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Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen 
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Post Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen


What could this chapter be about? ::171 Odd chapter names. Maybe it is really asking, "Why Good Things Happen to Bad People." This is a question worth discussing.




Tue Jun 27, 2006 12:53 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Notes...
1. Bringing out the best
This whole section presupposes that the social benefits of religion are the foremost justification for religious belief. This is justification from the perspective of the analyst. It says, in effect, "what does all of this mean for us?" Which is good and well from one point of view, but it's a little silly to ask people on the inside of the phenomenon to look at it from the same perspective. A more central justification for religious belief, to the believer, at least, is their conviction that their belief is true.

2. Cui bono?
Given that he's already brought the topic up of miracles into the discussion several times, and dismissed it out of consideration each time, I would have appreciated it if Dennett would have, at least, given a provisional definition so we knew exactly what he meant by the term. People use the word in a lot of different ways, and not all of them are clearly at odds with the rest of his thesis.

I'm not too sure what Dennett means by "free-floating rationale"(p. 60) -- has anyone read any of his other works that might shed some light on the subject. In general, he seems to be treating reason as something independent of conscious thought, which strikes me as an assumption that we ought to be careful about accepting.

In general -- and I've pointed this out before, I know -- Dennett's use of language is disappointing, and I think it's likely to cause confusion if we're not careful. Why repeatedly use the word "designed" when "evolved" says precisely what you mean without raising the connotations that have been so controversial in other debates? In a related matter, his emphasis on the economic metaphor for evolutionary principles may cause as many difficulties. But then, that's not something unique to Dennett -- the analogy between economics and evolution has plagued biology since Darwin, and is probably due in very large part to the fact that Sir Charles was inspired by a reading of Malthusian economics.

One point that I found interesting was Dennett's digression about how clones might be more prone to parasitical infection and disease (pp. 64 & 65).

At the end of this section (p. 69), Dennett writes: "A hypothesis to consider seriously, then, is that all our 'intrinsic' values started out as instrumental values..." Actually, to call that a hypothesis at all is to stretch the functional meaning of that term -- how do you test for the truth value of a claim like that? You can't. What Dennett is putting forth here is not a hypothesis but a premise, one by which, unless I'm mistaken, he expects us to judge the evidence to be put forward. Tacit acceptance of this premise is bound to work against a theist if he also takes up the implied premise that only one sufficient answer is necessary to any question. If we can explain intrinsic values as instrumental values, then we have no need of an absolute source to make them intrinsic.

Again, I think Dennett is misjudging his audience here. It seems to me that part and parcel of nearly any supernatural explanation of things is a dual acceptance of sufficient causes with final causes. To that end, any sincere and intelligent religionist is likely to walk away from this discussion saying, "you'd be right if sufficient causes were all we dealt with, but I don't believe that's so." Unless he can provide a convincing argument for why man should live by bread alone, I don't think he's likely to reach the audience he's been at such pains to draw in.




Tue Jul 11, 2006 7:12 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
3. Asking what pays for religion
P. 69: "Whatever else religion is as a human phenomenon, it is a hugely costly endeavor, and evolutionary biology shows that nothing so costly just happens." I don't know that this is entirely consistent with what Dennett has written in the rest of the book. On p. 6, for example, he writes that religion has occupied "still just a brief moment in biological time." What's our standard for determining whether or not its an anamoly on the evolutionary timeline? Not that anyone would want to defend evolution as a 4,000 year screw up, but if we recognize that it takes up only a small increment of biological time, then how can we be so sure that we can evaluate it according to the standards that we would a more long-term biological feature like a body part of an instinctual behavior? Likewise, on p. 63, Dennett presents humanity as "the only rationale-representers yet to have evolved", which would seem to imply a minor change in the rules when it comes to human creations. How do you determine whether or not it's safe to treat cultural evolution with the same assumptions as you would treat biological evolution?

More importantly, "What pays for religion?" is a question that pertains to its survival as an institution. Two points arise from this. The first -- that, as such, it says nothing about the ultimate meaning, nor the truth value, or religion -- we can put aside for the moment. The second is more germaine to the discussion at hand. It points us back to Dennett's effort to define religion. Religion as an institution may survive and "evolve" entirely because the term is so amorphous that it has been applied to things which are dissimilar in crucial ways. If we didn't regard ancient Mithraism and Buddhism as the same sort of thing, then no one would infer the persistence of the kind of thing characterized by Mithraism from the contemporary existence of Buddhism. If religion applied to Mithraism but not to Buddhism, and those were the only two cases under scrutiny, then we'd be forced to conclude that religion no longer existed. The distinction is purely categorical, and as Dennett has demonstrated with his own definition of religion, the category is loose enough that we can expand or collapse it to include whatever we want to consider.

Finally, I think Dennett's assertion on p. 70 that "The only honest way to defend that proposition --" ie. the revealed origin of religion, or presumably any supernatural account of events -- "is to give fair consideration to alternative theories of the persistence and popularity of religion and rule them out by showing that they are unable to account for the phenomena observed" is applicable only to the naive sort of religionist who insists that supernatural invervention is capable of accounting for X, whether X stands for the existence of religion or for something else. But that certainly is not the only kind of religionist, and I'm not even sure that naive religionists of that ilk make up the majority. A real dualists -- and dualism has exerted a major influence on most modern religions -- is entirely capable of assessing those alternative theories, professing their soundness, and maintaining that it's still possible that things could have happened another way. And in doing so, such a person would still be adhering to logic -- they just wouldn't be playing according to the rules Dennett has laid out for the game.




Tue Jul 11, 2006 7:35 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
4. A Martian's list of theories
Here come the memes! P. 82: "For our purposes now, the main reason for taking the memes perspective seriously is that it permits us to look at the cui bono? question for every designed feature of religion without prejudging the issue of whether we're talking about genetic or cultural evolution, and whether the rationale for a design feature is free-floating or explicitly somebody's rationale." Okay, a) what he's essentially saying here is, that we're to accept the meme idea and its application to our subject not for its factual value (ie. whether or not memes actually exist) but for its functional value. He's bootstrapping the idea: this concept allows us to do this, so don't bother questioning it too much. Which leads us to b), that memes were initially suggested and are routinely invoked for essentially one reason: that they allow us to treat cultural features as we would biological features. They allow us to use biological reasoning when talking about cultural and conceptual objects.

While we're at it, we may as well point out that the question of God was very much on Dawkins' mind (or page, at least) when he coined the term "meme".

What matters in all of this, of course, is what Dennett intends to do with memes in the context of his larger subject, religion. For the moment, it's worth pointing out that all but one of his "Martian theories" for the persistence of religion hinge entirely on our acceptance of the meme theory. Only the last one, the pearl theory, evades this pattern.

I think we'd be wise to question why a writer who has put so much effort into convincing his readers to consider all the possibilities ends that third of the book by only raising possibilities related to one particular theory. I think he already has a conclusion in mind.




Wed Jul 12, 2006 1:36 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Dennett is definitely taking an evolutionary psychology perspective. Since I've read multiple books on evolutionary psychology and accept its premises, much of this chapter was rather dull. Chapter 3 would be problematic for someone who doesn't accept it or isn't familiar with evolution psychology.

However, Dennett downplayed one major aspect of ev. psych. For tens of thousands of years, as a minimum, human society was rather constant, and human nature evolved to fit those primitive conditions. Then, over the last several thousand years, human society changed much more rapidly, too quickly for evolution to adapt. Human nature fits a world that disappeared thousands of years ago.

Now, I'm not sure when you'd consider religion to have started in that scheme of things. Still, I'll be thinking about that as I continue reading.




Sat Aug 05, 2006 1:54 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
JulianTheApostate: Chapter 3 would be problematic for someone who doesn't accept it or isn't familiar with evolution psychology.

That's funny, given that a major part of Dennett's audience, as he would have it, are people who aren't likely to accept, a priori, evolution psychology as a starting point.

Now, I'm not sure when you'd consider religion to have started in that scheme of things.

That's a serious problem, and one that I'm not sure we're in a position to resolve at this point. Dennett aludes to this fact, but I'm not sure he really gives it due consideration. Because we don't have the evidence to nail down in time the origin of religion as he describes it -- there's just no definite standards for determining when a prehistoric mind began to believe something.




Sun Aug 06, 2006 3:53 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Mad:

Quote:
This whole section presupposes that the social benefits of religion are the foremost justification for religious belief...A more central justification for religious belief, to the believer, at least, is their conviction that their belief is true.



But as I understand Dennett's thesis, it does not really matter WHY the individual justifies the belief it holds...it is WHY has nature produced the belief. Remember, Dennett is trying to approach religion through the lens of science, so taking into account the rationalizations people have about what they believe is not what the book is after. We can believe that we have evolved opposable thumbs because primates are social species and we like to shake hands, but this is simply not necessarily why they really developed. Dennett is NOT trying to justify religious belief, as I see it, he is trying to approach the subject of why and how they developed, not why we think it is right or wrong.

Quote:
Given that he's already brought the topic up of miracles into the discussion several times, and dismissed it out of consideration each time, I would have appreciated it if Dennett would have, at least, given a provisional definition so we knew exactly what he meant by the term.


I dunno...I kinda understand what he is getting at by the word. I dont think we need to stretch too far to figure that out. We can play around with semantics all you like, but the miracles that Dennett and many other skeptic/atheists talk about is the extreme occurances that people claim to have witnessed and are usually found to be fakes. The Virgin appearing on a Florida window (palm frond oils caused this) or the bleeding statues, the stigmata and other foolishness.

An argument like this reeks of an attempt to unfocus the central idea here Mad.

Quote:
I'm not too sure what Dennett means by "free-floating rationale"(p. 60)


As I understand it, it is a rationale that is totally valid but not necessarily understood by the individual...like the flight instinct of an animal. Humans have rationale that we create, like why it is good to not eat meat on Sundays. That is how I understand it.

Quote:
At the end of this section (p. 69), Dennett writes: "A hypothesis to consider seriously, then, is that all our 'intrinsic' values started out as instrumental values..." Actually, to call that a hypothesis at all is to stretch the functional meaning of that term


A hypothesis is simply a statement that contemplates something. It does not have to be testable to be made, just to be validated. Maybe he meant it in this way: (from webster) "1 a : an assumption or concession made for the sake of argument b : an interpretation of a practical situation or condition taken as the ground for action". Maybe we cannot test this yet...but it is still an interesting hypothesis...hopefully the means to test this will come about one day! I have hope.

Quote:
Tacit acceptance of this premise is bound to work against a theist if he also takes up the implied premise that only one sufficient answer is necessary to any question. If we can explain intrinsic values as instrumental values, then we have no need of an absolute source to make them intrinsic.


And? Why is that a bad thing? So we should pamper theists so that there will always be that "absolute source"? That is exactly what this book is NOT trying to do. To me and others, there is also no way to "test for the truth value" pf anything to do with belief in god or religion. I don't see any gross expectation on Dennett's behalf here. He is addressing theists and those who follow religion...maybe he is just asking these people to suspend their belief...as atheists are sometimes asked to suspend their DISbelief.

Quote:
To that end, any sincere and intelligent religionist is likely to walk away from this discussion saying, "you'd be right if sufficient causes were all we dealt with, but I don't believe that's so."


And there is the ignorance Dennett is trying to address. Just because they do not believe in something is not sufficient reason to walk away from the discussion. Dennett is trying to show that religion is a natural phenomenon...and he is doing a good job in my opinion. Structuring the argument to include the mindset of religionists would be a stark contradiction to the intent of this book.

Quote:
I don't think he's likely to reach the audience he's been at such pains to draw in.


And I do not necessarily think that is entirely, or even mostly, HIS fault.

Mr. P.

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Edited by: misterpessimistic  at: 8/7/06 3:49 pm



Mon Aug 07, 2006 2:46 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
misterpessimistic: But as I understand Dennett's thesis, it does not really matter WHY the individual justifies the belief it holds...it is WHY has nature produced the belief.

He doesn't offer, so far as I can tell, any explanation of how nature has produced religious belief. He suggests a few things when he brings up burial taboo, but never gets very far into articulating the precise genesis of religious conception. And I don't think the discipline he's chosen really provides a way of explaining how these ideas are produced. Evolution psychology and the meme model are basically ways of explaining the survival and diffusion of ideas; so far as I know, they don't provide any means for explaining their birth.

Dennett is NOT trying to justify religious belief, as I see it, he is trying to approach the subject of why and how they developed, not why we think it is right or wrong.

Well, he's definitely not trying to justify it. But the early chapters led me to believe that the whole purpose behind putting religion under the lens was that an improved understanding of the nature of the subject would allow us to reconsider the place that it holds in our culture. So it seems clear to me that Dennett does intend to pass some form of judgement on religion, and I seriously doubt that he's going to fall on the "justification" side of the line. The fact that he plans to use the history of religion that he's drawing out to judge aspects of religion as a whole is the only reason I bring up his apparant assumption that the best justification for religion is morality. Because it seems clear to me that's what he'll be comparing his model to. The titles of future chapters indicate that morality is going to be an issue, and it's likely such a prominant issue for Dennett because he perceives morality to be the standard argument in favor of religion.

We can play around with semantics all you like, but the miracles that Dennett and many other skeptic/atheists talk about is the extreme occurances that people claim to have witnessed and are usually found to be fakes. The Virgin appearing on a Florida window (palm frond oils caused this) or the bleeding statues, the stigmata and other foolishness.

Let's call those demonstrative miracles -- they're interpreted to serve as demonstrations of the veracity of faith. Now let's take a second category of miracles -- call it, intercessionary miracles -- those in which a predictable misfortune is averted when human agency was believed to be insufficient. Just as a for instance, a man is wounded in a car accident, the doctors do their best but warn the family that they simply don't have the skill or technology needed to save the man, yet he survives all the same. The family, who is religious, interprets this as an intercessory miracle. Would Dennett lump this in with the demonstrative miracles?

Whether or not he actually would is a little beside the point. What I'm trying to show is that the word miracle could include lots of different kinds of events. Dennett was at pains to explain precisely what he meant by religion, and it would have been helpful here if he had been just as meticulous to explain what he meant by miracles.

An argument like this reeks of an attempt to unfocus the central idea here Mad.

Don't read the posts I've made so far as a sustained, cohesive argument. I took notes as I went, and those notes are often self-contained. I just made note of whatever struck my interest in what Dennett had said. If some comment I made loses sight of Dennett's central thesis, oh well. Tangents are part of what make these discussions interesting. But I haven't made any attempt to employ rhetoric as a diversionary technique.

As I understand it, it is a rationale that is totally valid but not necessarily understood by the individual...like the flight instinct of an animal.

Hmm, I got a different sense of the word, which is why I wish Dennett had taken a little more time to explain what he meant by it. (He has, of course, but in another book, when we need it in this one.) The way I understood it was that a free-floating rationale is something that looks like reason but which has occured through processes that don't have a reasoning agent behind them.

Me: Tacit acceptance of this premise is bound to work against a theist if he also takes up the implied premise that only one sufficient answer is necessary to any question. If we can explain intrinsic values as instrumental values, then we have no need of an absolute source to make them intrinsic.
Mr. P: And? Why is that a bad thing? So we should pamper theists so that there will always be that "absolute source"?

It's a bad thing to accept it at the moment because it isn't necessarily true, and we have no way of testing it. Accepting it for the purpose of a brief hypothetical exercise is harmless, of course, but Dennett is building towards reconsidering the role that a very large part of culture plays in our lives. He says that it's a hypothesis worth considering -- what he doesn't say is that he's about to build a very grandiose argument on the whole thing.

I'm not for pampering anyone's point of view on the matter, but it does seem to me that Ockam's Razor is invoked in quite a few arguments like this not so much because there's any sound reason to accept it as because it allows the author to reject arguments to the contrary. "My argument is simpler (even if unproven), and therefore there's no reason to consider your argument."

And I do not necessarily think that is entirely, or even mostly, HIS fault.

It's certainly not entirely his fault. But the way he's written the book isn't likely to help.




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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Quote:
Dennett writes: "A hypothesis to consider seriously, then, is that all our 'intrinsic' values started out as instrumental values..." Actually, to call that a hypothesis at all is to stretch the functional meaning of that term -- how do you test for the truth value of a claim like that? You can't. What Dennett is putting forth here is not a hypothesis but a premise, one by which, unless I'm mistaken, he expects us to judge the evidence to be put forward.


I think you misunderstand Dennett's intentions, then. He isn't asking the reader to assume that all values were once instrumental. Rather, he is pointing out that many values ultimately have an instrumenta explanation rooted in a sort of Darwinian explanation--he uses the example of pain as something which we often take to be instrinsically bad but which is actually for something.

To insist that these values are intrinsic would be to demand an assumption of such a truth, it seems to me. For instance, the only way to truly believe a value is intrinsic, in Dennet's words, is if it "couldn't have such an explanation" (that being an instrumental explanation). He isn't asking you to assume the truth of instrumental values, but to examine the instrumental explanations he offers for these values.

Quote:
Tacit acceptance of this premise is bound to work against a theist if he also takes up the implied premise that only one sufficient answer is necessary to any question. If we can explain intrinsic values as instrumental values, then we have no need of an absolute source to make them intrinsic.


Of course it is bound to work against a theist. If a naturalistic account of these values can be given, then there seems to be nothing further to explain. You seem to think that there can be a sufficient answer and on top of that a "final answer" as well. This is indeed possible. The only problem, of course, is that these "final answers" will not be capable of support with evidence. If all the evidence leads me to believe that my television works in a naturalistic manner according to the actions of various electrodes and such, it is all fine and dandy for someone to reply that some absolute source can also be responsible for my television's workings on top of this naturalistic account. But there is no evidence to support such a view, and it is only a bare possibility. A good reason to reject these final explanations in favor of sufficient explanations is simply because we only have evidence of the sufficient ones.




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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Saint Gasoline: He isn't asking the reader to assume that all values were once instrumental.

Isn't he? That's certainly what it looks like when he writes, "A hypothesis to consider seriously, then, is that all our 'intrinsic' values started out as instrumental values...." And the arguments he presents throughout the rest of the book depend on that assumption for their exclusionary power.

For instance, the only way to truly believe a value is intrinsic, in Dennet's words, is if it "couldn't have such an explanation" (that being an instrumental explanation).

That's the only justification for believing that, if you are, as Dennett is, a pragmatist. Given Dennett's philosophical premises, that may be so, but as I understand it, pretty much the whole of Western philosophy prior to Nietzche has supposed that it was possible to have some overlap on the matter, so it certainly isn't "the only way to truly believe a value is intrinsic."

Of course it is bound to work against a theist.

And that's all fine and well, except that Dennett is asking theists to extend him some good will in considering his arguments. It seems disingenuous to me to then turn around and stack the deck against them.

You seem to think that there can be a sufficient answer and on top of that a "final answer" as well. This is indeed possible. The only problem, of course, is that these "final answers" will not be capable of support with evidence.

In the case of natural phenomenon, that's true. But looking ahead to a point I make in regards to the last chapter, one matter Dennett barely raises at all is that the central claims of most religions are only incidentally related to natural phenomenon. Most religious believers are not interested in providing an explanation for how your television works. They believe in the holiness of this or that thing or concept, and if science can't touch that claim, then it's unlikely to affect their belief at all.




Wed Sep 13, 2006 12:54 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Quote:
Isn't he? That's certainly what it looks like when he writes, "A hypothesis to consider seriously, then, is that all our 'intrinsic' values started out as instrumental values...." And the arguments he presents throughout the rest of the book depend on that assumption for their exclusionary power.


Well, there are many senses of the word "assume", and if you take it in a sort of scientific sense, then you could argue that Dennett is "assuming" that all values are instrumental. He isn't making an uncritical assumption that can't be supported by evidence, necessarily, though. In all science, a hypothesis and its effects must be assumed before it can be critiqued, and this is the type of assumption that Dennet makes. It isn't a sort of devious argument intended to fool theists into accepting his argument through accepting a dubious premise. Rather, he is asking them to assume the hypothesis and then he examines whether its implications are true, or whether such an account can adequately be made--if it can't, then the theists may have a point.

So Dennett isn't stacking the deck against theists--he would only be stacking the deck if the premise was supposed to be assumed uncritically, without examination, and without the potential for being shelved.

For instance, your point that "science can't touch these topics" seems to be a better example of stacking the deck against someone. What makes you think science can't touch these topics unless science has already attempted to address them and failed? As Dennett argues early in the book, to claim that these topics can't be touched by science assumes uncritically that science is incapable of explaining these various phenemonon--prior to even attempting to do so!

Let us imagine a situation wherein people truly believed that a television set was something sacred and holy--something that science can't touch. They told all scientists that an examination of it would be futile, and that they wouldn't agree with their results. However, scientists soon uncovered a great many natural explanations for the television, and could even predict many things on the basis of their theories. Does it then make sense for someone to maintain that we can't examine this scientifically? Of course not. I'm with Dennett on this particular issue--if you claim that something can't be examined scientifically, you can only make this claim if it seems such an examination is impossible. Sadly, though, it doesn't seem impossible to provide a naturalistic account of religion.




Wed Sep 13, 2006 11:55 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Saint Gasoline: And this is exactly why I believe methodological naturalism should lead people to assume an ontological naturalism. It is downright silly to claim that something outside of our epistemological framework exists for the simple reason that no one could ever have knowledge of this claim--anyone who maintains it would essentially be admitting that they have no justification for holding such a view.

This would be true if everyone insisted on the same criteria, but bear in mind that the insistence on sense datum as the exclusive basis for knowledge is a relatively recent set of criteria, and the persistence of religious belief would seem to indicate that it isn't yet universal. All these attempts to get religious believers to justify their belief in accordance with methodological naturalism is a bit misguided until you can get everyone to agree that methodological naturalism ought to be the exclusive standard for all knowledge.

This assumption doesn't break down when discoursing about immaterial phenomenon--we don't have knowledge of such phenomena because we have no evidence of such phenomena.

I'm fine with that conclusion, but I think you ought to recognize that it paves the way for other conclusions which are not so easily brokered. Descartes pointed to one of the dilemmas, which is that we ultimately have no evidence that our senses are reliable indicators of what is happening around us. The gist is that evidence, even if we limit its efficacy to epistemology, cannot lead us back to any solid conclusion on its own.

You seem to think either alternative is just as plausible as the other--naturalism is just as plausible as supernaturalism, and we can justify this on pragmatic grounds regarding the benefits we accrue from assuming one or the other.

That's the philosophical pragmatist's view of the situation. I've been reading some philosophical pragmatism lately, so that probably bled into my discussion.

Frankly, though, I'm a theist, so yes, I do think either alternative is just as plausible -- in very general terms.

And the atheistic conclusion seems warranted.

It's warranted in so much as the atheist assumes that lack of evidence is tantemount to lack of existence. I think that's a valid point of view, but an atheist who is honest with himself should recognize that such an assumption is something of a personal preference, and cannot be proven logically.

If we want to insist on only drawing conclusions that are supported by logic and evidence, then the non-atheist agnostic's conclusion is the most warranted, because he recognizes the limitations of his access to the knowledge that could decide the question, and reserves judgement in accordance with that limitation.

Clearly, the first hypothesis is superior to the second because it does not make needless and unjustified assumptions about the world.

It does make an assumption about the world, though. What makes the other assumption "needless" is your interpretation of what is necessary to explain phenomenon within the world. What makes it "unjustified" is the same thing which makes the atheist assumption of an exclusively naturalistic world unjustified as well -- we are in no epistemic position to say for sure, one way or the other.

An agnostic wants absolute proof for his beliefs, while an atheist is content with adequate justification, even though it is possible to be otherwise.

I don't think either characterization is implicit or explicit in the terms. Atheism itself doesn't provide a methodology -- the atheist could just as well believe there is no God because his cat told him so, and she would know. And agnosticism doesn't depend on absolute proof -- just on evidence furnished by the senses.




Tue Sep 19, 2006 1:16 pm
Profile


Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Quote:
This would be true if everyone insisted on the same criteria, but bear in mind that the insistence on sense datum as the exclusive basis for knowledge is a relatively recent set of criteria, and the persistence of religious belief would seem to indicate that it isn't yet universal.


Why is it that you think universality is necessary for epistemic criteria to be considered objectively valid? The simple fact that we are undoubtedly natural beings, capable of of reasoning about and experiencing natural objects out in the world, and incapable of "supernatural" experiences should lead one to conclude that naturalism is a lot more warranted than a belief in the supernatural. It doesn't matter if people exist who doubt that the entire universe is naturalistic. Universal agreement on epistemic standards isn't required, then--only universal abilities, and certainly all men are natural beings with the abiliy to sense natural objects.

Quote:
I'm fine with that conclusion, but I think you ought to recognize that it paves the way for other conclusions which are not so easily brokered. Descartes pointed to one of the dilemmas, which is that we ultimately have no evidence that our senses are reliable indicators of what is happening around us. The gist is that evidence, even if we limit its efficacy to epistemology, cannot lead us back to any solid conclusion on its own.


And I'm a bit of a pragmatist in that regard. I don't look at "truth" as some sort of ontological reality outside of our experiences as human beings, but define it as something intrinsically bound with the way we experience reality as human beings. For instance, in order for Descartes' dilemma to stand, we must assume that we can take a perspective outside of our senses to see that they are unreliable, but this is frankly impossible to do. If we take a rationalist's bloated idea of truth, then yes, it is a possibility that our senses are not reliable indicators of "reality"--but a pragmatic view will look at truth as something more bound to our epistemic limitations. There is no need to ask whether our senses are adequate indicators of reality, then, because "reality" IS what we sense! What else could reality be? Why should we work with this festively plump and unverifiable conception of truth and reality when it makes more sense to describe truth and reality from our own perspectives as human beings? That is the problem with rationalists and that is where many of the problems of philosophy come from--because they look upon truth as something outside of human interests and experiences, when we should really only be concerned with explaining what is "True given human experiences" or "Real for a human". To speculate about anything beyond this is as silly as thinking that God exists. And, uncoincidentally, most rationalists believed in God! Either that or they gave way to a type of unmitigated skepticism like Hume.

Quote:
I think that's a valid point of view, but an atheist who is honest with himself should recognize that such an assumption is something of a personal preference, and cannot be proven logically.


I agree that it cannot be proven logically, but this doesn't entail that a claim about God's nonexistence is based upon personal preferences. I do not believe that the possible epistemic rules we can take as foundational or basic are all equal--I think that we can distinguish between which rules cohere better with our exeriences as human beings, and so on. To me, not even foundational beliefs are exempt from criticism.

With that said, even though one cannot logically disprove God's existence (except when it comes to contradictory deities, naturally), I still believe there is much reason to accept atheism. Given a lack of evidence, it makes much more sense to assume that something does not exist to produce that evidence than to assume that something exists and the evidence is hidden. Both views are compatible with the evidence, to be sure, but the atheistic view does not require assuming unnecessary entities without reason. This is why it is acceptable to believe that there is no elephant in your room if you find no evidence of such a creature--even though the alternative hypothesis that it is in the room but has somehow hidden the evidence of its existence is just as coherent with the lack of evidence.

Quote:
If we want to insist on only drawing conclusions that are supported by logic and evidence, then the non-atheist agnostic's conclusion is the most warranted, because he recognizes the limitations of his access to the knowledge that could decide the question, and reserves judgement in accordance with that limitation.


I don't see any difference between the non-theist agnostic and the atheist, myself. Both an atheist and an agnostic can recognize that God is an open possibility, and yet disbelieve in God's existence. Nor is agnosticism that rational, when examined. An extremist agnostic would be forced to disbelieve in all scientific theories, all basic beliefs about the world, and so on, because nothing we know is "absolutely certain" and everything can potentially be wrong. The problem with agnosticism, then, and the reason it is irrational, is that it demands epistemic infallibility, whereas a more scientific or atheistic outlook is fallibilistic and recognizes that though our beliefs could all be wrong, this does not mean that all hypotheses are equally supported or that we cannot choose certain beliefs as more likely than others, given our experiences and a slight leap into the unknown.

All knowledge requires a "leap of faith" in this regard--the difference between scientific faith and religious faith, of course, is that a scientific leap hopes to land upon some evidence and changes course if it doesn't, whereas religious faith is content to keep on free-falling.

Quote:
And agnosticism doesn't depend on absolute proof -- just on evidence furnished by the senses.


I'm not so sure I agree with this assessment of agnosticism. To me, agnosticism entails an epistemic standard of infallibility. The reason agnostics reject claims about God's existence is because it is impossible to prove without a doubt either position. However, the same could be said of any knowledge we have, except for tautologies. Agnostics expect an infallible proof that either atheism or theism is correct, but we can't even get this sort of proof for accepted scientific theories. The best we can hope for is a hypothesis that accords very well with the evidence and makes no unnecessary hypotheses (especially if they entail the creation of "truth" conceptions that deluge our ontologies with conceptions of reality that stand forever outside of human experience or confimation).

This conversation is amusing. Keep it comin'. Aye matey.




Tue Sep 19, 2006 9:00 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Saint Gasoline: Why is it that you think universality is necessary for epistemic criteria to be considered objectively valid?

I don't think we're capable of arriving at objectively valid criteria -- or at least, of knowing that it is objective. The best we can hope for, as a society, is consensus, and the closer that you get to universality in consensus, the better.

The simple fact that we are undoubtedly natural beings, capable of reasoning about and experiencing natural objects out in the world, and incapable of "supernatural" experiences should lead one to conclude that naturalism is a lot more warranted than a belief in the supernatural.

But those are not, at all, simple facts. Exclusive naturalism in reference to humanity is a perfectly reasonable viewpoint, but it is not in itself patently obvious. Again, the persistence of religion indicates a great deal here. Many religious beliefs holds that we are at least partly supernatural (ie. the soul or spirit is not a natural object), and mysticism as a whole is built on the idea that we are capable of supernatural belief. To tie this into our other conversation (ie. ekstasis), the character of some experience apparantly suggests to some people the possibility, if not the verity, of some forms of supernatural encounter.

It doesn't matter if people exist who doubt that the entire universe is naturalistic.

As I understood it, you were positing a direct correlation between methodological naturalism and ontological (ie. metaphysical) naturalism. I'm not claiming that universality or even broad consensus is necessary to justify a epistemic stance; I'm merely addressing the assertion that one should necessarily suggest the other. I don't think that's the case, and even a strict methodological naturalist should be capable of supposes the possibility of special cases -- unless, that is, he already assumes metaphysical naturalism.

Me: Descartes pointed to one of the dilemmas, which is that we ultimately have no evidence that our senses are reliable indicators of what is happening around us.
Gasoline: For instance, in order for Descartes' dilemma to stand, we must assume that we can take a perspective outside of our senses to see that they are unreliable, but this is frankly impossible to do.

That doesn't really solve Descartes' dilemma. That merely describes an epistemic position, but recognizing our epistemic limitations says nothing about the nature of things apart from our knowing them. It would require a viewpoint distinct from our perceptions to verify the correspondence of those perceptions to the things perceived, but that we have no access to such a viewpoint does not mean that the perceived things don't have a reality of their own. Philosophical pragmatism, as I understand it, seeks to replace the idea of the thing in itself with a fully relational view of things. As a recognition of our epistemic limitations, I think that's a realistic transition, but philosophical pragmatism starts to fall into fallacy when it assumes that, because we're incapable of knowing the thing in itself, it necessarily follows that there is no thing in itself.

(And, actually, as I understand it, philosophical pragmatism doesn't argue towards that conclusion, but rather borrows it wholesale from Wittgenstein.)

There is no need to ask whether our senses are adequate indicators of reality, then, because "reality" IS what we sense!

Maybe there are some schools of pragmatism that argue to this conclusion. I'm really only familiar the pragmatism via Richard Rorty, and I think he would eschew it. Rather, he would suggest that we do away with the notion of reality altogether. Whether or not we perceive reality is beside the point for him -- what matters is how we construct the relationships between perceived things in order to progress, in whatever way it is we hope to progress.

I'd say that defining reality such that it invariably corresponds to whatever it is we sense ultimately does nothing but negate the value of the term "reality". It makes impractical, for example, any distinction we might have made between common perception and extreme states like paranoid delusion. If reality is what we sense, then the content of the paranoid delusion must also be reality, no?

Why should we work with this festively plump and unverifiable conception of truth and reality when it makes more sense to describe truth and reality from our own perspectives as human beings?

Because, a) experience tells us that a consensus view of reality is typically more reliable -- if nothing else, as a survival tactic -- than a simple correlation between "reality" and what is perceived, and b) once we accept the superior reliability of consensus reality, we stratify the notion of reality from the senses (since, after all, if our senses fail us on an individual level, they may also fail us as a group) and make possible the recognition that some hypothetical set of senses would be even more reliable.

I do not believe that the possible epistemic rules we can take as foundational or basic are all equal--I think that we can distinguish between which rules cohere better with our exeriences as human beings, and so on.

The problem with this, I'd say, is that it supposes a set of experiences which are typical of human beings, whereas it is entirely possible that our experiences are diverse enough from person to person as to render the notion of "our experiences as human beings" rather dubious. In fact, if our experiences are so commensurable as all that, I fail to see why we would have ever developed in the first place rules which failed to cohere to the extent that they produced an idea like God.

To me, not even foundational beliefs are exempt from criticism.

I'd say that nothing is exempt from criticism, but that the set of critical tools you choose may have their own limitations. That's a pretty fundamental critique I have of Dennett's thesis -- the critical tools he's chosen don't seem capable of performing the tasks I think he wants them to perform.

Given a lack of evidence, it makes much more sense to assume that something does not exist to produce that evidence than to assume that something exists and the evidence is hidden.

I won't go through the whole ringamarole again, but to reiterate my point on this, whether or not that "makes much more sense" depends entirely on the assumptions you've taken for granted.

Both views are compatible with the evidence, to be sure, but the atheistic view does not require assuming unnecessary entities without reason.

Ask around, and I think that you'd find something in the range of 99% of theists who disagreed with you on the subject of whether or not a concept like God was necessary. What I'm getting at is that your interpretation of the world does not necessitate the existence of God, but that interpretation is not necessarily compatible with the interpretations of others, and there isn't necessarily a consensible criteria for mediating or choosing between the two. If you had a fully articulated description of a theists worldview, you might agree -- without feeling the need to adopt either the worldview or the conclusions that it necessitated -- that, given those premises, the existence of a God would be necessary.

Both an atheist and an agnostic can recognize that God is an open possibility, and yet disbelieve in God's existence.

The very language itself suggests that a person can suspend judgement altogether and be an agnostic, but cannot suspend judgement altogether and be an atheist. If they were to sum it up as answers to the question of "Is there a god?" the atheist would say, "I don't know, but I believe there isn't," while the agnostic would say, "I don't know, and therefore I don't believe either way."

Another way to look at it is that the agnostic might still go looking for some way to answer that question of whether or not there is a God (though that way would always be through sense experience), while the atheist would consider it a closed issue unless some new evidence presented itself.

Before I get any flak about making assumption about other people's belief systems, let me make the apology that I'm only elaborating on the denotative sense of the words. There are, I know, plenty of people who choose to describe themselves in one term or another, but who don't exactly fit the descriptions I've made, and I don't mean to denegrate them by focussing on what those terms mean etylogically or denotatively.

The problem with agnosticism, then, and the reason it is irrational, is that it demands epistemic infallibility

I don't think that's the case. True gnostic experience would, presumably, be infallible, because it implies the direct, unmediated experience of a thing. Agnosticism provides only for mediated experience -- that is, mediated by sense datum -- which is recognizably fallible. To that end, I think that agnosticism typically assumes fallibility as a feature of human knowledge, and is content to call that the best we have.

All knowledge requires a "leap of faith" in this regard

You'd be surprised how many freethinkers resist this idea.

--the difference between scientific faith and religious faith, of course, is that a scientific leap hopes to land upon some evidence and changes course if it doesn't, whereas religious faith is content to keep on free-falling.

I'd say that's a pretty accurate description of most solid philosophy of science, and a pretty limited understanding of the way religion has developed historically.

To me, agnosticism entails an epistemic standard of infallibility.

I don't understand where you're getting this. Could you explain a little more?

My understanding of agnosticism is that it rejects the notion of the mystical experience, specifically gnosticism, which entails direct knowledge of a thing. The alternative proposed by orthodox agnosticism is reliance on the senses as the only humanly available mode of knowledge. As such, the reason agnostics don't affirm belief in God is that the traditional Judeo-Christian God is normally imperceptible. I don't know that I've ever read anything to the effect that agnosticism demands infallible knowledge.

This conversation is amusing. Keep it comin'.

Agreed; as long as it keeps moving along.




Tue Sep 19, 2006 10:55 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Why Good Things Happen
Quote:
As a recognition of our epistemic limitations, I think that's a realistic transition, but philosophical pragmatism starts to fall into fallacy when it assumes that, because we're incapable of knowing the thing in itself, it necessarily follows that there is no thing in itself.


I don't think it follows that there is no "thing in itself"--only that the thing in itself is something within our epistemic limits. Rather, there is no "supernatural" thing.

Let us assume, for the moment, that there is some object that is totally incommensurable with our epistemic limits. Now, we know what it is to exist, to be true, to be real, and so on, but something totally outside of these meanings can't even be said to exist, to be true, or to be real. What could we possibly mean when we say that something supernatural "exists"? Surely we would no longer be using the word "exist" in the sense we normally use it, which would seem to mean that we can't even discourse about a truly supernatural realm at all. We can't speak of it as existing or even not existing, because these are terms only applicable to reality as we know it. It is in this sense that reality as we know it is all that reality can be--because these words like reality and truth and so on are formulated from this perspective, and there is no way they could be applicable from without it.

Quote:
I'd say that defining reality such that it invariably corresponds to whatever it is we sense ultimately does nothing but negate the value of the term "reality". It makes impractical, for example, any distinction we might have made between common perception and extreme states like paranoid delusion. If reality is what we sense, then the content of the paranoid delusion must also be reality, no?


Now we are just getting bogged down in subtleties. When I say that reality is what we sense, all I mean is that something beyond our sensory apparatus and beyond the meanings of our epistemic words like truth, reality, and so on that are bound up with this sensory apparatus is not something we can hypothesize to "be".

I think that ultimately this issue boils down to what we mean by "reality", "existence", and so on. In a way, we can argue that the content of illusions exist, but that they are also nonexistent. For instance, they exist as delusions in a sort of immaterial sense, in the way fictional characters, numbers, universals, or minds may exist. But, at the same time, we often speak of universals, minds, numbers, and products of the imagination as "not real", implying that existence entails a sort of physical manifestation.

Could it be that God does exist--but only in the way something imaged or thought exists? An idea is certainly immaterial in the way that most conceptions of God would be, but ideas are generally said to not be real--if I have an idea of a unicorn, this doesn't mean a unicorn truly exists.

Quote:
I won't go through the whole ringamarole again, but to reiterate my point on this, whether or not that "makes much more sense" depends entirely on the assumptions you've taken for granted.


What assumptions have I taken for granted, and how is it possible to see God's existence as "necessary"?

If we examine what it is for something to not exist, it becomes increasingly clear that to demand evidence for something not existing is just plain silly--things that do not exist do not produce evidence. Given nonexistence, a complete lack of evidence is exactly what we would expect to see, and in terms of physical things, we could falsify this hypothesis by simply searching for and finding the evidence of the thing's existence.

Now, the obvious theistic response to this is to argue that it is silly to demand evidence for God, because things that exist immaterially or supernaturally do not produce empirical evidence. However, as I've noted, this response assumes that there is such a realm as the supernatural or immaterial, and that it makes sense to speak of something "existing" or "being" in such a realm, even though these words are bound up with our human conception of existence.

Naturalism, on the other hand, is not a needless assumption. It is clear that we are natural beings and our experiences are natural. (Indeed, to argue that humans are actually capable of sensing or experiencing the supernatural seems to me to be a contradiction in terms--if we could experience or sense something, then it is NATURAL, not supernatural. Besides, if one argues this way, then we could expect "supernatural evidence" to give us reason to believe in God, and it would make little sense to say that the belief produces no knowable evidence, as is the case with nonexistence.)

I don't see how one could argue against the fact that it is indeed plausible to doubt the existence of God given the complete lack of evidence. This isn't based upon any unwarranted assumptions at all, but upon basic and obvious premises that no one doubts.

Quote:
You'd be surprised how many freethinkers resist this idea.


I'm not surprised at all, actually. The only reason it provokes such a knee-jerk resistance is because it seems to have such similarity to religious faith, on the face of it. Of course, there is a huge difference between the two, in my mind.

Quote:
If they were to sum it up as answers to the question of "Is there a god?" the atheist would say, "I don't know, but I believe there isn't," while the agnostic would say, "I don't know, and therefore I don't believe either way."


Personally, I take agnosticism to be a statement about epistemic standards while atheism is a statement about ontology. An agnostic is someone who says, "We can't possibly know for certain whether God exists or not". I would consider myself a sort of agnostic atheist in that regard--I agree that we cannot know for certain whether God exists, but I do not agree with the further agnostic claim that this lack of certainty should make it impossible to choose a side.

Quote:
To me, agnosticism entails an epistemic standard of infallibility.

I don't understand where you're getting this. Could you explain a little more?


Okay. Basically, an agnostic is someone who feels that we must suspend judgment concerning belief in God. Because there is no evidence either way, we cannot adequately justify atheism or theism. However, once we note that claims of nonexistence are NOT justified with evidence, but with a lack of evidence, it becomes clear that agnosticism entails an epistemic standard of infallibility in regards to claims of nonexistence. The agnostic expects someone who argues that something does not exist to prove this with some sort of evidence, and this is simply the wrong kind of thing to demand. It is like telling the person who denies that there is an elephant sitting on his head that he has to produce evidence of a lack of elephant on his head. How is he to do so? Can he just point to his head and say, "Do you see any elephant?" Not really--the other person can always reply that the elephant is there, but the evidence is somehow hidden. Both hypotheses accord with the lack of evidence. If the elephant was there but hid the evidence of its existence, we would expect to see nothing, just as we would expect to see nothing if there were no elephant. To an agnostic, there would be no way of choosing between these two positions, because they demand epistemic infallibility, that we prove beyond a doubt that there is no elephant, or that there is no God, when this simply cannot be done.




Thu Sep 21, 2006 1:07 am
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Le GuinThe Genius of the Beast by Howard BloomAlice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Empire of Illusion by Chris HedgesThe Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner The Extended Phenotype by Richard DawkinsSmoke and Mirrors by Neil GaimanThe Selfish Gene by Richard DawkinsWhen Good Thinking Goes Bad by Todd C. RinioloHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. DanielewskiAmerican Gods: A Novel by Neil GaimanPrimates and Philosophers by Frans de WaalThe Enormous Room by E.E. CummingsThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar WildeGod Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher HitchensThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama Paradise Lost by John Milton Bad Money by Kevin PhillipsThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson BurnettGodless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan BarkerThe Things They Carried by Tim O'BrienThe Limits of Power by Andrew BacevichLolita by Vladimir NabokovOrlando by Virginia Woolf On Being Certain by Robert A. Burton50 reasons people give for believing in a god by Guy P. HarrisonWalden: Or, Life in the Woods by Henry David ThoreauExile and the Kingdom by Albert CamusOur Inner Ape by Frans de WaalYour Inner Fish by Neil ShubinNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthyThe Age of American Unreason by Susan JacobyTen Theories of Human Nature by Leslie Stevenson & David HabermanHeart of Darkness by Joseph ConradThe Stuff of Thought by Stephen PinkerA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled HosseiniThe Lucifer Effect by Philip ZimbardoResponsibility and Judgment by Hannah ArendtInterventions by Noam ChomskyGodless in America by George A. RickerReligious Expression and the American Constitution by Franklyn S. HaimanDeep Economy by Phil McKibbenThe God Delusion by Richard DawkinsThe Third Chimpanzee by Jared DiamondThe Woman in the Dunes by Abe KoboEvolution vs. Creationism by Eugenie C. ScottThe Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanI, Claudius by Robert GravesBreaking The Spell by Daniel C. DennettA Peace to End All Peace by David FromkinThe Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerThe End of Faith by Sam HarrisEnder's Game by Orson Scott CardThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonValue and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik J. WielenbergThe March by E. L DoctorowThe Ethical Brain by Michael GazzanigaFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan JacobyCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared DiamondThe Battle for God by Karen ArmstrongThe Future of Life by Edward O. WilsonWhat is Good? by A. C. GraylingCivilization and Its Enemies by Lee HarrisPale Blue Dot by Carl SaganHow We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God by Michael ShermerLooking for Spinoza by Antonio DamasioLies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al FrankenThe Red Queen by Matt RidleyThe Blank Slate by Stephen PinkerUnweaving the Rainbow by Richard DawkinsAtheism: A Reader edited by S.T. JoshiGlobal Brain by Howard BloomThe Lucifer Principle by Howard BloomGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Demon-Haunted World by Carl SaganBury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee BrownFuture Shock by Alvin Toffler

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