You know, I’m getting really tired of taking apart atheist-bashing articles. The assertions about the flaws of atheism never change, the apologists won’t ever change their minds, and the articles will just keep on coming—perhaps even more frequently as the world becomes less religious and believers and faitheists get more defensive. And does anybody here really need to see another atheist-basher taken apart? So I’m going to ratchet back on these analyses; besides, Jeffrey Tayler does them so much better than I (see his latest attack on David Brooks in Salon). I’m doing this today to appease my Canadian readers.
Several incensed Canadian atheists sent me a link to a truly execrable piece by Conrad Black in the National Post, “The shabby, shallow world of the militant atheist.” I didn’t really know who Conrad Black was, but many Canadians seem to, for all the readers mentioned his criminal past. Born in Montreal, Black rose to control a chain of newspapers, acquiring titles and huge wealth along the way, but was then extradited to the U.S. to stand charges of fraud and obstruction of justice. He served three years in Federal prison, was deported back to Canada (and can’t re-enter the U.S. for 30 years), but still retains his enormous wealth and his title: “Baron Black of Crossharbour, of Crossharbour in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.”
I believe Black turned Catholic in prison, and for some reason the National Post gave him a lot of space in this piece to affirm his faith and bash atheists. I don’t have the heart to take apart his shopworn arguments in detail—beginning with the title, since almost no atheists are “militant”. Here are a few tropes, probably lifted from his readings:
1. The old atheists were so much better than the new ones—wittier, better writers, more cogent, and less militant. This argument can be made only by those who have never really read Russell, Mencken, Ingersoll, and Mill; the claim is based on pure ignorance. But Black makes it anyway.
. . . it has come back to me what a shabby level of mockery and sophistical evasion many of the militant atheists are reduced to, in comparison even with the famous skeptics of earlier times. People like Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud, wrote and spoke well, and were more able than is rigorously admissible now to cloak themselves in the inexorable march of science and reason. Their witty if gratuitous disparagements of Christianity were much more effective than the coarse blunderbuss of my late quasi-friendly and frequent adversary, Christopher Hitchens.
Seriously: Shaw, Russell, and Freud cloaked themselves more heavily in science than, say, Dawkins and Sam Harris? That’s just crazy, for many of the developments of science that have further whittled away at faith, like cosmology and new findings of evolution, were not known to the earlier atheists. And, as far as I remember, Freud never availed himself of science in his arguments against God, but simply fobbed off religion as a collective neurosis (correct) and a longing for a father figure (dubious).
2. Without religion we wouldn’t have a good source of morality. Seriously? Is Black ignorant of the long tradition of secular ethics beginning with the ancient Greeks? Or does he think that that morality is dubious if it doesn’t come from God? If that’s the case, does he know about Plato’s Euthyphro argument—to my mind one of the great triumphs of philosophy? Black says this:
. . . without some notion of a divine intelligence and its influence on the culture of the world through the various religions (though the principal religions are not interchangeably benign or influential) there would be no serious ethical conceptions. Communities untouched by religious influences have been unalloyed barbarism, whatever the ethical shortcomings of some of those who carried the evangelizing mission among them. Without God, “good” and “evil” are just pallid formulations of like and dislike. As Professor Lennox reminded me, Dostoyevsky, scarcely a naive and superstitiously credulous adherent to ecclesiastical flimflam, said “without God, everything is permissible.”
That’s palpably wrong. Atheists are no more immoral than religionists, and we don’t engage in killing other people in the name of our nonbelief, nor do we try to force ridiculous strictures about sex, diet, and genital-cutting on everyone else. The more atheistic countries like those in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe are, if anything, more “moral” (and less socially dysfunctional) than highly religious nations like America, Saudi Arabia, and much of sub-Saharan Africa.
3. Atheism is a “faith.” You can’t get much more wrong than the following, in which Black dissects a debate between Richard Dawkins and mathematician and Christian apologist John Lennox:
[Dawkins] entertained, until he became unbearably repetitive, but no one with an IQ in triple figures was shocked by him. Dawkins almost raves about the extremes that “faith” can drive people to, but was struck dumb like Zachariah in the temple when Lennox pointed out, in a very lengthy debate at the University of Alabama in 2009, that atheism is a faith — clearly one that Dawkins holds and tries to propagate with considerable fervour. In general, something a person believes and can’t prove is supported by some measure of faith.
I refuse to believe that Dawkins was “dumbstruck” at Lennox’s claim that atheism is based on “faith”—unless “dumbstruck” refers to Dawkins’s incredulity at such stupidity. How can not believing in something for which there’s no evidence be a faith, given that faith means “belief in something without substantial (or any) evidence”? Is it “faith” to argue that there’s no evidence that humans have two hearts, or that Nessie swims in the deep waters of her Loch? As Black should know, no claim about reality is ever “proven” in the purely scientific sense, so if that’s his take, it must be a “faith” that humans have but one heart, since there might be some organ that we’ve missed! What most atheists “believe” is that “there is no good reason to believe in God”. If that’s a “faith,” then so are the claims that “There is no good reason to believe that Barack Obama was born in Yemen” or “There is no evidence that humans have been abducted by aliens in flying saucers.” To Black, any well-founded doubt is a “faith”!
And then Black claims that there is indeed some evidence for God, to wit:
The atheists purport to disprove the theistic case, but they have never got past their inability to dispute that spiritual forces and perceptions exist or that unexplained developments that are in fact miraculous sometimes occur, and they are reduced to imputing falsely to believers the view that anything they can’t explain is in the “gap”: God’s secret work. Of course no serious person espouses anything of the kind. . .
What? We can’t dispute that spiritual forces exist? Of course we can: we’ve no evidence for them. And yes, of course perceptions of those forces exist, but perceptions are not realities: if that were true, then there would be a plethora of Napoleons and Jesuses (Jesi?) in today’s world. It’s certainly true that we haven’t explained everything, but we have discovered that a lot of miracles turn out to be bogus. The fact is that if God wanted us to know of His existence (if he existed), he could do it ways far more convincing ways than making the “blood” of saints liquify when a Pope touches a vial of it, or making water appear on the face of a Jesus statue.
As for no serious people arguing for Gods of the gaps, has Black, perchance, heard of intelligent design? I guess not, for that whole area rests on the god-of-the-gaps arguments. Even scientists like Francis Collins make those arguments—in Collins’s case, he argues that because we can’t explain the origin of human moral sentiments, they must be a product of God. I have a huge section in Faith versus Fact about what I call “The New Natural Theology,” the claim that some phenomena—like consciousness and “fine tuning” of physical law—can’t be explained by science and therefore require invoking God. If that’s not a god-of-the-gaps tactic, I don’t know what is.
4. Science isn’t leading to progress, just to more mysteries. This is a really, really dumb argument, but has gained surprising traction. It’s a way of religionists to denigrate science in a futile attempt to elevate religion, which truly does fail to progress. John Gray is one of those “anti-progressives” for both science and religion (see one of his pieces here, and Steve Pinker’s rebuttal here). Here’s what Black says, continuing directly from his previous quote:
. . .much more frequent is the swift recourse of atheistic scientists to the worm-eaten chestnut that there is a finite amount of knowledge in the world and that every day the lights of pioneering science are leading us closer to a plenitude of knowledge.
In fact, that is not our experience: All great scientific discoveries demonstrate man’s genius, but also reveal that the extent of the unknown was greater than had been realized. Freud’s discovery that man could not control his subconscious; the discovery of the potential of the atom including for human self-destruction; Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler’s discovery that the world revolved around the sun; all expanded the vastness of the unknown still to be explored.
I don’t want to think that Black is here contending that we actually know less about the Universe than we did 500 years ago, but that seems to be his implication. But does he take antibiotics, perchance, or use a cellphone? Does he know that we’ve unravelled the mysteries of heredity: we now know that genes in most species are made of double-helical DNA, and that this DNA specifies the sequence of proteins? Does he realize that Einstein explained the bending of light by gravity, something completely unknown in the 19th century? Of course new mysteries arise regularly, like the existence of dark matter and energy, but to claim that science isn’t advancing our understanding of nature is to claim that “I am a moron.” And Black really is. He reveals that even more nakedly when he says this:
5. The idea of a multiverse is “diaphanous piffle.”:
Nor can the atheists ever grapple plausibly with the limits of anything, or with the infinite. They rail against “creation” — but something was created somehow at some point to get us all started. They claim evolution debunks Christianity (though all educated Christians, including Darwin, acknowledge evolution) — but evolution began somewhere. When taxed with the extent of the universe and what is beyond it, most atheists now immerse themselves in diaphanous piffle about a multiverse — but the possible existence of other universes has nothing to do with whether God exists.
Clearly Black knows nothing of physics, for the idea of a multiverse falls naturally out of certain theories of physics, and is certainly not diaphanous piffle. Many physicists take it seriously, and not because they want to get rid of the notion of God. It may well be true that the laws of physics in our universe don’t hold in other universes, so if those laws permitted evolution in our cosmos, then we’re just holders of a lucky cosmic lottery ticket. And of course the multiverse idea does have something to do with whether God exists, because, whether Black likes it or not, the idea of the “fine tuning” of the physics of our universe constitutes strong evidence for God to many sophisticated believers. If there’s a natural explanation, then the evidence for God recedes yet further.
6. Religion is the repository of right and wrong, and that, rather than the truth of scripture, is its value.
Religious practice can certainly be targeted as a pursuit of the hopeful, the faith-based and the uncertain. But they badly overreach when they attack the intellectual underpinnings of Judeo-Christianity, from the ancient Judaic scholars and the Apostles to Augustine to Aquinas to Newman; deny the existence of any spiritual phenomena at all; debunk the good works and cultural creativity and conservation of the major religion; and deny that the general religious message of trying conscientiously to distinguish right from wrong as a matter of duty and social desirability is the supreme criterion of civilization. The theists defend their basic position fairly easily and only get into heavy weather when they over-invest in the literal truth of all the scriptures — though the evidence for veracity of the New Testament is stronger than the skeptics admit, including of Christ’s citations of God himself: “And God said …” [Black’s ellipses]
This is coming from a Catholic! Has he never run into “heavy weather” when investing in ideas of Jesus as God’s son/God, of the Resurrection, the return of Jesus, the transubstantiation, the notion of a soul, the miracles of the Bible—or anything of that ilk? And it’s dubious about whether the general religious message of his Christianity is “to distinguish right from wrong”, at least not in the way Black means. The general message of Christianity, “How should we behave so we can win God’s approval and have a comfy afterlife?” The Big Answer is, of course, simple: just accept Jesus as savior, no matter how many bad things you’ve done in your life.
I can write no more; my brain hurts. You Canadians who forced me to spend 1.5 hours writing this—you go spread this message on the Post website and to Blackophiles. I can barely stand to write this same rebuttal over and over, and I’m loath to do it any more.
225 thoughts on “Canada’s National Post does some atheist bashing”
He was the Torygraph owner… now I am glad he was sent to prison! Clearly not long enough…
Yes. Atheist bashers are a tiresome lot.
I have yet to see an atheist shooting up a church with an AK47. What’s with the “militant” adjective? Oh how skewed the perpetually coddled viewpoint is…
I think militant in this context means:
“Hey, quit making me feel bad about the absurdity of my religion!”
Quit trying to make me think through to the logical conclusions of my beliefs! What has that ever gotten anybody?
When you can hire the best lawyers and keep plugging at it the three years in jail was totally unexpected from his point of view.
Most of the money he has was illegally transferred from pension funds for f*** sake and while he gives his wit and wisdom to suck-up’s and his intelligentsia friends people that worked for him most of their lives are trying to make ends meet on 20% of their pensions’
Anyway before I get off the track. I was reading just before I read this blog-post about the Roman Catholic banking practices and my first thought was “prefect fit”
I maintain that when someone makes the charge that old atheists like Bernard Shaw or Bertrand Russell weren’t militant, what they really mean is that they’re dead and can’t talk back so you should STFU too. It’s easier to imagine a dead person as congenial and soft spoken instead of having your views refuted to your face.
It seems likely that a lot of people who use that claim really do not have a clue about dead atheists / skeptics. They’ve never actually read enough of these dead atheists to be able to judge for themselves. They are just mouthing a standard talking point that everyone in their target audience already knows, and knows how they are supposed to respond. Sort of like standard slogans used at a pep rally.
Conrad Black converted to Catholicism on June 18, 1986.
I worry for his soul that he may have been guided by devils & chosen the wrong form of religion!
I think he has enough money for the priest or he’s probably donated enough money to have a bishop or cardinal pray him out of purgatory by diner time. Catholics are buried in the morning so they can be in purgatory for lunch. The more you pay the faster you get out. Figured his family would pay a lot as they wouldn’t want Sir Conrad to lower himself to eating 2 buffet meals in purgatory!
oops that should be ‘dinner time’
Catholic priests have been an expert at this tactic for centuries – find a rich man, make him fearful of what will happen to him when he dies, extract his money. They literally invented Purgatory in the Middle Ages for precisely that purpose. At the time it became standard practice for a man to split his fortune three ways in death: his wife, his children, and the Church. Priests made a living spending all day saying special prayers and masses for dead people to speed their way through Purgatory.
Jerry – it looks like you do not follow the local Chicago media. Who can forget The Right Honourable Lord Black of Crossharbour – a title he purchased. Among the media properties Black owned and pillaged was the Sun Times. His fraud trial was held in Chicago in 2007.
He said his Catholic faith helped him survive in prison. Of course it did not stop him from screwing employees out of their pensions.
“screwing employees out of their pensions” – just like Robert Maxwell…
He is Lord Black after all so what he did was technically illegal but morally pure.
Droite de Seigneur and all that. For those unfamiliar with the term it’s a medieval expression for a barbaric institution where the lord of the manor gets to fuck the peasants (in both senses of the term) any time he likes.
Droite de seigneur was originally the right of the lord of the manor to deflower a virgin on her wedding night before her husband, if the peasant concerned belonged to him. The Church didn’t approve, and a lot, probably most, lords of the manor didn’t do it.
As always with salacious stuff, modern ideas have got it skewed a bit.
For the record, there is zero evidence that droit de seigneur was ever exercised anywhere in medieval Europe. No historian takes such a claim at all seriously.
Similar practices have, however, been documented in other times & places. Two prominent modern examples are Turkish Armenia, & Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko.
Thanks Heather and stephajl for a bit of sanity…
Or even “droit”.
An adroit correction.
Although it might have been gauche to point out the error.
Gauche? I might go so far as sinister!
But not as sinister as Dexter.
Damn, yous already made this joke before I got to make it!
Right. I don’t think there are any puns left for me to make.
Except those two, handily.
Now you’re just being manipulative.
I think you’re going out on a limb there, Diana.
That’s okay, I have some handy tools to hang on.
Don’t try and palm us off, now!
I’ve gotta hand it to you; that was a good one.
Yes, Diana has really embraced this theme (meme?).
She should write a manual for effective punning.
That would be a handsome volume.
So you’re putting the finger on me then!
In addition to a paper edition, I’d recommend publishing a digital version.
I dunno, wouldn’t that just be like thumbing my nose at traditional print media?
Would it have an index?
Ganache? That’s a great idea — I’ll get right on it. Sharffen Berger 99% cacao chocolate, Strauss Dairy cream…hmmm, not sure what sweetener to use, but shouldn’t use too much of it, whatever it is….
Very dexterous; not sinister at all.
The post gave him space because he used to own it.
Other Black annoyance:
He gave up his Canadian citizenship so he could be bestowed his British title, but then begged it back when he got in legal trouble (I think he got it back too — highly unusual if I recall correctly.
Worst Black annoyance – he was caught by his own (I think) security cameras taking boxes of files out of an office when he was not allowed to because it was evidence. He goes to jail, and then after jail when he is a past convicted felon, has the audacity to brow-beat a journalist who tries to get him to admit he did something wrong since, even though convicted and so by definition is a felon or whatever is the proper term, he maintains he did nothing wrong. Google “Conrad Black contemptuous interview” or something like that to find it.
It is despicable.
Well it was only a temporary resident status that he got. I think he is still waiting to apply for citizenship.
I’m not sure that he has yet regained his Canadian citizenship. He had to apply for a Temporary Resident Permit and wait a certain amount of time before he could reapply for Canadian citizenship. So far, I have found nothing online that says he’s a Canadian again, but it’s only a matter of time.
It’s really laughable when you read about his explanation for relinquishing his citizenship so he could accept a British peerage. He claimed that he only meant for it to be temporary. Sheesh. The stuff he says now just doesn’t ring true.
Harper is ready to put him in the senate! He has 3 vacancies as those 3 are in court now!
I’d be a senator if the environment was better. I can only imagine that the slackers there would make it intolerable.
The fashion in which so many members of the Canadian media & intelligentsia continue to defer to the man makes me thoroughly ill. It’s as if nothing ever happened.
“…as the world becomes less religious and believers and faitheists get more defensiv””
The actual reason for militancy of all kinds. From Islam to Scientology. There’s nothing worse than an apostate.
But can someone pleas explain to me why feminists hate the Catholic church, but consider any criticism of Islam to be racist.
My best guess is that they are a variety of liberal who defends an ‘other’ because they greatly value plurality and tolerance. They may vocally dislike the Catholic church b/c they know it well, and have felt personally affronted by their dictates. But in the case of Islam they have not really thought things through because they are ignorant about the true perfidies of Islamic doctrine — a doctrine that has never personally touched their lives.
There are many feminists (Ophelia Benson and Maryam Namazie come quickly to mind) who regularly and virulently attack the particularly anti-woman mindset of Islam. From what I’ve seen it’s pretty uniform among feminists. So I don’t grant your premise.
If you mean “some feminists” then you’d have to name them. I don’t know who you mean.
I think it’s rather easy to find articles like this:
Which downplay the oppression of women in Islam.
Some things are more subtle, and apply to most fundamentalist religions. About 25 years ago I hosted a couple of eleven year old Muslim kids in conjunction with a CISV camp. Except for requesting fish on pizza, they were like any kids I’ve met. They apparently they liked us, because the following year, their parents visited us.
I thought the visit went rather well, but my wife has never stopped talking about the way the mother was treated by both the father and the boys. She never initiated anything. She kept her eyes downcast in the presence of males. She deferred to her male children.
She was not a housewife. She was a dentist, visiting the United States to learn new surgical techniques.
That’s just the sort of thing that came to my mind when I read your initial comment. There also seems to be much defense of women’s “agency” when it comes to talk of the burka as a tool of patriarchal oppression that you don’t hear in other somewhat similar situations.
I read the article and didn’t see it as an example of a feminist downplaying the oppression of women in Islam. She’s countering the argument that feminists need to respect ‘other cultures,’ but bringing in a reasonable discernment. Maybe that’s not what you meant, though.
I think it’s pretty clear that she advises special treatment where criticism of Islam is concerned in order to “counter Islamophobia”. I think such arguments have a stifling effect on such criticism. In other words why risk the landmines, just don’t touch it.
You disagree with this?
It seems to me she’s arguing more against the special treatment of Islam. There are probably feminists who fit the original charge better than this one.
I get annoyed by this constant attack on “feminists” as if we’re some sort of amorphous blob. There are some feminists who attack Catholicism but not Islam, but they’re rare. Personally, I’m an equal opportunity attacker of male privilege, but I try to be careful how I express myself to make it clear I’m not on a man-hating trip because, of course, there are plenty of great men out there who don’t deserve to be associated with the misogynists. A true feminist is someone who wants equality for women, not superiority, and if you are opposed to feminism, I would like to know why you don’t think the women in your life should have equal treatment and opportunity?
No, but I disagree with this.
Which suggests couching every criticism with a “but other religions are just as bad” excuse. Along with, in my opinion being factually untrue. No religion is as oppressive of women, based on scale alone. That’s true even if she’s only talking about clothing requirements.
And the worst of it is the implication of the article’s premise. that there’s a problem with criticism of Islam, at least where it’s treatment of women is concerned, being nothing more than thinly veiled Islamophobia. Even if you straight up support a ban on the hijab for example, that doesn’t make you an Islamophobe. I think you’d be wrong, but people with the right motivations can still be wrong. I’m not saying people who hate Muslims don’t exist, but my point is by making it an issue you’re giving people license to dismiss criticism, and shooting yourself in the foot. We’re making the (they criticize us because they hate us) argument for them.
I called myself a feminist until a few years ago.
Feminism, is not ‘just’ the belief that women deserve equal treatment and opportunity.
And diverting any criticism of it by accusing people of not wanting such equal treatment for women, is one of the problems with it.
If you want to go to ‘true’ feminist, then you have the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy problem.
There are many ‘feminists’ saying any number of absurd things.
We are again here bringing up this business of “evidence.” Evidence of “spiritual forces?” Evidence of “God?” Maybe Jerry knows what a “spiritual force” or a “god” is, but I sure don’t know what he’s talking about. It doesn’t seem like he knows what he’s talking about either. So evidence has nothing to do with anything here. In order to look for evidence, you must know what it is you are looking for. If you don’t know that, evidence never even comes into play. This is so clear and so simple, it shouldn’t have to be stated, but maybe it takes a while for it to “sink in.”
Well, a lot of theologians have specified that, for instance, God is a personlike spirit, who intervenes in the world, is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. You can ask if the world seems to be ruled by someone like that. The answer is “no.” More important, if you make an assertion about God, heaven, what God wants us to do, and such, you need REASONS. If you have no reasons, or evidence that your God exists or is like that, then there’s no reason to take those assertions seriously
By the way, you should read the Roolz about dissing the host here, which you apparently haven’t. Either apologize for claiming that I don’t know what i’m talking about (I just wrote a book about this), or go somewhere else where you can mingle with Sophisticated Theologians. After all, many theologians and believers do claim to have evidence for God, and that evidence is important.
I got the sense that Larry was talking about Conrad Black not knowing of what he wrote, not PCC.
I don’t know where you get that idea from his comments. He kind of says Jerry….
OK, I’ve been known to be wrong occasionally. 🙂
For the record, I read it the same way you did. I assumed the pronoun had shifted from PCC to Conrad, mid-sentence. (not sure why it hit me this way, though… perhaps just a tendency of mine to give the benefit of the doubt)
Yes me too – just going for the most charitable interpretation.
I agree. I’m pretty sure he meant (Maybe Jerry knows what a “spiritual force” or a “god” is, but I sure don’t know what he’s (Black) talking about. It doesn’t seem like he (Black) knows what he’s talking about either.)
Nope; he’s admitted he’s talking about me. RUDE!
Dear Dr. Coyne,
I may be misinterpreting what the fellow meant, but it sounds like something I have stated previously in this website and elsewhere:
Every subdefinition – such as “personlike spirit”, “soul of the cosmos”, “transcedental mind”, “universal conciousness”, “ultimate purpose”, etc. – people use to define “god” and other such concepts are themselves very poorly defined even by basic linguistic standards. People talk as if they are speaking of the same things, but since the very concepts they depend on to formulate their communication are so nebulous and obfuscatory, you can never quite tell if even two of them are actually thinking the same thing.
As far as I know, no one has ever found a way to reduce “spirit” and other such supernatural concepts into the basic sensorial concepts that we as a species can verify as analogous to basic sensorial experience, and on top of which we build the entirety of our rational lives – from tracking prey and smithing to building planes and calculating distributions of probabilities in quantum physics.
In a nutshell: The problem here is that religion acts like literature studies while desperately wanting to be seen as philosophy.
“religion acts like literature studies while desperately wanting to be seen as philosophy”
This is a lovely summation, & I intend to steal it (while crediting & linking to the source, of course).
Thanks. And don’t forget that this summation also applies to theology, religion’s literate mitosis-spawned child.
I was pretty careful to say that it “seems” like you don’t know what you’re talking about because maybe you do. But I don’t. The point here is that both theists and atheists are talking about something but they are not saying what that something is. When anyone, you too, use terms like “spiritual forces” or “god” no one really ever seems to ask what is meant by such things. I first ran into this when dealing with theists but found that atheists are doing just the same thing! Evidence, once again, cannot come into this if we don’t know what it is we are talking about. David Hume dealt with this in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” and Simon Blackburn has written about Hume’s thoughts on this very well. It was you, Jerry, who led me to wonder in the first place why people kept talking about “god” when they didn’t seem to know what they were talking about when they did so. Oddly, I am quite grateful to you for having caused me to think about this to begin with, but far more grateful to David Hume, via Simon Blackburn, for having shown me what the trouble was.
For one thing, I don’t believe in God so I have no conception of one. But many people do, and I specified it in my reply. If you don’t think nobody ever has, you haven’t read much theology. Nor have you seen the many attempts to adduce evidence for God—often a kind of personalized, kindly, and omnipotent spirit. And if you can’t get evidence for God or the tenets of faith, then, as Hitchens said, what can be claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. So even if people don’t specify enough about God to get evidence for it (and I argue that Christianity has done this), you don’t have to pay attention to their claims, WHICH WAS MY POINT.
It adds nothing to the dialogue to tell someone it seems like they don’t know what they’re talking about, even if you use the weasel word “seems”. You don’t seem to have grasped that that doesn’t advance the dialogue–it only insults the listener.
If theists don’t know what they are talking about and I argue with the theists, doesn’t that mean I don’t know what I’m talking about either when I do that? So now we have two groups of people, theists and atheists, who don’t know what they are talking about. This is a “dialogue?”
All I can really say to all of them is that I don’t know what they are talking about. Then just laugh (as I am doing while writing this!)
It’s not for nothing that in every one of his portraits, David Hume seems a very cheerful sort. He was doing a lot of laughing too!
This does not follow. The reason it does not follow is that we reject incoherent claims on the basis of their incoherence. Indeed, the incoherence of g*d-talk is one of the many longstanding criticisms atheists have of theism. That incoherence does not entail that our critique is unsound or cannot be made.
The argument regarding g*d-talk that you are advancing (provided I understand your position correctly) is known as Theological Non-Cognitivism (‘TNC’) — that is, the term g*d is devoid of content or fundamentally incoherent such that,
1) persons using the term have no idea what they are referring to, &, as a corollary,
2) belief in a g*d is unsound/irrational, or impossible.
So far, so good.
Yet your position seems to be that, if the foregoing is the case, then atheism is also unsound or impossible. This does not follow.
According to TNC, ‘g*d’ is too nebulous for those who use the term to mean anything or to know what they are referring to; it has no content. Statements of theistic belief are thus meaningless: they cannot be understood for they fail to express a proposition, & are not open to rational evaluation. Hence, they can be rejected.
That makes TNC a species of atheism — indeed, a form of strong atheism. There is no problem here.
Further, some people endorsing TNC recognize that terms like ‘g*d’ have a meaning within the context of mythology, & then reject these myths for a variety of reasons (typically because they fail to provide a coherent conceptualization of the divine or supernatural).
Incoherence, vagueness, meaninglessness — all are perfectly sound reasons for rejecting a claim. They do not prevent us from taking a position in relation to the claim. They do place an onus upon believers to provide a more coherent claim. Until they do, we need not entertain their arguments.
A friendlier, more whimsical name for theological non-cognitivism is, “igtheism.”
Not to be confused, of course, with Ichthyism, which is a revival of the cult of Triton.
Erratum (due to inattentive editing): TNC is not generally regarded as strong atheism, but as ignosticism. Some TNCists regard non-TNCist atheism as necessarily strong. (Gee, I need to go to bed …).
“igtheism”: this is a novel term to me, Ben. Thank you for bringing it to my attention — I like it very much.
I have just noticed that you raised TNC prior to me, infra. Apologies for repeating what had already been posted: I was very weary last night & had not read all the way through the comments. (I should know better).
You’re welcome, and no worries. I have an hard time keeping up with comments, and it never hurts to get different takes on the same subject from different people.
This reminds me of a supposedly real airplane logpage entry and disposition (commercial airliner):
Logpage [problem report]: “Something loose in the cockpit”
Disposition: “Something tightened in the cockpit.”
🙂 If they don;t know what it is, there’s no need to address it, as you said.
Sometimes we bend over backwards to engage the assertions of the believer for the sake of having a discussion.
The logbook story is hilarious.
It’s fun to think of what might happen after the plane lands and the mechanics check it out: The chief mechanic reads this entry and then tells one of his staff to get up in that cockpit and double-check that the something that was tightened really is tight. You can never trust those damned pilots to do anything right!
This is good stuff…I like it. And as an X crew chief, I really like it.
“Sometimes we bend over backwards to engage the assertions of the believer for the sake of having a discussion.”
This resumes 98% of the sane people vs. believers debates.
More of the same here.
One for PCC:
L: Mouse in cockpit.
D: Cat installed.
My favourite, because of the picture it paints, is:
L: Test flight OK, except auto-land very rough.
D: Auto-land not installed on this aircraft.
“For one thing, I don’t believe in God so I have no conception of one.”
Come on Dr. Coyne, of course you do. In fact, I bet you have several – and not just of gods, but also of faeries, monsters, spirits, their cousins and uncles. What you – and anyone, for all we know – don’t have is a conception of God that caters to the standards we use when describing the nature of reality. When people transplant their literary conceptions of all these entities into the domain of philosophy and scientific discourse, but don’t define them to the same standards as the conceptions of philosophy and science, you get theology.
No, unless you are or were a believer, you only have a conception of other people’s diverse conceptions of “God”.
My friend, the conceptions are ALL literary.
The difference between believers and non-believers is not in their conceptions of gods and spirits, but in the feelings and emotions they experience – or not – when thinking about these conceptions, which believers confusedly rationalize in an attempt to justify to themselves their use of literary concepts in the description of the nature of reality.
That’s not untrue, but misses my point.
How so? Are you saying that not every conception of gods, spirits and faeries is literary or that unbelievers are incapable of formulating and/or conceiving literature?
No, just that a believer has a singular conception of “God”* whereas the non-believer (e.g.,, Jerry) is aware of multiple conceptions of “God”, so their (his) conception is a superposition of “eigengods”.
* A smart believer will know that others have different conceptions of “God”, but still privileges their own conception as the “right” one.
“No, just that a believer has a singular conception of “God”* whereas the non-believer (e.g.,, Jerry) is aware of multiple conceptions of “God”, so their (his) conception is a superposition of “eigengods”.”
Yes, but both the believer’s possibly singular conception and the non-believer’s multiple conceptions are ALL within the domain of literature. Every conception of gods and spirits are of the same nature – unless of course, someone actually has come up with a proper philosophical/scientifical conception of such things, but is withholding it from the schizophrenic conversation for some nefarious purpose.
“* A smart believer will know that others have different conceptions of “God”, but still privileges their own conception as the “right” one.”
Yes, and his justification for privileging “his god” over the others is the rationalization of the feelings and emotions he experiences when thinking of/talking to “his god”. His conception, though, is still just as literary as the one he has for the other gods.
“ but both the believer’s possibly singular conception and the non-believer’s multiple conceptions are ALL within the domain of literature”
Where was I contesting that?
“Where was I contesting that?”
The moment you contested that an only-ever-unbeliever could have a conception of gods:
“No, unless you are or were a believer, you only have a conception of other people’s diverse conceptions of “God”.”
Then I proceeded to explain to you how that is not the case, since both believers and unbelievers are capable of dealing in literature – which is all the conceptions of gods and spirits are.
No, the argument is around !*a*! conception.
“No, the argument is around !*a*! conception.”
Precisely, which you denied was possible for a believer to have when you wrote that, unless you are a believer:
“you only have a conception of other people’s diverse conceptions of “God”.”
Which is not the case. But instead of just having you take my word for it, I explained why it is not the case: EVERY conception of gods EVER conceived and expressed is literary, and both believers and unbelievers are capable of conceiving literature.
Sorry; I still don’t see how the /nature/ of the conception addresses the issue.
I’ll try to make it simpler: If one can have a conception of Santa Claus, one can have a conception of gods. What no one has ever shown to have is a conception of Santa Claus – or of gods – that caters to the standards of philosophical or scientific discourse. The standards that these conceptions (ever even try to) cater are the standards of literature, theater, painting, music… All of which both believers and unbelievers are perfectly capable of dealing in.
“Sorry; I still don’t see how the /nature/ of the conception addresses the issue.”
The only issue in this conversation of ours is the one I took with your statement that unbelievers can’t have a conception of gods – since that is flatout false. If you can’t see how my explanation as to why /that statement/ is false addresses the issue taken with /that statement/, I can’t think of any way anyone could make you see how anything addresses anything.
This is already one of those interminable threads that PCC detests, and you seem determined to miss my point. You have not explained anything. My comment “Posted March 25, 2015 at 7:10 am” should have been plain enough, but perhaps I’m assuming too much of you.
Recall that this is in the context of evidence for “God”. Only a believer can have a conception of “God” that informs the kind of evidence we should see.
A non-believer has no such conception.
I don’t even know how many arms “God” should have – two or six? (And are they pink or brown or blue?) Or none? Why none? Because “God” is incorporeal – or because “God” has only tentacles?
So, I do not have a conception of “God”, just the knowledge (conception, if you like) of different believers’ different conceptions with d100 tables for different attributes.
It is claiming that I, or another non-believer, has a conception of “God” that is “flatout false”.
And that is my last word on the matter.
“Recall that this is in the context of evidence for “God”. Only a believer can have a conception of “God” that informs the kind of evidence we should see.”
You, sir, keep assuming that the kind of conception a believer has for gods IS DIFFERENT from the kind of conception an unbeliever has for gods. There is absolutely zero evidence for that. The only evidence we have from what kind of conception they have stems from their descriptions – which are EXACTLY as any one, believer or not, will describe LITERARY concepts. There is no “context of evidence” for god, unless we go back to taking people for their word, however implausible they are, as evidence.
“A non-believer has no such conception.”
If he is familiar with the literature, he has.
“I don’t even know how many arms “God” should have – two or six? (And are they pink or brown or blue?) Or none? Why none? Because “God” is incorporeal – or because “God” has only tentacles?”
Depends on what literature or other form of fiction this god of yours stems from.
“So, I do not have a conception of “God”, just the knowledge (conception, if you like) of different believers’ different conceptions with d100 tables for different attributes.”
Then you are unfamiliar with the appropriate literature. Dr. Coyne, however, clearly isn’t – and we can gather as much from several of his posts in this very website.
“It is claiming that I, or another non-believer, has a conception of “God” that is “flatout false”.”
I never claimed that YOU had a conception of gods, since you might be completely unfamiliar with the particular kind of literature. However, any believer familiar with religious literature, mythology, high fantasy, sword and sorcery and other forms of art involving “gods”, “spirits” and such does have a (literary, like in the case of believers) definition of these concepts.
“And that is my last word on the matter.”
Than you either misunderstand what me and others such as Ben Goren have been saying completely, or just keep missing the point on purpose.
I’ll make one last attempt at making myself clear. If, after this, you still affirm that unbelievers cannot have a conception of gods or godlike concepts, you will either be missing the point on purpose, or be using a completely exotic or arbitrary definition of “conception”.
You do not need to have ever believed in Santa Claus to have a conception of Santa Claus. Both the people who believe or have believed in Santa Claus and the people who never believed in Santa Claus describe their conceptions of him in the exact same terms, to the exact same standards. The difference between believers of Santa Claus and unbelievers of Santa Claus is not in their conception of – or in their capacity of conceiving – Santa Claus, but in what they feel – or are capable of feeling – when thinking of Santa Claus.
You can, right now, pick up Tolkien’s Silmarillion – make Ainulindalë your old testament and the Quenta your new – read through it. Once you are finished, you will have a conception of Eru, the Ainur, The Children of Ilúvatar, orcs, balrogs, etc. Believing those concepts to fit descriptions of the nature of reality will not change your actual conceptions of them.
This: ><, is a Kerfufflenuggledongling. You, sir, now have a conception of what a Kerfufflenuggledongling is. Is it a conception that caters to the standards of science or philosophy? No. Is it a conception that caters to literary or linguistic standards? No. Is it a conception that caters to the standards of visual arts? Yes.
Believing Kerfufflenuggledonglings describe the nature of reality, however, will not actually change your conception of them.
Atheists do not need to define the evidence. That falls on the theists, and as our host notes, they do just that. .
I was about to say the same thing? Why should atheists be defining gods? We are merely repeating what the theists say to us and showing there is no consistency and no evidence for what those entities want.
BTW if you try to get a theist, especially a Sophisticated Theologian™ to explain what their god is, you will get nowhere…they will mostly explain what their god is not. When you ask for evidence of this god’s attributes, they just babble away without showing any evidence.
So, why should atheists try to pull this “evidence” out of this lot? We can only point out the painfully obvious that there is none.
Aren’t there many things about the christian god that can be understood and argued about? — that god answers prayers, made the earth several thousand years ago, started the human race with two people, flooded out the sinners…
Science tells us none of these things happened and instead provides a scenario for a drastically different age for the earth, for human evolution, etc.
When you, Larry Esser, argue that no one knows what it is we’re arguing about, why do you ignore the many clear, testable claims of the bible?
Noncognitivism is a semi-popular position against the existence of “God” or the “supernatural:” that such terms are incoherent gobbledygook and even the believers have no idea whatsoever what they’re talking about. Not only can’t you test gibberish, you can’t even rationally argue against it. Atheists win because the other side isn’t even “wrong.”
While I think there are terms and concepts which might be pure nonsense, most believers have an understanding of what they mean by “God” or the “supernatural” which is good enough to work with, even if it’s not clear enough to reduce to pinpoint accuracy.
I get what they’re trying to do, but I think noncognitivism just feeds into the belief that atheists can’t think very well.
“most believers have an understanding of what they mean by “God” or the “supernatural” which is good enough to work with”
I wouldn’t even assume as much. Especially when you take into account the fact that most of this working with you wrote means making rationalizations that justify just about anything.
“but I think noncognitivism just feeds into the belief that atheists can’t think very well.”
Everything feeds this belief on the part of believers. Not a week goes by without an article by theists stating just that.
On the contrary, it thrusts right at the heart of the matter.
What is the true nature of whichever god is under discussion? The answer inevitably hinges on mystery and faith. “My god is ____,” says the believer. “If so, how do you explain ____?” challenges the atheist. “It’s a mystery which you must have faith to believe,” is the best response you can hope for.
God are best understood as a type of character in a certain genre of fiction. Their primary function is to provide a voice of authority for the author of the fiction. The authority of the gods is established by performing that which is truly impossible — and, it must be noted, it is essential that the feats of the gods really must be impossible so that they can’t be topped by mere mortals.
The definitions we get from believers are all drawn from within the fiction and are as relevant to the real world as Platform 19 43/195 in an Hairy Plodder novel. In particular, the definitions, of necessity, include the unique distinguishing features of their god, which essentially derives from the god’s power to do the impossible.
So, is it any wonder that it’s impossible to coherently define the gods outside of the context of the story?
By challenging believers to start with a definition, we force them to admit up front that they really don’t have a clue what the fuck they think they’re babbling about, and that it’s all a con game.
No, mystery and faith are only additional seasoning, as well as being immunizing strategies designed to answer doubt. Believers of all stripes generally think there is (or has been or will be) an ideal state where the existence of God is so obvious and clear that it can no more be doubted than one can doubt one’s own mind. Mystery and faith disappear … and the true nature of God remains, revealed at last.
As I might have already pointed out once or twice, I think virtually all versions of God grow out of our common human experience. The “mental” aspect of existence (thoughts, ideas, awareness, intelligence, goals, values, emotions, etc.) appears to be very different than the “physical” aspect of existence (bodies, rocks, objects, world, sky, etc.)
The religious try to make sense of this, explain it — and get it wrong.
But that’s just it! What is this ideal state? A mystery! Can’t be explained! But I have faith that it’s really real!
Of course — because, again, they’re all characters in a certain type of fiction…and all fiction authored by humans is an exploration of our common human experience. How could it be otherwise? Even space opera science fiction…the aliens are overwhelmingly and instantly recognizably as human, despite makeup and costuming and special effects — in character at the least. And, in the few instances where the aliens aren’t effectively humans — Ridley Scott’s Alien comes to mind — the story is all about common human experience with the alien itself serving as a foil.
Is God fictional? Sure. The belief that God is a fictional character isn’t ‘noncognitivism,’ which is what I was arguing against.
We can imagine finding out that a character we thought was fictional turns out to be real after all. Noncognitivism wouldn’t even be able to grant the concept that much content.
But it goes a very significant step beyond merely being fictional.
We have all sorts of fictional tropes. Star-crossed lovers. Brave heroes who snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Cruel kings who, through being humbled, gain wisdom and become compassionate. Countless more.
The examples I listed are all ones that can very plausibly be found in reality, and it’s not all that difficult to find real-world examples.
But the gods…well, again, the way we know that the character is a god is because s/h/it does something impossible. It’s not enough to merely do something difficult and unlikely and impressive; that just makes you an hero. To be a god requires transcending mere possibility and conquering the truly, really-I-mean-it can’t-even-in-theory-actually-happen, impossible.
But that right there, though it can make for an entertaining story, renders the very notion incoherent. Once the impossible is accomplished, we have proof right there that it isn’t actually impossible. Anybody who did it in the real world would be an hero, but clearly not a god because the mere demonstration of the task shows that it’s not impossible after all.
So you can have a god in fiction, but you can’t have a god in reality.
The religious, of course, insist that their gods really are really real…which is every bit as incoherent as a married bachelor.
Can you give me an example of a character in a story who does something logically impossible, thus demonstrating they’re a god?
I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.
I flat-out reject the distinction between “logically” and “physically” impossible as philosophical bullshit. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil. Put the paper on a flat desk. Is it logic or physics that prevents you from drawing a triangle with two right angles, or a four-sided pentagon? The former you could do if your desk were spherical — or if you redefined “line segment” to mean, “arc”; the two options are equivalent. And the latter is trivial for sufficiently large values of four. But, as stated and without smart-aleck jokes…again, is it physics or logic that renders your pencil impotent?
So, pick any miracle that any god has ever done in any story ever told. Under what circumstances would that miracle actually be possible? If those circumstances were actually met, would you still consider it a miracle?
There’s a perfect and hallowed joke that illustrates the point, with the one prophet telling the other to step on the (submerged) rocks. As soon as you’ve got your explanation for how the trick is done, it’s no longer magic, no longer a trick.
Oh, now I get it. You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Given that it’s a flat desk, then it’s logic (and geometry.) Change the situation and you’ve changed the problem.
Fine. We’ll run with that.
Now, give me an example of something that’s physically impossible, but that isn’t also impossible because of logic (and possibly geometry).
“Good luck with that,” as they say.
A perpetual motion machine. It doesn’t contain a formal contradiction.
Then so, too, is a triangle with two right angles comparably (im)possible. It doesn’t contain any formal contradiction, either; just grab a globe and draw your triangle on it.
But if that perpetual motion machine is embedded in Einsteinian spacetime, just as I specified that the triangle be drawn on a flat desk, then the geometry of the Universe most emphatically makes it impossible.
Logic eliminates contradictions: if you introduce too much ambiguity the problem changes along with the situation. A triangle with more than 3 sides is logically impossible under any conditions because of how we’ve defined “triangle.”
But I did not embed the perpetual machine into Einsteinian spacetime — while removing it. A perpetual motion machine is in principle possible under different physical conditions.
And a triangle with two right angles is in principle possible under different physical conditions.
Worse, it’s trivial to construct such physical conditions for the triangle whereas we have no conceivable method of constructing the physical conditions necessary for your perpetual motion machine. By your (faulty) reasoning, shouldn’t that make the triangle the physical impossibility and the machine the logical impossibility?
All you’re doing is the typical “Ha! Gotcha!” game of claiming that it’s no problem to draw a triangle with two right angles, so long as you pick the piece of paper up off the table and wrap it around a globe.
Assume the paper remains on the table and the machine in question is on our Earth, and not some hypothetical alternative. Is it logic or physics that prevents you from drawing a triangle with two right angles, and is it logic or physics that prevents you from making the machine generate more power than is input into it?
When you come to realize that the question is meaningless, you’ll understand why I reject the notion that there’s any sense to defining the class of impossibility for a particular phenomenon.
Or, another way of looking at it. What’s north of the North Pole? Nothing, obviously. But is it logical nothing or physical nothing?
As soon as you reach a point of impossibility, the result is undefined. Division by zero — any number can satisfy the condition equally well / poorly, so claiming that 42 is the “real” number that you don’t get when you divide by zero is as meaningless as claiming that it’s π that you don’t get when you divide by zero.
“What’s north of the North Pole?”
Old saw, and one that I’ve used myself; but…
My first thought to that post was Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Is that some sort of subconscious literary archetype?
“No, mystery and faith are only additional seasoning”
Mystery and faith is all there is beneath the façade of the man in the sky. In fact, you need very little pushing to see that every literary concept of gods falls apart into nebulous and obfuscatory pieces when used in trying to describe the nature of reality.
“As I might have already pointed out once or twice, I think virtually all versions of God grow out of our common human experience.”
Precisely like literature – which is where the literary concepts of gods, spirits, faeries, monsters, demons, etc. belong.
“The “mental” aspect of existence (thoughts, ideas, awareness, intelligence, goals, values, emotions, etc.) appears to be very different than the “physical” aspect of existence (bodies, rocks, objects, world, sky, etc.)”
“The religious try to make sense of this, explain it — and get it wrong.”
I would argue that instead of trying to make sense of this, what they do is try to rationalize their subjective experiences in a way that convinces them that whatever story they enjoy is real.
“The belief that God is a fictional character isn’t ‘noncognitivism,’ which is what I was arguing against.”
If you consider what I’ve been saying as “noncognitivism”, then this is where you seem to be confused: The standards of definition for fiction, literature, music, art, etc. are not the same as the standards in science and philosophy.
“We can imagine finding out that a character we thought was fictional turns out to be real after all. Noncognitivism wouldn’t even be able to grant the concept that much content.”
From what I gather from your writing, this noncognitivism does not seem to concern itself with fiction – but with linguistics. As literary concepts, for example, Poseidon, Amaterasu, Loki and Tupã are as good as it gets. As philosophical/scientific concepts, not so much. Besides that, for a fictional character to turn out to be real AND actually distinguishable from fiction, it would have to be plausible, consisent and coherent with nature, even if it took some work to discover this consistency.
I don’t think you’re actually arguing for what’s been called ‘theistic noncognitivism.’ I was addressing this:
The theistic non-cognitivists I’ve dealt with in the past insist that all talk of God is equivalent to saying and thinking “higgedy piggedy peg” or the like. There’s no cognitive content which can be considered, analyzed, or argued for or against. The statement above seemed to suggest this position, but I could be mistaken.
Because gods are only coherent within the realm of fiction, the moment one attempts to describe a god that really exists in the real world, you really are saying and thinking “higgedy piggedy peg.”
Bachelors are real. Marriage is real. But a married bachelor is higgedy piggedy peg.
“God are [sic] best understood as a type of character in a certain genre of fiction.”
I agree, God(s) only exists in the context of the story being told. God has no existence out-of-context.
The most relevant point, though, I left out of my original reply, sorry:
So, basically, it’s pretty much futile talking about “evidence” for godstuffs, since such evidence would be, ultimately, indistinguishable from hallucination, collective histeria, imagination or a simulated universe
I believe some are getting too far off the base of this guy’s writings. He came out attacking atheist and making a lot of statements about them that just don’t wash. Defining evidence and who’s meaning of g*d, is way down stream. This guy is hard core catholic and there is nothing difficult about defining that g*d.
If the guy can’t make a straight statement, even about what an atheist is, what the hell does he know or care about evidence?
Not if you can imagine hypothetical situations where all these more plausible explanations wouldn’t work.
As for the radical brain-in-a-vat scenarios, if they’re formulated in such a way that makes it impossible that the deception could be discovered even in principle, then they’d make it impossible for us to know anything in science, either. We can discount them wholesale as sophistry.
“Not if you can imagine hypothetical situations where all these more plausible explanations wouldn’t work.”
Not just imagine it, but express it in the same standards as all these more plausible explanations.
“As for the radical brain-in-a-vat scenarios, if they’re formulated in such a way that makes it impossible that the deception could be discovered even in principle, then they’d make it impossible for us to know anything in science, either. We can discount them wholesale as sophistry.”
Yep. Yet, it’s still possible-in-principle AND actually plausible.
No it isn’t because of deep physics reasons that Torbjörn consistently brings up and I constantly fail to remember with any confidence … something about hidden variables?
The arguments against simulation (including “no hidden variables) only work if you assume that the simulation is both honest and limited to the sorts of resources available to a civilization one might find in a typical solar system.
Once you assume either that the simulation is actively programmed to foil detection by those inside it, or that the “computer” doing the simulation has more “stuff” to it than our universe does, then those arguments can’t continue to hold, even in principle.
Imagine, for example, this XKCD:
with a beach of sufficient size to calculate all outcomes of all Quantum Many Worlds to a precision orders of magnitude more refined than Planck Length.
So that is, if the vat is actually the Cosmos!
No, the vat could, conceivably, itself be part of something much larger still.
It would likely help to compare the whole thing with Turing’s Halting Problem. Just as it’s impossible to determine whether or not any given program will eventually halt, it’s impossible to determine whether or not there are any limits to the extent of the perceivable universe or if there’s anything “beyond” said universe.
There are however, a great many ways to gain practical confidence in such matters for non-pathological conditions. We can, for example, be reasonably confident that, if we are in a Matrix-style simulation, said simulation is vastly more sophisticated than anything we can currently conceive of constructing, to the point that any distinctions between it and the Cosmos as we perceive it might as well be moot. Either that, or whoever is behind the conspiracy is doing a great job at paying attention to our thoughts and manipulating them in a way that keeps us from discovering the truth.
Not any point in taking either option seriously, of course.
Black’s god wasn’t watching when he smuggled incriminating documents out of his former offices, but luckily the security cameras were. So much for his devine morality.
Of course there is also the convenience of confession – in full privacy, away from the eyes of the law – that can wipe the slate clean again for you if you have sinned.
But as Brian would say, always look on the bright side of life. CNN has had some pretty regular articles in their web site about atheists, how they came out against family resistance, and why they believe the way they do. To their credit, they have been telling the stories pretty well without a hint of bashing.
Not me — it means someone’s doing something right!
So, keep bringing it, oh sanctimonious offended ones! Keep reanimating long dead arguments, and we’ll keep progressing and coming up with more data to heat up your Shrinky Dink* gods.
* Shrinky Dinks on Wikipedia.
Fork in the brain.
I am at a loss as to why anyone (except David Frum) would give a rat’s patoot about anything the criminal englishman Black would have to say about anything. In my opinion no matter what he says, or writes, or does it is all directed towards his rehabilitation so he can get back the Canadian citizenship he tossed away so easily when it suited his purpose. I say deport him to Tower Hamlets where his baronetcy and a few quid might get him a kabob at some takeout place.
I think a lot of religious people don’t care who or what the source that bashes atheists and atheism is, as long as it hits all the tropes, dog whistles, and flattering points regarding how important and special it is to have faith in Higher Powers.
Iirc they actually even quote Jeffrey Dahmer — from an interview he gave which shifted blame for his crimes to believing in evolution and his not thinking he was “accountable” to God. There may be a perverse idea that a source with a nasty past is MORE reliable than one which has always been honest, because they got better and can give us the scoop on how atheism once made them evil.
We don’t want him back, thank you!
I’ll second that!
He lives here IIRC in his fancy ass house.
Fancy ass house for a fancy ass hole, eh?
Yes, something like that.
There, it would be a kebab.
We should note that a religious outlook and belief won’t come amiss in Harper’s cabinet where religion rides high. It is the cabinet that gets to decide on Black’s citizenship application.
He’ll get back in, Harper never does anything the people want.
We should make an Atheist Bashing bingo card, with links to rebuttals of each predictable claim. Then every time one of these articles comes out, just check the appropriate boxes and send that.
You could probably make it a drinking game too.
Take your pick!
You Canadians who forced me to spend 1.5 hours writing this—you go spread this message on the Post website and to Blackophiles.
5655 comments so far and the overall message seems to align quite nicely with your general critique.
2. Without religion we wouldn’t have a good source of morality.
Seriously? Canadians stopped reading at this line from that ridiculous windbag.
Honestly, professor, I don’t think you are required to provide comment to convicted felons especially one who is obviously a front man for the catholic church. I’m not sure a guy named black could get much lower than that.
But wait, there is one more thing. He is also described as a British Newspaper Publisher and that folks, is almost certain membership into assholes of the world, if such a group exist.
Conrad Black does not know who these people are. Ignorant and pedestrian; like doing doing physics without knowing what momentum is.
Black got a thorough caning in the comments on his piece. I contributed my mite but got tired of trying to answer the same question from believers; “show me the evidence for atheism”!
God, what an asshole.
Is it just me, or the “atheists were so much better back in the day” sounding more and more like a veiled way of saying, “the only good atheist is a dead atheist”?
If incorrect, it’s an honest mistrake in this case. As I noted in that other thread, Jesus had on hell of a lot of father figures. Either Joseph had two daddies or Jesus had two Josephs. The Holy Spirit impregnated Mary. Theologically, of course, God the Father is Jesus’s father. But, according to Jesus, he and the Father are One, making him his own father. And the Trinity is its own Voltron figure, making that another father. Then there’s all the language about Adam being the father of all mankind…and more patriarchs than you can swing a talking snake stick at…and….
So…Freud may well have had his own father issues, but I can hardly blame him for seeing fathers everywhere in Christianity.
Two ways to take that. Both would seem to apply.
“The only good atheist is a dead atheist” pretty much covers it I reckon. And although it’s clear Freud was a bit off the mark in many ways, I think he hit the nail on the head with religion being the wish for, if not necessarily a father figure, some kind of powerful person to look after you, tell you what to think, tell you what to do, and generally assuage your anxiety about the uncertainties of life. It’s all so very childish.
And, even if religion isn’t a search / desire for an authority figure…it’s most unquestionably sold on the basis of the (imaginary) authority figures in the fables as spoken through the voices of the priests.
You might not think you need another father figure, but here’s this priest telling you that the biggest badass motherfucker of an abusive father is already whipping out his belt for the worst beating of your life…and who’re you to argue with that kind of threat? Better hand over your lunch money, just to be safe.
With nigh-infinite variations on that theme, of course.
I love how he disparages the God-of-the-gaps argument and then goes on to talk about the gaps in science immediately afterwards.
And he calls Darwin a Christian, even a good one? Darwin wrote that he thought of himself as an agnostic and refrained from criticizing religion because it would offend his family members (perhaps his wife: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/08/many-times-i-have-kissed-and-cryed-over.html)
“They’re unexplained, but I know for a fact that God caused them.”
Now now. There you go, stridently pointing out minor little logical flaws.
God’s ways are mysterious and no finite being can comprehend Him. By the way, He gave me some rules He wants you to follow and from now on I get 10% of everybody’s income.
I love how these clowns seem to be completely unfamiliar with philosophy in general, let alone ethical philosophy.
WITH God, everything is possible. Other systems have to explain themselves, make a case, persuade followers they’re doing the right thing. This leaves secular systems open to criticism and correction. It’s very telling that secular systems which don’t want to entertain any criticism or correction immediately close themselves off like a religion.
Because the ONLY thing religion brings to the table when it comes to morals is the excuse that the laws and rules don’t need justification, only obedience. Divorced from the need to make sense, they can go anywhere.
Hell, look at the list of prescriptions and proscriptions of that highly conservative Orthodox Jewish group we were looking at the other day. Would any secular society with a healthy respect for science and debate come up with that garbage? Those are rules handed down by God. Your task is to obey, not wonder what the purpose is. The purpose is that you obey. Good and evil are reduced to pallid formulations of what God-the- Beyond- Reproach likes and dislikes.
As a minor footnote to Sastra’s comment, another discipline these clowns seem to be unfamiliar with is literature. Dostoyevsky put those words – or something like them – into the mouth of Dmitri Karamazov; but it is not necessarily the case that Dmitri can be taken as believing them, let alone that Dostoyevsky did.
Beat me to it. Good at using something resembling academic-speak, but didn’t actually do the homework.
AND, Reverend Mr. Black, The Brothers Karamazov is an (effing) novel for crissakes!
Well, I suppose if you accept other pieces of fiction as your basis for life and sources of truth, then adding another shouldn’t be surprising.
Following his own logic, Black should conclude that Orwell was a real-life advocate for the kind of government he described in 1984.
But, But he is an author — He fancies himself an historian and history writing is his specialty.
Beautifully put, Sastra.
“WITH God, everything is possible.”
Yes, this is what I continually point out to theists who worry rhetorically that “without God who KNOWS what we would justify morally?”
They have gotten it completely backwards. WITH God EVERYTHING is morally justified. That is, on the premise they hold that God is good, then every instance of suffering that has ever occurred no matter how horrendous, every way any human has ever inflicted torture, harm and suffering on another person…ever…and in any way one could conceive of in the future…ALL of it is Morally Justified insofar as one holds a Good God is justified in allowing it to happen.
Their worry that anything could be morally justified is just a tad off-target.
Yes! This is the logic by which, for instance, WLC contrives to justify the biblical (but thankfully not historical) genocides commanded by JHWH. To be fair, many Christians (but maybe not WLC) have outgrown this attitude. Some other believers…not so much.
“Because god said so” is the carte blanche to end all cartes blanches.
A carte blanchêtt, so to speak?
One of the beauties of science is that as progress is made it opens up further, new questions to investigate – like exploring a continent. The fact that over the brow of the hill you see more hills in the distance does not mean that you haven’t mapped out the territory already explored. There is a vast amount to know so scientists won’t run out of questions any time soon but they are steadily improving our understanding of the way the world works.
By contrast the religious mind is immune to advancement of knowledge because it accepts a truth written in an archaic book and refuses to look for any answers outside of this.
A pic of the old lag in his prime:
He’s always had delusions of grandeur.
In addition to Black’s criminal past, he offended Canadians by renouncing his Canadian citizenship in order to become a “Lord”. Then, as soon as he got himself in trouble, he came running back to Canada. A lot of Canadians didn’t want to take him back here.
He’s nutty – sometimes refusing to speak English to reporters & replying only in French (and he isn’t French Canadian).
He has a large dose of David Berlinski in him, I think. (or vice versa) Quite enamored of the sound of his own voice, very happy with his vocabulary, and more than a little pleased with his oratorical poses.
Equivalently lacking in any ability to perceive when he is out of his depth.
A pompous windbag who is not taken seriously any more (if he ever was).
You’re very charitable. (What I call him is not fit to be posted on this site).
As a Canadian, I am embarrassed by this. Are they ever going to come up with new arguments? They just repeat the same tired, worn out old arguments over and over again. >.<
Mr Black thinks that he is so superior in intellect that his pontifications must be true. If he repeats them often enough using ever more flowery prose his inferiors ( he writes for those inferiors BTW) MUST believe him.
Anybody who has seen Black in action knows that he is an arrogant, condescending, vainglorious son of a bitch.
Don’t worry, Black is no longer a Canadian.
Let me guess…the preferred term is now, “African Canadian”?
For this “Black” I think the words are much less PC.
I seem to remember that Black was involved in the setup and such of the National Post to begin with.
Black needs to learn to spell ‘D*gstoyevsky’
Yes, time to stop playing Whack-A-Mole: atheist bashing.
I’d rather read your informed opinion about horizontal gene transfer, in reference to the link received in my email from WEIT to the paper on HGT in Genome Biology.
I’m planning on writing about that, but do be aware that PCC doesn’t like people telling him what to write about and what not.
Just a humble suggestion from a devoted reader. Point taken, however.
If theoretical physics is diaphanous piffle, then I must conclude thT piffle of the diaphanous variety is the finest and most substantial piffle there is to be had. Henceforth I shall accept no other piffle but the diaphanous kind!
I think the finest piffle is of the dianaphous kind.
Go get your own piffles. These are mine!
Thank you Professor Coyne.
I too read this offal in the Post and answered it as best I could but you have done it so much better.
Thank you sir.
Here’s a possible reason: the rise of the ‘nones.’ Their (CB’s) product is not selling as well as it used to. They can’t really say anything good about it you haven’t heard before, because they haven’t updated it in centuries. So they are forced to tell stories about why the competitor’s product sucks.
When such obvious ad homs cause even more people to leave organized faith, I predict that they’ll double down and take that as a sign that they need to make even louder, more extreme comments about atheism. So I would say: expect the rate and vitriol of such op-eds to increase for the next few years. Until somebody smart realizes that such nastygrams are hurting the faith more than helping it.
That was a particularly brutal read, with much self-abusive face-palming.
Conrad Black is a blowhard so you know it’s going to be awful, but…wow.
Right off the bat, appealing to Dr. John Lennox, and it’s “here comes that sinking feeling…”
Then it’s the trope of every “New Atheists Are So Unsophisticated” piece to mention….wait for it…waaaait for it…
Dostoevsky! BAM! Take that New Atheists. Dostoevsky quotes prove the emptiness of your world view, and you’d know it if you ever opened a book older than The God Delusion!
Throw in the usual appeals to Augustine, Aquinas – if only you naive atheists were aware that our theology has been non-literal and sophisticated since the early church! – and it’s like a paint by numbers one could do blind-folded.
We atheists are to be pitied for our short-sighted desire to hold views based on careful evidential reasoning, rather than availing ourselves of the glorious explanatory power of “magic.”
It pisses me off more that Black slams Dostoyevsky!! I’m used to him being a douche about everything else.
FWIW, Jeffrey Shallit also commented on Black’s nonsense. His blog also has a couple of comments regarding John Lennox, who was admirably cited by Black.
3. If atheism is based on faith, then so is absolutely everything. Black’s assertion that he has arms and legs is ultimately based on faith: how does he know he’s not an incorporeal brain in a vat?
4. ??? The unknown is infinite. No one ever claimed it wasn’t. Claiming this makes science problematic is a stupid non-sequitur.
Well, if he is a brain in a vat, I think we all know what the vat is full of….
Maybe Black is thinking of the claim or rather realistic hope that the basic laws of nature is finite, or that the observable universe is finite, both putting some constraint on the unknown.
But when we want to formalize what we see we must account for Goedel’s theorems, with which we have to add detail at every emergent level or we run into inconsistencies.
As I understand it no specific theory will cover the totality of possible observations, conversely the number of theories will flourish, and has historically done so. I don’t think anyone has put a ceiling on what it entails, and “the unknown is infinite” is the age old null hypothesis here.
And just to add detail, in string theory the number of possible basic laws is ~ 10^500… Pretty much infinite in practice.
On the subject of Gödel and his famous theorem and its limits…again, paranoid conspiracy theories are the perfect illustrating example. You cannot, even in principle, rule out the possibility that you’re a brain in a vat or a subroutine of the Matrix or what-not. And even if you were to somehow reasonably conclude that you are a brain in a vat, you’re still left with the impossibility of ruling out that your vat (and brain) is, in turn, a subroutine of the Matrix.
However, the number of such conspiracy theories is truly infinite. Your brain-vat is blue; your brain-vat is red; your brain-vat is purple with yellow polka dots and green stripes.
So, there will always be such as an absolute limit to the boundaries of knowledge, for any entity — even any hypothetical gods one might care to propose.
And, within the realm of the sane, there will still be similar limits. For example, P =? NP may not be solvable, but it might in addition be impossible to determine if it is or isn’t solvable. If that’s the case, we’ll never know…is the fact that it hasn’t been solved because it can’t be solved, or because it’s very difficult and we’re not clever enough to figure it out?
It must be noted, however, in start contrast, that human-scale phenomena are not only solvable but have been solved; the Standard Model is a brute-force solution to anything any of us will ever personally experience, even if we may lack the brute to force a given particular solution.
To be clear, you mean boundaries to *obtainable* knowledge for a given entity? It seems to me that knowledge itself, that is, what may be known given infinite time and energy, is also infinite.
Hmmm…tossing around the “infinite” word twists things around in difficult-to-understand ways.
The most straightforward way to interpret that would be a Turing-like machine that could, for example, complete an infinite number of steps in a finite amount of time. That would be capable of “hypercomputation” and would solve all the insolvable problems. It also trivially leads to contradictions, such as being able to tell you what the last digit of π is. And it would either require or permit the construction of a perpetual motion machine, assuming the laws of physics are what we understand them to be.
So…trying to figure out what would be possible for such an impossible machine (/ entity) to compute…would seem to itself be an exercise in defining the undefined.
Irrational numbers are a perfect example of what I mean. Pi is only one number, or term (if that’s a better…term). And it’s already infinite all by itself. If we can’t even know all the digits in pi, how can we hope to know *everything* there is to know?
First…all numbers have an infinite number of decimal digits to them — and, for that matter, at least two infinite decimal expansions. The unitary integer can be represented either by 1.000… or 0.999…. A real mathematician might be able to tell you if there’re any other such infinite decimal representations of the same number.
Your point about π, though, gets to the question of what is meant by “knowledge.” You can’t, even in principle, know what the “last” digit of π is, of course, because there’s no such beast; the words may parse in English, but they don’t actually have any meaning.
Similarly, what would it mean to know “all” the digits of π?
What you can know is how to calculate those digits; that’s trivial. You can also know how to geometrically derive π-related figures…but a square with sides π long…? It might even be reasonable to suggest that no such figure actually exists, any more than exist any triangles in traditional Euclidean space with more than two right angles.
…so, would infinite knowledge include the dimensions of a squared circle?
It is through such contemplation that you quickly realize that, just perhaps, infinite knowledge might itself be as nonexistent as the last digit of π…and, it so happens, Gödel and Turing would agree with you.
Turing especially. His famous Halting Problem demonstrated that it is impossible, even in principle, to know if any arbitrary computer program will terminate or run forever (if given infinite resources). You can make the determination for various subsets of computer programs, but it’s logically impossible for any entity, no matter how hypothetically smart or knowledgeable, to know the answer for all possible computer programs.
So, no. You can’t know everything — not even in principle.
And neither can any god, no matter how extra-super-duper smart the theist would have you imagine it to be.
Actually, I suspect (and would love to have the energy to prove rigorously) that all hypercomputers *also* suffer from a self-halting problem. “Infinite” here has to be well specified to know how complicated they are – as far as I can tell only continuum many steps has the sliver of chance of being understandable as a “real thing”. (All hypercomputing models I can recall off hand actually only use aleph null steps, if that’s how they work, though some use continuum state)
Hypercomputation is an extended exercise in division by zero. Try hard enough, and you can exploit the contradictions to “prove” any outcome you might like.
…and, even if somebody did manage to square the circle and propose a coherent theoretical hypercomputer, we’re still left with overwhelming confidence that you couldn’t actually build even a reasonable approximation of one in the real world. You see, you could trivially use one to construct a perpetual motion machine. Just use it to predict the future motions of some volume of gas and play the role of Maxwell’s Daemon….
I don’t know…do you think Black deserves that much credit?
Besides, Black claimed it was the “atheistic scientists” who say there is a finite amount of knowledge that science will one day exhaust. I’d like to know which scientists say this.
“I’m doing this today to appease my Canadian readers.”
This may be the first incident of appeasement of Canadians.
If you’re going to appease people, they might as well be Canadians.
At least we’ll be sorry for putting someone to the trouble of appeasing us.
We need no appeasement. A quick note — “The [insert paper] trots outs out the same tired errors. Sad.” — is more than enough to place me at least. I’d rather you spend 1.5 hours on something useful or personally rewarding. It really does no good to endlessly play whack-a-mole with dross like this.
It’s a train wreck of fractal errors. Here is a smaller problem:
Old Fraud a skeptic!?
I thought it was clear he systematically made stuff up, placing him as a pseudoscientist and not a skeptic. Modern skeptic organisations take science aboard.
i thought the comment that college kid made in the article regarding safe spaces was a perfect retort to the whole “new atheists are too militant/strident” nonsense.
“Kindness alone won’t allow us to gain more insight into truth.”
Poor Prof. CC!
Now I feel guilty — I am genuinely sorry for being one of the Canadians who inflicted the scourge of Baron Black upon you, & I sincerely apologize for doing so.
It’s just that you’re so skilled at dismantling the claims of these sanctimonious, bigoted hypocrites! — & Black being an especially noxious example (at least, north of the 49th), I couldn’t resist sending it along. The man holds forth on a regular basis, &, to many secular Canadians, is a festering sore that cries out for picking.
I shall disseminate this post far & wide, however, so perhaps you will get some new readers out of it.
Hey Black, here’s some advice for you from one of the old atheists: “It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.” Since it’s not clear you’ve read, or understood him, the quote is from Bertrand Russell.
But if there can be no good or evil if God does not exist, then there can be no
evil if God does not exist. So if God doesn’t exist, nothing bad can ever happen to anyone. The conclusion of the God as the source of ethics argument implies that there is nothing good about a Godless universe – but it equally implies that there is nothing bad about it either. If this argument is sound there can be nothing awful or
horrible about a Godless universe. The short version of the self-contradictory
message is “Without God there would be no value in the universe – and think how horrible that would be!”