Rebecca Watson Gets It. Color Me Unsurprised.


In the video here Rebecca Watson from Skepchick, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Curiosity Aroused, etc,  addresses the question “What does atheism have to offer?”  Her answer?  It’s a bullshit question.  And she’s absolutely right.


The kind of question about which she’s talking here is of a type that is often posed by people from a number of sides of various issues, and it’s always bullshit.  The presumption in such a question is that there must be some sort of benefit to conferred upon the holder of the position at issue, else there is no good reason to hold it.  Worse, in that case, there is reason to hold the opposing view.  But this concern from some practical benefit has nothing to do with the truth of the issue.  Nothing.

In a clear way this hits at the practical vs. the principled concern that I’ve noted here a few times, including a post dedicated just to that issue.  If you’re in an argument with someone about the truth of something, it is completely improper to ask what the benefit of holding that belief is.  What does it matter?  How does that affect the truth of it?  It doesn’t.  In terms of the way things are, your happiness is completely irrelevant.  You might be utterly miserable believing some particular truth.  It might cause an existential crisis of such a degree that your life is irrevocably ruined, but that would not change stop the truth from being the truth. 

This is not to say there is no room for discussions about pragmatic concerns.  There’s plenty of room for that.  But we need to be clear when we talk about such things that we are not talking about whether or not that makes the thing discussed is true.  They are just different questions.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying and what I’m not saying.  I’m not talking about atheism here, even though that’s the question that provoked the response Watson gives in the video.  Whether or not atheism is a justified view is completely beside the point I’m making here.  I’m saying that in a debate about a principled issue, the practical concerns of the consequences of the issue are just not relevant to the discussion.  So, in terms of the question of atheism, it just does not matter if not believing in a god makes you unhappy when the concern is which position is epistemically justified.  The same goes for theism.  If you’re a theist debating with an atheist about whether or not one is justified in believing in a god, and if that person says something like “But what good does it do to believe in you god?” tell them that they are asking a bullshit question and skirting the real issue.  It’s a red herring, and it should be pointed out as such.

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5 Responses to “Rebecca Watson Gets It. Color Me Unsurprised.”

  1. Andiis Says:

    “….but that would not change stop the truth from being the truth. ”

    You have much to learn grasshopper. You should go for a long walk, then speak to very old people with memories of their youth.
    Try to sit in the shade of a large tree with people who do not speak your language, with just a stick in your hand and the sand in your toes.

    • Jim Says:

      Could it be a cave instead of a tree, and could I sit alone rather than with a bunch of people with whom I can’t converse? And can it be a rock rather than a stick? And can it be damp stone rather than sand? Would it be okay if I sat alone in a dark cave with nothing but a rock in my hand and cold, damp stone beneath my feet? Would I then learn why it’s appropriate to respond with concerns about utility when questions of principle are at issue?
      And I think I’m a beetle. You’re not teaching me kung-fu, anyway, nor are you my sifu.

  2. Andiis Says:

    You can do it anyway you want. But you wont. You can listen to people who know more than you, but you wont. You can be a beetle , if you want , but you wont. Why can’t people of principle respond to questions of utility and why do you think people of utility are without answers to questions of principle? I am in no doubt that concerns of utility can answer your questions of principle. Go work in a homeless shelter or a beehive or catch a fish. Just fucking DO SOMETHING. But you wont.

    If you enter a room of people without the benefit of sight or speech, are you saying that you have nothing to learn.
    I don’t think you’d know your sifu it they were serving you lunch in a diner. Even if he were a beetle.

    • Jim Says:

      Nope, I won’t do anything. I’m not even doing this.

    • Liza Says:

      In case you don’t detect Jim’s sarcasm, I will just state for the record that, as a matter of fact, I do work at a homeless shelter. I have worked at a homeless shelter for the past four years, ever since I left a graduate program in philosophy. I could try to respond to your comment on principle versus utility, but honestly what you have written makes me think that you are either incapable or unwilling to make the effort to understand an earnest explanation. You haven’t asked a single honest question or made a single sound argument. You just make a bunch of disconnected statements and then draw absurd conclusions that do not follow. YOU could listen to people who know more than you, but you won’t.

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