and caffeine, I’d say that “wipe out my capacity for empathy” is not a good reflection of what I really mean – “affect or limit my capacity for empathy” would be a better way to put it. I’ve seen people die of brain cancer, though, and witnessed how the personality can change pretty drastically. Very threatening to the ol’ ego.
    No, I haven’t done any neurological experiments, but I also don’t think I have to personally verify every scientific finding to be reasonably certain it is correct. I do have a strong personal conviction, based on our best knowledge of how brains work, combined with moral reasoning/imagination, that certain organic brain dysfunctions can lead to diminished moral responsibility. It sickens me to live in a society where so many are comfortable with executing the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

  • Mark C.

    I wonder if this is the issue we are/should be discussing: Should we let a metaphysical or an ontological commitment determine our epistemology (because as I see it, that’s what Matt is doing)? If so, what selection criteria should we employ and why?

    If we select an epistemology prior to considering metaphysical or ontological issues, (assuming such is possible), how does one reach the complete accuracy of revelation in a non-question-begging way?

    If this was obviously the issue under discussion, then I apologize for typing something out that may only elicit the “duh!” response. Still, distillation of ideas is nice.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    There were in fact Christians on both sides of all of those issues, and it was the Bible itself that proved them wrong.

    This is just plain wrong. Both sides used the Bible to “prove” the other side wrong. Using the Bible to “prove” something has all the same problems as your claim to infallible knowledge of what god wants.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    As a Protestant, I don’t accept any human authority as infallible.

    Except, obviously, your authority to interpret the Bible.

    By the way, how do you interpret “Pride goeth before the fall”?

  • monkeymind

    “Not to mention those Israelite soldiers. Why were their actions wrong? How can you be absolutely sure?”

    My conviction that it is wrong is an emotion. Moral conviction happens in the place where emotion, reason, experience and factual knowledge intersect. Without emotion, the moral faculty is stunted, but if I rely only on emotion (the feeling of certainty) history teaches me that the results can be very awful indeed.

    Let’s just say that I’m 99.9999999% sure that you can’t offer any justification for the Midianite massacre that doesn’t boil down to “it was justified because God ordered it, and I am absolutely sure that God ordered it because God revealed to me that the Bible is infallible.”

    That gets back to what themann1086 asked:

    Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? If the latter, we can bypass God and discover “goodness” for ourselves; if the former, then there is no true morality and we are at the whims of a supernatural dictator.

  • Mark C.

    monkeymind,

    I’ve recently been almost completely persuaded that the Euthyphro Dilemma is not sufficient for the rejection of divine command theory. The first horn (going in the order from the line you quoted) seems to say that God makes things good, which is usually taken to imply arbitrariness. The second horn seems to say that God issues commands because he recognizes that they are good, where this recognition is due to the existence of an independent standard.

    The only response I’ve seen to the dilemma–the one that necessitates a “trilemma” (assuming the dilemma is false)–is that goodness is simply falling in line with God’s nature, or doing what he says he wants done because that will supposedly also bring us closer to his nature (the two situations are different, as you’ll see below; however, they work out the same for a God that is honest, so I kind of combine them below). This option is not covered by either horn of the dilemma… however, I think there are some common objections to it.

    One objection is that this notion of goodness need not square with anything ever usually called “good” (i.e. there is no reason to use the word “good” in such a circumstance, as opposed to some other word). One could also object on the grounds that God’s nature might well be other than what theists think (there are theists — called “maltheists” or “dystheists” — who believe that God is evil, where this notion of evilness is a usual one and not even on the good/evil map in the option I’m explaining). After all, there is no reason why God’s nature be as any particular theist thinks it is. As Ebon points out in a recent blog post (if memory serves), God could be sadistic and decide to torment and punish those who did what he told them to do. There is no reason why the creator being could not lie, though I’ve been told by someone with similar beliefs to Matt’s that it is impossible for God to lie. I find this incredibly puzzling.

    This brings up another component of usual goodness: the motivational component. Why would anyone want to be good under the definition offered by the third option? Using “good” to mean “better approximating God’s nature” does not create in me any desire to be good or evil… not until I know the attributes of this God, which, again, need not be as any theist thinks they are, or until consequences of my actions are presented. No one with a typical conception of good and evil, right and wrong (which I take to be very close to good and evil) desires to do something they believe to be evil or wrong. This is the motivational issue I’m talking about: the notion of goodness is most often associated with positive (i.e. pleasurable or contented) psychological states for the person using the word. But we have desires because there are states of affairs that fulfill them – why, then, would anyone have a desire to fall in line with God’s nature if there weren’t a resultant state of affairs that would cause positive psychological states (or at least a state of affairs in which negative states did not obtain)? I see this as an indication that the only reason a person would be “good” under this third option would be if positive and negative (relative to our desires) afterlife states existed – i.e. heaven and hell, or some variants thereof.

    If morality and right behavior ultimately come down to better approximating God’s nature, we need to both discover God’s nature and find sufficient motivation to better approximate it. If morality and right behavior ultimately come down to doing what God says he wants us to do, we still need motivation – but for this, we’ll need to know the facts pertaining to the afterlife and if God is lying when he promises us heaven or hell for some action(s). Thus, it all comes down to God’s nature and the existence of the afterlife – and how we discover these facts. If the existence of the afterlife is doubted, the entire motivational component is gone. Some possible natures of God might necessitate an afterlife, though, so we still need to determine God’s nature.

    What I also find interesting is the belief that God can’t create anything that would violate his nature (whatever that would mean). Do you believe this, Matt? If so, I don’t know how you can believe in free wills and souls that don’t approach the nature of God or fulfill his wishes. I don’t even know how you can be consistent in the belief that eating a fruit caused the whole mess in the first place. In each of these cases, everything was still created by God, who supposedly can’t create things that violate his nature (again, whatever that would mean). If some of the beliefs I’m talking about don’t apply to you, then I apologize – but I know someone who, I think, also subscribes to reformed theology, so I’m just assuming that there are some commonalities.

  • Mark C.

    To discover God’s nature, we can only rule out, from the outset, natures which are internally inconsistent and ones that are incompatible with the actual state of reality. One problem this poses is a scientific one: because some possible natures of God do not necessitate a young Earth, for example, the theist can not automatically rule out the big bang theory and biological evolution as accurate descriptions of reality. But are we committed to accepting all scientific consensus? I don’t think Matt would like this. As I think this shows, we need to come to an agreement on epistemology before we can accept the existence of a specific creator god. Denial of this (of epistemology before specific theistic beliefs) by the theist would, for one thing, I think, indicate that they think a consciousness of some sort must be causally responsible for the universe. What this tells me is that they must believe in the causal efficacy of words and thoughts (including creating ex nihilo), as the only other live option, as far as I’m concerned, is the causality we see in physical reality. In other words, they have to believe in what I call “magic”, of which there is no evidence without appealing to the universe and begging the question. This seems solely to be a matter of lack of imagination and God of the Gaps “reasoning”.

  • monkeymind

    Matt C. – I’m not convinced that Matt really sees that he is on the horns of any dilemma, be it bicorn or tricorn. He seems to be asserting that there is indeed a concept of “the good” that can be known outside of the special knowledge he has been granted of God’s nature. He’s saying that we all have knowledge of what’s right and wrong, even if we don’t “know” God. If God’s commands seem to violate my concept of the good, the contradiction can only be an apparent one, due to my limited understanding. God cannot and does not ever color outside the lines of “good” – if it ever seems like he does, it’s an optical illusion.

    Why would anyone want to be good under the definition offered by the third option? Using “good” to mean “better approximating God’s nature” does not create in me any desire to be good or evil…
    … the only reason a person would be “good” under this third option would be if positive and negative (relative to our desires) afterlife states existed

    I’m not following you here at all. The desire to please important others, or be like people we admire, can be a sufficient motivator without extrinsic reward/punishment. On top of that, the idea of an eternal afterlife is not a big deal in Judaism, it’s a post New Testament idea.
    Of course, in the OT it seemed a lot easier to tell when God was angry. Maybe the idea becomes more important as God becomes more ethereal and hidden?

  • monkeymind

    That was directed at Mark C. of course.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Matt Powell “You sound quite certain about that tumor. How do you know that? What scientific experiments have you done?”
    Phineas Gage, neuropsychology, any number of brain injury/chemical imbalances, being a fan of Rush Limbaugh, etc.

    “Not to mention those Israelite soldiers. Why were their actions wrong? How can you be absolutely sure?”
    I don’t see how that subject helps your case. At all. If it was wrong, then you’ve just wrecked “God is good” and if it wasn’t, you’ve redefined “good” (at least in the absolutist sense. If God does it and it’s good, but when you do it it’s bad, then “good” loses all meaning).

    Mark C. “…goodness is simply falling in line with God’s nature…This option is not covered by either horn of the dilemma… however, I think there are some common objections to it.”
    Apologies if you covered this (it’s late and you typed your text all blurry), but the Dilemma still works (“Is it good because it’s God’s nature, or is it God’s nature because it’s good?”.
    The Dilemma also works with secular philosophy, too, but since we tend to not be absolutist about it, it’s not as much of an issue for us, as we’re a work-in-progress.
    And by “us”, I speak for all of us. Even those that disagree. Moo ha-ha!

  • ildi

    themann1086: I love the Isaac Asimov quote you paraphrased:

    when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

  • Mark C.

    monkeymind,

    I’m not following you here at all. The desire to please important others, or be like people we admire, can be a sufficient motivator without extrinsic reward/punishment. On top of that, the idea of an eternal afterlife is not a big deal in Judaism, it’s a post New Testament idea.
    Of course, in the OT it seemed a lot easier to tell when God was angry. Maybe the idea becomes more important as God becomes more ethereal and hidden?

    What I’m saying is that if “good” is defined in terms of approximating God’s nature or doing what he says, there needs to be a motivator for people to do these things that are now called “good”, since this notion of goodness need not have anything at all to do with the concepts usually (and otherwise) associated with the word. Without something to make the concept similar to the usual ones, usage of the term for this other purpose is mere equivocation, trickery. We can’t very well justify applying the term to just anything willy nilly – were we to do that, it would lose its import. There has to be something common to the divine command usage of the term and normal usage for the divine command usage to make any sense at all.

    I could see how “the desire to please important others” could be a motivator if that other is God, but that motivation won’t even be there to begin with if we don’t know the nature of God or what he has done. Without an afterlife, the satisfaction one gets from pleasing God is, qualitatively, no different from the satisfaction one gets from pleasing anyone else – people with whom we know we interact. Furthermore, without actual revelation from God, the judgment of whether or not one has pleased him is left up to subjective interpretation of God’s indirect communications (e.g. the Bible, Koran, etc.). Maybe I’m rambling a bit here and my logic is getting a bit sloppy, but the theist needs to treat pleasing God as something qualitatively different from pleasing just anyone. There has to be a reason that God is singled out as somehow more important than other people when it comes to doing things with intrinsic rewards. Divine judgment and alternative afterlife states are some such reasons.

    Modusoperandi

    That’s not the Euthyphro Dilemma, however – it’s a whole new one.
    Agreed that secular ethics is a work in progress. I have no problem with that, since I’m friendly with the scientific mindset, but those who want certainty will find no solace with secular ethics… at least in researching it, since there’s so much to read, consider, and debate!

  • monkeymind

    Matt Powell asks:

    And I take it, when you look at, say, southern slavers, that your response is to accept that they were doing the right thing given their own cultural conditioning?

    Not at all. I don’t see the fact that people have done horrible things while apparently remaining perfectly convinced of their own righteousness as an argument for moral relativism. Rather, it’s a challenge to be more skeptical of my own rationalizations and not to accept shortcuts and substitutes in the search for moral clarity.

  • monkeymind

    Mark C. – hmmm. I think you’re getting way too abstract and theoretical. Religion evolved as a product of human brains and shows all the characteristics of kludginess and clunkiness associated with human brains.
    Most people who think of “goodness” as “pleasing God” have in mind a god who resembles some sort of authority figure with varying degrees of benevolence or sternness depending on personal preference or popular taste.

    without actual revelation from God, the judgment of whether or not one has pleased him is left up to subjective interpretation of God’s indirect communications (e.g. the Bible, Koran, etc.)

    This is not a bug. It’s a feature.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    ildi: ah, thanks, I’d actually forgotten the source of that quote. Now I want to re-read Foundation…

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    That’s not the Euthyphro Dilemma, however – it’s a whole new one.

    No, it’s still part of the dilemma, it’s just that the theist has tried to “answer” the dilemma by pushing it back one level. It’s like the, “Who created god?” question. Simply pushing it back one level does not answer the dilemma or constitute a third option.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    monkeymind,
    Again, you’ve got no basis to judge those things as “horrible things”. None of you do. You get around the epistemic problem by saying you’re ’99%’ certain, but the fact is your philosophy gives you no basis to be certain at all. Slavery was culturally acceptable, economically profitable and based on the scientific beliefs of many at the time, actually better for the blacks since they couldn’t be trusted themselves. You can make counter-arguments, but that’s all they are. Arguments. So you’re stuck in the position, because of your philosophy, of needing to argue and reason whether it’s more probable that enslaving another person is less ‘moral’ than not enslaving them. And this is a ridiculous position to be in. The only reason you need is that it’s wrong, and you know it.

    Otherwise, you’d need to be open to arguments that maybe it is better for the black man to be enslaved, since the white man is evolutionarily superior. Are you open to such an argument?

    Matt

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    As to the Euthyphro dilemma, as Christian theologians have argued for centuries, the Bible teaches clearly that good is defined as being in accordance with God’s nature. God cannot lie; it is a violation of His own nature. He cannot deny Himself. The motivation for doing good is the knowledge that we are created in the image of God, and therefore being good, being like God, is what people are created to be. We will always be happiest when we are becoming what we should be, and not fighting against our own intended nature.

  • monkeymind

    “Again, you’ve got no basis to judge those things as “horrible things”. None of you do.”

    What is the subtext here? Basically that because we don’t share your subjective feeling of certainty that your particular (and in the context of the scope and breadth of christian theology and history, somewhat idiosyncratic) interpretation of the Bible is infallible, that we don’t have any basis to make ethical judgments. I’m reminded of the testimony of the Russian dissident poet Joseph Brodsky at his trial, when the judge questioned his “right” to call himself a poet:

    Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
    Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?

    I’m enrolled in the ranks of humankind. I’m a thinking, moral animal. That’s my basis.

    From an earlier comment of Matt’s:

    I’m not even talking about the natural world. I’m talking about your conscience. I’m saying that you know things, not with 99% uncertainty, but with 100% certainty, truths that you don’t need to have proved to you in an experiment, don’t need to be peer reviewed, and don’t stop being true no matter how many other people claim that they disagree or how much evidence anybody gave you or how much benefit you might gain by ignoring them. They’re just true.

    And I’m telling you, that’s God talking to you, through your soul. I urgently implore you to listen.

    The subtext here is that we godless folks can be sure that our conscience is correct if it convicts us of our own failings and renders us more amenable to being herded toward the altar (“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.) But if our conscience tells us that Numbers 31 is nothing more or less than a genocide, then it’s “you have no basis, etc., etc.)

    You still haven’t answered any of the issues raised in Ebonmuse’s comment #164 above:

    Because if there were any moral principles I’d even consider claiming 100% certainty about, they would be principles like, “Justice can never be done by punishing an innocent person for the crimes of a guilty one,” or, “No deed committed by a finite human can ever merit eternal punishment.” Should I consider these beliefs to be the voice of God? Or did you mean this passage to come with a footnote indicating that our inner moral convictions should not be given any weight if they clash with your interpretation of Christianity?

    Ebonmuse also raised the issues of what happens when Christians who share a sense of conviction equal to yours, stand on opposite sides of current social issues? Who decides what is core and what is peripheral? How do you prevent every ethical or political discussion from taking on the character of a bitter church schism?

  • Mark C.

    I just lost a giant reply I made. :(

    Matt

    Again, you’ve got no basis to judge those things as “horrible things”. None of you do. You get around the epistemic problem by saying you’re ’99%’ certain, but the fact is your philosophy gives you no basis to be certain at all.

    Since when is the desire for certainty a good criterion upon which to select a metaphysics and ontology? Personally, I think there’s something wrong with positing that something exists and then not subjecting knowledge of it to the same problems that knowledge of anything else has in epistemology. As Ebon and I have pointed out (see his blog post immediately following this for his views on it), you have no reason to posit the specific god that you do. You have yet to rule out alternative possible gods (even restricting ourselves to the creator deity). As such, your claim to certainty is currently unsupportable.

    Otherwise, you’d need to be open to arguments that maybe it is better for the black man to be enslaved, since the white man is evolutionarily superior.

    I’d love to see you elaborate on what “evolutionarily superior” means in this case.

    God cannot lie; it is a violation of His own nature. He cannot deny Himself.

    How is uttering a contradiction in the presence of others a violation of his nature? What is his nature? Why not something else? And how do you even know this?

    The motivation for doing good is the knowledge that we are created in the image of God, and therefore being good, being like God, is what people are created to be.

    Translated: “The motivation for becoming in accordance with God’s nature is the knowledge that we are created in the image of God, and therefore being in accordance with God’s nature, being like God, is what people are created to be.”

    All I see you saying is that we should want to become like God because we were created for that purpose. Sorry, but without intermediate premises, I call non sequitur.

    We will always be happiest when we are becoming what we should be, and not fighting against our own intended nature.

    So if God is sadistic and deceitful by nature, then we should want to be sadistic and deceitful? Somehow I doubt that that would make people happy…. You really do need to rule out other possible natures of God before anything like the above could be even slightly convincing.

  • Mark C.

    There’s also the problem of why the world isn’t exactly as God intended if he created everything (including souls and free will) and is omniscient.

    He made a mistake, he wants things exactly as they are, or he is not omniscient. Take your pick.

  • Scotlyn

    Matt Powell:

    Again, you’ve got no basis to judge those things as “horrible things”. None of you do.

    Matt, here’s my “basis”:
    1) my knowledge of my own experience – those things which would hurt me, those things which benefit me
    2) Imagination, A theory Mind, Compassion, empathy – whatever you want to call it – an awareness that others probably feel joy and suffering roughly as I do.

    This is enough – I only need to imagine how I would feel if I were robbed, enslaved, killed, etc to know that it is wrong to do these things. I may need to amend this awareness from time to time, to incorporate new experiences of my own and told to me by others.

    What interferes with these simple tools for developing a complex, but human-sized morality are things like the following:
    1)Lack of empathy – this is often (but not always) caused by having suffered too much cruelty oneself. Which is why it is important to end wars, human trafficking, sweat shops, child abuse, and other phenomena that entrench cycles of violence – their effects go way beyond the overt “body count”.
    2)”Othering” – Learning that that our natural empathy should only apply to certain classes of people. “Others” can be treated as less than human (which, as you rightly point out was the justification of slavery). This is usually caused by a strong cultural “them” and “us” indoctrination. Which is why it is important to object to sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and every other manifestation of an “other” mentality.
    3) Unreflective deference to an authority – the “just following the rules” justifications for Nazi atrocities and Abu Graib prisoner abuse. This is usually caused by indoctrination by most religions which are effective at subordinating the natural empathy of humans for deference to the presumed wishes and intention of a deity. Like a deity who orders his people to exterminate the prior inhabitants of the “promised land.” Which is why we need to help people free their minds from the grip of morally warped religions.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The essence of your error, Matt P., is that you are positing a false dichotomy: either we are 100% certain, or we know nothing at all. There are gradations of certainty. For instance, my son is in his mother’s custody right now. I am reasonably sure that he’s healthy. I don’t know this with certainty, but I haven’t received a phone call indicating a problem either.

    To be honest, I find it funny that you have a blog to spread the news about what you claim is a Universal Truth. Why should such a Truth need any mortal assistance?

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    OK, you all just keep going round and round. I’m sure you’d accuse me of the same. I keep asking you to justify your own moral positions, and you keep just raising non sequiturs about the Old Testament. I haven’t even attempted an extended defense of those actions, as it’s not the central point we’ve been talking about the whole time.

    Here’s what it comes down to- you have no basis for morality other than your own mind. Therefore, you have no basis to judge anyone else’s actions as right and wrong, since they have their own mind making their own decisions about what advances their survival and wellbeing. This leads you into constant contradiction and absurdity, as you make moral judgments constantly with no basis to do so.

    Making moral judgments against the God of the Old Testament presupposes that you have some criteria to judge others, and you don’t. You have only your own mind, and they all have their own minds as well. You are therefore engaging in exactly the same kind of self-righteousness and judgmentalism that you constantly condemn in others, taking your own completely arbitrary moral principles and applying them to someone else in a completely different culture, under completely different pressures, with completely different requirements for survival than you. And yet, you are perfectly comfortable calling their actions “evil”, “horrible”, “wicked.” This applies not only to Numbers 31, but to Darfur, the Holocaust, black slavery, child trafficking or anything else you could bring up. You on the one hand deny the existence of universals and on the other hand constantly use them against other people.

    You have nothing but your own mind, a clump of chemicals, to judge the actions of another clump of chemicals. It’s like a dog judging the way a cat runs his life, or Uranus criticizing the orbit of Pluto. It’s ridiculous, incoherent nonsense. If you were consistent, you would just shut your mouths and do whatever pleases you at any moment, and not criticize when someone else did what pleases them, including robbing your house or passing laws you don’t like. You getting all upset about some political issue or other is like Venus getting mad when some passing asteroid sucks off some of their atmosphere.

    You’re just chemicals. You’re just physical. All of your thought processes are just deterministic mechanical results, with no more significance than the orbit of an electron. And so am I. So who cares who enslaves whom, who murders whom, who lies or steals. None of it matters. For that matter, none of us have a choice anyway, any more than an electron can choose the nature of its orbit.

    This is the absurdist, meaningless conclusion of atheism. And before I answer another question about the Old Testament, I am going to have to hear why it is that one clump of chemicals can make any meaningful statements at all about the actions of another clump of chemicals.

  • cello

    1) WRT Judging horrible things. I agree with Matt. IMO, both Hitler and Billy Graham end up in the same place. So “horrible” has limited meaning across eternity. But what I CAN say is that we know certain behaviours produce certain outcomes. So we can tend toward behaviors that produce the outcomes we want. In the aggregate, treating people fairly seems to produce the best results for the widest variety of people. So people (in the aggregate) tend to want a fair society. And fair is usually defined by the Golden Rule.

    2) How do you (Matt) know God doesn’t lie? Seriously? I ask this question a lot. How anyone can *really* speak to the nature of God? The best anyone can claim is personal revelation – but that doesn’t speak to God across time and humanity. That could, at best, be just one experience of God. There could be a plethora of experiences of God and all of them could be valid. Anyone who says that they know God doesn’t lie is just hoping it to be true.

  • cello

    And before I answer another question about the Old Testament, I am going to have to hear why it is that one clump of chemicals can make any meaningful statements at all about the actions of another clump of chemicals.

    Well since we all exist, we have three choices. We all kill each other, ignore each other, or we figure out a way to live together.

    Since the second choice is becoming increasingly difficult in modern socieity, most people choose the third option (after centuries of trying the first option). The floor behavior for this outcome of living together, according to most, the Golden Rule.

  • Mark C.

    Matt, now you’re just raving. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is your friend (http://plato.stanford.edu/contents.html). I suggest using it.

    Two easy questions:
    1. Have you taken any philosophy courses?
    2. If so, were any of them moral philosophy courses?
    3. What secular moral philosophy have you read (from secular sources)?

  • Mark C.

    Correction: There are, obviously, three questions.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Here’s what it comes down to- you have no basis for morality other than your own mind. Therefore, you have no basis to judge anyone else’s actions as right and wrong, since they have their own mind making their own decisions about what advances their survival and wellbeing. This leads you into constant contradiction and absurdity, as you make moral judgments constantly with no basis to do so.

    Wrong. I make my moral judgements on the simple basis of the Golden Rule. Although that calls for a subjective analysis, it has an objective meaning.

    Making moral judgments against the God of the Old Testament presupposes that you have some criteria to judge others, and you don’t. You have only your own mind, and they all have their own minds as well. You are therefore engaging in exactly the same kind of self-righteousness and judgmentalism that you constantly condemn in others,

    Stop right there. I’m sensing some projection here — “Judge not, lest ye be judged” springs to mind. What book is that from, again? I don’t condemn judgementalism. Indeed, judging is a neccessary corollary of a moral system. My objection is against unjust judging.

    taking your own completely arbitrary moral principles and applying them to someone else in a completely different culture, under completely different pressures, with completely different requirements for survival than you.

    Again, my morality isn’t “completely arbitrary.” And unlike you, I am very aware that I may err in judging, particularly when assessing under the circumstances you outline. (Implicit in this section is the idea that you seem to think that there are circumstances under which these evils are justifiable. Is that so?)

    And yet, you are perfectly comfortable calling their actions “evil”, “horrible”, “wicked.” This applies not only to Numbers 31, but to Darfur, the Holocaust, black slavery, child trafficking or anything else you could bring up. You on the one hand deny the existence of universals and on the other hand constantly use them against other people.

    Actually, I believe that killing another human being is always evil, because it is an act I would not want visited upon me. Ditto slavery, genocide, etc.

    You have nothing but your own mind, a clump of chemicals, to judge the actions of another clump of chemicals. It’s like a dog judging the way a cat runs his life, or Uranus criticizing the orbit of Pluto. It’s ridiculous, incoherent nonsense. If you were consistent, you would just shut your mouths and do whatever pleases you at any moment, and not criticize when someone else did what pleases them, including robbing your house or passing laws you don’t like. You getting all upset about some political issue or other is like Venus getting mad when some passing asteroid sucks off some of their atmosphere.

    Now we get to the crux. Because we don’t accept your solipsistic claim, we need to shut up and accept your defining us as amoral. Kindly go bugger yourself. Simply because I reject God, Soul, yaddayaddayadda doesn’t mean that I am amoral and forfeit the right to use my mind in matters of judgement.

    You’re just chemicals. You’re just physical. All of your thought processes are just deterministic mechanical results, with no more significance than the orbit of an electron. And so am I. So who cares who enslaves whom, who murders whom, who lies or steals. None of it matters. For that matter, none of us have a choice anyway, any more than an electron can choose the nature of its orbit.

    This blatant misrepresentation of the consequences of materialism would be funny except for the immoral behavior it has inspired in believers.

    This is the absurdist, meaningless conclusion of atheism. And before I answer another question about the Old Testament, I am going to have to hear why it is that one clump of chemicals can make any meaningful statements at all about the actions of another clump of chemicals.

    I have just done so. Now, get to work on those answers of yours.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I hate to see atheists sucked into the morass of the basis of morality debate.

    Matt is scared. He’s scared to live in a world in which we have to make our own way, without anyone or anything to guide us (definitively, anyway).

    But, we do live in that world, Matt, as far as any human mind is able to determine.

    (And, you’re right — I have no basis upon which to make moral judgments other than my own mind. In fact, I have no basis upon which to determine that I exist other than my own mind. And, neither do you.)

    And, we might not make it. It’s true. In fact, I’m not that optimistic.

    But, we can try. That’s all we can do.

    A good first step would be to accept reality as it is (as far as any human mind is able to determine), instead of living in a fantasy.

    Your fantasy worldview may console you and help you get through the day, but that isn’t going to help humanity survive.

  • monkeymind

    Matt, am I understanding you correctly?

    “Genocide in Darfur is wrong” = voice of God talking to me, through my soul.

    “Genocide in Canaan was wrong” = voice of meaningless clump of chemicals.

  • Scotlyn

    Sorry Matt, but I really feel that you have not addressed any of my comment – you have not grappled with my “basis” for morality at all – you may disagree with it, but you cannot just say it doesn’t exist when I just showed you it does.

    You say if we rely on our minds (and don’t forget our feelings and our natural empathy) there are “no universals” from which to derive a morality. I say shared human experience is the only possible universal from which to derive a morality – we are all human, and we share one another’s pleasure and pain – therefore basing our morality on shared human experience is not “arbitrary.” It is just not that hard to figure out whether our actions harm another or not. And if we are not certain, we can always ask.

    I cannot understand how else you can derive a morality, outside of the shared aspects of human experience. None of your statements explain how else you can get a “universal” morality at all.

    And you certainly do not address how it is that so many humans reared/steeped in the Bible (as so many here are, including myself) could conclude that the God depicted smiting humans, inciting his “chosen” to smite more humans, asking his favourite patriarch to kill his own son, among many other infamies, must be an evil God. (We may harp on this, because it is the fundamental moral dissonance caused by this Bible that turned us away from it in the first place).

    Clearly there does exist a “shared human experience” measure, by which the God of the Bible fails. Humans were harmed. And his people, inasmuch as they obeyed him and ignored their natural empathy for other humans, also failed. Which is also a God fail, as humans were corrupted. And still are.

  • Scotlyn

    PS – Matt, please explain your “clump of chemicals” obsession. What, in your view, consigns us to being nothing but “clumps of chemicals” – what a dim view of things this is?

  • Scotlyn

    Thumapalumpacus:

    judging is a neccessary corollary of a moral system. My objection is against unjust judging

    Excellent point!

  • Scotlyn

    Matt:

    You’re just chemicals. You’re just physical. All of your thought processes are just deterministic mechanical results, with no more significance than the orbit of an electron. And so am I. So who cares who enslaves whom, who murders whom, who lies or steals. None of it matters. For that matter, none of us have a choice anyway, any more than an electron can choose the nature of its orbit.

    Matt how does the above statement, which you impute to us atheists, differ from the (inerrant) biblical view expressed here?

    JEREMIAH 18:6 O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.

    Your “clump of chemicals” walking around with no awareness and no choice is clearly the biblical view of humanity, not the view of actual humans whose awareness, consciousness, thought patterns, culture, morality and many other features are emergent properties of non-arbitrarily ordered “clumps of chemicals.”

    PS, apologies for thread-hogging – I think I’m done now.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    Thanks all for the discussion. I doubt we’re going to get any closer, so I don’t think I’m going to continue. I’m sorry if you feel like I haven’t answered your questions on some points- it would have required several books to do so. In fact, there are many books that do. Christians have been grappling with all of the questions you’ve raised for a couple of thousand years now, and there are many proposed answers.

    I’ll repeat what I’ve suggested before- if anyone wants to continue offline, I’d be happy to do so at mattpowell74 at g mail dot com. But I don’t see much profit in continued engagement publicly on the subject, and Christmas vacation is over and I need to get cracking.

    Thanks again all. I found it clarifying.

  • Mark C.

    Well, since you’re choosing not to address significant problems with your worldview, I’ll leave you with some recommendations: study non-theistic moral philosophy and epistemology. For a start, try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It’s important that you get the views from those who support them and not rely exclusively or wholly on those who critique them.

    In addition, you’re definitely going to have to substantiate and provide evidence for your claim that everyone knows that God exists but just chooses to “deny him”. Since it’s a knowledge issue, epistemology is definitely going to figure into it. What will also be very important is psychology/neurology, since those disciplines study what goes on in the brain and its relation to behavior and thought. I certainly don’t know that God exists in the same way I know that the computer I’m using exists. And if I “know” that God exists in the same way that I “know” things of which I’m never/not consciously aware, then it’s difficult to see a basis upon which I could be faulted for “denial” of that so-called “knowledge”.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    This is the absurdist, meaningless conclusion of atheism. And before I answer another question about the Old Testament, I am going to have to hear why it is that one clump of chemicals can make any meaningful statements at all about the actions of another clump of chemicals.

    I have just done so. Now, get to work on those answers of yours.

    I doubt we’re going to get any closer, so I don’t think I’m going to continue. I’m sorry if you feel like I haven’t answered your questions on some points[....]

    It’s not a “feeling”. It’s a fact. You said you’d answer and you didn’t. I’m left to presume that you cannot. You’re welcome to point out where this presumption is wrong.

    At any rate, happy New Year.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Matt, please explain your “clump of chemicals” obsession. What, in your view, consigns us to being nothing but “clumps of chemicals” – what a dim view of things this is?

    Scotlyn, a lot of them like to throw that out there. It never ceases to amuse me how they try to tell us our lives are meaningless if we don’t buy into their nonsense. We’re sentient beings with feelings and emotions. We are capable of making informed choices.

  • Scotlyn

    Hey Tommykey – thanks – from one sentient being to another. In a RL argument I’m having right now with a JW believer, he keeps coming back to “we’re the clay – the potter can do whatever He likes with us” – this argument usually comes up when I try to “confuse” him with pointing out how immoral Jehovah’s “documented” actions are.

    I guess that’s my point about religion – if it can convince you you’re just clay, then everyone is just clay (or “clumps of chemicals” – whereever that comes from). I guess clay might be uncomfortable in the absence of a potter – Matt certainly quails at the idea – but it would be nice to be able to change religious believers minds about their own lowliness. Let’s fearlessly be the potters we know we are!

    (I persist in this RL argument, because I really do have the feeling that this particular believer is mainly trying to convince himself – and being a “devil’s advocate is a dirty job – but somebody’s gotta do it!)

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Thanks all for the discussion. I doubt we’re going to get any closer, so I don’t think I’m going to continue.

    No, we won’t. In fact, I would say that we haven’t gotten anywhere in all this time because you seem to be completely unable to listen to a single thing that we’ve said and respond to it in an adult manner. I find you to be a rude git that shouldn’t be lying to us about wanting to discuss when all you really want to do is extol your views and ignore all dissent. Comment after comment you returned to the same BS about how everything must be 100% certain or 0% certain, even when corrected over and over by all of us. To make matters worse, you can’t even support your contention of being 100% certain (your claims to infallibility) and you haven’t even attempted to do so, except by appealing to “You just know I’m right.” What a pathetic waste of time. Others might think you are polite, but I don’t, because I think it’s highly rude of someone to not even read and consider what other people are typing in response to you. The amount of time and thinking that other people put in to try and educate you was wasted because you’re too stupid, hard-headed, stubborn, close-minded, rude, selfish, and self-righteous to read what was written for you.

    Maybe someday you’ll learn how to think for yourself instead of shuttering your mind to the world around you.

  • http://wheatchaff.blogspot.com Matt Powell

    OMGF,
    Against my better judgment I’m going to come back in here. I never pretended to be amenable to be convinced by atheism. I said very clearly up front what I intended to do. If you couldn’t understand that, I’m not sure why that translates into me lying and being rude.

    You all started the discussion with me, not the other way round. I didn’t come here demanding answers. You came to me making accusations against me, and I responded to them.

    And I have heard your argument fine. I never said it’s either all or nothing- 100% certainty or 0. Never once. What I said was, your philosophy does not permit you ANY CERTAINTY AT ALL about the most important questions of life. That you refuse to see this doesn’t make it any less true. I have been (vainly) trying to draw attention to the contradiction between the fact that your philosophy gives you no true grounds at all to condemn any behavior, yet you routinely do, with absolute certainty. Your last post does the same thing, drawing on universals to condemn lying, rudeness, stupidity and so forth, despite the fact that your philosophy gives you no grounds to do so. You continually trot out the golden rule and assume everyone will agree, when millions don’t agree and live by exploiting others, and you have only your subjective opinion that your way is better than theirs.

    But the contradiction is, you do know these things are wrong, despite the fact that your philosophy gives you no true grounds to say so. This is the contradiction. I never said anything about either 100% certainty or no certainty. I pointed out the absurdity of being forced to allow for any possibility that something like black slavery, for example, is morally acceptable. Your own admission is that you have some uncertainty about this and every other point, when this is an absurdity. This is what I have been saying all along. It is you, OMGF and the rest of you, who has refused to see the argument, refused to engage my actual points and instead resorted to ad hominem abusive and non sequiturs.

    And to those who have called on me to read secular philosophy, I have. And I would ask you, have you read Calvin and Aquinas and Augustine and Van Til and Plantinga? By your arguments, you’re not allowed to discuss with me until you have.

    “We’re sentient beings with feelings and emotions. We are capable of making informed choices.”- Tommykey

    Exactly. How can you account for purely physical entity making choices? You have told me the basis by which you make moral choices, but that’s not what I asked. What I asked was how you account for the ability of a purely physical entity, operating according to the laws of physics, to make those choices? You object to the designation of “clump of chemicals”, but in your cosmology, what else are you? A highly complex clump of chemicals, but a clump nonetheless.

    I deny that we are clumps of chemicals. We have souls. And that’s why we are sentient beings who make choices.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Against my better judgment I’m going to come back in here. I never pretended to be amenable to be convinced by atheism.

    It’s not about being convinced, but about reading and responding to the arguments actually being made.

    You came to me making accusations against me, and I responded to them.

    You can keep believing that, but only because you’ve ignored what we’ve actually said.

    I never said it’s either all or nothing- 100% certainty or 0. Never once. What I said was, your philosophy does not permit you ANY CERTAINTY AT ALL about the most important questions of life.

    Thanks for contradicting yourself in the space of 2 sentences and showing that you are full of it.

    I have been (vainly) trying to draw attention to the contradiction between the fact that your philosophy gives you no true grounds at all to condemn any behavior, yet you routinely do, with absolute certainty.

    Which is not a fact – something you’d be aware of if you were courteous enough to actually read our responses.

    Your last post does the same thing, drawing on universals to condemn lying, rudeness, stupidity and so forth, despite the fact that your philosophy gives you no grounds to do so.

    You’re either taking the piss or have no friggin’ clue what you are talking about. I’m betting it’s a combination of both idiocy and bad faith.

    …you have only your subjective opinion that your way is better than theirs.

    And the objective means that have been pointed out to you that you’ve ignored.

    But the contradiction is, you do know these things are wrong, despite the fact that your philosophy gives you no true grounds to say so. This is the contradiction.

    It’s not a contradiction and you’d know the answer if you were to actually read the responses.

    I pointed out the absurdity of being forced to allow for any possibility that something like black slavery, for example, is morally acceptable.

    No, you asserted, because, you know, you just know it’s true, right, cause you have to just feel it, oh yeah, because it’s from god and all that.

    It is you, OMGF and the rest of you, who has refused to see the argument, refused to engage my actual points and instead resorted to ad hominem abusive and non sequiturs.

    This is just BS. We responded quite cogently to you and defeated your objections. You simply ignored and continued to shrilly parrot the same claims over and over hoping no one would notice. You are so out of your depth here that I almost feel sorry for you.

    And to those who have called on me to read secular philosophy, I have.

    This is either more dishonest BS, or you read it with the same amount of attention that you spent reading the comments here, i.e. none.

    Now, you can go back to ignoring us, but don’t pretend that you aren’t and waste our time.

  • Sarah Braasch

    More and more neuroscientists are discovering that our brains our hardwired for ethics and altruism, which is why the Golden Rule is as close to a universal precept as it is, even across millennia.

    No gods and souls required.

    Here’s an interesting link:

    http://www.dana.org/news/features/detail.aspx?id=10358

    Here’s a great debate at the Dana Foundation that mirrors what is happening here:

    http://www.dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=24068

  • Scotlyn

    Matt:

    What I said was, your philosophy does not permit you ANY CERTAINTY AT ALL about the most important questions of life. That you refuse to see this doesn’t make it any less true.

    Is this another statement from the infallible doctrine of “it-must-be-true-because-Matt-Powell-says-so?”

    How can you know what my philosophy “permits” when you haven’t taken even a minute to listen to what I told you my philosophy was?

    Matt:

    What I asked was how you account for the ability of a purely physical entity, operating according to the laws of physics, to make those choices? You object to the designation of “clump of chemicals”, but in your cosmology, what else are you?

    Yet another infallible statement which must be so, since Matt has so decreed. You presume to tell me what “my cosmology” consists of and to define the limits of a “purely physical entity,” a “clump of chemicals” in terms no physicist or chemist would recognise. But you see I do not have to account for how a “purely physical entity” makes choices, since I am not a “purely physical entity.” As Tommykey pointed out, I am a sentient being. As I pointed out, I share with other humans the things such as life, consciousness, sociability, culture, morality, as emergent properties. Please look up this term before you reduce me yet again to a “clump of chemicals…” or worse, try to tell me I am to blame for so “reducing” myself!

    What really is beginning to worry me is this, Matt. If you really do think that it would just be too difficult for you to decide if slavery is wrong (just for example), if you didn’t have the Bible to help you figure it out; if you really are under the impression that bereft of your relationship with your God, there would be no reason for you to consider the lives of others to have any value, well then, you just may, in fact, be one of those dangerous sociopathic people who really suffer from a deficiency of human empathy.

    I shudder to think what would happen, should you ever take it into your head that God wanted you to kill, just to take a random example, a gay activist. How would you yourself be able to figure out if it was wrong to do this, if it was God telling you to? If you were Abraham, would you even be able to say – “Wait a minute, God. Killing my son is wrong. It’s just not right, even if it is you asking me to do it.”

  • Sarah Braasch

    And, for Matt, I particularly want to point out the title of Dr. Pfaff’s book:

    The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule

    Did you notice that?

    (USUALLY)

    But, just because he can’t say something with 100% certainty, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have something meaningful to say on the subject.

    Matt’s obsession with 100% certainty borders on frightening.

    Matt, if you can’t learn to live in the shades of gray, instead of seeing everything in black and white, life is going to be very uncomfortable for you.

    We have only our brains to rely upon. Therefore, we can never be 100% certain of anything.

    I can’t be 100% certain that I exist. I can’t be 100% certain that I’m not dreaming right now. I can’t be 100% certain that I’m not a lunatic in an insane asylum fantasizing this experience. I can’t be 100% certain that I’m not God.

    But, I can make meaningful conclusions and decisions based upon the evidence I am able to glean by using my senses. And, by my reasoning faculties.

    And, it seems that our brains may be configured to predispose us for empathy, for sympathy and for reciprocity.

    So, you’re right — I can’t say with 100% certainty that God didn’t reveal himself to you infallibly and that you don’t know that God is infallible (without possibility for error on this and a handful of other central doctrinal issues), BUT

    I think I may come to the meaningful conclusion that this hasn’t occurred. Why? No evidence whatsoever. (And, as far as the Bible is concerned, plenty of evidence to the contrary.)

    The only evidence I have is that you are a human being — just like me. Apparently, my brain is hardwired such that I can switch our positions rather easily. I assume that our experiences of life are much the same. Therefore, it is quite reasonable for me to assume that you are not capable of knowing things, which I am not capable of knowing.

    If you want to cling to the idea that you have a relationship with a supernatural being — I suppose there’s no way of me talking you out of that. But, please don’t cast aspersions on those who do not share in your belief.

    Just because there is no objective, infallible moral truth to be had doesn’t mean that we can’t make meaningful conclusions and decisions (based upon evidence and reason) about the types of societies that thrive and promote well being of both the societies and the individuals residing within them.

    I know. I know. It’s scary. And, it’s hard work. But, such is life.

  • Mark C.

    Matt,

    What I said was, your philosophy does not permit you ANY CERTAINTY AT ALL about the most important questions of life.

    Granting for the sake of argument that you’re right about this, so what? Certainty is a mental state we desire to have for our comfort and nothing else. Merely desiring certainty does not give us license to claim that something certainly exists just so we might then have certainty (this is just question-begging). We can’t let discomfort determine our worldview.

    It is you, OMGF and the rest of you, who has refused to see the argument, refused to engage my actual points and instead resorted to ad hominem abusive and non sequiturs.

    And to those who have called on me to read secular philosophy, I have. And I would ask you, have you read Calvin and Aquinas and Augustine and Van Til and Plantinga? By your arguments, you’re not allowed to discuss with me until you have.

    The difference between us is that I don’t assume that the belief in a very specific god (or even one of the more modern, ethereal type) exists in people from birth, from language acquisition, or whenever. There’s also a known tendency for humans to be credulous in their acceptance of some things, simply because of social and psychological contexts, and religious beliefs must be considered in light of this. As such, I see theistic systems as positions that must be argued for, and theistic ethical theorizing will never be sufficient to sway me of a god’s existence (very different subjects). Just going on what I know from experience, and what psychologists, physicists, etc. know from experience, the world doesn’t work the way religions think it does.

    Neither will a desire for certainty in epistemology sway me, no matter how strong that desire is (as I said, it would involve begging the question). You need to talk about ontology and metaphysics, as well as demonstrate the truth of your contention that everyone knows your god exists “from the cradle”, or whenever have you. This last feat must be accomplished with scientific evidence — results that I can see. Else I have no choice but to regard your worldview the same way I regard all other theistic and magical worldviews.

    Exactly. How can you account for purely physical entity making choices? You have told me the basis by which you make moral choices, but that’s not what I asked. What I asked was how you account for the ability of a purely physical entity, operating according to the laws of physics, to make those choices?

    As ironic as it is, this just demonstrates a failure of your imagination. Divorce the concept of choice from the belief that we have contra-causal free will, and there’s no problem. Choice is just what we call it when our desires and perceptions determine an outcome in a situation in which we could imagine doing something else — that or something very similar. If the self is physical or physically determined (i.e. emergent), then of course what we call “choice” and what you call “choice” aren’t the same thing. So no, we don’t have your kind of “choice” (would you really say that apes and chimps don’t make choices?). We have another kind, one that functions exactly the same in the reality we perceive. I think your problem is that you think the conscious experience implies some sort of single and sole thing that produces it, when the reality is that consciousness is not localized in the brain, as even a cursory study of psychology would show.

    You object to the designation of “clump of chemicals”, but in your cosmology, what else are you? A highly complex clump of chemicals, but a clump nonetheless.

    In my cosmological view, and I suspect in those of the other atheist commenters as well, we still exist, we still have desires, and we are still social organisms, so we still care about the human experience, including our own and that of certain peers. THAT is why we object to being designated as “clumps of chemicals”. We are only merely “clumps of chemicals” if we’re absolute nihilists looking at the universe from a non-conscious perspective (i.e. one that can’t exist), from an undiscerning, completely desire-less perspective, a perspective that is not a perspective at all. Of course such a scenario would make things absurd! But that is a scenario in which we couldn’t have cosmological views to begin with! It’s not the kind of scenario that we think obtains at all!

    To put it another way, just in case you misunderstand me: Being clumps of chemicals doesn’t negate the fact that we desire and care about things. Thus, the implication you seem to keep operating off of — that clumps of chemicals have no worth and that nothing has worth to them — is false. The concept of “worth” does not apply to chemicals and particles, anyway, but to minds, which definitely can exist in a “chemical clump world”.

    I deny that we are clumps of chemicals. We have souls. And that’s why we are sentient beings who make choices.

    Not having a “soul” (whatever that is) does not imply that we are merely “clumps of chemicals”.

    But that aside, if being clumps of chemicals is supposed to be a bad thing, then why isn’t being “a clump of soul-stuff” bad, as well? What you propound is all just magical claptrap, positing a causality no one has ever demonstrated to exist, and one which our everyday experiences tell us doesn’t, if we factor out our well-known psychological biases.

  • monkeymind

    This is the key question I’m hoping Matt will address:

    Matt said

    I’m saying that you know things, not with 99% uncertainty, but with 100% certainty… And I’m telling you, that’s God talking to you, through your soul. I urgently implore you to listen.

    Ebonmuse responded:

    That, again, is an interesting claim. Because if there were any moral principles I’d even consider claiming 100% certainty about, they would be principles like, “Justice can never be done by punishing an innocent person for the crimes of a guilty one,” or, “No deed committed by a finite human can ever merit eternal punishment.” Should I consider these beliefs to be the voice of God? Or did you mean this passage to come with a footnote indicating that our inner moral convictions should not be given any weight if they clash with your interpretation of Christianity?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I deny that we are clumps of chemicals. We have souls. And that’s why we are sentient beings who make choices.

    Animals make choices too, Matt. Do they have souls as well?

    Where does a soul come from? Did my soul exist before I was born, or does it result from the union of a sperm cell and an egg? Where does my soul reside, in my physical body, or is it in some other dimension?

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Pah! All my points have already be raised. By others! Jerks.

    I can only add that the pygmy bonobo, bottlenose dolphin and indian elephant (among others) will be terribly disappointed to learn that they are sentient, choice-making beings that, nonetheless, fail to have souls. Children of a lesser god, perhaps?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    In Matt’s clutching at certainty, we see a major motivation of theists.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Matt’s obsession with certainty would give my therapist fits, not to mention tons of information. I’m tempted to print out (names redacted of course; I have ethics) Matt’s comments and spend a few sessions talking about how Matt’s need for certainty mirrors the one that use to worry me no end.

    As for Matt, I have answered. I can even recommend some writings; Ebon’s work (I forget the title of it) discussing morality and ethics is excellent. I’m also a big fan of John Rawls who, while writing political theory, has some excellent ideas.

    Beyond that, you are using a logical fallacy, and I’m surprised no one’s called you on it. Just because our positions might have some unpleasant consequences is no reasons to condemn our positions. Your “bunch of chemicals” comments are nothing but a red herring, arguing from consequences. It sucks us into a separate debate, one that while enjoyable to me is far afield from our earlier discussion. Way to move the goalposts; now the question isn’t about why you’re 100% certain the Bible is inerrant (something that is trivial to disprove, beyond internal contradictions), but why our lack of 100% certainty about anything means we have no certainty.

  • QuodEratFaciendum

    Weighing into this one late, so imagine that no-one will read this, but still. Matt, let me use one of your arguments against you for a minute:

    “But here’s the thing- you know, _KNOW_, that there is no god and all your arguments in this thread are fallacious… I don’t need to prove this proposition, because you and all religious people and everyone in the world in general know it’s true. This is something that everyone knows, and knows instinctively. They know it certainly, infallibly. Including you.”

    Is that a fair point, Matt? Do you have to suddenly concede that you’re wrong because I typed this up? Then stop using such childish rot on us. Wanting something to be true does not make it true. Believing in firemen doesn’t stop fires. Believing in doctors doesn’t cure all disease. Believing Jesus is your personal saviour and/or that the bible is the literal and infallible word of god does not necessarily make it so!

    Oh, and we all know all the semantic arguments you’re playing with word definitions, so we can dispense with them too. What’s left of your arguments then? Oh, yes: not a thing!

  • QuodEratFaciendum

    “I agree- faith does not prove anything. Believing in a lie does not make it true. But I don’t believe that I am believing in a lie.”

    Believing that what you believe isn’t a lie doesn’t mean that it isn’t either.

  • QuodEratFaciendum

    “Infallibility is a property belonging to God and God alone. Along with His infallibility goes His omnipotence. So He has communicated infallibly with His creation, and in His grace He has granted that some would see this truth. He has, in the language of the Bible, opened the eyes of the blind. Because of that, I am able to see that the Scriptures are the inspired word of God and it is not possible that I should be in error on that point.”

    Thanks again, Matt. Now please clarify:
    1. If the language of the Bible has opened the eyes of the blind, why is it not everyone who has read it agrees with you completely (including those that interpret the bible differently but essentially agree with it)? You’ve said earlier: they’re mistaken. How do you know you aren’t?
    2. Since you have a direct line to God, could you please ask him to release a new edition of the bible that it is impossible to misinterpret? Seems this would clear up the argument in a jiffy.

    Thanks, oh wise prophet!

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