Quote of the week

June 29, 2010 • 8:02 am

Dan Dennett, channeling Andy Rooney while responding to Ron Rosenbaum:

Have you noticed how self-proclaimed (and self-satisfied) agnostics often sneer at us arrogant, over-confident atheists without expressing any parallel contempt for the Pope, Rick Warren, the imams, and so on for their similar if opposite avowals of certainty? In the future I plan to insist on agnostics being equal-opportunity sneerers.

42 thoughts on “Quote of the week

  1. Humility in the face of mystery has been a recurrent theme of mine.

    Odd, after reading that piece by Rosenbaum, “humility” is not the one word I would have chosen to sum up his views; not even in the top ten words.

    Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

    Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually.

    But the world has suffered enough from oversimplifications.

    He ought to familiarize himself with the issues and arguments before jumping in, as he is as guilty as anyone of oversimplifications.

    Atheism does not require the belief that every aspect of the universe will be scientifically explained. Rather, it is the proper assignation of the burden of proof on those promoting supernatural explanations, a denial of the argument from ignorance .

  2. That’s a lot of sneering. Maybe they’ll have to ration their sneering off, but somehow I think that they have enough to go around.

    “(And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)”

    Is this guy serious? Religious Inquisitors LITERALLY tortured people to death. What are the “crimes” of the new atheists? Saying things which make the religious feel uncomfortable! That’s it!

    A religious fundamentalist will torture, murder, rape, kidnap, mutilate, decapitate and dismember. An atheist “fundamentalist” will write a book criticizing a belief or belief system and potential “offend” someone to some degree.

    I guess those are equivalent in the minds of accommodationists.

    1. “A religious fundamentalist will torture, murder, rape, kidnap, mutilate, decapitate and dismember. An atheist “fundamentalist” will write a book criticizing a belief or belief system and potential “offend” someone to some degree.”

      Overgeneralize much?

      1. That is under-generalisation, for he missed: institutionalised genocide, terrorism, slavery, pederasty, fraud, tax-evasion, prostitution, racketeering, to name but a few.

  3. Notice that many believers think you lack something in life if you don’t believe, and they are quite correct:
    you lack that heavy anchor chained around your neck!

  4. An answer to someone who asks “Why should there be something rather than nothing?” is “Why not something? Why should there be nothing?”

    1. Another reply is: Theism doesn’t answer the question, it only backs it up one step. Instead of “why is there something rather than nothing?” you are now stuck at “why was there God instead of nothing?

      1. And how is that better?

        If that god is something, it is now specific instead of the diversified environment we see. And if it wasn’t something …

        And beyond the senselessness of the unwarranted substitution, there is the tearing down of everything fantastic we observe to substitute it with a boring stolid “creator”. That is so 2009!

      2. And why would god make matter– he’s immaterial and perfect –and so is “heaven”, right?

        If god bypassed matter, he could have avoided hunger,defecation, sex,pain,and death.

        I never did see how god was a good explanation for “something” instead of nothing.

    2. Another avenue is to ask if there really is such a thing as ‘nothing’. The deepest vacuum of space is what most would consider to be ‘nothing, yet we know that it is constantly fluctuating with virtual particles that pop into existence from ‘nowhere’ and promptly return from whence they came. (To be back with Zeus, of course)

      1. The deepest vacuum of space is what most would consider to be ‘nothing

        Empty space is not “nothing”, it is simply empty space. It still has breadth and width and height and temporality, and is subject to various physical laws. All of those are “something”.

        This is why I think responses about “fluctuations in vacuum energy” and even “multiverses” are committing a category error. Those are not explanations for why there is something, since they already pre-suppose physical laws, or at least meta-laws that have parameters that can change. The question is really why are there any such laws at all.

        (The answer, of course, is not “god”.)

        1. If this was philosophy, it could be a category error. But as for example Vic Stenger shows in his “God – The Failed Hypothesis” there is physics that glues over that.

          Not that all physicists agree. For example Sean Carroll claims that “the category error” is between having nothing as part of the known distribution of something. Since PZ Myers just assembled their respective views on that old and nowadays well answered question in a pity format, let me quote:

          “What this example illustrates is that many simple systems are unstable, that is, have limited lifetimes as they undergo spontaneous phase transitions to more complex structures of lower energy. Since “nothing” is as simple as it gets, we would not expect it to be completely stable. In some models of the origin of the universe, the vacuum undergoes a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter. The transition nothing-to-something is a natural one, not requiring any external agent.

          As Nobel Laureate physicist Frank Wilczek has put it, “The answer to the ancient question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ would then be that ‘nothing’ is unstable.””

          [If you are bothered with the pity example having laws, he goes through the exact same argument in his book but from general non-lawful initial conditions.

          The main point is that non-lawful “nothing” is like the most perfect symmetry state of chaos, and the observed process of spontaneous symmetry breaking creates the laws as it goes. A process instead of state view makes the distinction of “nothing” as peculiar superfluous.]

          1. “As Nobel Laureate physicist Frank Wilczek has put it, “The answer to the ancient question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ would then be that ‘nothing’ is unstable.””

            The problem with this is that it’s nothing more than an unproveable hypothesis.

            1. It is eminently testable though, and that is Stenger’s point. Spontanous symmetry breaking happens over and over, and remaining symmetries are what we observe as laws (for example, conservation of EM charges).

              So we can test that this is what will happen in the general case, and so we have a falsifiable theory covering the specific case that was asked for.

        2. I should also add that I believe that Stenger’s theory is unnecessary to predict physics, since inflationary multiverses admit backwards eternal worldlines and can forget their history by admitting deterministic chaos (so exponentially divergent pathways erasing history). This takes care of “the small problem” that they are unlikely to emerge in their precise stationary point as we putatively observe them today.

          The reason why I’m not worried about anthropic principles taking care of the exact format of observed laws are first that they are falsifiable, but second that Stenger’s physics glue over the unknowable prehistory of eternal multiverses. I.e. we need it not to predict physics but to make theory consistent over all possible pathways. It removes one of those pesky “I don’t know” gaps people gets so fazed by. 😀

    3. I just watched a short video on youtube which dealt with the repetition of creation myths.

      According to the King James version (and the Egyptian and Sumerian tales which preceded it), God did not form the heaven and Earth out of ‘nothing’ – there was already a ‘deep’ present, an ocean, the mythological representation of chaos.

      So, the answer to “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is…. “According to the Bible, there always *was* something”!

    1. Atheists have thicker skins, in general, because: (by definition), we are more ‘grown up’.

  5. Wait, ‘similar if opposite avowals of certainty’?? But we don’t make avowals of certainty at all. Avowals of certainty are almost entirely lope-sided towards the theist end of the spectrum. Dan should instead be pointing out that the problem with agnostics and accomodationists is that they want to a see a symmetry on the spectrum where none exists.

    1. Yes, it’s not the atheists making claims of divine truths.

      It’s not the atheists claiming to know things they cannot know– like:
      “an invisible undetectable entity exists”.

      1. Some people seem to think that believing something that has no evidence to support it is equivalent to not believing in something that has no evidence to support it.

  6. Very few atheists make avowals of complete certainty – how can you when modern “sophisticated” conceptions of gods (the ones these fellows talk about) are increasingly deist, deliberately designed to avoid all considerations of evidence.

    Atheism is absence of belief, not presence of certainty.

    I content that with an extraordinary claim with no evidence, the only sane default position is nonextistence (as we would with any other claim). That’s not certainty.

    Certainty is almost all the province of theists, I’m afraid. How many of them could even seriously entertain the question “what would it take to make you say your beliefs are wrong?”.

    I can make long lists of things that would make me reconsider my position of nonbelief. I’m a sceptic, open to solid, clear, repeatable evidence.

    These accomodationists are only criticising in one direction and accomodating only one way. Their position is actually more one-sided and radical than those they decry.

  7. Dennett has a reputation as a nice guy, but I sometimes wonder if it’s because his barbs are so exquisitely sharp that his targets fail to notice they’ve been neatly skewered?

    1. I just finished with Breaking The Spell, and while I found it a little more philosophical than I usually like for a read, he does a great job of easing people easily and smoothly into these topics, leaving theistic apologies in utter ruins along the way. Rather like he is taking you on a tour of the majestic wreckage of religions.

  8. That quote is pure win. But what I love best about Dennett is how he can sound so darn jolly and avuncular, even while devastating his target with a well-chosen bon mot. Why, doesn’t he know that us New Atheists are supposed to snort smoke and breathe fire and charge madly at anything red waving in front of us?

    1. That quote is pure win. But what I love best about Dennett is how he can sound so darn jolly and avuncular, even while devastating his target with a well-chosen bon mot.

      Agree, agree! I can’t find the source where Dennett made the quote. Did I miss the source?

          1. A well tempered envy is the weapon of choice of many businessmen – and politicians.

            I hear frequent flier miles with nothing but gossip is the best honing device for that. Good luck!

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