United by Doubt

United by Doubt January 9, 2017


The quote comes from James A. Haught’s book 2000 Years of Disbelief. For more about Ustinov’s views on religion, see his interviews in the “This I Believe” series and with Mike Wallace.

There is certainly a sense in which beliefs – held dogmatically – divide people. And recognition of our shared uncertainty has the potential to unite us. But the belief that everyone is an inherently valuable human life can also unite us, and crippling doubt not only can fail to unite, but can inspire dogmatism, because dogmatic “faith” is really just doubt in disguise“doubt in faith’s clothing.”

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Maybe it’s the craving for certainty that divides. People need certainty, discover that nothing really offers the level of certainty that they want, so they manufacture it with dogmatism. I actually think this is a driving force behind both evangelicalism and new atheism.

    • myklc

      I hope I’m not crossing any lines by mentioning Peter Enns excellent book “The Sin of Certainty” here.

    • I’m not sure why you characterize new atheism as having a “craving for certainty”, when it’s actually the opposite of what new atheists say:

      “The offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet; that I haven’t understood enough; that I can’t know enough; that I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

      Christopher Hitchens

      “Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possible be certain about.”

      Sam Harris

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        I would say that both of those quotes are criticizing the idea that faith offers certainty, but not the concept of certainty itself. This is certainly true for the Harris quote. For Hitchens, he seems to be contrasting faith with “not knowing enough,” which is not the same as being certain.

        I can only speak for the new breed of atheist that I run into in conversation, virtually all of whom used to be Christians who had bad reasons for their views, and now they are atheists with bad reasons for their views. The difference is atheism allows them a level of certitude that their faith was no longer providing. They are just as dogmatic as they always were.

        These people, I would argue, are not interested in theism or atheism. They are interested in being right and knowing that they’re right and, for many, making sure others know that they’re right. They will latch on to whatever worldview offers them that. In another five years, they’ll be Jainists or who knows what.

        • No. Those quotes might be focused on faith as an arena that claims certainty, but it is the very act of claiming certainty which is their criticism of faith. Harris’s criticism of faith is that it is the “one area of our discourse” claiming certainty where certainty is impossible! If you’re saying he is guilty of what he is criticizing, you’ll have to do more than just assert it!

          As for others with whom you may converse, dogmatism and unearned certitude exists among individuals in virtually any demographic you care to name.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            That doesn’t seem to be borne out by your quotations. I haven’t seen anything you’ve produced that establishes that Hitchens and Harris are against any claims of certainty. Your quotes establish that they are against faith claims substituting as certainty. Do you have any quotations where Hitchens and Harris address the issue of certainty apart from faith claims?

            By contrast, here are some quotes that appear to be statements of certainty.

            From Hitchens:

            Religion is evil: “So when I say that religion poisons everything, I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integrity. It says we can’t be moral without big brother. Without totalitarian permission. We can’t be good to one another without this. We must be afraid. We must also be forced to love someone who we fear. The essence of sadomasochism. The essence of abjection. The essence of master and slave relationship. I say that this is evil.”

            Here’s one where he criticizes faith-based certainty, and then ends with the pronouncement that religion’s metaphysical claims are untrue: “It’s a claim to a truth that no primate can claim to make. Primates who claim to know it should be distrusted. Great damage has been done and continues to be done by such people and by such ideas. You’re better off thinking for yourself and taking all the risks, and all the pleasures that will come from that. The most overrated of virtues is faith. The metaphysical claims of religion are untrue.”

            I can’t find the quote I read last night, which I really need to find again, because he asserts the -myth- that science was suppressed for centuries by religion.

            Once again, if you can summon some material that shows Hitchens arguing against certainty as a principle, I’m open to that. That would certainly establish that Hitchens, at least, is free from the critique that new atheists crave certainty.

            But my assertion, which was not that Hitchens and Harris crave certainty, but rather the craving of certainty was a driving force behind evangelicalism and new atheism, comes from empiricism. For instance, I could direct you to some of the last few posts on Benjamin Corey’s blog about Christmas, or about some of the things he’s seen atheists do that he thinks are annoying, and you can just read the comments and enjoy some of the most ludicrous statements coming en masse from the same people who swear their commitments to evidence and dispassionate research.

            Maybe it’s a case of the followers being worse than their leaders. Totally possible (although Sam Harris is the best thing that’s ever happened to Christians). Or, maybe it’s a case where the vast majority of what I’ve seen is atypical, and I’m mistaking it for the majority. Also totally possible. But what I have observed many times over from many different people is the phenomena described:

            Someone used to be a fundamentalist, for whatever reason, they gave it up and embraced atheism, and now make the most egregious claims based on reasoning and evidence that wouldn’t satisfy a child and, in many cases, is patently false, all while smugly claiming to be disciples of the “truth” boldly going where believers fear to tread. It looks exactly like fundamentalism, but built around opposing claims.

            If that does not describe the majority of rank and file new atheists – fine, I’m open to that critique. It’s just that my own experience of it has borne this out a staggering amount of times.

          • Well, you’re the one making a dismissive claim, not me. And none of your new quotations seem to support your supposition that the craving of certainty is a driving force behind New Atheism. Do you have any quotations where Hitchens and Harris address the “craving for certainty” that drives them?

            Of course, if you just vaguely equate making an assertion, having a strong opinion, or appearing to be certain about something with being driven by a “craving for certainty”, then you have basically described most of humanity and the observation would seem to be pointless.

            I don’t intend to do your homework for you by arguing a negative, but once again, if you can summon some material that shows Hitchens driven by a “craving for certainty” I’m open to that.

            What I have observed many times over from many different people is the phenomena described:

            Someone doesn’t like atheists who express strong opinions, and for whatever reason, because they’re incapable of dealing with their arguments with something more than reasoning and evidence that wouldn’t satisfy a child, smugly claim to know their motivations. It looks exactly like fundamentalism, when they dismiss those with differing opinions as being motivated by sin.

            If that does not describe the majority of rank and file new Christans – fine, I’m open to that critique. It’s just that my own experience of it has borne this out a staggering amount of times.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I totally agree with that. You’ll note I included evangelicalism in the statement.

            I don’t know why you’re so insistent that I prove Hitchens and Harris crave certainty. That wasn’t my assertion. You are the one making an assertion that Hitchens and Harris say the “opposite” – that they oppose the idea that certainty is desirable or achievable or whatever your thought was when you said they advocated the “opposite” of craving certainty, then you produced two quotes that demonstrated nothing of the sort.

            So, in response to a request for data that actually substantiates your claims, you say, “I’m not going to do your homework for you.” Well, sorry. Making a negation is still an assertion that needs evidence. If I said, “Beau Quilter doesn’t know anything about what prominent atheist authors think,” you would expect me to substantiate that claim.

            Furthermore, even if you succeeded in substantiating your claims – let’s say you found a quote by Hitchens and a quote by Harris where both of them said, “I think the driving need for certainty is something we’d be much healthier without, especially given the state of our epistemic tools,” then you would have established that exactly two New Atheists state the “opposite” of what I asserted about the majority of them.

            I pointed you to two discussions where this phenomenon is on display. I can find more if it would do any good. But this is really starting to look like you can’t brook any critique of the new atheist movement at all. You may be an exception, and I have found you in discussion to be a very thoughtful person, but you have a huge amount of people in your camp who are dogmatists who have simply traded ideologies, but not methodologies. This is my opinion based on my observation. I don’t feel the need to defend fundamentalist evangelicals; I’m not sure why you feel the need to defend fundamentalist atheists.

          • Phil, your assertion was that a craving for certainty was a driving force behind New Atheism, a rather vague and simplistic dismissal of New Atheism by assuming motivations not in evidence. And to be clear, if you assert that “a craving for certainty” is a “driving force” behind people, then it does seem logical that you are suggesting that those being driven are those with the craving; unless we are to presume that New Atheism is driven by your craving for certainty?

            And sorry, but you don’t seem to understand the concept of “burden of proof”:


            And no, neither of the discussions you pointed out display a movement driven by a craving for certainty. If you simply want to account for any assertion anyone cares to make in this way, then it’s a rather banal game that anyone can play. “Phil seems awfully ‘certain’ that a craving for certainty is a driving force behind New Atheism – clearly, a ‘craving for certainty’ is a driving force behind Phil.”

            It is not my job to provide evidence against any unsubstantiated claim you care to make. You don’t seem to understand that impugning motives (in addition to being an offensive form of argumentation) is simply fallacious reasoning.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Ok, so what you could have done is something like this:

            BQ: “Phil, your statement seems to be a sweeping generalization that I don’t think is warranted. What’s your evidence?”

            PL: “Well, lots of conversations. Here are a couple of examples.”

            BQ: “But this does not prove your statement, at best, it proves you’ve had a lot of bad experiences that you are using to color a much broader range of people. This hardly proves that most or even many new atheists are driven by some psychological need to feel ‘right.'”

            See, there, you are challenging my warrant for my statement, and you do not have the burden of proof.

            However, you did not do that. You said, “New Atheists say the opposite of that,” and then provided a couple of quotes that didn’t substantiate that claim.

            Thank you for the link to the burden of proof. As a philosophy major myself, I’m familiar with the concept, but here’s the thing – you’ll notice your article stated that negations do not need to be proven. Did you see who he cited as evidence for this? That great scholar and philosopher RICHARD CARRIER.

            The fact is that, at least in Western logic, we do not assert that you escape the burden of proof if your statement is a negation. There are some negative statements that cannot be proven. There are some positive statements that cannot be proven. This whole “I don’t have the burden of proof if I say something isn’t the case” is a very recent thing that, really, one only hears from atheists throwing down smoke bombs because the don’t understand the difference between challenging the evidence for a statement and making a counter-statement. The very core of Western logic is a negation – the Law of Noncontradiction. Asserting that something is NOT the case is not the same thing as saying someone lacks warrant for their positive statement. What if I said, “God is not imaginary?” Does that shift the burden of proof to atheists?

            Eskimos never commit crimes. You didn’t pay your taxes. Canada does not admit immigrants. Those are all negations and all falsifiable and all can be established with evidence or unwarranted due to a lack of evidence.

            If you’re going to say that New Atheism teaches the opposite of a pursuit of certainty, then you do have to substantiate that claim, and no amount of trying to shift your burden, or claiming that I have to prove this is true for Hitchens and Harris or it is true for no one, or suggesting that I’m just upset because I don’t like vocal atheists, or clever satires of my responses is going to get you one whit closer to substantiating your claim.

            If you like, I’m thoroughly willing to walk back my initial statement. Maybe I made a hasty overgeneralization based on my experience. How about this: My experiences in discussions with New Atheist have vastly skewed toward people who dogmatically hold to falsehoods and poor reasoning with similar vigor to evangelicals who do the same. This suggests to me that people who do this may have similar psychological motivations even though the ideologies seem different.

          • Actually my quotations did substantiate my claim quite well.

            You characterized new atheism as being driven by a “craving for certainty”. Here is what Hitchens actually said:

            “The offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having.”

            The sentiment expressed here is clearly opposed to a “craving for certainty.”

            You answered, “I would say that both of those quotes are criticizing the idea that faith offers certainty, but not the concept of certainty itself.”

            Sorry, no. I’ll stick with what Hitchens actually said, not your uninformative paraphrase.

            Since you’re a philosophy major, I’m surprised that you’re under the mistaken impression that arguments of burden of proof are a “recent thing”. Richard Hooker was writing about burdens of proof in 1597, and it had nothing to do with atheism.

            As far as your walk back statement goes, what do you mean by New Atheists? Most writers who use the phrase mean a specific group of authors of early twenty-first century books promoting atheism, primarily Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. That the delineation tends to be fairly exclusive, can be seen in Victor Stenger’s efforts late in life to establish that he, too, was one of the New Atheists.

            That’s what I took you to mean originally by the phrase.

            “It is not so much that there are ironies of history, it is that history itself is ironic. It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties. It is not only true that the test of knowledge is an acute and cultivated awareness of how little one knows (as Socrates knew so well), it is true that the unbounded areas and fields of one’s ignorance are now expanding in such a way, and at such a velocity, as to make the contemplation of them almost fantastically beautiful.”

            Christopher Hitchens

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Well, I looked up your Hitchens quote in its context and used that to determine Hitchens’ meaning. I realize, isolated from that context, it looks more like it establishes your assertion. I guess we’re just different in terms of which method of ascertaining meaning is likely to be more accurate.

            Arguments of burden of proof are not a recent thing, and that’s not what I said. What I said was:

            “This whole “I don’t have the burden of proof if I say something isn’t the case” is a very recent thing ”

            The idea that a negation does not require proof is what’s recent, not the concept of the burden of proof.

            From the earliest notions, the idea of the burden of proof is that the person making the assertion has the burden of substantiating it; it can’t be held as true because of a lack of evidence that disproves the assertion.

            I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I’d guess Bertrand Russell had a lot to do with it, but somewhere down the line, it became popular particularly in discussions about atheism and theism to claim that a negative position does not have the burden of proof – only positive assertions do.

            But this is ridiculous, especially since virtually any negation can be restated as a positive assertion. But I continue to see this over and over again – that somehow the burden of proof is contingent on whether or not the statement is a negation, and that just makes no sense. It is true that there are certain classes of propositions that cannot be proven, but that has nothing to do with whether or not the statement is a negation.

            I apologize for the lack of clarity on what I meant by New Atheism. That is a definite disconnect and probably my fault. When I say “New Atheism,” I rarely mean the four horsemen. I almost always mean the movement these men have generated – the rank and file converts who read a couple of Sam Harris books, decided they made a lot of sense, and jumped on board. It’s like when I talk about Christianity, I rarely mean the key figures who spearheaded it, but rather the masses who align under that label – whether they are accurately doing so or not.

            I admit, given my experiences, I have an automatic bad taste in my mouth when it comes to considering this group, which I also realize is my problem and not theirs. I do not have a problem with atheists. If someone is an atheist and is also about justice, mercy, compassion, and peace in the world, that’s great. I consider them allies. What gets me about the rank and file New Atheist movement is, once again – purely speaking from my experiences – it seems like for every single thoughtful individual there are nine others who are spouting just the stupidest stuff. And then this is coupled with a certain smugness and self-assessment that they alone are concerned about things like logic, evidence, and facts. It’s really hard to deal with someone maintaining that line and then following up with things like, “We know the Jospehus passage about Jesus is a forgery because the handwriting doesn’t match Josephus’ handwriting” or “Mithras was also born of a virgin on Dec. 25th” or whatever they read in a meme recently.

            I want to be clear that fundy-gelicals have long cornered the market on smug, elitists assertions of truth followed by sheer stupidity. I get that and can’t and won’t deny it. But some of those same people are atheists, now, and it seems like however they processed things like “truth” and “facts” has gone completely unchanged.

          • I’ve read all of my Hitchens quotes in context. I find them quite applicable to our discussion in each instance, not just in isolation. I’ve fulfilled any burden of proof I might have to establish by exactly what I said, which if you’ll recall, was about what New Atheists “say” (followed by quotations from New Atheists). In fact, my claim was packaged right alongside my “proof”.

            And no matter how others might abuse the notion of a “Burden of Proof”, I do think that when you make a claim that someone has a negative motivation, basically impugning their character, such a claim carries a hefty burden of proof.

            Yes, it’s clear now that you were using “new atheism” to refer to something other than the “Four Horsemen”, though it was not clear at first. Do you use the phrase “new atheist” to refer to any atheist with whom you interact on the internet, or just those who explicitly tell you that they are “on board” with a New Atheist book? Or do you use the term for any atheist that you consider smug or spouting nonsense?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            “I do think that when you make a claim that someone has a negative motivation, basically impugning their character, such a claim carries a hefty burden of proof.”

            It does, I agree. But making a counter-claim also carries a burden of proof. If I say, “Dave is immoral,” you would rightly ask me to satisfy the burden of proof and, if I couldn’t do that, you could rightly point out that my claim is unfounded. But if you countered, “No, he isn’t. Dave is a very moral person,” then you also assume the burden of proof. Both of us have made assertions in that case, and neither are just allowed to be “true by default.”

            So, if I say, “A driving force behind New Atheism is the need for certainty,” I have the burden of proving that. If you counter, “No, New Atheism holds to the opposite,” you also have the burden of proof for your assertion. You think you met yours, I don’t, and that’s fine. It’s not a contest. We both agree I didn’t meet mine, at least not in the sweeping terms I initially used.

            I do not think of every atheist on the Internet as a “new atheist,” nor do I think all new atheists spout nonsense. You can have been an atheist long before anyone ever heard of Dawkins and still spout nonsense, although -once again, my experience- I have found that to be exceptionally rare. You can be a New Atheist and be thoughtful and careful with your logic and assertions. One of my good friends meets that qualifier. He used to be a Christian, but he read some Sam Harris books, followed that line of inquiry, and he is an atheist now. I consider him a very thoughtful person, we continue to hang out to this day, and for a while used to have a group of Christians and atheists who got together every few weeks just to talk about big issues.

            The main way I personally define New Atheist is someone who has embraced atheism 1) fairly recently, thus literally being a “New Atheist” and 2) primarily as a result, directly or indirectly, of argumentation advanced by Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris et al or authors much like them – argumentation that is primarily characterized by proactive assertions that there certainly is not a God and, as a corollary, that theism itself is an evil in the world that needs to be at least contained if not snuffed out altogether. Typically, a New Atheist did not come to atheism independently of these writings, but rather the writings and argumentation were instrumental in their “conversion.”

            I loosely find that the tendency to spout nonsense is somewhat correlated to whether or not someone used to be a fundamentalist Christian, hence my observations. I do not think this is a necessary characteristic of atheism, old or new. Nor do I think the archetypal New Atheist authors are full of nonsense. I just finished The Selfish Gene and enjoyed it very much. Dawkins is a brilliant and provocative thinker in zoology.

            The possible exception to this is Sam Harris, who seems to be on the one hand the most popular New Atheist author (at least in America) and also makes terrible arguments consistently. Maybe there’s a correlation between people who find him utterly convincing and people who have relatively low standards for what they base their conclusions on and a high propensity for dogma. I don’t know. My good friend is a Harris baby, but he’s also very broadly read in both atheist and theist thought of various stripes, so maybe that exposure makes a difference.

          • Of course, to whatever degree our claims have a burden of proof, unlike your claim, mine did not make negative allegations about someone’s motivations or character.

            Out of curiosity, what have you read by Sam Harris, and what arguments do you consider “terrible”?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Fair enough, although in the “satire,” you said the reason I said what I did is because I was upset that atheists are vocal. Maybe it’s easy to take our experiences and attribute motive to them in the absence of something clearer.

            I have read Letter to a Christian Nation multiple times, Islam and the Future of Tolerance once, and got a little way through The End of Faith. (sorry, I don’t know how to underline in Disqus comments) I also faithfully followed Harris’ blog for about a month.

            I don’t mean to cop out, here, but it would take a long time to spell out all the things I find highly problematic in Harris’ contentions. Just for example, I started to write a “Letter to Sam Harris” where I went through Letter to a Christian Nation and interacted with it, trying to be congenial as if I were actually having a conversation with the man. This was part of my discussion with my friend I mentioned, earlier.

            But I got through about chapter three and had written pages and pages going through the logical and historical problems that, unless I were prepared to write a full book myself, was just too much effort.

            In very broad strokes here are some principial errors that tend to affect a lot of his writing:

            1. The assumption that fundamentalist -insert religion here- is the only valid representation of said religion, and anything else is just wishy-washy liberalism that doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, and is a sign that you don’t really believe your religion.

            2. The assumption that Sam Harris understands your religion better than actual scholars and exponents of said religion and his interpretations trump such input.

            3. Gaping historical holes when it comes to moral evaluations of the sociological phenomenon of atheism.

            4. Clinging to and perpetuating historical myths such as religion’s historical suppression of science or most wars being religious.

            5. Failing to account for how his choice of comparisons affects the validity of his statements. The famous talking through a hairdryer quote comes to mind.

            6. Failing to offer justification for his values while criticizing religion for having an artificial justification for its values.

            Those are just some things.

            Outside the strict realm of the theism/atheism discussion, I weathered through his articles on why we need to bring back waterboarding, why accidentally bombing a hospital full of children while trying to fight terrorists should be given moral latitude, and why we need racial profiling at airports. Those views, of course, have nothing to do with whether theism is justified or not or the credibility of atheism or Sam Harris, but it was interesting to see positions I would typically associate with the conservativism and theo-political conflation of American fundamentalists coming from an atheist, especially one who has really tried to establish a concept of non-theistic morality.

          • Well it WAS, as you say, satire.

            I too have read Sam Harris.

            1. Can you point out where Harris assumes that fundamentalists are the only valid representations of religion?

            2. Can you point out where Harris claims to understand your religion better than religious scholars (do you mean theologians?)

            3. What gaping holes are in his moral evaluation of atheism?

            4. What particular historical myth is he clinging to?

            5. How do you think his choice of comparisons affects the validity of his statements? Why?

            6. What values does he fail to justify?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Well, this is why I said principially. What you’re asking me to do is a massive amount of effort basically at the level of a research paper or book. I can email you the initial responses I wrote to the opening chapters of Letter to a Christian Nation where many of these issues appear, if you’re interested. Any one of those six things you asked would merit at least an article-length post where I assembled various passages from his writings and commented on them.

          • *edit*
            This is where I previously supplied Phil with my email

            Thank you

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Sure. I’ll do it tonight.

          • Phil Ledgerwood


          • Got it!

          • arcseconds

            Could you also email to me?

            My arcseconds email is blissfully spam-free currently and I’d like to keep it that way for as long as possible. Can you cope with rot13?

            {EDIT: rot13’d email address removed]

            you can copy and paste it into rot13.com.

            let me know when you have my address, and I’ll remove it from this comment.

          • Uh Oh! I hadn’t thought of that!

            Does this mean I’m going to start receiving copious spam in my inbox?!

          • arcseconds

            It depends on whether the web bots have found it yet.

            I would edit your comment and delete the email address: the longer it’s there the more chance there is of something finding it.

            It’s only been there a couple of days, and while spam merchants do trade email addresses, I don’t think they’re at all systematic about this. Even if something has found it, it might only translate to a slight increase in spam.

            Google does seem to have found it, though. Hopefully they don’t trawl google’s cache…

            Last I checked, which admittedly was a while ago, their bots don’t seem very smart, basically seem to be looking for ‘@’ in some letters.

          • Good idea – Phil has already emailed me so he doesn’t need it anymore.

          • arcseconds

            At any rate it’s got to be better than it sitting there forever, ready for anyone who can write a few lines of javascript or whatever to harvest.

          • Yep – I edited out the address from the comment, and I haven’t been inundated with ads – I think I’m safe.

          • arcseconds

            My strategy is probably more than is strictly necessary, but the cost is still very low, and I’d rather pay (and force Phil to pay!) a few tens of seconds here and there rather than try to find the actual minimum. Which would probably entail (or at least risk) going past the minimum and getting spam, the avoidance of which was the whole point of the exercise in the first place…

          • Good advice!

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I have sent them to the non-Cthulized version of your address.

          • arcseconds

            There’s a couple of points I would like to discuss further with you, but I am getting a sense that you feel this is where you got to last time you addressed Sam Harris in detail, and you don’t particularly want to have the same discussion all over again?

            I can give you some assurance (although not a complete guarantee!) that it won’t be the same discussion, but I don’t want to force you to flog a dead horse…

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            No, we can certainly discuss it further. I don’t mind dredging the topics up again; I just have a limited amount of time and energy I’m willing to devote to Harris research for the purposes of casual conversation. But if you’re willing to allow me my weaknesses in this regard, I’m willing to talk about any of it further.

          • arcseconds


            Well, the first thing I wanted to discuss was your complaints about Harris’s moral objections to Christianity.

            Harris is, as far as I understand it, a utilitarian or something very close, and you capture that with ‘you define morality as increasing happiness and minimizing suffering’.

            Shortly after, you raise a whole lot of rhetorical questions as problems for this view.

            But for most of them, a utilitarian has a perfectly adequate response: the right thing to do is whatever leads to a net increase in happiness or reduction in suffering. Ideally you should choose the action that provides the maximum utility in this sense. Often of course it’s not clear what that would be, but it’s still the case that some actions will be clearly better than others in most situations on this criterion.

            So some of your questions have pretty simple answers:

            ‘Does doing the morally right thing not sometimes increase your suffering?’ — yes, so long as it provides a greater decrease in suffering to other people.

            ‘Are you not increasing the suffering of Christians by publishing your book?’ — yes, but I’m also providing succor to atheists, converting people to atheism (where they will be happier, because religion is so horrible and wrong) and furthering the crusade against the evils of religion. This is going to lead to greater happiness in the long term.

            ‘Does doing the immoral thing not sometimes increase happiness?’ — of course, but not net happiness, it reduces that, and that’s what makes it immoral.

            ‘What if I abandon my family to get away from the stresses and obligations of raising children? Is
            that moral? ‘ — only if it results in a net increase in happiness or decrease in suffering. It almost certainly doesn’t, as the children will suffer without their father, their mother will be under greater stress than before, everyone will be angry at me, and the family will be poorer financially and also have a reduction in its capacity for household chores and childcare.

            If it happens that it’d actually increase net utility by me leaving, because I really aren’t coping and moreover am descending into alcoholism and abuse, and I’m unemployed and basically making everyone’s life hell, then morally I should leave.

            I’ve chosen these questions because not only is there a clear utilitarian response, but the response has some intuitive plausibility to anyone, I would think, even if they’re not utilitarians.

            Intuitively it seems selfish to leave your family just because you feel it’s an imposition (a point which utilitarianism is in wholehearted agreement), but one would have to be very blinkered as regards fatherly duties to the point of callousness with respect to the welfare of the rest of the family if one can’t see that in some cases the family is indeed better off without the father — and in a situation where that’s the case we can at least see that there’s some plausible justification for the father leaving. We might think it’d be better if he mended his ways (and a utilitarian would also agree with this point) but sometimes that doesn’t work out, in which case even if we still think otherwise, it doesn’t seem crazy or utterly beyond the pale for the father to think his family is better off without him, and, in those cases, leave.

            And if you’re going to be harming people by publishing your book then surely that’s at least a consideration as to whether you should publish it or not. But if you can do more harm than good in the long term, that on the face of it seems like a consideration in favour of publishing it.

            (And, of course, I’m answering in Harris’s voice. I’m not a utilitarian, and I don’t agree with his perspective on religion. I’m also assuming a heterosexual family as that’s what Harris has.)

            The other questions utiltarianism has in varying degrees less plausible answers to people unpersuaded of utilitarianism, so those do start to get utilitarianism into trouble. But these rhetorical questions almost sound like you’re setting up a straw man, as though you think Harris is committed to a view where people do only acts that increase happiness and decrease suffering absolutely, with never a decrease in happiness or an increase in suffering. But I’m pretty sure Harris does not hold this view, and I would be surprised if anyone did, or at least anyone who had reflected on the matter at all.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Fair enough, but I’m interacting with what Harris wrote in that particular chapter, and the questions are not meant to be counterpoints per se, but actual questions for his moral system. The paper you read is meant to be a letter and a dialogue, not a contrary paper. I would assume that Harris would have answers to those very questions, and those kinds of questions are questions I would use to try to determine the contours of what he was offering as a moral system.

            However, the questions rhetorically do have a point, even without answers, and that’s the idea that moral decisions do not reduce easily the equation he offered. This is not to say that none do, nor that other complexities couldn’t be talked through with the principles he offered as guiding principles (although we might ultimately disagree on the most consistent application of those principles). But there are any number of practical moral issues that come up in day to day life where the “maximize happiness, minimize suffering” principle seems to falter in light of what we’d probably generally consider a moral decision.

            For example, let’s say I’m programming away for a client, and I have just had a rough day. Let’s say my dog dies or I am just extremely fatigued for some reason or depressed about something else. Every minute I spend writing the same Repository pattern I’ve written for eons seems like an eon unto itself.

            But, I need the money. If I leave early, I’ll lose X amount of billable hours. That money would be peanuts to the client, but it would have a big impact for me.

            So, do I leave early and bill my client as if I worked those extra hours? That would significantly reduce my suffering. Would it increase my client’s suffering? In the sense that they’d spend money that is a drop in the bucket to them for a few hours of coding they didn’t get, yes. But whose suffering is greater? And whose deserves to be alleviated? And at what point do the quantities shift enough to make the other option morally viable?

            I would think (I could be wrong) that from an ethical standpoint, we would agree that unless the situation were extremely dire, somehow, that it would be wrong to bill a client for a few hours if I did not work those few hours, even if doing so would make my life considerably easier. And if said client discovered that I had billed them for hours that I did not work, they would be justified in asking for recompense.

            Once again, I’m not trying to say there is no answer a utilitarian could produce to this problem; I’m just saying that the principles as articulated in the specific chapter I was responding to do not, in my opinion, reflect the complexities involved in many ethical decisions.

            But, honestly, that’s not even the real discussion I was interested in as for as morality goes, but I was saving that for a later chapter when we talk about the basis of moral theory and we can honestly say about our chosen moral standards and how we use them to evaluate other moral standards.

            Why, for instance, is it good to reduce suffering and increase happiness in the world? What makes such a stance more moral than a moral system that values increasing my own happiness regardless of the expense to others, or strengthening one’s country no matter who has to suffer for it ? Once again, these would not be rhetorical questions to demonstrate a shortcoming in Harris’ argument, but important questions I’d want an answer for in a discussion about morality rather than a bare assertion.

            Certainly, the best choice of a moral system is not something that can be proved through empirical evidence, so on what basis do we choose, and how would we look at another set of moral values and declare them to be immoral? This is territory that, at least as I recall in the book, gets largely untouched in favor of assertions.

          • arcseconds

            Ah, right. When there’s a big list of questions with no hope of reply, I tend to interpret them as rhetorical, the point being anywhere from “the response to this is going to show the worthlessness of your system” to “I’m not sure of how you could answer to this, so I’m pretty sceptical”. Particularly when some of the questions do raise serious problems, as some your others start to.

            Apparently Harris’s reply to metaethical questions like “but why is it good?” is, basically, a yawn:

            First, a disclaimer and non-apology: Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “anti-realism,” “emotivism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing my book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy is unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the prominent philosophers I’ve consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.


            He apparently expresses a similar attitude in The Moral Landscape:

            Moreover, Harris entirely evades philosophical criticism of his positions, on the simple ground that he finds metaethics “boring.” But he is a self-professed consequentialist — a philosophical stance close to utilitarianism — who simply ducks any discussion of the implicatons of that a priori choice, which informs his entire view of what counts for morality, happiness, well-being and so forth. He seems unaware of (or doesn’t care about) the serious philosophical objections that have been raised against consequentialism, and even less so of the various counter-moves in logical space (some more convincing than others) that consequentialists have made to defend their position.

            (Massimo Pigliucci, in his review of that book)

            So, basically, he is doing moral philosophy from an armchair, thinks he’s got the right answers on it, doesn’t care to actually defend his position philosophically, and avoids discussion with the experts, instead taking it directly to the public.

            This is exactly the activities that McGrath criticizes mythicists and other agitators for fringe positions for doing. McGrath tends to advocate ignoring these people.

            Anyway, as far as his arguments Letter to a Christian Nation, it seems to me (assuming the purpose of the book is to convince Christians, or at least present as strong an argument against Christianity as possible), advancing utilitarianism seems unwise. Theologically conservative Christians are not likely to have any sympathy whatsoever for utilitarianism. Theologically more liberal ones might be more likely to have some sympathy, but there’s hardly a guarantee. So there’s a good chance that it’ll just be another reason for rejecting Harris’s position completely.

            Moreover, tying his moral objection to Christianity to the truth of utilitarianism makes his position logically weaker. A conjunction cannot be more probable than either of its conjuncts, and unless one is a necessary condition for the other it will be less probable than both. So asserting the truth of some moral theory alongside some normative statement will be less probable than just the normative statement, e.g. ‘utilitarianism is the correct moral theory’ & ‘killing innocents is wrong’ is less probable than just ‘killing innocents is wrong’.

            (I’m going to leave aside the complication that strictly speaking these statements are contradictory — utilitarianism at least agrees with intuition that in a great many cases killing innocents is wrong)

            So he’d be better off, I think, depending on intuitions about cases —noting that intuitively killing innocents is wrong, and in any other case of someone ordering the wholesale slaughter of infants, Christians would agree that would be wrong.

            There is a reason for introducing a secular moral theory, and that’s to demonstrate that being an atheist doesn’t mean your morals are arbitrary. But to be convincing that would have to go hand-in-hand with showing that theological voluntarism isn’t very satisfactory, and doesn’t actually eliminate arbitrariness anyway, and to be honest it would involve saying that there’s more than one ethical theory that atheists find convincing.

            But that would require the kind of metaethical discussion that Harris finds boring…

            Harris gives me the impression that he finds his theory just obviously true, and has difficulty imagining that anyone might not be a utilitarian deep down, or be persuaded of it as soon as it’s mentioned, or something like that. Utilitarians often seem to have this kind of attitude. For example, even philosophical consequentialists have been known to argue that deontologists are selfishly concerned with their own moral purity rather than doing the right thing, seemingly unaware that for a deonotologist, refraining from lying (say) is doing the right thing.

            I wonder whether it has to do with that, in our society at least, there is something intuitively obvious about it as a theory, and many people seem to stumble on it independently (my recollection is that I happened upon it in my teens, for example). If it’s something you figured out for yourself, maybe the apparent obviousness and the strikingness of the discovery sears it into your mind in a way that learning it from someone else does not, or something.

            If true, this inability to really deal with the situation that others don’t see the world the same way as he does seems like another similarity with conservative Christians. They also seem to have difficulty understanding that really, many of us just do not have the same outlook as they do. We don’t pretend to believe in evolution as a way of rejecting God, for example.

            (I characterized earlier the similarities between dogmatic atheism and dogmatic Christianity as coming down to authoritarianism or quasi-authoritarianism. But there’s a simpler hypothesis, that covers at least some of the atheists, and Harris seems like a good candidate: they’re entitled middle-class white guys, and in many cases, they’re entitled middle-class white guys who have received signals all their lives that they’re extremely smart, so their own opinions are just clearly preferable than those of anyone else. Perhaps on reflection we might find Christians that are a bit like this, too. In which case we might want to consider the relationships among authoritarianism, dogmatism, and entitled white-guyism…)

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            There is a lot of insight in here. I’d like to interact with a couple of things.

            First, Harris’ lack of interest in meta-ethics. The interesting thing to me is that Christian opponents who debate Harris or engage with him in some public way tend to hammer this point pretty hard. This is probably because many Christians of the general evangelical sort believe that divine mandate gives them a meta-ethic: our morals are moral because God set them down (although they are, happily, not always consistent with this). On behalf of this school of thought, I even brought some of that into the hypothetical discussion, as you recall. What if there were an external moral authority, etc. etc. I’m not a divine mandate guy, myself, but in terms of Christians in America, it seems like he’d want to deal with issue more than he does.

            The irony, I think, is this is a real opportunity for him to start poking at the meta-ethics of Christian America. Even if you are the most divineyist of divine mandaters, you have to acknowledge that it is you – the moral subject – who decides what morals are divinely mandated and that authority is worth accepting. Ultimately, your usage of divine mandate depends on your personal decision, barring the idea that God is actually forcing you to comply with His moral system supernaturally.

            This would put many of his critics in at least a similar spot. He could just own up to what he’s doing and say, “This set of values seems the most consistent to me. It produces the set of outcomes I want to see in the world and myself. This is my decision. If I am going to morally evaluate you, it’s going to be on the basis of the system that appeals to me the most. However, this is not fundamentally different than what you do. If there is a God, and He has laid out a moral system, and you are not compelled to obey it, then you are choosing to follow it based on criteria that are meaningful to you, and you will evaluate the morality of actions based on how well they line up with a system you yourself have chosen.”

            I suppose someone could argue that they have greater confidence that a moral system generated by God would be more moral than one generated by Sam Harris (or the ethicists behind the system he chose), but it would at least level the playing field in terms of the critique that he doesn’t have a basis for his morality besides his own fiat.

            But this would require stepping outside of oneself a bit to be a little self-critical and thinking about the basis for one’s opponents’ school of thought. It would also have the unfortunate side effect of relativising his moral critique of Christianity somewhat. “You guys are immoral as defined by the Sam Harris Moral System ™,” and he really seems to want to make this an objective critique. But this is what he gets hammered with, anyway. If I were him, I’d just own up to it, point out this is an inescapable side effect of making moral decisions, and let the chips fall where they may. I think, insofar as he can establish that Christian morality causes more harm than good, it’s a safe gamble that such a critique will resonate with others, including Christians themselves, whether he can establish an objective platform for that or not.

            You point out something like the conquest of Canaan passages, and even most fundamentalists will try and make this about extinguishing a greater evil to justify it. Very few Christians will say, “Yeah? So? God told them to kill everyone. Ergo, it was morally right. What else is there to say?” Although, sadly, such people exist.

            I think your last two paragraphs hit several nails on the head. Beau rightly points out that I am too quick to read motive into the things various atheists say, and I am trying to work on that. At the same time, I frequently run into this identity issue of needing to be perceived as “smart,” “right,” and in may cases, “smarter than everyone else.” Or maybe “smart” isn’t even the correct word. Maybe “more possessed of true knowledge” than everyone else.

            This is an identity issue and I can relate to it well (I’m also an entitled white guy, so that may have something to do with it). But that is something that both Christian fundamentalism and… I’ll say dogma-based atheism or uncritical atheism… offer. People discover (and it’s easier to discover every year) that maintaining fundamentalist Christianity as an epistemically superior position just requires more and more denial and doubling down than they are willing to take. Atheism offers them the fast track to intelligence and certainty, or at least those claims. Whether the given individual is actually intelligent or possessed of true knowledge is up in the air, of course, but by belonging to the tribe, they get to import the image and identity of being thoughtful, critical, knowledgeable, and dispassionate seekers of truth.

            For people who fit into that category, I wonder what will become of them in coming years when they discover (if they discover) that they are actually still wrong about a great many things and demonstrably so? Will the experience inspire them to a greater commitment to be self-critical? Will they double down? Will they change to something else like agnosticism? Nihilism? Fundamentalist Islam?

            I have just run across very few people who used to be a Unitarian Universalist or mainline Presbyterian or a Buddhist, and now they find Sam Harris et al compelling. It’s almost always someone who used to be some variety of fundamentalist Christian. There could be plenty of other reasons for that, of course, but even for Harris: fundamentalist X seems to be only legitimate X there is.

          • arcseconds

            Beau rightly points out that I am too quick to read motive into the things various atheists say, and I am trying to work on that.

            Far be it from me to stop anyone from reconsidering their biases.

            However, you do readily distinguish between ‘thoughtful’ and ‘dogmatic’ atheists. And there’s no real doubt the later exists: just look at any of the examples with walk-in mythicists on this blog. They do all they can to avoid learning anything at all. The discussion is never productive in the slightest, and insults and misdirects come thick and fast.

            (The two ‘exceptions’ that I recall are Kris Rhodes (who I think has reconsidered his position?) and Vinnie, who is dogmatic in his own way but makes good points on the occasion, but these are/were both historic Jesus agnostics, not mythicists)

            I know a few atheists personally who don’t have fundamentalist backgrounds who seem fairly persuaded by Harris and co., although they seem less invested in it than the ones one meets online. Harris himself wasn’t a fundamentalist, and I don’t think the other Four Horsemen were either.

            The people I know usually went to church when they were small, but their parents lapsed virtually completely, although some never went to church. Their vague understanding of Christianity (and therefore, all religion) is that it’s about turning up to church and believing in Jesus and miracles and things, and where do you get this information? Well, that book of yours.

            And if you’re just going to believe some of it but not all of it, that seems disingenuous: you’re just making stuff up to suit yourself.

            Also, as I’ve said before, I do think our society, even the secular wing of it, sets us up for literalism. Our model of knowledge is science, and not science as done by scientists, but being a science student and learning facts out of text books. (I actually think the cultural history here shouldn’t have religion separated from it either, because both Catholicism and Protestantism, in different ways, involve knowledge being about receiving explicit information from books and authority figures. But outside fundamentalist circles, science usually has more authority these days and science education is more universally experienced. Either way, science and religion are both understood as providing truth in the form of facts, and the kinds of approaches that might allow for a more considered approach to religion apart from seeing it as a source of facts in some kind of competition with science are typically seen as ‘subjective’ and impractical and woolly and ‘soft’ (e.g. art theory, literary criticism, philosophy…). So our society implicitly values undisputed facts and the authority that comes with them above all other approaches.

            Even a better understanding of philosophy of science would help: the activity of a considered believer is not fundamentally different from that of a scientist (perhaps in an earlier age when less was fixed): the Bible and things others have said about it is just data that you do you best to make sense of in developing a framework. A given verse in the Bible no more needs to be assumed to be true than the conclusion of some past scientist (perhaps yourself a decade ago) on the result of an experiment needs to be. The experimental outcome can be reinterpreted, or the results even outright rejected as spurious, but no-one who knows anything about this thinks means you’ve rejected science and the experimental method by doing so. The point perhaps could be expressed as the difference between an active participant in ‘knowledge-work’ as opposed to a passive recipient.

            For ex-fundies, there is a personal dimension to this: they have been duped, and often suffered (gone to bed frightened of hell, sometimes been outright abused). It’s understandable that they should see this as a battle-ground.

            And this can emerge in subtler ways: James (who by no means embraces the traditional view on the Gospels) thinks Bart Ehrman (who isn’t anti-religion, or at least if he is he’s really nice about it) is overly sceptical about what the Gospels can tell us and a bit old-fashioned in his approach in part because of what James has characterized as an argument against his former fundamentalist self.

            But I think Christianity has to take some of this on itself. It’s entirely possible to go to moderate churches with a theological liberal in the pulpit and half the church being of a liberal theological bent, or even basically atheist, and simply not have a clue that this is the case, because what they present is basically a conservative front, or at least is systematically ambiguous, presumably in order not to offend theological conservatives. Such a church might not insist on a six-day creation, but it’s likely to play along with the Christmas story, for example. Perhaps if one is paying close attention one might be able to detect that the pastor is always talking about these things as stories, not as actual factual things that really happened, but if you’re an Easter-and-Christmas Christian whose main goal during the sermon is to avoid falling asleep, this just might never dawn on you.

            So it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s basically lost on the public that one can be a committed Christian yet think the magi and the star are not literal history, and not thereby be just a picking-and-choosing hypocrite. Christianity has on the whole reneged on educating anyone about this.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            That was a great comment, arc.

            I’ve told my own pastor that Christian churches are atheist factories. We set people up, much like you depicted.

            I like how you pointed out how there are plenty of subtle ways this can occur without overt posturing. That’s very true, and it makes the overt posturing all the more destructive. If you tell a child that either Genesis 1 is literally true or the whole Bible is worthless, what do you think is going to happen, eventually?

          • arcseconds

            For people who fit into that category, I wonder what will become of them in coming years when they discover (if they discover) that they are actually still wrong about a great many things and demonstrably so? Will the experience inspire them to a greater commitment to be self-critical? Will they double down? Will they change to something else like agnosticism? Nihilism? Fundamentalist Islam?

            What would do this, though?

            If you’re rubric is the following:

            1) only accept entities known to physics, or are obviously built out of those entities, as being real
            2) define those entities as ‘matter’
            3) sequester all other things that there’s universal assent to existing (thoughts, meanings, beauty, (rationality? information?)) as ‘epiphenomena’
            4) accept a promissory note that one day these will be explained entirely in terms of matter
            5) dismiss any treatment of the entities in (3) outside scientific disciplines as interesting but subjective opinion pieces at best, but more likely to be time-wasting impracticalities, woolly-headed subjective nonsense, pretentious but vacuous word-games, or outright fraud.

            Toss in a bit of intellectual arrogance and intellectual laziness, and a dismissive attitude to anyone who doesn’t fall in line with your materialism, and you’ve effectively insulated yourself from any disproof you’re ever likely to encounter.

            You’re not going to listen to any philosophical argument that this isn’t an adequate picture. Subjective experience is dismissable. Outright miracles — those that entail something that’s known to be physically completely impossible — either don’t happen at all or practically don’t happen at all, so odds are very strong you’ll never encounter one. Anything else can be just put down to coincidence or unknown material processes. Even if psychic phenomena turned out to be proveable and repeatable, you could just insist there must be a material basis for it.

            Even if some other basis were found, it could be just accepted as ‘matter’. Note that there’s something funny about (2). The matter known to physics today is nothing like the matter of, say, the 17th century mechanists (just pure extension, that moves itself by direct physical connection, literal clockwork) or that understood by Aristotelean physics. It has all sorts of strange properties, including being in several ‘contradictory’ states at once (when you’re not looking at it), spontaneous behaviour, and even something that seems teleological (quantum tunnelling). And it could well turn out that it’s non-local, too. So why couldn’t a substance or energy field that propagates mental phenomenon be accepted, too?

            So this is the dogmatist’s final resting place, a doctrine that gives them bedrock. They only admit as true, real, and important things that aren’t doubted by anyone. They’re not committed to any particular theory of matter, so there is no way they ever have to revise their view. They have nothing at risk.

            (Of course, it’s always possible for someone to be subjected to some powerful experience, and as a result change their mind, but even if they have such an experience there’s no necessity to the mind-changingness of it. )

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            You’re right. Item #4 is especially powerful in that regard.

            I guess I’m curious as to how rigorous that particular category of people hold to the rubric you described or if they’re even aware of it or how satisfying it will be to them as time goes on.

            For example, one of my good friends and mentors was a biomedical sciences professor at Kansas University Med (he’s now at Western Michigan). He told me of how profoundly it affected his students the first time they tried to get experiment results published in a journal where the findings contradicted an editor’s friend or some such scenario. He said the experience would sometimes result in tears and, not infrequently, people dropping out of the program altogether – so deep was the disillusionment in discovering that scientists were not dispassionate seekers of truth who only cared about evidence.

            That sort of experience is analogous to the kinds of things I’m thinking about. Obviously, an experience like that is not going to make someone switch from atheism to something else; but it’s an experience that reveals their -assumptions and hopes- about what their intellectual world was going to be like from here on out were unrealistic.

            So, you get a person who, over time, discovers that his whole Jesus-is-Horus platform is based on a New Ager searching fragments of Google Books and gluing them together with assumptions. He discovers that Mitras, Mitra, and Sol Invictus are actually three different entities and have very little to no parallels with the Gospels. He discovers that people of all religions have adherents who do not understand their holy texts in terms of strict literalism, but allow for symbol, allegory, and myth. He finds that there are areas of live he cannot summon empirical evidence for, such as his moral system. He may find that arguments he once thought were very convincing were, in the coolness of distance, perhaps not very good.

            These are the kinds of things that erode dogma-based certainty over time, and if this is a case where the person sees certainty or “being right” as a significant part of their identity and security, I just wonder if they won’t try to find it somewhere else.

          • arcseconds

            Well, maybe, but it seems to me you’re positing a capacity for self-reflection and criticism that speaks against acquiring such dogmatism in the first place.

            Of course, it may be that what we see as a settled disposition towards dogmatism may just be the early enthusiasm of a new convert, or perhaps even just a reflection of their social circumstances.

            And also people change over time, not always as a result of critical self-reflection.

            But if we’re supposing a heel-digging dogmatism, then if they refuse to abandon their Horus paralellomania, then they wouldn’t be the first person to prefer the patterns they think they see than expert opinion. Also, I wonder how many are that invested in the Horus thing anyway… if it’s mythicism they want, they could just adopt Fitzgerald’s, which isn’t really capable of disproof with the kind of evidence we’re ever likely to see. They could even point to abandoning Horus parallels as evidence of their rationality — ‘see, I’m a scientist! I abandon theories when a better one comes along’.

            As far as moral systems are concerned, Harris already thinks utiltiarianism is in some sense ‘scientific’. And one can always just assert ethical anti-realism at the metaethical level, which is quite compatible with being even annoyingly moralistic on the normative level (and why not? on ethical anti-realism, every conversation is an opportunity to advance your own ethical agenda, as there’s nothing more to the matter than that). This could even be something they can be certain about: there are no moral facts, and it’s silly and wrong and unscientific to believe there are.

            And how would they discover this about different religious faiths? They’re already playing the No True Scotsman fallacy with Christianity, so on encountering liberal Christians they just think they’re kind of hypocritical Christians-lite who believe in whatever they like, so why wouldn’t they do this with other faiths? It would seem to require actually sympathetically exploring religion with someone, too, and I’m not sure why they’d want to do that. It might strike them as rather like ‘sympathetically exploring child labour in dangerous mines and disgusting sewers’ would with you.

            At any rate, it seems to me they can always hold on to metaphysical materialism.

            I think it’s pretty hard to say what could happen, it all seems pretty idiosyncratic to me. Some people get away from Christian fundamentalism as soon as they’re exposed to contrary ideas, others stick with it until late in life until it just starts to fall apart, others endure just as much or more than the others and take it with them to the grave. Some immediately become dogmatic atheists, some meander through liberal christianity, and end up being agnostics or not particularly vehement atheists, some go atheist then discover liberal Christianity, others become pagans.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Totally off topic, here’s a comic that features Jeremy Bentham trying to harvest Sam Harris’ organs:


          • arcseconds

            As far as the need to be smart goes, my pet theory is that a lot of people’s concept of their own intelligence is informed by their experience at high school.

            If you’re in the top 1% of academic performance in your year, then (unless your school is huge), you’re going to be in the top five people in your year, perhaps just the top person. So your experience is that you’re the smartest kid around: smarter than everyone else, smarter than the adults. It’s your super-power.

            If your experience is that your smarter than everything else, and things come easily to you (and let’s face it, the school curriculum is not all that tough), then your default assumption is that you can work everything out, see through everything.

            (Also, you will no doubt have been told all your life how wonderfully smart you are. We have a society that sets people up to arrogance. )

            But in your own city (unless it’s very small) there are thousands of people who were in the top 1% of academic performance, and in the world there are of course millions of people who are that good. Many of them will be much smarter than you, however you want to measure that. With something that is compared by direct competition this is obvious: the best tennis-player in your year at school might be competitive locally, but probably isn’t competitive nationally, and almost certainly isn’t Federer. The best tennis player there’s ever been in your town was probably a vastly better tennis player than the best tennis player in your school, and possibly was internationally competitive.

            So the smartest person in town is very probably vastly smarter than you are.

            And when you’re dealing with experts of international repute, you’re dealing with if not Federer, then at least people on the international tennis circuit. They are better at this stuff than you are: they do it for a living and got to the top.

            And the people who are historically important are Federer.

            The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, as an informed person today can make use of the knowledge of the past and therefore be better informed than even an expert of yesteryear, and an expert can have terrible biases that can be obvious to an informed layman, whereas Federer can surely beat any amateur.

            But it’s more like that then everyone else is dumb and you’re this shining light that pierces everything.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Very insightful. You should consider writing a sociology book on this phenomenon.

            The tennis analogy made me think of my freshman year in college. A guy lived on my floor who was his state’s tennis champion in high school. One day, we played together. He won the game, but he won it 6-3.

            The reason I won 3 sets is because I was a very poor tennis player, and he expected a level of competence that I did not deliver. He would serve and stay in the back waiting for my return, which never got near that far most of the time. He would hit the ball from the corner and race to the other side, assuming that I’d hit it toward the opposite corner. But I was more about just hitting the ball at all, and I’d usually hit it right back to where he was, originally. I was actually so bad compared to him and the people he was used to playing with that he had a hard time responding to it.

            I’ve been in discussions like that.

          • arcseconds

            I suppose someone could argue that they have greater confidence that a moral system generated by God would be more moral than one generated by Sam Harris ….

            But we don’t have a moral system generated by God.

            I know that’s what many conservative Christians like to pretend we have, but even on the view that God wrote every letter of the Bible himself, it doesn’t amount to a system. There are definitely some firm commands, but Christians have almost universally chosen to ignore most of them (and even the most observant Jew no longer makes sin-offerings). And there are some vague principles, like ‘love thy neighbour’. But there’s no decision procedure for deciding what to do in the general case, or even broad rubrics.

            What is the biblical view on intellectual property? Environmental regulation? Privacy and security versus catching criminals and terrorists on the internet? It’s not just that these are not explicitly discussed, but that it doesn’t even clearly establish principles or procedures that would allow us to make these decisions.

            The best a ‘bible-believing Christian’ can do is to pull out whatever approaches they can from the Bible and try to work out something that seems to be compatible with those approaches. And it would be intellectually dishonest to suggest that they’re not also using their own intuition about cases and the values they absorb from their society. They have to: the Bible doesn’t tell us about Herod tracking Joseph’s family down using his Big Brother Big Data system, or Simon Magus doxxing Paul, so we have to figure out the dangers here ourselves.

            They could, of course, appeal to the Holy Spirit guiding their reasoning, but the fact is that different people can go to the same set of books and come away convinced of very different things, so unless the Holy Spirit is gaslighting us, feeling you’ve been guided is no guarantee you have been.

            And the fact that Christians were only arguing a century and a half ago for something that is near-universally condemned today (viz. slavery) on Biblical grounds should be deeply worrying to anyone who thinks the Bible is sufficient for morality.

            So everyone’s in the same boat, it seems to me, even on the strongest theistic assumptions. Everyone is using their own fallible judgement quite thoroughly, or relying on the fallible judgement of others.

            Either fallible judgement is adequate to at least move in the right direction over time, in which case atheists are in no fundamentally worse position, or it’s not, in which case all of us are totally screwed.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Completely agreed.

          • arcseconds

            On the subject of Sam Harris and racial profiling, no discussion is complete without mention of his debate with security expert Bruce Schneier:


            (While I had read some Schneier before this, I had mentally pegged him as a libertarian, as many of his fans are libertarian, and so I wasn’t expecting him to come across necessarily as magnanimously concerned with all of humankind. That probably doesn’t speak highly of my views of libertarians, but if I’m prejudiced it’s based on experience…)

            Also, why are atheists generally men (probably ‘movement atheists’ is more accurate)? According to Harris:

            “I think it may have to do with my person slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”


            Even if there’s some truth to be had there, this is expressed in a flagrantly misogynistic manner. Women aren’t atheists because hormones!

            You say this doesn’t affect his credibility, but surely it does. Being so obviously racist (profiling arabs is racist no matter how you spin it) and misogynistic in this day and age and cannot even see it does not inspire any confidence in his ability to give sympathetic treatment of the lives of others, his ability to understand and take on board criticism, or in his ability to engage in critical self-reflection about his own attitudes and values.

            It might not affect someone’s credibility on mathematics (or to pick a subject totally at random with no connection at all to the current topic, evolutionary biology), but on human concerns such as morality or religion it’s really not a good look at all.

            Someone might still be worth listening to on these matters nevertheless, but I’d need some strong positive reason to bother. “Sam Harris, despite being racist and misogynist and a bit of an arse , nevertheless _____ which is why you need to read him”: I’m not sure what fills in the blank here, except maybe as a living example of a certain kind of ‘type’?

            One point of interest is what someone I heard once call his ‘crypto-vendantism’, that is to say his attempts to rehabilitate spirituality as an atheist concern. That does seem like a genuinely interesting undertaking, but I’m thinking there are atheists out there that already do this kind of thing (plenty of atheist buddhists, for example) who aren’t such arses.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            All good points.

            And thanks for bringing up the credibility thing. I guess what I was going for is that Sam Harris could be the worst person in the world, but that wouldn’t invalidate his statements about theism and atheism. It may remove him as a credible moral authority.

            It’s actually that sort of thing that got me to wondering about the parallels between dogmatism-based atheism and dogmatism-based theism. Harris is deeply afraid of “the Muslim threat” and has views of women from the 1950s, and it just struck me how similar that is to fundamentalist Christians. It made me wonder if there aren’t areas of commonality about how they approach the world in general that is back of or transcends their theological positions (or lack thereof).

            I do know he has put a lot of work into recovering spiritual/mystical experiences as an atheistic pursuit. I haven’t read much of him on this, although I have friends who have and have gotten into mindful meditation as a result. It’s interesting to me to hear him actually defend calling those experiences “spiritual” and “mystical,” because his evidence for this is largely his subjective experience and the collective stories and experiences of others, which is interesting to me, because if that “counts” as empirical evidence for the existence of a spirit that can mediate experiences, I’m not sure why similar claims about experiences with God don’t count.

          • arcseconds

            A moral authority I would say is someone who gets things right on at a normative (rather than metaethical) level, both in terms of what they say and what they do, to a much greater extent than normal people do, and as such it’s a pretty high bar to clear. It’s actually difficult to think of living people I’d accept as such… maybe Desmond Tutu? Or Aung Sun Suu Kyi? Maybe I need to look into this…

            Anyway, it’s not something I expect of Harris or anyone else. The problem is that his attitudes and how he expresses them indicate his moral capabilities and insight have at minimum severe limitations. And I mean ‘moral’ also in the wider, old-fashioned term of ‘moral sciences’.

            If you can’t work out that blaming the relative absence of women from the atheist movement on ‘extra estrogen’ (joke or no) is likely to alienate most of your women listeners — and maybe actually points the way to a better explanation of why it’s a boys’ club — then that’s a strong indication your ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and see something from someone else’s perspective are pretty poor, which should reduce our confidence rather that you’re going to be any kind of source of insight into the human condition.

            It doesn’t invalidate his metaphysics, no, although I still do wonder about a philosopher (even an amateur one) who has those attitudes, If they grew up in the 50s then OK maybe we can understand that they may not move past that, but Harris isn’t that old. Philosophers should at least keep up, and not have retrograde beliefs and attitudes!

            And it’s not like he’s the only, the first, or the best person to articulate an atheist position. I realise of course you’re only saying “he can be terrible and yet right on atheism”, not “and yet be worth reading on atheism”, but my puzzle is still why we’d bother.

            As to why dogmatic atheism seems a lot like fundamentalist Christianity, there’s a few things that seem pretty obvious.

            Dogma itself is an attraction to many people. Rather than trading in nuance, multivocality, caveats, complexities and uncertainties, you have instead certainty and clarity. No need to doubt, or wonder, or second-guess yourself any more. Despite the fact that Beau seems baffled and sceptical about the very idea, lots of people find this very attractive.

            Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t wonder about things or enjoy learning things on certain dimensions. I mean, look at the theorizing post-millenial dispensationalists do. They love the working out how bits of Daniel and Revelation and the Gospels knit together somehow to tell us about the Soviet Union and the UN! The important thing is that the framework is solid and not open to any effective doubt or renegotiation. Filling in the framework with details can be fun!

            Likewise, dogmatic atheists can enthusiastically learn about all sorts of science, but they become extremely resistant to challenges to (e.g.) the notion that religion held back science a thousand years.

            One of the things that I think is often overlooked with dogma is there’s not just the kind of private, in-your-own-head benefits of not struggling with doubt and refactoring all the time, but an interpersonal and performative aspect, too. It means you’ve got an in-group that you can enthusiastically agree wholeheartedly with, for example. And you have a clear way of dealing with your out-group: really lay down the law to them! Aggressively assert their blindness and self-serving venality!

            This means of course you also have a clear route to belief in your own moral and intellectual superiority.

            Closely related is that you have a natural set of enemies (which also helps in-group bonding). And from there it’s a short step to seeing yourself as part of a noble crusade for the right and the good against the forces of darkness. This is a lot more exciting than thinking we’re all muddling along as best we can and it doesn’t matter much if your neighbour believes in super-aliens or not.

            If all this sounds vaguely authoritarian, then that’s because basically I think it is. Or if not authoritarian exactly, a close cousin. Not necessarily classically authoritarian with a dictator-for-life at the top, rank-and-file at the bottom and a rigid hierarchy in between, with a list of rules in bold font and a formal process for punishing and ejecting transgressors. Of course, when those really obvious trappings aren’t there, people will tell you that it’s not authoritarian (“there is no atheist pope!”).

            But that doesn’t stop a culture from having strong in-group/out-group dynamics, and a kind of ‘natural’ hierarchy of leaders with high social capital at the top, local facilitators in between, and ordinary pew-sitters/consumers/attendees at the bottom, and some fairly strong norms. This is broadly how evangelical culture works, as far as I can see: there’s no evangelical Pope either, or an actual magisterium, instead there are several well-known figures with a lot of kudos that emerge more or less organically, like Billy Graham.

            With Muslims, there’s an out-group which is often visually identifiable, they often have an ethnic background which also puts them on the outer, they are often from ‘backward’ countries, and, whether you’re a Christian or an atheist, they are adherents of an apostate dogma. If I put it like this, it’s not all that surprising that they have become The Enemy for people with authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian leanings.

            Most of this seems obvious enough, though, and I presume you’ve probably thought of much of it before.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Also from Hitchens:

        “My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”

        Doesn’t sound very ambivalent about his own knowledge to me.

        I just finished watching the speech that your quote came from, and yes, it is definitely not a critique of the idea that one can have certainty. It is most definitely a critique of the concept that faith can provide certainty.

        • Boy, talking about getting context wrong, the context of the first quote is an article in which Hitchens is defending the freedom of speech, not the certainty of his own speech. From the same article:

          “In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view. Indeed as John Stuart Mill said, if all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person, it would be most important — in fact, it would become even more important — that that one heretic be heard, because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.”

          and …

          “the freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently”

          And absolutely the second quotation is from a critique of the concept that faith can provide certainty … and you have yet to show how that makes Hitchens one who “craves certainty”.

      • arcseconds

        ‘Embrace uncertainty’ and ‘doubt everything’ and ‘nothing is ever proven in science’ are part of the slogan material of science enthusiasts, but slogans aren’t a reliable guide to how people act in practice.

        ( ‘God is love’ is another slogan, but people who tell us that frequently act in ways that really don’t seem loving at all. )

        In reality, science enthusiasts usually act as though they’re pretty damn certain about things, that science does in fact prove things, and the ones that are also professing atheists are fairly frequently also act very certain about all sorts of propositions regarding religion, many of which are nowhere as clear cut as they seem to think they are.

        A subtitle like ‘How Religion Poisons Everything’ doesn’t seem the sort of thing that someone who eschews certainty and embraces doubt and is committed to entertaining contrary views on all things would choose.

        I’m sure Hitchens is telling the truth when he says he lusts after nowledge and understanding, but it seems to me he is not in fact equally receptive to new information from all directions.

        And the fact that he contrasts this passion for new understanding and knowledge with religious faith is also telling. Religious faith and passion for new understanding are not at all opposites, proven by the many scientists and other intellectual and creative workers who are also devoutly religious.

        Sure, there are the likes of Ham whose faith is marked by epistemic closure, but one can find atheists like that too.

        • I still haven’t heard anything to convince me that New Atheists, in particular “crave certainty”, as Phil suggests.

          Science enthusiasts are certainly excited about science, but most enthusiasts I read are quite open about the vast knowledge that science has yet to attain and the mistakes that are made in science. In fact, the scientific errors of last year is a favorite topic of science writers. (Remember the controversial discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos that turned out to be a technical measurement error?)

          Sure, Hitchens has strong opinions, and defends them with healthy rhetorical skill. But your vague caricature of him sounds more like a way to dismiss him, and ignore his views, than a way to engage him. Hitchens, on the other hand, engaged Christians of every stripe in conversation for most of his professional life.

          • arcseconds

            Is it really a ‘vague caricature’ to note that Hitchens sounds very certain a lot of the time? That sounds like a way to dismiss me by caricaturing me as indulging in vague caricatures!

            I note that you don’t deny that he sounds certain a lot of the time, in fact you say so yourself in different words, and it’s not hard to find Hitchens sounding extremely certain about matters.

            So it seems to me that we have at least one New Atheist (one of the ‘type specimens’ in fact) that on the face of it is very certain on a lot of matters, and is apparently quite proud of it.

            I don’t see what my engagement or lack of it with Hitchens has to do with it. Unless maybe the certainty he expresses is some kind of sophisticated act, that we’re supposed to see past if we pay close attention to the subtext or something, but that doesn’t seem to be what you are contending.

          • Forgive me, I should have said, Phil’s vague caricature of Hitchens, not yours. The caricature I meant to address in that statement was the notion that “a craving for certainty” is a “driving force” behind Hitchens.

            Finding that someone seems certain about some matters, hardly means that he or she is driven by a craving for certainty.

            As you have said:

            “Rational belief surely comes in degrees, that is to say there’s some things we’re very sure of, some things we think are likely to be true on balance, other things we think are fairly likely but less probable than not, other things we think are highly unlikely, other things we think are practically impossible, etc. No competent historian is going to dispute that.”

            Pointing out what Hitchens appears to be sure about is fair. But it doesn’t lead me to impugn his motives as a “craving for certainty.”

            I’m sure I could find all sorts of statements that each of us has made, that we seem pretty certain about.

          • arcseconds

            Well, ‘craving certainty’ isn’t how I’d describe Hitchens, but I was responding to your claim that Hitchens is the opposite of craving certainty, not trying to defend Phil’s claim.

            So what would the opposite of craving certainty be? To my mind, it would be someone who eschews certainty and embraces doubt. A sceptic perhaps, but of the Pyrrhonian or Academic sort, not a contemporary sceptic society sceptic who are typically certain about all sorts of things. Or someone who is committed to epistemic pluralism, or someone who insists on always presenting multiple views on an issue, or at least someone who only commits to a point of view with reluctance and habitually presents things in language which expresses uncertainty and with caveats and exceptions.

            (And this shouldn’t be something that’s done on the way to certainty, like Cartesian scepticism is for Descrates, or presenting an alternative view only to tear it to shreds.)

            Hitchens isn’t like that at all, on the whole. He has strong opinions, which he presents forcefully. He can say all he wants to about how he is pro-uncertainty, but this isn’t how he actually acts. His writing generally leaves the reader in little doubt that he himself is in little doubt about what he writes. And I can’t help getting the impression that he enjoys being certain about things, taking a strong stance on them, and arguing for them with gusto.

            He might not crave certainty, but he isn’t exactly avoiding it, and he seems to enjoy it when he has it.

            (I can’t really see the relevance of whether or not you or I have also made statements that sound certain, as no-one is asserting that we’re either craving certainty or the opposite of it.)

            For what it’s worth, I interpreted Phil as not meaning specifically ‘the four horsemen’ of New Atheism, but rather the wider phenomenon of their fans and fellow-travellers, which is apparently how he intended it.

            (I used to use the term in this way, but I tend to avoid it now, and you’ve given me another reason to avoid it. I wasn’t aware that it was commonly used to refer to just those four. )

            And I’d certainly say that many of them that one encounters on the internet are at minimum heavily invested in being right, and not at all interested in changing their opinion or even listening with any kind of attentiveness to another opinion. Just look at the interminable discussions with mythicists here.

          • Actually, I said that craving certainty was the “opposite” of what Hitchens SAID, then offered the statement in evidence.

            Hitchens uses strong rhetoric, and tends to write forcefully about topics he feels strongly about – something I’ve always admired about him. I especially enjoy his unapologetic essays supporting free speech, whether or not we like the speaker. But this does not entail that he was unable to question his own position (and change it at times) and recognize positions about which we can only claim ignorance.

            But, again, I didn’t say that Hitchens WAS the opposite of “craving certainty”.

            Yes, it’s clear now that Phil is talking about atheists he interacts with on the internet. I’m not sure which ones he considers “New Atheists”, since I don’t often see people claiming that specific title.

          • arcseconds

            What people say and what people do are two different things.

            You’ve provided a quote in which Hitchens says he’s against certainty, but as far as I can see he’s not actually against certainty in any notable way, in fact he appears to relish certainty when he has it.

            It sounds like he might be against ‘complete certainty’ or something, but I wonder what this really amounts to.

            My guess is that he has in mind the attitude of a fundamentalist who doesn’t want to learn anything at all on any topic ever, but while these people exist it’s not really an interesting contrast to say “I’m not like that”. Even young-earth creationists can be thirsty for knowledge on topics that don’t conflict with their biblical literalism.

            So I’m not sure that there really is much difference in the attitude towards certainty between Hitchens and many even quite dogmatic religious believers. They’re open to learning new things on many topics, but are very certain of themselves and not really open to persuasion on others.

            What’s the functional difference between Hitchen’s attitude towards free speech and absolute certainty?

          • I don’t know. Why do you ask, “What’s the functional difference between Hitchen’s attitude towards free speech and absolute certainty?” Are you referring to Hitchens argument that a free society must allow and protect dissenting voices? Surely you don’t see that as evidence for a relish of absolute certainty?

            Yes, “what people say and what people do are two different things”, and I made a claim about what Hitchens said.

            You may wonder about the sincerity of Hitchens’ comments on certainty all you like, but unless you actually have something to offer in evidence other than your anecdotal notion that he “appears to relish certainty”, I will continue to take him at his word, eloquently expressed.

            Seeming certain … even being certain, is not even remotely evidence of being driven by a craving for certainty.

            We all seem certain on any number of matters. “there’s some things we’re very sure of … and other things we think are practically impossible, etc. No competent historian is going to dispute that”.

          • arcseconds

            You say that you’re only making a claim about what Hitchens said, but you said this in response to Phil making a claim about what motivates the New Atheists in a way that indicated that you thought this was counter-evidence, and anyway you go on to say a few words later that you’ll take him at his word.

            So I’m a bit confused about what you’re saying here. Hitchens says he’s against certainty and you say you believe him on that basis. That seems pretty much the same thing as claiming he’s against certainty, isn’t it? So why are you saying you’re only claiming something about what he said?

            I tend to think that in most cases we can read off people’s attitudes and values from how they behave. If they are constantly doing something that appears to come to them with ease and with a high level of engagement they appear to be largely doing it of their own volition, then I tend to think they enjoy it. At any rate, it seems very strange to suppose they could really be against whatever it is they’re doing — because if they were against it they could just stop doing it.

            (They could be addicted, I suppose, or have some other kind of compulsion, but that’s not exactly voluntary, and even then I might want to see some evidence of some kind of struggle against the addiction before I’d conclude that they really are against the behaviour they’re addicted to.)

            So I don’t think it’s going too far to conclude, for example, that Hitchens enjoys writing. And if he said once that he is against writing, or hates it, or something, I don’t know that I’d believe it.

            Whereas it’s easier to believe Wittgenstein when he expresses antipathy towards philosophy, as he attempted to give it up several times, and had things that seem to be plausibly coping strategies, and also of course he seems to think of his work as a ‘cure’ for philosophy.

            Also, as I was trying to say in my last comment, I don’t think your quote from Hitchens does in fact even state that he’s against all forms of certainty. He appears to have in mind a rigid world-view where everything is certain and there is nothing more to learn. I accept he’s against that, but that’s entirely compatible with being certain on many topics, even dogmatically so. It’s even compatible with having a pro-attitude towards certainty on the topics that one thinks it’s appropriate to be certain on, and in fact enjoying having that certainty.

            I see no reason for him to deny that he is certain about some things, and I wouldn’t see that as being incompatible with his statement. If you asked him “are you certain about the principle of freedom of speech?” is the response more likely to be something like “yes, and I’m proud of it!” or “no, of course not! I’m against all forms of certainty, including the things that I enthusiastically argue for as though I’m certain”?

            So I don’t think I’m going against what Hitchens has said about himself here by saying he appears to relish certainty when he has it.

            We all seem certain about some things no doubt, but we don’t all make statements against certainty which are interpreted as asserting the opposite of craving certainty, while at the same time taking what seem to be very certain positions on all sorts of things without the least bit of reluctance.

          • Really? Claiming something is “pretty much the same thing as” taking someone at their word?

            You make a rather convoluted argument here that what Hitchens says is not “incompatible” with him being certain about some topics and even “enjoying” that certainty.

            Perhaps, but what Hitchens said is not incompatible with Hitchens enjoying drag racing either. That doesn’t mean that Hitchens enjoyed drag racing.

            It’s always possible that people enjoy the things they tend to “do” a lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hitchens enjoyed public speaking, or writing, or drinking, or traveling. But not necessarily; one may travel speak, or write, or travel, or even drink in order to achieve other ends.

            I type a lot. I probably spend more of my time typing than almost any other daily activity. What I type is important to me. But typing itself? I hate it.

            It helps to know if someone tells you what they enjoy, and Hitchens did mention enjoying some of these things. He’s talked about enjoying liquor and smoking; I can’t recall him ever mentioning his great relish of certainty.

            So, no. Even if you could demonstrate what it means to “do” certainty, you have not demonstrated that Hitchens “relished” certainty. You’ve said that he appears to enjoy certainty, but you’ve provided no evidence to that effect.

            Why is it so important to you that Hitchens “relish” certainty?

          • arcseconds

            So, in this discussion I have been responding as if you claimed this:

            (1) Hitchens is against certainty — I know this because he said so.

            But you’ve repeated a couple of times now that you were making a claim about what he said, as though this was an important distinction to make, so your claim appears to be rather:

            (2) Hitchens says he is against certainty — and I take him at his word

            I don’t see what the difference between (1) and (2) is, at least in the sense that any argument against (1) is also an argument against (2).

            “The offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet; that I haven’t understood enough; that I can’t know enough; that I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

            Let’s look at the second sentence. That in no way whatsoever suggests that Hitchens is against any certainty on any matter. He could be quite happy being certain about this and that, yet be hungry for new knowledge on matters that he isn’t certain about. And that is in fact how he seems to be: certain about a lot of matters, including freedom of speech, but eager to learn new things about which he knows little.

            So I think the first sentence is describing the opposite: a closed view that is certain on everything. The ‘complete security’ is complete security across the board, on all matters, not just on one or two. So, my paraphrase: “I’m against having complete security on all matters. I’m for acquiring more and more knowledge”.

            In the context, he is discussing life after death. He likes the idea of continuing a discussion with great thinkers. So it seems to me that something he could be rejecting here is the notion that all questions are answered and all doubt is erased after you die. Perhaps what Dempski’s statements were during the debate could help with that?

            I don’t think this is convoluted at all. In fact, I think the interpretation where he is against any form of certainty is starting to take the first sentence, and even the first phrase of the first sentence, out of context.

            Moreover, I think it’s quite uncharitable. Interpreting him as saying he’s against certainty when he’s clearly certain on a lot of topics, and doesn’t seem to have the least reluctance about it, makes him into either a hypocrite, or someone with a total lack of insight into his own character.

            (He might, I suppose, be asserting that he’s against a form of certainty that isn’t open to revision even in principle, whereas he’s aware he is in every practical sense certain about things, the difference being that he’s allowing that in a theoretical sense there could be an argument or a series of experiences or something that could convince him otherwise. But this isn’t much of a difference in practice, and doesn’t mean that he’s against the form of certainty that he actually evinces.)

            Why is it so important to you that Hitchens is against certainty?

            As for drag racing, of course I don’t think that showing that Hitchens’ statement is compatible with enjoying certainty shows that he enjoys certainty. I though I was quite clear about why I thought he enjoyed it: here it is again as you appear to have missed it:

            I tend to think that in most cases we can read off people’s attitudes and values from how they behave. If they are constantly doing something that appears to come to them with ease and with a high level of engagement they appear to be largely doing it of their own volition, then I tend to think they enjoy it. At any rate, it seems very strange to suppose they could really be against whatever it is they’re doing — because if they were against it they could just stop doing it.

            The point of discussing the interpretation was to show that that’s actually not evidence that he doesn’t enjoy it, as the way I read it, it’s not objecting to the kind of certainty he has on things.

            If he drag raced under the same kinds of circumstances I do not at all think it would be unwarranted to say he enjoys drag racing. In fact, this would be a completely ordinary judgement to make, and saying “well sure he voluntarily drag races frequently, there’s no external compulsion, and he does it with apparent ease, and without any reluctance whatsoever but we really don’t know whether he enjoys it or not because he never has committed to enjoying it in print” just seems weirdly skeptical about our ability to understand other human beings.

            Sure, he might be doing it for some other reason, but both drag racing and being certain are the sorts of things people enjoy pretty directly, so I’m not sure why we would need to posit an additional reason. I mean, sure, we could quibble and say “well, it’s not really the drag race itself but the thrill of drag racing he’s really after” or “well, it’s not really the certainty but the thrill of expressing himself forcefully that he really likes” or something, but I don’t think this gets us that far: these seem like just more specific accounts that aren’t really contradicting the initial assertion, and are less probable because they’re more specific.

            Of course, it could be the case that there’s something entirely external to the activity that we’re not aware of, like he’s secretly being paid to drag race or act like he’s certain about things, but again it seems weirdly sceptical to say that because these things might be the case that we can’t ever say that someone enjoys something unless they tell us they do. For that matter, how could we trust their self-reports if this were the case? If someone could spend their time drag racing and act for all the world like they enjoy it for some mysterious further end, then they could also say they enjoy drag racing for a mysterious further end, too.

            But maybe you’ve got a plausible theory of what other end Hitchens is pursuing by acting like he’s certain about things?

          • I would agree that the second sentence of the Hitchens quotation “in no way whatsoever suggests that Hitchens is against any certainty on any matter.”

            Which is why I didn’t state that Hitchens was “against certainty” (Those are your words).

            I was responding to Phil’s claim:

            “Maybe it’s the craving for certainty that divides. People need certainty, discover that nothing really offers the level of certainty that they want, so they manufacture it with dogmatism. I actually think this is a driving force behind both evangelicalism and new atheism.”

            Of course, I took him to mean new atheism as represented by the four writers associated with it. So I responded with the quotation from Hitchens:

            “The offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having.”

            I did say this was the opposite of Phil’s claim, but the opposite of Phil’s claim is not to simply be “against certainty”; it would be against having, as one’s driving force, a craving for certainty that leads to dogmatism.

            As I’ve already said:

            “Seeming certain … even being certain, is not even remotely evidence of being driven by a craving for certainty.”

            I did correct you when you oddly referred to my statement as my “claim that Hitchens is the opposite of craving certainty. That’s one reason that I emphasized the word “say” rather than your peculiar choice of “is”. But also because that was what the evidence of the quotation supported most clearly – that Hitchens expressed a sentiment that was in opposition to Phil’s unsupported claim that a driving force for him was a craving for certainty leading to dogmatism.

            And I take him at his word, as you say, “charitably”. I was never uncharitable to him by claiming that he was “against certainty”, because, as I’ve said, I never argued that he was “against certainty”. Those are your words.

            You asked “Why is it so important to you that Hitchens is against certainty?” Well, it’s not important to me. I haven’t argued that Hitchens is against certainty.

            You go to great lengths to argue that Hitchens can be certain about some topics in ways that still are in agreement with his quotation. But I had already said,

            “Finding that someone seems certain about some matters, hardly means that he or she is driven by a craving for certainty.”

            I certainly did not miss your statement about reading ” off people’s attitudes and values from how they behave”. I answered it. here it is again as you appear to have missed it:


            It’s always possible that people enjoy the things they tend to “do” a lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hitchens enjoyed public speaking, or writing, or drinking, or traveling. But not necessarily; one may travel speak, or write, or travel, or even drink in order to achieve other ends.

            I type a lot. I probably spend more of my time typing than almost any other daily activity. What I type is important to me. But typing itself? I hate it.

            It helps to know if someone tells you what they enjoy, and Hitchens did mention enjoying some of these things. He’s talked about enjoying liquor and smoking; I can’t recall him ever mentioning his great relish of certainty.

            So, no. Even if you could demonstrate what it means to “do” certainty, you have not demonstrated that Hitchens “relished” certainty. You’ve said that he appears to enjoy certainty, but you’ve provided no evidence to that effect.


            Now you say “both drag racing and being certain are the sorts of things people enjoy pretty directly”.

            Really? Being certain is the sort of thing that people enjoy pretty directly? I am certain that Donald Trump is a poor choice for president; and I have argued this on many occasions. I can guarantee you, this is not a certainty that I “enjoy”.

            Maybe you enjoy “doing certainty”? I wonder what that looks like? I often chat with friends and family about the things we all enjoy doing … lots of enjoyable activities come up in such conversations … baking, hiking, writing, traveling, decorating, conversing. And though I don’t know any drag racers personally, I have heard them discuss their enjoyment of the sport on TV.

            But, I’ll have to say, I have never had heard anyone tell me how much they enjoy “doing certainty”.

            “But maybe you’ve got a plausible theory of what other end Hitchens is pursuing by acting like he’s certain about things?”

            Don’t you means to say, “acting like he’s enjoying doing certainty”? And why does he have to “act” like he is certain to pursue an “other end”? Why can’t he just be certain of a topic, and enjoy talking about the topic?

            Let’s see, what might Hitchens (just theoretically, mind you) be plausibly doing, during those articles, debates, and speeches when you oddly seem to think he is “doing certainty” (with great enjoyment):

            Defending free speech
            Convincing his audience to support a policy
            Showing off his rhetorical skill
            Endorsing something or someone he considers valuable
            Criticizing something or someone he considers harmful
            Explaining a viewpoint

            I could keep going. It’s frankly strange to me that what you characterize as doing certainty, could so much more easily be described in any number ways of which this list is just a start. And he might be engaging in these activities because he enjoys them, or he might be engaging in them because he considers them important. But what you perceive as his enjoyment of doing certainty, is far more plausibly an enjoyment of talking, or composing, or even arguing.

            Now, my original reason for quoting Hitchens was that I found Phil’s contention both uncharitable and without evidence – that he was driven by a craving for certainty leading to dogmatism.

            Is that your contention? Or are you arguing something else? It’s still not clear to me why it’s important to you to argue that Hitchens “relishes certainty”.

          • arcseconds

            Let me get back to basics for a bit.

            I think it’s possible, and in most cases fairly unproblematic, to read off people’s attitudes and psychology from their behaviour. I don’t mean fine details like the exact history of how they came to be that way and what exact levels of lack of impulse control, low self-esteem, repressed anger etc. contribute to them say lashing out at people, I just mean that we can make a judgement like “they’re touchy and have a hair-trigger temper — they get angry easily, particularly about politics, and they can’t stand the slightest bit of criticism about their work”.

            Of course, we might be wrong about that, just as we might be wrong about anything. Maybe they’re not angry at all, and it’s a cynical manipulative act. But generally speaking we’re often at least in the ballpark, or, in cases where we don’t have great information, then we often have a plausible interpretation which is compatible with the information we do have — although there may be other interpretations which are roughly as plausible.

            And sure, what people say is often a useful guide. But on the other hand, it’s often not useful at all, particularly when an obvious interpretation is an unflattering one. People frequently don’t have very clear insights into their own motivation. Things that are obvious to others are not necessarily obvious to them.

            So, for example, I don’t have any difficulty with saying that McGrath enjoys blogging. I think he has in fact mentioned this explicitly, but I don’t remember exactly, and I’m not basing this judgement on his statements, but on his behaviour.

            And I would say that this judgement is really based on “well, he just strikes me that way — he seems to enjoy it”. But if pressed, I would say what I’ve said before: It’s not something he needs to do, he does it with a high level of engagement, and he does it with apparent ease and without the least indication of reluctance, and he does it beyond any kind of minimum requirement.

            Do you agree with this picture, at least in general?

            I ask, because it seems to me that the kinds of objections you raise to a similar judgement concerning Hitchens could also be raised here.

            It could be a means to a further end, for example. In fact, we know he gets a bit of money from Patheos for it, and that he finds it motivating — so maybe the apparent enjoyment is just an act.

            I would also say that blogging is the sort of thing people enjoy pretty much directly. But apparently one instance of someone not enjoying blogging would be enough to make this a dubious assertion — because one instance of someone being certain about something they wish they weren’t is apparently enough to cast doubt on certainty being something that people enjoy not as a means for a further end.

            In your view, is it reasonable to think McGrath enjoys blogging, or does the fact that there are other possible motivations and examples of people who don’t enjoy blogging make this an unreasonable assertion?

          • Is your judgement that James enjoys blogging equivalent to a judgement that Hitchens was driven by a craving for certainty leading to dogmatism?


            Blogging is an activity; certainty is not.

            The statement you would make, if pressed:

            “It’s not something he needs to do, he does it with a high level of engagement, and he does it with apparent ease and without the least indication of reluctance, and he does it beyond any kind of minimum requirement.”

            refers four times to the verb “do/does”. All of your suggested examples refer to activities, verbs that people “do”.

            Certainty is not something that you “do”. Certainty is not an activity.

            However, in each instance where you might suppose Hitchens is certain, and in other instances in which he may not be certain, Hitchens IS doing something.

            He is communicating. Remember? I gave you a list of activities related to communicating, all of which Hitchens pursued frequently when he was alive.

            As I’ve already pointed out, by your own logic, if you were able to judge what one enjoys by observing what someone “does … with a high level of engagement, … does … with apparent ease … [does] … without the least indication of reluctance, and … does … beyond any kind of minimum requirement”, then you should be making a judgement about what Hitchens “does”.

            He communicates.

            You could describe the activity in other ways: he talks, he discourses, he argues, he converses, etc.

            Now let me caution you about a false binary which you have suggested twice.

            If you make a judgement that Hitchens enjoys communicating, that does not entail that he must “act” like he is certain, or “act” like he “enjoys certainty”. Hitchens can enjoy the activity of communicating regardless of whether he is certain about, uncertain about, or finds probable each topic he communicates.

            One more point. Let’s assume (for the sake of argument) that you ARE talking about an activity that Hitchens “does”. Let’s say “arguing”. Even then your judgement of James’ blogging would not be equivalent to the sort of judgement made about Hitchens.

            Is your judgement that James enjoys blogging equivalent to a judgement that Hitchens was driven by a craving for arguing leading to dogmatism?


            The equivalent of a judgement:

            that Hitchens was driven by a craving for arguing leading to dogmatism

            would be a judgement:

            that James is driven by a craving for blogging leading to dogmatism

            And in both cases, I would find the judgement highly speculative, suspect, and derogatory. Or you could use the word that you found apt earlier in the comments: “uncharitable”.

  • See Noevo

    “There is certainly a sense in which beliefs – held dogmatically – divide people…But the belief that everyone is an inherently valuable human life can also unite us.”

    Unfortunately, many consider “dogma” a dirty word, and further, consider dogmatic the belief that everyone is an inherently valuable human life. They despise *that* dogma. Division with these people will continue.

  • arcseconds

    The quote as a kind of quasi-zen prima facie counterintuitive statement to provoke reflection is interesting, but I doubt it’s actually true in any important sense.

    As a demographic matter, we can note perhaps that Christians, Muslims and atheists all don’t believe in the Hindu pantheon, so they’re ‘united’ in a shared doubt on this matter, but this doesn’t lead to any meaningful unity. We don’t have ‘Abrahamaic Faith/Atheist Alliance against Polytheism’ movements or dialogue or anything.

    The only people who achieve any real unity through doubt in any sense of the word seem to me to be the sceptic/atheist movement, and even there it seems that what unites them is not so much doubt as a positive belief in the value of science and rationality, and perhaps a conviction that belief in things that aren’t scientifically established (and in some cases have been established not to be the case) is actually harmful.

    They’re not unified by the abstract fact that they set the probability of homeopathy being any good at less than 0.5, but rather that it is practically zero (which is basically equivalent to a strong belief that it doesn’t work), and the belief that promoting it amounts to fraud, and that people spend money and time on it instead of on effective treatments, which results in illness being left untreated, and that belief in and promotion of homeopathy contributes to a credulous population that can fall for even worse scams.

  • Brandon Roberts


  • Joseph Shaw

    I wonder if Ustinov really meant that doubt “makes them the same” or “makes them human”.

    • arcseconds

      Good point.

      And perhaps James is right that this may be something that we should, I dunno, celebrate, or at least acknowledge openly. It certainly seems like an interesting idea, at any rate.