Apr 05 2010

Skepticism and Religion – Again

The topic of skepticism and religion comes up on a regular basis within skeptical circles, and I find I have to define my position on a regular basis. Because I host a skeptical podcast and contribute to several skeptical blogs, it cannot be avoided. This week’s episode of the SGU featured Eugenie Scott as a guest rogue, and the question of skepticism and religion came up. And, as predictably as the dawn follows the night, the old debate sparked up again.

Genie takes a position very similar to my own – that science is agnostic toward untestable claims. Science follows methodological naturalism, and anything outside this realm is by necessity outside the realm of science. It’s not a choice so much as a philosophical/logical position. (I will call this the “agnostic” position for simplicity.)

However, I think many people are confused when we discuss this topic, especially since we often refer to “religion,” which can create the false impression that we think science cannot address any claims that fall under “religion” – it may, depending on what those claims are.

Science is a Process

I think the primary confusion stems from this – defining science vs religion as a set of beliefs vs a set of methods or processes. A commenter on the SGU forums represents this confusion well when they write:

“…what the hell kind of skeptic movement would give an approving nod to the theist saying ‘I’m a skeptic–I won’t believe in ghosts without good evidence, …unless they’re holy ghosts.”

His comment focuses entirely on the beliefs themselves, but the agnostic position is about method not beliefs. It is absolutely not about ghosts vs holy ghosts – it is about methodological naturalism (science) vs faith (not necessarily religion). Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith.

The content of the beliefs, however, does not matter – it does not matter if they are part of a mainstream religion, a cult belief, a new age belief, or just a quirky personal belief. If someone believes in untestable ghosts, or ESP, or bigfoot, or whatever – they have positioned those claims outside the realm of science. This, of course, is Sagan’s invisible floating heatless dragon – creating a belief that cannot be tested.

It is important, in my opinion, for skeptics to be crystal clear on this point, because often the purveyors of pseudoscience will try to evade falsification or the negative effects of evidence on their claims by positioning the claim outside of science. At that point the skeptic must acknowledge that science can no longer demonstrate that the claim is likely to be false, but rather the claim is no longer scientific and can only be an article of faith. You can believe in the kind of bigfeet that are immune to all scientific investigation, but then you have to also stop claiming to have evidence for this bigfoot, or that you are doing science. Belief in bigfoot has become a tenet of your faith.

Religion is More than Faith

Often in this discussion we may use the term “religion” to refer to faith-based beliefs. I actually try to avoid it, because it is confusing. The fact is – religions routinely make fact-based claims. They intrude upon science on a regular basis, and whenever they step into the arena of science, they are absolutely fair game. No one I know denies this, and any regular reader of this blog, or listener of the SGU, knows that we will address head on any scientific claim, no matter its source.

However, whenever we state that science cannot address “faith” (beliefs that are outside the realm of science), this is commonly misconstrued to mean that it cannot address any claims of “religion,” which is not true and not the “agnostic” position.

Religions are multifarious – they often contain tenets of faith (the ultimate meaning of things), claims about history and the nature of reality, a source of cultural identity, and a code of morality. Freedom of (and from) religion means that people have a right to any tenets of faith they choose, they have a right to their own moral code (within limits, of course), and they also have a right to frame their personal and group identity how they wish.

People do not, however, have a right to their own facts. So when religions make claims about history or the nature of the material world, they are within the purview of science. Religions should not dictate to science, to limit its scope or its conclusions. It is also logically invalid to claim that faith is an appropriate approach to factual claims.

Philosophical Naturalism

There are many proponents of philosophical naturalism within the skeptical movement  – the position that the material world that science can investigate is not only all that we can know but that it is all that there is. I am personally a philosophical naturalist, in that I do not “believe” in anything outside the natural world, but I do not think that science (and by extension skepticism) is dependent upon philosophical naturalism. Science, as I stated, can only be agnostic toward any notions outside the grasp of its methods – such beliefs are unknowable.

It is reasonable from a philosophical point of view to conclude that there is no reason to believe in anything unknowable. All such beliefs are by necessity arbitrary, and most people end up believing whatever is taught to them by their parents and culture. So again, I agree with the position of philosophical naturalism.

But it has to be acknowledged that some people can and do accept and practice methodological naturalism and simultaneously maintain personal articles of faith for questions outside the realm of science. There is nothing inherently inconsistent in this position, and largely I find it difficult to care (as long as that faith does not also intrude upon science nor is used to justify a malignant morality).

Skepticism and Religion

There is a tangential issue, which is often conflated with the philosophical issues I discussed above – what should be the strategic approach of the skeptical movement toward religion and the religious? While this issue often garners the most heated debate, this is mostly a personal choice and not something which can be objectively resolved. It is part of the reason why the skeptical movement is a loose collection of individuals and organizations, and not one cohesive whole.

My personal approach is to focus on science, which includes tackling any religious claims that intrude upon science. Genie Scott took this position as well in our discussion. But there are others who also wish to promote philosophical naturalism or atheism. I have no problem with this – everyone can do as they wish, and as I said the skeptical movement is very much a bottom up spontaneous movement without any top-down control or organization. I do not pretend to have the “one true way” of skepticism, only my way.

I do feel (and this is just a feeling) that the skeptical movement is most effective when we are clear about the boundaries of science and the nature of science vs faith vs religion. I prefer to give people critical thinking skills and a love for science, and not worry about their faith. It is also quite possible (again, this is only my bias, as I do not have any solid evidence to back it up) that you will lead more people away from faith by this approach than by tackling their faith head on.

And again, this is my personal approach but I do not presume to dictate to other skeptics what they should do.

Genie Scott brought up the point that the skeptical movement will only limit its reach if it defines itself as, by necessity, including only non-believers. There are many good skeptics who also choose to be theists, and they should not feel excluded. Of course, as I said there is no card-issuing skeptical organization. This has more to do with the culture of skepticism – how we make people feel, not about any imposed rules.

It should also be pointed out that there are sister movements (atheism, humanism) that do tackle faith and the other aspects of religion. These movements include many people with expertise and interest in these areas. So part of my approach is a matter of specialization. However, whenever I say this some people conclude that I am saying it is all about specialization or strategy. It is not – as I discussed extensively above, it is about clarity of philosophy, logic, and definition, which also happens to be in line with what I think is an effective approach and how much of the skeptical movement is already organized.

Conclusion

This issue is an enduring point of heated discussion among skeptics. It has remained so for the last 15 years that I have been part of the skeptical movement, and those who have been at this longer than I have tell me it goes back as far as they can remember also. I think it is a healthy and very useful discussion for us to have, and I have resigned myself to the fact that I will have to endlessly clarify my own position.

But each time I do I try to get better at focusing on the real issues and illuminating the source of any confusion or disagreements. I hope this latest attempt at the issue has been useful.

The take-home point of this post is to understand that the “agnostic” position is about the difference between science and faith as differing methods, not about the paranormal and religion as different belief systems.

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230 responses so far

230 Responses to “Skepticism and Religion – Again”

  1. jblumenfeldon 05 Apr 2010 at 9:07 am

    My view has always been that virtually every claim of religion is a factual claim – and that a religion stripped of all factual claims is not one that any believers are actually interested in.

    But that’s not to say that all the factual claims of religion are amenable to test. For example, many of the arguments that try to prove the existence of God fail because they are not proofs – in other words, they are not by necessity true. But one of them might turn out to be true. For example, God MIGHT have caused the big bang, but the existence of the big bang does not prove the existence of God.

    Anyone can hope that these things are true, and I suppose they might turn out to be right. I don’t think so, because I don’t see any positive evidence for belief, but I don’t presume to tell others not to wish.

  2. BillyJoe7on 05 Apr 2010 at 9:22 am

    Methodological naturalism – the process by which scientist test claims, implying that untestable claims lie outside the province of science.

    Philosophical Naturalism – the position that the material world that science can investigate is not only all that we can know but that it is all that there is.

    It seems to me that the two are co-extensive.
    Consider the most basic claim of religion: the existence of god. At first blush, this is an untestable claim. But is it really? Before deciding that a claim is untestable, the claim must first be clearly defined. As soon as the claimant begins to define god, the scientist will find plenty of testable claims to whittle away at. Before long there is nothing left to test because there is nothing left of the claim.
    The concept of god, once defined, evapourates into thin air.

  3. Steven Novellaon 05 Apr 2010 at 9:35 am

    BillyJoe – What if someone claims that there is a god that exists outside the confines of the material universe? This being is unknowable to us mortals, one can only have faith in his existence. A believer can also claim that the existence of the universe was the will of this being.

    These beliefs are all inherently untestable.

    I agree that claims need to be clearly defined. I further agree that once you remove the testable you are left with naked deism or some other naked belief. That is kind of my point – if you make the distinction between the testable and the untestable, you have accomplished all that you would want to accomplish anyway. So who cares if someone still reserves a truly untestable faith?

    In fact, as I alluded to in the post, I feel you are more likely to cause someone’s faith to evaporate out of uselessness than to rip it from them by full frontal assault.

  4. Pug50on 05 Apr 2010 at 9:45 am

    It seems to me that this debate is only really big in the USA. American Skeptics are afraid to be seen criticising religion because religion is pervasive in the US – it’s probably a good idea to avoid alienating a great percentage of your audience/potential members. If it suits to ring-fence the majority of religious concepts as immune from skepticism then so be it. Just realise how bizarre it seems to a listener in the UK (or most of the rest of the world). I’ve never encountered it in the UK skeptism circuit.

    The way that SGU pussy-footed around directly discussing religion confused me when I first listened. I was the Xenomorph at Dragon*Con who asked a atheism/skeptism question in SGU#216 – that question was asked in total naivety and the slightly evasive (alas totally sincere) answer confused me. However, I’ve since travelled extensively in the USA and I now understand the problems that American Skeptics face.

  5. DocMon 05 Apr 2010 at 9:47 am

    I guess it is no big surprise for anybody when I mention that this is a discussion that mostly seems to led in the US. European skeptics have much less of a problem with the huge intersection of skepticism and atheism. Some people may have wondered why Ariane Sherine gave a talk about the atheist bus campaign at TAM London, but I noticed very little discussion about that.

    I wonder if this difference is due to a higher number of religious believers among the US skeptics, or because you need to make a distinction to gain public acceptance.

  6. DevoutCatalyston 05 Apr 2010 at 10:05 am

    “…I prefer to give people critical thinking skills and a love for science, and not worry about their faith…”

    Yes! When I listen to Astronomy Cast, and then look at the night sky, I feel a sense of awe. Whatever religion once gave me with its promises of a bonus round (heaven) pale by comparison.

  7. superdaveon 05 Apr 2010 at 10:09 am

    I think a more interesting debate isn’t ghsots VS holy ghosts, it’s ghosts VS any other scientific idea which is too compicated for a lay person to ever really understand.

    Do the results of the double slit experiment seem any more likely than ghosts being real? To a lay person, I would not be surprised if the answer was no. The distinction between these two then isn’t about the intuitive plausibility of the idea, but the evidence for them.

  8. Steven Novellaon 05 Apr 2010 at 10:14 am

    Doc and Pug – while what you say about the US may be true, as I painstakingly pointed out above – my position is NOT due to fear of pissing off the religious. It is a philosophical position that I have defended extensively.

    If you listen to the SGU and read this blog, it should be clear that I have no fears of pissing off huge segments of the population.

    Perhaps American skeptics have been forced to be more thoughtful in their philosophical approach.

    To give an analogy – in very liberal circles there is little thought paid to the distinction between skepticism and liberal ideology. When mixing with libertarians, however, skeptics are forced to ponder where skepticism ends and political ideology begins. This does not mean they are accommodating the libertarians or fear pissing them off.

    This could mean that European skeptics are a bit intellectually lazy because they have little need to ponder the nuances of the distinctions between skepticism and atheism.

  9. themightylearton 05 Apr 2010 at 11:29 am

    Funny, I was gonna ask this very same question, down to using the analogy with Sagan’s dragon, at the NECSS! And then you went and talked about it on the SGU and blogged here. Talk about premonition; Randi gimme my $1 Million!

    Nevertheless this is an important question, one which I’ve tackled many times at Skepfeeds and continue to. Many times I see the definitions battle rage on, and I’ve engaged on it many times myself. Definitions are outmost important in this debate and if we’re using the wrong ones, then we’re talking about different things.

    However, the heart of the issue as I see it is this (this applies to both the god hypothesis, not religion as that is too broad, just the god hypothesis, and Sagan’s dragon): A claim of existence is being made (X exists); X is set up in such a way as to be undetectable by science, therefore, by definition, no evidence supporting the claim has or can be presented. The million dollar question is: What position do we as skeptics take about such existence claims that are set up as to be outside of science?

    Now the options, as I see them are: Accept the claim, reject the claim or put it aside and take no position on it. Now, I think anyone that claims to be a skeptic will not accept any such claims (not to be construed to mean no skeptic will believe in god, but that skepticism must not accept claims presented without evidence, individual skeptics can still believe). It is the other two options that split us: some of us, me included, think that skeptics must reject (not accept) such claims, others think that this set up puts these claims outside of the scope of skepticism, thus we can’t know, thus they take the agnostic position, in essence not taking a position.

    I see it as this: if you make the claim “X exists” I need to see evidence. If you cannot provide it, for whatever reason, I will not accept your claim, I will reject it, provisionally until you can provide convincing evidence. Thus, I reject the claim “there is a god” for lack of evidence, which makes me an atheist (one who lacks belief in gods). I personally do not think that we ought to treat these claims any differently from claims that are theoretically testable but that are practically impossible to test. I view them as the same, existence claims presented without evidence.

    Imagine if you will Russell’s teapot in the Andromeda galaxy, circling on of the many billions of planets there. Theoretically that is a claim we can test, practically that is impossible. What do we do with that claim? Do we provisionally reject it or do we put it aside? Just remember that the claim can be made as ridiculous as you want, even the FSM can be set up so as to be totally undetectable by science, and so can Santa and most cryptozoological creatures. The question every skeptic has to answer, FOR HIMSELF, is what position do I feel comfortable taking when such claims are involved. I’ve made up my mind, no special buckets for me; no evidence, your existence claim goes out the window. As Hitchens famously says: What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.

    Skepdude

  10. Skepdudeon 05 Apr 2010 at 11:37 am

    BTW, I just changed my log in. that was set up a long time ago, long before there was a Skepdude or a Skepfeeds. Come to think of it, I’ve been following Steve for quite a while now. Good going Steve!

  11. Veonon 05 Apr 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Personally I dislike the distinction between Philosophical and Methodological Naturalism. I don’t think about the universe in those terms. I’m only interested in evidence, logic and reason.

    When someone comes up to me with a god claim, I don’t respond by bringing up the difference between PN and MN. I simply ask them, “What do you believe and why?” Is their belief based on evidence and reason or personal experiences and anecdotes?

    I will bring science up, but as the best method for determining whether or not something is true, not the only method. It has the best track record of everything we’ve tried. It has a way to self correct. It can weed out accurate claims from inaccurate ones. And that’s enough. I don’t need to fall back to some distinction between PN and MN. Methodological Naturalism is enough to dispense most god claims, even the most nebulous.

    For example, Steve brought up the type of god people typically fall back on when debating non-believers: the god outside of the universe. Sure, it’s an untestable claim. It’s also a meaningless one. My first response to such a claim would be, “How do you know such a god exists?”

    Either it truly does exist outside the universe and the person has no basis or reason to accept the claim of existence, or at some time, it interacted with our universe in such a way to provide the person with a reason to believe in its existence. If it’s the latter case, we can test for that interaction.

    If its the former, and the god exists completely apart from the universe and has no interaction, how is it any different from a god that doesn’t exist? How would you distinguish a god apart from the universe from one that doesn’t exist? The invisible and the non-existent have a way of looking identical. The most reasonable conclusion to make at that point, the one which makes the fewest assumptions, the one that is based on prior plausibility, is that belief in such a god is unwarranted.

    Of course evidence may arise in the future that such a god does exist. But belief in that god is unfounded given out current understanding of the universe.

    An analogy would be to an early human living 20,000 years ago. Everyone in his tribe thinks that the sun goes around the earth. However, he’s gotten the odd notion that it’s the earth that goes around the sun. Even though we know that he is correct in his belief, that belief is still unfounded. Such a person doesn’t have access to the modern and early modern astronomy which demonstrated the earth moves. They would be just as incorrect to put forward their belief as the person who talks about a god outside the universe. That early human was ultimately correct, and the god believer may be ultimately correct, but without evidence and reason to support their beliefs, they would both be wrong to put them forward as if they were the truth.

  12. Yoinkel Finkelblatton 05 Apr 2010 at 12:03 pm

    I think the primary misconception that repels the religious community from thinking about these issues critically is the conflation of the rejection of God with the rejection of morality and rejection of virtues (i.e. compassion, insight etc…).

    To some extent, the question of human virtue really isn’t a scientific question, It isn’t necessarily a religious question either but religioon gives fundamental answers to ethical questions, where science as a method is a value free exercise. The question of why we shouldn’t perpetuate genocide is not a question that science can answer ultimately.

    This is actually the most interesting challenge of the skeptical movement. I think it is the height of moral cowardice to pretend there is no such thing as insight or retreat into moral relativism, but there may be quite a bit of baby in the bathwater we so quickly throw out with religious thought. Can we really say that in thousands of years of experience and evolutionary canonization of text, that NOTHING worth our consideration on the human condition has emerged? Doesn’t this strike you as arrogant? Yet if you read Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Dennet etc… the vitriol is quite pronounced.

  13. Steven Novellaon 05 Apr 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Skepdude – some false dichotomies in your position.

    You limit the number of choices unnecessarily. There is another alternative to “no position”, the position that the believe is not testable, and therefore outside the realm of human knowledge – it is unknowable. This means, I don’t know if the teapot is there, and neither do you. This is a very solid philosophical position.

    Also – I do not think that claiming god exists is the exact same thing as having faith that god exists. People can choose to have faith without making a claim, and the skeptic can point that out.

  14. Pug50on 05 Apr 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Thanks for your response, Steven. I appreciate your position but I find it a little subtle. And I admit that my suggestion that you were “avoiding alienating people” was me trying to find a reason for you making such a slim distinction. But note that in my comment above I only talked about religion, not god.

    I agree that the existence of a god (who is artificially defined as wanting and being able to mask all evidence of its existence) is untestable and therefore puts it outside of the realm of science if you subscribe to methodological naturalism.

    However, besides the existence of god(s), organised religions make many factual claims and specific claims about history. Evidence-based arguments can be made against the truth of the Bible for example, and believers then make the arguments that it’s allegorical/metaphorical/all occurred in another dimension. Trying to prove or disprove a religious position is a battle against moving goal posts. But does that preclude skeptics from pointing out the fact that goal posts are being moved?

    Therefore, I would say we need to separate belief in God and Religion – I now agree that you don’t have to be an atheist or even agonistic to be legitimately skeptical (I only came to this conclusion after hearing you at Dragon*Con – I admit to not giving it serious thought beforehand). But, to believe in a specific religion when evidence disproves its position seems non-skeptical to me. And the suggestion that you don’t have to be skeptical about every part of your life is a bit of an arbitrary distinction – would you criticise Jenny McCarthy if she produced a “skeptical podcast” that avoided vaccine-woo but covered only mediums, astrology and ghost stories? It would atleast be remarked on humorously in SGU!

    To me, Religious Truth seems to be Truth that remains True even when it’s been proved to be False – and therefore is very much like nonsense. I believe that Skepticism can be defined an aversion to nonsense. Therefore, I don’t see how a Christian, Muslim or Sikh can claim to be “a skeptic”.

    Like has been said: the whole discussion maybe hinges on whether you consider Skepticism as an ideology/movement or as a tool. I consider it both, but I can see why people disagree.

  15. apferguson 05 Apr 2010 at 12:11 pm

    Just listened to the episode right before seeing this. My go-to explanation has long come from Bertrand Russell who described why he might call himself an atheist over the philosophically more correct agnostic thusly:

    “As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

    On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.”

    So for me, atheism has always been part of making a point. Just because I’m skeptical, just because I can never know anything with absolute certainty, doesn’t mean I can’t live a life where I comfortably make assumptions such as God does not exist and I will never see bigfoot or aliens. I don’t think it’s a statement about the validity of religion at all.

  16. Steven Novellaon 05 Apr 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Pug – I think you are still mixing different things. I already explained that whenever a religion makes a historical or scientific claim that can be tested – anything that can be said to be true or false based upon logic or evidence – that is fair game for skepticism.

    And it is absolutely important to point out when claims (religious or otherwise) insulate themselves from falsification by special pleading and retreating outside the realm of science and the knowable. But once there, all you can do is label it faith, point out that it is beyond knowledge, and therefore cannot be used as a basis for any claims to knowledge. It is not science, it is not history – it is only naked faith.

  17. Eternally Learningon 05 Apr 2010 at 12:31 pm

    My whole take on it is if you look at a religion, and boil away all the testable claims you’re left with something that you literally have no reason to believe in. The question then becomes; Why do they believe in it if they’re capable of looking at it in a rational way? Any time I pose that question to a believer, I tend to get answers in the form of other testable or potentially falsifiable claims that usually have some other much more plausible explanation relating to feelings or some other such personal experience. Has anyone made a reasonable argument as to why something like that should be believed beyond, “You can’t prove me wrong?”

  18. Skepdudeon 05 Apr 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Steve,

    Absolutely, the claim is different from the faith. Nevertheless anyone who believes in god is implicitly making the claim god exists, otherwise how can she believe right? Skepticism can’t say anything about beliefs/emotions/feeling. It can only handle claims. I don’t think I implied that the claim and the belief are the same; indees I have taken espcial care in my blog entries to distinguish that, and even in the comment I was very careful to limit my discussion to the claim “X exists”. If what I said somehow implies that faith and the claims are the same, let me take this chance to absolutely clarify that this is not my position.

    Also, I disagree that I gave a false dichotomy. Maybe the use of the word position was not the best choice on my part. I said the three options I see are: accept, reject or special bucket (I don’t know/I can’t know thus I can’t/will not take either of the first two positions). Let me call them decisions rather than positions, maybe that’s less confusing as to what I mean.

    I absolutely recognize the last position, and I am ok with people taking it so long as they are consistent in its application. But then I’d ask such people this question: would they be willing to use the special bucket for Sagan’s dragon? Santa? Russell’s Tea Pot? If yes, fine, I have no problem with their choice; if not I cry foul.

  19. Pug50on 05 Apr 2010 at 12:39 pm

    So you cannot be skeptical about anything someone ascribes to faith?

    So, if I say I hear my dead grandfather talking to me inside my head then you could ask me “how do you know you’re not mad?” and test me for mental illness. If I denied being mad, and you could find no other evidence for me being mad then would you be skeptical of my claim to hear dead people? Would you label me mad without any evidence other than my claims to hear voices?

    I might have an poor definition, but I think that Faith just means “I believe this just because I believe this” and that is fundamental circular reasoning.

    It feels to me that religious faith is getting special treatment here. Believers deny evidence or fluidly redefine what their position is in exactly the same way as any pseudo-scientist or woo-believer.

    I feel that I’m missing something really subtle in your argument. I will keep thinking.

  20. Steven Novellaon 05 Apr 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Veon wrote: “The invisible and the non-existent have a way of looking identical. The most reasonable conclusion to make at that point, the one which makes the fewest assumptions, the one that is based on prior plausibility, is that belief in such a god is unwarranted.”

    I completely agree. Which is why I am a non believer. These are all good things to point out. But if someone continues – I understand all that, I just choose to have faith”, then there really is no basis for further conversation. Their belief is not “wrong” it’s just outside of human knowledge. It is a personal choice, and nothing else.

    I guess one of the primary reasons why I think it’s important to make this nuanced philosophical distinction is because, as skeptics, our logic has to be impeccable. I also find it very useful to understand the difference between what is wrong and what is unknowable, because believers of all stripes exploit confusion on this point to weasel out of science.

  21. Veonon 05 Apr 2010 at 1:15 pm

    To Steve:

    I don’t think it is just a personal choice though. Our beliefs inform our actions. You can talk about science and epistemology and knowledge claims to someone and they can say, “I agree that my beliefs aren’t based on any of that, only faith. And because of my faith, I’m going to pray over my kid instead of taking them to the doctor.” Or, “Because of my faith, I’m going to enact abstinence only legislation.”

    They may agree with you completely that their beliefs are unjustified but they’ll still act on them.

    My position isn’t that these people shouldn’t hold these beliefs, or can’t hold these beliefs. It’s that no position, whatever it is, should be beyond scrutiny. Even in the instance of the “faith only” claims, you can still ask the person why they belief what they do. Do they have a reason for it? If not, why do they still believe it? Do they think that other people should believe the same thing? Is so, why? What reason would they give to try and convince people to believe the same way they do? Should we behave differently based on that belief?

    My point is, that even in cases where someone has a belief that is purely faith-based and separate from science and reason, that person is going to be making decisions and taking actions based on that belief. It’s not a “personal choice, and nothing else.”

  22. Swoopyon 05 Apr 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Steven,

    Thank you for making a very clear assessment of an issue that continues to come up in discussions between Skeptics and Atheists, as well as Skeptics and Deists and people of other faiths.

    While I don’t believe that this issue will ever stop being a catalyst for engaging and endless discussion between folks interested in the questions posed by believers and non-believers alike to Skeptics on these matters, I think if we can assert your well thought out and rational approach, we can keep this discussion from overwhelming and overshadowing the many other topics that are important to Skepticism.

    Other prominent Skeptics continue to have to spend their time defending their position on discussing Faith or choosing not to discuss Faith alongside many of the other familiar memes, as choosing not to engage in these types of debates as seen as an attempt to deny that there is a need to discuss them at all. The biggest issue here, at least in my opinion, is that so much time is devoted to this issue – upon which I think we mostly agree – that discussions of dangerous and timely issues such as anti-vax rhetoric, dangerous homeopathy, and other topics of consumer protection and Science advocacy get lost or moved relegated to “also ran” status.

    The sooner that Skeptics can come to a blanket understanding about the relationship between ideas of Faith and Belief (you are right to point out that Religion is an altogether different matter, as is the Church as an establishment) the sooner we can ease tensions that invariably arise between Skeptics and Atheists who see us as not caring about the question, or looking to avoid it.
    Again, thank you for stating this idea so clearly. I can only hope this article will be widely disseminated.

    (n.b. – This comment mis-applied to a totally different post, could an admin please remove it from “The Flake Equation” where it does not belong)

  23. locutusbrgon 05 Apr 2010 at 1:27 pm

    How can I put this with out sounding like a crank.
    I am a skeptic and critical thinker. I apply critical thinking aspects to most aspects of my life. I have faith, not as defined by skeptics or believers. Without seeming like a religious basher. I would like to point out that I think all religions are constructs by individuals or societies to answer poorly understood experiences and manipulate other people. The fall back position being, do it because some God/Deity/higher power told me you should. That aside, the gravitational constant, weak and strong nuclear forces, quantum mechanics and the basic structures of the universe give me hope. It gives me hope that the universe has these basic forces/laws that allow it to exist, and are not just a random event. There is no evidence that these basic physical forces evolved in any way changed or developed over time. The universe although fluid appears to be degenerating to cold dead universe. this gives me hope and just hope that the basic structure of the universe was guided to be able to produce stars, dark matter ETC.. It does not in any way make me consider that a all powerful being is now in any way concerned with specks circling a minor sun in one galaxy in the whole universe, or any other variation of that theme. I just find atheism/agonostic/ purely skeptical view to be bleak and without artestry. I have no basis in fact to argue, just like I don’t try to convince the faithful, religious members of humanity. I think the universe and life have to much style. It does not impede my ability to critically address medicine life, or the supernatural of any kind. In my universe we are insignificant and not worthy of attention. In the end I am agnostic but I have my sacred cow so be it. Except for the occasional blog no one really hears my sacred cow except for me. Still go skeptical movement.

  24. Steven Novellaon 05 Apr 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Veon – you are correct that for many people faith is more than a personal choice – in which case, it is absolutely fair game. It may no longer be a question of science, however, but of politics, morality, or philosophy.

    You can object, for example, to someone enacting a law based upon their personal faith. That violates the spirit of separation of church and state. Also, just on first principles, a free and secular society should enact laws that can be objectively defended, and not just promote an individual’s faith.

    But that is a separate issue from the question of whether or not science can address the faith itself.

    Please do not equate “science cannot address that question” with “that question cannot be addressed from any perspective.” It is important not to confuse issues, and I think it is helpful when addressing the political question about a faith-based belief not to get bogged down in false scientific questions.

    Further, it is important (even necessary) to be able to address the application of faith without attacking the faith itself. Otherwise you get bogged down on the wrong issue.

  25. Veonon 05 Apr 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Steve:

    I’m not trying to conflate “science cannot address that question” with “that question cannot be addressed from any perspective”. All I said was that people’s beliefs shouldn’t be beyond scrutiny. In other words, I am talking about using skepticism to address these issues.

    Science and skepticism are two different things. Science cannot tell us what answers are correct to political and philosophical problems. But that doesn’t mean we cannot use the method of skepticism (requiring evidence, clear logic, etc.) in those discussions.

  26. Calli Arcaleon 05 Apr 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Thank you very much, Steven, for this excellent post. I’m sorry to see some of the responses, attempting to find an explanation for what they must see as an accommodating position towards religion, but I think it’s instead quite solid logically.

    Science does not say there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster. There *could* be invisible pink unicorns out there. But as their existence is empirically untestable, their existence is also irrelevant to science. You can’t build anything on them.

    Faith can say that there’s a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Faith can say whatever it likes. And I think it is intellectually acceptable to believe in whatever you like — as long as you accept that you are doing so on faith, not fact. That latter part is the tricky one. A great many people who believe in God would rather not admit they don’t really know that He’s real, for a fact. Instead, they will loudly proclaim that yes, He’s a fact, and anyone who says otherwise has merely been deceived by Satan. (A facile way out.)

    Religion is another kettle of fish, in my opinion. You could define “religion” as “the practice of faith”. (I suppose science could be called “the practice of fact” if one desires some parallel structure.) The weakness of this is that religion makes use of facts as well, and it dabbles in both the material and the spiritual quite liberally. Religion is a human construct set up to give us a framework for our beliefs and rituals and things. Religion is not the opposite of science; a religion could certainly make use of the scientific method. In this, it is much like a political party or an activist group; while generally it is driven by opinion, the scientific method remains available to it should it choose to use it for something.

    (Note, by the way, that it should be possible to make scientific tests of spiritual things, if they influence the material world in any way. For instance, many scientists have tested the power of prayer, and have universally found it equivalent to placebo. If they don’t influence the material world — well, then they’re not really relevant to science, are they?)

    I am a skeptic. I am also a Christian. I have found about equal amounts of hospitality among Christians and skeptics — and about equal amounts of animosity. I find this rather saddening. As Steve said,

    . . . it is important (even necessary) to be able to address the application of faith without attacking the faith itself. Otherwise you get bogged down on the wrong issue.

    I think getting bogged down on the wrong issue is a large part of the problem. It’s why we keep getting nowhere when we address these things with the non-scientific.

  27. artfulDon 05 Apr 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Science is the process of solving problems by logic. Religion is not.

  28. Eternally Learningon 05 Apr 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Steve,

    At the base of this, if you follow the logic, it seems as if for someone to take the position of faith and not put forward any testable claims, they will have to be required to claim that they have used some other method of knowing other than science and logic to get this information. The problem I see is that to defend any other such method, they will again have to put forward testable claims as to how they gained this knowledge, which we can again refute or offer alternative explanations that are more plausible. In other words, isn’t the mere declaration of knowledge about something a testable claim in that you have to have gained that knowledge in some manner that effects the natural world? My main question to you then is, how can we lend any credence to other methods of knowing without detracting from the strengths of science and logic? I think I understand what you are saying about your statements being a philosophical point which keeps you logically consistent with the other statements you make about the testable claims made by believers, and I agree with you in concept, but I’m not sold that in practice there is such a thing as a belief that is truly without a testable claim of some sort.

  29. Pug50on 05 Apr 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Calli – I hope you don’t see any criticism of your position (any position) automatically as animosity.

    Science does not say there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster. There *could* be invisible pink unicorns out there. But as their existence is empirically untestable, their existence is also irrelevant to science. You can’t build anything on them.

    Yes, but I’m skeptical of their existence. Should I not be? Is it unreasonable for me to be skeptical in this case? Can I not say that in all likelihood, neither exist? Or should I believe in the existence of everything proposed providing it ends with the words “Oh yeah, and it deliberately makes sure there is no evidence of it’s existence”?.

    To separate my argument from religion, imagine I claimed that next Saturday’s lottery numbers would be “23, 19, 47, 12, 6 and 9″. Today, there is no way of proving me wrong. Would you be skeptical of my claim today? Is it not reasonable to be skeptical?

    This sort of thing genuinely worries me – I know I quite literally “have no faith”, but furthermore I’ve never been able to think of a definition of “faith” that is compatible with how some apparently rational people use it.

    Compartmentalising “Scientific Skepticism” is a convenient way to go if it works for you. Personally, I want ALL my beliefs to be supported by some evidence, or AT LEAST not conclusively contradicted by evidence. I don’t have a neat little box of separate beliefs marked “FAITH: immune from reason”. That’s my definition of Skepticism.

  30. bleroyon 05 Apr 2010 at 4:14 pm

    @steven “What if someone claims that there is a god that exists outside the confines of the material universe?”
    Except that this form of faith is extremely rare, because it’s so innocuous. It does indeed evaporate into thin air at this point.
    So for all practical purposes, almost all examples of faith out there have at least some claims that translate into the natural world and are thus testable. We shouldn’t be shy about addressing them (and you’re not, of course, thank you for the great work).

  31. Steven Novellaon 05 Apr 2010 at 4:34 pm

    But faith does not have to be another form of knowing – it is, rather, believing without knowing.

    The question of how many people have this kind of faith is interesting, but irrelevant to my point. I know of specific examples, like Martin Gardner, who is a deist.

    But since I agree that science and skepticism can address religious claims that are testable, or even any testable argument put forward in favor of faith – there should be no problem, right. If you believe that, then I am excluding nothing, and why worry.

  32. Calli Arcaleon 05 Apr 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Pug50:

    Calli – I hope you don’t see any criticism of your position (any position) automatically as animosity.

    Absolutely not. I am a fervent proponent of free speech, and I believe the best way to a brighter tomorrow includes open and vigorous debate on all issues. You can’t really use science to criticize my belief in God, except insofar as to point out that I have no factual basis for it. (Which would be perfectly fair.) You can use philosophy or theology to criticize my belief in God, however, and even just plain old opinion. That’s all fair game, and *should* be.

    What troubles me is when people get all hung up in the *what* when that’s not really the important question. What’s important is not so much our beliefs but our actions. From a materialist point of view, beliefs are mostly academic, though they can be somewhat helpful in predicting the future (though humans are notoriously fickle, making this difficult). From a theological standpoint, one could argue this a bit more vigorously. Some feel that the only thing that matters is what’s in your heart; I say what’s in your heart is pretty pointless if it doesn’t actually get *out* of your heart. The most famous expression of this is the phrase “faith without works is dead”. Though the passage comes from the Christian Bible, I think it’s applicable quite broadly in life, and parallels materialism nicely — what you believe is really not as important as what you *do*. Or, to put it more colloquially, “the proof is in the pudding”.

    Compartmentalising “Scientific Skepticism” is a convenient way to go if it works for you. Personally, I want ALL my beliefs to be supported by some evidence, or AT LEAST not conclusively contradicted by evidence. I don’t have a neat little box of separate beliefs marked “FAITH: immune from reason”. That’s my definition of Skepticism.

    I think you misunderstand me. While many religious people have a “FAITH: immune from reason” box into which they put their beliefs, many others do not. I don’t. It isn’t so much that I believe in things which cannot be tested but that I believe in certain things in advance of their tests. If something is contradicted by evidence, I discard or modify it.

    For instance: evidence is fairly strongly against intercessory prayer. I believe the power of prayer rests in the ability to calm the mind, and as a nice way to let people know you’re thinking of them. In this, it is really no different than meditation. It does not work true miracles, except perhaps in the poetic sense.

    I do, however, believe in the resurrection of a guy named Jesus (or, more likely, Jeshua or something similar). Theoretically, this is testable. We just don’t have the opportunity to test it. Thus, while testable, it isn’t something that is going to be tested anytime soon. It might as well be an invisible pink unicorn. I have no factual basis for it; it is an unsupported claim. I operate under the optimistic hope that it someday will be tested and vindicated, but of course I cannot know that, and consider the possibility of it within my lifetime to be remote.

    Reason can be applied outside of science. The scientific method isn’t very useful for spiritual matters, beyond the testing of very specific claims (e.g. intercessory prayer, ESP, miraculous weeping statues, etc.). Mostly, the religious rely on other sources of evidence — mostly anecdotal, in particular, the really old and extremely hard to validate scriptural anecdotes. If I believe the Bible to be basically correct, then all my beliefs had better be consistent with it. The same logic, the same reason, the same critical thinking skills can be applied to test my beliefs against the Bible.

    The crucial thing for me is that I don’t use the Bible to test anything for which there is a better method. I don’t consider it very useful for natural history studies, for instance. Some do; I think that’s fairly absurd. Why rely on an ancient oral tradition that eventually got put to paper in several versions before one version was settled on, translated, retranslated, edited, mangled, and eventually printed in English? We’ve got geologists now; that’s far superior.

    Science can’t tell me whether Jesus died on the cross for our sins, at least, not until we develop a time machine. (I am extremely dubious of our ever having sufficient archeological information to answer the question, so that pretty much leaves time travel.) I very much want this to be true, but science can’t help me with it, beyond reminding me that it can’t verify it. It can’t tell me how God feels about us, or even whether God exists. It can, at best, exclude certain deities or religious doctrines. So I choose to use the Bible. I could use another body of religious scripture; they have a similar chance of being correct. But I use this one. *shrugs* I like it, so I stay with it. I have little more than that to offer you, unless you want to hear why I like it (which would, I suspect, be offtopic and thus rather rude to other commenters).

    You ask if it’s fair to be skeptical of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and so forth. Of course it is. It’s fair to be skeptical of anything for which you have no reason to believe it’s validity. As Carl Sagan so eloquently put it, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I have no extraordinary evidence to give you about God; you are well within your rights to be skeptical.

    My pastor yesterday preached about how Christianity is a pretty nutty thing to believe. The part that distinguishes it from other Mideastern monothestic faiths is the whole Jesus part, and particularly the resurrection. We believe Jesus died and on the third day was raised from the dead. No body. Gone. That’s a very extraordinary claim. Unfortunately, like most things that happened 2,000 years ago, it’s pretty much impossible to test, so it’s going to remain without extraordinary evidence. Even if somebody did come back claiming to be Jesus, how could they prove themselves? Angst about this very question is what lead to all the great terror of the Antichrist, a largely non-Scriptural creation, the idea of a creature indistinguishable (to humans) from the real Christ who would actually be serving evil. So it’s impossible to test. It is on par with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You have no reason to believe it.

    My reasons to believe are not scientific; they are personal. But they are still reasons. They just don’t have a lot of evidence behind them. If you find something that makes you find my beliefs appealing, then power to you! That’s great! But don’t believe unless you find a reason to, and never stop asking questions about it.

  33. bleroyon 05 Apr 2010 at 5:10 pm

    @steven: “If you believe that, then I am excluding nothing, and why worry.”
    Oh, I’m not worried, just wondering how relevant the agnostic perspective is, quantitatively. Thanks for the answer.

  34. Calli Arcaleon 05 Apr 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Steven Novella:

    But faith does not have to be another form of knowing – it is, rather, believing without knowing.

    Believers feel they know; the sensation is indistinguishable from knowing something because you have lots of evidence to say it is the case. I am as confident in my belief in Jesus as I am in the Hubble Constant. The difference is that only the latter has evidence to support it.

    I agree, though, that faith isn’t exactly another way of knowing. Faith can only exist in the absence of compelling evidence to call something a fact. I take it as an article of faith that Jesus died for our sins; I take it as a proven fact that celestial objects have a greater redshift the farther away they are from Earth, as measured by comparing the light from “standard candles” (e.g. Type 1a supernovae). That fact is qualified by a lot of things, such as the fact that our standard candles may not be as standard as we think, but the curious consistency of the rate is pretty compelling anyway — compelling enough for me to consider the Hubble Constant to be a fact. It would take extraordinary evidence to convince me it was wrong.

    Faith and reason can compliment one another, and should. The trick is to remember which is which.

  35. Eternally Learningon 05 Apr 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Steve,

    I suspect we are confusing terms here. When someone says, “I believe that there is a god that we cannot see, hear, or touch,” how are they not claiming knowledge? Don’t they have to know something, however flawed that knowledge is, to have a belief? Like I said before, I agree with you in concept that this is an important philosophical line to draw, but I am still unclear as to how someone can claim to have knowledge of something while presenting no evidence or explanation as to how they came by this knowledge. I’m not really worrying about it, but this article seemed to be about a philosophical question rather than a practical one. I just wonder if this untouchable belief system is even possible.

  36. mgillardon 05 Apr 2010 at 5:40 pm

    A claim is either testable or it is not. If it is not testable, it has no effect on the physical world. If it has no effect on the physical world the claim is pointless drivel.

    If you claim God exists outside the physical world then he cannot influence it. If he cannot influence it, the concept is pointless drivel. Why bother ourselves with something that may or may not exist and has no effect on our lives.

    If he exists inside the material world we can test claims made about his influence. I defy you to produce a test which comes out in the positive.

    Since the concept of a god has never been experimentally verified, or is at best pointless drivel I dismiss it as a useless concept and consider it superstition. This, in my opinion is the only defensible position for a scientist. Holding any other position is an abandonment of logic. Those who continue to make excuses for illogical positions help to hold society back.

    You can continue to move the goal post around so you never get cornered in a discussion but if you truly believe meaningful claims are only tested by science you cannot shrink from the ramifications of that belief.

  37. rafalon 05 Apr 2010 at 5:42 pm

    So then to reuse the holy ghost as an example, would you consider it as within the realm of science, since it is described as an entity that affected the real world in certain ways? Or is it affecting the way people behave not verifiable, despite it having a supposedly real world effect?

    In similar fashion, is a type of deistic god who created the world and then left it to continue on its own, not also have an empirical trace?

    How about Deepak Chopra claiming 23 hours ago that he caused an earth quake using meditation?

    I’m basically wondering at which point is a religious/spiritual claim still scientific, and at which point it’s not.

  38. BillyJoe7on 05 Apr 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Steven Novella,

    “BillyJoe – What if someone claims that there is a god that exists outside the confines of the material universe? This being is unknowable to us mortals, one can only have faith in his existence. A believer can also claim that the existence of the universe was the will of this being.

    These beliefs are all inherently untestable.

    I agree that claims need to be clearly defined. I further agree that once you remove the testable you are left with naked deism or some other naked belief. That is kind of my point – if you make the distinction between the testable and the untestable, you have accomplished all that you would want to accomplish anyway. So who cares if someone still reserves a truly untestable faith?

    In fact, as I alluded to in the post, I feel you are more likely to cause someone’s faith to evaporate out of uselessness than to rip it from them by full frontal assault.”

    I agree with all of the above.
    …and an excellent summary.

    But I would just point out that you have not defined a god at all, but merely a technologically advanced alien. ;)

  39. Pug50on 05 Apr 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Thank you for your posts, Calli. Although I disagree with much of your points, I respect your point of view and admire your way of putting it across. I could refute many things you say with crude (but still, I believe, valid) Dawkin-esque arguments but that would be disingenuous and they’ve all been heard before.

    Something I’ve realised today: People like me are the problem in the whole “Schism in Skeptism” thing – Not atheists but extreme materialists who not only can’t subscribe to any other way of thinking but can’t even conceive of alternative ways of thinking. I can’t fix that.

    The only real solution is for everyone to realise that everyone thinks differently. Also that “Skeptism” isn’t a club that you are admitted to or expelled from based on how you think. This is basically what the SGU hosts told my Xenomorph at Dragon*Con, and I didn’t realise at the time how pivotal it is to the whole argument – mainly because I didn’t realise the scale of the argument at the time.

  40. artfulDon 05 Apr 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Question to myself: Can an entity in the cosmos conceivably achieve omnipotence and omniscience through technological advancement?

  41. dadredgeon 05 Apr 2010 at 6:42 pm

    Some excellent posts here. I’ll keep it simple. There is no agnosticism regarding beleif in Santa Claus. Religious is no different. It’s man-made, probably to fill an evolutionary need. You can absolutely take an atheist position.

  42. Calli Arcaleon 05 Apr 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Pug50:

    The only real solution is for everyone to realise that everyone thinks differently.

    If there was a post voting system here, I’d be voting for that post. That is perfectly and elegantly said.

    I think the fact that we all think differently can be the great strength of our species, if we let it. I’m not so sure that you are a problem in the “schism in skepticism”; just because you can’t conceive of believing in something not materially testable doesn’t mean you can’t respect those who do (as you just demonstrated). Your point of view is every bit as important as that of Dawkins and that of Shermer and that of Sagan. I suspect what you would disrespect is when a person trounces science with their faith — “I don’t CARE how much carbon dating data you have; man did not evolve from monkeys!” And honestly, I’d be right with you on that one. There’s a difference, in my opinion, between faith and willful blindness.

    So you’re right — what it boils down to is that none of this would even be a problem if we all respected one another, even as we disagree. And then we could have REALLY interesting debates! ;-)

  43. halincohon 05 Apr 2010 at 7:34 pm

    In Skepchick Karen Stollzknow posed the question :

    The camera is on you…

    You’re the token skeptic.

    You need to encapsulate and reduce and condense critical thinking into a single sentence that’s hard-hitting, “pop” and easy to swallow.

    You’ve got seconds to say something profound, something smart, something skeptical…

    What is your skeptical sound bite?

    My answer: Critical thinking is the process of requiring evidence before you believe something to be true or not rather than seeking evidence for what you believe to be true.

    This might be the difference between those who are science driven and faith driven.

    Excellent discussion!

  44. artfulDon 05 Apr 2010 at 7:52 pm

    As an agnostic, I can’t agree that I or such others can absolutely take an atheist position. We are not hedging our bets on the simple possibility there is or was a God, or even a demi-God with some provisional powers that are less than absolute. Some of us for example have concerns with the more cogent arguments for there being some purposive force in the universe that first gave it what appear to be natural laws, and has continued to maintain and regulate those purposive forces.

    Atheists can have in common the assumption that, as one has said, “We’re subject to the laws of nature, not author of them.”

    But then are the laws of nature necessarily nature’s, if they come from our attempts to make the events to be expected from “natural” causes predictable?
    Made, I submit, from an unwritten or unspoken assumption that natural events do operate with some form of regulated purpose, and with consequences that nature’s forces must anticipate and avoid? Or at least consequences which, in some past segment of time, aspects of some universal body and persona failed to avoid for lack of an ability to anticipate, and somehow “learned” to behave themselves through a trial and error process? Trial and error that could not work without either a conceptual purpose or some cosmological “trier” to exercise it.

    Can one be an atheist and know with some degree of certainty that there are no such regulated and/or regulatory forces in the cosmos, and going beyond that, be certain no fount for such purpose in nature has ever existed?

  45. Skepdudeon 05 Apr 2010 at 9:35 pm

    I’d like to know what is the difference between a claim that is presented without evidence, one for which no evidence can possibly be presented and one for which some evidence is put forward, but that evidence turns out to be total crap, as far as skepticism is concerned?

    Aren’t all 3 virtually identical, in that all 3 are not supported by evidence? Shouldn’t we as skeptics respond the same way to all? And where are we supposed to stand with regards to Zeus, Thor and Vishnu? Are they to be put in the same agnostic bucket as the deist god? Don’t we create more trouble and more inconsistencies for ourselves if we treat god differently from all other cryptozoological creatures? Because let’s face it, isn’t god just another cryptozoological creature?

  46. John D. Draegeron 05 Apr 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Sorry to give you more to read, Dr. Novella, but I have to point out why THIS ISSUE CAN NEVER BE RESOLVED: Different people have different definitions for athiest, agnostic, faith, religion, skepticism. Almost nobody agrees on the definition of religion.

    Several people are writing about respect, but nobody should have to respect a nonsensical belief; we only need be respectful of the person (no ad hominem, no shouting, cursing, violence – follow the Golden Rule). I do object to the label “militant atheist” though. No atheists I know are using physical violence of any kind, so anyone who uses that term is making an ad hominem attack. However, people will label us any way they choose (just ask Neil de Grasse Tyson).

    Concerning which approach to use to change minds, I’ve gone back and forth on this recently, and changed my mind again today (pretty sure for the last time) after listening to the last Skepticality (thanks Swoopy!) about the Rational Response Squad. Seems to me we should all be more tolerant of other ways of getting the job done. The approach should fit ones own personality and be tailored to the audience. The Rational Response folks have had some success with a head on challenge to faith, and so has Richard Dawkins. Others have had better success with a less aggressive approach. I think we need people to use whatever approach feels GENUINE for them. Consider that different preachers have different approaches to preaching. Some people are more swayed by a loud-mouthed aggressive preacher; others by a soft-spoken considerate one. If we are going to be successful at convincing the religious majority that they’ve been deceived, we’re going to need to cooperate and use a multimodal approach.

    Since all scientific skeptics, agnostics, atheists, deists, and secular humanists combined are outnumbered at this point in human history, it seems prudent to work together at least until we are a majority. I think we should concentrate on preaching what science has shown to true with a high level of certainty.

    If something is objectively true it’s only a matter of time before most people believe it. Sure, there’s still a flat earth society, but that false belief is not likely to spread even if we do nothing, and it probably doesn’t cause much harm. It makes sense to work in those areas where we have the most expertise/interest/ability, and then on those that we perceive are causing the most harm to life.

  47. artfulDon 05 Apr 2010 at 10:12 pm

    Do you then, for example, not respect Judaism, and can you accomplish anything with that stance without at the same time disrespecting Jews? And can you do so and make them like it?

  48. paukon 05 Apr 2010 at 10:34 pm

    Steve, as far as I understand and use the word ‘atheist’, you are one. As far as I understand and use the word ‘agnostic’, I am one too. At least, in a simple sense.

    Both words can be interpreted on two levels that reflect which side a person considers to be more important, or more useful. Either you think it is more important to focus on knowledge or on belief. Some people call a person who believes that there are no gods a ‘strong’ atheist, as separate from a person who simply does not believe in any at this particular moment… ie. a weak atheist, or a ‘default’ atheist.

    I’d like to propose that agnosticism can be looked at in the same way. Someone who acknowledges that they do not “know” that there are no gods is for instance, a “weak” agnostic. However, if you hold that existence of a god is fundamentally and forever beyond the reach of science… that we can never know if there is a god or gods, then you’d be a “strong” agnostic.

    So, if my interpretation of you is that you’re a strong agnostic and a weak atheist – would you object?

    In this sense, I would describe myself as a strong atheist and a weak agnostic. I believe, based on all current evidence that I am aware of, that there are no gods. This is not a statement of knowledge.

    When it comes to knowledge, well… I don’t actually know if it will always be unknowable, so in a way I’m “agnostic” about the claim that we will forever be “agnostic” about god. Is that confusing enough? I mean, the idea that god is forever unknowable is a claim just like any other, right? You’d have to concede that you don’t _know_ for sure that god won’t one day pop into our realm… perhaps present himself/herself/blargself to the entire world and do some magic tricks for us.

    This does of course, not rule out the unknowable nature of perhaps a second god that doesn’t show up, but still might exist in tandem with the ‘knowable’ god that we can verify.

    At this point however, I wonder why it is important to make a distinction between acknowledging that it is possible to define something as being fundamentally un-knowable and the belief that this conveniantly un-disprovable claim is probably false.

    Maybe there are some really nit-picky differences that you’d like to focus on, but I don’t really think this is an issue of which word best describes our positions on the god claim. Rather, I see it as being about identifying as being solidly in one camp or another, and for this reason I think focusing on the word you use is kind of pointless in a discussion such as this, but at the same time is very useful when you are trying to get your basic point across quickly. When you sit down and discuss definitions you’ll find that we probably all agree on the basics, but the words we use are based on much more subtle distinctions than are necessary when simply identifying to the public.

    I use atheist as a way of identifying as a person who does not believe in a god, and as a person who believes, based on all current evidence that I’ve seen, that there _are no gods_ – as a default position, I do not think there is a teapot orbiting Mars, or wherever. However, if I were to make a statement about knowledge I’d have to say I am agnostic about the god claim – I do not know that there is no teapot orbiting Mars… there very well could be one.

    But I’m only agnostic in a temporary sense. I don’t know that there are no gods, but at the same time I don’t think we can forever rule out the possibility that one day there will be scientific evidence that effectively does let us know one way or the other. I mean if we are ever able to _know_ anything.

    Of course, rhetorically you can define your god to be fundamentally un-testable, but I’m not really interested in all the sub-claims about particular attributes of a god (such as “my god is outside of scientific inquiry because blah”) but simply the first and foremost claim of the god in question: That it is a sentience that created the universe, and us in it.

    All the other claims, either worded in such a way that they can be investigated or defined out of all meaning come secondarily and only really need be dealt with after we’ve established that there is any reason to accept the existence of a creator-god.

    So there you go, because I see “belief” as more useful when talking to people, I go with “atheist” as the overriding identifier. But if the world wasn’t so in love with “belief” as an admirable thing, if we lived in an alternate reality where people chose knowledge as the thing that gives them a warm fuzzy feeling then I’d use the word “agnostic”. But, I think, if we lived in such a world we wouldn’t need the words at all because it would be an assumed default.

    Blah. Just try untangling that.
    - love, Paul

  49. paukon 05 Apr 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Steve said: “Science, as I stated, can only be agnostic toward any notions outside the grasp of its methods – such beliefs are unknowable.”

    But they are believable and that is the point. No one knows for sure about god. Everyone therefore should consider themselves agnostic. So, identifying as an agnostic is basically saying “I am human” unless you have to actually be aware of your ignorance to qualify.

    There is an identifiable difference between people who believe in god and people who don’t. That difference is quickly and easily identified as: theism vs atheism. This is why atheists look at agnostics as pandering to the religious, it very much looks as though you are going out of your way to include them in your camp despite the fact that on the god claim, you are very much in the “other” camp to religious people.

    As it relates to scepticism, yes it is possible for someone to identify as a sceptic and still believe in god. And it is perfectly fine to want to include religious people in the sceptical movement – but I wouldn’t want religious people to think for a second that any of their beliefs are safe from criticism. You wouldn’t kick someone out of the sceptical club-house for believing in astrology but you’d certainly go for the jugular in regards to their unwarranted beliefs. I think it should be the same with religious beliefs. And I think, if a religious person wishes to identify as a sceptic, they should expect this and not think that it will be acceptable to just say “I just believe and you have to respect that”.

    Ideally, they would shed the religious belief if they are consistent sceptics. This obviously is a difficult process for many people, so we should be considerate of that, but I wouldn’t want to compromise sceptical inquiry to avoid hurting a religious person’s feelings.

    - edit: by the way, I think the argument I just made might conflict with part of my previous post. Ah. Who cares?

  50. lurchwurmon 06 Apr 2010 at 1:17 am

    How do we draw a demarcation for that which is unknowable?

    As an agnostic, in principle, I would love to be able to say that there are clearly things which are unknowable, such as God and the like… but how we do honestly reconcile the unknowable with subjective thought? Do we say that, because our subjective thought cannot be knowable in the public domain (as we experience it), that is is unknowable? Surely, we know it!

    But such knowledge is a fleeting mirage. We cannot even trust our own memories! But yet, we know that we are thinking. Even if, in the future, it is determined how consciousness works, as it stands now, with our limited understanding of brain function, we surely know that we think, without having the ability to make it completely part of the public domain as true public knowledge. Parts of our thought will certainly be unknowable in public knowledge, but we will have a definite feeling that we are actively thinking.

    For example, consider when we have something “on the tip of our tongue.” We KNOW what we are trying to say, but we can’t find the proper expression for the thought (intention). We definitely could not put it in the public domain, because we ourselves have not even been able to formulate it linguistically. But yet, SOMETHING is on the tips of our tongue…

    When a human has a religious revelation, there could be any number of scientific explanations (epilepsy, etc..), but it is still unknowable what they ACTUALLY thought during the experience. Yet, the one having the “revelation” did indeed have the experience (no matter the cause).

    As agnostics, how do we make a clean division between conscious thought (that we experiencing all the time) and religious revelation? If we cling to the idea of “unknowable,” it’s hard to cleanly draw that line. There has to be some precise way to say that something is truly unknowable, beyond a simple “outside the testable realm of the material world.”

  51. John D. Draegeron 06 Apr 2010 at 2:51 am

    artful D, are you playing devil’s advocate? I don’t respect any religion/faith/belief that is not supported by evidence. Yes, I can accomplish something with that stance; many have done so. Your last question is absurd so I’m not compelled to answer it.

    I would like bring attention to Calli’s statement:

    “Believers feel they know; the sensation is indistinguishable from knowing something because you have lots of evidence to say it is the case. I am as confident in my belief in Jesus as I am in the Hubble Constant. The difference is that only the latter has evidence to support it.”

    This is important. A lot of psychologists would say that believers in supernatural/paranormal agents and events KNOW they are right (I therefore don’t agree with Dr. Novella’s definition of faith). They also believe they are being RATIONAL (a lot of non-believers accuse them of being irrational). Recent brain scan studies have indicated they are not lying. To them, their faith is as true as their belief that gravity is going to work the next time they drop an apple.

    The word FEEL is also frequently involved, as Calli used it. The parts of the brain responsible for feeling need to be checked by the reasoning parts to prevent errors in judgement. To be clear, people do need feelings to inform good decisions, especially when there’s no time to apply reason. But feelings and intuitions have been shown to lead people to false conclusions time after time in psychology laboratory settings. I think if more believers in supernatural/paranormal agents and events understood how their own brain operates (psychology and neuroscience), the memes of religions, cults, paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs would not spread so easily through human populations.

    Also, how many people have a faith that doesn’t affect their actions? Let’s take Martin Gardner since Steve brought him up. I can think of a lot of behavior that Gardner has done (columns, speeches, etc.) that were a direct result of his deistic faith. It could be he’s convinced a lot of other people to be deistic too – the meme worked!

    I wonder how many young people believe in Martin Gardner’s deistic god? That’s usually the last god to go – was for me too. Some people just can’t get used to the idea of something from nothing (works for god too BTW) – just like some can’t get used to quantum mechanics even though there’s lots of evidence to support it – or evolutionary biology. It’s disingenuous to avoid stating as fact that all gods have been made up in the minds of humans. We can’t even imagine gods that don’t look pretty close to people or something else that’s common in our natural world (like light). Couldn’t it be that when Gardner was growing up there was such a social stigma against being called an atheist that unconsciously he doesn’t want to be called an atheist? In the U.S., there is no other group of people who are on the receiving end of so much prejudice. I didn’t know what prejudice felt like until I made it clear I had no faith in any gods. Is it possible he wishes to avoid that prejudice? After writing so many columns explaining why he’s a deist, wouldn’t it be a huge blow to his ego to admit at his age that he’s been wrong for all that time? Isn’t there a great emotional attachment after having proclaimed the righteousness of being a deist in so many interviews and magazine columns?

    As has been said, almost nobody believes in a god who is outside the universe and has had no interaction with it; it makes no difference to our lives if such a god exists or doesn’t. A god who created our universe can theoretically be tested for with science – it’s actually being done now – cosmologists are studying the origin of the universe and a god is not expected to be found – it’s not needed, just like no gods are needed for the origin of life or its evolution to produce the human brain that contains no homunculus. Philosophically, even inserting a god to start the first universe of a multiverse makes no sense whatsoever – creates and even bigger problem than it solves. But most people can’t see that because they’ve been brainwashed from childhood into seeing a creator/protector hovering over everything like a security blanket. It’s the god of the gaps or the argument from ignorance – no different than any other creation story.

    Oh, and I think philosophy and criticism of religion and faith SHOULD be a part of skepticism. Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins shouldn’t be excluded from the camp of scientific skeptics any more than Eugenie Scott and Steven Novella (I have reservations about Chris Mooney, but he’s a net gain too – somehow hurts a bit though to say it :-) And Shermer brought up politics and wild utopian economics like nobody else, but I’ll bet a lot of skeptics did more reading on politics and economics because of his posts. Although I criticized him for trying to pass off value judgements as science, at least it made everyone think about the limitations of various political and economic models. NO topic should be off limits for skepticism. Religions should not get a “get by criticism free” pass. With what’s happened in Catholic church child abuse, it’s ridiculous that the Vatican doesn’t have to abide by the same laws as any developed nation on the planet.

    Have some guts and debate religion and faith as a skeptic in a civilized manner – Dan Dennett has done so; the guys on Reasonable Doubts podcast do too. The “new atheists” have emotions too so they will sometimes get a little out of control. However, I don’t see believers on the other side behaving any better.

  52. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 3:52 am

    I’m neither an advocate for the devil or playing at being one. I’m simply not prepared to follow your example of withholding respect from someone based solely on their preference for having some form of religious faith as opposed to having none. Their reasons for taking a path in either direction can be equally nonsensical.

    Believers in natural laws, without any concern for the purposes they may serve, are perhaps just as nonsensical as those who believe in natural lawgivers.

  53. bleroyon 06 Apr 2010 at 4:16 am

    @artfulD: you’re attacking a straw man. Nobody said “withholding respect for someone based solely on their preference for having some form of religion.” You can have respect for people without having to respect every single one of their ideas.

  54. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 5:01 am

    “Several people are writing about respect, but nobody should have to respect a nonsensical belief – ” ‘Nonsensical’ is the qualifier that you left off mentioning.
    It’s splitting hairs to allege you can disrespect a belief without disrespecting the person who supplied the nonsense that led to his believing it. Furthermore, beliefs have served purposes in history that have been far from nonsensical when judged by their achievements. Conversely, atheistic belief systems haven’t played all that great a role by comparison. No golden rule of note in those little red books.

  55. Calli Arcaleon 06 Apr 2010 at 12:05 pm

    John D. Draegeron sez:

    Sorry to give you more to read, Dr. Novella, but I have to point out why THIS ISSUE CAN NEVER BE RESOLVED: Different people have different definitions for athiest, agnostic, faith, religion, skepticism. Almost nobody agrees on the definition of religion.

    Very true, but I think it’s still worth trying, because the effort to resolve it causes us all to talk to one another, and that makes us all grow. I think it’s important to have one’s preconceptions challenged on a regular basis, and the dialog between people of different opinions is a great way of doing that.

    And who knows? Maybe someday we or our descendants will actually achieve it. :-) I’m inclined to doubt that; I have a hunch that on some level we are meant* to be continually challenged. Life proliferates in response to challenges; the story of evolution is a story of creatures striving to survive, and that strife is what shapes their species. So maybe it isn’t such a bad thing for us to never completely resolve these differences, because it forces us to grow.

    *take “meant” with a grain of salt; I use it for want of a better word and do not intend to imply any anthropomorphism of evolution here

    A lot of psychologists would say that believers in supernatural/paranormal agents and events KNOW they are right (I therefore don’t agree with Dr. Novella’s definition of faith). They also believe they are being RATIONAL (a lot of non-believers accuse them of being irrational).

    That, I think, is why the “you’re being irrational” argument fails so often. Not only is it insulting (and thus puts the other side on the defensive, greatly reducing your chance of convincing them of anything), but as they analyze your claim, they will find it does not match their experience. As far as they’re concerned, it is the atheists who are being irrational, and perhaps even willfully obtuse in denying God.

    We all take certain things for granted. Even “sciency” things. Though I am familiar with the evidence supporting the heliocentric model, I accepted the heliocentric model long before that, and even now, I don’t bother to prove heliocentrism before going on to explain how the seasons work. I take it for granted. It’s a pretty safe thing to take for granted, given how thoroughly its been proven. I *know* it, and I can use reason to build from it. I’ve known it since I was a child. It’s like knowing who my mother is.

    Or like knowing that Jesus is real. I take this for granted as well. I don’t bother to prove his existence before going on to explain how this impacts my treatment of my fellow human beings. I can use reason to build from this as well. Though my initial assumption (Jesus is real) is unproven, everything that follows from it is rational.

    The tricky part is that “rational” does not imply “correct”, nor does the production of a useful model indicate that all starting assumptions are correct. For many of my moral conclusions, one could just as easily have started with Buddhism. So if they prove to predict the world well, they do not vindicate Christianity.

    Buddhism is interesting. Rather notably, it does not require belief in a sentient creator deity — thus, while it clearly involves supernatural belief, it is technically agnostic on the question of god. We all tend to use the word “atheistic” to mean “areligious”, but one could argue that Buddhism is actually an atheistic faith. It’s certainly makes no arguments for monotheism or polytheism. artfulD suggests that atheistic belief systems haven’t played all that great a role, but this particular one has been enormously influential. Even China considers it a threat (though that’s largely tied up in ethnic issues regarding Tibet; in theory, Buddhism should be very compatible with communism).

    I’ve rambled a bit. Anyway, most religious people are not irrational, and will know that it’s wrong when someone calls them irrational. (Most people who believe in ghosts are not irrational either, and the same is true of most people who think the Face on Mars was built by aliens.) The problem isn’t that they’re irrational; it’s that they are failing to recognize the weakness of their initial assumptions — and, quite likely, failing to even examine those initial assumptions to any great extent.

  56. jaranathon 06 Apr 2010 at 12:50 pm

    I agree with virtually every poin Steve made, but I also agree with Skepdude: Part of the scientific method is rejecting untestable claims as provisionally false and acting accordingly, not merely shrugging it off as out-of-bounds. We assume the null hypothesis. I think that we’re still tapdancing around religion in that regard. I think it’s inconsistent to not apply that aspect of the scientific method when religion retreats into untestability. Which is not to say I believe we necessarily must be agressive about atheism, people have their own priorities. But I think we should acknowledge that backing away from the null in the face of religious untestability is not a consistent application of the scientific method.

    ArtfulD: Drawing a distinction between a lack of respect for some of a person’s ideas and a lack of respect for a person is splitting hairs?

  57. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Bhuddists have faith in the powers of the supernatural. And atheism, at least as I understand it, takes a broader view than denying there’s a God but accepting there are Godlike powers that determine our fates.

  58. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 1:10 pm

    I didn’t draw the distinction that the latest poster claims I did. So to echo the sentiments of an earlier poster, I’m not compelled to respond to the accusation.

  59. jaranathon 06 Apr 2010 at 2:51 pm

    artfulD: I’m a bit confused…I didn’t mean YOU drew that distinction, I thought you wrote/meant this…?:

    “It’s splitting hairs to allege you can disrespect a belief without disrespecting the person who supplied the nonsense that led to his believing it.”

    If so, then I don’t understand your objection. How is that different? Have I missed some context?

  60. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Can you disrespect the bullshit but mean no disrespect to the bullshitter, and expect the bullshitter to grasp the distinction?

  61. Calli Arcaleon 06 Apr 2010 at 3:39 pm

    artfulD:

    Bhuddists have faith in the powers of the supernatural. And atheism, at least as I understand it, takes a broader view than denying there’s a God but accepting there are Godlike powers that determine our fates.

    It depends on how literally one takes the word “atheist”. Personally, I would contend it means exactly what the etymology suggests: the position that there is no god, which puts it alongside words like “monotheist” (the position that there is exactly one god) and “polytheist” (the position that there are multiple gods). And certainly, it’s the opposite of “theist” that way.

    And one can definitely believe there are no gods while still believing in all sorts of pseudoscientific rubbish. Not just Buddhism, either. How would one describe the people who feel that there is no god, but what our various religions have recorded are actually visitations by benevolent extra-terrestrials who are covertly guiding the development of our world? They consider themselves atheists. But they are probably not very good skeptics. (At least, I haven’t run into one yet who was. And I have run into a few folks of this persuasion. Rather . . . interesting conversations. Sometimes all you can do is smile and nod.)

    “Materialist” is one word that might fit, except that it’s used so often as a pejorative by theists that I find its use troubling. Perhaps “areligious” or “aspiritual”? Clunky. “Empiricist” has a certain ring to it.

    I do acknowledge, however, that others use the word “atheist” to mean “having no religion and believing that spiritual things are illusory”, in large part because we lack a better word for the purpose. I’ve seen “areligious” proposed before, but it just doesn’t sound right, and words that don’t sound right seldom catch on.

    Per your last post:

    Can you disrespect the bullshit but mean no disrespect to the bullshitter, and expect the bullshitter to grasp the distinction?

    Probably not, unless the bullshitter is very kindly disposed towards you, and you’ve got a good rapport and like to give one another crap, so they take it as friendly ribbing.

    What we need to do is not disrespect the bullshit but simply disagree with it. Strongly, if necessary. Ultimately, these things will stand or fall on their own merits. We shouldn’t need to get personal. Of course, I may be hopelessly idealistic in thinking that.

  62. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 4:21 pm

    What I had hoped to infer initially was that some varieties of bullshit serve a much better purpose than others. In the words of the great Williy Loman, attention must be paid.

  63. bleroyon 06 Apr 2010 at 4:24 pm

    @artfulD “It’s splitting hairs to allege you can disrespect a belief without disrespecting the person who supplied the nonsense that led to his believing it.”
    No it’s not. It’s a basic humanist virtue to respect the persons by principle and not condemn them based on a single isolated trait, opinion or belief they may have. Now of course if every single thing someone says is nonsensical craziness the a priori respect I have for them is going to decline fast. But again, you can’t generalize that either to a whole group. You have been extrapolating from condemning a belief to condemning the person expressing it, to condemning the whole group they belong to. I am calling you out on it.

    “Furthermore, beliefs have served purposes in history that have been far from nonsensical when judged by their achievements.”
    That’s an appeal to consequences of a belief, which is a well-known logical fallacy. That a belief leads people to act positively (which itself is debatable) does not make that belief true.

    “Conversely, atheistic belief systems haven’t played all that great a role by comparison. No golden rule of note in those little red books.”
    Same fallacy here, plus quite a few other ones in so few words. First, it’s plain wrong. I will only cite the Enlightenment that transitioned our western societies into an age of technical progress, democracy and freedom of and from religion. Second, atheists tend to not attribute their acts to atheism as a cause. They also are difficult to identify as there is no centralized movement. And finally, there is the usual appeal to fear (atheism leads to communism), guilt by association (communists are atheists so atheism must be bad) and hasty generalization (all atheist are communists).

  64. jaranathon 06 Apr 2010 at 4:33 pm

    I do every day. But I think Callie makes an excellet point that I wouldn’t have thought to mention, in that I seem to be equating disrepect with open disagreement. I don’t behave in a hostile or otherwise emotionally negative way…I just say that I think it’s wrong, and why, and I don’t refrain from using appropriate terms and analogies.

    Now, of COURSE everyone pulls punches depending on circumstances, and I’m no exception, but I’ve found I can be far more direct, without harm, than many people seem to think is possible. Perhaps my bullshitters just know me well enough to understand my intent. I don’t seek to offend, but I take no responsibility for offense others take from reality.

  65. BillyJoe7on 06 Apr 2010 at 5:36 pm

    jaranath

    “Part of the scientific method is rejecting untestable claims as provisionally false and acting accordingly, not merely shrugging it off as out-of-bounds. We assume the null hypothesis. I think that we’re still tapdancing around religion in that regard. I think it’s inconsistent to not apply that aspect of the scientific method when religion retreats into untestability. Which is not to say I believe we necessarily must be agressive about atheism, people have their own priorities. But I think we should acknowledge that backing away from the null in the face of religious untestability is not a consistent application of the scientific method.”

    That’s a very good extension of Steven Novellas post that I highlighted before.

    But just to add again, that nothing much remains of god once he is defined and the testable bits are shown to be false. What is left is a god who merely fills the knowledge gap of what triggered the big bang (or the multiverse before it).

    What cannot be extrapolated from what’s left of this god is any particular religion, or any moral/ethical code, or any belief in an afterlife.

  66. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 5:37 pm

    bleroy, you have me advocating what I’ve suggested that others are wrong to advocate. Go thee forth and figure.
    But then there’s a lot that you just don’t get, such as when a fallacy is not to be determined by its labeling. Such as to appealing to consequences of belief, where I’ve made a distinction between the purposes intended and the purposes they have nevertheless served. A distinction that many of you have had difficulty with in the past, and you in particular with making in the present.

    You say “atheists don’t attribute their acts to atheism as a cause” and then go on to allege that atheism was the cause of the Enlightenment.
    And does atheism need to lead to communism for communism to be atheistic? No more, I suspect, than it led to the Enlightenment. So where you come off with laying all this and the rest of that crap as somehow belonging at my doorstep is a mystery to me. But then so is your entire thought process.

  67. bleroyon 06 Apr 2010 at 6:08 pm

    @artfulD: yeah, let’s assume I’m a little slow so maybe you need to be clearer in the way you expose your ideas. When you say “beliefs have served purposes in history that have been far from nonsensical when judged by their achievements” it looks like you’re saying that the outcome gives sense to the belief, which to me looks like a strict example of appeal to consequences of belief (but it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong). So what is it you were trying to say?
    The Enlightenment wasn’t my act (I’m not that old) but it seems to me like rejection of religious authority is one of the factors that led to it (of course we all know like any large scale movement it’s a lot more complex than that). I’m not a historian so I may be completely wrong but at least that’s something specific that can be debated. On the other hand, we have some hand-waving that religion led to great “achievements”. Can we have some specifics so that at least we know what we’re talking about?
    Of course atheism does not need to lead to communism for communism to be atheistic. You’re the one who used the example of the little red book to make a generalization about atheism.
    You do show a fine example of disrespecting people who have different opinions.

  68. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 6:45 pm

    The little red book reference was a comment about the systems that were anti-religious and adopted atheism largely as a default position. And misrepresenting my positions so as to call them wrong is not exactly a difference between or among opinions. I should respect your motives for using that approach? Not likely.

    And the outcome doesn’t give sense to a belief, it merely goes to its utility as a means of coping with the problems the believers are attempting to ascribe cause to. Religious belief has been a necessary step in man’s coping with nature. The more sophisticated the belief, the farther, in general, the stepping. Another generality where belief is concerned is that what seems to work is usually kept on working.

    Calli gets better results from continuing to believe in what I would call the Jesus myth than she believes she would get without it. For many, it’s the most sophisticated mythology out there. Should I argue against it’s utility on the basis that it has none? Not to Calli.

  69. stizashellon 06 Apr 2010 at 6:48 pm

    there’s something that ALL of this discussion, comments included, fails to discuss at all, that is at least indirectly of high relevance.

    steven, you define philosophical naturalism as the notion that “the material world that science can investigate is not only all that we can know but that it is all that there is.” and went on to say, “I am personally a philosophical naturalist, in that I do not “believe” in anything outside the natural world…”

    do you not believe in your own mind, your own consciousness? the mind and our perception are *generated* and *maintained* by the brain, which is, of course, part of this physical world, but the mind itself is NOT a part of that reality. this is analogous to saying that the image (not the physical process or the screen, but the CONCEPT of the image) on the screen of a computer monitor is a separate entity from the drive/ram/cpu. we have our senses as an interface with the material world, through which we can interact with objects and each other, but strictly speaking, our consciousnesses are absolutely isolated from the physical world.

    if you don’t believe this, i’d recommend reading about realism vs idealism, etc. and indirect vs direct realism, none of which would be ideas at all if this notion were not true. although the argument is quickly laid to rest by the “matrix” query: there is ultimately no way to ever PROVE that my (or your) entire reality isn’t a figment of my imagination, being generated by some entirely internal or external means that is in no way associated with material reality.

    this seems to me to be a strict counterexample to limiting all that exists to material reality.

    what if i were then to define “the mind of god” as the hypothetical sum of all minds, the collective consciousness of all living things, past, present, and future? the entity that is the idea of all the realization that has existed and will ever exist. note that whether or not this “mind” is attached to any being beyond our reality is strictly irrelevant to whether or not it may be a useful notion.

    philosophical naturalism is incomplete in its exclusion of a description of the mind.

  70. bleroyon 06 Apr 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Yeah, I still don’t get what exactly your little red book comment was. It did look to me like a generalization. Sorry if I misunderstood and misrepresented.
    I do understand now that you didn’t mean that the outcome gave sense to the belief. It could sound like it the way you formulated it: I misunderstood that “far from nonsensical” was referring to the belief whereas it seems clearer now that it was referring to the outcome. I do agree that belief can serve a purpose to many people. I am of the opinion that truth is more important than comfort but I wouldn’t impose that on others. I also recognize how the opinion itself can seem condescending. And to get back to the original point I wouldn’t disrespect people because of a different opinion on that.
    I hope this clarifies my own position, and again I apologize for jumping to conclusions.

  71. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 8:29 pm

    Over-explaining the little red book comment:
    The Little Red Book was another name for what was also referred to as the Maoist bible. Additionally, the Communist Manifesto helped give rise to the Red Army in Russia, which used red cards as IDs but I’m not sure about the book colors. Nazis had Mein Kampf, also coming with red on the cover. Each of these systems was anti-religious, even though Hitler denied this publicly while admitting it privately. And while you will find a close version to the Golden Rule in virtually every written screed of organized religion, you won’t find it in the publications referenced above. Not however because the systems were atheistic, but largely because they were anti-religious and in effect anti-humanist. Atheist organizations on the other hand, and as opposed to the above systems, advocate the Golden Rule as well, but more as an ethical necessity rather than a religious requirement.

    One conclusion that might be supportable from all this could be that the absence of that rule was deliberate for reasons of utility rather than belief. Utility in service of both nefarious purposes and even more nefarious accomplishments.

    I’ve left the Japanese out of this example, even though they were once allied with the systems above – Shintoist versions of the rule not withstanding. Red, ironically was symbolic in their mythological systems, and painted on their war machines representing the rising sun of their ambitious empire. Which unfortunately for them set in the west.

  72. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Oops, the Japanese were never allied with the Maoists, or the Russians, brief non-agression pact between Russia and Germany notwithstanding. I had meant to say only that they were all allied in their responsibilities for the same misadventure of WW2.

  73. bleroyon 06 Apr 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Ah, so you meant /some/ atheistic belief systems, not all of them and in particular not those that most modern atheists seem to subscribe to? Thanks for the clarification.

  74. artfulDon 06 Apr 2010 at 11:11 pm

    @bleroy,
    See what you’re still doing with your “Ah, so you meant” gambit – you’re still misrepresenting my meaning. I distinctly contrasted systems with organizations when I had the one with the golden rule removed by those systems for functional purposes, and the other where the rule has been made a necessary element. There’s no “some” separation of the otherwise “same” at all there.
    And where are these “most modern atheists” that “seem” to subscribe to atheism as a belief anyway? Organized Bhuddists perhaps? Not atheists in my book and I doubt those you meant as the seemingly most modern. Ah, but I could be wrong.

  75. ccbowerson 07 Apr 2010 at 12:16 am

    bleroy-
    Your initial criticisms (on 06 Apr 2010 at 4:24 pm ) of ArtfulD were correct, but of course ArtfulD tries to backtrack by saying you don’t understand him. This is followed by more words by ArtfulD, and further criticisms by him that you are missing the meaning of what he is saying. Perhaps ArtfulD is the one with the problem of communicating effectively. Please take a course on this. Or perhaps he has a problem admitting he was wrong.

    Reading the rest of the comments here… I see too much implied ‘skeptics must be anti religious.’ I agree with Steve’s written position, and don’t understand the criticisms of it. Some of the worst ‘skeptics’ appear to be ‘in it’ for the anti religiousness. Sometimes this resembles an ideology in itself… like the Bill Mahers of the world. (Not that I would really call him a skeptic)

  76. artfulDon 07 Apr 2010 at 12:19 am

    ccbowers is aching to get even after I made an ass of him or her earlier.

  77. bleroyon 07 Apr 2010 at 12:24 am

    @artfulD: you’re getting a little paranoid. There’s no gambit here. Just trying to understand what you mean. Not easy. Noticed the question mark?
    No, I wasn’t talking about Bhuddists. It’s just that I consider atheism is to some extent a belief system. A saner and much more rational one than any faith but still. Clearly debatable. But I’d put for example people like Myers, Hitchens, Dawkins in that category of modern atheists.

  78. artfulDon 07 Apr 2010 at 12:29 am

    But if you’re one of those who think bacteria don’t make choices, and sand hills do, he’s your man.

  79. artfulDon 07 Apr 2010 at 12:53 am

    @bleroy, As far as I’m aware, Hitchens, Dawkins and the like deny that their atheistic views are either beliefs or part of a system that they rely on jointly for guidance. But you could be correct in thinking that they are in fact believers as opposed to adherents. They may also be unwitting conspirators in getting such a belief system off the ground, making you correct on that score as well. And they do seem to exhibit a certain measure of glee in doing unto others.
    Lest we forget as well, I’m siding with Dr. Novella on this one, whether he likes it or not. A rare experience for me and disturbing it seems to at least one other.

  80. ccbowerson 07 Apr 2010 at 1:29 am

    “But if you’re one of those who think bacteria don’t make choices, and sand hills do, he’s your man.”

    Again with the distractions from the arguments, and personal attacks. Its a bit tired. I’m not even sure what this is supposed to mean. You are hung up on the idea of choice and purpose. I do not have such philosophical attachments, because they focus on the irrelevant. Whatever it takes to get you up in the morning… or afternoon.

  81. artfulDon 07 Apr 2010 at 1:58 am

    Thanks for stopping by.

  82. CKavaon 07 Apr 2010 at 5:23 am

    I’m still not sure I get Steve’s response to the point that it is only a micro-minority of religious believers who hold the kind of religious beliefs he is referring to. If it is true to note that most mainstream religious beliefs include claims about the world that, are at least in principle, scientifically testable then doesn’t that mean that Steve is acknowledging that the skeptical movement does in fact challenge the majority of religious beliefs that people tend to hold?

    The skeptical approach might not challenge a vague, claim-free religion but even Dawkin’s makes that allowance in the God Delusion! And again I think it is worth noting that religious people who hold such views are in a distinct minority and I don’t see many skeptics targetting them for criticism?

    Despite this, I agree with the view that being an atheist is not mandatory for being a skeptic and I also think that over-zealous atheists can be a significant PR problem for the skeptical community (as well as a general annoyance).

    Oh and in regards the newest artfulD saga…

    bleroy> ArtfulD’s mode of operation is to make transparent claims and then to argue that anyone who pulls him up on them being wrong is simply not intelligent enough to understand his real point and then retcon them into even vaguer or barely related meanings. You will probably get tired of dealing with this long before he gets tired of claiming you are simply incapable of grasping his sophisticated strawmen, ahem… I mean, unbelievably intelligent points.

    Also, what’s up with spelling Buddhists as Bhuddists? Did we just jump back to the early twentieth century?

  83. mschmidton 07 Apr 2010 at 10:59 am

    A lot of great posts here. I haven’t read nearly then all, but to throw in my much less intellignet 2 cents: I identify myself as an atheist, I know there is no god, and have found myself aligned more with Pug’s posts more than any other (probably). I’m an atheist to the point of being cynical where I feel that believers are also non-believers, but don’t want to fess up because faith is comforting something inside them.

    However, at the same time, I think Alan Moore said it best in Rebecca’s ‘Little Atoms’ interview where he said something like science has no part in defining one’s imagination. It just can’t be done. You need measurable data for science, and all aspects of faith are in one’s own imagination, which is inherently untestable.

    I think the world would do much better if we treated faiths like one’s own figment of their imagination. It should be looked at no more deeply then a sense of self-expression, like a haircut pretty much. You can’t really scientifically test ones reason for a certain haircut. I can’t explain why a person would want a mohawk, while they can’t explain why a person wouldn’t. It’s just a biological quirk in us all that manifests itself differently in each of us due to countless interferences.

    I don’t see the need for atheists, and this is an attack on myself more than anyone else, to really decry a person’s faith if its not interfering with fact. If they want a god that made the universe by its natural means, then, fine. It’s a bit silly to me, but so are mohawks.

    As long as they don’t say that mohawks once gathered two of every species onto a boat to ride out a flood a long time ago, therefore mohawks should be taught alongside normal haircuts out of fairness, then I don’t see a reason for such dispute.

  84. artfulDon 07 Apr 2010 at 11:52 am

    ckava, another neo-something still smarting from his(?) ass whuppin’ in the past. Best he can do now is check my spelling. Or give after-the-fact advice to posters that have already shown they are smarter than he is.

  85. CKavaon 07 Apr 2010 at 12:55 pm

    lol… that’s right artfulD you sure showed me a thing or too about how to argue like a pro. I bow to your expertise.

    And as per the spelling thing I was genuinely curious. Orientalist scholars in the early 20th century referred to Bhuddism and it only later that the spelling was changed to its current form of Buddhism. I thought that you and the folks following your example might have read some old material rather than be making a spelling mistake. I guess not.

  86. artfulDon 07 Apr 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Guess again.

  87. stizashellon 07 Apr 2010 at 3:38 pm

    to mschmidt, i’d just like to point out a subtlety in your post. we need to learn to distinguish the difference between biological and perceptual differences. the types of “quirks” you discussed are almost exclusively perceptual, and not biological. from a psychological point of view, you’re giving “nature” credit for “nuture” consequences.

    it’s a matter of mathematical logic that ultimately, our minds are much more heavily defined by our circumstances throughout life than by our genetic dispositions. the only notable exceptions would be people with special biological circumstances… disorders, handicaps, etc.

    the relevant point here is people LEARN how to believe so easily without reason and how to have poor critical thinking skills, from their parents and from our society. it’s a cultural trend, and it’s a dangerous one; therefore, it can (in theory) and arguably should be reversed through an actual revolution of ideas.

    that’s why the people here believe what they believe and make a point to say it loud and clear, as often as is worthwhile.

  88. stizashellon 07 Apr 2010 at 3:39 pm

    er…make that “nurture,” not nuture ha.

  89. artfulDon 07 Apr 2010 at 4:14 pm

    But hyperactive agency detection does seem to be a biologically based function common to virtually all of us.

  90. stizashellon 07 Apr 2010 at 4:53 pm

    true…then add furthering intellectual evolution over instinctual evolution to the list of reasons why it’s a good idea at a species level to argue against faith and try to help those who rely on it learn to rely on reason instead. i would consider that a meaningful “long range” goal, if you will, for any well-versed skeptic.

  91. CKavaon 07 Apr 2010 at 5:00 pm

    artfulD is right. I think it’s wrong to conclude that because culture plays such an obvious role in our development that our biological make-up is mostly an irrelevance to how we reason and think. The way our brains are structured constrains our cultures and our thinking and it also makes a lot of science and skepticism counter intuitive. It’s also possible to identify a host of cross-cultural regularities such as cultural representations that activate face recognition and thus command our interest or the various consequences of the HADD (or at least an ADD) that artfulD references.

    These and a host of other examples make it clear that culture is not something entirely independent from biology. And for that matter there are practically no evolutionary researchers now who believe in the nature/nurture dichotomy. A lot of our biological traits are only expressed in certain environmental conditions and our environmental and social conditions can also effect our biology so the separation between the two tends to break down the more you examine it.

  92. stizashellon 08 Apr 2010 at 1:38 am

    jeez, y’all are serious about accuracy around here haha. i think you might be reading more into what i said that i meant for you to, of course, given your skills, i’m sure that’s actually my fault.

    i didn’t mean to imply that there was any dichotomy in place. as far as i can remember currently, i hardly believe in the notion of true dichotomy at all. that said, it’s still the case that MOST human behavior is predominantly affected by either genetics or environment, and that a staggering lot of it is defined at the family or cultural level. i’m certain, for instance, that, as i was original arguing, haircuts are a matter of personal and cultural preference and have almost nothing to do with our biological programming.

    it is also the case that, with proper learning and exercise at least, one can overcome his predisposed tendencies through intellectual and perceptual action, at least to some adequate or effective level, if not entirely.

    which brings me to a rather strange point to make in that such a possibility is the reason i commented in the first place; it almost seems to me now that you guys are arguing AGAINST it being reasonable at all to try and change someone’s mind about their mostly flawed faith- based beliefs… that people are genetically inclined to be that way, in which case the only thing we can do about it is wait for evolution to move itself along properly or deal with it. so where’s the resolution here? is the cause of attempting to instill reason into someone’s point of view where it’s lacking one worth fighting for, as the entirety of this blog suggests, or is it a lost cause and a fight against nature itself?

    i was under the impression you believed it to be the former.

  93. CKavaon 08 Apr 2010 at 5:49 am

    Of course, you’re right there are plenty of culturally determined things and fashionable haircuts certainly fit the bill. Although I suspect even there you might find some bizarre regularaties- women on average having longer hair than men for instance. I’m not sure that particular example would hold up but I don’t think it’s an outlandish suggestion. The way humans style their hair has also been quite obviously constrained by the biological facts about where our hair grows. It’s weird to imagine but if we weren’t largely the ‘hairless’ ape then I’m sure hairstyles would be incredibly freaky… imagine a full body afro!

    I’m with you that cultural learning and exercise can help us overcome many of our apparent limitations but that’s still applying a rather unhelpful nature/nurture dichotomy. Our ability to learn new behaviours is something that our species brains are particularly suited to so the big adaptive brains that let us learn to overcome our present ‘limitations’ are a product of evolution (and hence ‘nature’). Similarly, while our environment definitely has a large impact on our abilities it’s still not true that everyone is equally capable of being a mathematician and a boxer. Some people by virtue of their genes will have an advantage over others and although it offends our notions of fairness and equality it remains true.

    In terms of your main point about is it futile to argue against flawed faith based belief or to highlight flaws in reasoning? I would firmly answer no and go further to state that not only is it not futile but it is in fact something we should be doing as good skeptics. At the same time however I think it’s worth recognising that in many ways religious thinking is natural to our species and as such it can be a difficult thing to combat. When a belief is intuitive it will typically be appealing and I think many internet atheists would be wise to remember the comment that it is not so easy to reason someone out of a position they did not arrive at with reason.

    Recognising the ‘naturalness’ of religion does not mean admitting defeat and granting that faith based logic is our species destiny. It simply means being aware of our cognitive bias and using that awareness to our advantage. There is quite good evidence that humans have an instinctive unpleasant reaction to spiders and snakes so it might be ‘natural’ to hate spiders and snakes yet that doesn’t mean people can’t overcome their natural aversion and/or irrational fears through education.

    Wow really long now. Anyway, that’s my thoughts…

  94. Calli Arcaleon 08 Apr 2010 at 10:01 am

    A couple of quick points….

    stizashell:

    true…then add furthering intellectual evolution over instinctual evolution to the list of reasons why it’s a good idea at a species level to argue against faith and try to help those who rely on it learn to rely on reason instead.

    I think it’s misleading to consider faith and reason as mutally exclusive. They seem to be opposites, but aren’t, any more than science and religion are opposites — or apples and bananas are opposites. They’re different things, but they can coexist, even if they aren’t often seen together at parties. ;-)

    Babylon 5 had a great line, from the Season 4 finale, “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars”:
    Faith and reason are like the shoes on your feet. You can get a lot farther than both of them than with just one of them.

    Faith helps you deal with the unknown. Not in the sense of a security blanket, but in the sense that sometimes you have to operate on incomplete data, and you need something to fill out the variables provisionally. You must operate as if you know those things, even if you don’t, and faith gives a mechanism. And then there are the things which don’t exist yet, or which are entirely human constructs — faith makes them real. “Hogfather”, by Terry Pratchett, had a great line for that, by Death, speaking about things like justice and love.

    YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE IN THEM. OTHERWISE HOW CAN THEY BECOME?

    From your next post:

    There is quite good evidence that humans have an instinctive unpleasant reaction to spiders and snakes so it might be ‘natural’ to hate spiders and snakes yet that doesn’t mean people can’t overcome their natural aversion and/or irrational fears through education.

    You are discussing the evangelism of skepticism. I think this is a good and noble thing. Evangelism, when the word is used properly, means “Sharing news of something in order to convince someone to join or otherwise accept it.” (From Wiktionary.) Anything can be evangelized. We in the US are most familiar with the word being used to refer to a movement within Protestant Christianity, but it can be used for anything. Islam is a highly evangelical faith. American-style democracy has a penchant for evangelism as well. I have to admit I’m a bit of a Doctor Who evangelist. :-D And we can also evangelize skepticism. (That doesn’t mean changing skepticism; it means sharing the news of skepticism to try to change others.)

    It’s very worthwhile, and I say that despite being a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. ;-) Truthfully, I’m more prone to evangelize skepticism than Christianity, though I’m happily do the latter as well. And interestingly, I’ve actually made more enemies evangelizing skepticism than religion. People become quite attached to their preconceptions, whatever those preconceptions may be, and while religion prepares us for facing doubters, what prepares a person for someone saying that it was a bad idea to take their autistic child in for a series of expensive and painful intravenous chelation treatments? I think it’s harder to face someone saying you might have hurt your kid than to face someone saying they don’t believe in your God. After all, God will take care of Himself, but parenting is *personal*.

    So the road is hard. But critical thinking is *important*. It’s okay for people to believe in whatever they like, but they need to be clear on how firm the foundations of that belief really are before they can be honest with themselves about it. I like your analogy to fear of snakes and spiders and things. It’s natural to be afraid of challenges to one’s ideas. But that fear can be overcome, and it makes one a better person.

  95. stizashellon 08 Apr 2010 at 11:34 am

    i’m quickly realizing how important it is to say EXACTLY what i mean when i comment here. i am typically quite good at doing so, though i’ve noticed that my resolution is a bit low, so to speak. now it’s becoming obvious just how low it really is

    Ckava, all points taken. i do see your point in keeping our natural tendencies in mind and, although i think it was still more of a flaw in my wording than my beliefs, it seems i may have had my bar at slightly the wrong height, and i’ve adjusted accordingly.

    Calli, again, i wasn’t meaning to imply any dichotomy. see the more recent post for clarification. i was only trying to describe the same quest that was a main point of this blog in an abbreviated manner. i.e., letting faith intrude upon and affect beliefs where reason has already established a reliable precedent.

    i’m kind of surprised that no one ever commented on my first post here from the other night, about the mind/consciousness…that is a working idea that i actually WANT to be picked apart in this manner :)

  96. Calli Arcaleon 08 Apr 2010 at 12:35 pm

    I wasn’t sure if you were implying a dichotomy or not, but one is frequently implied, so I used that as a place to start talking about that.

    Faith has one extraordinary power which science does not, and that’s that it allows us to create our own truths. Do you believe in the ideal of liberty and justice for all? I do. But it’s not a fact in the sense that gravity is a fact. It’s a principle that we humans have created, and which is effective becuase we have collectively agreed that it is true. We do not believe it because we have scientifically determined it to exist; that would be impossible. We can use reason to decide that it’s a good idea. But to make it *real* we have to go further and actually believe in it. Treat it as if it were a fact.

    This power is of course double-edged. We can create truths which are not so beneficial. Slavery. The inferiority of women. The superiority of a particular culture or religion. Justifications for all sorts of atrocities can be born in this way, and because people believe in them, because they feel *true*, it is very hard indeed to get rid of them, and very easy to see them grow.

    Unless, that is, people embrace critical thinking alongside faith, and are parsimonious about adding new articles of faith atop the old ones. One must always keep in mind where one’s truths come from. Are they proven facts, or articles of faith? Build freely on the former, but be very cautious about building on the latter.

    I’m going to go read your first post now, because I missed it earlier and am now very curious about it. ;)

  97. Calli Arcaleon 08 Apr 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Okay, I read it now. Very interesting stuff!

    do you not believe in your own mind, your own consciousness? the mind and our perception are *generated* and *maintained* by the brain, which is, of course, part of this physical world, but the mind itself is NOT a part of that reality. this is analogous to saying that the image (not the physical process or the screen, but the CONCEPT of the image) on the screen of a computer monitor is a separate entity from the drive/ram/cpu. we have our senses as an interface with the material world, through which we can interact with objects and each other, but strictly speaking, our consciousnesses are absolutely isolated from the physical world.

    Just to be sure, are you arguing that the mind is a spiritual entity that is distinct from the brain? Essentially, a non-religious equivalent of a “soul”? Now, I am not a philosophical materialist; I believe in God, Heaven, souls, and all of that. But even so, I would contend that the mind is very much a part of the material universe (unless you are using the word “material” very narrowly — of or pertaining to matter).

    I would contend that any action performed by a material object, powered by the sorts of energy we understand to exist (kinetic, electrical, heat, chemical, etc), would qualify as part of the material universe. The physical world. So, there is nothing we observe about stars which is metaphysical; conventional physics may still be shaky on a lot of the details (in large part because it’s tough to see inside a star), but it doesn’t look like there’s any great mystery there.

    I have a cell phone. It does a lot of amazing things like placing calls, taking pictures and letting me play Sudoku when I’m bored. It has software on board that enables all of this — a complex set of binary bits which, when passed through the microprocessor at the heart of the phone, drives all of these complex behaviors. The speakerphone is able to filter out many non-voice sounds, and is able to avoid creating a nasty echo chamber effect by filtering out itself. The camera automatically decides whether or not to use a flash, and compresses the resulting image down using JPEG compression. None of this is mysterious, really; it’s all basically physics.

    You compare the mind to the image displaced on a monitor by a computer, and the brain to the CPU. This isn’t a bad analogy at all. But I would contend that there is nothing on that screen that is not entirely a product of the physical universe, and I argue that the same is true of the mind.

    The mind is very complex, vastly more complex than a computer program, and it isn’t a strictly binary system, nor is it digital. (If memory serves, the neurons are actually trinary, for one thing.) It’s all analog, and the neurons are interconnected in ways that do not make it easy to trace everything. Rather than making decisions based on very straightforward boolean logic, the actions arise out of the simultaneous interactions of many different neural connections. Some computers are attempting to mimic this sort of structure nowadays, and it is impressive how much can be achieved with such a system. It will be a long time before we can build a synthetic brain comparable to a human’s, but I’m confident that it will happen. And when it does, I have every reason to expect that this brain will have a mind.

    The mind is the actions of the brain; therefore, I argue that it is part of the physical universe.

    Note: I do not study philosophy, so I may be misunderstanding what you mean by philosophical materialism. But I think I’m probably talking along the lines of how Steven Novella uses the term. He’s a neurologist, so I suspect he is inclined to see the mind as a product of the physical world.

  98. artfulDon 08 Apr 2010 at 2:25 pm

    calli writes ” One must always keep in mind where one’s truths come from. Are they proven facts, or articles of faith? Build freely on the former, but be very cautious about building on the latter.”

    But shouldn’t that caution also contend with the weakness of the structure that may not support an addition? Shouldn’t there be some consideration given to its restructuring?

  99. Calli Arcaleon 08 Apr 2010 at 3:08 pm

    It’s a very extensible analogy, so yes. ;-)

    If one starts out with solid facts and then builds with reckless abandon, the whole edifice will be very unstable despite the solid foundation. This reminds me of a great quote by Mark Twain, which I’ve got in my quotefile:

    In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. Therefore … in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long… seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long… There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

    Actually, I’ve encountered a lot of people who, despite starting with good clean facts, use so little critical thinking in building upon it that the result is completely ridiculous. Visit “The Unexplained” forum over at the space.com forums for a taste of such craziness outside the medical domain.

  100. artfulDon 08 Apr 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Was that a “yes” to considering the restructuring of faith then – where “good clean facts” may not be all that much in the mix?

  101. stizashellon 08 Apr 2010 at 6:05 pm

    what you’ve said about the mind only confirms that which i said initially, it is generated and maintained by a physical object, not that it IS one (note, if you haven’t figured it out, read CAPS as italics…i.e., emphasized, not yelled haha).

    as a physics/math student, i very readily define physical reality as “that upon which one can do physics.” i’m yet to find any reason to shrug away from that definition.

    that said, one can’t do physics on the entity that is a mind. we CAN do physics on all of the matter and energy that it uses as input and output, and we can even posit the existence of network mathematics that could, in theory, describe how our thoughts and feelings are wired, and how they pass information to and from our consciousness, but we can’t go beyond that threshold.

    we know, for instance, what wavelength of light people are seeing when they say something is “green,” and we know where in the brain the information from the eye is interpreted. we know what part of the tongue is stimulated when we taste something that is “sweet,” and we know, again, where that information is interpreted in the brain.

    yet, it all breaks down at the point where i ask you, “what does ‘green’ look like?” or “what does ‘sweet’ taste like?” these questions do not have constructive answers in the traditional sense. only you know what these notions mean to you, and you’re fundamentally incapable of conveying to someone else what they are, beyond, of course, using the appropriate analogy to point them in direction of their OWN interpretation of the same notion, i.e. “green looks like [something that is green] only without the [something].”

    yet we have no way of really knowing if what i see as green or taste as sweet is really the same EXPERIENCE as what it is for you.

    so the mind, defined as your own unique experience of the world, is, in that sense, entirely separate and isolated from physical reality, regardless of how DEPENDENT it may be on certain elements of that reality.

    and this is why i claim that philosophical naturalism is an incomplete description of the universe. each of our minds is a valid counterexample to “the material universe is all that there is to reality.”

    and once you have ANY example of this, you should be hesitant to DEDUCE that there is no god. i’m not saying it’s not still rather sensible to BELIEVE there is no god, but you should hold that belief in just the same light as those who hold to the contrary. in that sense, absolute and strict atheism is no more or less silly than minimal theism.

    you’re right to see the analogy with the notion of the soul, but i don’t feel any need to see it as necessarily spiritual.

  102. artfulDon 08 Apr 2010 at 6:44 pm

    In your physics you depend on analogy for the necessary assumption that one atom operates with the same structural dynamic as another, where in fact we are aware that this is not always or exactly the case, and that the analogical process has not yielded truth to a certainty as the expected or unexpected result. Nor as yet has any other process.

    And in addition, your physics doesn’t tell you why all atoms in effect operate in accordance with the same regulatory forces in nature, and in service with what appears to be the same purpose.

    So to argue that you can’t do physics in relation to studying the living brain and the nature of its emergent effects with at least the same accuracy as you can study these non-living aspects of the universe, may be based on a flawed premise that you know the why of the one and it’s not the same as the why of the other.
    Because so far, physics can’t tell us the causative why of either.

  103. artfulDon 08 Apr 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Think Hydrogen atoma and Coulomb’s law if you need specifics to work with.

  104. stizashellon 08 Apr 2010 at 8:20 pm

    i’m not even sure i followed some of that, but i think a lot of it is beside the point. i’m in no way trying to describe anything at a scale where the uncertainty principle is of relevance (science is pretty sure that neurons are classical systems), and it’s a pretty widely accepted premise that physics is not in the business of answering “why?” but rather “how?” at least at the most fundamental levels. once you ask why, you’re doing philosophy.

    but again, i’ve spoke in a misinterpretable way. i don’t mean that *I* (or even some other currently living person) can do said physics, just that it’s contained in the realm of things upon which physics can be hypothetically done. maybe it would be more accurate to say that the realm of the mind is not a physical object because the laws of physics do not apply to it. i can readily imagine or dream about things that are physically impossible, because the mind can work beyond those bounds if it so chooses.

    furthermore, i think you are conflicting with some of your own premises from earlier. you wanted to group together things for which there are no evidence YET with things for which there can seemingly never be evidence as all automatically false. yet here you are discussing possible (not even plausible) extensions of the reach of physics which will clearly not be achieved in the near future. so do we count these things as part of physical reality or not? furthermore, where are the limits of what we define as “real?”

    there’s a subtlety here in that the realms of the known and the unknown do not have a definite boundary. there’s a continuous transition from one to the other, probably with a nice gaussian change-over. given that, all that is known and all that will ever be known are contained in some whole, and how we should define the notions of “real” and “false” from that picture is not clear to me.

    how the mind works is on the unknown side of that gray area, but as far as we can tell, it’s some sort of effect of brain activity, and in that sense, it doesn’t seem that it would be infiltrated by physical law in even the not-so-near future. thus my claim should hold for at least our lifetimes.

    that said, the point is that being certain of ANYTHING at the edges of current reality in a positive OR negative way is an act of faith in some sense, and from a more pure skeptical position, i’m not seeing any reason for being so certain in who or what doesn’t exist beyond our current understanding of the world.

    most people fall back to belief in god in a way that would define it as the entity which consists of all perception that we don’t yet have, the explanation for that which we do not yet understand. taking this more practical and far less mystical definition leads to a much cleaner and more useful system of belief than going on and on about the hypothetical cryptozoological nature of such a creature, and it also gives someone who isn’t concerned with such ideas at all a way to better understand those that do.

  105. Calli Arcaleon 08 Apr 2010 at 8:36 pm

    artfulD:

    Was that a “yes” to considering the restructuring of faith then – where “good clean facts” may not be all that much in the mix?

    Yes. *Anything* at all is fair game for restructuring, at any time.

    stizashell:

    what you’ve said about the mind only confirms that which i said initially, it is generated and maintained by a physical object, not that it IS one (note, if you haven’t figured it out, read CAPS as italics…i.e., emphasized, not yelled haha).

    as a physics/math student, i very readily define physical reality as “that upon which one can do physics.” i’m yet to find any reason to shrug away from that definition.

    that said, one can’t do physics on the entity that is a mind. we CAN do physics on all of the matter and energy that it uses as input and output, and we can even posit the existence of network mathematics that could, in theory, describe how our thoughts and feelings are wired, and how they pass information to and from our consciousness, but we can’t go beyond that threshold.

    You can’t do physics on a mind? I can accept that we do not presently understand everything there is to know about the functions of the mind — but are you arguing that the mind is supernatural? That it involves things which violate the laws of physics?

    I bring up, again, your analogy to a computer interface. You argued that it is distinct from the computer. Yet it is *entirely* a product of the computer, and you can observe and quantify every single thing it does to produce that interface.

    The mind is really the same sort of thing. It’s more complicated, but it is not fundamentally different. Not in my opinion. Not unless there is some supernatural component to the mind, and I see no evidence of that. I believe all aspects of the mind can be understood simply by understanding the actions of the brain. The mind is an *emergent* property, but emergent properties are no more magical than the regular kind.

    (I do find it amusing that I, the token religious person, is arguing for a purely materialist view of the mind. But I’m a software engineer; this is very logical to me, and in fact, I often find myself awed by the beauty of the mind.)

  106. artfulDon 08 Apr 2010 at 10:06 pm

    @stizashell, you wrote: ‘it’s a pretty widely accepted premise that physics is not in the business of answering “why?” but rather “how?” at least at the most fundamental levels. once you ask why, you’re doing philosophy.’

    As a physics/maths student, you might want to read this:
    Einstein’s Philosophy of Science
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/einstein-philscience/

    And you’ve more or less helped make the point of my earlier post, which was that you should be asking why, but you weren’t because you have assumed the answer would be beside the point. Einstein might have disagreed with that assumption.

    @calli, I can tell this is something you’ve already read.

  107. zoe237on 09 Apr 2010 at 12:39 am

    Thanks for the Einstein link!

    I’m thinking that compartamentalizing is a good thing. Obviously there is a human need to believe in something besides hard facts. As church attendance goes down, belief in crap like reiki appears to be going up. I wonder why that is. If people could really keep faith and science separate, there wouldn’t be a problem. I’m not sure it’s possible for most people.

    Ellie: “you’re acting like science killed god… maybe it just proved he never existed to begin with”

  108. BillyJoe7on 09 Apr 2010 at 6:27 am

    Calli Arcale,

    “I do find it amusing that I, the token religious person, is arguing for a purely materialist view of the mind. “

    Reading what you have to say is like reading a book by Paul Davies. He spends his whole time explaining how everything is physical but ends up having faith to the point of conviction that there is something more despite nothing he has said leading to that conclusion.

    I find that amusing.

    But hey, if you can win the Templeton Prize, you can have the last laugh. :D
    Best of luck!

  109. BillyJoe7on 09 Apr 2010 at 7:15 am

    stizashell,

    “i’m not even sure i followed some of that”

    It’s not your fault. ;)

    “it’s a pretty widely accepted premise that physics is not in the business of answering “why?””

    Why is the sky blue? :D

    “i can readily imagine or dream about things that are physically impossible”

    The film industry seems to have no trouble at all physically dupicating those “physically impossible” things.”

    “we know, for instance, what wavelength of light people are seeing when they say something is “green,” “

    The mind can be tricked into seeing so