“Religious fictionalism”: The TLS argues that you should pretend to believe in God even if there’s no evidence for him

February 22, 2019 • 9:30 am

I used to write quite a bit for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), but my interest in that has waned—as, I suspect, has theirs in me—as they’ve become ever softer on religion. (As I recall, they even got a theologian to review Faith versus Fact, which is like having the Pope review The God Delusion).  Although the UK is far less religious than is the U.S., much British media still shows an unaccountable weakness for religion, perhaps abiding by the paternalistic “Little People’s Argument” that faith, even if unwarranted, is good for society. (I’m talking to you, BBC.)

And that’s the argument made in this execrable piece by Philip Goff in the new TLS (h/t: Michael). Click on the screenshot to read it:

My main research project is trying to work out how consciousness fits into our overall theory of reality. I argue that the traditional approaches of materialism (consciousness can be explained in terms of physical processes in the brain) and dualism (consciousness is separate from the body and brain) face insuperable difficulties. On the basis of this I defend a form of panpsychism, the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world. It sounds a bit crazy, but I try to show that it avoids the difficulties faced by its rivals .

Ooookay, well, that’s not propitious, and yes, it does sound a bit crazy. In fact, a whole lot crazy. I’ve criticized Goff’s view of panpsychism (and panpsychism in general) three times on this site (here, here and here), and you can read those posts to see where he goes off the rails.

Further, I’m not sure what “the insuperable difficulties of materialism” are, for there are innumerable pieces of evidence showing that consciousness has a material (and naturalistic) basis. But let’s leave that aside and pass on to Goff’s arguments for why we should be religious even if there’s no evidence for God.

Goff makes two arguments why doubters should be religious. The first is that religious “faith” isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be by atheists. It is, in fact, not “belief without evidence”, as most of us think it is (and as the Bible defines it!), but a form of cheerleading, of hope that something is true without having much confidence that it’s true. It’s like having faith (in the case of Matthew Cobb), that Manchester City will lead the Premier League. Here’s part of Goff’s lucubrations:

Separating “faith” from “belief” also makes sense outside a religious context. Suppose a loved one is seriously ill and the prognosis is not good. You might say to that person, “I have faith that you’re going to live”. This does not necessarily mean that you believe that your loved one will live; you might be entirely realistic about the chances of survival. What you mean is that you are rooting for that possibility: you are personally committing to living in hope that the illness will be overcome. Faith is a matter of hopeful commitment. To take another example, anyone taking a cold hard look at the facts must accept that the odds of humans preventing climate catastrophe do not look great; certainly, it is more likely that we will fail than that we will succeed. Nonetheless, many continue to have faith that our species will rise to the occasion. Again, this is not a matter of believing, against all the evidence, that climate change will be dealt with. It rather means committing to live, and more importantly to act, in the hope of a better outcome. Such leaps of faith are not irrational; they are what give life meaning and significance. It would be a sad world if everyone apportioned their aspirations for the future in the manner of an insurance broker.

This, of course, is connected with the claim that religious people don’t really take as true foundational statements such as “God exists” or “Jesus was the son of God/God sent to Earth to redeem humans”, “Jesus was resurrected,” “there is an afterlife” or “God dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad through Gabriel”. These aren’t beliefs, avers Goff, but simply hopes.  

That, of course, is bullshit, and you don’t have to know much about the history or sociology of religion to see that. People were killed for not signing onto these beliefs, and they continue to be killed. And that kind of extermination of those who didn’t have the same “hopeful commitment” as you has been going on for millennia.

This is connected with Goff’s familiar but erroneous claim that, in the old days, believers didn’t really think that religious claims were strictly true, and that that’s a recent change in the nature of religion:

According to conventional wisdom, religions are systems of belief. Religious people are “believers”. Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead; Muslims believe that Mohammed was the final prophet; Jews believe that the creator of the universe has a special affection for the children of Israel. These beliefs of the religious are often taken to be unsupported by, or even inconsistent with, available evidence. Indeed, many understand “faith” as a matter of believing without any evidence at all.

However, this belief-orientated – or “doxastic” – conception of religion is not universally accepted. According to the historian of religion Karen Armstrong, the doxastic conception of religion is a relatively recent development, shaped by the Protestant Reformation and the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century. Armstrong goes so far as to argue that our modern doxastic conception of religion is largely the result of mistranslation. In terms of Christianity, one difficulty with translating the Greek of the New Testament into English is that the English word “faith”, unlike the Greek equivalent “pistis”, does not have a verb form. Hence what should really be the verb “to faith” comes out as “to believe”. When the Bible was first rendered in English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this was not a bad translation. The word “bileven” in middle English meant to prize or to hold dear (related to the German “belieben”) and when the King James Bible was published, “believe” was close in meaning to the Greek pistis, which has connotations of engagement and commitment. As one piece of evidence for this, Armstrong offers a line from Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (written shortly before the publication of the King James Bible) in which Bertram is urged to “believe not thy distain”; in other words, he is being told not to engage his contempt (in this case for the low-born Helena) and let it take root in his heart.

But as the enlightenment progressed, the word “belief” came to be associated with a cold-blooded intellectual assent to a hypothetical proposition, before eventually coming to have the meaning it has today. The result is that reading the New Testament in modern English one has the impression that Jesus is very much concerned with which hypotheses about reality one accepts. We even learn that salvation depends on it. However, as the philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder has argued in detail, the contexts in which Jesus talks of “faith” make it quite clear that he was concerned with the resilience of the religious commitment of the people around him rather than with their abstract theories of reality; in other words, with “belief” in the sixteenth-century rather than the twenty-first-century sense.

Umm. . . Karen Armstrong’s apophatic theology is hardly the be-all and end-all of religious thought.  Yes, if there are dissenters like her, then literalism isn’t “universally” accepted. But it is very widely accepted. Muslims, for example, are mostly Qur’anic literalists, as are many Americans (see these two polls). Here, for instance is a 2014 Pew graph on Americans’ “rooting for God”. 63% of them are rooting VERY HARD. LOL!

A recent Gallup Poll. I guess a lot of Americans are also rooting for Hell and Satan!

A 2013 Harris poll. Americans are rooting hard for EVERYTHING religious! Note, though, that they’re not rooting as hard for Darwin. . .

These data are enough to put paid to Goff’s claim. (The good news is that belief is declining while acceptance of evolution is on the rise. These two trends are, of course, connected.) Would Goff want to venture to, say, Saudi Arabia, and tell Muslims that they don’t really believe that the Qur’an is Allah’s word, or even that Allah really exists? If he wouldn’t do that, why not?

As for the history of religion, just read Aquinas and Augustine and see if you think they didn’t really have a literal belief in the truth claims of Christianity. Of course they did! And they believed in the same way that we construe belief: the Church Fathers, with very, very few exceptions, thought that the whole Jesus story was real, that there were angels, that there was a literal hell, and so on. For them, and the medieval believers, these weren’t just hopes. They were convictions. The firm belief that religious truths were real facts about the Universe is not recent!

I hate to say this, but Goff, in trying to coddle religion, though he may be an atheist, is crossing the border into idiocy.

And then Goff plants himself firmly in Idiotsville. His second claim is that even if we’re pretty sure that there is no God, and that religious truth claims are bogus, we should still believe because, well, it’s good for us. This is, of course, the Little People’s Argument, which is patronizing and condescending.


But suppose you think the arguments for the existence of God fail entirely. Or suppose you think we have very good reason to think that God does not exist, such as is arguably provided by the familiar problem of evil: the difficulty in reconciling God’s existence with the evil and suffering we find in the world. Could you still have some grounds for taking religion seriously? One might think not. Yet there is a philosophical position that combines out and out atheism with a positive commitment to religious practice; this is the view known as “religious fictionalism”.

Religious fictionalists hold that the contentious claims of religion, such as “God exists” or “Jesus rose from the dead” are all, strictly speaking, false. They nonetheless think that religious discourse, as part of the practice in which such discourse is embedded, has a pragmatic value that justifies its use. To put it simply: God is a useful fiction. In fact, fictionalism is popular in many areas of philosophy. There are, for example, moral fictionalists and mathematical fictionalists, who think that there are pragmatic benefits to using moral/mathematical language even though such discourse fails to correspond to a genuine reality (there are, on these views, no such things as goodness or the number 9, any more than there are dragons or witches). Religious fictionalists merely extend this approach to the statements of religion.

What is the pragmatic benefit for the atheist of using religious language? The religious fictionalist Andrew Eshleman proposes that religious discourse can be understood as mythological, by which he means “a meaning-loaded narrative that has been adopted by a particular community to give expression to and foster a form of life defined by its guiding ideals”. The religious community is bound together across space and time by its stories, rituals, regular meetings and celebration of rites of passage. At a time when globalization has fractured communities and weakened our shared forms of life, there is arguably a real need for institutions that bring people together around a shared moral purpose. The rise of nationalism around much of Europe may, in part, speak to a deep human need for shared structures of meaning.

This is ridiculous, and I’m surprised that the TLS would put such nonsense on their pages. You don’t have to profess belief in Jesus or God or anything divine to have a sense of community. We know this because there are countries that lack religious belief but retain a sense of community, with citizens banding together to take care of each other and build a better society. Exhibit A: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

And seriously, can people really find meaning in their lives while only pretending to pay obeisance to people and tenets that they know aren’t real? How does that work? Maybe other people can worship mythological people and thereby find a sense of community, but I’ve always found it impossible to profess belief in things I don’t think have much of a chance of being true.

Goff’s whole argument hinges on the fact that worshiping God and professing belief gives you a sense of community that is inaccessible by any other route. He’s wrong, and I suspect he knows it. As the world loses its faith, it’s getting more moral: exactly the opposite of what you expect if a sense of community must be tied to religious beliefs. This is because religious belief foster not inclusiveness but divisiveness, and much religious “morality” is counterproductive in today’s world. What is productive is an empathic humanism: the kind of ideology that creates the kind of communities that exist in secular places. And yes, France and Germany and Denmark do have citizens with a sense of community. Imagine going to church and saying the Nicene Creed if you’re an atheist! But that’s what Goff would have us do. I suppose he thinks of the Nicene Creed, which repeats “I believe” over and over again, is just like the kind of chants that British soccer fans make at matches. It’s a hope!

Goff’s Big Finish:

If God’s nature cannot be captured in human language, it follows that talk of God as having personal characteristics – such as “wisdom” or “omnipotence” – although perhaps essential for regular practice, is strictly speaking a fiction. The crude literalism at which atheists such as Richard Dawkins take aim has never been the full story of religious faith.

Contemporary society tells us we must choose between secular atheism and dogmatic certainty. Those who find themselves unable to adopt either of these stark options label themselves “spiritual but not religious”. But it is hard to nurture spirituality in isolation, without a community and without a tradition. In fact, the liberal wing of traditional religion provides plenty of opportunity for a non-dogmatic approach to spirituality, one that is consistent with uncertain faith, with non-traditional belief and even with outright atheism.

Which church, then, should we “outright atheists” join? The Unitarian Universalists? The Quakers? Buddhism? That may be fine for some atheists, but I suspect that most of us don’t need it.

As Rebecca Goldstein told me when she read this article and gave me her take (quoted by permission):

The lengths that people will go to say: “Yeah I’m an atheist but isn’t religion rather lovely.”

86 thoughts on ““Religious fictionalism”: The TLS argues that you should pretend to believe in God even if there’s no evidence for him

  1. What utter claptrap. Goff’s insuperable problem with materialistic consciousness is that it doesn’t support his preferred view of the world. His idea that we should just all pretend, and become “cheerleaders” takes on a truly horrific cast when one remembers the Inquisition, and all the other times when people, who supposedly didn’t really believe the doctrinal stuff, were killing each other on that basis. Or said they were; maybe it was really some sort of secular spirit-rally to show how committed they were to their “community.”

    1. How hard would it be to come up with examples where your pretending to be something you aren’t, achieved a greater long-term social good, than if you simply blasted all religious claims with atheist apologetics at all times?

      By the way, how often in life DO we pretend to be something we aren’t, or pretend to adopt a belief we actually disagree with?

      How often do we say “have a nice day” when we actually don’t give a shit whether they live or die?

      1. Re: your last sentence, per Mark Twain: “Good manners is the means by which we conceal how highly we think of ourselves and how little we think of others.”

    2. Oh dear. Studies of religious experience, NDEs, reincarnation, spontaneous cases of psi (you can find academic research on these yourself) converge on some mind-like aspect to Reality. Thence to belief in religion (though a move away from traditional gods is necessary).

  2. Thanks again for taking one for the team by reading this stuff.

    Looks like the usual switching between different uses of the word “faith” in the hope that nobody notices.

    The “faith” that Manchester City will lead the Premier League is of course entirely evidence-based.

    1. Heh. When I lived just outside Manchester in the early 90s a friend was a man City fan. They were in the league below the top & really were not very good. Then they got bought by someone very rich who threw loads of cash at them. So here we are!

      Hell, I’m a Portsmouth fan. I *know* that we are far better than Southampton even though they are 2 divisions higher than we are.

  3. Honestly, we seem to have heard this claptrap a hundred times here over the years. I do not know how you have the patience to analyse & disassemble such a load of nonsense, but thanks.

    He says “It would be a sad world if everyone apportioned their aspirations for the future in the manner of an insurance broker.”
    Why would it???

    1. I tweeted it to the TLS and may contact my ex-editor there just to let them know that people are watching. It probably doesn’t matter, though.

      I suppose I wrote about this because I hadn’t hear of the term (or movement) of “religious fictionalism” before.

      1. Your piece on Science vs. Religion at The Conversation seemed to be attacked by a crowd of religious fictionalists. They kept decrying your empoverished and ignorant assumption that religion had anything to do with ‘facts’ or ‘beliefs.’

    2. Referring to an “insurance broker” suggests Pascal’s Wager. I guess he’d rather unbelievers pretend for communities sake than for self defense. Either way isn’t it a lie?

  4. I confess to some sympathy for panpsychism. No, I don’t think that inanimate objects have consciousness the way we do, because we do know that a biological infrastructure is required for that sort of thing.

    But I do wonder if other stuff has some sort of subjective experience that is totally different from our own.

    I guess the main thing that makes me inclined towards this view is that it seems odd to me that this emergent phenomenon took 14 billion years to show up in this universe. That, and this video:

    1. Lots of things–lots of processes– took billions of years to show up. Life for instance. What doesnt seem to show up is new essences. But, humans find it hard not to think in terms of essences

    2. ‘But I do wonder if other [animate] stuff has some sort of subjective experience that is totally different from our own.’

      Well, thought is free (at least for the present), so wonder on. But this is vague, and it’s hard to see how ‘other stuff’ in this biome could have a ‘biological infrastructure’ and yet end up with a subjectivity ‘totally different from our own.’

  5. According to Wiktionary the Greek ‘πιστις’ does indeed mean faith, but it is a noun, not a verb as Goff pretends, and its root is translated as ‘persuade’, not commit.

    People like to think that previous generations were all idiots, but I think the translators of the King James bible did a very good job. That effort began in 1604 while according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘believe’

    Meaning “be persuaded of the truth of” (a doctrine, system, religion, etc.) is from mid-13c.; meaning “credit upon the grounds of authority or testimony without complete demonstration, accept as true” is from early 14c. General sense “be of the opinion, think” is from c. 1300. [Note the dates of these generally accepted meanings.]

    Goff’s argument is not only fatuous, his scholarship is atrocious.

  6. There is an abyss out there called “I don’t know”. Staring into that abyss can be a scary thing, I certainly do not dwell on it. But as an atheist raised in Catholicism and married into Church of Christ (talk about extremes in Christianity) it seems to me that so many people cannot stand the idea of not knowing; faith gives them comfort. But as long as churches exist and provide community, which we humans seem to desire, faith will continue to exist. And instead of trying to help people understand there is no evidence for any gods or afterlives and instead that their actions have consequences on them, their families, and the world around them, Goff and his ilk continue to try and justify a position of belief without evidence.

    1. “…so many people cannot stand the idea of not knowing; faith gives them comfort.”

      As I was reading this post, I asked myself why it is so important to so many that we have “faith”. I believe your statement hits the nail on the head in answering that.

      I don’t care what those people believe. It is not my focus in life to convince them that they are wrong. But, so many of them spend a lot of energy trying to convince ME that I’m wrong. Why should they care? Why is all the effort expended, all the articles written, all the stupid criticism leveled?

      I don’t feel threatened by differing opinions, but they clearly do.

      One more reason to tune them out.


    2. Perhaps it’s not so much the IDEA of not knowing but the emotions of ANXIETY, even of FEAR (of death, of nothingness), that not knowing instills. I agree with you and your + 1 respondents that comfort is what folks seek and that religion and religious faith sometimes deliver the same.

  7. It’s like having faith (in the case of Matthew Cobb), that Manchester City will lead the Premier League.

    I used to compare it to Cubs’ fans on opening day at Wrigley having faith that “this will be the year.”

    Then those sonsaguns had to go and win the Series in 2016 and ruin a perfectly workable analogy.

    1. Because it’s the liars that are vocal. I’ve said before that philosophy is doing a terrible PR job, considering that more than 0.7 of all philosophers are atheists, but theists often cry pHiLosOpHy when their cherished beliefs are attacked.


  8. And The Times of London yesterday carried a rubbishy ‘New Atheist’ bashing piece. I wrote a letter, not published.

    1. It was crap, wasn’t it? And very badly researched. I was particularly irritated by his patronising comment that Dawkins’ “early” scientific books were quite good. What gave him the right to say that, particularly since he showed no sign of having read, or understood, any of the arguments that RD has put forward in his non-scientific writings?

      1. A few years back The Guardian referred to Dawkins as a ‘scribbler’. I wrote to point out he was a distinguished member of The Royal Society For Literature. I got no answer. When it comes to Dawkins and the established press ‘they don’t like it up ’em.’

  9. The “little people” argument can be run at the level of beliefs – it is IMO utterly patronizing to tell the religious “oh, but you don’t really believe that” (except rhetorically to show how weird a consequence is).

    1. Plus if people propose that “little people require belief” then all that Sophisticated Theology (and a lot of philosophy) is wasted – because they have already diminished the “little people” to pawns in their clever mind games.

    2. The ‘Little People’ argument has a surprising pedigree:

      ‘If God does not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.’ –Voltaire

      And I, for one, do not think he was being ironic when he wrote this.

    1. Because wasting your time on it might involve you becoming friends with a rich Christian.

      Will anybody argue it is dishonest to call out to our friends when we need financial help?

  10. Separating “faith” from “belief” also makes sense outside a religious context.

    I call bulllllshittttt on this one, the subsequent bollox in the paragraph leads only to louder and more emphatic calls. I can’t believe that anyone making these claims isn’t in the pay of JTF (or somesuch), you would need to be considerably simpler than I am to accept any of the claims that this professor makes. I despair.

    1. He’s not yet gorging at the Templeton trough & he may be too late! A more convincing [but wrong], better credentialed Timothy
      O’Connor, Professor of Philosophy, Indiana University has already been there & got the Tee-Shirt on panpsychism.

      He has a lot of clout & is part of a large cognitive sciences dept. From memory he’s also a Christian [don’t hold me to it!] – he’s already had a small Templeton grant on the subject of “Christian Faith and Science: A Field Guide for the 21st Century” which makes it much easier to get the next grant! Back in 2011 he was a speaker at the Templeton funded “Humble Approach Initiative” on personhood & quantum bollocks.

      By comparison Philip Goff is a mere assistant prof who probably would not be allowed to apply for a Templeton grant [you have to ask Templeton for the spondoolicks – they don’t come find you] & he’s been at some 2nd tier educational establishments – yes I’m a snob.

      Tim was a ‘BioLogos’** Voices’ speaker at Villanova Uni only 3 months ago & he presented “Panpsychism vs. Dualism: Does it Matter?”

      ** Biologos & Templeton org had a fall out & Templeton have ‘disappeared’ quite a few BioLogos pages from their site, but some BioLogos events are still supported.

  11. Goff is preaching to the choir and the credulous. At every level, this is a goofy piece of religious propaganda, full of inconsistencies, fallacies, incomprehensible ‘arguments’.

    The etymological mess was taken up by Jamie in comment #8, and it wasn’t helped by Goff’s appeal to Karen Armstrong’s selective etymological scholarship*, or his slippery argument about divine ineffability.

    * Here’s a example of Elizabethan use of the words “faith” and “belief” in the same sentence, from Tom Nashe’s satire “Have With You to Saffron-Walden. Nashe was a contemporary of Shakespeare. “I have objected some particular vice more against him than pumps and pantofles, which those that have not faith enough to believe may toot & supervise when they have any literal idle leisure.” I can’t decide what that proves, surely nothing, but it’s a great sentence.

    Beyond that, he touts the necessity for religious belief in God with a capital “G” and membership in an established, religion (here, Christianity), as PCC(E) states, “Goff’s whole argument hinges on the fact that worshiping God and professing belief gives you a sense of community that is inaccessible by any other route. ” And being “spiritual but not religious” doesn’t even cut it. Why does he stress the need for a formalized community of people believing in a “God”? My answer: to keep those “little people” in line; and I agree with DrBrydon’s remark in comment #1, “His idea that we should just all pretend, and become ‘cheerleaders’ takes on a truly horrific cast.”

    And where does his panpsychism fit into this polemic?

    1. As you imply his panpsychism [conscious universe] notion doesn’t fit at all with the TLS article on a capital “G” God. He rejects God because of the insoluble problem of evil & yet wants wants religion embraced [while he steps back smugly & chortles].

      I think he must love exposure & will right any old rot to get it.

  12. I got a big lift in seeing the figures on belief in God (down) and belief in evolution (up).Clearly organized religion is desperate nowadays because it already knew about this. But we’re not out of the woods; anti science attitudes on the part of even the unbelievers, and irrationality among even the educated are both rising, possibly as substitutes. The worst part of this New Age
    nonsense is that it blesses all personal subjective beliefs and casts them all as equally valid…the usual post modernism writ large and going far beyond academia.The lack of authoritarianism in the New Age community makes it doubly attractive because there is no moral approbation or judgement. So it is much more welcoming and tolerant than traditional organized religion. As such it may present a more serious threat to reason and science.

    1. I agree with you up to a point, the point where you say: “The lack of authoritarianism in the New Age community fakes it doubly attractive because there is no moral approbation or judgment.

      On a meta-level you’re correct, but even a cursory foray into the thicket of the New Age
      community reveals that on a level of smaller groups, authoritarian behavior, even to the point of demanding cult-like fealty, seems to be the norm rather than the exception. At least, so it seems to me.

      1. “fakes” should be “makes.” Genuine typo or a freudian slip? And should I capitalize the F in freudian?

  13. I think Alain De Botton do an Atheism 2.0 thing 10 years ago, to try and create this sort of mealy-mouthed squishy community thing for atheists. Singing atheist hymns together, or something.

    There is a simple word for what Goff is describing, which of course he does not want to use: pretending.

    1. My granddaughter (nearly 3) has a very good grasp of what is real and what is pretend – to the point that she indicates to us when she is speaking as herself and when she is speaking as a character in a Disney Fairy Tale.

      What does ‘pretending to believe’ require of adults? Attending a place of pretend worship on a regular basis, praying to your imaginary friend, behaving in an approved fashion? You do get to look down upon sinners though, so I guess there is some value in pretending.

  14. He does not seem to realize we already have the kinds of things he says we should have. It’s called fandom for this or that area of popular fiction.
    It would be funny to see faithiests doing ‘cosplay’ about religion, but I don’t think it would be very popular.

  15. My two word reply to this nonsense -cognitive dissonance.

    A longer reply. There’s nothing like reluctantly participating in a religious activity, whether Christian or the superstitions of NZ’s indigenous people imposed in the name of culture, to remind you frequently what and why you don’t believe.

  16. Let’s pretend! until dinnertime… many’s the time as a child i’ve seen of the enemy with my weapon of choice. Sometimes id die only to resurrect myself immediately and fight again. Now I find I can pretend religion, not a game that would last till dinnertime, to bleedin boring for a start, even for this juvenile adult.
    Hollering to ‘my side’
    Where you goin?
    who wants to play religion? not me, I’m going home to do my lawns

  17. Look Goff, at the start of every football season I cheer for the Raiders to win the superbowl. That covers my quota of believing in irrational things for psychological reasons, I don’t need any more.

  18. To me this quote is the crux of the article and the most interesting point up for debate:

    To put it simply: God is a useful fiction. In fact, fictionalism is popular in many areas of philosophy. There are, for example, moral fictionalists and mathematical fictionalists, who think that there are pragmatic benefits to using moral/mathematical language even though such discourse fails to correspond to a genuine reality (there are, on these views, no such things as goodness or the number 9, any more than there are dragons or witches). Religious fictionalists merely extend this approach to the statements of religion.

    I think the term ‘fictional’, if he means that in the traditional sense, doesn’t work. Of course if you think religion is entirely fictional, again, in the traditional sense, then it’s more honest to just say you’re lying about your beliefs for one reason or another. Maybe noble (you think it improves societal stability,) maybe self-serving (you think people will have a better opinion of you as a religious person), maybe even evil (you crave harmful power over others). But whatever the motivation, it’s still essentially just lying, and there’s not much more to say about it philosophically (psychologically, yes, philosophically, no.)

    Goff compares this type of ‘fiction’ to numbers and ‘goodness’, however, which makes me think he has something else in mind. I just think he ‘goes nuclear’ with this idea in essentially saying “even if you are a staunch materialist some things are clearly not material in the traditional sense, ergo all immaterial things are equal.” (This is quite similar to the argument that goes “Because we can never have 100% – not 99.999% but 100% – confidence in anything, we should consider everything faith-based and treat all claims equally – this simply doesn’t follow.)

    I think the idea that religion is true in a formulaic, not empirical, sense is very interesting. The idea that the moral laws of various times were felt intuitively first and formalized in writing second, where God plays the role of one’s conscience or “that inexplicable sense that I just feel this is how I have to behave, even if I’m not sure why.” (Personally I like this as it still allows for God in a pantheistic-esque sense.) Or the idea that religions contain universal archetypes, for example – I find that an interesting hypothesis, without knowing whether or not it’s true. So I think this general concept can be used to form interesting hypotheses about religion, but simply throwing everything into the mental category of “not really material so it’s all the same” is really an overextension of the concept that there is a categorical realm (including things like math, formulas, measurements and relationships, data, information, subjective experience, etc.) that is quite difficult to describe in sensorial terms. I agree that there is, but that does not make everything in that categorically equally correct. We have a number 9, but not have a concept that 8+8 equals 9, for a reason.

    1. Susan: “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
      Susan: “Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
      Susan: “So we can believe the big ones?”
      Susan: “They’re not the same at all!”
      Susan: “Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
      Death: MY POINT EXACTLY.

      — Hogfather, Terry Pratchett


      1. Lol, an interesting if dualistic take! I am of the opinion that universe is likely made of math (although math is a human term with specific connotations – so more specifically, something of that nature, even if it perhaps goes beyond the concepts encapsulated in our numerical system,) so my conversation would be more like:

        Susan: Everything is.
        Death: Sure is.

        But, I think it’s interesting and worthwhile to move that conceptual frame. How does the world look if it’s subjective-object (i.e., a single ‘point’ on the number line looking out at the rest of it)? Subject-subject? Object-object? I think it’s like asking how many potential fractions objectively exist in a whole pie – technically the answer is an infinity, and you can learn something about any of the equations you might want to hypothesize about. It’s true that if you see the pie as two halves, then one half will have another half. If you see it as consisting of fourths, then one fourth will be surrounded by three other fourths, and so on into infinity.

    2. ‘Or the idea that religions contain universal archetypes, for example – I find that an interesting hypothesis, without knowing whether or not it’s true.’

      Myth = Meme?

      Both are abstract objects, the former close to your sense of ‘archetype,’ the latter widely and wildly used today and given a quasi-scientific agency. Both are often objectified, and both offer a person an avenue to ‘objectify one’s subjectivity.’

      I would say that religion is a sub-class of Myth, while Memes are the arch-class of human culture generally.

      What’s true–and I hope that you agree–is that both of these kinds of abstract object really exist and affect our lives, despite our (current) inability to comprehend just how they do so.

      1. In terms of differentiating them – my understanding is that archetypes are generally thought to be relatively more universal and slower to change while memes are quicker and more virus-like. I think some people would propose that this is because archetypes are an inherent feature of our psyches while others would say they are not inherent but deeply collectively established over a long period of time. Regarding what role each plays in culture, it’s interesting although I’m not sure (and they could be intertwined, as it seems to me that ‘meme’ is more verb-like – so it could be possible for ‘a myth to meme’, if that makes any sense.)

        I like the phrase ‘objectify one’s subjectivity’, that’s an interesting way of looking at it. And I do agree that abstractions very much impact our lives in a very tangible way (fwiw, in Buddhist philosophy they handle this bridge in part by simply making the mind a sixth sense along with the other five, which seems like a good solution to me. It does leave the problem that thoughts appear to be incredibly variable among people in a way that sense perception is not, however. To some extent we can say that thoughts are *not variable, when it comes to facts such as 1+1 = 2 – in those cases the truth seems as obvious as the redness of red, almost everyone is going to see the same thing. And our senses can vary from person to person when we engage in imaginative acts where we ‘see’ or ‘hear’ creatures we invent in our minds eye. But, for the most part, it does seem the sensorial world is the collective one and the mental world is the individualized one. That said, I still think considering the mind a sixth sense just makes more sense overall.)

  19. I expect that the article, boiled down, is that since the ‘God of the Gaps’ idea is running out of gaps we’ll smear a thin layer of god over everything and call it panpsychism.

  20. When we find ourselves with a very nice group of people who believe something we don’t, it’s very easy to start adapting to the group and blend in when the topic comes up. We stop focusing on whether or not ghosts ( or whatever) really exist and get caught up in the excitement, or sensitivity, or the *promise* of what it means to be the kind of person who at least hopes it’s true. And you can even be honest and say “oh, I do hope it’s true” and that’s sufficient to be accepted in the very nice group of people who believe in ghosts because they, too, hope they exist.

    They just do the hope thing better than you.

    In a way Goff seems to be making the opposite of a Little People Argument — that WE don’t need religion but the poor wee things do. Instead, he’s saying that the folks who mix up hope with facts are really just doing the hope part and we poor things do need that.

    Anyone who thinks “I have faith you’re going to live” is just religious-speak for “I hope you’re going to live” and therefore *defines* what “faith” means has never dealt with faith healing.

  21. No such thing as ‘goodness’ or or the number ‘9’.

    Yes there is.

    There is a direct relation of these things to the reality we understand.

    A certain number of items on a table. 9 fingers.

    That which is good may not be easy to define absolutely, but it is absolutely true that some thing are good.

    No such relation to any reality exists for the truth of religious propositions based purely in imagination and delusion.

    This fictionalism notion is another failed attempt at justifying absurd untrue beliefs.

    1. This attempts to make “9” a property of collections. This does not work to get “numbers” out, as it does not allow for more than a fixed number (heh) of natural numbers nor any numbers of any other type.

      1. I’ll have to review number theory and maybe the philosophy of science and think on that further, but,

        my point that there is a relationship between number and reality holds, in a way that the musings on religions propositions do not.

        “there is a god” is false in a completely different way to (supposedly) “there is a 9” is false.

  22. Harry’s Wager: As I observe the world, I am convinced, that if a god exists, she is a “trickster” god. What would be the biggest trick? Believers go to hell, atheists to heaven. So it seems the surest way to heaven [if it exists] is to be an atheist.

  23. It is already dubious to state that a Christian God is “possible”. The insurmountable problem there is that no two believers believe in the same God, for they have no referent to compare. Their intuitions and imaginations run in any direction, in any combination. Not even two people sitting in the same bench have the same idea about God. What they imagine might even be different at different days and different times of their lives. That’s then apparent in 40,000 Christian denominations alone.

    Not only that, the whole concept makes no sense at all, but is apparently a lowest common denominator to satisfy a need of a personal God (Jesus), one aloof and mysterious power (Sky Dad) and a breath of lifeforce (Holy Spirit), to keep the classic Greek educated audience happy.

    We also know pretty well how the idea of God emerged, changed, how organized religion got together, how church elders haggled for the true revelation which they found out by strolling around in Rome, or something, and how these beliefs changed across history. The whole thing might only hang together through historical family resemblance.

    And finally, theistic models and explanations were falsified already, no Adam and Eve, no sudden global flood, no celestial spheres and so on, and apparently, nothing historical on a Jesus. However, we can see how alleged christian ideas have fingerprints of older religions. The thing is such shot through that the only miracle is that grown people still believe it.

    1. They practice it. But we don’t know what anyone believes. At least according to your first paragraph. No one knows what anyone even on the same bench believes. All we can say is it is practiced.

  24. I remember Roger Scruton used to say that while he was an atheist, he nevertheless thought it a good idea for everyone in general to believe in God. These days he claims to believe in God. I suspect he is a religious functionalist.

    IReligious fictionalism seems to be seems to be a bit of a fad at the moment. I hope the fad passed quickly.

    1. “IReligious fictionalism seems to be seems to be a bit of a fad at the moment. I hope the fad passed quickly.”

      Name a few irreligious fictionalists Robin. On the surface it seems an impossible position, but I haven’t had coffee yet.

      Queen: “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”

  25. Here’s Sabine Hossenfelder on panpsychism: http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2019/01/electrons-dont-think.html?m=1

    Once I learned how the standard model of particle physics constrains the number of degrees of freedom that are compatible with observations from the LHC, I felt confident in declaring panpsychism false. The problem with the vast majority of philosophers of consciousness (i.e. everyone except physicalists, and even some physicalists) don’t realize how tightly reality is bound together. You can’t modify a theory slightly to get another consistent theory. It will contradict itself. So this slight modification (adding consciousness) breaks the standard model, making it inconsistent with observations.

    Panpsychists have their defenses, of course, like claiming that consciousness is a different property than the ones we observe (special pleading), or that the properties themselves are consciousness, which is as coherent an idea as “health is purple”. I kid you not, one panpsychist actually claimed that mass is consciousness, whatever that means.


    1. I’ll add a bit to this: Some panpsychists are thinking in terms of intrinsic natures, an Aristotelian leftover that I’d guess appeals to human cognition, and they think consciousness is the intrinsic nature of particles.

      But if anything, the intrinsic nature of a particle should be energy, since it’s just a little bit of energy pumped into a quantum field. Panpsychists also seem to be operating on the assumption that physics describes everything as little balls bopping around, and so each little ball can have a different experience when in fact, as excitations of the same field, they can’t have any different properties, or else the assumptions required for quantum field theory break down, which means panpsychists will also have to explain why quantum field theory is so successful while relying on utterly incorrect assumptions.


      1. Yes; it seems that panpsychism means either:

        1. There is a new property of fundamental particles (I.e., quantum fields). Which is falsified by QFT and the LHC results.

        2. That one or a set of known attributes of a particle constitute something called “consciousness” (which seems to be Guff’s position). But then I’d quote Christopher Hitchens, and say that you still have all your work before you, in this case to explain human consciousness.


        1. Me too. Goff responded, but I still feel he’s dodging the question of what it means for some property to be consciousness.

          I was in a pretty bad mood yesterday so I ended up ranting elsewhere about how arrogant he is to say, to a physicist, that their understanding of spin is wrong. Spin is intrinsic angular momentum, so unless it is possible for something to have multiple intrinsic natures, he’s already wrong.

          And they call physicists arrogant.


          1. As Peter Atkins (chemist) said, “It’s not arrogant if you’re right.”

            I think I can see the germ of what Guff is saying: that spin (angular momentum), mass, charge, &c. are the particle’s “experience” in some sense. (A kind of quantum nirvana? Electron says, “Make me ½ with everything.”)

            But drawing the line between that and human consciousness is an asymptotically steep problem.


  26. Our beloved host, and I mean “loved” really:

    It’s like having faith (in the case of Matthew Cobb),
    that Manchester City will lead the Premier League.

    From the Oz ABC:

    But Kepa, the world’s most expensive goalkeeper
    after joining Chelsea in August for
    80 million euros (then AU$130 million),
    would not leave the field
    — wildly indicating to the touchline
    that he wanted to continue.
    The Spanish goalkeeper remained
    on the field and took his place in the shootout,
    in which Manchester City prevailed to
    win the League Cup 4-3,
    after the game finished 0-0 after extra time.

    There must be a G*d after all, as Lennox claims?
    (OK, it is not the Premier League, but still)

  27. “God is a useful fiction”

    In exactly the same way that all ducks need an accordion and all fish need a bicycle!

    Religionists will jump through all kinds of mental masturbations in attempts to justify their particular forms of irrationality.

    “There is no belief, however foolish, that will not gather its faithful adherents who will defend it to the death.” Isaac Asimov

  28. I read Goff’s piece with more charity. Not all people share my psychology, so it’s not impossible that something like fictionalism can work for them. Masonry comes to mind. It looks silly to me, but I believe the people who say it holds great meaning for them.

    I’m a 7.0 atheist, but I’m not an authoritarian. There are many ways to be human, and I wouldn’t like it if everyone was like me. Even less do I want to tell them they ought to be.

Leave a Reply