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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Ron Rosenbaum’s New Agnosticism

Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article in Slate on Monday entitled “An Agnostic Manifesto.”  It’s a ridiculous piece in which he advocates for a “new agnosticism” to deal with the rise of the dreaded New Atheism.  In his article he makes a number of bizarre assertions that are entirely disconnected from reality, shows his lack of understanding of basic philosophical issues, and, in the end, pats himself on the back for being brave enough to shrug his shoulders and take potshots at the empty strawmen he works so hard to construct.

Rosenbaum opens with this gem:

Let’s get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

Well, no, it’s not “radical skepticism.”  Sorry, but that term has already been taken, and it does not mean what you think it means.  Radical skepticism is just that, radical skepticism. Put simply, it’s a position that knowledge in general is impossible.  At the risk of being pedantic, it’s a position that most anyone who took an intro course in philosophy should recognize.  As Rosenbaum is going to accuse atheists of being philosophically unsophisticated, it does not bode well for him that he is unaware of such an elementary position.

The first strike at atheism comes in the next paragraph.  He writes,

Agnostics have mostly been depicted as doubters of religious belief, but recently, with the rise of the “New Atheism”—the high-profile denunciations of religion in best-sellers from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens—I believe it’s important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.

Right here we can see he’s already completely derailed.  The “certitudes” of atheism?  What might those be?  How can a position that describes a lack of a belief be described as being certain of anything?  Groan.

I would not go so far as to argue that there’s a “new agnosticism” on the rise. But I think it’s time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as “a theism”—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.

Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.

And here’s his big, radical misunderstanding.  First, it should be made explicit that atheism, new or otherwise, has nothing to do with science at all.  It is a lack of a belief in any deity.  Now, it may well be that many atheists like science, but such is neither necessary nor sufficient to be an atheist.  Indeed, such a stance has nothing at all to do with lacking a belief in a god.  If you lack a belief in a god, you are an a-theist.  It’s just that simple.  In fact, judging from Rosenbaum’s description of his own beliefs, it looks like he too has no belief in a god, and that makes him an atheist as well.  Maybe someone should clue him in on this stuff.

But then we have this question of whether or not it is, in fact, an accurate description of any of the prominent so-called New Atheists to suggest that they are certain that science “can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.”  I can’t see that it is.  Seriously, who holds that view?  We might hope that science will one day give us an answer as to how the universe came to exist, but be certain that it will?  I have never heard any thoughtful person espouse anything like such a view.  And as to the “why” question, unless by that you mean a causal description (which I would think falls under how), such as “Why is the ground wet?  Because it rained,” I’m not sure what it would even mean for science to provide such an answer.  Certainly, I have not heard or read any of the so-called Four Horsemen suggesting any such thing.  Rosenbaum quotes no one saying anything like this, and I think that is for good reason:  no one has said this.

Rosenbaum then charges that the New Atheists cannot answer old philosophical conundrums like “why is there something rather than nothing?”  He then goes further, “bravely” laying down the gauntlet, and writes,

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

No Ron, you won’t be getting a flood of responses from thoughtful atheists, but that is not because they are scared.  They just don’t hold the position with which you’re attempting to paint them, namely that they are certain that science can and will provide any such thing.  In fact, I don’t personally know any professional philosopher who even takes that question seriously.  I mean, it presumes something it should not in the first place, namely that there is a “why.”  I though you were a “radical skeptic,” Ron, someone who wasn’t sure of anything.  What makes you think that there even is a why in the first place?  Worse, what makes you think that the universe is contingent, that there is some possibility that it could have not existed at all?  Surely such a possibility needs to exist in order for the question at hand to even make sense, yet we have no way of knowing that such is the case.  Come on, Ron, where is that doubt you so proudly proclaimed having in the beginning of your essay?  You’re jumping the gun here assuming things of which you have no right.

I could go on taking this article apart piece by piece, but I’ll quit after making one final point.  Rosenbaum says he wrote to one John Wilkins, someone else who proudly extols the virtues of foisting positions onto people that they don’t really hold.  In quoting Wilkins’ letter, Rosenbaum makes the following comment:

Wilkins’ suggestion is that there are really two claims agnosticism is concerned with is important: Whether God exists or not is one. Whether we can know the answer is another. Agnosticism is not for the simple-minded and is not as congenial as atheism and theism are.

Rosenbaum seems to be of the wildly ignorant position that only self-described agnostics are aware of the difference between ontological and epistemic questions.  The hubris here could take down an elephant.  Seriously, Ron?  You don’t think Dan Dennett or Alvin Plantinga are aware of the kind of distinctions that you should recognize upon completion of a Phil 101 course?  Really?  Really? The irony here of Rosenbaum’s charge of atheists and theists as simple-minded is as weighty as his hubris.


Rosenbaum finishes by saying, “The courage to admit we don’t know and may never know what we don’t know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.”  Nice pat on the back there, Ron.  It’s good to know that intellectual deceit and the building of endless strawmen are what pass for courage in your world.  That’s quite a marketing scheme for your New Agnosticism, but I don’t think I’ll be buying into it.

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Philosophers, Scientists, and the New Atheism

I am an atheist, and I am sympathetic to the so-called "New Atheists."  I am also a skeptic, and I have a background in philosophy, which means that I adopt a more tentative stance about knowledge and the justification for belief than most of my counterparts in religion and the hard sciences.  Because of my background, I find the recent trend among certain prominent philosophers and public intellectuals to mark out a kind of middle-ground position between hard-atheism and theism to be both disingenuous and alarming.   It is disingenuous because philosophers understand the distinction between questions of knowledge and questions of justification, and it is alarming because they are willing to disregard this distinction for the sake of promoting a politically-attractive position.

The question of God’s existence is incredibly loaded because, if God doesn’t exist, the majority of people in the world derive meaning in their lives from a lie.  For this reason, the capacity for natural science to explain why things happen without appeal to the supernatural is threatening to religion and to religious believers.  After all, if we can explain everything without appeal to God’s intervention, why introduce Him into the equation at all?  Nowhere is this issue more clearly demarcated than in the debate between evolutionists and creationists.  If evolution can explain why we are here, why we feel the way we feel, and why we do the things we do, then it looks as though God’s part in the equation (creation, intelligent design, etc.) is superfluous at best.  Moreover, if the human brain is just one more twig on the evolutionary tree, then there is no good reason to believe that there is some essential, special part of us, such as an immortal soul, which sets us apart and gives us free will and the possibility of life after death.  So, from a purely political perspective, it is easy to understand why the scientific community is cautious about addressing the implications of evolutionary theory.  If believing in evolution means believing in a Godless, soulless world, fewer people are going to find evolution attractive, and many people are going to be wary of teaching evolution to their kids.

Because of these implications, most supporters of empirical science have chosen one of two strategies in debate with religious detractors.  The first strategy is to insist that religion and science are "non-intersecting magisteria", that is, they address different kinds of questions.   For example, religion answers big, important, ultimate questions, such as the meaning of life, whereas science only describes the world as it is.  The second strategy is to grant that a literal interpretation of Scripture contradicts evolutionary theory but to minimize the importance of this contradiction by observing that a non-literal interpretation of the story of Genesis can be compatible with evolutionary theory.  Both strategies offer the promise of peacefully promoting scientific understanding, but unfortunately, in both cases, this peace is won dishonestly.

The first strategy is dishonest because it is plainly untrue that science and religion are non-intersecting.  Science and religion both make objective claims about the observable world, and these claims absolutely have moral implications for how we should live our lives.  It certainly is the case that people with religious worldviews tend to hold a slightly different set of values from people who hold materialist/naturalist worldviews, but this does not mean that the non-religious have no position on how they ought to live their lives, nor does it mean that the religious have nothing to say about how the world works.  On the contrary, the battle between religion and science exists precisely because people on both sides do have answers to both types of questions and those answers contradict each other.  For example, it cannot be the case that prayer both works and does not work, nor can it be the case that spirits exist and do not exist.  If a person is hearing voices, either the voices are coming from evil spirits that must be exorcised by prayer OR the voices are the result of schizophrenia, which must be treated by medication.  The way we answer these questions matters, which is why our grounds for selecting answers -the justifications for our beliefs- matter.

The second strategy, which might be called the "accommodationist" position, does not make any out-and-out false claims, but it is deceptive nonetheless.  It is perfectly true that God could exist as a kind of blind watch-maker who got the evolutionary ball rolling and then sat back for the rest of eternity.  However, a non-interventionist God, while no contradiction to a naturalistic world view, is entirely superfluous to the evolutionary account of the origin of life.   It doesn’t do any explanatory work for the theory.  Moreover, it is patronizing for scientists to pretend that this concession is a real accommodation to people of faith because the kind of God that is compatible with naturalistic evolution is not the kind of God that answers prayers or performs miracles, i.e., it is not the kind of God that most religious people worship.   Most accommodationists don’t see the harm in religious people praying or believing in an interventionist God because they recognize that most people who hold this kind of faith but also believe in evolution do not recognize the internal contradiction.  This makes the accommodationists particularly insidious because they tacitly promote one kind of ignorance (contradictory beliefs) over another, ostensibly more offensive kind of ignorance (religious fundamentalism), rather than risk promoting a more honest but unpopular position.

I don’t claim to know for certain that God does not exist, nor do I claim to know for certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I think that my beliefs are well-justified.  If my beliefs are well-justified, then people who have access to the same information that I have but hold opposing beliefs are not as well-justified.  This is an implication of holding considered opinions:  I cannot apply a standard of justification for my own beliefs but pretend that there is no objective hierarchy of justification for the beliefs of others.  To pretend that people who believe that the Bible is literally true are wrong, but that those who merely believe in an interventionist God are justified is both absurd and dishonest.  But, this is exactly the position upon which the "middle ground" between theism and naturalistic materialism is founded.  It is not a moderate position at all.  It is sophistry, and it is condescending.

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H.E. Baber’s Object of Ultimate Impotence

H.E. Baber recently wrote an article for the Guardian entitled “Unverifiable God is still good.”  In this article she makes a number of claims that I find incredibly problematic, such as a strange conflation of the notion of philosophical zombies and the distinction between a world in which God exists and one where He does not, the implication that Hume was a verificationinst, and the suggestion that that verificationism is the “bogey” of the religious believer.  I will not address the first two questions here, and on this last question I will be brief so as to get to a couple of important points raised in the rest of the article.  Talking about the concern over verificationism, Baber asks the (supposedly) difficult question, “What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, hidden God who makes no difference to the way the world works and no God at all?”  She does not explicitly answer this question.  Rather, she attempts to make the argument that such the question of God’s existence is intelligible by comparing it to the question of philosophical zombies.  For those reading this who are unfamiliar with either verificationism or the notion of philosophical zombies, do not worry.  I don’t think it matters here.  Put simply, the answer to Baber’s question, assuming one has some clearly defined concept of God that allows for Him to be invisible, intangible, hidden, and make no difference to the way the world works (admittedly a criterion tough, and perhaps impossible, to fill), the answer is simple.  The difference is that in one case you have something, namely God, and in the other you do not.  Whether or not that thing is detectable is irrelevant to the fact that it either exists or does not.

That out of the way, there are other issues about this article that need to be addressed.  The first one is this assertion by Baber:

I never expected religion to provide any practical benefits, so I have never been disappointed. And, like most educated Christians, I do not believe most of the empirical claims associated with Christianity. I do not believe that the universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I do not believe that humans or other animals were created their current form or even that God had some hand in "guiding" evolution. I do not believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of Middle Eastern history, or that any of the miracles it reports actually occurred, or that the wisdom literature it includes is a suitable guide to life. I do not believe that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live.

I do not think this in any way this represents the views of most “educated Christians.”  In fact, I have never personally met a single Christian who holds anything like this view.  The empirical claims of the the Bible are false?  The existence of God makes no difference to the way the world operates?  Belief in God should make no difference to the way we live?  Not only have I never met anyone who holds this view, I do not think even Baber holds it.  That last point on the list is pretty broad:  “…religious belief should [not] make any difference to the way we live.”  I am not at all sure I even know how she means this.  Certainly, she would not have written this article if she did not believe in God, and that writing seems to be some aspect of her life.  I mean, it looks like Baber has put forth quite a bit of effort into defending this particular belief in her life, and that is directly the result of her belief.  In fact, there is no way to enumerate all the things that Baber has done in her life because of her belief that would have been different had she not held such a belief.  That’s the nature of belief in general, as has been pointed out before on this blog.  Beliefs inform our actions in that each action we take is based upon a particular set of beliefs, however mundane.  When someone puts a key in a door to unlock it, it is because they hold a certain set of beliefs which may or may not be justified or true.  That person has to believe that their senses are getting the world right, that keys unlock doors, that the door is locked, that this key is the one that will unlock this door, that the lock on the door is not broken, and on and on.  So, of course, all of our beliefs do and should make a difference in the way we live.  I really have no idea what it means for Baber to say otherwise.

Someone might suggest here that what Baber intended was how one should view morality, but that does not seem to be true either.  If I believe God prefers my behavior to be one way rather than another, that seems to be a religious belief that affects what I think I am morally obligated to do.  I do not know how much of the Bible Baber wants to throw out, but, as she calls herself a Christian, it seems that at least she would want to keep Christ’s moral teachings.  In that case, as someone who holds that Christ’s teachings were in some way better than others, and as Christ is related to God in some significant fashion, then one should live their life differently on the basis of that set of beliefs.  So, no matter what you take Baber to mean, this idea that religious beliefs should make no difference to the way we live is just wrong.

Then there’s this whole business of educated Christians not believing the empirical claims of the Bible in general.  I think this is just a false statement as survey after survey shows that Christians of all levels of education take things like the virgin birth, Christ rising from the dead, and any number of miracles to be true.  I do not know how Baber wants to cash out “educated Christian” here, but it looks like the only way she could do this is to play the “No True Scotsman” game and declare that anyone who held those beliefs was not really an “educated Christian.”  Otherwise, there is just no way to say this statement is true as, empirically, Christians with educations do hold the beliefs Baber declares they do not.

Next I want to address a point that I just find strange.  After making the case that the version of God in which Baber believes has absolutely no effect on anything, she poses the question:

…what is the point of believing in such a God? Why would anyone even want to believe in a God who makes no difference: a God who does not answer prayers, give our lives "meaning," or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.

I would take it that, assuming the belief was true, the reason one would want to believe it is because, in general, one wants to believe true things.  But I do not know that “want” has much of anything to do with that.  What I mean is, someone might prefer to believe in a god who saved babies from fires, healed amputees, and would provide us with a pleasant after-life.  That might be the thing in which someone wants to believe.  However, if there is no reason to do that, if, for example, they think that God does none of those things yet does, in fact, exist, then their wants would be irrelevant.  They would believe in what they thought was true, regardless of whether or not it was preferable, in the same way one “believes in” hurricanes and nuclear bombs even if it was preferable that those things did not exist.  With that in mind, I just find this whole line of thinking strange, and I just cannot see what Baber is getting at when she asks why anyone would want to believe in a god that makes no difference.

In the end Baber says she believes because:

God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure. Religion is an escape from the world–not because the world is bad but because it isn’t good enough. Pleasures are fleeting and no matter how intense any aesthetic experience is, it could always be more intense. The vision of God is the asymptote they approach.

I confess that I do not follow this at all.  Baber has already declared that God, her version of God, at least, “does not answer prayers, give our lives ‘meaning’, or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.”  So how is this the “ultimate aesthetic object”?  How is it beautiful, this thing that does nothing and cannot be experienced?  How does it have glory or, more importantly, power?  What does it even mean to talk about ultimate power having no influence on anything?  What sensual pleasure is there in a thing that is in no way able to be sensed?  And what does it matter if the world “isn’t good enough”?  In what way does that serve as evidence for God’s existence?  And how is the world better, how is it good enough, with a god in it that is wholly impotent? 

To me, it appears the the vision of God Baber spelled out as the object of her belief earlier has none of the attributes that she claims serve as her reasons for belief in God.  As such, I find that her conclusion follows in no way from the rest of her argument, the result being that nothing of any substance is said in the entire article.

I don’t know what Baber had in mind when she wrote this article.  What I do know is that this argument is the kind that I hear from time to time from the intellectual elite who do believe in God.  They claim to have such belief, but their god in no way reflects anything like the God in which other believers put their faith.  Even worse, when they begin to spell out what their god is and why they believe in any such thing, all you end up with is a group of words with little to no real meaning.  In the end, it looks like they are not saying anything at all.

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What is the Virtue of Tolerance?

This opinion piece from the Prospect has me reconsidering one of the classic debates of political philosophy.  Concisely put, the question raised is whether a just society tolerates the intolerance of its citizens, or, to couch it more explicitly in moral terms, do I have an obligation to tolerate others and, if so, does this obligation extend to the intolerant?  This question begs other important questions, specifically, “What is tolerance?” and, “what is the virtue of tolerance?”  I don’t think that I have adequate answers to these questions, but I think that they are important, so I want to discuss them anyway.  Comments and counter-arguments are welcome.

To those who consider tolerance a virtue, the notion is often broadly defined to include an open-minded attitude toward difference of background and difference of opinion.  On this account, the tolerant person is characterized as the political liberal who opens himself up to the possibility that his is not the only or best way to live. He embraces diversity in his community because he believes it is an in-road to a more broad-minded, and therefore more enlightened, world-view.  A more narrow definition of tolerance is that it is the ability to endure others peaceably.  On this account, the tolerant person may have a strong distaste for those who do not share his race, religion, or predilection for reading the Wall Street Journal, but he refrains from outward hostility toward them which allows him to live or work comfortably in their proximity.

As nice as it may be to consider oneself the broad-minded and enlightened liberal, I think this definition of tolerance ultimately falls apart.  The problem here is not that the liberal accepts the possibility that his way of thinking might be in error, the problem is that values are not the type of thing about which one can truly be agnostic.  In other words, I can accept that my background is responsible for some of the values which I hold, and that these values may influence and prejudice my judgments about how others live their lives, but I cannot escape the values themselves.  I cannot, for example, choose to feel reverence for the clerics of religions that other people believe are supernaturally inspired, nor can I accept as justice the corporal punishment executed against fornicators and homosexuals in some parts of the world.  Though the enlightened person acknowledges that some values are basic* and therefore groundless, he cannot escape a conflict in holding the value of tolerance while, at the same time, believing that tolerance demands that he accept the values of the intolerant as equally morally justified.  I cannot, for example, take seriously my moral obligation to permit others to believe and practice according to their own moral values when my neighbor’s moral values compel him to kill his wife or daughter because he believes that she has practiced sexual immorality.

Generally speaking, free societies draw a line of distinction between free thought (and those things which are generally assumed to fall into the realm of free thought- free speech, free association, free worship) and free action.  The mantra of the liberal state is “Believe whatever you wish to believe, but you must act in accordance with our laws or face the threat of violent coercion.”  Those who advocate the “peaceable endurance” view of tolerance hold a position similar to this, and therefore I do not think their view implodes with internal contradiction.  I can consistently believe that I should try to live peaceably with you despite the fact that I don’t like your religion, ethnicity, or personal disposition, and, at the same time, reserve the right to intervene and compel you to do something differently if I find your actions to be morally impermissible.  The problem here is that if my definition of tolerance allows that I can and should intervene when a person violates a moral rule that I believe is compelling, then the prescription to be tolerant doesn’t seem to have the strength to compel me to change my actions for the sake of tolerance.  In fact, I have difficulty imagining a scenario when it would be morally obligatory for me to tolerate another person who acts in accordance with any value that I do not share.  I am tempted to say that this version of tolerance requires only that we respect others’ right to tastes that differ from our own, but the line between taste and moral value is itself quite blurry.  After all, one person’s preference for braised pig belly and Catholic iconography is another person’s violation of kosher law and idolatry.

If we are to make any sense out of the moral imperative to tolerate others then we must identify some non-arbitrary dividing line between what we ought to tolerate and what we ought not to tolerate in others.  This is the only way to avoid the implosion of relativism endemic to the broad account of tolerance and the whimper of ineffectuality endemic to the narrow account.  Most Western states have pragmatic laws in place to distinguish between permissible private actions and impermissible public actions, but the pragmatic justification** for laws like this does not have an obvious moral corollary.   What I mean is, there is no obvious moral principle which can explain why I should intervene if my neighbor burns a cross on my lawn or rapes his daughter, but why I should tolerate it when my neighbor goes to meetings wearing a white robe and hood or teaches his daughter that the world is only 6,000 years old, though the law clearly distinguishes between the former and the latter.

So, what is the virtue of tolerance?

*The assertion that, all other things being equal, it is better for innocent people to be happy rather than suffering is an example of one of these groundless, basic values.

**Cynically, I think mostly this justification is grounded in the way these laws accommodate the marketplace and the distribution of private property.

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