Talk about points of agreement more

I’ve written a quite a few posts criticizing other atheists–some of them other FTBers–lately, and somewhat to my surprise, they’ve become some of the most-read posts I’ve ever written. The most-read ones have beat out my previous high-ranking posts on William Lane Craig (though not my #1 most read post since coming to Freethought Blogs, which is still my post on Kony 2012).

I feel a bit odd about this. Not that I regret it. We shouldn’t hide disagreements for the sake of looking united. Reagan’s rule about “thou shalt not criticize a fellow Republican” was profoundly dishonest. Writing about disagreements, furthermore, tends to be more interesting than just saying “I agree” all the time. Seriously, how annoying are blog or forum threads that have too many one sentence “I agree” comments?

And dealing with the William Lane Craigs of the world gets tiring after awhile. I think I’ve said almost everything I can say about Craig’s dishonesty not to mention creepy delusions (though keep your eyes open for a post on Craig’s demands that Dawkins debate him.) I’d rather deal with people I can have some respect for.

The trouble with this is that it risks giving outsiders a false impression of how much we agree and disagree on within our community. Not even just outsiders, but anyone who doesn’t have a very, very good feel for the dynamics of the community. That’s a danger that will exist in any community involved in the habit of arguing about things, if for no other reason than that comments expressing disagreement are more interesting than ones expressing agreement. (See related thoughts from Eliezer Yudkowsky here.)

To counter that problem, let me repeat what I said in this post: “No one is perfect, but on the whole I like people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Greta Christina, and John W. Loftus–the people who most often get singled out as the “bad” atheists.”

Also, when dealing with people I respect I plan on doing my best to follow the advice cited by Daniel Dennett in his review of The God Delusion:

The social  psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in  Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament) once promulgated a list of rules for  how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. First, he said, you must  attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent  says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of  agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you  should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to  say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Though as Dennett goes on to explain, there are many cases where it isn’t possible to follow (see: Craig, above). But on reflection, much of the time I’d rather be able to follow it, I’d rather be dealing with the kind of people with whom this advice is follow-able.

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  • jamessweet

    Good food for thought. I find myself so often, when commenting on somebody whom I largely agree with, simply taking the points of agreement for granted and only mentioning criticisms. I figure, why bother spending too much time with the “I agree!” part, since that is redundant? But there are problems with that approach, for sure.

  • mnb0

    @1: The same for me. Sometimes I address this by simply stating that “I agree with all other points you brought up.”

    @CH: You are aware of this piece?

  • The Goldstein Squad

    I love the smell of name calling atheists bashing each other in the morning.

    • Brownian

      As one of them, so do I.

  • Brownian

    The trouble with this is that it risks giving outsiders a false impression of how much we agree and disagree on within our community.

    That may be the case, but I suggest that the benefits of creating a space where hero-worship is minimised, rather than left to fester, outweighs this risk.

    I’m as human as anyone, and as prone to tribalism and in-grouping as anyone (in reality, my behaviour is probably more territorial than tribal), and respectful (even not so respectful) criticism of each others’ positions from those within the in-group helps counter these tendencies. Keeps us honest, at least compared with Reagan’s alternative.

    Further, given the wide range of expertise among FtB bloggers, it is far too easy to accept a blogger’s word on matters on which one has little background. Your criticisms of Richard Carrier’s critique of Bart Ehrman is a great example. I too, have admired Carrier’s writing, and not being very knowledgeable on the subject of the historicity of Jesus, it would be easy for me to take his word for it, except for your post.

    And you nailed the issue with this line from that post: “The other half, unfortunately, has all kinds of bizarre features and exaggerated claims that make me wonder if Carrier can be trusted.”

    Few of us can be knowledgeable on every field. There just isn’t the time. And so we place some trust in people we deem as experts. From a rationalist perspective, we use a number of criteria to assess expertise, sometimes basing our assessment on our own experience and judgement with how someone treats topics, and sometimes accepting others’ judgments (credentials are an example of this), and often using a mix. But this trust in expertise should always be conditional and subject to revocation should it be found to be misplaced: an expert in one field may be out of their depth in another, and the most rigorous intellectuals still have their blind spots.

    So how do we ensure that our trust in someone we consider an expert is not misplaced, especially when time constraints may not allow us to catch mistakes they make that might suggest it is? Well, we take our trust a step higher, and trust in a system wherein other, potential experts are constantly reviewing each other, alerting us to such mistakes. It’s how science is supposed to work.

    And by criticising other atheists and FtB bloggers, you allow for trust in FtB itself, as a process. Sure, this place is partisan (science is pretty partisan on evolutionary theory, or the efficacy of vaccines), but it’s not a hive mind or echo chamber, (despite the lazy catcalls of some critics), and it’s because FtB bloggers aren’t afraid to be critical of each other on issues of meaningful disagreement.

    How terrible would it be if you didn’t?

  • Matthew

    Wow, so much to think about in such a short piece. FWIW, my 2¢…

    Way back in the days of Mac vs DOS I noticed a curious phenomenon. Mac users, who were accustomed to their computers doing what they wanted and just getting their work done, would talk mostly about the occasional problems they had. DOS users who had so struggle with typing letter perfect, arcane command line codes to accomplish the most basic tasks would go on about what they finally managed to get the machine to do.

    The parallel I see here is that free thinking/secular/rationalists have well established, vast areas of agreement (i.e. science, reason and all that follows) and so we tend to focus on areas of disagreement. Of course it doesn’t hurt that our whole basis for agreement is also the means by which we sort out our disagreements. (Quite the virtuous circle eh?)

    On the other hand religious believers are quite notable in their abundance of irreconcilable differences (i.e. one iota of difference, dancing on pinheads, etc) with no mechanism for sorting them out (aside from the occasional crusade, jihad, etc). So they naturally tend to focus on the few things they do agree on.

    These characteristics are fundamental/intrinsic to our ways of thinking and relating to others and the world, and are thus not just unlikely or difficult to change but impossible.

    The question is just how to get over the PR problem and communicate to the wider audience that spirited disagreement is a sign of a strong, healthy and growing community. One based on robust and demonstrable common values. And that, conversely, communities based on unquestioned beliefs and submission to arbitrary authority are inherently fragile, defensive, reactionary and dangerous.

  • Disagreeable Me

    I love posts criticising atheists.

    Your post criticising Richard Carrier for the way he attacked Ehrman is what especially caused me to start paying attention to your blog, especially because I could see that you admired Carrier in general. That didn’t stop you from calling him out on it when you thought he was in the wrong. I haven’t actually formed an opinion on whether he was wrong, but I was gladdened that you felt able to criticise him openly and eloquently in the way you did.

    I get dismayed by people who just automatically agree with arguments that would confirm what they want to believe without analysing them critically. I think some atheists do this.

    Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape is a thought provoking read but I think it fails to provide an objective basis for morality. I think some atheists defend it largely because he is a prominent atheist and because it’s nice to be able to refute Craig’s argument that objective morality is impossible without God.

    Similarly, when Hawking or Krauss write books explaining how the universe could have sprung into existence from predictions of physical law, too many atheists seize on that as an answer to the cosmological argument without considering it critically and realising that it doesn’t explain where those laws came from in the first place.

    I chose my handle because I think disagreement is of paramount importance. I love it when somebody disagrees with my ideas and engages with them rationally and thoughtfully. I welcome the opportunity to be corrected and to improve my understanding, or conversely to improve my confidence in my position and the ability to express it more clearly by perceiving weaknesses in the arguments of others.

    Rational cool-headed disagreement is of immeasurable importance to any community that values truth and understanding.

    Now tell me why I’m wrong! :)

    • Brownian

      I’ve no disagreement with you other than to say that I don’t think that “cool-headed” needs to be any sort of criteria for disagreement to be rational or valuable.

      Indeed, on matters of importance, cool-headedness may not be possible, or even desirable.

      • Disagreeable Me

        I dislike disagreement that is emotional and irrational in nature. People can be blinded by hatred or by feelings of moral outrage or personal offence. Disagreement should be grounded in rationality but can be expressed passionately. Personally I prefer it to be expressed dispassionately but that may not be appropriate for all contexts, especially when the stakes are high.

        I just hate it when people who disagree on some point of abstract philosophy or something reduce disagreement to name-calling and refusal to engage with the argument.

        For example, on the thread for “A Krauss Concession”, Nerd of Redhead felt the need to repeatedly accuse me of mental masturbation for explaining what I thought about the origins of the cosmos.

        Hey, he’s free to do it, but I’d prefer if he either criticised the substance of what I was saying or stayed out of the conversation.

    • SelfAwarePatterns

      Pretty much my thoughts exactly. Well said.

      Chris, keep up the good work!

    • mnb0

      “….. without realising that it doesn’t explain where those laws came from …..”
      This has been answered decades ago by Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy and possibly even before. Laws of physics don’t come from anywhere but the human mind. They are nothing but descriptions – usually mathematical models – of what is happening around us.
      The Lawmaker Argument is based on a false analogy. Laws of physics are not the same as laws of justice.

      • Disagreeable Me

        Semantics. Rephrase the question:

        Why should reality be best described by these equations rather than those equations?

        Krauss nor Hawking have no answer.

        For what it’s worth, I think Tegmark has the right idea with his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, as I’ve been trying to argue on a thread on Pharyngula.

  • mnb0

    @Disagreeable Me

    No semantics. Just ask any experimental physicist. Those equations are accepted which cover the given data best. There is more to it: Ockham, correspondence principle, consistency, falsifiability, but this is basically it.
    I have read a few of your posts in that Krauss thread, because I knew you would refer to it. Well, nice try. I won’t call you a moron. I won’t even state that I can prove you wrong. It doesn’t follow that we should accept your arguments. Because you forget two points.

  • mnb0

    @ Disagreeable Me

    1) Math is a man made language. Universe = language is a bit silly. There are a few problems with it. The language called math was not developed yet 10 000 years ago. If you still think there was a reality back then universe and that specific language don’t coincide. If you think that the universe was not real you should turn to the introduction of John’s gospel and convert.

  • mnb0

    @Disagreeable Me

    2) MUT is not a hypothesis as it can’t be tested by experiment. It’s just a philosophical statement. Then physicists ask: what use does it have? When accepting it, what does it add to our knowledge and understanding? Which problems can we solve which we couldn’t before?
    On an elementary level: as a teacher math and physics, when I tell my pupils that the ball I just dropped is basically the same as G = m x g, what didactical value does it have?
    If the answer is nothing MUT is not wrong, it is not right, it is just meaningless and irrelevant. Physicists will just shrug, like they do when you talk about Plato’s cave, Leibniz’ monads and Kant’s Ding an Sich. They have work to do.
    Why bother?