Tuesday, November 11, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 10

The one thing I'll pull from this last chapter is Dawkins suggestion that few religious people seem really to believe. Or, if they do, it's hard to understand why their reaction to death is as it is.

"I can't help wondering how many moderate religious people who claim such belief really hold it, in their hearts. If they were truly sincere, shouldn't they behave like the Abbot of Ampleforth? When Cardinal Basil Hume told him he was dying, the abbot was delighted for him: "Congratulations! That's brilliant news. I wish I was coming with you." The abbot, it seems, really was a sincere believer. But it is precisely because it is so rare and unexpected that this story catches our attention, almost provokes our amusement...Why don't all Christians and Muslims say something like the abbot when they hear that a friend is dying?"

pp. 398-399

There are two main criteria for what someone believes - what they do, and what they say.

Sometimes, these criteria come apart. Bert says, in all sincerity, that he believes black people are as able as white, but whenever he has to choose between black and white candidates for a job, he chooses the white. What does Bert really believe?

If you want to know what he really believes - look at his behaviour. The truth is Bert doesn't believe what he sincerely believes he believes!

Could the same be true of many religious folk? They say they believe. They even sincerely believe they believe. But their behaviour tells a different story, perhaps?

The moral is: even if you in, all sincerity, believe you believe, that doesn't mean you believe. Have a look at how you actually behave, and ask yourself - do I really believe what I think I believe about eternal life, about doing God's will, and so on?

POSTSCRIPT 12TH NOV.

Thanks for the comments. Here's a further quick thought - we might try to put the failure of Christians' behaviour to match their professed beliefs down to (i) weakness of the will (they succumb to temptation to be selfish, lazy, sin, etc. rather than do as God bids) (ii) the fact that they will miss loved ones who have died (so are still concerned about them dying).

But notice:

(i) does not apply to their response to death. You can't explain why Christians appear to fear death as much as atheists by saying they are giving in to a temptation or sin of some sort (except of course, the sin of not believing!)

(ii) does not apply to your own death, particularly when your loved ones have already passed away. Do Christians in this situation face death (even a painless death) in a relaxed way - even looking forward to it (thinking they will actually soon be meeting their lost loved ones)? I think not (very rarely, I'd guess)! This strongly indicates they don't really believe what they believe they believe.

So it seems to me these two replies aren't really up to the job of explaining why so many Christians respond to the threat of their own death as they do [I might add that (ii) also accounts for the wrong emotion - it would explain why people are upset at prospect of dying soon (they will miss their loved ones) but not why they fear it. Moreover, if a divine, heavenly existence is atemporal, as many Christians believe, they won't get to miss their relatives at all, for they won't have to "wait" a period of time for their relatives's arrival.]

POSTPOSTSCRIPT NOV 12TH.

John Pieret suggests (in comments below):

(iii) the fear of death is a perfectly reasonable instinct (evolved, for theistic evolutionists, or installed by a loving God, for others) to keep humans from accidentally or thoughtlessly throwing away their lives. That faith survives in the face of that instinct is evidence of its strength and value.

Hi John

I think that's the most promising answer to what does otherwise look very puzzling. But perhaps it concedes too much?

This case might be a good analogy - people can have a phobia of snakes despite saying they believe this snake we are showing them won't harm them. They physically recoil anyway - they can't help themselves.

The Christian's fear of death is like that, you may say. At one level, they believe that while death might be the end for birds, bees and bears, say, human animals get to continue on. It is not to be feared. But their instinctive dread remains.

Problem for you (or this suggestion) is - what does the snake-phobic person "really" believe about this harmless snake we show them?

At one level they believe the snake is harmless (they say they accept it is), but then at another, more gut, level they strongly believe it's harmful. Their behaviour manifests this "gut" belief.

So then presumably we must say that, despite denying it, at a more gut level, Christians do believe death is the end.

So you seem (or this move seems) to be conceding the point that at a gut level Christians do indeed believe death is the end.

The Christian will say, perhaps, that, like the snake-phobic person, they have good grounds for supposing their gut belief is wrong.

But they don't (or, if you think they do, provide them).

POSTPOSTPOST SCRIPT 12TH NOV.


Actually, now I think about it, there's a more obvious rejoinder to Psiomniac's point (that a Christians negative emotional response to death can't be called a "belief"), which is that the belief that death is dreadful is actually articulated by Christians.

That's really Dawkins's point. Christians have a sort of schizo attitude to death. One the one hand they say death is defeated, Christ is risen, no more pain or fear - just eternal life! On the other hand, when they hear of a young life cut short they say: how appalling, how tragic, what a waste. And notice they say this even if it was an unwanted orphan who died painlessly whom no one will miss and who will miss no one.

My point is: what people say and do can come apart and what they do is often a better indicator of what they really believe (or believe in their "gut"). Christians say death is defeated etc. but their behaviour doesn't really reflect that at all. It manifests fear, dread, etc.

These are complimentary points, of course. Fact is Dawkins is right - there is a weird schizo attitude actually verbally expressed by Christians. Acknowledgement of the fear and terror and tragedy is verbalized. But then so is an entirely opposite set of attitudes and beliefs.

If we look at their behaviour, it suggests that the deeper - if you like, more "real" - belief is actually the pessimistic one.

I guess what this all brings out, at the very least, is what an extraordinarily inconsistent and emotionally confused set of attitudes and beliefs many Christians have about death.

61 comments:

rob a said...

Like Dan Dennett's 'belief in belief'?

Stephen Law said...

That's belief in the value of belief, I think....

anticant said...

Of course they don't believe it. Only brainwashed morons like the mass-suicidal Jim Jones lot really believe in all the Christian hogwash about resurrection and a better life after death.

Kyle said...

I'm sure I heard a sermon in church like this once.

What would you say to Bert? Would you say that he should really go round telling people he is a racist, or that he should bring his behaviour in line with his beliefs?

What you are talking about is not an uncommon phenomenon, or limited to the religious sort. We all fail to live up to what we believe. I know that I have made judgements about people because of what part of the country or world they are from, or the way they dress or something else that I believe is irrelevant. But I make efforts to change the way I behave.

Likewise, I would encourage any Christians reading this to assess the way they are living their lives to see if it matches up to what they say they believe.

Of course this doesn't mean being deleriously happy when you hear about someones death. Christians believe that death is a tradgic thing. It is not how the world was supposed to be, death is unnatural and profoundly sad. However, it is not the end, and so we do have comfort in the midst of this sorrow.

I have been to Christian funerals were this is clearly understood. The death is a sad thing, but we know that that person is in a better place. However, that does not stop their family missing that person.

anticant said...

"Christians believe that death is a tradgic thing. It is not how the world was supposed to be, death is unnatural and profoundly sad."

Whatever do you men by this? Are you really saying that in what you believe to be the "natural" order of things everyone born into this world should live for ever?

If they did, there wouldn't be room for any of us to move, or to breathe. The Earth is hopelessly overpopulated as it is, and the Roman Catholic Church don't make things any better by their insane opposition to birth control.

Sorry, Kyle, you're way up the creek yet again. Death is as natural a part of existence as being alive is.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Western society tends to be very hedonistic: pop culture, advertising and consumerism with all its trappings. As Woody Allen said: 'we all live our lives with the suspended disbelief that we are immortal.' It's true, life is the only experience where none of us look forward to the destination.

In communities, where 3 or more generations live together, death is treated differently, because it is witnessed differently. Young children are not shielded from it the way we tend to be - it's seen as part of life: the end part.

A belief in an afterlife is common in many cultures, especially ancient cultures, because we have the imagination to imagine a life after death - it's a projection - and we like to think that we can realise what we can imagine.

I agree with Socrates: 'Whether it is a door to another world or an endless sleep, we don't know.' But either way, it doesn't matter. Dying is like falling asleep: you don't know until after it's happened, which means you probably will never know at all.

This may sound very strange, but about 20 years ago I spent an entire sleepless night looking after someone dying of HIV (I was a volunteer carer) and they passed away at daybreak. To my surprise it was a positive experience, and I never expected that - I felt privileged to be there.

Regards, Paul.

Peter said...

Nah, this is rubbish. There are excellent reasons to grieve when a loved one is dying (even if you believe that they're going heaven).

See here:
http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2008/04/blackburn-0---2.html

brother sky said...

While I agree with the premise here (that many religious people don't really believe what they think they do), I think that natural/innate human response may have a role to play here. Not everything is under the control of conscious belief. It seems we were programmed for certain emotional experiences (via our evolutionary past), and these will tend to run their course no matter what our conscious mind thinks about a situation. We get frightened at horror movies, not because we think they're real, but because of the sudden noises, graphic violence, etc. When a religious person confronts death, or threat of violence, or a smutty movie, or a tiny kitten, they are likely to have a similar response (within reason) to every other human.

Phaedrus said...

"Nah, this is rubbish. There are excellent reasons to grieve when a loved one is dying (even if you believe that they're going heaven)."

Well that wasn't the point of the post. The point was looking at actions and behavior in contrast to what people believe. The stronger analogy wasn't about death, but rather: if people truly believe the truth of a theology "doing god's will, etc", then why aren't they following it?

For example, I know many Catholics who have premarital sex... :)

Paul P. Mealing said...

I believe we grieve because of our own loss - that's my experience. A younger person's death is more upsetting than an older person's because we feel they've been robbed.

Life is something that we all believe should be grabbed in both hands - it's a gift not to be wasted. On the other hand, people who contemplate suicide do so because they can't see a future - they've lost all hope.

I don't have a problem with people believing in an afterlife, as long as they keep it in perspective. This is the only life one knows about and one should live it with no thought of reward or punishment. A belief in the afterlife becomes perverse when it governs one's attitude, and actions, in this life.

Death means letting go of all attachments: everything we love, in a most literal way; most significantly letting go of ego - I believe this is what makes it so difficult to face, psychologically.

Regards, Paul.

Call me insane said...

I would like to respond to this statement of Stephen's:

"...few religious people seem really to believe. Or, if they do, it's hard to understand why their reaction to death is as it is."

Of course it is hard for you to understand, just as it is hard for a religious person to understand your point of view. It's called tunnel vision, and we all have it. Do you really think that our ONLY reaction to death should be "Golly, I sure am glad that this life is over with!" Should we all behave like the Abbot? Should all atheists behave like Dawkins?

Perhaps we should generalize regarding those who don't believe. Shouldn't they all cling to life for all it is worth? What sense does it make for an unbeliever to think of anyone other than himself? Why would an unbeliever sacrifice his life for someone else in any circumstance? It doesn't make sense. Yet some do. Does this make them hypocritical?

Yes, there are 2 main criteria for what someone believes (what they say and what they do). Amen! ...I mean, of course! But hypocrisy is found in every group, from Christians to Atheists to Parents to Government to teachers and so on. I find this to be a very weak ending. If we were to base our opinion of God only on the lives of Christians, I doubt there would be ANY believers.

Finally, I am not sure that you can label the grief felt at the loss of a loved one as hypocrisy. Actually, it seems like a cheap shot. (Perhaps the technical term is "a false dilemma").

Paul said...

What is the value of life in this world to a Christian? Given the paradise that presumably awaits, surely this life must feel like a very long wait in an airport terminal?

Call me insane said...

Paul, that is a great question, but I think that there is no canned answer, whether it be for the Christian or other.

For me it is not so much the value of life as it is the fact that this is where I am at this instant, so this is what I must deal with it accordingly. I can plan for the future but I cannot determine it. I love my children, and I hope to be around to watch them grow up. Does that make me a hypocrite because I am not standing around waiting for Jesus? I don't think so, but some might.

Perhaps the apostle Paul said it best. "To live is Christ, to die is gain."

Brian said...

The death is a sad thing, but we know that that person is in a better place.
Kyle, I thought your points were pretty reasonable until you chucked in the know How exactly did you obtain this knowledge? How justified is it? Is there some test or logical derivation that leads us to conclude that we know there's a better place after death?

Seriously, you hope/want that that person, and you will be immortal, but you can't possibly know it. I wish religious people would stop misappropriating words, it's hard enough to communicate with people as it is.

Kyle said...

Brian,

What is required for knowledge?

Btw, this isn't retorical.

Cassanders said...

hmmmm,
I think there is a considerable dissonance between thological exegeses of the "after-life", and the thoughts the christian populace use(sic) for comfort when dealing with such existential issues.

The popular sentiment is that the diseased goes hey presto directly to paradise(TM). This sentiment can be unveiled by rerading obituaries, epitaphs, religious songs etc.

The theological "teaching" is of course much more advanced :-)
As far as I have understood: that the diseased are in "the realm of death", waiting for the judgement day. At JD there shall be a new heaven and new earth, -AND the bodily ressurection and joy and singing and harps -and whatnot.

The theologicans do (quite understandably) not talk much about "the realm of death", but I think a discription of the dead as "being with god" has little support from the O&NT.
The christian thoughts of "realm of death" are obviously borrowed from Greek mythology (Hades).
But it is traditionally depicted as a place where the spirits are cut off from both humans and god.
The description of the realm of death (e.g. in the story of Lazarus (Luke 16,23)) fits closely to the concepts of Hades.

Inquiring minds could of course ask why an all-powerful and all-good god prefer keeping the dead (as tormented spirits) in a dark and uncomfortable limbo -until paradise(TM) is installed.

Do Kyle or Sam have any suggestions?

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

Stephen Law said...

Thanks for the comments. Here's a further quick thought - we might try to put the failure of Christians' behaviour to match their professed beliefs down to (i) weakness of the will (the succumb to temptation to be selfish, lazy, sin, etc. rather than do as God bids) (ii) the fact that they will miss loved ones who have died (so are still concerned about dying).

But notice:

(i) does not apply to their response to death. You can't explain why Christians appear to fear death as much as atheists by saying they are giving in to a temptation of some sort.

(ii) does not apply to your own death, particularly when your loved ones have already passed away. Do Christians in this situation face death (even a painless death) in a relaxed way (thinking they will actually soon be meeting those lost loved ones). I think not (rarely, I'd guess)!

So it seems to me these two replies have been making aren't really up to the job!

wombat said...

Many here seem to be focusing on the theists reaction to death but there are plenty of other examples of disjoint behavior. If you really thought God was watching you at all times or even had the ability to find out what you did with infallible accuracy after the fact you would behave differently wouldn't you?
It is all very well to say that there are hypocrites in every group atheists included but this misses a crucial point. Even (perhaps especially) hypocrites behave differently when they are know or believe they are watched. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that their hypocrisy manifests most tangibly when they believe they are unobserved.

Stephen Law said...

PS I just expanded on my previous comment as a postscript to this post.

John Pieret said...

(iii) the fear of death is a perfectly reasonable instinct (evolved, for theistic evolutionists, or installed by a loving God, for others) to keep humans from accidentally or thoughtlessly throwing away their lives. That faith survives in the face of that instinct is evidence of its strength and value.

(Not my view, just noodling an answer.)

Cassanders said...

@john pieret
If we for the sake of the argument assume there really is a god :

Why do you (or the ones you are referring to) think this is a satisfactory answer?

Size/extent of life was a significant point i the pseudorationalization of Pascal's wager.

Compared to ETERNAL bliss, any truncation of a human life-span would be infinitisemal and non-significant.

No (rational ) reason for neither an acting god nor a watchmaker(evolutionary) god to install such a propensity.

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

John Pieret said...

Compared to ETERNAL bliss, any truncation of a human life-span would be infinitisemal and non-significant.

No (rational ) reason for neither an acting god nor a watchmaker(evolutionary) god to install such a propensity.


That was not the issue. You are enlarging the argument and abandoning Dawkins' point (which is fine but it is moving on to different issues that I'm not willing to start a drawn-out discussion on, since I'm not a believer anyway).

The sole question was how can believers justify a fear of death if they truly believe in an afterlife. The issue of why there is a "forelife" at all is another matter.

Psiomniac said...

I think grief is harder to explain than fear of death in this context.

Stephen Law said...

John Pieret suggests (in comments below):

(iii) the fear of death is a perfectly reasonable instinct (evolved, for theistic evolutionists, or installed by a loving God, for others) to keep humans from accidentally or thoughtlessly throwing away their lives. That faith survives in the face of that instinct is evidence of its strength and value.

Hi John

I think that's the most promising answer to what does otherwise look very puzzling. But perhaps it concedes too much?

This case might be a good analogy - people can have a phobia of snakes despite saying they believe this snake were are showing them won't harm them. They physically recoil anyway - they can't help themselves.

The Christian's fear of death is like that, you may say. At one level, they believe that while death might be the end for birds bees and bears, say, human animals get to continue on. It is not to be feared. But their instinctive dread remains.

Problem for you (or this suggestion) is - what does the snake-phobic person "really" believe about this harmless snake we show them?

At one level they believe the snake is harmless (they say they accept it is), but then at another, more gut, level they strongly believe it's harmful. Their behaviour manifests this "gut" belief.

So then presumably we must say that, despite denying it, at a more gut level, Christians do believe death is the end.

So you seem (or this move seems) to be conceding the point that at a gut level Christians do indeed believe death is the end.

The Christian will say, perhaps, that, like the snake-phobic person, they have good grounds for supposing their gut belief is wrong.

But they don't (or, if you think they do, provide them).

Psiomniac said...

Stephen Law,

Don't you think that belief has a necessary cognitive component as well as being a predisposition to certain behaviour? If so, is it not possible for your involuntary emotional response to override a genuine belief?

Stephen Law said...

Psiomniac. I have given 2 examples of how the gut response contradicting what the person says they believe can and is quite reasonably described as manifesting a belief:

Someone can sincerely say they believe black and white people are equally able, yet their behaviour indicate that their "gut" belief is that white's are superior.

Someone can say they believe this snake is harmless, yet still find themselves recoiling in horror, thus manifesting their "gut" belief that it's not.

Hence, when Christians recoil in horror at death, they are similarly manifesting their "gut" belief that death is, indeed, dreadful. I see no reason yet to deny this, do you?

The one thing I will concede is that it may be too strong to say that the "gut" belief is what they "really" believe. More accurate, I suspect, to say they hold both beliefs, but in different ways.

Stephen Law said...

BTW Kyle - do you believe that death is "unnatural" and that, if we had not sinned, we would be immortal?

If so, when did this switch from natural immortality to unnatural mortality take place, roughly?

You do realize that, if this is your belief, it is a belief that, if expressed by a non-religious person, would be considered very good evidence they were, to put it bluntly, a nutter?

Psiomniac said...

Stephen,

I'm not convinced that these examples are equivalent. Somebody who evinces equality but discriminates in practice is engaging in two voluntary actions, whereas the phobic who recoils is literally not revealing a belief so much as an emotion. I am sceptical about this notion of 'gut belief'.

wombat said...

"So then presumably we must say that, despite denying it, at a more gut level, Christians do believe death is the end."

I have read elsewhere (trying to find the refs possibly Dennett or even way back in Dawkins) that humans have a predisposition to consider existence of some sort of personality after death. This is revealed in the way we, and in particular young humans talk about dead people and animals. The claim is that this naturally arises from the way in which we treat other minds (Dennett's "intentional stance").

Stephen Law said...

Psiomniac

Hmm, if the discriminator's discriminatory behaviour is unwitting and emotionally driven (and the unwitting racist's behaviour usually is), that doesn't mean we can't attribute a "gut" racist belief to him. I think most of us still would.

Ditto the Christian, then.

What is true about the snake-phobic case is that there is in the first instance a dramatic, uncontrollable physiological response - cold sweat, physical recoil, etc - to the presence of the snake. I guess that’s what you have in mind?

None of this need be true in the racist case. He discriminates without panic, etc. though there is clearly an emotional element involved (he has, deep down, a negative emotional reaction to black people).

But now if we look at the Christian reaction to death – while if death clearly immanent there will likely be dramatic, uncontrollable physiological responses, when they consider death at a distance, as it were, that is not the case. They just have a strong negative, emotional reaction to it. Just like the racist.

So, even if you think the snake case is not a case of believing the snake is harmful, the Christian case comes out looking more like the racist case, in any case.

[one difference between the racist case and the snake case is – the racist is unaware of his emotional reaction, whereas the snake-phobic person is very aware. And so is the Christian. But why is this relevant to the question of whether we can attribute to the Christian the gut belief that death is dreadful?]

Stephen Law said...

Actually, now I think about it, there's a more obvious rejoinder to Psiomniac's point, which is that the belif that death is dreadful is actually articulated by Christians.

That's really Dawkins's point. Christians have a sort of schizo attitude to death. One the one hand they say death is defeated, Christ is risen, no more pain or fear - just eternal life! On the other hand, when they hear of a young life cut short they say: how appalling, how tragic, what a waste. And notice they say this even if it was an unwanted orphan who died painlessly whom no one will miss and who will miss no one.

My point is: look what people say and do can come apart and what they do is often a better indicator of what they really believe (or believe in their "gut"). Christians say death is defeated etc. but their behaviour doesn't really reflect that at all. It manifests fear, dread, etc.

These are complimentary points, of course. Fact is Dawkins is right - there is a weird schizo attitude actually verbally expressed by Christians. Acknowledgement of the fear and terror and tragedy is verbalized. But then so is an entirely opposite set of attitudes and beliefs.

If we look at their behaviour, it would suggests that the deeper - if you like, more "real" - belief is actually the pessimistic one.

I guess what this all brings out, at the very least, is what an extraordinarily inconsistent and emotionally confused set of attitudes and beliefs Christians have about death.

Psiomniac said...

Stephen,

I broadly agree with your latest post. I should have been more clear, I don't think that the phobic's reaction reveals their belief that the snake will harm them, but I do think the covert racist's behaviour could be said to reveal beliefs that are at odds with what they profess. So it is the snake and racist examples which I meant were not equivalent, but the racist one is more apt I think.

John Pieret said...

Stephen:

My reply (if I was a theist) would be that you are conflating categories when you speak of a gut belief. While I (and any of the moderate religious people Dawkins was referring to) would grant that "Talk is cheap, behavior is believable," it is, I think, wrong to say that all (much? most?) of human behavior is so governed by conscious reason as to be fairly described as a "belief," gut or otherwise. The fear of death is a reflex that we can think about and perhaps understand and somewhat control but few people, if any, can fully overcome it. Behavior is believable but, in this case, the behavior is only relevant on the question of whether or not humans have a survival instinct, not on what they believe.

The reasons people believe in an afterlife are as many and varied (if not more so) than those that lead them to believe in god(s). Of course, if there are no gods, there are few, if any, good arguments for an afterlife. But that would be a rather circular argument on Dawkins' part.

No small part of belief in an afterlife is, no doubt, rooted in the instinctive fear of death. Though few theists would give that as a justification for faith in an afterlife, it almost always comes up when you question them on it. An equally interesting question might be how many people who are not believers still have a sneaking hope that there is some way we "go on" after death.

That's really Dawkins's point. Christians have a sort of schizo attitude to death. One the one hand they say death is defeated, Christ is risen, no more pain or fear - just eternal life! On the other hand, when they hear of a young life cut short they say: how appalling, how tragic, what a waste. And notice they say this even if it was an unwanted orphan who died painlessly whom no one will miss and who will miss no one.

That is a better way to put Dawkins' argument but I still don't see it as an overwhelming problem for those moderate theists. We are social animals and along with that comes the instinct to empathize, particularly with the young of the species. Plus, our reactions to fears are not necessarily any more rationally-rooted than the original fears themselves. A (reasonably) rational theist would be able to recognize that his/her reaction to death was not reasoned without conceding a contradiction in belief.

anticant said...

I do not share the morbid fear of death which so many people are expressing here.

Grief at the loss of loved ones, and at the thought of one's own life ending, is natural and understandable - but why the fear?

Either there is an after-life or there is not. I personally hope there is not, and that death is followed by dreamless sleep.

What concerns me more than the prospect of death is the manner of it, which I hope will be as pain-free and comfortable as good nursing can make it.

Visiting a hospice regularly, as I do, I am very familiar with death's closeness. It is always sad when one of our little community dies, although sometimes one knows it is a great relief to them. And we keep remarkably cheerful at the hospice, with a lot of kindness, good humour, and laughter.

Oscar Wilde wrote: "Death and love seem to walk on either hand as I go through life: they are the only things I think of, their wings shadow me".

wombat said...

Re prediposition to believe in life after death

I think the piece I was thinking of was probably this one.

Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death (SciAm)

Paul P. Mealing said...

I think that both Anticant and Wombat have a point. I read the first couple of paragraphs of the Scientific American article that Wombat referenced, and it mentions the 'crippling anxiety of a nonexistent ego', which I also mentioned in an earlier comment as the primary reason we have a psychological problem with death.

I also agree with Anticant, that it's not death itself that we find so scary, but what we might have to go through before it renders us unconscious.

But on schizoid attitudes to death consider this anecdote I once read of someone who, as a student, was considering suicide. He rode his bicycle out to 'The Gap' in Sydney, which is a well know suicide spot (cliff over the Pacific). But on his way he was almost struck by a car, and the incident made him realise how much he wanted to live.

We can all consider death calmly when it's not imminent, but when it's imminent, the survival instinct kicks in. I'm sure we've all experience this in dreams, if not in real life.

Regards, Paul.

Brian said...

Kyle, knowledge isn't a assertion about something that is contradictory (if you hold reality to be logical), not demonstrable and not evidenced. Unless you have demonstrated that the afterlife is necessary, or have evidence that strongly points the the afterlife then you're just asserting nothing more realistic than tooth-fairies. But, if you have either, you probably don't have faith anyway, but more importantly you'll win the Noble prize for having destroyed science and proven the supernatural. I await your demonstrations or evidence. Kudos for you for being able to do what no-one else has done.

Of course, you could have just been trying to go Nuclear, as Stephen puts it. That we can never surely know anything (a la Quine). Which is probably true. But in that case, your so called knowledge is no more known (in fact, totally unknowable), but none of us can live without believing and acting like the world is real and physical for very long. - Ever seen a skeptic exit the 10th floor of a building by the window with no parachute and float away, and thus demonstrate that we can't know the effect of gravity? - And with all the evidence we have, and the way it keeps being physical as far as we can tell, we can take it as a good hypothesis.


Stephen:
I guess what this all brings out, at the very least, is what an extraordinarily inconsistent and emotionally confused set of attitudes and beliefs Christians have about death. Amen brother!

Brian said...

Kyle, I just realized that I fell (again) for the theists standard defense when they are questioned on their beliefs or so called knowledge. The theist tries to move the burden of proof onto the questioner. Such a dishonest tactic. You said you knew, it's up to you to demonstrate the knowledge, and what you define as knowledge. I don't think you are arguing in good faith Kyle. Instead, you just changed the subject.

Anonymous said...

I am an atheist. But if someone told me my daughter was dying I think there is a strong chance I would start to hope that I was wrong. I may even find myself praying. Does this mean I'm not really an atheist?

Stephen Law said...

That's a very nice example, anonymous. But no it wouldn't mean you were not really an atheist.

After all, you might also fork out for all sorts of suspect treatments for your daughter in that situation, without believing that they would work. That would be indicative of a desperate hope in their efficacy, not belief.

By contrast, the Christian whose behaviour and words manifest a profound fear of death indicate they believe death is the end, not that they hope it is (they obviously hope it isn't!).

wombat said...

Stephen - More likely the death fearing Christian fears that he might be in for something nasty. After all that is another of RD's points against religion - that it often terrorizes people with the threat of a really rough time in the afterlife if they "sin".

Maya said...

Religious folks and religious institutions talk about religion as a source of truth, but behave as if it is a tribal identity.

The example I am thinking about is 'faith schools' - If a religion is true and gives people knowledge about the one true god, access to eternal life etc...why do faith schools select pupils by giving priority to those who already have access to this vital information at home?


I've always wondered why they don't reverse the order of priority (i.e. give places to children from families with no religion, other religions, once-a-year church goers etc...) or just put all the names in a hat and let god decide.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Maya has raised a point, when she alludes to religion, specifically the Christian religion of my childhood, promising 'eternal life' - it was a 'stick and carrot' approach. The 'natural' instinctive fear of death, the 'gut belief' that Stephen referred to, was used and exploited to win people over. This is what the Church did for centuries, and it was appallingly successful.

I think as a secular culture we have moved on: we no longer believe in God as judge, jury and executioner; and we no longer believe in the afterlife as reward or punishment; which is why Christianity is flagging as a traditional religious culture, or as part of mainstream culture.

We now have a more pragmatic attitude towards death, and the fear of it is not alleviated by a belief in Christ, for most of us. This leads to the possibility that Jesus' life as an exemplar, in the same way as Buddha or Confucius, has more resonance than the mythology built around his death.

Regards, Paul.

Eric said...

"Kyle, I just realized that I fell (again) for the theists standard defense when they are questioned on their beliefs or so called knowledge. The theist tries to move the burden of proof onto the questioner. Such a dishonest tactic. You said you knew, it's up to you to demonstrate the knowledge, and what you define as knowledge. I don't think you are arguing in good faith Kyle. Instead, you just changed the subject."

Brian, i disagree completely, and on two grounds.

First, your response to Kyle clearly contained some presuppositions about the nature of knowledge. It is entirely reasonable for him to question these presuppositions before he gets into a debate about how he claims to 'know' something.

Second, and most importantly, most debates go nowhere precisely because fundamental terms like 'knowledge' are left undefined. Kyle wasn't changing the subject; he was just doing some of the necessary epistemological ground clearing required for a meaningful (and efficient) discussion of the subject.

Kyle said...

Thanks Eric, I agree with what you have said there.

Brian,

You start off with a negative definition of knowledge.

Something is not knowledge if, it is contradictory and non-demonstrable and without evidence.

Presumably you don't think that anything else is knowledge, because this would make knowledge very easy. i.e. anything that is non-contradictory would be knowledge.

I agree with what you have said here, but I think it is only the very start of a theory of knowledge.

Unless you meant that:

Something is not knowledge if it is contradictory or nondemonstrable or without evidence.

This would give the following positive account of knowledge:

S knows that p if and only if all five of the following hold,

i) S believes p
ii) p is true
iii) p is non-contradictory
iv) p is demonstrable
v) there exists evidence for p

I'm not sure that I have accurately represented your last three. Presumably you don't think the mere existence of evidence for p is enough to furnish someone with knowledge.

Perhaps the three could be rewritten:

iii') S knows that p is non-contradictory
iv') S can demonstrate p
v') S knows the evidence for p

or perhaps

v'') S knows that there is evidence for p

I realise that I may be putting words in your mouth, so please do step in and say so if I am.

The problem here is that your theory of knowledge is highly contentious, yet you still expect me to blindly go along with it. There are many alternatives that don't lead to scepticism.

Take, for example, a simple version of reliabilism:

S knows that p if and only if the following three hold,

i) S believes that p
ii) p is true
iii) S formed the belief that p through a reliable method

Depending on which theory of knowledge we opt for, we answer to your original question will be very different.

But for some reason you inist that all answers must be given assuming your theory of knowledge is the correct one.

There are problems with your understanding of knowledge, as it stands. For a start, it runs into Gettier problems: http://www.ditext.com/gettier/gettier.html

Sam Norton said...

Stephen: "The one thing I will concede is that it may be too strong to say that the "gut" belief is what they "really" believe. More accurate, I suspect, to say they hold both beliefs, but in different ways."

I think that's right. I also think, by the way, that it's wrong to refer to 'Christians' in this context because even on Dawkins terms different Christians exhibit different behaviour and statements.

The process that produces someone like Cardinal Hume is a process of refining our emotional reactions. We start off with the instinctive recoil away from death; over time, with prayer/teaching/reading etc, that fear is slowly overcome. That's what Christians call the path of faith, and we're at different levels on it (and there are lots of different elements to the path - fear of death is only one such issue to be resolved).

We are absolutely committed to some beliefs; others are just mental furniture; others still are completely tacit (we don't tend to check that the floor is still there when we get up in the morning).

The path of growing as a Christian is a path that involves becoming less afraid of death. Different Christians will be at different stages of that path. The question is: in what direction are they going?

Gratuitious Wittgenstein quote: the fear of death is a sign of a false life.

NBtQMK said...

That racist guy can agree that he is a racist and don't like black people but he can also have a reasons that black ones are as good as whites and give job to everyone due to this reason.

So with the theists. They can feel that death is bad but have reasons that it's not so bad (the reason is their faith, it's not rational, but still is a reason for them). Using this reason they can fight their fear of death and sacrifice own life to please it's god.

There are a lot of examples of such sacrifices: crusaders, muslim fighters, etc.

anticant said...

Well, Kyle, you have expounded your theory of knowledge. Now please do the same for "truth".

What do you mean when you say something is "true"?

Kyle said...

Well, Kyle, you have expounded your theory of knowledge. Now please do the same for "truth".

I'm not really sure why this is relevant to the discussion, but I will oblige.

A proposition is the meaning of a sentence. Let p be a proposition.

A state of affairs is a way the world is or might have been. For example, there being butter in my fridge is a state of affairs.

p is true if and only if,

p corresponds to an actual state of affairs.

For example, the proposition that 'There is butter in my fridge' is true if the corresponding state of affairs (there being butter in my fridge) obtains or is actual.

Paul P. Mealing said...

We seem to have reached the end of this, and I'm not looking to have the last word, but there's a couple of points that, somehow, didn't get discussed.

I have mixed feelings about Dawkins: I have used many of his own arguments, without knowing they were his; but I disagree with him on 2 fundamental points.

I don't agree that religion is the root of all evil, and I don't agree that atheists are axiomatically intellectually superior to theists.

On the first issue, evil was discussed, but not that particular point. It was, after all, the title of his television documentary.

On the second issue, Dawkins never makes that statement but it's a subtext that runs through all of his discourse.

It would be remiss of me not to be involved in this discussion, and fail to voice these specific disagreements.

Thanks Stephen.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Sorry about the double negative in the last para. Please mentally delete the 'not' and it reads correctly.

Regards, Paul.

anticant said...

"p is true if and only if,

p corresponds to an actual state of affairs."

So religion is only true if there actually is a supernatural god who takes an interest in the human race?

Prove it!

Oh, I forgot - you regard evidence as irrelevant.

Psiomniac said...

kyle,

The problem here is that your theory of knowledge is highly contentious,
Two points:

1. Which uncontentious theory of knowledge endorses the idea that thinking there is a god, despite inadequate evidence, constitutes knowledge?

2. Your correspondence theory of truth is just as contentious as Brian's theory of knowledge.

Kyle said...

1. Which uncontentious theory of knowledge endorses the idea that thinking there is a god, despite inadequate evidence, constitutes knowledge?

2. Your correspondence theory of truth is just as contentious as Brian's theory of knowledge.


1. There aren't any uncontentious theories of knowledge. However, I frequently get asked questions on this blog that clearly assume some kind of internalist, foundationalist theory of knowledge.

2. I don't deny that. It is impossible to believe very much in philosophy without believing something contentious, however, I've been trying to point out that you can claim to have knowledge without having demonstratable evidence.

anticant said...

Oh yes, you can CLAIM to have knowledge without having demonstratable [sic] evidence - but whether you actually have it is another matter entirely.

Psiomniac said...

kyle,

I agree that there are no uncontentious theories of knowledge, but in that case, what was the function of your comment that Brian's theory was contentious? If it had been a preamble to your account of why your theory of knowledge is compatible with your beliefs, it might have been more than a statement of the obvious.

I also agree that you can have evidence for your beliefs that is not demonstrable to others. So if aliens really did abduct me but were very careful to cover their tracks, I could have the evidence of my coherent memory of events but little else. But in that case, it is rational for people not to believe me.

Kyle said...

psiomniac,

I wasn't trying to claim anything radical or profound when I said that Brian's theory of knowledge was contentious. I was merely responding to his claim that if I wanted to make knowledge claims then I had to meet his demands.

I also agree that you can have evidence for your beliefs that is not demonstrable to others. So if aliens really did abduct me but were very careful to cover their tracks, I could have the evidence of my coherent memory of events but little else. But in that case, it is rational for people not to believe me.

I agree with what you have said here. However, many of the people who comment on this blog would go further than that. They claim not only are they rational when they disbelieve my claims that God exists, but that I am obviously irrational for believing that God exists. It is this further claim that I have been arguing against.

Psiomniac said...

kyle,

I was merely responding to his claim that if I wanted to make knowledge claims then I had to meet his demands.
Fair enough.

It is this further claim that I have been arguing against.
I think I'm on your side on that one.

Anonymous said...

I presume Mr Dennett believes that we and all things consist of forces and atoms. So perhaps I can conclude from this that Dennett should have no fear of death since
atoms and subatomic particles--essentially live forever. By the conservation of matter and energy alone Mr Dennett should feel no
fear whatsoever when that large bus is careening toward him up the street. Nor eat, since starvation is no threat. He shouldn't fear his bodily destruction since according to science it essentially never goes out of existence---just is translated into other things.
And by Mr Dennett's own logic
he cannot be said to really believe in these things unless his fear of death is gone, and I don't believe Mr. Dennet's fear of death is gone.
To believe in something must,it seems according to Dennett, be shown by the cancellation of all contrary inclinations.
If you believe marriage is the only proper relation of a man to a woman you will not date, nor will you divorce; perhaps you will rarely speak to a woman.
If you believe that you must not kill a living thing to eat---then you will starve gladly.
If I believe stealing is morally unjustifiable, I will not steal food if I am starving.
I hold it to be an assumption on Mr. Dennett's part that a belief is to be shown and is related to action, in such a way--and I hold that it is not a necessary assumption that all contrary inclinations are eliminated.
Neither is it straight forward to pin down what action is caused by what belief. I may have a belief that stealing is morally unjustified, but also feel that food should be available to all as a service by any legitimate government, and if it is not then taking food without paying is justified in the face of great hunger.
I may apprehend a thief, not because I believe that stealing is wrong, but because he insulted me and I believe insults must not go unanswered.

I may have the experience that
god is immanence and transcendence. Does this mean that
that bus hurtling toward me is god and therefore I should not flee?
Or does it mean that there is no god in the bus so I may safely--in a theological way--- flee the bus and still believe?
There does not seem to me to be any necessity to say that any particular behavior is necessarily dependent upon a particular belief or that any particular action necessarily indicates any particular belief.
If the bus drives toward me I may move from its path because I believe god wants me to preserve my body to do his work, or avoid suffering or be a good body steward or some such--and fear is integral to that- and not because my belief in an afterlife or god is inoperative or nonexistent.
If I understand Dennett correctly, then under his assumptions,if I am willing to see my left leg crushed but not willing to die or become a brain-damaged vegetable then my belief in god or the after-life must be half hearted. And I ask, by what necessity is it so claimed?
It has been a christian conception since the beginning that the flesh is weak and the devil always at work--and so on.
So, that contrary urges may occupy the same life.
That people often have contrary urges is, it seems to me an empirical truth that is universal.
To expect an experience or belief in god to cancel such a state of affairs---as Dennett apparently does---seems unreasonable and prejudicial.

Anonymous said...

I presume Mr Dennett believes that we and all things consist of forces and atoms. So perhaps I can conclude from this that Dennett should have no fear of death since
atoms and subatomic particles--essentially live forever. By the conservation of matter and energy alone Mr Dennett should feel no
fear whatsoever when that large bus is careening toward him up the street. Nor eat, since starvation is no threat. He shouldn't fear his bodily destruction since according to science it essentially never goes out of existence---just is translated into other things.
And by Mr Dennett's own logic
he cannot be said to really believe in these things unless his fear of death is gone, and I don't believe Mr. Dennet's fear of death is gone.
To believe in something must,it seems according to Dennett, be shown by the cancellation of all contrary inclinations.
If you believe marriage is the only proper relation of a man to a woman you will not date, nor will you divorce; perhaps you will rarely speak to a woman.
If you believe that you must not kill a living thing to eat---then you will starve gladly.
If I believe stealing is morally unjustifiable, I will not steal food if I am starving.
I hold it to be an assumption on Mr. Dennett's part that a belief is to be shown and is related to action, in such a way--and I hold that it is not a necessary assumption that all contrary inclinations are eliminated.
Neither is it straight forward to pin down what action is caused by what belief. I may have a belief that stealing is morally unjustified, but also feel that food should be available to all as a service by any legitimate government, and if it is not then taking food without paying is justified in the face of great hunger.
I may apprehend a thief, not because I believe that stealing is wrong, but because he insulted me and I believe insults must not go unanswered.

I may have the experience that
god is immanence and transcendence. Does this mean that
that bus hurtling toward me is god and therefore I should not flee?
Or does it mean that there is no god in the bus so I may safely--in a theological way--- flee the bus and still believe?
There does not seem to me to be any necessity to say that any particular behavior is necessarily dependent upon a particular belief or that any particular action necessarily indicates any particular belief.
If the bus drives toward me I may move from its path because I believe god wants me to preserve my body to do his work, or avoid suffering or be a good body steward or some such--and fear is integral to that- and not because my belief in an afterlife or god is inoperative or nonexistent.
If I understand Dennett correctly, then under his assumptions,if I am willing to see my left leg crushed but not willing to die or become a brain-damaged vegetable then my belief in god or the after-life must be half hearted. And I ask, by what necessity is it so claimed?
It has been a christian conception since the beginning that the flesh is weak and the devil always at work--and so on.
So, that contrary urges may occupy the same life.
That people often have contrary urges is, it seems to me an empirical truth that is universal.
To expect an experience or belief in god to cancel such a state of affairs---as Dennett apparently does---seems unreasonable and prejudicial.

Anonymous said...

I presume Mr Dennett believes that we and all things consist of forces and atoms. So perhaps I can conclude from this that Dennett should have no fear of death since
atoms and subatomic particles--essentially live forever. By the conservation of matter and energy alone Mr Dennett should feel no
fear whatsoever when that large bus is careening toward him up the street. Nor eat, since starvation is no threat. He shouldn't fear his bodily destruction since according to science it essentially never goes out of existence---just is translated into other things.
And by Mr Dennett's own logic
he cannot be said to really believe in these things unless his fear of death is gone, and I don't believe Mr. Dennet's fear of death is gone.
To believe in something must,it seems according to Dennett, be shown by the cancellation of all contrary inclinations.
If you believe marriage is the only proper relation of a man to a woman you will not date, nor will you divorce; perhaps you will rarely speak to a woman.
If you believe that you must not kill a living thing to eat---then you will starve gladly.
If I believe stealing is morally unjustifiable, I will not steal food if I am starving.
I hold it to be an assumption on Mr. Dennett's part that a belief is to be shown and is related to action, in such a way--and I hold that it is not a necessary assumption that all contrary inclinations are eliminated.
Neither is it straight forward to pin down what action is caused by what belief. I may have a belief that stealing is morally unjustified, but also feel that food should be available to all as a service by any legitimate government, and if it is not then taking food without paying is justified in the face of great hunger.
I may apprehend a thief, not because I believe that stealing is wrong, but because he insulted me and I believe insults must not go unanswered.

I may have the experience that
god is immanence and transcendence. Does this mean that
that bus hurtling toward me is god and therefore I should not flee?
Or does it mean that there is no god in the bus so I may safely--in a theological way--- flee the bus and still believe?
There does not seem to me to be any necessity to say that any particular behavior is necessarily dependent upon a particular belief or that any particular action necessarily indicates any particular belief.
If the bus drives toward me I may move from its path because I believe god wants me to preserve my body to do his work, or avoid suffering or be a good body steward or some such--and fear is integral to that- and not because my belief in an afterlife or god is inoperative or nonexistent.
If I understand Dennett correctly, then under his assumptions,if I am willing to see my left leg crushed but not willing to die or become a brain-damaged vegetable then my belief in god or the after-life must be half hearted. And I ask, by what necessity is it so claimed?
It has been a christian conception since the beginning that the flesh is weak and the devil always at work--and so on.
So, that contrary urges may occupy the same life.
That people often have contrary urges is, it seems to me an empirical truth that is universal.
To expect an experience or belief in god to cancel such a state of affairs---as Dennett apparently does---seems unreasonable and prejudicial.