Orthodoxy and ignorance

Mike Todd, writing about Rob Bell’s Love Wins and the (over)heated condemnation it has received, offers an insight into this fierce defense of rigid orthodoxies that collides neatly with our most recent Tribulation Force discussion. In particular, he explains why it is that real, true Christian heroes like Rayford Steele and Buck Williams cannot learn, change or grow.

Here’s Mike, writing about “Love Hell, Conciousness and the (Current) Impossibility of ‘Church Unity‘”:

If your spirituality is based on “believing the right things”, there is going to be trouble.

If you believe there is a concrete list of “right things” to know, and if you happen to believe that you, in fact, know these things, then the very idea of growing, thinking differently, of evolving, is by definition heresy. If we want to sound religious we call these right beliefs orthodoxy, and we declare ourselves its protector, and the keeper of the faith, as if somehow God needed a bodyguard.

The “orthodoxy” of the heresy-hunting fundamentalist that Mike describes reminds me of Elbert Hubbard’s “recipe for perpetual ignorance: Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge.”

Roger Olson writes about the same tribe, responding, like Mike, to their heated reaction to Rob Bell’s book. Olson responds in turn by citing a remarkably timely passage from the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth:

One question should for a moment be asked, in view of the ‘danger’ with which one may see this concept [viz., universalism] gradually surrounded.  What of the ‘danger’ of the eternally skeptical-critical theologian who is ever and again suspiciously questioning, because fundamentally always legalistic and therefore in the main morosely gloomy?  Is not his presence among us currently more threatening than that of the unbecomingly cheerful indifferentism or even antinomianism, to which one with a certain understanding of universalism could in fact deliver himself?  This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ.  Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.

Or, as once I realized in an epiphany following a long night trying to remember all the words to “Pancho and Lefty”: “If there is a God, then God must be, by definition, bigger and more merciful than Townes Van Zandt.”

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  • Anonymous

    It’s one of the great ironies of the Christian faith that so many of our great teachers (Paul, Augustine, Luther to name three) begin with grace and free salvation, then start looking for the fine print. It’s like they say, “Thanks for salvation. But, ummm, you don’t mean THEY get it too?”

  • Anonymous

    You know when I read about this I have to think about how small the God they perceive is.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NYIMSCWWLA5XTAYXL3FXNCJZ7I Kiba

    Kind of reminds me of my favourite quote from the Buddha: “Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings – that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.”

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd Studge

    Sounds like a Bible quote I’ve often seen on this site: Test everything. Hold on to the good.

    Truly excellent advice, whatever you believe.

  • Anonymous

    There was an essay I read a while back talking about “Guardians of the Truth”* which distinguished between two kinds of cultures: cultures which believe that the Perfect Truth is something that was created in the past, and that the only way it may survive is to protect it; and cultures which believe that the Perfect Truth is something to be sought in the present, and which can be gained or regained by examining the world. The remarks you quote rather remind me of.

    * The essay is actually titled “Guardians of the Truth“; unfortunately, however, the author seems to support the idea that religions are of the Guardian type rather than the Seeker type.

  • Anonymous

    How is this untrue? The vast majority of religions, especially those founded before the last century, have ingrained in them that their writ is the enduring Truth. Why shouldn’t they? Can one REALLY find eternal truths in a temporal world groaning under the curse of sin? Is there a rock you can turn over without finding a nest of demons beneath it? When you innovate upon the Revealed Word, only bad things can happen. That’s where you get cults.

  • Anonymous

    Could you find Christian truth in a world that your Christianity teaches you is the opposite of everything true? No.

    Could those of us who seek truth outside of your view of it find truth? Yes. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/Blotzphoto Louis Doench

    “Can one REALLY find eternal truths in a temporal world groaning under the curse of sin?”

    Oh… you’re one of THOSE… Gotcha, move along folks, there’s definitely nothing to see here, Monoblade doesn’t believe in the same UNIVERSE the rest of us live in.

  • Tonio

    I wondered if Monoblade was writing voice-overs for movie trailers. (foreboding music, deep voice cuts in) “In a temporal world groaning under the curse of sin, one man sought eternal truth…” (Action hero glistening with sweat, glowering at camera) “Out here, you make your own truths!” (Dramatic orchestral music with montage of action scenes and slow-motion explosions)

  • http://twitter.com/STPictures James Treakle

    I’d watch the shit out of that movie.

  • Caravelle

    I find the concept of “eternal truths” very interesting. I hadn’t really noticed the formulation was strange until I came across of video by some Christian criticizing an atheist answering “I don’t know” when asked if there was such a thing as eternal truth (all of the comments were about how stupid atheists were not to know what the truth is; I tried to post a comment saying “this sentence is false or this video makes at least one good point” but the comments were moderated).

    The thing is, I’m quite familiar with the concept of absolute truth. But “eternal” truth ? Why would the truth change ? And if the truth changes, isn’t that just the description of a meta-truth, i.e. the actual truth ?

    I can see the usefulness of “absolute” truth, as opposed to relative truth, i.e. what’s true in a specific context, or as opposed to a non-standard understanding of “truth”, or simply as opposed to the usual use of truth as “not 100% certain but close enough so we’ll round up”.

    But I don’t see “eternal” truth. Is it just a quirk of the wording, or is there a theological context to the expression ?

  • Anonymous

    As far as I understand it, “Eternal truth” is a subset of “absolute truth” that is part of the overall nature of the universe – things like “God is love”, as opposed to “I had chicken for dinner last night.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    As far as I understand it, “Eternal truth” is a subset of “absolute truth” that is part of the overall nature of the universe – things like “God is love”, as opposed to “I had chicken for dinner last night.”

    On the other hand, if you did in fact have chicken for dinner last night, that truth is absolutely true and will be true for all time. So I’m not sure that distinction works.  At the very least, I have a clear and immediate understanding of what the meaning of “I had chicken for dinner last night” is, and how to determine its truth value. “God is love” involves two concepts that may not be clearly defined.

  • Anonymous

    Right – “eternal truth” is eternally relevant, as opposed to “absolute” or “universal” truth which as you noted doesn’t say much about something other than whether it’s true or not.

  • Anonymous

    @Monoblade:disqus 

     Is there a rock you can turn over without finding a nest of demons beneath it?

    Last time I turned over a rock, all I found was some slightly wet dirt.  Maybe we’re living in different worlds, or you need to define your terminology more precisely.

  • Anonymous

    Last time I turned over a rock, all I found was some slightly wet dirt.

    That’s because the demons are extremely teensy.  They’re like the Twiddlebugs from Sesame Street.  “The family car!” cries the little demon family, heading to the zoo.

    Dumb question – what exactly is “spirituality”? I ask because it seems like one of those vague, formless words that often means whatever the speaker or writer wants it to mean.

    I’ve pondered that a lot since becoming an atheist.  Can a materialist be spiritual?  What would that mean?  I only know what works for me.  When I contemplate things bigger than and outside myself — the variety of the natural world, the vastness of space, the enormity of geological time — or when I concentrate on the needs and thoughts of other people, again leaving my own head-space for a while, these thoughts give me a feeling that I would have identified as “spiritual” in my younger days.  If it’s not true spirituality, it’s close enough for me and worth cultivating in any case.

  • Tonio

    When I contemplate things bigger than and outside myself — the variety
    of the natural world, the vastness of space, the enormity of geological
    time — or when I concentrate on the needs and thoughts of other people,
    again leaving my own head-space for a while, these thoughts give me a
    feeling that I would have identified as “spiritual” in my younger days.

    I have those feelings as well. I don’t consider myself a materialist in the philosophical sense. First, the concept has largely been turned into a straw man by creationists and others. Second, I don’t presuppose a spiritual/material divide. One of my frustrations with Christian theology, as I understand it, is its framing of so many things as dualities.

    As an analogy, when P.L. Travers was fighting with the Disney people during the making of the Mary Poppins film, the adapters insisted on contrasting magic with everyday life. Travers pointed out that her books were about the magic in everyday life.

  • Caravelle

    I don’t consider myself a materialist in the philosophical sense.
    First, the concept has largely been turned into a straw man by
    creationists and others. Second, I don’t presuppose a spiritual/material
    divide.

    I’m not sure why those two things should sum up to not considering yourself a materialist. Depending on how you define “spiritual” (I agree with you I have no idea what that means), a materialist certainly wouldn’t presuppose a spiritual/material divide. Given that the whole point of materialism is that it’s all material.

  • Tonio

    I’m not sure why those two things should sum up to not considering
    yourself a materialist. Depending on how you define “spiritual” (I agree
    with you I have no idea what that means), a materialist certainly
    wouldn’t presuppose a spiritual/material divide. Given that the whole
    point of materialism is that it’s all material.

    I had understood that materialism was the position that no reality exists beyond our sensory perceptions, and that the opposite was the position that such a reality exists on another plane. My own position is essentially no position, where I acknowledge the possibility of either being the case but I also question the factual accuracy of both claims. The same goes for the two positions of a material/spiritual divide existing and no such divide existing. The point is that all those positions involve assumptions, and my goal is to look past such assumptions and not flatly reject possibilities. Since any claims about things existing beyond our perceptions preclude any data about them by definition, the intellectually prudent course is to recognize their possibilities while also recognizing that they amount to speculation.

  • Anonymous

    I had understood that materialism was the position that no reality
    exists beyond our sensory perceptions, and that the opposite was the
    position that such a reality exists on another plane.

    That’s what one might call the “strong” materialist position. There is a more nuanced materialist position that says basically, “there is no evidence of any reality beyond the material.” There’s a big difference between “there is no evidence that X exists” and “X does not exist.”

  • Caravelle

    But… how do you define “material” and “evidence” ? I don’t see how it can be otherwise than “material” being “what leaves evidence” and vice-versa. Wouldn’t that make “weak” materialism a tautology ?

    I think you might have meant to say that “strong” materialism is that if there’s no evidence for it, I’ll believe it doesn’t exist, while “weak” materialism is that if there’s no evidence for it, I won’t believe it exists.

  • Caravelle

    I had understood that materialism was the position that no reality exists beyond our sensory perceptions

    Well, that’s not quite true. Materialists don’t think the world disappears when they close their eyes. I’m not saying that to be cute, this isn’t something you can fix by saying “our” is “humanity” and “perception” includes all our instruments. According to our current model of physics, there is a certain distance beyond which we’ll never be able to perceive anything. Yet there is nothing materialist about assuming nothing exists beyond that distance.

    I’d say a materialist is someone who thinks our model of what the world is should be based on what we perceive, and that this model should be parsimonious. Translated into truth terms, because I don’t want to look as if I’m running from the word, a materialist would be someone who thinks that the truth that we can find out by using methods of evidence, verification and the principle of parsimony is the actual truth.

    The point is that all those positions involve assumptions, and my goal
    is to look past such assumptions and not flatly reject possibilities.

    I’m not sure what you mean by that. Every position on everything conceivable involves assumptions, what does “look past” mean ? I understand being aware of our assumptions, and trying to verify our assumptions if possible, judging our assumptions’ validity compared to other assumptions, but I’m not sure what “looking past such assumptions” would entail.

    And look out when you say “flatly reject possibilities”. Lots of people do that, nobody has the brainspace to examine all possibilities equally, but for any given person rejecting any given assumption it’s mind-reading to assume they did it “flatly”.

  • Shallot

    Monoblade, who is your avatar now?  I’ve been able to recognize most of them with little trouble, but this one’s escaping me, and it’s bugging me because I know I should know it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    Like the cult of Christianity innovating on the revealed word of Judaism… 

    I keed, I keed.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     Can one REALLY find eternal truths in a temporal world groaning under the curse of sin? Is there a rock you can turn over without finding a nest of demons beneath it? 

    If I actually thought you believed any of the stuff you spout, I’d feel sorry for you.

    But I don’t, so I’ll just feel sorry for the I Can’t Believe They’re Not Gnostics!(tm) who actually DO believe that, and go on holding you in bored contempt.

  • Anonymous

    Biblical inerrancy has the same problem with supernatural explanations in science: it is neither interesting nor useful.

    By the way, are you ever going to explain why you hate America, or are you just going to dodge it every time I bring it up?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Pelikan/100000903137143 Jonathan Pelikan

    Troll Unit 729 isn’t going to reply to you unless it can snip a tiny, stupid little bit out of a ten-paragraph post to fixate on, or something else of the ‘hit-and-run’ variety. The unit definitely seems unprepared to stick it out in an actual confrontational debate or discussion. Or it just knows that acting this way will get real peoples’ heckles up and thus accomplish what it set out to do.

    “Real Christian thing to do, guy, watching animoo” while it features a procession of Anime avatars? Before that point I was kind of on the fence but not afterwards. It’s being frustrating and evasive on purpose.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    They’re all cults. Revealed knowledge is a pleasant way of saying  “unverifiable propositions”.

  • Anonymous

    >I’m an atheist and I’m angry that my parents made me go to church so I’ll call them all cults xD roflmao

    Grow up. That’s a child’s way of thinking.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    … did you really, seriously just strawman Andrew’s post, then after doing so, tell him he’s being childish? *blink*

    Pot calling the kettle doesn’t even begin to cover it.

  • Tonio

    Dumb question – what exactly is “spirituality”? I ask because it seems like one of those vague, formless words that often means whatever the speaker or writer wants it to mean.

    Although I’m not religious, one reason I appreciate Fred’s entries is because not only does he highlight the noxious authoritarianism of RTC, he also shows how it’s harmful in a theological sense.

    Grow up. That’s a child’s way of thinking.

    I have to admit I agree. I’ve encountered a few atheists like that, and while I disagree with the concept of faith as applied to questions of fact, I’ve tried pointing out to such atheists that they’re wrongly painting all religions and believers with the same brush. At the same time, I’ve encountered many more believers who wrongly insist that all atheism stems from rebellion.

  • Diogenese

    like the Book says ” The fool has said in his heart – (I will have) NO God”

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, yeah, pull the other one. Or explain why exactly atheists should find the Bible a compelling source of…anything really.

  • Tonio

    That’s uncalled for. If you’ve been following the conversation, implicit in my posts is that I acknowledge the possibility that one or more gods exist while I simply don’t know if they exist or not. That’s why I sympathize with atheism but I’m not an atheist myself.

  • Caravelle

    I wouldn’t worry if I were you, it isn’t clear that Diogenese was talking about you. His second reply seems to be about the woman whose parents arranged a marriage for her. It’s likely his first comment referred to Fred’s post.

  • Tonio

    Sorry, I thought I had read “in reply to Tonio” after the first post by Diogenese.

  • Caravelle

    I wouldn’t worry if I were you, it isn’t clear that Diogenese was talking about you. His second reply seems to be about the woman whose parents arranged a marriage for her. It’s likely his first comment referred to Fred’s post.

  • twig

    “what exactly is “spirituality”? I ask because it seems like one of those
    vague, formless words that often means whatever the speaker or writer
    wants it to mean.”

    Man, the irony.  I can’t handle this much irony this early in the morning.

  • Tonio

    Man, the irony.  I can’t handle this much irony this early in the morning.

    What specific mistake did I make? Whenever I’m laughed at, I feel like I left my fly undone, metaphorically speaking.

  • Anonymous

    Man, the irony.  I can’t handle this much irony this early in the morning.

    What specific mistake did I make? Whenever I’m laughed at, I feel like I left my fly undone, metaphorically speaking.

    Well, I know there’s a meme from the TV show The Atheist Experience that “spirituality” is a completely meaningless word – but I don’t see irony anywhere.

  • chialphagirl

    I think people like the list of things to believe because it makes life feel controllable and safe.  It takes a lot of confidence to say, well this is what I think is probably true but I could be wrong.

    I have also noticed a tendency in humanity to not be satisfied in simply “being right” but in making sure that everyone else knows we are right and agrees with us.  I suspect we need the validation because deep inside none of us are actually that confident but if we can convince someone else then it MUST be true.  Right? 

    It is a hard line to walk.  I think truth is out there and that it is knowable but there is no way, in the whole scope of everything that can ever be known, that any of us know even a fraction.  So there is probably truth out there that we have yet to discover and we should be open to new ideas.  Not everything is true. But there is always some truth outside of any one perspective. 

  • JT in SC

    This is not relevant to this thread but I need some help quickly and you are the most caring people I can think of.  My daughter’s close friend (age 22) is a beautiful, highly intelligent Duke graduate (English Major).  Her family is from India, but she has grown up in the United States and is thoroughly western.  She is a delight, if somewhat sheltered and a tad spoiled.

    Her family recently announced to her that they had arranged a marriage for her to a very wealthy man in Dubai.  They were very please with the match.  She was horrified.  At first she refused to even meet him.  They threatened to disown her.

    She met him and found that they had nothing in common.  He doesn’t read (she wants to be a writer) and doesn’t enjoy classical music (which is her other passion).  When her parents informed her that they were coming to pick her up to take her for a second visit, she feared that the marriage might happen sooner rather than later and flew the coop.  This happened Friday.

    I understand that she is staying with some friends, but obviously that can’t last indefinitely.  She has no resources, as her parents had been supporting her comfortably, so she really hadn’t thought to stash anything away.

    Does anyone know of any kind of network, like those that help abused spouses to rebuild lives, for young women in this position?

    I’d take her into our home, until she can get on her feet, but her parents know that we are close to her and know where we live.  Same deal with my daughter.

    My daughter says that her friend wants to call me this evening for advice.  I could really use yours.

    JT in SC

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=581585394 Nicholas Kapur

    First, eeeeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwww.

    Second, I wish I could help. Hell, if it were during the school year and you guys were in Texas, I might even offer to let her stay with me and my girlfriend if necessary.

    As for advice, I dunno. I mean, I assume that she’s physically avoiding them primarily to dodge the social pressure — they can’t legally force her to do anything, right? Unless she’s in physical danger, I’m guessing that the ultimately more troubling problem is (potentially?) being cut off from financial support if she is forced to cut ties with them entirely. But I wouldn’t know, really. With no particular experience or resources at hand, all I can say is if she ends up in the Southwest, I might be able to help with something.

  • cyllan

    I have some contacts in North Carolina, but not in S.C. 

    Is she an American citizen?  If not, how long is her visa good for?

  • Anonymous

    Based on your description, it sounds like she’s a very recent graduate–perhaps graduated just a month or so ago? If so, she should still have access to most of the resources of the Duke campus, including some of the counseling services and help with career/job search. While a counselor on campus may not be able to provide full service to someone no longer a student, that counselor should be able to provide some information about organizations that help students who have been disowned or cut off by their families–i.e., students who have to rebuild their lives without parental aid. (It happens more than you might think.) People involved in that sort of network tend to know of other available networks, so she should start there.

    At some point fairly soon she will need to decide what she wants to do. Is it most important to her to maintain ties with her parents but without marrying that particular man, or is she prepared to cut herself off from them and make it entirely on her own? An advisor can help her with this.

    English Departments tend to be fairly personal–most students know their professors and advisors to some degree at least. I would recommend she sit down with someone who she trusts to listen to her and advise her as a friend and who may be able to start looking for those networks.

    And cyllan asks a really important question: can she even stay in the U.S. or is the U.S. government going to send her to back to India?

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    JT,

    You’ve received some great advice for your friend already (regarding seeking support at Duke), and I’m sad I don’t have anything smart to add to it. But if your friend needs to continue to rely on support from friends and friends-of-friends, and if she ends up heading west, I and my circle of friends here in Boulder could probably help extend that support network. Place to stay for awhile, help navigating the local “no experience necessary” job opportunities, introduction to local CSA farms that exchange food for volunteer work in harvest time, that kind of stuff. Not to mention a bunch of local writers who like to get together to work & peer critique & talk shop.

    Wish I had something more long-term or convenient to offer. We’re admittedly a good long ways away from where your friend is now. On the other hand we’re also a good long ways away from her parents.

    All of this is admittedly moot without knowing her ultimate goals or indeed whether she can stay indefinitely in the US. But if you need to email, there should be a “contact me” pop-up somewhere on my personal website.

    She’ll be in our thoughts. Best,

    Niki

  • Diogenese

    She needs to look at her skillset, and start planning a JOB; with luck she wasn’t studying artsy courses

  • Anonymous

    No need to be insulting.

  • Mau de Katt

    “If there is a God, then God must be, by definition, bigger and more merciful than Townes Van Zandt.”

    Or, from a book I read many years ago*, “God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.”

    * Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    I really like that.  If I’m wrong and there turns out to be a God, that’s what I hope he/she/it is like.

  • http://twitter.com/gndwyn Michael Straight

    Why can’t evangelicals react the way Moses reacted or the way Abraham reacted when they thought they heard God say he was going to wipe out bunch of sinners (Genesis 18, Exodus 32)?

  • Anonymous

    Why can’t evangelicals react the way Moses reacted or the way Abraham reacted when they thought they heard God say he was going to wipe out bunch of sinners (Genesis 18, Exodus 32)?

    Furthermore, why is it they act like Jonah (Jonah 4)?

  • Tonio

    Short answer: slavery. In slave societies past and present, people who aren’t slaves become focused on preserving their position in the social hierarchy and resent anything that might improve things for people below them. That mindset has persisted in the US, outlasting both slavery and legal segregation. It’s not just mere tribalism, it’s more like tribalism’s even more evil sibling.

  • http://twitter.com/miketodd07 Mike Todd

    Thanks for the link, Fred. I love the way you’ve connected these thoughts, but if anything you’ve made it even more frightening.

  • Keromaru

    “Dumb question – what exactly is “spirituality”? I ask because it seems like one of those vague, formless words that often means whatever the speaker or writer wants it to mean.”

    I generally consider it to mean however whatever practices one uses to pray, worship, or otherwise seek communion with ultimate reality.  On one level, it’s reciting some prayers; on another, it’s contemplating existence or meditating on some doctrine or passage from scripture; on yet another, it’s deep meditation, intensely focusing attention and setting aside all distraction, even from one’s own thoughts.

    Going back to the original post, I found it kind of amusing to talk about orthodoxy with Rob Bell, since his view is actually not that far from the Eastern Orthodox view of Hell: not as a realm of eternal torture, but a state of being –not limited to the afterlife!– where one closes oneself off from love.  And even fathers of the Church like St. Gregory of Nyssa, who basically helped write Christian doctrine as we know it, believed in apokatastasis: the restoration of all things.  So even a temporary Hell isn’t ruled out.

    Now having said that, as an Episcopalian with strong sympathies to Orthodox theology, the post also reminds me that I basically spent the last week immersing myself in the state of Anglican-Orthodox relations.  And it’s pretty depressing.  Apparently our two communions had pretty cordial relations through most of the 20th century, with even some hints at reunion of the two churches, and they went south right when we started ordaining women.  The Orthodox, by and large, just will not accept it; and many view even the hint of ecumenism as the worst modern heresy imaginable.  While I think the Episcopal Church may need more solid theology, I do think it’s on the right side of the women’s ordination and gay rights issue.

  • Tonio

    I had imagined the meaning of “spirituality” to be an idea or concept, distinct from the types of practices you mentioned while still the driving force behind those practices. And I confess I don’t know what “ultimate reality” means.

  • Keromaru

    That description is actually closer to theology.  Although theology and spirituality are really two sides of the same coin.

    “Ultimate reality” is basically a definition for God.  It’s that ineffable, inconceivable, indescribable -something- that makes, unites, and completes everything, that primordial reality from which everything else derives its existence, and otherwise defines existence.  Most language about God essentially points to that.  

  • Tonio

    At the risk of sounding confrontational, what is the basis for saying that the something exists? What you describe sounds somewhat like an elaborate form of deism. My goal is to take positions on questions of fact only when these are testable or falsifiable, and without those I would have no way of knowing whether that something exists. I once had someone insist to me that without belief in that something, it’s impossible even to conclude that 2 + 2 equals 4.

  • Heart

    That’s actually true: 2+2=4 is based on mathematical axioms. In fact, the whole of science rests of the axoim that the universe really exists in the way we perceive it. No one has ever been able to conclusively show this.

  • Tonio

    the whole of science rests of the axoim that the universe really exists in the way we perceive it

    That’s not accurate, although it’s a common assumption that is often used by creationists. (No, I’m not accusing you of being one of them.) Science is about explaining what we perceive. It doesn’t reject the possibility of the universe existing in some way other than how we perceive it, because it can’t explain what can’t be perceived. It would be different if there was observable data that indicated that our perceptions were false. The brain in the jar concept that The Matrix successfully exploited is a fascinating one, but ultimately speculative because it doesn’t explain observable data any better than the alternatives. I’ll be the first to say that there may be things that exist beyond our perceptions. But the operative word is may. This is a long-winded way of saying that one doesn’t have to make any assumptions either way about whether the universe is how we perceive it in order to observe and to try to explain what we observe. All we really know is that we perceive.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    In fact, the whole of science rests of the axoim that the universe really exists in the way we perceive it. No one has ever been able to conclusively show this.

    This is a bit of a head-fake. “conclusively show” leads us to a tautology: You can’t show anything without invoking perception. If you’re talking test tubes and balance scales, well, no you can’t “conclusively show” it. But Descartes did a pretty bang-up job of arguing soundly and validly that while we each have our own subjective realities, there is an underlying objective reality, and it bats last after all our subjective experiences. In other words, I can’t know if what I percieve is the same as what you percieve, but we can recognize commonality between our perceptions, and those elements of commonalty are “reality”. So whether it exists in the way we percieve it, it does exist, and our shared perceptions are an effective model for it.

    Whether or not our perceptions are accurate to reality, Descartes points out, is less important than if our perceptions are consistent with reality. In other words, it doesn’t matter if what we call “Left” is actually “Right” as long as what we thing is “Left” is consistently the same direction. If you can’t accept even those elements, well… Plato has a lovely cave you might be interested in.

    The whole of science rests on a a logically un-sound axiom that past observations are a reasonable indicator of future results. It’s a very effective, very successful axiom upon which knowledge has been built, but ultimately, it’s a circular argument. (“How do you know the sun will rise in the West tommorow?” “Because it did yesterday.” “But yesterday, did you know it would rise in the West?” “Yes, because it did the day before…”)

    (sorry, but nearly wound up with a Philosophy minor…)

  • Tonio

    Science doesn’t claim to know that the sun will rise at a given direction based on past observations. Again, that amounts to a mild version of straw-manning. Science is about building models to make predictions, and the latter aren’t the same as knowledge or even indicators of future results. If the actual results don’t match predictions, then the model is revised to account for the new observations, or the model is junked entirely and a new one devised.

    In other words, I can’t know if what I percieve is the same as what you
    percieve, but we can recognize commonality between our perceptions, and
    those elements of commonalty are “reality”.

    That’s one reason to be skeptical of claims of extrasensory perception. I can say I’m thinking of a blue elephant, but others can’t perceive my thought, but just my statement, and I could be lying. ESP claims might be taken more seriously if there was a way to discover what another is thinking without his or her knowledge, but I doubt anyone would want to live in a world where that ability existed.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not about whether science is claiming to “know” that the sun will rise, it’s that every scientist understands the predictions of a sufficiently well-tested model as likely to come true.  “The sun will rise in the east tomorrow” is at least a pretty solid prediction.  This understanding that the predictions of well-tested models are likely to be true is just why science is thought to be useful and why we think it will continue to be useful.  But, like Chris says, it’s hard to justify this belief.  Science is built on induction, and, other than by induction, it’s hard to explain why we should accept induction at all.  “It’s been successful in the past” is circular if the relevance of past results to future results is what’s at issue.

    On ESP: But what about color-blindness?  The color-blind are justified in believing that other people really do have this faculty to discern information unavailable to color-blind people.  This is because color-sighted people can demonstrate to color-blind people that they have access to more information.  You could do the same for ESP, if it existed.  Intersubjectivity is complicated, and there’s a fuzzy line between “they have a faculty that I lack” and “they’re hallucinating”.  I’m blanking on the word, but this is different than the situation with people who see all 3s as being green or can taste letters or similar.  Color and taste and whatnot are all secondary properties which are only really informative to the extent that they correspond to other intersubjective properties of objects.  The fact that you can taste the color orange and I can’t doesn’t mean that either of us is wrong, as long as we agree that we get our own particular “orange” sensations when light of a certain wavelength hits our eyes. That’s what Chris is talking about, I think.

  • Tonio

    Science is built on induction, and, other than by induction, it’s hard
    to explain why we should accept induction at all.  “It’s been successful
    in the past” is circular if the relevance of past results to future
    results is what’s at issue.

    That argument comes close to endorsing the creationist claim that science is simply another belief system. Of course, creationists operate under the assumption that scientific knowledge is about authority. What you describe as “circular” is actually an error-checking system. One can’t simply assume, “Oh, this model will always work” and not bother checking it against new data. Observations have to take precedence, otherwise one is merely reasoning from an armchair, or else simply accepting others’ armchair reasoning.

    The color-blind are justified in believing that other people really do
    have this faculty to discern information unavailable to color-blind
    people.  This is because color-sighted people can demonstrate to
    color-blind people that they have access to more information via other
    faculties.

    That’s different from ESP because one can analyze the rods and cones of eyes and determine that the eyes of color-blind people work differently. This means that additional data is available so that it’s more than simply taking someone’s word for it. No such method is available to verify that someone is telling the truth about ESP.

  • Caravelle

    That argument comes close to endorsing the creationist claim that science is simply another belief system.

    Well, they’re not wrong. If by “belief system” they mean “anything that isn’t known with 100% certainty”. Which some people pretend they mean, missing the fact that nothing is ever known with 100% certainty, so by that reasoning everything is a belief system and the term is meaningless.

    And Gotchaye is also right that science uses inductive reasoning, which will never lead to absolutely certain conclusions. I’m not sure what he means by “it’s hard to explain why we should accept induction at all”. It can be shown deductively that induction will often result in right answers in a regular world. What we need to defend is the assumption that the world is regular, but the fact that induction gives consistent, regular answers is itself evidence that the world is regular.

    In other words, induction can verify its own validity by induction. Deductive logic can’t do that.

    As to whether we can accept either inductive reasoning or deductive logic as valid in the abstract… I’m fine with people saying they don’t but they’re effectively shutting themselves out of the conversation… out of any conversation.

    Okay, so I’ve just defended induction on the merits, which wasn’t actually what I was going to do – what I wanted to say was that everybody uses inductive reasoning in their everyday life. It is pointless to pretend that science using it is a problem with science.

    That’s different from ESP because one can analyze the rods and cones of
    eyes and determine that the eyes of color-blind people work differently.
    This means that additional data is available so that it’s more than
    simply taking someone’s word for it. No such method is available to
    verify that someone is telling the truth about ESP.

    How is it different? Color-blind people (or indeed, trichromats vs tetrachromats) can examine color-seeing people and see whether what they perceive is consistent – as we’d expect a real perceived thing to be. Usually this is done by color-matching, and we do find that there are differences in how people perceive colors – but they’re much, much smaller than the similarities so color-blind people would realize that color-seeing people do perceive something consistently – and moreover, that while there is some variety they still fall into a few distinct groups in the manner that they perceive this thing, i.e. “ordinary” trichromats and people with different forms of color-blindness (and maybe tetrachromats).

    As for rods and cones, yes color-blind people could also discover those things. It wouldn’t be immediately obvious however. First they’d have to figure out that the seat of the additional perception is in the eyes. This wouldn’t be too hard (it’s the eye or the brain, really, in this case). Then they’d have to analyse the eye in detail to find a clear difference between color-blind eyes in general and color-seeing eyes in general. This would be hard to do, especially given color-blindness and color-seeingness have different factors. And if they did discover that cones are such a difference, it still wouldn’t prove much – there could be others.

    To actually make this knowledge useful they’d need to understand what seeing colors is, and what the mechanism is physically. They could figure out that colors match light wavelengths to some degree and in some combinations, and deduce that this has something to do with color. They could study how vision works in general, and deduce that since rods detect light, a different kind of rod might be able to detect light based on its wavelength, and then they could study cones to see if that’s what they do.

    All of those things could be done in principle with ESP.

  • Heart

    That’s actually true: 2+2=4 is based on mathematical axioms. In fact, the whole of science rests of the axoim that the universe really exists in the way we perceive it. No one has ever been able to conclusively show this.

  • Keromaru

    “What you describe sounds somewhat like an elaborate form of deism.”
    Not really; theism and deism are both interpretations of the same idea.  It’s basically classic apophatic (negative) theology, that you define God by negating ideas about him, because no idea is adequate enough to encompass him.  Kataphatic (positive) theology starts from that point of negation and adds details.  The theistic view is that this Reality is interested and active in the universe, and we can commune with it, hence religion and spirituality.  After that is where most religions, to my knowledge, differ.

    “My goal is to take positions on questions of fact only when these are testable or falsifiable, and without those I would have no way of knowing whether that something exists.”

    While I understand and to an extent agree, I do think that can only take a person so far.  I think it’s more of an intuitive, personal, relational thing.  Since you can’t point at something and say for certainty, “That’s God,” one has to look within oneself.  Of course, for me, I consider it evidence enough to look at the many mystics around the world and through history who sought this deeper reality, and by all indications found it.

  • Anonymous

    Monoblade:

    >I’m an atheist and I’m angry that my parents made me go to church so I’ll call them all cults xD roflmao

    JJohnson:

    .. did you really, seriously just strawman Andrew’s post, then after doing so, tell him he’s being childish? *blink*

    Pot calling the kettle doesn’t even begin to cover it.

    True, although the Hebrew God did begin to cover it in a remark Zie once made about how one ought not to bear false witness.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    [RTC]
    Yes, but that only applies to your ACTUAL neighbor – as in, the people who live in a house next-door to you.  Everyone else on Earth you can make up any crazy stuff you like to slander them.
    [/RTC]

  • Anonymous

    What Caravelle said much more eloquently that I would have. It’s a philosophical trap to confuse deductive reasoning with reason in general. All uncertainties are not equal.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t have a lot of time right now, but at a glance I agree with what Caravelle said.  I just want to quickly clear up this:

    I’m not sure what he means by “it’s hard to explain why we should
    accept induction at all”. It can be shown deductively that induction
    will often result in right answers in a regular world. What we need to
    defend is the assumption that the world is regular, but the fact that
    induction gives consistent, regular answers is itself evidence that the
    world is regular.

    It’s regularity I was questioning there.  A lot of what I was doing in that post was saying that I thought Tonio had misunderstood what Chris Doggett had been saying.  Chris said “The whole of science rests on a a logically un-sound axiom that past observations are a reasonable indicator of future results.”  To flesh that out a bit more – why do we use induction (X has happened every day for five years, so X will happen tomorrow) as opposed to – for example – counterinduction (X has happened every day for five years, so X will /not/ happen tomorrow)?  Practically, we use induction because we’re set up to find it more compelling, but counterinduction can also justify its own validity in the same way that induction can (and can be shown deductively to often result in right answers in a certain kind of world).  Assuming a regular world is (in part) just assuming a world where the future works like the past, but that’s a hard claim to defend with an argument.  That said, I completely agree with you that, since no one seriously calls regularity into question, it’s not of much practical interest.

  • Tonio

    That’s what one might call the “strong” materialist position. There is a more nuanced materialist position that says basically, “there is no evidence of any reality beyond the material.” There’s a big difference between “there is no evidence that X exists” and “X does not exist.”

    While I agree about the size of the difference, I also see that size as arguing against deeming the “no evidence” position as simply nuanced materialism. I’ve encountered that same concept in debates about what constitutes atheism.

    Part of my point is that we don’t know if everything we perceive with our senses is material. Similarly, when someone asserts as fact the existence of things beyond our sense, we don’t know that such things aren’t material.

    If by “belief system” they mean “anything that isn’t known with 100% certainty”. Which some people pretend they mean, missing the fact that nothing is ever known with 100% certainty, so by that reasoning everything is a belief system and the term is meaningless.

    By “belief” I mean any proposition that’s held exclusive of data, even data that would support the belief. If one bases a proposition on data, then I see no reason to deem that proposition as a belief.

    What we need to defend is the assumption that the world is regular, but the fact that induction gives consistent, regular answers is itself evidence that the world is regular.

    The regularity of the world isn’t an assumption since data continues to accumulate showing that regularity. You might have a point if we were talking about making decisions based on the assumptions that the world will continue to be regular. My objection to describing science as “inductive reasoning” is that it seems to imply that scientists create theories from armchairs without bothering to test them. I’m trying to describe empiricism as distinct from inductive reasoning.

    In other words, induction can verify its own validity by induction. Deductive logic can’t do that.

    I’m not sure what that means. Would you explain?

    All of those things could be done in principle with ESP.

    How so? Obviously there are ways of testing one’s claimed ability to predict the future. But if someone claimed that for an instant they could hear someone else’s thoughts, we would have nothing to test, just the person’s word for it. Testability may be feasible if the person claimed to have a regular, persistent ability.

    I’d say a materialist is someone who thinks our model of what the world is should be based on what we perceive, and that this model should be parsimonious. Translated into truth terms, because I don’t want to look as if I’m running from the word, a materialist would be someone who thinks that the truth that we can find out by using methods of evidence, verification and the principle of parsimony is the actual truth.

    What you describe would amount to empiricism. My issue with labeling that as materialism is that it seems to assume that anything perceived with our senses is material. But I’m less interested in quibbling over what constitutes materialism, and more interested in making a distinction between empiricism and the belief that nothing exists beyond sensory perception. That also plays into what I’ve said before about atheism – whether a lack of belief in gods qualifies as atheism is less relevant to me than distinguishing that lack of belief from a positive belief that gods don’t exist. That’s because that lack of belief also entails a lack of belief that gods don’t exist.

    Every position on everything conceivable involves assumptions, what does “look past” mean ? I understand being aware of our assumptions, and trying to verify our assumptions if possible, judging our assumptions’ validity compared to other assumptions, but I’m not sure what “looking past such assumptions” would entail.

    Valid question. My usual example involves the creationist assumption that order can only be designed. That’s an absolutist assumption that can artificially limit the scope of one’s thinking. That plays into my point about possibilities. I use “flatly” in this case to refer to that absolutism. It’s not about examining all possibilities equally, but avoiding the idea of impossibility. We don’t have the knowledge to say that anything is impossible, because that in itself is an absolutist concept. But we do have the knowledge to suggest that some possibilities are more likely or less likely than others.

  • ako

    Obviously there are ways of testing one’s claimed ability to predict the
    future. But if someone claimed that for an instant they could hear
    someone else’s thoughts, we would have nothing to test, just the
    person’s word for it.

    Is that the normal claim though?  Most people I’ve heard from claiming ESP have said that they have regular persistent abilities with some restrictions or limitations.  There are untestable claims about ESP, but there are also plenty of testable ones, and there seem to be be more of the latter (although you do get people making testable claims who later backtrack and revise their claim to something untestable when the testable claim fails).

  • P J Evans

     What I have that seems to be something like ESP is neither predictable nor regular, but when it happens, it’s there. (Except maybe for dowsing, which is apparently pretty normal for those people who can do it.)

  • Caravelle

    That’s really interesting. I can’t remember if you’re religious or not, I can understand how divinities talking to one would be neither predictable or regular, but then I don’t think most people would describe religious experiences as “something like ESP”.

    Would you mind talking a bit about that thing you have ? Is it that you can perceive things ? Or do things ?

  • ako

    Really?  That’s interesting.  You don’t have any conditions where you can say “It will show up in this situation” or “It’s highly likely to show up in this situation”?

    What leads you to believe it’s ESP?  Would you be interested in subjecting it to factual analysis or not?

    (I’ve always been a bit puzzled by dowsing.  I messed around with it when I was younger, and the main things I learned were that it was really easy for me to make the dowsing rod/pendant on a string/whatever do whatever I wanted it to, and that it wouldn’t move at all if I wasn’t deliberately thinking “Okay, now point that way!”)

  • Caravelle

    Heya ! It seems to me as though we’re not using the same words for the same meanings. For example :

    If one bases a proposition on data, then I see no reason to deem that proposition as a belief.

    That is a position some people hold, but it isn’t how I use the word “believe”, nor is it how I see it used in everyday life. I might be having some semantic confusion with French, where we use the same word for “I think that…” and “I believe”, but I don’t think so.
    Consider. When used in a non-religious context, is it accurate that “believe” is only used in the absence of data? Note that even religious beliefs are often based on data – it might be non-reproducible data, or misinterpreted data, or whatever, but many believers do perceive their beliefs as based on evidence.

    The regularity of the world isn’t an assumption since data continues to
    accumulate showing that regularity.

    Which makes it a justified assumption, not a non-assumption.

    You might have a point if we were
    talking about making decisions based on the assumptions that the world
    will continue to be regular.

    … which we do. Do I have a point then ? :)

    My objection to describing science as
    “inductive reasoning” is that it seems to imply that scientists create
    theories from armchairs without bothering to test them. I’m trying to
    describe empiricism as distinct from inductive reasoning.

    See, I don’t see that implication in “inductive reasoning” at all. And I think it was a useful term for my argument because those features of science – where the assumptions it rests on can be validated by science in return in a non-circular way – those are features of inductive reasoning in general, not just empiricism.
    Still, if you prefer to use the word “empiricism”, why not.

    I’m not sure what that means. Would you explain?

    Well, IIRC deductive logic means you have a general principle and you deduce its consequences; inductive logic means you have various facts and you deduce a general principle from them. The former allows for certain conclusions, but you can never use those conclusions to prove the basic axioms, that would be circular logic. Even if you can prove those axioms in a different system of logic, the two systems won’t mix. On the other hand, inductive logic doesn’t allow proofs : any set of facts has an infinite amount of potential interpretations, you can never narrow things down to one. But if we abandon formal proof and consider instead levels of certainty, then inductive logic not only allows us to draw fairly certain conclusions, it’s self-reinforcing, because every accurate conclusion we draw from an assumption reinforces that assumption’s validity.

    I admit, I haven’t read up on this in years so I might be totally wrong and misremembering.

    How so? Obviously there are ways of testing one’s claimed ability to
    predict the future. But if someone claimed that for an instant they
    could hear someone else’s thoughts, we would have nothing to test, just
    the person’s word for it. Testability may be feasible if the person
    claimed to have a regular, persistent ability.

    Hence the accent on consistency. Someone who perceives ESP in an inconsistent, untestable manner can’t be, well, tested… But that someone is not analogous to a person who sees color. Because people who see color actually do so in a (more) consistent (than not) manner.
    In general I think that when people claim something supernatural or paranormal exists and is analogous to some physical, scientifically-recognized entity… I think it’s very important to demonstrate the ways in which that entity actually is detectable. Because their analogy is meant to demonstrate that something can exist and be undetectable. And I think the reason some of those analogies come up is that people don’t really give much thought to how one can detect difficult-to-perceive things.

    I’ll do the blockquote in a second post because this is already too long, sorry…

  • ako

     But that someone is not analogous to a person who sees color. Because people who see color actually do so in a (more) consistent (than not) manner.

    Yeah, it someone said they had brief random flashes of seeing colors I didn’t, and the colors didn’t have any demonstrable consistency, then I wouldn’t give a lot of credit to the idea that they were perceiving something physically real (I might wonder about their neurological state, and the chemicals they were ingesting).  And if someone claimed to have ESP, and we did an experiment where I stared at a random number generator they couldn’t see and they accurately listed off the numbers I was looking at, I’d be inclined to seriously consider the possibility that this was an objectively real physical phenomenon (although I’d do things like ensure the experiment was repeatable, and have some trained investigators look for ways it could be faked before adhering too firmly to that conclusion). 

  • Tonio

    Part of what I’m trying to do here is to refute the creationist idea that evolution is a matter of “faith.” To a lesser extent, the climate change deniers also make that assertion about what they deny. (The latter group are people who are not scientists, while “climate change skeptics” are a separate group of “mavericks” in the pay of the oil companies.) With creationism, it’s obvious that they’re starting with dogma about the meaning of human existence and misinterpreting or even making up evidence to fit the dogma. But I’m not sure what dogma the deniers are using. If one starts with data first, that appears to me to be the opposite of faith or dogma.

    Really, what is this huge gap between “I don’t believe gods exist” and “I believe gods don’t exist”?

    Simple – the latter is a claim of knowledge that one doesn’t have, and the former is an admission that one lacks knowledge. Or, one is taking a position and the other isn’t.

    It’s not as if I’m saying I know gods don’t exist, or that I won’t accept contrary evidence if it comes up, or that I just picked the idea arbitrarily out of thin air.

    I understand that. My concern is about the degree of confidence in one’s judgment, and at what point the judgment becomes dogma, or as John Cleese once described it, a “closed system of thought” where new data is adapted to the dogma.

    Can’t one have an opinion without understanding that nothing in this world is certain ?

    That gets back to the Moynihan principle that facts aren’t multiple choice. Either there is more to the universe than what we can perceive with our senses or there isn’t, and having a belief either way entails the risk of being mistaken and not knowing it. But more important, we have no data that would support a belief either way. That’s not true of the example of the sun rising in the east, where we can use past data to make predictions.

    Which makes it a justified assumption, not a non-assumption.

    Again, I’m using “assumption” in the same manner I use the words faith and dogma, as different types of judgments that are formed before one considers whether the data supports the judgment. In any case, assuming that the world is regular is different from assuming that human life has a particular inherent meaning, because the former is about predicting data. If one says that science rests on assumptions, I can already hear the creationists and climate change deniers playing gotcha.

  • Caravelle

    Part of what I’m trying to do here is to refute the creationist idea that evolution is a matter of “faith.”

    I understand that. I just don’t think that allowing them to define “faith” as “non-absolute certainty” is a good strategy.
    As I see it there are two implications packed in “evolution is a faith” : 1) evolution pretends to be absolutely certain but isn’t really, and 2) all uncertain things are equivalent.

    So in my opinion, objections to the claim should make two points : that absolute certainty doesn’t exist, so evolution’s lacking it means nothing; and there are different levels and qualities of uncertainty (in particular, evidence-based uncertainty is much less uncertain than the alternatives).

    It seems to me you are focusing on making the latter point, but I don’t think it works well if we don’t make the first point as well. It’s a bit like all sins being infinitely bad before God in a way : as long as absolute certainty is on the table it’s easier to miss the nuance of the different levels and kinds of uncertainty.

    But I’m not sure what dogma the deniers are using.

    Offhand, I’d suggest it’s the dogma that human industry and progress can’t have net bad consequences.

    [responding to “I’m not saying I know gods don’t exist”] I understand that.

    Then why did you say a paragraph higher : “Simple – the latter is a claim of knowledge that one doesn’t have, and the former is an admission that one lacks knowledge.” ??

    My concern is about the degree of confidence in one’s judgment, and at
    what point the judgment becomes dogma, or as John Cleese once described
    it, a “closed system of thought” where new data is adapted to the dogma.

    I think your concern is valid, but it appears to me you see some phrasings as automatically implying dogma. This isn’t unreasonable on its face, but when the very people who adopt that phrasing say they don’t claim absolute certainty and are open to contrary evidence – which every strong atheist I’ve ever encountered does, and those who don’t justify their position at length – I’m thinking of the debate between PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne as to whether evidence for gods could in principle exist – then what? Shouldn’t you revise your opinion on what the phrasing implies ? Or do you disagree with all those people’s self-description ?

    Either there is more to the universe than what we can perceive with our
    senses or there isn’t, and having a belief either way entails the risk
    of being mistaken and not knowing it.

    Having any opinion on anything at all entails the risk of being mistaken and not knowing it. And even the people who don’t dare affirm any opinion at all for that reason still get up in the morning and live their lives as if they actually thought the world has perceptible regularities.

    But more important, we have no data that would support a belief either way.

    I disagree. Perceiving gods as talking to one, or making highly improbable things happen is data. Conversely, the way that all human beliefs on the supernatural have shown a clear untestable-ward progression as our ability to test beliefs progressed, the way that most beliefs on divinities or the supernatural involve logical contradictions that are routinely solved by invoking black boxes and masses of additional entities, the way that the reality science is discovering is mechanistic and mostly consistent but extremely hard to picture and apprehend while religious and supernatural beliefs tend to be “hard to apprehend” mostly insofar as they’re black boxes or illogical, and otherwise tend to be very human-centric… All that’s data too. It’s not “the Sun’s been rising in the East all my life” data, and people don’t all agree on how relatively strong those pieces of data are, but they’re data and they do point in specific directions.

    Again, I’m using “assumption” in the same manner I use the words faith
    and dogma, as different types of judgments that are formed before one
    considers whether the data supports the judgment. In any case, assuming
    that the world is regular is different from assuming that human life has
    a particular inherent meaning, because the former is about predicting
    data. If one says that science rests on assumptions, I can already hear
    the creationists and climate change deniers playing gotcha.

    I can too. But my response is not to let them win the definition game, whether it’s on “assumption” or “belief” or “knowledge”. “Faith” they can have if they want, it’s a religious term; but other theists might disagree.
    It isn’t just an aesthetic choice; people use “assuming that…”, “I believe that…”, “I know…” all the time in their daily lives… including scientists in their professional lives. I we allow denialists to define those words differently from the way ordinary people and scientists use them we’re setting ourselves up for that game of gotcha.

    I also disagree on your distinction between “the world is regular” and “human life has inherent meaning”. The only reason the former predicts data and the latter doesn’t is that you haven’t defined “meaning”. If we do define the word a priori, then the latter statement will also predict data – namely, that human life is optimized to achieve the purpose implied in the meaning we defined. (to be fair, this wouldn’t work if humans “had meaning” but were designed too incompetently to fulfill it, but you know that’s not what people mean when they say the phrase).

  • Tonio

    absolute certainty doesn’t exist, so evolution’s lacking it means nothing; and there are different levels and qualities of uncertainty (in particular, evidence-based uncertainty is much less uncertain than the alternatives).

    So are you saying that since absolute certainty doesn’t exist, there’s no need to argue that its treatment of new data is dangerous? I suspect there are at least some people who are absolutely certain in their positions. It’s not just that evidence-based uncertainty is much less uncertain, but that it’s also anti-solipsistic in a way.

    Then why did you say a paragraph higher : “Simple – the latter is a claim of knowledge that one doesn’t have, and the former is an admission that one lacks knowledge.” ??

    I suppose that’s because when I declare “belief” in a position, others don’t know if I derived it from data, or from internal logic that may be independent of data, unless I include a caveat. All others would know is that I am claiming that something is true. I’m not talking about beliefs in value which are obviously statements of opinion, but beliefs in purported fact.

    Shouldn’t you revise your opinion on what the phrasing implies ? Or do you disagree with all those people’s self-description ?

    I suppose my issue is that there’s no testable and falsifiable data to support having a certain level of confidence in such a position.

    Having any opinion on anything at all entails the risk of being mistaken and not knowing it.

    Sure, but at least with data, one has some clue about whether one is mistaken.

    I disagree. Perceiving gods as talking to one, or making highly improbable things happen is data.

    The former is not really data in terms of testability and falsifiability. If someone claims that gods talk to hir, all others know is that the person claims that the gods are talking. That’s a huge distinction. It would involve the assumption that the person is telling the truth about having the experience, and the additional assumption that any non-gods explanations for the experience are automatically ruled out. The claim is the only data.

    And as you already pointed out, the latter involves assumptions about black boxes, where things that can’t be explained are assumed to be violations of physical laws. Again, the data here is limited to the improbable event.

    If we allow denialists to define those words differently from the way ordinary people and scientists use them we’re setting ourselves up for that game of gotcha.

    Fair point. That sounds like a refutation of the “gay pride parades enable homophobia” argument. What I’m really trying to do is to call out the creationists and deniers on the preconceptions they use. Often they seem to invoke the pseudo-Aristotelian idea that logical argument alone can prove the truth of something. The language in the Creation Museum’s displays use “must have been” over and over, and there’s a good argument that this is simply a debating tactic to try to make evolution look improbable, but my argument is about the implications of thinking in such absolutist terms. So how would I stress the importance of relying on testable and falsifiable evidence when defending the principle of science?

  • Caravelle

     

    So
    are you saying that since absolute certainty doesn’t exist, there’s
    no need to argue that its treatment of new data is dangerous? I
    suspect there are at least some people who are absolutely certain in
    their positions.

    Indeed. I’m not sure how such
    people are possible years after The Matrix came out and introduced
    the brain-in-a-vat hypothesis to the masses, but they still exist or
    claim to.
    I can’t pretend I know how to
    best deal with such people, but I can’t imagine doing it any other
    way than puncturing their absolute certainty with brain-in-a-vat or
    deceptive-demon or Matrix scenarios. In particular, I don’t see how
    telling somebody who’s absolutely certain of something “but what if
    evidence showed otherwise ?” is helpful. Would the question even
    have meaning to them ? How can we discuss epistemology with someone
    who doesn’t think that “how we know things” is even a problem ?

    It’s not
    just that evidence-based uncertainty is much less uncertain, but that
    it’s also anti-solipsistic in a way.

    True. That’s why I talked
    about the level and quality of the uncertainty;
    but I’m not surprised that condensing a whole epistemology into three
    words left room for ambiguity ;)

    I suppose
    that’s because when I declare “belief” in a position,
    others don’t know if I derived it from data, or from internal logic
    that may be independent of data, unless I include a caveat. All
    others would know is that I am claiming that something is true. I’m
    not talking about beliefs in value which are obviously statements of
    opinion, but beliefs in purported fact.

    How would you state a fact ?

    I
    suppose my issue is that there’s no testable and falsifiable
    data to support having a certain level of confidence in such a
    position.

    Hmm, I’m probably wrong on
    this, but what do you mean by “testable and falsifiable data”?
    AFAIK theories and models can be testable and falsifiable (by
    data), but data is data.

    The
    former is not really data in terms of testability and falsifiability.
    If someone claims that gods talk to hir, all others know is that the
    person claims that the gods are talking. That’s a huge
    distinction. It would involve the assumption that the person is
    telling the truth about having the experience, and the additional
    assumption that any non-gods explanations for the experience are
    automatically ruled out. The claim is the only
    data.

    But we’re not talking about
    others here, we’re talking about one’s personal model of the world.
    Not claims of other people’s personal experiences, but one’s own
    personal experiences. While personal experiences often can’t be
    tested and falsified (although the model we use to
    interpret them can…), are you saying that if you have a personal
    experience you can’t reproduce or falsify you’ll never consider its
    implications “a fact” ? (forget divine intervention – a lot of
    personal experiences have much more straightforward interpretations)

    This is a sincere question; I
    actually had five paragraphs here of exploring it and changing my
    mind every three lines. What do you think ? Of course by “fact” I
    don’t mean an absolutely certain thing; I mean the sort of piece of
    knowledge that when you think about it casually it doesn’t occur to
    you to doubt it.

    And as you
    already pointed out, the latter involves assumptions about black
    boxes, where things that can’t be explained are assumed to be
    violations of physical laws. Again, the data here is limited to the
    improbable event.

    The assumption isn’t that the black boxes must involve
    violations of physical laws – the assumption is that if those black
    boxes contained something, one would expect thousands of years of
    human inquiry to have made some progress in figuring out what it is.
    It worked for science. There is also the assumption that when
    contradictions turn up, finding a mechanism to resolve those
    contradictions and questioning the assumptions that led to them is a
    more effective way to get to the truth than positing black boxes and
    additional entities that explain it all – while still hanging on to
    the original assumptions.

    What I’m
    really trying to do is to call out the creationists and deniers on
    the preconceptions they use. Often they seem to invoke the
    pseudo-Aristotelian idea that logical argument alone can prove the
    truth of something. The language in the Creation Museum’s displays
    use “must have been” over and over, and there’s a good
    argument that this is simply a debating tactic to try to make
    evolution look improbable, but my argument is about the implications
    of thinking in such absolutist terms.

    Agreed.

    So how would
    I stress the importance of relying on testable and falsifiable
    evidence when defending the principle of science?

    Well, as I said at the
    beginning, I don’t really see how one can convince people who think
    they have the truth (and who think formal logic is enough to boot)
    that the scientific method is the only method we have that actually
    works. I don’t know how they could be convinced. In my ignorance I’d
    suggest proving to them that absolute truth is impossible
    (conveniently, I’m pretty sure that actually is
    provable :)), and from there on bring them to the understanding that
    the scientific method works and why. But I have no experience on
    this.

  • Tonio

    How would you state a fact ?

    I had in mind something like Bull Durham: “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone…” Crash Davis could have meant that the available evidence was sufficient to convince him of this. But to me, using the word “believe” implies that something feels true to the person. It implies treating questions such as “who shot JFK” as a matter of opinion.

    If Crash had said that he believed that Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio was the greatest ballplayer, he could use statistics to support that belief, but ultimately he would be expressing opinion because the statement is one of value and not of fact.

    Hmm, I’m probably wrong on this, but what do you mean by “testable and falsifiable data”? AFAIK theories and models can be testable and falsifiable (by data), but data is data.

    You’re right. Thanks for spotting the error.

    But we’re not talking about others here, we’re talking about one’s personal model of the world. Not claims of other people’s personal experiences, but one’s own personal experiences.

    You would have a point if we were talking about what such experiences mean to the person who has them. But the issue here is that the person is using such experiences as evidence that gods exist as fact. At that point, it’s not about a “personal model of the world” but the actual world.

    are you saying that if you have a personal experience you can’t reproduce or falsify you’ll never consider its implications “a fact” ?

    No. I’m saying that if someone else has such an experience, I (the specific I) have no way of reproducing or falsifying it. So I would consider any proposed cause to be speculation instead of fact.

    the assumption is that if those black boxes contained something, one would expect thousands of years of human inquiry to have made some progress in figuring out what it is.

    With due respect to your point, there are many believers, creationists in particular, who do engage in black box reasoning. They talk as if physical laws were like criminal laws or civil laws, as if they weren’t human-created classifications for the order we observe in the universe.

    There is also the assumption that when contradictions turn up, finding a mechanism to resolve those contradictions and questioning the assumptions that led to them is a more effective way to get to the truth than positing black boxes and
    additional entities that explain it all – while still hanging on to the original assumptions.

    while I agree with your post, why wouldn’t one reach the conclusion about its effectiveness through experience instead of simply assuming that effectiveness? And what original assumptions are you talking about?

  • Caravelle

    I had in mind something like Bull Durham: “I believe Lee Harvey
    Oswald acted alone…” Crash Davis could have meant that the available
    evidence was sufficient to convince him of this. But to me, using the
    word “believe” implies that something feels true to the person. It implies treating questions such as “who shot JFK” as a matter of opinion.

    I don’t think this is something we’ll agree on. We use the word differently. And I don’t actually know which of our usages is better; I think mine corresponds to what most people mean when they use the word, but it’s true that the word is often framed the way you see it.

    At that point, it’s not about a “personal model of the world” but the actual world.

    What’s the difference ? Nobody has access to the actual world, they can only build a mental model of it. Replace it with “what they think the world is” if you prefer.

    No. I’m saying that if someone else has such an experience, I
    (the specific I) have no way of reproducing or falsifying it. So I would
    consider any proposed cause to be speculation instead of fact.

    Again, I’m not talking about how you incorporate other people’s claims into how you think the world works, but how you incorporate your own experiences. Do you casually accept as factual parts of your past that you remember but haven’t really verified lately, and that are far enough back that they could easily be false memories ?
    Really, I have two questions on the subject. First, what is our instinctive default for accepting our own unverifiable experiences as fact, and second, is that instinctive default optimal ? I’ve confused myself out of an opinion here so I’d love to know what you think.

    With due respect to your point, there are many believers, creationists in particular, who do engage in black box reasoning.

    That kind of was my point… :p
    In case it hadn’t been clear, the decoder ring for the list of data was : first two items: data that points at some god existing; all the others afterwards: data that points at gods not existing. Obviously I think the former has perfectly good alternate explanations while the latter is convincing, otherwise I wouldn’t be a strong atheist, but you are welcome to disagree. But I do assert those things are data, and saying that strong materialists or atheists believe things in the absence of data is inaccurate.
    Come to think of it, there’s a difference between “materialism isn’t an untenable position” and “materialism is true”. I’ve been arguing the former but if you want to argue the latter I could try that.

    while I agree with your post, why wouldn’t one reach the conclusion
    about its effectiveness through experience instead of simply assuming
    that effectiveness? And what original assumptions are you talking about?

    Awww, I was using the word “assumption” as in “statement I’ll be drawing conclusions from”, not “axiom” ! :) I think the history of science is fairly good evidence for the method’s effectiveness, and there are also intuitive reasons for it (which assumes our intuitions are valid ! But we can deduce our intuitions are valid from the many accurate conclusions we draw from them, and what we know of evolution ! And so on; although that last one might be a wee bit circular, induction or no. Too lazy to work through it and check).

    As for the original assumptions, basically I was picturing a reasoning process : “We think X is true. From this we can deduce Y and Z. Oh noes, Y and Z are incompatible!” and saying that “Let’s work out exactly how Y and Z work to see if we can resolve the incompatibility. Oh noes we can’t do it ! Well, X must be false then. What can we deduce now?” leads to more accurate conclusions than “Ah, there must be an additional rule F that mysteriously makes it all work out”.

    Basically I ended up using “assumption” for the process of saying one works better, and also to describe “X”. Hence terrible confusion.

  • Tonio

    What’s the difference ? Nobody has access to the actual world, they can only build a mental model of it. Replace it with “what they think the world is” if you prefer.

    I admit I wasn’t sure what you meant by “personal model of the world.” My point was that facts are independent of whether people believe they are true or false, and claims that gods exist or that gods don’t exit would be no different.

    Again, I’m not talking about how you incorporate other people’s claims into how you think the world works, but how you incorporate your own experiences. Do you casually accept as factual parts of your past that you remember but haven’t really verified lately, and that are far enough back that they could easily be false memories ?

    I don’t know what “incorporate your own experiences” means in this context. Of course I could be misremembering some parts of my past. My point has nothing to do with whether I accept those as factual, but whether others accept those as factual. Instead I’m saying that however I remember an event, the event happened a certain way, and that cannot be changed even if my memory changes.

    what is our instinctive default for accepting our own unverifiable experiences as fact

    I’m talking about whether others should accept one’s unverifiable experiences that way.

    saying that strong materialists or atheists believe things in the absence of data is inaccurate.

    I agree. I was saying that the statements “gods exist” and “gods don’t exist” can’t be tested or falsified. The former is so broad that any possible data would be compatible with it – by explaining everything it ultimately explains nothing. I suspect the latter has similar falsifiability problems.

    Awww, I was using the word “assumption” as in “statement I’ll be drawing conclusions from”, not “axiom” ! :)

    I had in mind the meaning of the latter, or the meaning of the word dogma, where both imply a refusal to question the statement.

  • Caravelle

    I admit I wasn’t sure what you meant by “personal model of the world.”
    My point was that facts are independent of whether people believe they
    are true or false, and claims that gods exist or that gods don’t exit
    would be no different.

    I agree with that.

    I’m talking about whether others should accept one’s unverifiable experiences that way.

    But I’m not !
    lol.
    Okay, let’s backtrack. Um. A few posts ago you said, about things like gods I presume, “we have no data that would support a belief either way”.

    Do you agree that all beliefs are personal ? I agree that an outside reality exists and is unique (do you? It occurs to me this assumption is about as defensible as “gods don’t exist” and for the same reasons), but what that means is that those personal beliefs will be right or wrong to various extents. Every person’s opinion of what reality is still resides in their own head.

    And do you agree that one’s own personal experiences influences one’s opinion on what reality is ? (given that at the limit, our own personal experiences are all we have, I have trouble seeing how one can disagree with that statement).

    And I think we’d both agree that an event experienced by me will have a different epistemological value for me than an event experienced and reported by you would have. Makes sense; personal experiences have lots of uncertainty on their own, and when I multiply by the uncertainties of communicating with and trusting another person we get a different kind of uncertainty.

    Do you agree that the question “do personal experiences count as data” will be different depending on we’re talking about one’s on experiences’ influence on one’s own beliefs, versus talking about the influence of other people’s experiences on our own beliefs ?

    So here, I’m looking at the epistemological value of one’s own personal experiences on one’s own view of the world. I think it makes sense in the context of your original question.

    I was saying that the statements “gods exist” and “gods don’t exist” can’t be tested or falsified.

    Ehhh… You know, I was going to quibble about how absolutely we meant “falsified” but then I realized that you probably are saying that to disagree with absolutists so I’ll just agree with you.
    I would just like you to understand that a whole lot of people – maybe most – who say something like “gods don’t exist” aren’t saying it in an absolutist sense. And I think that assuming they do plays into a pattern I think is there and that I dislike, which is to associate vastly different levels of certainty to identical phrases depending on their subject matter. So that you get things like “The keys are in the left drawer”: “OK”. “Evolution happened”: “But isn’t that just a theory ?”. “Gods don’t exist”: “How can you know that? The arrogance !”.
    All of those were plain statements of fact, and typically the first will be much less certain than the second for example. But because it’s familiar we don’t think about it.
    In fact it makes a lot of sense to be more certain of familiar statements than unfamiliar ones. The problem is when we decide that our level of certainty is the correct one, and that other people making statements should caveat them to suit our level of certainty.
    Am I making sense ? I’m not sure I’m making sense.

    I had in mind the meaning of the latter, or the meaning of the word dogma, where both imply a refusal to question the statement.

    So I gathered. We really are speaking foreign languages aren’t we ? ^^

  • Tonio

    Do you agree that the question “do personal experiences count as data” will be different depending on we’re talking about one’s on experiences’ influence on one’s own beliefs, versus talking about the influence of other people’s experiences on our own beliefs ?

    Neither one gets at the point I’m trying to make about those “personal experiences.” I’m really talking about instances when people use those experiences to make claims about outside reality, or claims about actions that others should take or not take. Imagine a court accepting “my god told me so” as evidence for or against a defendant’s guilt.

  • Caravelle

    What do you mean ? Personal beliefs about the world are “claims about outside reality”; even those who believe that reality is relative believe that, well, reality is relative. That’s a statement about outside reality.

    Someone using “my god told me so” as an argument in court is saying that their personal experience should affect other people’s beliefs about the world (namely, the judge and jury’s and, in the abstract, the legal system’s). So that falls under my second alternative.

  • Tonio

    Someone using “my god told me so” as an argument in court is saying that
    their personal experience should affect other people’s beliefs about
    the world

    And my point is that a higher standard is necessary. The person could be lying about having been told by a god that the defendant is innocent or guilty. Or the voice could have been created by misfiring synapses or some other biological phenomenon.

    Now, if the person uses such an experience to make decisions for hir own life, I have no objection as long as this doesn’t result in actions that harm others.

    But my example is about the claim of hearing a god’s voice being offered as the sole criterion for sending a defendant to prison or setting hir free. Among other problems, there is no way the prosecution or the defense can offer a rebuttal to the claim itself. What would they do? Label it as hearsay? Subpoena the person’s god to compel firsthand testimony?

  • Caravelle

    And my point is that a higher standard is necessary. The person could be
    lying about having been told by a god that the defendant is innocent or
    guilty. Or the voice could have been created by misfiring synapses or
    some other biological phenomenon.

    Look, do you understand that we are talking about two different things ?

    I can understand that you’d prefer to talk about what you are talking about, and I’m willing to discuss which conversation we should be having, but we can’t do that until we understand what we’re talking about two different things, and what those two things are.

    The fact that every time you explain why you disagree with my statements you seem to be interpreting them as referring to the conversation you’re having makes me think that maybe you don’t realize that we are having two different conversations here.

    Now, if the person uses such an experience to make decisions for hir own
    life, I have no objection as long as this doesn’t result in actions
    that harm others.

    How about if they use such an experience to form beliefs about the outside world ? Do you think it’s a good epistemology, why or why not ?

  • Tonio

    After rereading a couple of your posts, I realized that I’m probably misinterpreting your posts. Not your fault – I have trouble understanding generalities and prefer specifics. My apologies. Would you explain again what general point you are trying to make? Sorry for the inconvenience.

  • Caravelle

    I’ve forgotten ^^

    Okay, I think the whole thing started when I disagreed with your characterization of materialism, and I gave a different one, which you agreed with. And that got us into… something else…

    Basically, I’d say the statement I took issue with is : “But I’m less interested in quibbling over what constitutes materialism,
    and more interested in making a distinction between empiricism and the
    belief that nothing exists beyond sensory perception.

    (retrospectively I’m not quite sure what you meant by that actually, but let’s get into what I thought you were saying…)

    It seems to me that you are assuming that whenever people affirm such a “belief” they are claiming absolute certainty, or an absence of evidence for their position. I think neither is true, especially when talking about “strong” materialists or atheists (believers in religion or the supernatural have much more varied positions, but I’d say it also isn’t true of a lot of them). And I think that as long as you assume “atheist” or “theist” or “materialist” are absolutist positions or are independent of evidence you’ll be unfairly mischaraterizing large groups of people.

    And given that some people actually do think they can have absolute certainty, and I agree with you those should be opposed, ISTM that by assuming “atheist” or even “strong atheist” or “theist” implies absolute certainty you’re dooming yourself to attacking the wrong enemy.

  • Tonio

    It seems to me that you are assuming that whenever people affirm such a “belief” they are claiming absolute certainty, or an absence of evidence for their position.

    Not quite. I was using “belief” to connote that I perceived such people holding positions in the absence of evidence.

    And it may have appeared that I was asserting that some others hold positions with absolute certainty. Upon reconsideration, I would suggest that such people appear to hold positions with conviction, perhaps as a form of allegiance or commitment. I use the terms “suggest” and “suspect” frequently because I seek to imply that my judgment must necessarily be subservient to what I perceive. I’m making it clear that I’m not holding those things as positions – I don’t hold that they are true, but instead hold that they are likely.

    And my point about the positions “gods exist” and “gods don’t exist” and “nothing exists beyond sensory perception” (however one labels such positions) is not necessarily that the people who hold them are deliberately ignoring the lack of evidence. I was saying that no such evidence exists that others can use to test and falsify those hypotheses, regardless of how the people holding those positions reached them.

  • Caravelle

    And it may have appeared that I was asserting that some others hold
    positions with absolute certainty. Upon reconsideration, I would suggest
    that such people appear to hold positions with conviction, perhaps as a
    form of allegiance or commitment. I use the terms “suggest” and
    “suspect” frequently because I seek to imply that my judgment must
    necessarily be subservient to what I perceive. I’m making it clear that
    I’m not holding those things as positions – I don’t hold that they are
    true, but instead hold that they are likely.

    Okay.

    And my point about the positions “gods exist” and “gods don’t exist” and
    “nothing exists beyond sensory perception” (however one labels such
    positions) is not necessarily that the people who hold them are
    deliberately ignoring the lack of evidence. I was saying that no such
    evidence exists that others can use to test and falsify those
    hypotheses, regardless of how the people holding those positions reached
    them.

    That is what I thought you were saying, but I don’t really agree with it. The thing is, every piece of evidence can point to many different theories, right ? As long as a piece of evidence isn’t as likely to occur in two different scenarios, it will be evidence for the scenario it’s more likely to occur in.

    The issue is putting all the pieces of evidence together, and judging how strongly pieces of evidence point to different scenarios. I think that for every piece of evidence, one interpretation and one kind of weighing is correct; I’m not saying all interpretations are equivalent.

    However, if I see someone who claims evidence for their position, and I agree that said evidence does point to their position (if only from their subjective point of view) – I just think it points to it too weakly to be significant and/or doesn’t outweigh all the other evidence that points elsewhere – well, I wouldn’t say that “no evidence exists” for that person’s position.

    It seems to me that you would say that, am I understanding you correctly ?

    I don’t even know if drawing a distinction between evidence and the interpretation of that evidence is that meaningful to tell the truth. But I feel more comfortable telling people “X isn’t sufficiently strong evidence for Y” instead of “X isn’t evidence for Y”. Especially when I think that, well, in isolation X would be evidence for Y…

  • Tonio

    My point has little to do with interpretation of evidence. If someone told me that a god exists as part of “the outside reality” because zie heard the god’s voice, I could only start to consider it as evidence if I assumed that the person was telling the truth about hearing a voice. All I would know is that the person says zie heard a voice.

    That may be different if I had some way of independently verifying that there was a voice that the person heard. You may or may not see this as me interpreting the evidence. I see it as me having no means to gather supporting or contrary evidence on my own that the person heard a voice. That’s what I meant by “no evidence,” a term that I was somewhat hasty in using.

    The other issue is that the person’s proffered hypothesis for the voice (a being of immense power who cannot be detected with the senses) is not testable and (most importantly) not falsifiable. The hypothesis is drawn so broadly that any possible data would be compatible with it. This could fit in with your point that all interpretations are not equivalent. I see that as simply adhering or not adhering to a standard for hypotheses, because an unfalsifiable hypothesis doesn’t effectively explain anything.

  • Caravelle

    I could only start to consider it as evidence if I assumed that the person was telling the truth about hearing a voice.

    So, since the person itself knows they’re telling the truth (they don’t know their memories are but that’s another kettle of fish), you’re saying that they are right to consider it “evidence” ? (not evidence to convince you of course, but evidence to convince themselves ?)

    (of course lots of people had “experiences of the divine” and are nevertheless agnostics or atheists, so even on a personal level “divine experience” doesn’t have to be a slam-dunk. But then people differ)

    That may be different if I had some way of independently verifying that
    there was a voice that the person heard. You may or may not see this as
    me interpreting the evidence. I see it as me having no means to gather
    supporting or contrary evidence on my own that the person heard a voice.
    That’s what I meant by “no evidence,” a term that I was somewhat hasty
    in using.

    I understand; when you said “no evidence” you meant “no evidence that would convince me to adopt the position” ?
    I already said why I find that use to be slippery but I’m not even sure I’m right, so… Maybe we agree then ? :)

  • Tonio

    So, since the person itself knows they’re telling the truth (they don’t know their memories are but that’s another kettle of fish), you’re saying that they are right to consider it “evidence” ? (not evidence to convince you of course, but evidence to convince themselves ?)

    Hmmm…I would describe that as different standards of evidence. If the person is using the voice only to make decisions for hir life that don’t harm others, I might disagree with the standard of evidence that zie is using, but in practice I think it would be petty of me to openly state the objection. But if the person is insisting that everyone accept that purported god’s existence as fact, and insists that the voice gave hir instructions for the human race, then I may be justified in counter-insisting on a higher standard of evidence.

    of course lots of people had “experiences of the divine” and are nevertheless agnostics or atheists

    (jaw hangs open) Really. So in general, do they assume that the experiences didn’t have a divine origin? Do they leave the experiences as unexplained?

  • Caravelle

    Hmmm…I would describe that as different standards of evidence. If the
    person is using the voice only to make decisions for hir life that don’t
    harm others, I might disagree with the standard of evidence that zie is
    using, but in practice I think it would be petty of me to openly state
    the objection. But if the person is insisting that everyone accept that
    purported god’s existence as fact, and insists that the voice gave hir
    instructions for the human race, then I may be justified in
    counter-insisting on a higher standard of evidence.

    I completely agree.

    (jaw hangs open) Really. So in general, do they assume that the
    experiences didn’t have a divine origin? Do they leave the experiences
    as unexplained?

    What, have you never heard of ex-believers talk about their deconversion experiences ? A lot of them talk about having experiences that at the time they interpreted as divine.
    Most of those I’ve heard of have come to decide their experience wasn’t divine. I haven’t heard of leaving experiences as unexplained but I imagine that could happen too.
    I agree it’s a bit hard to imagine having such a radical shift in one’s interpretation of one’s own experiences but apparently it can happen.

    If you’re interested, the most detailed story of the sort I can recall offhand is Evid3nc3’s:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/Evid3nc3#p/c/A0C3C1D163BE880A/9/V-q8WZ1Ibso
    (although I don’t know how many atheists, or people in general, would agree on the “simulation” interpretation. But it’s a personal story after all so whatever)

    That video is just the one about personal experiences, but if you’re interested in deconversion stories the whole sequence in order is worth watching.

  • Tonio

    Thanks for the explanation. I didn’t realize at first that you were talking about ex-believers, not people who had more or less always been atheists or agnostics. I’ve never encountered the type of deconversion account that you described. All the accounts I’ve read or heard about have followed this pattern – the person believed because zie was taught to or raised that way, or else they thought they had found meaning in a particular religion, but in both cases started questioning what they had come to believe. I’ll check out that link.

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

    Huh. I never heard of a de-conversion story before.  Thank you. That was interesting.

  • Caravelle

    What do you mean ? Personal beliefs about the world are “claims about outside reality”; even those who believe that reality is relative believe that, well, reality is relative. That’s a statement about outside reality.

    Someone using “my god told me so” as an argument in court is saying that their personal experience should affect other people’s beliefs about the world (namely, the judge and jury’s and, in the abstract, the legal system’s). So that falls under my second alternative.

  • Tonio

    Sorry, it looks like I messed up one of the blockquote tags. I found something I like about Disqus, which is that it inserts big quote marks for each blockquote.

    Anyway, the short version of my point is that the conclusions one draws from any type of reasoning are less of an issue to me than the methodology used. I’m arguing for data as the starting point and against logical argument as the sole or even primary method. In principle, I suggest that we should always be prepared to question our propositions, comparing them against data instead of remaining blissfully secure in the belief that we know everything.

  • Caravelle

    In principle, I suggest that we should always be prepared to question
    our propositions, comparing them against data instead of remaining
    blissfully secure in the belief that we know everything.

    Which isn’t incompatible with materialism.
    It appears that you’re taking my definition of “materialism” to mean “empiricism”, but in that case I don’t see what you mean by “materialism”. You say :

    My issue with labeling
    that as materialism is that it seems to assume that anything perceived
    with our senses is material

    But what’s “material” and “our senses” in that sentence? Is energy material? Is dark matter material?

    That also plays into what I’ve said before about
    atheism – whether a lack of belief in gods qualifies as atheism is less
    relevant to me than distinguishing that lack of belief from a positive
    belief that gods don’t exist.

    I does sound to me as if you’re having the same issue with both questions, but I really don’t see the dichotomy the way you do. Really, what is this huge gap between “I don’t believe gods exist” and “I believe gods don’t exist”?

    I don’t believe gods exist. My mental model of the Universe, the way I think the world works, doesn’t contain any gods. Adding gods makes it make less sense, conceptually. In fact, every new thing I learn about religion or the supernatural makes me realize how much sense my model makes without those things. If I were asked to bet on whether gods exist, I would bet on “no” with a very high confidence. Therefore, it is also true that I believe gods don’t exist.

    I don’t understand what’s absolute, or non-data-based, or just generally so shocking to you about such a position. It’s not as if I’m saying I know gods don’t exist, or that I won’t accept contrary evidence if it comes up, or that I just picked the idea arbitrarily out of thin air.
    (mutatis mutandis on materialism; actually I think of myself as a materialist first, and atheist as a consequence)

    My usual example involves the creationist assumption that order can
    only be designed. That’s an absolutist assumption that can artificially
    limit the scope of one’s thinking. That plays into my point about
    possibilities. I use “flatly” in this case to refer to that absolutism.
    It’s not about examining all possibilities equally, but avoiding the
    idea of impossibility. We don’t have the knowledge to say that anything
    is impossible, because that in itself is an absolutist concept. But we
    do have the knowledge to suggest that some possibilities are more likely
    or less likely than others.

    I agree with everything you say. But I don’t understand why you assume materialism or strong atheism are absolutist concepts. I’m sure some people use them that way but nobody I’ve met does. Can’t one have an opinion without understanding that nothing in this world is certain ? Can’t one decide that no, we can’t ever know that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning, but that after long consideration of one’s past experience, the science of astronomy, the epistemology of science and evidence, the quirks of neurology and cognition, and so on, we make the decision from now on to accept that the Sun will very probably rise in the East tomorrow and to feel comfortable enough with the idea that we don’t need to caveat the statement to death?

    Isn’t it all about levels of certainty ? And if so, what’s the most certain thing you’ll assert in everyday life without adding caveats, and why should that level apply to everyone else?


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