The Inimitable John C. Wright…

The Inimitable John C. Wright… July 11, 2012

…reflects on his years as an atheist. Interesting combox discussion follows.

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  • A Philosopher

    it is therefore clear that he, the atheist, is smarter than nine tenths of the world, and all the geniuses of history, with a few small exceptions: James Randi, Lucretius, Christopher Hitchens, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan.

    Surely everyone has at least one belief that 90% of the rest of the world disagrees with. It just doesn’t follow that everyone believes that they are smarter than 90% of the rest of the world.

    Look, I know perfectly well that there are theists, and Christians, both historical and present, who are far more intellectually gifted than I am — even more intellectually gifted in the specific philosophical areas that are relevant here. But (a) I also know atheists who are far more intellectually gifted than I in the relevant areas, and (b) in any case, I know the arguments and reasons given on all sides, and I know that the theistic arguments given are unpersuasive. (For the aficionado: the peer disasgreement literature is obviously relevant here.) That doesn’t make me arrogant (although, in fact, I probably am) — it’s not *me* that’s right, it’s the arguments I endorse.

    But the atheist raised on Earth, even if he respects the historical Christ, of Mohamed or Moses, or Buddha, or Confucius, or Plato, cannot help but feel pity or contempt for the basic thinking of these men, which basic thinking is supernatural (yes, including the arch-pragmatic Confucius) and therefore cannot help but feel pity or contempt for Christendom, for the Ummah, for Jewry, for India, for China, for the Classical Pagans of old.

    Well, yes, he can. No pity or contempt here. The theists are wrong, but they aren’t stupid. They hold a false view, but one no falser, or more bizarre, or more harmful, than one of dozens that my well-respected philosophical colleagues hold.

    Sociological point: I think in general it’s a bad idea for former members of a religious group to write as former members. First, the former membership is often one from one’s teens or twenties (don’t know if that’s the case in Mr. Wright’s case), and what one thinks in one’s teens and twenties should, in general, be wholly ignored. Second, it’s just very hard to have an objective take on one’s former beliefs — the perspective of one’s new affiliation, and a number of set narratives regarding the transition, tend to color the presentation. Third, there’s just something slightly distasteful about trying to live in that liminal realm. Just put the old view behind you, and move on to simply being an X, not an X-who-used-to-be-a-Y.

    • “Surely everyone has at least one belief that 90% of the rest of the world disagrees with.”
      Except that not all disagreements are on the same level of importance. If you and I disagree that Pepsi or Coke is superior not much is impacted in the matter beyond which company is getting our money.

      But the atheist is in the position of denying what 90% of the human race throughout history has held to, the concept of a deity or deities actually existing. The atheist, especially the materialist of the Dawkins/Dennit/Hitchens stripe, based on their own premises has the ever present temptation to conclude that the atheist is simply a superior person. Hence the “Brights” designation. And this is borne out by the fact that quite a few give into this temptation on a routine basis.

      I’d have thought the post uncontroversial given the jerkitude that quite a few atheist comments I’ve seen reflect this superiority complex.

      • A Philosopher


        Perhaps the question of whether God exists is particularly important. (I’m actually a bit skeptical that it’s more important than the question of whether you exist, but that’s not immediately relevant.) But I don’t see why that matters. Wright is attempting to argue from “A disagrees with 90% of people” to “A regards himself as smarter than 90% of people”. That argument is clearly fallacious, as my ubiquitous counterexamples show. Strengthening the premise to “A disagrees with 90% of people on a question of importance”, as you suggest, doesn’t restore the argument to validity.

        I certainly don’t deny that many atheist commentators on the internet are jerks. This follows, as they say, from a more general principle. But the generic doesn’t underwrite Wright’s sweeping universals.

        • “Wright is attempting to argue from “A disagrees with 90% of people” to “A regards himself as smarter than 90% of people”. ”
          This misstates the argument. “A disagrees with 90% of people he otherwise respects on a matter they regard as significant or paramount; and his disagreement is intellectual rather than experiential or dogmatic (that is, he basis his disagreement on a confidence in the power of his unaided intellect to see the truth of the matter); therefore A is exposed to a temptation to overestimate his power of his intellect in comparison with the 90%. If he falls into this temptation (and not all men do) he overestimates his intelligence.”
          A man who misreads a fairly clear argument should be ready to admit that even intelligent men make little mistakes from time to time.

          • A Philosopher


            Intelligent men, like everyone else, make big mistakes all the time. I’m sure I’m not exception.

            My disagreement isn’t “based on a confidence in the power of my unaided intellect to see the truth”; it’s based on the arguments and reasons. It might be mis-based, of course, but so might yours — the mere possibility of error doesn’t carry much persuasive force. Because it’s the reasons that move me, there’s no reason for me to reach any conclusion about my intelligence thus far.

            Of course, I might go on to reflect on the difference in conclusion between myself and others. Here the “90%” stuff becomes irrelevant, because for most people I have no idea why they hold the theological views that they do. But in a few cases, I do have people’s arguments laid out for me. In such cases, I can, if I want, try to make a tentative assessment of the intellectual capacity of the arguer. That I disagree with the conclusions of the arguments is, of course, no reason for me to conclude that the arguer is intellectually inferior in any way — after all, as you say, intelligent people make mistakes. For the most part, I’m not really interested in the “intellectual ranking” game. But I’m human, so I do succumb a bit. And when I do, the results are mixed. There are some theists I think I’m smarter than, and others that I think I’m less smart than. I take it that’s not a very surprising conclusion.

    • Ted Seeber

      ” I know the arguments and reasons given on all sides, and I know that the theistic arguments given are unpersuasive.”

      Isn’t unpersuasive a subjective rather than objective term? After all, unpersuasive to YOU may very well be very persuasive to ME.

      This goes hand in hand with the common atheistic worship of science and knowledge, while simultaneously eliminating all classifications of evidence that does not fit the atheistic worldview.

      • A Philosopher


        Well, I think there’s both an objective and a subjective use of “persuasive”. But I’m happy to focus on the subjective use, since it’s sufficient for my purposes. The arguments being subjectively unpersuasive grounds my rejection of them, despite my recognition that I thereby disagree with some people who are smarter than I. If they’re persuasive to you, then that fact grounds your acceptance of them, despite your recognition that you thereby disagree with some people who are smarter than you (let’s assume).

        I can’t say that I see what any of that has to do with putative scientism on the part of atheists.

        • Ted Seeber

          My bit is flipped the other way- *accept the beliefs of people who are smarter than I am until I can successfully refute their arguments with objective data*. It’s a recognition of the value of authority in human knowledge; for instance, I am very ready to concede to say, the theory of evolution or the theory of global warming based on the objective and empirical evidence.

          I am not willing to eliminate God based on a lack of objective evidence, because plenty of empirical evidence exists.

          I am willing to ignore subjective claims that eliminate evidence of either objective or empirical variety.

          And once you start accepting subjective evidence, there’s no reason not to accept any willy-nilly claim somebody wants to make.

    • Irenist

      @A Philosopher:

      Thanks for a polite, interesting post. When you say that the peer disagreement literature is relevant, I read that as you saying that you endorse something like what Kelly calls the “No Independent Weight View,” in his paper “Peer Disagreement and Higher Order Evidence,” so those clever Christian epistemic peers needn’t be especially relevant when evaluating the weight of arguments for theism. That’s just my guess from reading your aside, though. What were you getting at? (FWIW, I’m dubious that anyone can convert anyone to anything in a combox, and conversion isn’t my goal in asking. However, as an amateur “aficionado,” I am curious.)

      • A Philosopher


        I don’t have completely settled views on the peer disagreement issues, but I’m probably a bit closer to Tom’s “Total Evidence View”, although I’m not without some sympathy for “Symmetric No Independent Weight”. Roughly, I’m willing to allow in the higher-order evidence in cases in which we’re most clearly acting like a measurement system (limiting case: when someone else’s vision is better than mine, I’m willing to allow my conclusions based on my perceptual evidence to be overruled by the peer disagreement). But I think the theoretical cases are sufficiently far removed from “measurement system” models that “No Independent Weight” is a better approximation for the local landscape.

        (A partial, and probably only partially helpful, analogy: I and an equally mathematically talented peer both perform a multi-digit multiplication, and both get different answers. Initially, the peer disagreement should drop my confidence substantially — that’s because right now, I’m more or less just a “thermometer” for multiplication facts. But now I go back and re-check each step of my arithmetic. When I don’t find an error, I can push my confidence back up a lot, and set aside the peer disagreement largely, since now my belief is more directly grounded on the arithmetic reasons. I still shouldn’t have perfect confidence, because I shouldn’t have perfect confidence in my own sensitivity to reasons — this is part of why peer disagreement stuff is tricky, because sometimes it looks like the disagreement merely highlights an epistemic sensitivity to the possibility of error which should have been taken into account already, even before actual disagreement emerged.)

        • Irenist

          Thanks very much; that was both helpful and enjoyable. Your analogy reminds me of Kelly’s example of “the Conjecture.” Skimming that paper just now, I noticed his brief demolition of the “Common Consent Argument for the Existence of God,” which I suppose might be part of what you were getting at as well. Although I disagree with you on theism (Catholic that I am), your position on the peer disagreement issue strikes me as completely reasonable–although given that you’re on a first name basis with professional philosophers (“Tom’s”), I doubt my opinion is worth much. Nevertheless, thanks for a pleasant chat.

    • Roberto

      Isn’t JCW referring to the attitude displayed here in saying that since the arguments for theism do not convince YOU, then theism wrong? Such an approach only works if YOU are the final arbiter of the debate, but that would be correct because … what? You are better than others?
      If you say: “Those arguments do not convince ME, therefore I choose atheism” I respect the approach. But going beyond that smells of arrogance. Claiming a poor choice of words only goes so far.

      • A Philosopher


        But I didn’t say that. I said that theism is wrong, but not because the arguments don’t convince me. It’s wrong because (rather trivially; I didn’t mean to making a claim more substantial) it isn’t true. I also said that I don’t endorse theism because the arguments aren’t successful. I know that the arguments aren’t successful because of my engagement with the arguments, but it’s not that the arguments are bad *because* I find them bad. Rather, if everything is working correctly, I find them bad because they are bad.

        (Helpful tip: everything I said is meant to be symmetric, in that the theist can reasonably say the mirror image. The theist can say “The atheists are wrong, but they aren’t stupid. They hold a false view, but one no falser, or more bizarre, or more harmful, than one of dozens that my well-respected philosophical colleagues hold.” The theist can say “I know the arguments and reasons given on all sides, and I know that the atheistic arguments given are unpersuasive.” I’ll think that the theist is wrong on the substance, because the view isn’t false and the arguments are (objectively) persuasive. But I expect the theist to think the same about what I say. But neither side is being arrogant in saying any of this.)

        • Irenist

          Atheists think theists are wrong. Theists think atheists are wrong. I pray for your conversion (which I take to be for your good); you hope I put aside my theistic illusions (which you take to be for my good). All seems fair and cordial to me. Sadly, if the topic of conversation was “PC police won’t let Christians publicly say they think Muslims believe in a false religion,” you could make the same sorts of arguments in this combox that you’ve just made in the atheist-theist context and be much more likely to fit in. Sorry about that.

        • Roberto

          Sorry sir, I am at a loss with your train of thought. You think theism is wrong because it is false. But why do you think it false? Just because it is wrong? What is the basis of your conviction. If it is faith, I am with you, since I believe that both theism and atheism are based on faith. But if it is based on arguments, we are back to square one.
          Also: “I also said that I don’t endorse theism because the arguments aren’t successful.” That would make you a skeptic, or an agnostic, but why an atheist?
          I do agree, once again, that ultimately the choice is based on faith. The arguments are, like experiments in the science world, just supporting the contention, not proving it.

        • Ted Seeber

          However, to a theist, the competing religions are NOT equally true. Especially not to a Catholic Theist- who actually holds that the “Fullness of Truth” is in the Deposit of Faith, and while other religions have truth in them, they have some subset thereof.

    • “First, the former membership is often one from one’s teens or twenties (don’t know if that’s the case in Mr. Wright’s case), and what one thinks in one’s teens and twenties should, in general, be wholly ignored”

      Sir, I was an atheist for 35 years, from age seven to age 42, thank you very much. I was not merely a doubter, but an atheist, a vituperative, evangelizing, argumentative and eager atheist who plumbed the depth of philosophy, spoke and read and thought about the topic, and exercised my faculties on refining my arguments are every opportunity. I also score very high in IQ tests, which proves to my satisfaction that IQ tests do not measure anything worth measuring. We are not talking about some fad I dallied with in my youth.
      My reason for claiming that the atheist is under a peculiar and particular temptation in regard to his self regard is due to the nature of the topic. Theism is not merely a quaint belief, one among many, which the smart men of quaint and foreign times once had: it is central to their thought and character. Atheism is not a religious belief, nor one learned from society, therefore its only justification springs from a confidence in one’s own reasoning powers: it is primarily an intellectual belief, not experiential nor social nor dogmatic. Hence the temptation is to contrast one’s own intellectual powers against the central thought and character of all the admired geniuses of history. If you have resisted this temptation, I congratulate you. I too would have said I had when I was an atheist, but, in fact, looking back, I now see I had not.
      You show here by your own words that you are prone to this temptation: you speak dismissively of my thought as if it were some frivolity propounded by a callow youth without first discovering whereof you speak. In other words, you ask people to ignore what I say on the grounds that I am talking about something an ignorant and inexperienced teenager would believe, that is, a stupid teen.

      • A Philosopher


        Again, the central point is that in disagreeing with someone admittedly more intelligent than oneself, one is not thereby comparing one’s intellectual powers with those of the person disagreed with. Rather, one is being moved by the arguments. If Genius X sets out argument A for claim P, and I find on examination that the argument is fallacious (and that, indeed, there are good arguments for not-P), then I ought not believe P — not on the basis of a claim of intellectual superiority, but rather on the basis of the arguments. (I do highly recommend Tom Kelly’s “Peer Disagreement and Higher-Order Evidence”, or Brian Weatherson’s “Disagreeing about Disagreement”, or David Christensen’s “Epistemology of Disagreement”, for some of the best recent work relevant to this topic.)

        • “If Genius X sets out argument A for claim P, and I find on examination that the argument is fallacious (and that, indeed, there are good arguments for not-P), then I ought not believe P — not on the basis of a claim of intellectual superiority, but rather on the basis of the arguments.”
          No argument here. This point is not in dispute. What? Did you think I was asking men to believe what smart men believe on the basis of their smartness? Or that the minority should believe the majority belief on the basis of their greater numbers? If memory serves, the Latin names for these fallacies are ad verecundiam and ad populam. I hope I spelled that right.
          Did you think I was saying geniuses do not make mistakes? Since men of genius disagree more sharply over more issues than we normal mortals, we can guess that they make bigger and deeper mistakes than we do, and more often.
          I am glad we are in agreement here! And I invite you to reread the essay to discover what the topic described there was. I was talking about the temptation particular to members of an intellectual revolution. I was by no means saying all men fall into it. But I was arguing that the temptation is very likely to come.

          • A Philosopher

            Well, you were asserting it. I haven’t actually seen an argument yet.

            • Irenist

              I think his argument was an inductive one from his own anecdotal experience and intuitions about the behavior of similarly situated others:
              1. I used to be an atheist.
              2. I was prone to arrogance.
              3. At least part of my arrogance seems to me to have stemmed from noticing how rare a position atheism was coupled with my conviction that atheism was the correct position.
              4. It seems plausible and probable to me that other atheists might succumb to this, due to the fact that when you believe that you have come to a position that is both importantly correct and remarkably rare, you might be expected to feel kind of smug about that.

              That’s probably a far less adequate transcription of Mr. Wright’s argument than the author of the dazzling Golden Age trilogy could write for himself, but it’s my attempt.

  • Andy, Bad Person

    A blog post by JCW, quoting Mark Shea, with some good combox commentary both from JCW himself and Mike Flynn?

    I’m not smart enough for that blog post.

    • I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mike Flynn’s rebuttals though.

  • J.H.M.O

    In proof of a Creator’s existence, may I outline a non-technical argument which I hold as quite certain?
 Consider the individual ovum et the individual spermatozoon from which you, reader, were somehow, at some moment, generated. From precisely those two cells resulted a unique genetic constitution: yours. But had there been twinning, two selves would have resulted with the same genetic constitution: had you been one of those twins, your genetic constitution would not have been unique. Yet you would have still been precisely yourself. Conclusion: your absolute identity — I don’t mean your psychological “identity” or persona, I mean simply your very self — is not determined by your genetic constitution, even if you’re not in fact a twin. 
 What then does determine you to be precisely you; or me precisely me? For although my bodily make-up is indeed extremely complex, it seems evident to me that I — my very self — am not any FEATURE or CHARACTER or MARK or NOTE; nor any ensemble of FACTORS: I’m quite simply just me. So then, Why do I and not someone else look out from behind these eyes of mine? Why are they MY eyes? Hence it appears evident to me that from that same individual ovum et that spermatozoon from which I somehow came, there could have come someone other than I; evident also, at the same stroke, that there is no necessity whatever for ME to have come from ANY union of sperm and ovum. 
 En view of this, What reason can there be why precisely I have this individual nature — indeed What reason why precisely I exist at all, other than that my absolutely ineffable identity itself — and the intimate identity of every human self — is the expressly intended effect and term of a free option of some person able to bring about that effect? — term of a free option, that is, of a Creator? 
 Understandably, if a premise here which appears evident to me does not appear so to a given reader, the argument here won’t be conclusive to that person.

    • J.H.M.O

      Oh — oh. Sometimes thinking as I do in another language, I inadvertently omitted here to change “en” to “in”, and “et” to “and”.

    • Ted Seeber

      I think your argument only goes so far as to prove the existence of a soul. Which is step one of course, but there’s a huge logical leap between “I have a sense of self and therefore a non-material soul” to “Evolution of living beings and the creation of the universe is guided by a set of principles set down by a Creator God” which is the basis of all rational philosophy, including science. I hold that to be an axiomatic belief, but I will admit to it being axiomatic and thus untestible.

      • J.H.M.O

        Actually, Mr. Seeber, I wasn’trying or intending in my non-technical argument to prove a soul (anima, psukhe). Nor was I thinking of a “sense of self” at large, or of a SENSE of anything. I was thinking of MY self — i.e., of precisely me; and of YOUR self — i.e. of precisely you. Nor were the notions of “soul” or “non-material” or “evolution” or “living beings” or “universe” at all involved; only the RADICAL NON-NECESSITY of me or of you having come from the individual germ cells from which we each somehow came in fact. So since nothing in NATURE suffices to have determined me to be precisely me, or you precisely you, What’s left but the FREE OPTION of a Creator?
        I’m glad, sir, that you’ve led me to explain more here.

  • Richard Bell

    My favorite new argument for the existence of God is the “Coincidence Scandal”. There are three great eras of cosmological history. In the beginning, all of the energy in the Universe was light. As the universe expanded and cooled, matter not only existed, but came to account for more of the Universe’s energy than light. The final era is when the Dark Energy that powers the expansion of the Universe dominates. We exist at the transition between the Matter Era and Dark Energy Era. Because of this, we can observe enough of the past to figure out how the Universe evolved and make observations to predict how the Universe will end. If we existed before the transition to the Dark Energy Era, Dark Energy would not be a significant enough contribution to be observed. Too far into the Dark Energy Era, the cosmic microwave background will have passed outside the observable universe, so the key prediction of the Big Bang would be absent. We only know as much about the Universe as we do, because we exist in a very special time in cosmological history.

    • Jmac

      I’ll admit that it’s pretty interesting, but honestly when I hear about “dark energy” my brain still says “Hey, that sounds remarkably similar to ‘epicycles’ doesn’t it?” I’ve got no real reason to doubt it or the standard model yet, but then if I was alive in the 9th century, I’d have no real reason to doubt the Ptolemaic model either 😀

      • Richard Bell

        The difference between dark energy and epicycles is the strength of evidence. We know that the geometry of the universe is flat. We know how large the fluctuations of the cosmic background should be, based on the laws of physics, and we know how far away those features are, so we can draw very large triangles, and from that, the geometry can be observed. If the geometry is flat, we can make a calculation of the total energy of the Universe. We can see all of the normal matter directly and the observed motions of the normal matter tell us how much dark matter there is. everything else is dark energy. The concordance model of the inflationary hot big bang universe provides several places for predicting the relative amounts of normal matter, dark matter, and dark energy, and they all give the same numbers.

        Ptolemaic cosmology had more going for it than we give it credit for. It was not until Kepler’s very careful work established that the planets moved in elliptical orbits around the Sun that heliocentrism finally had a better fit to observed data than geocentrism. The best thing that could be said of Copernicus’ system was that it managed to generate the same observed errors as the Ptolemaic system– before Kepler, there was no evidential basis for picking one over the other (Galileo’s proof predicted things about the tides that amply demonstrated Galileo was making stuff up). A big problem with the Copernican system was that heliocentrism predicted something that had not been observed– stellar paralax. Unless the stars are some unimaginably large distance from Earth, the positions of stars should change as the Earth moves round the Sun. It turns out that the stars really are that far away, but we cannot fault them for not observing things they could not see.

        • Jmac

          Yeah, reasons like parallax were one of the major reasons I was (favorably) comparing dark energy to epicycles. But you did bring up some points that I hadn’t considered before. Thanks!