Chatting with Eve Tushnet

I did an interview with Eve Tushnet (a fellow Patheos blogger and a friend from college debate) over at Catholic Lane.  Now that I’m reading it, it’s a little embarrassing how many times Eve had to use brackets to translate a gesture or noise I was making into, y’know, words. (Meanwhile, at rationality camp, I was trying to help someone correct an error in a math question by saying “No, no, you need to throw up a [holds up forearms, perfectly parallel and makes a clicking noise] which, shockingly, the person at the board did not immediately realize meant “Put absolute value bars around the expression.”)

So fair warning that any lacuna and weird conceptual leaps are way more my fault than the result of Eve’s condensing.  I had a lot of fun in our chat, because I know Eve well and I could skip right to the weirder, more interesting ideas instead of spending so much time on background.  So here’s a sampling from the article:


ET: How did the experience of writing a blog about atheism affect your conversion?

LL: It was interesting for me to see, in writing and in speeches, how much my language was shifting toward the other team. One example was that in some of the discussion after Osama Bin Laden was assassinated I said, I’m glad he can’t hurt people, but it seems like one of the worst things is that he didn’t get better and I don’t see any way he could have. And that’s very A Wrinkle in Time [another L’Engle novel], where IT still needs to be loved even if Meg isn’t the one capable of loving IT. [Another example is] whether it’s wrong to hate people even if you don’t do anything to harm them. Is there anything wrong with that? And I said yes, you’re callousing your soul. And they said, “Where do you get off using the word ‘soul’?” And I said, “It’s a metaphor—lay off!”

ET: What do Catholics need to know about atheists?

LL: A lot of people who might make what is a philosophically-useful attack have made it in stupid ways before. You should have a good idea of what arguments atheists usually encounter. Because a lot of [good arguments] look like echoes of bad arguments they have heard before. It’s on you to do the groundwork of saying something that sounds new and is new. “What is the grounding of your morals?” [can easily be presented so it sounds too much like] “Atheists are immoral.”

If you haven’t, read some of the atheist blogs or books. Otherwise it’s really easy to use “dog whistles” that make it hard for someone to listen to you because the last person who used that phrase was dumb or nasty. It’s good to give the benefit of the doubt but you don’t always have the time. So it’s more your job to make it easier for people to listen to you than it is their job to be patient with everyone.


Read the whole thing…

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  • Alex Godofsky

    The “dog whistles” point is definitely true. As an atheist I eventually just stopped engaging people who wanted to argue about religion because it got too repetitive. I kept swatting down the same arguments easily and no one seemed to be making any better ones. Your conversion argument is good in part because it’s so weird that it forces people to actually sit down and think about it for a bit.

    • Ted Seeber

      Here’s the odd part. I feel the same about certain types of atheists. I can’t argue with them, because they only bring up the same old boring arguments that have already been debunked a ton of times.

      The sex abuse scandals were bad, but to commit Bernard’s Law (or Anderson’s Corollary for the more common non-Mark Shea related name for it) every time you’re losing an argument is just downright wrong.

      If I hear one more person tell me that the Church either threw Galileo into a dungeon and/or executed him, I’m going to get *really angry* about how secular schools teach pre-reformation history these days.

      Same with “The Bible has contradictions in it” when the examples are just a bunch of Protestants taking the Bible out of context anyway, and as Oregon Catholic wrote, the entire post-reformation “Morality is just my own personal subjective feelings” meme (can you tell I blame the philosophy and theology of Protestantism for the rise of atheism in Christendom?)

      This is why Leah’s conversion is so incredibly valuable to me- not so much for a mortal soul living 3000 miles away from me who I will never meet in this life, but now have a chance of meeting in paradise- but that she has given ME new things to think about my own religion, and about how the poisonous myths about religion have attacked the entire concept of God.

      Latest one on Mark Shea’s blog- the tendency of certain American Conservative Catholics (who are Americans first, Conservative Second, and Catholic a distant third and only when it doesn’t interfere with the first two) to defend nuclear weapons (despite the Pope and Bishops teaching that use of nukes is *always and forever immoral and to be condemned*). Moral Relativists- can’t argue with them, and can’t even pin down why they think some things are evil and other things are good.

      • Alex Godofsky

        Here’s the odd part. I feel the same about certain types of atheists. I can’t argue with them, because they only bring up the same old boring arguments that have already been debunked a ton of times.

        That’s really not surprising at all, and of course it’s possible that the arguments you think you’ve debunked are the same ones I think were successful refutations, and vice versa. If you agreed with the atheists’ arguments you probably would have ended up being convinced of their conclusions.

        • I actually think this is more because logic has nothing to do with it. We like the arguments because we liked the conclusions first. Often the real reasons run deeper. This is why prayer is so important. Opening up your heart to the love of God makes it all make sense.

          Not atheists have their own way of psycho-analyzing religious folks. Some of the points they make can be valid as well. It does kill the debate. Even if we don’t explicitly make the ad hominem argument we think it. So an argument you find convincing I can find pathetic and vice-versa.

          Really the role of logic is mostly to remove poor understandings. Then when you want to convert it plays a role in finding show-stoppers. To insure we are not making an irrational choice. But that is assuming we already find the choice attractive.

  • pretty anonymous

    May I try to follow your advices for making conversations between a believer and an atheist?

    > A thing that is more useful to do is to ask people more about what they believe.

    Please, tell me more about this thing:
    > many people are made happy by things we think shouldn’t make them happy!

    Can you give some examples of this scenario?

    > I wasn’t thinking of her as being an ass to me but instead there was some ur-[Lisa] which would be freer if she wasn’t doing this. Instead of thinking I should withstand Angry Lisa I could help actual Lisa.

    Isn’t this a utilitarian justification? You’re saying that you shouldn’t think of Lisa as an ass, but as a person struggling with some problems, because that is might help you to give her liberation, or, in other words, happiness.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m not Leah and I don’t play her on TV- but one of the strangest things I’ve found from my original materialist bent is the concept that materially poor people can be happy- and that an upper middle class individual on unemployment is going through far more pain than a hobo who didn’t have a steady job or a home to begin with.

      That is an utterly non-intuitive example of “a situation making somebody happy when it shouldn’t” to me.

    • Alex

      How about a child being happy if their parents let them eat sweets every day? I think most people would think that such a situation is bad for the child, even if the child is happy.

      Sorry its not a very good example, I couldn’t think of anything else right away.

    • Iota

      > Can you give some examples of this scenario?

      pretty anonymous,
      You are going to get a lot of people who aren’t Leah and who are happy to take a shot at answering… 🙂 Here’s my attempt:

      Given that Leah goes on to talk about the fact that our neurological responses aren’t a reliable guide to what truly makes us happy, I’d tentatively assume what she might mean I situations in which we choose a behaviour that is suboptimal for ourselves or our community, because we enjoy it.

      I could answer on two levels: I could tell you about people who do pretty awful stuff and seem happy doing it, but I’m afraid that might either end up as an argument about psychopaths or “believers would rape, kill and steal, if it weren’t for God” kind of argument; so instead I’m going to try to use small stuff, at the risk of sounding trivial. I believe the big stuff to be equally valid, for some people, though.

      Alex wrote about children who eat sweets. But it’s not just children – adults get addicted to stuff and form bad habits: tobacco, alcohol, gambling to the point when you are risking your livelihood, sweet/fat foods eaten in excess, wasting time on the Internet, gossiping. They engage in potentially very risky activities such as driving way too fast, to the point where it endangers someone’s health or life. Some people form pretty nasty emotional habits (for example, they begin to enjoy thinking badly about others and their self-esteem becomes tied to actively detesting those they view as inferior). Or they’re just freeloaders, for example. I personally admit to liking staying up late and doing way too little work until deadlines are imminent (I have a flexible work schedule).

      In all of those (I think) the resources or effort could be redirected to something more unequivocally positive either for the individual (most people would, in theory, agree not-smoking is better than smoking and, for example, they’d prefer their kids not to pick up smoking) or for the community (if we didn’t consume so many luxuries, we’d have more resources saved up for later, if we didn’t waste time excessively we could either volunteer to help the needy or, for example, spend more time with our friends and families, or study, etc.).

      If that were sort of what Leah had in mind then perhaps “shouldn’t make them happy” would mean not so much that the mechanism of addiction or behaviour is illogical but that the behaviour the person chooses is suboptimal or, at worst, actively harmful to themselves of their community.

  • Oregon Catholic

    I actually think the hardest person for a Catholic to argue with is a moral relativist, and while atheists often hold this view there are plenty of christian relativists too. In my experience they almost always reject (without any basis) or run from slippery slope arguments, refusing to follow them to a logical conclusion. They seem very naive, willful or otherwise, and just want to assume society will remain good (as they define good) despite some very obvious historical examples of the evil humans are capable of.

    • Ted Seeber

      Yep. Moral relativists are hard to argue with because, by Catholic ideals, they have no foundation. They have built their moral house on the shifting sands of subjective feeling, rather than on the objective facts of history. I’m always amazed by theoretical physicists who are atheists- because it looks like to me that they are objective in everything that doesn’t count, and subjective in all the stuff that does.

  • I don’t know how I overlooked this before, but your initals are “LL”. Are you somehow profoundly connected to the life of Kal-El/Clark Kent? Are you an ally or an arch-nemesis?

    I suppose I’m caught off guard because I always figured you were more into Marvel comics than DC. But then, I often misjudge people.

    • leahlibresco

      Definitely prefer Marvel to DC, but that’s all the more reason to pop in as a villain in the multiverse that interests me less.

  • Leo Schlosser

    The most often thing I found myself thinking when I read Richard Dawkins book “The God Delusion” was that this guy has no real concept of the what it would mean to be eternal. If God is defined as eternal, which He is, then many of his objections wilted on the vine. Not being an atheist I don’t know for sure but can you not believe in God and still accept the concepts of infinity and eternity or do they not exist either?

    • Dianne

      can you not believe in God and still accept the concepts of infinity and eternity or do they not exist either?

      Personally, I have difficulty with the concept of eternity. Time confuses me when you start to think about it on a grand scale. Space too. Also the speed of light and why it’s important. The limitations of my understanding likely mean essentially nothing to the universe.

      Infinity’s easier. I can at least pretend I understand something about infinity. If the bridge keeper in The Holy Grail asked me to explain infinity, I could at least ask him, “An integer infinity or a real number infinity?” and have a chance of puzzling him into the chasm.

    • A Philosopher

      If anything, there are slightly greater difficulties for the theist in fully endorsing infinities than for the atheist. (My experience is that theistic philosophers are marginally more likely to be Aristotelian “potential infinity” types than their atheistic counterparts.) There’s some theological pressure to place quantitatively scalable features of God at the maximum possible value. That looked easy enough when “infinity” was a nice simple answer to what the largest possible value was, but post-Cantor it’s much harder. (E.g.: how many truths does God know? If, for every subset of God’s beliefs, God knows that all of those beliefs are true, then there’s no answer to that question.)

      (Cantor, in fact, carried out a brief correspondence with Cardinal Franzelin about the theological implications of his work on infinite cardinals. One gets the impression reading it that Franzelin was a bit mystified by the whole thing.)

      • Oregon Catholic

        I’m not familiar enough with Cantor, or likely to understand the math, but are you saying that ‘all”‘ as the answer to “how many?” isn’t sufficent to cover infinite infinites?

        • Adrian Ratnapala

          Yes, that’s actually a nice way of saying things.

          Basically there is trouble with the notion of “the collection of all possible things”, or even of “the largest possible collection of things”. It turns out that if you postulate some collection as the largest – even an infinite one – Cantor can show you an even bigger one.

          None of this deals a death blow to anyone’s philosophy, but it does make the problems theologeans have understing “God is the Greatest” even harder than they were before Cantor came along.

          • Oregon Catholic

            Catholics don’t categorize God the way this example tries to do but I’ll go along.
            I still think ‘all’ is a legitimate term to describe attributes of God in this context.
            “It turns out that if you postulate some collection as the largest – even an infinite one – Cantor can show you an even bigger one.”
            Yes, but all collections to infinity (or even theoretically beyond) would be included as well. Since God is All, there is nothing He is not, and nothing that is not contained within Him, either inside or outside of all creation.

            Since God created the laws of math and physics, He cannot be constrained by them. He will necessarily always be ‘greater than’ anything in His creation. You don’t have to believe in God to accept the logic of what we are saying about a creator not being constrained by his creation.

          • Actually Cantor’s thinking led to Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. That creates a problem for those with faith in logic and reason. Not so much for those with faith in God.

          • Beadgirl

            Exactly. I’ve encountered in comboxes atheists who go beyond simply not believing in God because of a lack of empirical evidence, to absolutely refusing to even discuss God, even in theoretical or hypothetical terms, because of that lack of evidence. I always wanted to ask them if they refuse to ever talk about pi, too, or heck math in general. Or art. Or philosophy. Or love.

      • Most people would be mystified . I am amused at the idea of corresponding with a Cardinal on cardinality.

        How many truths does God know? There are a lot of paradoxes like that. I am not sure Georg Cantor creates any truly new ones.

      • There’s some theological pressure to place quantitatively scalable features of God at the maximum possible value. That looked easy enough when “infinity” was a nice simple answer to what the largest possible value was, but post-Cantor it’s much harder.

        This really doesn’t make much sense as a historical account, since barring some scattered examples, there has been a standing theological tendency to deny that ‘features of God’ are quantitatively scalable at all; ‘infinite’ for most of its history simply meaning ‘having no limit or terminal point’. This is, actually, why we call transfinite numbers ‘transfinite’; Cantor wanted to distinguish the sense in which they were infinite from the sense in which God was infinite. One of things Cantor recognized was that the properties that had previously been associated with the finite actually fell into two groups, one of which was strictly required for being finite and one of which could apply to certain kinds of infinite. One sees the actual historical situation quite well in the Franzelin correspondence — Franzelin’s initial worry was that Cantor, in arguing for an actual infinite other than God (Cantor thought that there were three actual infinites: God, the universe, and the mathematical infinite), was suggesting pantheism; but once Cantor clarified that the latter two had quantitative limitations, he had no difficulty at all recognizing that the latter two infinites were not infinite in the theological sense.

        I suppose there are probably atheisms that would have an easier time with infinites than most theisms, although I very much doubt generalizations are easily made in either case. I doubt theism vs. atheism is the right filter for analysis here. But there are also plenty of atheisms that are built on principles known to have problems with infinites; most of the rationalist arguments against the empiricists on this point still essentially stand against those positions. (Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word, for instance, is essentially a modernization of them; and in Chapter 4 it’s not as if he’s arguing against straw men.)

        • Adrian Ratnapala

          there has been a standing theological tendency to deny that ‘features of God’ are quantitatively scalable at all; ‘infinite’ for most of its history simply meaning ‘having no limit or terminal point’.

          Back in Aquainas’ day, when theology was strong and confident, it felt like it could admit that God can’t square the circle any more than man can. But now that mathematicians put pressure on infinity, it seems that theology finds it safer to retreat into the ineffable omnipotence.

          • Again, this doesn’t seem to have any connection with actual history or fact, even setting aside the fact that I have no idea where you’re getting omnipotence from. There’s no identifiable sense in which mathematicians ‘put pressure on’ infinity. It’s not as if Cantor discovered mathematical infinities for the first time; mathematical infinites have been hanging around on the intellectual scene since the ancient Greeks. But theologians pretty much never identified divine infinity with quantitative infinites, because quantitative infinites all have properties that are measurable in some sense, and precisely what they were doing was arguing that its a category mistake to attribute measurable properties to God, unless you are doing it metaphorically. This was all discussed quite at length in Aquinas’s days — Scotus and the Scotists in general go into it most extensively. And you can find plenty of theologians and mathematicians since, starting with Cantor himself, who quite clearly deny that the one sense and the other have much to do with each other except at the very must general level. As Cantor pointed out, his transfinite mathematics can’t be applied to God because it doesn’t deal with the right kinds of infinites.

            And what’s remarkable is that this whole vague argument simply ends up diminishing the sheer magnitude of Cantor’s great achievement. It’s not as if everyone had Cantor’s definitions of finite and infinite for two thousand years and were just too stupid to understand the implications. On the contrary, the genius of Cantor was that he recognized that a number of puzzles about the infinite were due to the fact that when people had been talking about ‘the finite’, they had been talking about two different kinds of properties, both of which finite numbers have, but only one of which actually is tied up in their being finite. The other kind could very well apply to things that are not finite, in such a way to make those infinites, in a recognizable and reasonable sense, true numbers, just like finite numbers are. It required some pretty daring analysis to break these two kinds of properties apart. But when people talked about divine infinity, they were excluding both kinds of properties associated with the finite, because both involve some kind of quantitative limitation. Cantor himself recognized this fact, and we know he did because he explicitly said it. It’s possible, of course, that Cantor simply did not understand the implications of his own ideas, but if so it needs to be shown, not assumed.

            So there’s no general history of a problem on this point. Of course, one could come up with specific arguments, like Grim’s omniscience paradox, which I take it A Philosopher was alluding to, but (1) most of these arguments are in fact relatively recent and still quite controversial (e.g., Grim is making assumptions about how truths are individuated and how they are known that are not universally accepted); and (2) in each of these cases it has to be proven that the result holds of divine infinity as theologians have understood it through the centuries, not some bastardized equivocation that was made up to make the argument work. One thing that must be avoided is merely incantatory appeal to mathematics; that defeats the whole purpose of thinking mathematically, which is not to make points by rhetorical sleight of hand but show the actual implications of actual structures.

  • Ted Seeber

    Leah, reading that interview, a thought occurred to me. Earlier in life I had many struggles with human sexuality and gender- most of which were resolved by gaining the intention to reproduce (which of course, has only one natural way to do so, and objectively, has only one set of morality that makes sense while doing so for minimal psychological problems in the children). But I have to wonder- could your bisexuality be affected by autistic-like behavior?

    I say this because a few things you mentioned earlier- and in this interview- indicate to me that you might be connecting with people on an intellectual level, but not as much on an emotional one, and even less on a physical lust level.

    Stereo-typically, this matches the set of mental illnesses that I am a part of (so much so that I know neurodiversity activists who accuse the APA of bigotry) and which might explain why you are attracted to people of both genders (because in reality, you’re barely attracted to physical bodies at all, and you’re really experiencing one of the other three types of Greek love in the relationship- not so much eros, as agape or phileos- storge requires children).

    A recent set of other thoughts I have is that most of America’s real problems with gay marriage, divorce, civil unions, and common law couples comes from not understanding the four loves.

    • Ted Seeber

      And then the next post in the blog REALLY answered my question. Yep. Under modern expansionist thinking in the APA and the DSM-V about autism and Asperger’s, like most mathematicians Leah fits the model.

      The neurodiversificist in me says the model is still garbage, but like most pop psychology, it’s useful to see how others see you sometimes.

    • leahlibresco

      Never been screened, so, whatever I am, I must present neurotypical enough to not trigger anyone to screen me. I definitely test way higher SQ than EQ on the Simon Baron Cohen stuff when it turned up online.

  • Leo Schlosser

    To A Philosopher and Dianne, thanks for your comments.
    Like you Dianne I have more trouble with eternal than infinite. Being a draftsman I can imagine a line extending in both directions “to infinity and beyond”. But eternal is different because we are trapped in time. My first step outside of time was with a short poem by Mason Williams “Now was just then, and here it comes again just then”. In my thinking I echoed one of St. Augustine’s ideas that God is outside of time. For God all time is now, all time is present to God. Is that not cool! If you were sitting on God’s shoulder you could be watching a T-Rex at the same time as watching your great grand kids playing on a beach. Assuming we leave any beaches for them to play on. A Philosopher I think I understand your point but not being familiar with Cantor or Cardinal Franzelin, and not being a philosopher I won’t claim to be able to fully grasp your reference, but would only counter that God is beyond value, which in a philosophical debate might not amount to a hill of beans.

  • Lauren

    Hey Leah, I’m curious to know if the stories of the saints played any role in your conversion. Atheists often argue that the inexplicable phenomena surrounding their lives (ecstasies, miracles, stigmata, etc.) were either untrue or the result of some psychological illness. What did you believe about Catholic saints prior to your conversion?

    • leahlibresco

      Nothing in particular.

      • Ted Seeber

        Is that supposed to be punny, or have I hit another instance where my autistic/stoic sense of humor is off?

  • Hibernia86

    I don’t always complete the debates on this blog because I’m often debating with people who are very set in their ways in Catholicism. I don’t have any realistic chance of changing their mind regardless of what I say so it isn’t worth my time to continue to debate. Sometimes I’ll do it to improve my debating skills or for fun, but normally I’ll just set out the basic logic and if someone still isn’t getting it, then I just hope that most people in the general population, if they were to read it, would.

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    The fastest preview of that answer is, “You’re in the same situation with reference to morality that we were with sight before we knew the mechanism of how it worked. We thought we were in fact seeing real objects. It’s not clear why two fleshy things in the front of your head caused that to happen, but it was clear that they did.

    Vision, colour and the physical objects we see might all be real – but none of them are absolutes. Certainly none of them comes from outside the universe. The fact that we can see, is a highly contingent fact about our biological makeup, the way we divide the world up is also contingent and somewhat aribtrary (my computer is a computer, but it is also just a bunch of atoms).

    So while this metaphor can get you to a kind of moral realism, it depends on a definition of “real” quite different from the trancendant absolutes of the Christian God.

  • Thing about the brackets and body language: Reminds me of when guffawers over at the New York Times took to diagramming Sarah Palin’s sentences. Colloquial, unmannered English just doesn’t fit that sort of thing.

  • This was a way cooler post when I misread the title as Chanting with Eve Tushnet