Sunday, June 14, 2009

Are the 'New Atheists' avoiding the 'real arguments'?

Great article here from Edmund Standing on the "new Atheists" and how they are shot down by sophisticated theologians.

Seems to me Standing has caught Rowan Williams out in a flagrant use of what I call: "now you see it, now you don't".

P.S. "great" should not to be taken to indicate I agree with everything in said article - I don't. But the central point is good, and well made, I think.

105 comments:

Steven Carr said...

You can't expect the Archbishop of Canterbury to stand by the 39 Articles of Faith of the church of which he is the leader....

M. Tully said...

Well,

I could comment on this, but someone else did it every bit as well as I could (better in a couple of different ways).

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/the_courtiers_reply.php

For me, I know I haven't spent a great deal of time studying homeopathy. But, I do know that one, for it to work, it would have to violate the known laws of chemistry. And two, it has failed the challenge of the empirical methods of making verifiable predictions.

That's enough for me.

scott roberts said...

Re the "now you see it, now you don't" bit:

Theists cannot provide a clear and concise answer to the nature of God, and the problem of evil, therefore, theism can be dismissed. (The famous "atheism-of-the gaps" argument.)

Re the Standing article: how can you consider it a "great article"? It's the kind of thing I might have written when I was an atheist (in my adolescence). To me, this article shows how justified Rowan's complaint is.

But in the interest of getting past this level of 'tis/'taint, may I suggest an experiment. As I see it, people like Standing operate from a belief in materialism of some sort. But nothing we know to be true from science would be altered if, instead, one believed in idealism of some sort. (If you don't agree with that, provide a counter-example). So the experiment is: pretend to be an idealist, and ask if there might be some apparently supernatural truth to some religion. For example, the claim that we continue to exist after death. Now as an idealist, one does not have to believe this, but there is also no reason to deny it. (If you don't agree, what is the reason -- speaking as an idealist.)

My point is that rather than argue about God or the truth of this or that religious doctrine, one first needs to get the materialism/idealism question settled. If the former, then of course religion is bunk. If the latter, there may be something to it.

Kosh3 said...

"My point is that rather than argue about God or the truth of this or that religious doctrine, one first needs to get the materialism/idealism question settled. If the former, then of course religion is bunk. If the latter, there may be something to it."

Assume idealism is correct: if there is nothing beyond the mind, how can god exist? (I'm not quite sure how idealists avoid sliding into solipsism...)

anticant said...

I find it hard to understand how any intelligent and well educated person can really believe in the truth of the Christian creeds. The mental contortions they must undergo are themselves unbelievable.

Or else they have concluded that dressing up in funny clothes and pronouncing arcane rituals in church gives them a more influential public platform than they could otherwise achieve.

A now deceased LibDem peer told me that when he was about seven he said to his mother "Mummy, do grown-ups really believe this stuff?" Out of the mouths of babes....

Stephen Law said...

I make no commitment to materialism and neither does Standing in this article, so far as I can see. So I think you are attacking a straw man Scott.

Compare - "But before you can show it's true there exists no flying spaghetti monster you must first refute Idealism (and also philosophically define the terms "truth" and "existence", and then refute every general sceptical argument ever constructed, plus a million other philosophical tasks I will set you before you finally give up in frustration and I claim victory)! This is just standard theistic smokescreen.

You might be interested in this (which is sort of relevant):

http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2007/03/atheism-faith-positi

Sam Norton said...

A classic example of missing the point, which I'd unpack further but I'm going away on retreat for a week later this morning. I have known several fundamentalists who have also received firsts in theology, who would probably agree with most of what has been said here, other than whether what is being argued about is true or not true. Neither of them actually understand the nature of theology! I agree with scott that this is exactly what Rowan had in mind. It all comes back to poetry...

Stephen Law said...

They probably understand what you understand by theology, Sam. They just reject it.

You tend to assume that when someone rejects what you believe, it is because they don't understand it (well, actually you seem not to understand it either, actually; perhaps no one can understand it because there is no content to it [pseudo-profundity and waffle], or what there is makes no sense).

Anyway, Williams clearly believes in the reality of (at least some of) the Jesus miracles, including Jesus' resurrection after three days. These things really happened. These claims are not to be understood "poetically" or "metaphorically", right? You believe that too, right?

Stephen Law said...

I meant, not merely "poetically" or "metaphorically", of course.

georgesdelatour said...

Stephen

I think the book you really have to read (and, hopefully, demolish) is "Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate" by Terrry Eagleton.

anticant said...

You may think that you and Rowan understand the nature of theology, Sam, but do you understand the nature of truth?

scott roberts said...

@kosh3:

What if God is "the mind", and we are created offshoots of that mind? (I'm not saying that all idealists would say this, just that it it is a form of idealism which stands up to your objections.)

@Stephen

If you are not committed to materialism, are you, then, agnostic concerning the question of whether or not we survive death? On the question of whether evolution could be guided, in part, by final causes? On whether or not we should regard ourselves as "fallen", in the sense of being out of touch with a divine (though not necessarily theistic) reality?

What I am getting at is that you (and Standing) seem to be committed to showing that it is irrational to be religious, and in particular to be a Christian. For example, Standing sees the "faith seeking understanding" to be irrational. Now suppose (which happens to be my opinion), that orthodox Christianity is partly true and partly false, but those areas in which it is true are of vital importance, while those in which it is false don't matter much. (In particular, what I think is true in Christianity is its view of history as a saga of fall and redemption, while an example of what I ragard as false is the Virgin Birth.)

Now because I see Christianity as holding to some vitally important truth, I read sophisticated Christian theologians with interest and learn things from them. On the other hand, I read people like Standing and think "he is missing the point".

So I am not (here) arguing that it is more rational to be an idealist
than to be a materialist, nor that it is more rational to be a theist than an atheist. What I do wish to argue is that it is irrational to assume that all theists are irrational simply by virtue of being theists.

Getting back to "faith seeking understanding", and whether or not you are committed to materialism, let me ask the following. Suppose you were interested in studying consciousness. Would you think it more profitable to (a) read Dennett and Crick and study neurology, or (b) read mystics and meditate? I, having placed my bet on idealism, choose (b), while someone who places their bet on materialism would choose (a). That is what I mean by "being a materialist". Does it fit? In both cases one is operating under a "faith seeking understanding" mode. (And, I should mention, there are many Christians who are materialists in this sense, but who have just added God and whatnot to a materialist metaphysics. I consider them to be irrational.)

scott roberts said...

Anticant,

I understand that theological truth is not the same as scientific truth which is not the same as mathematical truth which is not the same as artistic truth which is not the same as historical truth.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Scott

You seem to think my view is "all theists are irrational simply by virtue of being theists."

Not at all. I run targeted arguments (usually not against theism per so, but specific versions of it, such as yours). Of course if you show my arguments presuppose theism is false, you've refuted me. But it's not enough just to assert my arguments are circular in this way. You must show it. I don't see that they are.

Saying: "You start from materialism, and so presuppose the falsehood of theism" would be good, if only I started from materialism, which I don't. I'm not even sure materialism is true. But I am entirely confident there ain't no Judeo-Christian God, for much the same reasons that I am entirely confident there is no evil God either (and I am sure you are confident about that too, right?)

scott roberts said...

Stephen,

I am better described as a "religious nontheist" than as a theist, so I don't know how you were able to argue against my brand of theism. But I do say that, though I generally avoid theistic language, I don't regard theism as false, and I find there isn't all that much difference between how I think of the divine and how sophisticated theologians think of it. I just get nervous with the phrase "personal God", but recognize that for many, the path of salvation works better with the concept of a personal God than without it. And that, in my view, justifies a belief on their part in believing in a personal God.

What I do have a problem with is that in your targeted arguments, your target is too narrow. By stripping the mystery from God, you change the subject. This is why Rowan Williams et al see Standing et al (and you) as creating and attacking a straw man, and not the God of their faith. Your targeted arguments work against many theists' concept of God, like fundamentalists', but they simply miss the target when addressed to that of sophisticated theologians.

But, again, I am merely saying 'taint to your 'tis. That is why I think the question of whether or not one is committed to materialism needs to be addressed, but so far all you have said is "I am not committed to materialism". Hence I have asked your opinion about more specific issues to see if you respond to them as a materialist would or not. So far you haven't responded.

So let me try this tack. I said I am a religious nontheist. If you are not a materialist, you presumably have no problem with that per se. Now as a religious nontheist I find that in reading sophisticated theologians, who have faith in the Judeo-Christian God, that we are more in agreement than in disagreement, and that what we agree on is more important than what we disagree on. And as a religious nontheist I find the arguments against the Judeo-Christian God, such as yours, to be missing the intended target. For example, your "God of Eth" argument assumes that you and the sophisticated theologian agree on what it means for God to be all-powerful. But you don't agree. Your meaning seems to be the sort of thing a fundamentalist or a child would mean. But a sophisticated theologian will say that he does not have a clear and concise understanding of the nature of God's power. You call this "now you see it, now you don't". I call this response of yours the "atheist-of-the-gaps" argument, which has no more validity than the God-of-the-gaps argument from the other side.

In sum, if you expect to actually argue with a sophisticated theologian, you need to learn to speak their language. The sophisticated theologian understands yours (one cannot live in modern intellectual society without knowing all the anti-theist arguments), but I have seen no evidence that you understand theirs. I don't mean to imply that if you did understand it you would agree with them. Just that you would come to understand why your arguments miss their intended targets.

Stephen Law said...

Perhaps I should just say, if the sophisticated theists' God is ineffable, not a "something" that can be said to "exist", and indeed lies beyond their comprehension, then they have not given me anything to argue with or reject.

I am sure many would say that, actually. Rather, religious faith is something else. But then what is it?

An attitude? What attitude? Hope? Optimism? Fear? Always look on the bright side of life? There are so many that Christianity fosters, none distinctively or uniquely Christian. I'm certainly not sure which one is "correct".

A commitment? But to what, if there are no actual beliefs to commit to?

To action perhaps? Or a way of seeing the world? But then how does that way of seeing the world differ from that of e.g. the atheist filled with awe, wonder, humility, etc. when pondering the universe, say?

A questioning attitude? Secular philosophy has that.

An acknowledgement of deep mysteries? Secular philosophers acknowledge them all the time.

So what is it that the "sophisticated" theologian is offering us?

They can't say, of course. It's ineffable. You just have to "get it". Like the Emperor's New Clothes, perhaps...

anticant said...

Scott, what all your different aspects of truth have in common is that none of them can be both true and false at the same time. Or, according to you, can they?

Stephen Law said...

A finally comment - do not assume those who are not "sophisticated" theologians and theists must be unsophisticated fundamentalists.

That would make Plantinga and Swinburne unsophisticated fundamentalists. Whether fundamentalist or not, they are an awfully lot more sophisticated and intellectually honest and rigorous than are many supposedly "sophisticated" theologians. I have a great of respect for Plantinga and Swinburne, though I disagree with them. Quite a few "sophisticated" theologians, on the other hand, strike me as little more than poseurs and charlatans.

theObserver said...

"But a sophisticated theologian will say that he does not have a clear and concise understanding of the nature of God's power. You call this "now you see it, now you don't". I call this response of yours the "atheist-of-the-gaps" argument."

Not so much a 'gap' as a giant all-encompassing vacuum of nothingness into which anything, and I do mean anything, can be shoved.

"Sophisticated" theologians have absolutely no knowledge of their god. They claim it cannot be said to exist or not to exist. They claim it is beyond good and evil. What is there to engage with?. Oh they are happy to whine for hours on what they do not believe, on how atheists are attacking straw men and are not dealing with *their* religion. But when to comes to actually stating what they do believe all we get is flowery language worthy of an angst ridden teenager.

theObserver said...

Millions of people who attend religious ceremonies are taught very definite, very specific facts about their God. And yet when it comes to justifying these claims, theologians duck and dive behind their smokescreens.

I think atheists are best advised to ignore "sophisticated" theologians and concentrate on the actual specific teachings of the sect and the actual believes of its followers. My biggest concern regarding the Abrahamic religions is their insistence on dictating how people can express their sexuality, how people can control their fertility, how people can end their lives, what people may say think or do. In other words, what the holy books actually states, not some makey uppy version. This may be "unsophisticated" but it is also the very real absurd consequences of the Abrahamic teachings.

There was no sophisticated theology from the catholic church in my Irish home town when the local priest decided women cannot ride bikes because the flashing of an ankle might cause sinful thoughts. There was no sophisticated theology heard when the church brought an entire government crashing down because a minister had the audacity to suggest unmarried mothers should receive a modest social welfare payment. Nor during the 1970's when women were legally required to surrender their jobs in the Irish civil service because their place was in the home. Nor when catholic traveling confessors went door to door terrorizing villages and towns with graphic details of hellfire - the same claims that when challenged will vanish into the vacuum, sorry the "gap".

theObserver said...

" Suppose you were interested in studying consciousness. Would you think it more profitable to (a) read Dennett and Crick and study neurology, or (b) read mystics and meditate? I, having placed my bet on idealism, choose (b), while someone who places their bet on materialism would choose (a). "

Or (c) leave that particular subject alone until neurology advances a little more.

Anyone who might choose (b) would do well to reflect on the complete failour of mystics to produce accurate information regarding the natural world. Yes, yes, yes mystics deal with woo-woo not science but I fail to see any reason why, say, the garden of eden, could not be written to also describe evolution as well as informing us that we are a fallen species.

Kosh3 said...

"What if God is "the mind", and we are created offshoots of that mind? (I'm not saying that all idealists would say this, just that it it is a form of idealism which stands up to your objections.)"

In that case god is A mind, and we are A mind, in which case there are multiple minds. But in that case, it is objectively true that something exists apart from our minds - the minds of others. But if one thing can objectively exist separate from ones own mind, why not other things (non-mindly things). The safer route for the idealist seems to me to be to deny other minds objectively exist, and then they can simply be part of his own mind (figments of them, so to speak).

scott roberts said...

Stephen,

I think I see. You and Plantinga speak the same language (analytical philosophy, I believe), so you and he can communicate. But Denys Turner speaks a different language, that of negative theology, so you and Turner do not communicate. But from the viewpoint of analytical philosophy, this is not seen as non-communication, but as waffle and confusion on his part. This is why I don't like analytical philosophy. It strikes me as closed to the kind of thinking, the only kind of thinking, that is adequate to religious topics. (But Plantinga is not closed, you say. But I find his sort of thinking of little use in the pursuit of salvation, which is what I mean by 'adequate'.)

As I believe I've said before (some months back), useful religious discourse must be ambiguous, unclear, mystical, poetical, because that is the only way to be true to the subject matter. If you say, like the early Wittgenstein, that in that case we should just shut up about it, I would say that that is not an option. If God (or whatever) is real then talking around and about it, however inadequately, at least keeps one's thinking focused in the right general direction, albeit it through a glass darkly.

On the disjunct between sophisticated theologians and the mass of believing Christians, I see that as an unfortunate fact of life, but not really different from the disjunct between the scientifically literate and illiterate. The mass has the same problem as most atheists: they haven't learned the language of negative theology (by "learning" it, I mean being able to understand why it is necessary.) As a result, most Christians are idolaters and heretics. In fact, it may be true to say that, because we are fallen, we cannot help, at least sometimes, falling into some heresy or other. As Chesterton famously said (this is from memory, so probably not exact) "It is not that Christianity has been tried and failed. Rather, Christianity is hard, and has not yet been tried." So the sophisticated theologians are ahead of the pack only in the sense of being more familiar of ways that fail.

Reverting to an analytical frame of mind, if you do not presuppose materialism, what is your argument for being certain that the resurrection story is false? As an idealist, I can be (and am) agnostic on the question, but I don't see how I can be certain of its falsity.

scott roberts said...

Anticant,

what all your different aspects of truth have in common is that
none of them can be both true and false at the same time. Or, according
to you, can they?


They cannot be both true and false for the same person at the same time, but at least in the case of theological truth, a theological claim can be true for one person, false for another, and true for one person at one time but false for the same person at a different time. I define theological truth (or as I prefer to call it salvific truth) as that which has the potential to lead one to be free of (original) sin, and salvific falsehood as that which further ensnares one in sin. (This of course being stated in the Christian vocabulary -- it would be stated somewhat differently in, say, Buddhism, but amounts to the same thing.) So in the first century, belief in the Virgin Birth might have been salvific, in that at the time, such stories aided in acceptance of Jesus as Savior, and belief in Jesus as Savior was an aid in becoming saved. But at present, for some at least, worry about whether or not the VB makes sense as historical fact is more of a distraction than an aid, so it is, for such people, not a salvific truth.

scott roberts said...

Kosh3,

The variety of idealism I had in mind -- pantheism, basically -- says that there is only the one Mind, aka God. Our minds are related to that one Mind analogously to a wave's relation to the one ocean. So, no solipsism, and no problem of other minds. But you are right that to accept this variety of idealism means a leap of faith in rejecting solipsism, but it is not a very big leap. For that matter, the materialist also has to make that leap to be a materialist. And another to assume that other people are not zombies (in the philosophical sense -- machines that look and act like they have minds, but it is all fake.)

anticant said...

So you don't believe in objective truth, Scott? What's true for you may not be true for me? How convenient! If you solemnly assert that you are a poached egg, I can take you at your word, sit you on a piece of buttered toast, and attack you with a knife and fork. But it would probably be kinder (though more expensive) to have you put away in a funny farm.

'Observer' put it much better than I can when he said:"'Sophisticated' theologians have absolutely no knowledge of their god. They claim it cannot be said to exist or not to exist. They claim it is beyond good and evil. What is there to engage with?. Oh they are happy to whine for hours on what they do not believe, on how atheists are attacking straw men and are not dealing with *their* religion. But when to comes to actually stating what they do believe all we get is flowery language worthy of an angst ridden teenager."

All you produce is empty waffle.

Kosh3 said...

Scott,

Using your analogy (not sure how far you want to run with it), there are many many waves, and exist within an objectively existing medium. So there is at least the objective existence of all the waves (abstract though they are), and the medium. So we have all our minds - but god is not one more mind on top of things, if your analogy is accurate here.

You say the materialist (the word materialist is a bit out of date: physicalist might be better, but no matter) requires leaps of faith too: for the existence of other minds, and for the existence of matter apart from minds.

In both cases though I would argue there are inferential grounds for reasoning both.

A) The independent existence of objects outside of our minds would be explanatory of the fact that we have sensory impressions. How can the idealist also explain (rather than just account) for sensory impressions (Berkeley, famously, needed god to do it).

B) As for the existence of other minds, surely I have some reasons to suppose those minds exist. I note my bodily reacts R1, R2... Rn coincide with phenomenological states P1, P2... Rn with a high reliability. E.g. When I catch myself smiling, I note that internally, inside my mind, I am experiencing happiness. True, I sometimes smile when I am not happy (e.g. to hide the fact that I am not happy to others), but such cases are in the minority.

I also note that others smile. I infer then with some justification that probably, there is an associated phenomenological state comparable to what I experience when smiling. It takes a mind to bear phenomenological states, though. Thus, other people probably have minds.

Convincing?

Greg O said...

Scott - you said:

I define theological truth (or as I prefer to call it salvific truth) as that which has the potential to lead one to be free of (original) sin, and salvific falsehood as that which further ensnares one in sin.

Two questions, then:

1.) What is the status of truths about sin and salvation themselves? Presumably we need to know a good deal about the nature of those things before we're in a position to make judgments about our need to free ourselves from sin, and the best ways to do so?

To illustrate: you suggest that "in the first century, belief in the Virgin Birth might have been salvific, in that at the time, such stories aided in acceptance of Jesus as Savior, and belief in Jesus as Savior was an aid in becoming saved." But what sort of truth is the truth that "belief in Jesus as Savior was an aid in becoming saved", in light of which we may assess the 'salvific' truth about the Virgin Birth?

It looks to me as if some important 'theological' truths about the existence and goodness of God, the 'fallen' nature of man, the nature of salvation etc. need to be just plain true before we're in any position to work out what truths are 'salvific', or even whether we need to be saved.

Greg O said...

Oops, that that only *one* question, wasn't it? I wonder what else I wanted to say?

wombat said...

Scott appears to have communicated something to kosh3 with respect to the nature of our minds and the universal mind (a.k.a. God).

This looks very much like at least a candidate for meaningful theological discourse since it concerns the relationship between God and Man. It would seem to weaken the claim that the only language adequate to religious topics is that of negative theology.

Greg O said...

My brain's started working again. My other question was:

2.) If, as you suggest, theological truths are just those beliefs which, if one held them, would have the potential to lead one to be free of (original) sin, might not propositions like these be theologically true (for many people, much of the time):

* If I don't spend an hour a day reading the gospel, my eyeballs will turn into jellyfish.

* If I don't attend church this Sunday, the earth will crash into the sun.

* Every time I lie, a kitten dies.

Presumably those beliefs look pretty absurd to most Christians, just as belief in the Virgin Birth looks pretty absurd to most atheists. But on a fairly standard Christian understanding of sin and salvation (if lying is sinful, that is, and if activities like reading the gospel and attending church have the potential to help free one from sin) there's no escaping the fact that on your account, they're theologically true for many people much of the time - is there?

Surely, though, it's clear enough that if it's only as 'true' that Jesus was God's son as it is 'true' that my penis will drop off if I don't meditate daily, I'm perfectly justified in thinking: 'Oh - so it's false, then?'

scott roberts said...

Kosh3,

First, I just threw out this version of idealism to counter your saying that idealism leads to solipsism. As such, it is more of a sound bite than a well-thought-out metaphysics. And yes, I am aware that "materialism" is somewhat out of fashion, but I got tired of appending "(of some sort)" every time. What I mean by it is the assumption that what we call mentality emerged out of, and hence requires a basis of, some non-mental reality. By idealism I mean the assumption that what is basic is to be characterized using mental terms (e.g., consciousness, will, reason, etc.)

On your point (A), in a dream what you see is not determined by some external, non-mental object, no? But regardless, the idealist does not have to deny the "independent existence of objects outside of " my mind. We (humans, trees, planets, etc.) are all in this mental reality together. So the only difference is whether one assumes that those objects have no mental basis.

On (B), I would say that your inferences work equally well for the idealist as they do for the materialist. Hence, one does not need the additional assumption of non-mental reality to infer other minds. All the data used, after all, consists of sense impressions.

scott roberts said...

Greg O,

It looks to me as if some important 'theological' truths about the existence and goodness of God, the 'fallen' nature of man, the nature of salvation etc. need to be just plain true before we're in any position to work out what truths are 'salvific', or even whether we need to be saved.

Correct, which is to say, the religious person works from a faith structure developed from revelation. For most people this is imposed by how they were raised, but the situation is different for an ex-atheist, and for those who carry out a critical examination of their faith. So there are many structures, and so what is meant by sin and salvation will vary, and so salvific truths will vary. As for me, what I mean by "original sin" is the state of being unenlightened, and so "salvation" means becoming enlightened. Not that that narrows things down much, as there are many mystical traditions, and many mystical methodologies, which is why I must exercise reason in doing my picking and choosing.

[on things like "go to church" or more ridiculous things]there's no escaping the fact that on your account, they're theologically true for many people much of the time - is there?

I can say that people can very easily be wrong in considering this or that to be a salvific truth. And of course, I can be wrong as well -- that comes with the territory of being unenlightened. But for most of these things, they are not "salvifically false", rather, they are just traditional accretions that don't do any harm, and may help. Something like going to church may not be necessary, but it can help, much like an AA meeting helps the alcoholic. And, of course, some things that some people consider salvifically true, I consider salvifically harmful -- pretty much all of fundamentalist religion, for example.

scott roberts said...

wombat,

This looks very much like at least a candidate for meaningful
theological discourse since it concerns the relationship between God and Man. It would seem to weaken the claim that the only language adequate to religious topics is that of negative theology.


What I said was "useful religious
discourse must be ambiguous, unclear, mystical, poetical, because that is the only way to be true to the subject matter." I should have been more specific, and say that when attempting to speak about God, or other mysteries, being ambiguous, etc. is the only way to be true to the subject matter. There are, of course, many areas of religious discourse that are not directly about mysteries.

In any case, since I hadn't defined God or Mind, what I said is (at least) unclear. And it could be wrong.

Greg O said...

Scott - thanks for the reply.

I think you may have missed the point of my second question. (My fault - I knew I should have spelled this out.)

The specific activities mentioned - going to church etc. - aren't relevant to the point I'm making. By all means choose your own examples of activities which, in your view, have the potential to free people from original sin - meditating, or studying, or reading poetry, or travelling, or whatever - and slot them into the following:

* If I don't perform activity A, my eyeballs will turn into jellyfish.

* If I don't perform activity B, the earth will crash into the sun.

Similiarly, if you don't think lying is a particularly good example of a sinful activity, just think of a better example of your own and slot it in here:

* Every time I commit sin X, a kitten dies.

The propositions you end up with don't look any less absurd, do they? Yet you appear to be committed to the view that they are theologically true for anyone who would be more likely to perform activities A and B, and to refrain from committing sin X, if he held the beliefs they express.

anticant said...

'What I said was "useful religious
discourse must be ambiguous, unclear, mystical, poetical, because that is the only way to be true to the subject matter."'

Oh dear! You really do believe you are a poached egg, don't you?

Andrew Louis said...

Not speaking for Scott here, Greg,
but your examples seem to pre-suppose a sort of inclination to believe based on Pascal’s Wager, as apposed to (let’s say) enlightenment. People who choose to believe based on this are what one would call (I’d suggest) fundamentalists. Salvation, in the form of enlightenment, has nothing to do with performing activity “A” to avoid objective reality “X”. You’re pinging on the dogma that to have a thought is to have an object before the mind – which sort of goes with the waffle statement, ‘don’t mistake the finger for the moon’, or the old “Fido” Fido…

I don’t think it would be appropriate to define enlightenment by some degree of reference to objective reality – any more than one would define “good” in this way. i.e. Sure, you can learn about fruit if, under the appropriate circumstances, someone points to an object and makes a noise, but the same cannot be said of “good”, or perhaps under some circumstances sin, enlightenment, or even the Virgin Birth.

Greg O said...

Hi Andrew - I think you're taking my point about "performing activity “A” to avoid objective reality “X”" to be more specific than it actually is.

I'm not talking about an inclination to perform specifically *religious* (or 'enlightenment-related') activities based on something like Pascal's Wager, e.g. an inclination to pray in order to avoid eternal punishment.

I'm just suggesting that, in general, people tend to act on the basis of beliefs about the consequences of their actions (or inaction) - e.g. someone who believes they will be killed if they don't jump out of the way of an oncoming bus will typically be inclined to jump out of the way of that oncoming bus. (I hope there's no need to worry about the sense in which the oncoming bus might be an 'obective reality' in order to understand this point.)

The point I'm making with regards to Scott's account of theological truth is this:

If theological truths are just those beliefs which, if one held them, would have the potential to lead one to be free of (original) sin, then *any* belief, no matter how absurd it seemed, would be theologically true (for me, let's say) if holding that belief would make me more likely to do things that have the potential to lead me to be free of (original) sin.

Note that it doesn't matter if I'm doing those things *in order to* free myself from original sin (as in the Pascal's Wager case). I might be doing them because I have some absurd-looking belief that has nothing to do with original sin, such as the belief that my eyeballs will turn into jellyfish if I don't do them. On Scott's account of theological truth, that doesn't seem to matter; my absurd-looking belief is theologically true for me just because having that belief makes me more likely to do things that have the potential to lead me to be free of (original) sin.

scott roberts said...

Greg O,

I hope Andrew's response is getting at what you were getting at, because otherwise, I am even more confused. I hold as a salvific truth (over-simplifying immensely):

"If I practice meditation, I am helping myself toward achieving the state of enlightenment."

Now you ask what happens if, instead of this, I hold as a salvific truth:

"If I don't practice meditation, my eyeballs will turn into jellyfish."

I fail to see the purpose of this exercise. There is, after all, a long-standing body of experience and reasoning to support my candidate for a salvific truth (the reasoning has to do with an understanding of attachment as that which binds one to desires, etc.), while the jellyfish bit seems to have been plucked out of nowhere.

But if, as I think Andrew has suggested, you are trying to place my salvific truth against, say, the statement:

"If I believe in Jesus as Lord, then I will go to heaven, and if I don't then I will go to hell"

then I would say, I consider someone who believes that to be largely misguided.

To shift focus a bit, a few posts back I asked Stephen whether he thought that, to acquire a better understanding of consciousness he would (a) read Dennett and Crick and study neurology, or (b) read mystics and meditate. Now the reason one chooses (a) or (b) is because one thinks that that choice is more likely than the other to succeed. It is a rational choice taken in a situation of uncertainty, based on one's and others' experience and one's assumptions about the nature of reality. And that is how I think candidates for salvific truth
should be evaluated.

Andrew Louis said...

Greg, thanks, I think I understand you. So let me spin it this way:

The reason I bring up Pascal’s wager is because you seem to be portraying a belief system that’s based on action to avoid affects. If I do “X”, then “Y”.

You are in effect passing off (as an analogous belief), “If I don’t meditate, than my eyeballs will turn into jellyfish”. I mention Pascal’s wager because the wager is based on believing something for the sake of something (lets just say) bad. But you take it one step further (or rather you’ve added one step in) and say that if I believe this, I’ll have enlightenment (or rather, you’re suggesting that that is what’s being suggested). Which is why I insert the (what would be called) waffle statement, “mistaking the finger for the moon.” I say this because it identifies enlightenment with the act and/or the avoidance of the consequence, and avoiding the consequence is essentially Pascal’s wager. i.e. if my behavior circumvents the consequence, then I’ve achieved “X” (heaven, enlightenment, avoidance of original sin, whathaveyou) – if I believe in God and avoid hell, I’m therefore enlightened.

What you’re suggesting is akin to saying that I’ve achieved understanding if, by maintaining the speed limit on the highway, I avoid a speeding ticket. Of course that’s nonsense and a bit of Pascal’s wager on the roadway. True understanding comes not from avoiding tickets, but from the knowledge that the rule is there for the protection of you and the other citizens. So you meditate to foster enlightenment, and you drive the limit to foster safety – neither of them are guarantees that enlightenment and safety will be achieved, but merely paths which have been shown to lead to them.

If you can show me a person who claims to have achieved enlightenment through one of your scenarios, or one like it, I’m all ears (I know you’re not suggesting that’s the case, I merely throw it out there rhetorically). Of course, there are plenty of people who believe speeding around everyone and/or maintaining a distance through aggressive driving and speed makes them safer – and since they’ve never been in an accident before, we should surely believe that his methods are sound. But of course, we know better; don’t we?

So then, meditating to keep your eyes from turning into jellyfish (for the sake of enlightenment) is doing nothing more than following a rule, or following a dogma, or mistaking the finger for the moon, or seeing the word as representation.

Greg O said...

Scott,

Of course the jellyfish stuff is just absurd - that's the idea! You can see straight away that it would be plain daft to act on the basis of a belief that your eyeballs are going to turn into jellyfish, and considerably less daft to act on the basis of a belief that meditation might help you achieve a state of enlightenment.

But if you accept that, you've conceded that not just *any* old belief that might persuade you to meditate is thereby salvifically/theologically true. Specifically: even if having a silly belief about eyeballs *really would* persuade you to meditate, and even if meditating *really would* help you to achieve a state of enlightenment, that silly belief still wouldn't be theologically true.

What you originally said about theological truth, though, was this:

"I define theological truth (or as I prefer to call it salvific truth) as that which has the potential to lead one to be free of (original) sin"

- and you went on to suggest that belief in the Virgin Birth might have been theologically true in the first century just because it would have helped persuade people to do something that might help free them from sin (i.e. accept Jesus).

But on that account, whether the belief in itself was silly (like the one about eyeballs) or sensible (like the one about meditation) just doesn't seem to be relevant. Indeed, the whole point seems to be that "theological truths" don't have to meet some standard of rationality, or evidence, or whatever; they just need to help people act in a way that has the potential to free them from sin.

My point is that on that account, all sorts of really silly beliefs appear to count as "theological truths" because while they don't meet even the most basic standards of rationality, or evidence, or whatever, they might nonetheless help people to act in a way that has the potential to free them from sin - e.g. by persuading them to meditate.

Let me put it this way: if I said it just isn't true that Jesus was born of a virgin, I think your answer would be something like: "Well, it was *theologically* true at one time for many people, since it helped them accept Jesus as their saviour and that helped free them from sin".

So if you said it just isn't true that my eyeballs will turn into jellyfish if I don't meditate, why would it not be equally reasonable for me to say: "Well, it's *theologically* true for me right now, since it motivates me to meditate and meditation helps free me from sin"?

Andrew Louis said...

PS,
A quick note on “meditation” (in my opinion) since it’s been thrown around:

Meditation isn’t here meant to mean (necessarily) the act of sitting idol and clearing ones mind. Life is a meditation; anytime ones mind is engaged in the task of work on the job, or trying to play that damned guitar, or doings ones dishes, one is within the act of meditation. Meditation in the classic sense (of sitting quite) is an act of filling ones idol time in an effort to keep ones mind (or train ones mind) from [the] meaningless questions of “what this life is about”, since, what this life is all about is always wrapped up within your daily meditations.

Rather then going to bed tonight saying, “I just don’t get it (religious folks are nuts)”, one should rather say, “I had a good time today on Stephen’s Blog”.

scott roberts said...

Greg,

Ok, I see what you are getting at (sorry it took so long).

Yes, your example shows that, given my definition alone, logically, something ridiculous can be a theological truth. And I'll provide another form in which something ridiculous could be theologically true -- assuming in both cases that we just stick to my one-line definition. That other form is:

if one believes that the moon is made of green cheese, and that belief leads the believer to salvation, then it is theologically true (for that believer) that the moon is made of green cheese.

Hence, in my last post I beefed up my definition by adding that reason and experience play a necessary role in selecting out promising candidates for theological truth from the infinite number of ridiculous possibilities. A theological truth needs to be coherent with the rest of what one thinks to be true about everything, or it is not likely to work.

Greg O said...

Scott -

Phew, got there in the end!

I think you've made a significant concession by nudging 'theological truth' a lot closer to plain old truth as someone like me might see it - i.e. by making putative theological truths subject to standards of reason, experience and consistency with other beliefs. That seems to open them up to the sort of challenges I thought you were trying to avoid, e.g. challenges about the reasonableness of belief in the virgin birth.

And I don't think you can just emphasise the importance of consistency with other beliefs (at the expense of reason and experience), since that would make room for the absurd 'theological truths' all over again. (They'd be true for people or groups who had appropriately silly background beliefs.)

Andrew -

I think your point is basically that one couldn't get any closer to enlightenment just by doing such-and-such in order to avoid such-and-such a consequence. I don't know if that's right or not - it doesn't seem utterly implausible to me that even if someone forced me to read some book (say) at the point of a gun, I might nonetheless get something out of it and take a step closer to enlightenment.

Anyway, rather than get into that (since I don't claim to know how 'enlightenment' or 'salvation' works), maybe I should just suggest an example of an absurd proposition that appears to be a theological truth (for some people) on Scott's original definition, but which doesn't have anything to do with avoiding consequences:

* Jesus accurately predicted the results of every World Series of the twentieth century.

Plausibly, at least *some* people who believed that might thereby be more likely to accept Jesus as their saviour (just as some people who believed in the virgin birth in the first century were thereby more likely to accept Jesus as their saviour). So for those people, it would be theologically true (on Scott's *original* definition... he's since supplemented it with some stuff about reason, experience, and consistency with other beliefs, of course.)

wombat said...

Andrew Louis - "Meditation ... is an act of filling ones idol time"

Best philosophical pun I've read in ages. Excellent!

Scott - As a non-theist you presumably are of the opinion that (a standard theistic) God is not necessary for enlightenment. Would it be much of a stretch to suggest that neither is anything mysterious?

Kosh3 said...

Scott,

People don't count their dreams as representative of reality. The same explanation (they are caused by objects external to our minds) is not available for use there.

You say "the idealist does not have to deny the "independent existence of objects outside of " my mind."

Not your mind specifically, but minds period.

Re: idealism and minds - it would be quite strange to infer that sense impressions have minds!

Andrew Louis said...

Wombat,
thanks, I think...

The pun was intended of course.

Greg, I'll get back to you. In short though, I beleive the bible to be mysticism, metaphor, mythology, and a path to enlightenment - not some absolute. If someone is going to take the realist and/or literalist view of the bible, than I, (as with stephen) am going to hold them to that and request the same sort of extraordinary evidence to support it.... Just to clerify my position anyway.

anticant said...

"Are the 'New Atheists' avoiding the 'real arguments'?"

No. The 'Sophisticated Theologians'are.

scott roberts said...

Greg,

I see it as common sense, not making a concession. Where I went wrong initially was to call my one-liner a "definition". Definitions only work in all cases precisely as intended in mathematics. Instead I should have said something like "theological truths can be characterized as...". Then my reply to your concern would be "what is there to worry about -- the ridiculous can be discounted by being ridiculous".

With regard to groups with "silly background beliefs", that depends on how large the group is and how much staying power the group has. It is easy to dismiss those of a contemporary UFO cult, but not so easy to dismiss those of, say, pre-Columbian American tribes. With the latter one cannot automatically assume that vision quests didn't succeed. Unless you are a materialist.

scott roberts said...

wombat,

It would be a stretch into falsehood. Enlightenment is, to the unenlightened, a mystery. Buddha-nature is a mystery, as is the Dao, Brahman, Maya, etc.

scott roberts said...

Kosh3,

People don't count their dreams as representative of reality. The same explanation (they are caused by objects external to our minds) is not available for use there.

Sure it is, while dreaming. Why else would a nightmare cause fear?

You say "the idealist does not have to deny the "independent existence of objects outside of " my mind."

Not your mind specifically, but minds period.


Well, yes, the idealist sees all as fundamentally mental, by definition. And so 'object' and 'exists independently' will change connotations, but that doesn't affect the ability to deny solipsism or the existence of other minds.

Re: idealism and minds - it would be quite strange to infer that sense impressions have minds!

Not following. Where was that inferred?

Greg O said...

Scott -

You ask "what is there to worry about -- the ridiculous can be discounted by being ridiculous".

The worry is just the obvious one about how to decide what's ridiculous. I've deliberately thrown around examples that would strike *anyone* as ridiculous - but there are all sorts of beliefs - like the Virgin Birth, say - that look equally ridiculous to some people and perfectly reasonable to others.

The reason I suggest you've made a concession is that where you initially suggested that belief in the Virgin Birth might once have been theologically true *just* because it was salvific, now (I think?) you're saying that it could only have been true if it also met some standard of rationality, evidential support etc.

I agree that it's only common sense that putative 'truths' (theological or otherwise) have to meet some such standards, but then I think I take a more 'naive', common-sense view of truth than you - e.g. I think it's either just plain true that Jesus was born of a virgin or just plain false (for everyone, at every time) and that that's a matter to be decided on the basis of reason and experience.

What I can't work out is how your own appeal to reason and experience, and your willingness to dismiss certain salvific beliefs as just ridiculous, can be squared with your much more fluid, relative-to-the-individual notion of (theological) truth.

(It certainly wasn't my intention, by the way, to just pick out a slightly misleading 'one liner' from your argument and misrepresent your position on that basis. You seem to be making much the same point, for instance, when you say:

"for many, the path of salvation works better with the concept of a personal God than without it. And that, in my view, justifies a belief on their part in believing in a personal God."

- again, what's true for someone on this view seems to be just whatever it's useful (for the purposes of salvation) for them to believe; again, whether the belief is reasonable or ridiculous just doesn't seem relevant.)

scott roberts said...

Greg,

I think the situation is the same as the role of myth. A myth can be true theologically, but false historically. So, yes, I do hold that something that is historically false can be theologically true, for those who operate within some mythic system. At the time, a virgin birth would be considered a marvel, but not unreasonable. God was, and is by many now, believed to intervene now and then. That is, the possibility of such an intervention was consistent with their background beliefs.

"what's true for someone on this view seems to be just whatever
it's useful (for the purposes of salvation) for them to believe; again, whether the belief is reasonable or ridiculous just doesn't seem relevant.
"

Yes to the first clause (except I would remove the word 'just'). I call it religious pragmatism. But reasonableness of the belief is relevant, since in practice, if it is not reasonable, it won't be useful.

Kosh3 said...

Scott,

"Sure it is, while dreaming. Why else would a nightmare cause fear?"

Because it is tuned to react in scared ways to the sight of things that are scary (although in dreaming, the 'sight' is not outward).

"Well, yes, the idealist sees all as fundamentally mental, by definition. And so 'object' and 'exists independently' will change connotations, but that doesn't affect the ability to deny solipsism or the existence of other minds."

Solipsism can be denied by the idealist, but I don't know how stably or safely.

"Not following. Where was that inferred?"

You said that the argument I gave that other people have minds would work just as well for the idealist. But in my argument what was inferred to have a mind was the object behind the behaviour (the person). An idealist, not allowing any object in behind sense impressions, would have to give the sense impressions themselves the mind, would they not?

Kosh3 said...

Hrm first bit doesn't make sense.

Because our brains are tuned...

scott roberts said...

"Because it is tuned to react in scared ways to the sight of things that are scary (although in dreaming, the 'sight' is not outward)."

Yes, I don't think this makes much sense. I am talking about what philosophy the dreaming self might create, while it appears you are talking from the viewpoint of the awake self


"Solipsism can be denied by the idealist, but I don't know how stably or safely."

Well, all I can say after 20+ years of being an idealist, I've never had the remotest twinge of an inclination towards solipsism. Nor have I heard of any other idealist tempted by it, though it is true that if anyone believed it, they wouldn't (if they were logical) be communicating that fact.

"You said that the argument I gave that other people have minds would work just as well for the idealist. But in my argument what was inferred to have a mind was the object behind the behaviour (the person). An idealist, not allowing any object in behind sense
impressions, would have to give the sense impressions themselves the mind, would they not?"


An idealist does allow that there is something behind sense impressions, just doesn't assume they are physical objects. My position is that all that we call "physical", all that we can measure with the senses, is added in the act of perceiving, so a "physical object" is the sense impression. What we think it is added to, that is, what we think is "behind" the sense impression, is what determines our metaphysics.

Kosh3 said...

"Well, all I can say after 20+ years of being an idealist, I've never had the remotest twinge of an inclination towards solipsism. Nor have I heard of any other idealist tempted by it, though it is true that if anyone believed it, they wouldn't (if they were logical) be communicating that fact."

Well of course not - how many people want to be a solipsist, after all? But then, that does not mean solipsism is not philosophically threatening in adopting a denial of non-mind-existent entities.

"An idealist does allow that there is something behind sense impressions, just doesn't assume they are physical objects. My position is that all that we call "physical", all that we can measure with the senses, is added in the act of perceiving, so a "physical object" is the sense impression. What we think it is added to, that is, what we think is "behind" the sense impression, is what determines our metaphysics."

Perceiving what though? Where do all these sense impressions come from? Why are they all just floating there in such a unified way in our consciousness? The realist has an answer - from objectively existing, mind independent objects. Your answer would be...?

Greg O said...

Scott,

I think we've boiled things down quite nicely now.

You said:

"At the time, a virgin birth would be considered a marvel, but not unreasonable. God was, and is by many now, believed to intervene now and then. That is, the possibility of such an intervention was consistent with their background beliefs."

What I don't understand is how the possible theological truth of certain beliefs that would strike us both as ridiculous can be denied on this basis. Surely all we need to do is find an individual or group with appropriately ridiculous background beliefs? (Or even just *imagine* such an individual or group - "if people had ridiculous background beliefs X and Y, it would be perfectly reasonable for them to adopt belief Z as well - so for them, Z could be a theological truth".)

Z only *would* be a theological truth, of course (on your account), if it was useful-for-salvation... which brings me to my next point. You also said:

"reasonableness of the belief is relevant, since in practice, if it is not reasonable, it won't be useful"

I'm just not sure that's true. Obviously it's not going to do us much good to act on the basis of unreasonable beliefs all the time, but I don't see any reason why *some* unreasonable beliefs couldn't *sometimes* be useful. Surely I could quite easily do something useful on the basis of a thoroughly unreasonable belief, e.g. install a burglar alarm because I believe aliens are trying to break into my home?

Another question that occurs to me, by the way, is this: in your view, could something be theologically true for someone, and that person not realize it?

Intuitively, it seems as if it might be theologically true for me (say) that meditation would help me achieve enlightenment, or even that there's a personal God. (*If* believing those things actually would, as a matter of fact, help free me from sin.)

Just as intuitively, though, it wouldn't seem right to just multiply theological truths ad infinitum. Supposing the adoption of each of the following beliefs would be helpful to Bob in accepting Jesus as his saviour:

* Jesus was born of a virgin.

* Jesus took his disciples to the Moon so that he could show them the Earth from space, and they were able to breathe.

* Jesus turned water into wine.

* Jesus predicted developments in science no ordinary man could have foreseen.

* Jesus was a great moral teacher.

* Jesus once killed an evildoer by firing laser beams from his eyes.

...and so on - the list could literally be extended forever. Which of those propositions, though, would be theologically true, for Bob? Surely not all of them?

Andrew Louis said...

Herein lies the problem though (Scott and Gregg), something can be “theologically true”, yet most often times it’s thought of as “objectively true”, even though it’s only “mythologicaly true”.

For example, the idea that Jesus walked on water. What sort of truth is this? I noticed Kyle on the previous thread seems to take the position that these things (miracles of Christ) are “objective truths”.

Yet I imagine that perhaps someone may suggest that something can be both objectively and theologically true. And I think that’s what Greg is getting at (right?), where the idea is that some can suggest something completely outlandish (like Joshua shooting laser beams out of his eyes and killing all the Cannanites) stating this as an objective truth, yet also a theological truth, i.e. it somehow fosters enlightenment to believe it. Well, I personally find that to be a bit of nonsense and have to side with Greg to a certain degree. The mere act of believing something (in my eyes) has nothing to do with enlightenment – this seems to be akin to saying that dogma is the path to enlightenment and/or freedom from sin. That’s a bunch of crap, isn’t it?

But than, I don’t want to make the suggestion, Scott, that this is what you’re implying either…..

wombat said...

I am becoming more convinced that the use of the word "truth" as in "theological truth" is misleading or just plain wrong.
A better term is surely needed to reflect the pragmatic quality I think Scott is aiming for and also to emphasis the differences from the conventional meaning of truth. The ancient Greeks probably had a word for it already. As Andrew has pointed out there are problems in the confusion which so commonly arises with "objective truth". Even if one can defend the term "theological truth" on purely technical grounds I think it would be better to avoid it as it seem to mislead large swathes of the populace and is on balance, I think, counter to any variety of enlightenment.

wombat said...

Scott - "Enlightenment is, to the unenlightened, a mystery."

Presumably by implication it is not a mystery to the enlightened.

Surely it is not therefore a mystery at all, but simply unknown?

Greg O said...

Andrew -

Hmm... I'm not really suggesting anyone would want to claim bizarre, non-biblical stories about people shooting laser beams from their eyes are *objectively* true. Nor (I think) would Scott *want* to say they were theologically true (since they're clearly unreasonable). It still looks to me, though, as if Scott is going to have some trouble explaining *why* no unreasonable belief could ever be 'theologically true', for anyone, if 'theologically true' just means 'useful (for the purposes of salvation) to believe'.

I do (I think!) see the point you're making about just 'believing things' not being a path to enlightenment, but I'm deliberately not diving into those murky waters because, being an atheist and not given to mystical thinking, I just don't have much to say about different views of 'enlightenment' or 'salvation' or whatever.

scott roberts said...

wombat,

The reason to use the word 'truth' in this context is that a theological truth is what the salvation-seeker relies on, what is trusted, and so forth, much as one relies on physical truths to avoid oncoming buses and such. Yes, it results in cognitive dissonance for those who are accustomed to think of 'truth' solely as 'objective truth' (or truth by correspondence), but my position as a pragmatist is that such people need to get over that.

scott roberts said...

Andrew,

"The mere act of believing something (in my eyes) has nothing to do with enlightenment – this seems to be akin to saying that dogma is the path to enlightenment and/or freedom from sin. That’s a bunch of crap, isn’t it?"

One has to minimally believe in the possibility of enlightenment, and that is, strictly speaking, dogma, literally 'what is taught', for example, Buddha's four noble truths. The question at hand is what about teachings that include dubious claims of historical fact. My opinion is that they should be removed from the core dogma, and I am pleased that this is, albeit slowly, happening among sophisticated religionists. But that is because they simply don't work in the way they used to. Now the question is, did they ever work, that is, what role did they serve for those who, in spite of believing in what is probably objectively false, nevertheless, made progress on the path to salvation? Did it hinder, help, or did it have no effect?

I would say that for pre-modern people it helped, as it was all part of the mythic structure in which they were rooted. The monk in the cell trying to keep to his vows could call on the Blessed Virgin Mary for help, and it is the "fact" (in his mind) that she was magnified by God that she is called on. He may even have a vision of the BVM, which results in his sticking to his vows. So it is not simply the fact of believing in the virgin birth that matters, but the use that is made of it, that makes it a theological truth.

scott roberts said...

Greg,

What difference does it make if some people believe ridiculous things on the path to enlightenment? Most likely, assuming such beliefs make some real difference somewhere in their lives, they will wise up. So the fact that one can frame such things as theological truths is not, as I said, something that needs to be worried about. They will get weeded out because they have no staying power.

"could something be theologically true for someone, and that person not realize it?"

That's a difficult question. On the one hand, I could say (using your example) that for someone who does not accept the need for salvation, there just aren't any theological truths. On the other hand, one could say that if you change your mind, then meditation would be of use, and so it is theologically true now. But as a pragmatist, I don't see that much is accomplished by saying that.

scott roberts said...

Kosh3,

Borrowing from Stephen Hawking's famous question, "what breathes fire through the equations", my answer is: what is "behind" sense perceptions are mathematical forms through which mental entities are breathing (mental) fire.

Hence, pace Wigner, the effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences turns out to be quite reasonable.

Andrew Louis said...

Scott (a thought),
Perhaps I have a worthy analog to the theological truth dilemma. Where theological truth is that which is in tune with the striving for enlightenment – of course enlightenment is the mystery word here. What if, instead of talking about enlightenment, which is meaningless to the atheist, we talked about “the good” and substituted “aesthetic truth” for the theological? In this way we have two equally ambiguous notions in “the good” and “enlightenment”, and yet both may not necessarily be associated with something considered an objective truth.

Isn’t this what this conversation essentially boils down to? So we’re talking about what beliefs lead to (or have relevance to) salvation (the old sense) / enlightenment (the new sense) / the good. It seems to me we don’t carry around with us as many historical dogmas in the pursuit of the good as we do in our pursuit of enlightenment (and who knows, maybe there isn’t even a difference). Pirsig comes to mind where he states (and I paraphrase), “the problem is, old forms of thought are not adequate to deal with the needs and interests (problems) we have in the modern world”. i.e., Ideas of men walking on water and being born of virgins simply have no relevance, but that isn’t to suggest (as you stated to some degree) that at one time or another it didn’t. This also isn’t to suggest that it was considered an objective truth either – of course, I think we’d all agree to one extent that there is certainly a difference between aesthetic[theological] truth and objective truth.

If one would agree that this is a valid analogy, what I’d like to point out by it is the difficulty in developing a metaphysic which can identify in a rational way those things that lead to “the good” and/or “enlightenment”. There to, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation if it was about aesthetic truth as we’d probably be likely to grant the ancient man his forms of thought that he/she believed to be associated with the good, excellence, virtue, Quality etc. whether rational or irrational by todays standards. Not to mention, we’re quicker to disregard old aesthetic truths for new ones as we don’t have institutions built up around them, so no institutional dogma’s.

In the end, I’m not so sure there’s necessarily a difference between the pursuit of the good (quality) and the pursuit of enlightenment. One has merely been institutionalized.

Andrew Louis said...

Could it be that religion is merely the institutionalization of the aesthetic?

Just a thought…

wombat said...

Scott - "..but my position as a pragmatist is that such people need to get over that."

That sounds pragmatic for you but not for them. I would have thought that since there are so many of "them" out there, it would be pragmatic of you to adopt whatever is easier for the majority - unless of course you believe that it is beneficial for others to struggle under this additional burden.

wombat said...

Andrew - "...enlightenment, which is meaningless to the atheist,"

I think there will be quite a few atheists who would not accept that. (Scott himself has declared as a non-theist.)

What else is it to strive for understanding of the Universe or ones self, to ask what is necessary to flourish?

Greg O said...

Scott - you said:

"What difference does it make if some people believe ridiculous things on the path to enlightenment? Most likely, assuming such beliefs make some real difference somewhere in their lives, they will wise up. So the fact that one can frame such things as theological truths is not, as I said, something that needs to be worried about. They will get weeded out because they have no staying power."

Really? But surely where religion is concerned, people have persistently held all sorts of beliefs that you and I would regard as pretty ridiculous.

For instance - to use an example from outside the Christian tradition - over the centuries, hundreds of millions of people have spent their whole lives believing this is an accurate description of a historical incident:

The Prophet said, 'The (people of) Bani Israel used to take bath naked (all together) looking at each other. The Prophet Moses used to take a bath alone. They said, 'By Allah! Nothing prevents Moses from taking a bath with us except that he has a scrotal hernia.' So once Moses went out to take a bath and put his clothes over a stone and then that stone ran away with his clothes. Moses followed that stone saying, "My clothes, O stone! My clothes, O stone! till the people of Bani Israel saw him and said, 'By Allah, Moses has got no defect in his body. Moses took his clothes and began to beat the stone." Abu Huraira added, "By Allah! There are still six or seven marks present on the stone from that excessive beating."

(Bukhari :: Book 1 :: Volume 5 :: Hadith 277
Narrated Abu Huraira)

Andrew Louis said...

Wombat,
perhaps you're right. I guess I'm thinking of enlightenment in biblical terms, i.e. salvation. And I'd assume that most atheists wouldn't think salvation was meaningless.

I'm merely suggesting that perhaps, salvation, righteousness, enlightenment, virtue, excellence, the good, quality, etc. are all the same things. But that some of these have been institutionalized.

Andrew Louis said...

correction, *...would think salvation was meaningless*

Kosh3 said...

"what is "behind" sense perceptions are mathematical forms through which mental entities are breathing (mental) fire"

I'm afraid this doesn't mean much to me. Can you explain what mathematical forms are?

Anonymous said...

Scott Said:
“The reason to use the word 'truth' in this context is that a theological truth is what the salvation-seeker relies on, what is trusted, and so forth, much as one relies on physical truths to avoid oncoming buses and such. Yes, it results in cognitive dissonance for those who are accustomed to think of 'truth' solely as 'objective truth' (or truth by correspondence), but my position as a pragmatist is that such people need to get over that.”

Suppose a salvation-seeker believes the only way to salvation is to commit suicide by jumping in front of a bus as soon as possible (how he acquired that belief is not important, but he holds it to be a theological truth). I presume this would be enough to cause some cognitive dissonance in most people.

How would you suggest he “get over that”?

Andrew Louis said...

Anon,
come on.

What if balding men were led to think that lion wrestling would make them grow hair. In short order there wouldn’t be anymore bald men around, so I suppose in a way the plan worked – it actually cured baldness.

scott roberts said...

Greg,

"They will get weeded out because they have no staying power."

"Really? But surely where religion is concerned, people have persistently held all sorts of beliefs that you and I would regard as pretty ridiculous.
"

I have faith in the long term in the power of reason to weed such beliefs out. Let us step back a bit. I gave my view of salvific truth to indicate how I saw theological truth as differing from other forms of truth (though as Andrew points out, it bears significant similarity to aesthetic and ethical truth). Now, not being religious, you obviously have no direct interest in using this concept. Hence, I would only hope (since I am not trying to convert you) that you use it to get a better understanding of how theologians think (which is not to say that theologians in general would accept my formulation uncritically). And the reason I have this hope is that with regard to things like your Hadith example, you and I and Stephen and the Archbishop of Canterbury are on the same side. Or we would be except that people like Dawkins and Standing seem to be determined to drive a wedge between us.

What we have in common is that we have learned the lessons of the 18th century enlightenment, the lessons of the Galileo and Darwin incidents, and so forth. Now we don't agree entirely on how to interpret all that, but we are together in opposing those who have not learned those lessons at all. So there remains the enormous task of educating the billions who have not learned those lessons, and it's going to take centuries. But the task will be easier if people like Dawkins could learn to communicate with people like Rowan Williams.

scott roberts said...

Kosh3,

Mathematical forms are things like differential equation with specified initial values, or functions with specific parameters. I say "things like", because for all I know the mathematics that underlies our perceptions is as beyond our current ken as tensor analysis on manifolds is beyond grade school arithmetic.

If you're acquainted with Whitehead's philosophy, I mean something like his "eternal objects".

anonymous said...

"But the task will be easier if people like Dawkins could learn to communicate with people like Rowan Williams."

So what does he (RD) need to do to get through to Dr. Williams? I presume the archbishop has already read a couple of his books. For all I know RD may have repaid the compliment.

More seriously, perhaps there exists a perfectly good medium of communication and it is simply that they do agree.

scott roberts said...

Anonymous,

[I assume that's "... do not agree"]

I don't expect them to agree on the truth or lack thereof of Christianity. What I expect is for RD to know what it is he is disagreeing with, and I have seen no evidence that he does. Compare the dialogue between Richard Rorty, an atheist, and Gianni Vattimo, a theist. Obviously they don't agree on theism, but they do understand they are on the same side in the culture wars.

wombat said...

Scott - your assumption was correct - I hit the send button on the computer before editing the post - hence the anonymous authorship. (Could have got away with it...damn!)

Being on different sides in "culture wars" is often a result of misunderstandings I agree, but not exclusively so. Thinking back to "The God Delusion", I seem to recall that RD made some effort to explain what he was chiefly disagreeing with. For example from the preface to the paperback edition, he attempts to answer some common criticisms of the book e.g.

"'You go after crude, rabble rousing characters like Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, rather than sophisticated theologians like Tillich or Bonhoeffer who teach the sort of religion I believe in'

If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place and I would have written a different book. [...] To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard [...]"



BTW. The Rorty piece looks interesting. I will try to read it fully over the weekend.

Greg O said...

Scott

Thanks for that last response, I think it was a good idea to step back and talk 'big picture'.

I'd *love* to think the sort of dialogue we've been having would help me understand the way sophisticated theists (and religious nontheists, I suppose) think. But I just get more confused. I can see that there are a lot of religious beliefs someone like you thinks are just silly and false, and a lot of others you think are not literally, objectively true but are maybe true in some other way; and I think I'm right in saying that there are also certain religious beliefs you *do* think are just objectively true - the fundamental ones about sin and salvation, say, on the basis of which the salvific truth of other claims is to be judged.

But I'm still no clearer, really, on what is supposed to be the difference between these three things, all of which have traditionally been bundled up together and regarded as 'revealed' truths. Just what is the difference between the belief that a stone ran away with Moses's clothes, the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin, and the belief that we're all sinners in need of salvation via some sort of contact with the divine? They all look to me like things we've just been *told* at one time or another by someone claiming to have access to Revealed Knowledge.

At the end of the day theists can talk about mystery as much as they like, but if they can't say certain things in a pretty straightforward way, I just don't know how to understand their beliefs *at all*. Is there a moral authority 'above' mankind, or not? If there is, has that authority revealed certain important truths to us, or not? Will I continue to have conscious experiences after my brain has stopped functioning, or not? If so, does the sort of experiences I'll have depend on my actions and beliefs here and now, or not?

In the context of Christianity specifically, did Jesus exist, or not? Did he have some special connection with 'the divine', allowing him to 'reveal' certain truths, or not? If he did, is there a reliable source of knowledge about the truths he did reveal, or not?

I can see how metaphor, poetry etc. might help us *get at* some truth in a helpful way, but surely the truth still needs to be there to be got at. If it's metaphorically, poetically true that Jill could feel the icy fingers of winter around her throat, for instance, presumably it's literally true that Jill's neck is cold. What's *literally* true, then, if it's metaphorically true that the world was created by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God against whom man rebelled, who became incarnate in order to redeem us and who offers eternal life to those who believe in him?

If the answer to this is: it's *supposed* to be vague, then suppose I say OK, I reckon the truth is something vaguely like this then:

'God' represents the most powerful, fundamental laws of physics, and the claim here is something to do with those laws being 'benevolent' in the sense that they help human life flourish, and the 'incarnation' of those laws I guess represents something like the human practice of science through which truths about them are 'revealed', and the stuff about redemption and eternal life is maybe some sort of suggestion that if we abandon the path of mystical thinking and follow the way of science we can all upload ourselves into computers and 'live forever' even after the death of our physical bodies.

Surely any Christian, however sophisticated, is going to say: good grief, that's not it *at all*! That's not 'God', that's not 'revelation', that's not 'redemption', that's not 'eternal life'! So they must have some pretty good idea of what literal, objective truth is *supposed* to be shining through their marvellously mysterious, mythological metaphorical metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Well OK, so *what is it*?

Kosh3 said...

"Mathematical forms are things like differential equation with specified initial values, or functions with specific parameters. I say "things like", because for all I know the mathematics that underlies our perceptions is as beyond our current ken as tensor analysis on manifolds is beyond grade school arithmetic."

I don't see how mathematical equations could cause, say, the sweetness of an orange. Numbers are so abstract, after all.

scott roberts said...

Kosh3,

The sweetness occurs when the mental fire is breathed through the equations.

Please note that I do not claim that I can back up this account of perception with scientific data. It is just an alternate theory to that of a materialist theory of perception. Both are speculations, neither of which are supported or rendered dubious by any scientific results.

scott roberts said...

wombat,

If that's the case, then I'll limit my wedge-driving accusation from RD to Standing, and to Stephen for calling Standing's article "great".

scott roberts said...

Greg,

Rather than respond here (where I've taken up way to much space already), I'm going to refer you to a couple of blog entries I wrote a while back. This one says why it is that I accept revelation, while this one is my stab at trying to get past the "you are waffling" vs. "you don't understand" impasse.

Andrew Louis said...

Scott,
read "The Future of Religion" this morning. Loved it!

Kosh3 said...

"The sweetness occurs when the mental fire is breathed through the equations."

Equations are abstract though, and you seem to be treating them concretely. Who decides which equations get 'fire breathed into them' by minds? Lastly, why is that all so orderly? After all, I presume there are equations which would lead to us having quite disordered experiences - and that they outnumber the ones which lead to ordered experiences.

"Please note that I do not claim that I can back up this account of perception with scientific data. It is just an alternate theory to that of a materialist theory of perception. Both are speculations, neither of which are supported or rendered dubious by any scientific results."

I can accept that there might be mathematical descriptions of phenomenological entities (no idea how they could be determined though), but you seem to suggest that it is the maths itself causing them, and that baffles me (not that I would understand how neurological activity causes mental states - the so-called 'hard' problem of consciousness... perhaps my questions are unreasonable, since I view the hard problem as intractable...).

wombat said...

Kosh3 - Mathematical forms etc.

FWIW the maths guys seem to be making some headway here. The physics and chemistry people seem to have a sketch of things working from space,time and a zoo of fundamental particles to stuff like we encounter in everyday life, sugars that interact with our tongues and taste sweet etc. The mathematicians seem to be taking up the challenge of how to get from nothing to where the physicists got. i.e space and time. For example
Scientific American article on self organizing quantum universe

Now if you can believe that mind is (or at least can be) an emergent property of, say, matter, which is what our brains are made of after all, then it looks as if there are reasonable grounds for believing that mathematics animates the mind rather than the other way round. (In fact it might well be that mind can emerge from the mathematics without the need for matter.)

wombat said...

Kosh3 - I spent so much time fumbling around that our posts crossed so please forgive the apparent disjunction.

"since I view the hard problem as intractable..."

If you do not subscribe to the emergent properties arguments then things are less straightforward. I would presume that you are happy though with the idea that however the mind arises, it does not exist completely independently of the thing that it animates/inhabits/runs on. In this case the mathematics can provide at least a material substrate.

wombat said...

Scott - from your link you said.

"And, of course, we are unable to imagine what non-spatiotemporal reality is like."

No. mathematicians make a habit (and sometimes a living) out of it.

Kosh3 said...

Wombat,

Minds as emergent phenomena from a physical substrate doesn't solve the hard problem of consciousness. What could it be a bunch of electrons doing certain things that leads to the phenomenology of, say, vertigo? We are to say: it just does, emergently. But we want to now how or why in order to crack the hard problem.

Kosh3 said...

dammit, for electrons read neurons

wombat said...

"...doesn't solve the hard problem of consciousness"

Fair enough. I didn't really intend to imply it was done and dusted in that way but simply to point out that it is reasonable that the mind emerges from the maths (possibly via matter) rather than the other way round. Much in the same way that a sandcastle emerges from individual grains of sand, rather than all grains of sand automatically being the constituents of sandcastles.

Explaining how such a mind feels once it has arisen is, as you say, hard.

scott roberts said...

Kosh3 and wombat,

If it's so intractable, why not consider that mind does not emerge from the non-mental?

[me:]"And, of course, we are unable to imagine what non-spatiotemporal
reality is like.
"

[wombat:]"No. mathematicians make a habit (and sometimes a living) out of it."

Yes and no. Perhaps I should have said 'picture', rather than 'imagine'. All mathematical forms are non-spatiotemporal ("eternal objects"), so I assume you are referring to the mathematicians ability to model geometrical spaces other than 4-dimensional spacetime. Yes, they do that, but neither they nor the rest of us can 'picture' these spaces.

Interestingly, it is because mathematics deals routinely with the non-picturable that the modern mystic Franklin Merrell-Wolff recommends to the mystical wannabe that he or she study mathematics. This is because we naturally (naively) limit 'reality' to the picturable (what can be perceived through the senses), and mathematics (in addition to training us to think rigorously), helps us break that habit.

[Kosh3:]"Equations are abstract though, and you seem to be treating them concretely. Who decides which equations get 'fire breathed into them' by minds?"

Rather than 'abstract' vs. 'concrete', I would say that the equations are potentials, some of which become actual when breathed through. The minds decide which become actual, as creative acts, or as re-creative acts (perception).

Kosh3 said...

"The minds decide which become actual, as creative acts, or as re-creative acts (perception)."

Then how come there are not twenty Swedish models standing next to me right now? All I need is their sense data... :)

Kosh3 said...

"If it's so intractable, why not consider that mind does not emerge from the non-mental?"

To say the mind just is, all by itself, non-physically, is not to explain anything. It's just to say 'there it is, as a brute fact'. So suppose we say something non-physical causes minds - a non-physical self or soul. The same question will arise in that case: how does this thing bring forth a mind? Whether from physical or non-physical origins, the hard problem seems to remain.

scott roberts said...

Kosh3,

"To say the mind just is, all by itself, non-physically, is not to explain anything. It's just to say 'there it is, as a brute fact'. So suppose we say something non-physical causes minds - a non-physical self or soul. The same question will arise in that case: how does this thing bring forth a mind? Whether from physical or non-physical origins, the hard problem seems to remain."

The idealist is saying that mind-stuff "just is" (whether one calls it 'mind-stuff' or 'soul-stuff' or 'consciousness' or 'spirit-stuff' or whatever doesn't matter). In other words, for the idealist, mind is the initial assumption for explanations of everything, while for the materialist, matter serves that role. Now the materialist assumption has the intractable problem of explaining the origin of consciousness, while the idealist has the problem of explaining why it is we naturally assume there is non-mental stuff "out there". There is an explanation for that, but it is a long one. See here for a brief summary.

Kosh3 said...

"Now the materialist assumption has the intractable problem of explaining the origin of consciousness, while the idealist has the problem of explaining why it is we naturally assume there is non-mental stuff "out there"."

We are default realists about the objective existence of the world presumably for evolutionary reasons, but I already gave earlier an argument for it, based on the explanatory benefits of explaining our experiences in terms of the real existence of objects.

The real problem for the idealist is not explaining why our assumptions naturally rest with realism, but why our conscious experiences are all so neat and tidy, given that they do not result from anything objectively beyond themselves. You said earlier: minds choose what mathematical formulas have 'fire' breathed into them (thus minds explain their own experiences). But that begs the question - where are my 20 Swedish models?

wombat said...

"But that begs the question - where are my 20 Swedish models?"

Probably hanging round with some little old bald guy in saffron robes...

scott roberts said...

Kosh3,

I said above that I accept that our experiences arise from beyond ourselves. To say otherwise would be solipsism. The question is whether or not that which is beyond ourselves is mind-stuff or matter-stuff.

You can surround yourself with 20 Swedish models. All you have to do is get their free minds to agree to surround you. But to go into this a little less flippantly...

Minds can create reality in many ways, by breathing through the appropriate equations. Some minds (including our own) have chosen, for now, to operate within certain bounds, called space, time, and mass, similarly to the idea that if one agrees to play a game, one will obey the rules of that game for the duration of the game. Or to use another famous analogy, all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Within this game called physical reality we have agreed to the rules that prevent us from walking through brick walls, or conjuring up models at will. In dreams we play by different rules. But we have forgotten that we have agreed to these rules. It could be that this forgetting is required -- otherwise we'd quit the game the first time we stub a toe.

Now the preceding is speculation. I present it just to say that idealism can make sense. Just as the materialist speculates to make materialism make sense. Idealism does have anecdotal evidence supporting it (reports of mystics), though I acknowledge that doesn't prove anything.

Kosh3 said...

But that is the thing. If minds create reality, the Swedish models that surround me don't themselves have to have minds themselves (p-zombies; "all I need is their sense data"). Why can't that equation be 'breathed into'?

...

You go on to provide an explanation. The reason is that our minds have all agreed to abide by certain rules, such that only come equations with be realised. So the reason my mind does not manifest gorgeous p-zombie women around myself, is that this would break 'rules of the game' that I agreed to at some point.

Well, it appears to be consistent. Minds are responsible for their experiences, that they experience what they do so orderly and uniformly is a result of some prior agreement to rules that would produce that order and uniformity.

Let me ask though: do you think schizophrenics are breakers of those rules?

scott roberts said...

Kosh3,

I don't know much about schizophrenia, but that sounds plausible.

Kosh3 said...

I don't know all that much about it either, but I understand hallucinations of various kinds (visual, auditory) are possible.

Doesn't strike you as a rather improbable implication of your ontology? That it is not that they are suffering from some (physical) neurological impairment, but that their minds aren't abiding correctly by rules of experience that everyone else has metaphysically signed up to?

There is nothing about the world being physical that does not permit the mind to be non-physical; it can be both...

scott roberts said...

I do not deny that there is such a thing as physical neurological impairment, just that by 'physical' I probably mean something different than you do. Whatever the senses perceive is what I call 'physical'. The question is over what lies behind those perceptions. In my ontology, what lies behind are a selection of mathematical forms that has evolved into certain regular habits which are translated into space, time, and mass in the act of perception (as, it is generally agreed, are color, taste, pain, etc.). Among the forms are those of the neural system and how it interacts with other systems. A neurological malfunction will result in altered perceptions because the mathematical forms are those of an impaired system.

I suppose I should qualify my agreement with your saying that schizophrenics are "breakers of the rules". It would be better to say "with schizophrenia, the rules are partially broken". Same with hypnogogic states, sleep-deprivation, etc.

The thing is, no generally accepted physical facts or scientific results can compel one to accept idealism or materialism. They are metaphysical systems through which the facts get interpreted.