Randal talks with Ralph the Atheist (Part 2): Randal responds with fightin’ words

Posted on 03/06/13 63 Comments

This is the second installment of a discussion Randal (aka “me”) is having with atheist Ralph Jones. In this installment Randal responds to Ralph’s dismissive words against “religion” as well as Ralph’s list of seventeen objections to the existence of God. (For the first installment click here.)

Randal: Ralph, you say that “religion itself” is “the problem”. But I really don’t know what you mean when you say “religion itself.” And to be frank, I’m not sure you do either. (Not that I am particularly interested in defending “religion itself”. I’m interested in defending Christian theism.) I regret that I have to press you once again on definitions. Perhaps you will dismiss my request that you define what you mean by “religion itself” as another terminological bog. But it shouldn’t be. If you think this thing called “religion itself” is such a problem, then I assume you can give a succinct (emphasis on succinct) and clear definition of what it is you mean when you use the term.

Now to the question of God’s existence. I asked you, “can you provide some reasons why you think that God does not exist?” You went on to provide a long, scattered list of non sequiturs and tendentious claims. I’ll briefly engage the first six points you list to illustrate the general nature of the problem.

For starters, your opening points 1-4 have nothing at all to do with the question of whether God exists or not since each is an assertion about some aspect of Christian theism. (By analogy, it is as if I had asked you why you believe nobody should drive cars and you replied by arguing that Chryslers are unreliable. An interesting observation, but quite irrelevant to the question at hand.)

Nor is your fifth claim that belief in God is a result of wish fulfillment of any relevance to the question of whether God exists since even if belief in God is the result of wish fulfillment it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t exist or that we have a reason to believe God doesn’t exist. This, I would have thought, is a rather elementary logical point. What is more, as an objection it self-destructs since as Paul Vitz pointed out, you can explain the non-belief of atheists on the same basis, i.e. as a projected hope that there be no God. This would seem to be even more likely to be the case with those who self-describe as “anti-theists”. (Vitz as a psychologist completely inverts Freud’s analysis by arguing that many atheists project no heavenly father based on the absence of human fathers in their lives. And he provides several plausible examples including Bertrand Russell. Whether or not Vitz’s analysis is plausible, it certainly is no less so than the atheist’s arm chair psychologizing about theists. In other words, two can play the “wish fulfillment” game. And neither provides any reason to believe God does (or doesn’t) exist.)

In your sixth point you say that science has eroded the claims of “religion” including the claim that the world was created in six days and that the Earth is the centre of the universe. Interesting. I didn’t know “religion” taught these things. (Once again, I’d love to hear your succinct definition of religion.) It is true that some Christians today believe the world was created in six days but Christians haven’t believed that the earth is the center of the universe since the days of Louis the Sun King. As for the fact that they did believe it at one time you can blame the influence of Ptolemy’s obsolete scientific theory.

Even worse, your sixth point commits you to an extraordinarily naïve scientism. You don’t often hear people these days saying with such bravado that science will one day explain objective moral value, aesthetic value, free will, personal identity through time, teleology, consciousness, self-consciousness, rational intuition, mathematical abstract objects, and everything else. Indeed, these days the drift is quite in the opposite direction.

Just consider consciousness. The philosophical quest to link the extraordinary advances in understanding the brain with a theory of consciousness have been such an abject failure that the respected atheistic philosopher of mind Colin McGinn has adopted a mysterian position according to which he proposes that our minds may be incapable of understanding how the brain produces consciousness, but doggone it, it must anyways. McGinn’s faith is impressive, but not as impressive as the naïve devotee of scientism who continues to insist that a complete science of the mind will one day address all our questions: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then [when we have a completed science of the mind] face to face: now I know in part; but then [when we have a completed science of the mind] shall I know even as also I am known.” (Cue the pious organ music.)

At this point I’ve dealt with the first third of your rag-tag collection of “objections” by showing that the first four are (among other things) utterly irrelevant to the question at hand, the fifth self-destructs by opening the atheist’s reasoning to being deconstructed by the arm-chair psychologist, and the sixth conceals a blushingly controversial version of scientism.

The fact is that one good objection is worth more than seventeen poor ones. So could you provide one objection that is presented in the form of a logical argument with plausible premises and a conclusion that follows logically from the premises?

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  • AdamHazzard

    How to distinguish religions from other organized systems of thought — it’s an interesting question, isn’t it?

    Here’s one possible approach to an answer: We can observe that groups commonly described as religious advance unverifiable/unfalsifiable propositions as truth claims.

    (I had better add that we’re talking about non-axiomatic propositions here — “God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” not “an external world exists.” The claims in question must lie beyond the reach of current verifiability, or must be unverifiable in principle. And it’s important to emphasize that in religions these propositions are presented as “truth claims” — not proposed as hypotheses or raised as possibilities.)

    This distinguishes religion from science and philosophy, but also from organized fraud or outright deceit. It helps clarify some of the ambiguity about whether, for instance, certain varieties of Buddhism (or of Unitarianism) are religions or philosophies. It helps explain the anxiety of fundamentalist faiths when certain previously unverifiable truth claims begin to fall within the scope of scientific investigation. It points to the possibility of a more rigorous definition of religious faith. And perhaps it makes the atheist’s refusal to endorse an unverifiable claim as true more comprehensible.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      A few observations.

      First, you have to explain precisely what you mean by “axiomatic” vs. “non-axiomatic” propositions.

      Second (and following on from that), your brief ostensive defintion of axiomatic and non-aximoatic suggests that Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths are axiomatic which would mean that on your view Buddhism is a philosophy rather than a religion. If you believe this does not follow, you need to explain why.

      Finally, you need to explain why specific doctrinal claims cannot in principle be “verified” through good old fashioned means like documentary testimony. Indeed, it appears they can which means that Christianity is not a religion on your definition.

      • Walter

        How do you define religion, Randal?

        I would channel Potter Stewart by saying that the concept of religion is difficult to rigorously define, but I still know it when I see it.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Here’s the problem. Imagine a moral action group in Washington DC that is lobbying to get rid of “obscenity” in the media. They then begin to target everything from Metallica to Jimmy Fallon. So you ask “How do you define obscenity?” If the members of the group couldn’t answer, that’d be a serious problem. After all, they’re the one seeking to marginalize this broad range of media and entertainment voices.

          That’s Ralph’s problem. He wields this term “religion” with great felicity to marginalize whatever he doesn’t like, but he never provides a definition for the term.

          So how do I define religion? To what end and in what context? For a census document? A university course in sociology? An apologetics book? All of these will arguably yield different definitions of religion.

          But what we can’t tolerate is people who use terms without definition as means to attack and marginalize particular social groups and doxastic communities that they happen not to like.

          • R0c1

            Why the bias for succinct definitions? Do you think all things in reality can be categorized in neat little packages with labels we can easily define?

            I don’t think a perfect definition is needed to attack an idea or a group or anything else in thing-space. If I say “religion” or “obscenity” and you can think of — let’s say 50 central members of that category that I would also think of — then clearly we are communicating relevant information. The communication might be imperfect, but that’s not a sufficient reason to sit around and just keep looking for a better definition.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              “Why the bias for succinct definitions?”

              Because Ralph has been going in many different directions. I’d like him to base his argument on a viable set of definitions and work from there. I hope you can appreciate the perennial danger that people will end up talking passed one another because neither bothered to define the object of debate.

      • AdamHazzard

        Let me address your final point first, since it’s the easiest: If a “specific doctrinal claim” can “in principle be verified through documentary testimony,” then that specific claim is historical in nature, not religious.

        For instance, if you advance the claim that dead saints rose and walked through Jerusalem solely on the basis of documentary testimony, you’ve made an historical claim that can be challenged on historical grounds. Note that to the extent that this is an historical claim, it must be provisional — i.e., “the dead walked through Jerusalem, if this testimony is reliable.” The religious claim is that the dead did in fact walk through Jerusalem.

        The Four Noble Truths are a great example of the borderland between philosophy and religion. We can see this, too, in classical Greek schools of philosophy, in which unverifiable assertions were often taught as truths. These are examples of an emerging distinction between philosophy and religion — transitional fossils, if you like. If I were to look for more purely religious claims in Buddhism, I would point to karma and samsara.

        By excluding axioms I meant only to avoid the tedious discussion of whether a belief in the external world (say) is either “religious” or “verifiable.” Perhaps we can simply exclude self-evident axioms, in the foundationalist sense, since the religious claims under discussion clearly don’t fall into that category.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Adam, I don’t think you’re quite understanding the point I made. Let’s say, for example, that Jesus told his disciples “I am God’s Son” and this testimony was subsequently codified in New Testament writings based on Jesus’ witness. It follows that the claim “Jesus is God’s Son” can be “verified” through testimony. And from that it would follow, on your view, that “Jesus is God’s Son” is not a religious claim.

          In order to avoid this consequence you shall have to offer a more narrow definition of verification that excludes verification with respect to written testimony. And you shall have to defend that definition once you’ve articulated it.

          As for Buddhism, are you saying that Buddhism is or isn’t a religion? Or are you saying we don’t have any clear way to define Buddhism?

          • AdamHazzard

            Actually, I think you’re missing my point. Let’s look at your example. What you describe as “testimony” is in no sense testimony to the the idea that Jesus is God’s son — it’s testimony to the idea that Jesus made the assertion that he was God’s son.

            You can certainly advance the contention that a prophet named Jesus claimed to be the son of God as a provisional historical claim, using scripture as testimony. (Richard Carrier might disagree with the contention; Bart Ehrman probably would not.)

            But the claim that “Jesus is God’s son” is not an historical claim, is unverifiable in fact and probably in principle, and remains a religious claim precisely because it is advanced by Christianity as true.

            (As for Buddhism, I’m saying that the collection of Buddhist thought, like most doctrinal assemblages, contains much that could be categorized as philosophy. But we can confidently call it a religion because it possesses core doctrines, such as samsara, that assert as true claims that are practically or in principal unverifiable.)

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              Uh, no. Jesus says “I am God.” Peter says “Jesus is God.” Paul says “Jesus is God.” Based on this chain of testimony people today read the claim that Jesus is God. This is possibly the case and that means that the claim “Jesus is God” is, by your definition, not a religious one (unless you want to redefine “verification”).

              • AdamHazzard

                Randal, I was taking the example you initially offered:

                Let’s say, for example, that Jesus told his disciples “I am God’s Son” and this testimony was subsequently codified in New Testament writings based on Jesus’ witness.

                …and my response addresses that.

                Now you’re offering as a chain of evidence Peter’s statement that Jesus is God and Paul’s statement that Jesus is God. What can we say about this? Well, we can say that it is not clear that Peter and Paul were qualified to evaluate whether Jesus was God. We can say that to the extent that they were simply repeating a prior assertion, their testimony would add no further credibility to the claim. We can say that it is not clear that these statements were actually made by those to whom they were attributed. We could add many other qualifications.

                The effect of all these unanswerable questions is that any claim that “Jesus is God” remains unverified and unverifiable. Christianity may thus be defined as a religion because it asserts that claim as true.

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  Okay, so it looks like you’re opting to narrow your definition as to what constitutes “verification” to exclude testimonial evidence. Can you summarize this narrow criterion of verification as you understand it?

                  • AdamHazzard

                    That’s a mischaracterization. The testimony you described in your example fails as evidence precisely because the unverifiability is built into the nature of the testimony. In other words — given that the source of the testimony is unclear, the qualification of the testifiers uncertain, and the possible status of the testimony as a mere repetition of an original claim, among countless other potential objections — it is not verifiable that the testimony is evidence of anything except someone’s acquiescence to the original claim!

                    But let’s grant that it may be reliable testimony. We still have no way of directly verifying its authenticity.

                    Isn’t that problem written into all historical claims? Yes! And that`s why historical claims are usually scrupulous about acknowledging the degree to which they are provisional.

                    A religious claim, on the other hand, admits of no provisos. The religious claim is advanced as true.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      Randal, let me make one last stab at clarifying this by quoting something you said, which I think is almost right:

                      “Peter says “Jesus is God.” Paul says “Jesus is God.” Based on this chain of testimony people today read the claim that Jesus is God. This is possibly the case and that means that the claim “Jesus is God” is, by your definition, not a religious one

                      The word “God” imports questions that aren’t relevant here, so let’s substitute a generic claim: say: “Jesus is X” (where X could be anything from “God” to “son of a carpenter” to “a speaker of proverbs”). Thus we get:

                      Peter says “Jesus is X.” Paul says “Jesus is X.” Based on this chain of testimony people today read the claim that Jesus is X. This is possibly the case and that means that the claim “Jesus is X” is, by your definition, not a religious one.

                      Next, let’s highlight one of the words you used:

                      Peter says “Jesus is X.” Paul says “Jesus is X.” Based on this chain of testimony people today read the claim that Jesus is X. This is possibly the case and that means that the claim “Jesus is X” is, by your definition, not a religious one.

                      Now look at your last sentence. You’re saying, “The claim that Jesus is possibly X is, by your definition, not a religious one.”

                      And I agree completely! The claim that “Jesus is possibly X” is not intrinsically religious. It becomes religious, by my definition, only if the claim is unverifiable and is asserted as true.

                      Not “within the realm of possibility,” but true.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      “The claim that “Jesus is possibly X” is not intrinsically religious. It becomes religious, by my definition, only if the claim is unverifiable and is asserted as true.”

                      This final statement of yours begs the question and is false.

                      It begs the question because you still haven’t provided a working definition of “verification”.

                      It is false because it entails that a statement like “Jesus is Lord” would be religious if believed to be true and non-religious if believed to be false. And that would mean, among other things, that the second you abandon a set of religious claims they cease to be religious claims! Surely that isn’t right.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      Surely, that isn’t right.

                      “…it entails that a statement like ‘Jesus is Lord’ would be religious if believed to be true and non-religious if believed to be false…”

                      “Lord” can mean too many things to be a terribly useful example, but I’ll try to work with it. Let’s assume “is Lord” is an unverifiable claim, in that it can neither be proven nor disproven. It is neither demonstrably false nor, by the same token, demonstrably true. We can quibble over whether any particular assertion falls into this category, but perhaps we can agree that such a category of assertions does exist.

                      In that case, “Jesus is Lord” would be a religious proposition if it is genuinely unverifiable and is asserted as true.

                      You’re right, of course, that if the proposition is genuinely unverifiable, we cannot categorically dismiss it as false. That’s built into the definition. Some propositions are demonstrably false, and we’re assuming this is not one of them.

                      So your conclusion –”that would mean, among other things, that the second you abandon a set of religious claims they cease to be religious claims!” — is indeed absurd. What we can quite reasonably say is: The moment you stop asserting an unverifiable claim as true, you have stopped making a religious claim.

                    • Walter

                      What we can quite reasonably say is: The moment you stop asserting an unverifiable claim as true, you have stopped making a religious claim.

                      Religious groups not only put forth unverifiable claims as truth, they also will state that those unverifiable claims are true beyond question. To doubt the veracity of certain core claims being put forth by certain doxastic communities automatically entails your expulsion from that community.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      “A religious claim, on the other hand, admits of no provisos. The religious claim is advanced as true.”

                      But this is patently false. Many religious claims come with provisos. Indeed, the very foundation of Antony Flew’s famous invisible gardener thought experiment was that religious claims come with ENDLESS provisos!

                    • AdamHazzard

                      What are the provisos attached to the Apostles’ Creed?

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      The provisos start as soon as people begin to discuss what the creed MEANS.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      “The provisos start as soon as people begin to discuss what the creed MEANS” — but only after the creed has been asserted and accepted as true.

              • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

                Skipping past scholarly questions regarding the earliest preserved self-descriptions and phrases used by the historical Jesus to describe himself? Son of Man was the phrase used by Jesus to describe himself in Mark over 15 times, and Mark is ostensibly the earliest of all the Gospels. Son of Man is used by the author of Mark only three times, in the intro by the author, by the baptismal voice, by demons, and by a Roman solider, not by Jesus himself.

                And Son of Man appears about 9 times in Q (while Son of God only appears once in Q, in the temptation narrative, which is ostensibly not historical since it resembles so many other early rabbinical stories about “arguing with the devil,” and as Origin pointed out, there is no mountain so very high you can see all the world.

                See my further comments on Son of God and Son of Man, here:

                http://randalrauser.com/2013/03/randal-talks-with-ralph-the-atheist-part-2-randal-responds-with-fightin-words/#comment-821509882

          • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

            SON OF GOD? “son of God” is found in the OT, but it was used of human beings.

            Jesus doesn’t use the term, Son of God, to describe himself in the earliest Gospel, Mark, though it’s used by the author of that earliest Gospel three times, once in the author’s intro, then “Son” is used in the Baptism scene, a voice from heaven, and then “Son of God” is placed in the mouth of a demon, then in the mouth of a Roman soldier. But not in Jesus’ mouth. I suspect it’s a term protesting Emperor worship, saying, “No, Jesus is the one true son of God.”

            INSTEAD OF SON OF GOD the term that the Gospel of Mark employs the most often and that JESUS is depicted using many times to describe himself is “Son of Man,” over 15 times, probably as deferential self-reference or even as an apocalyptic figure per the latest view of scholars on the Book of Enoch’s usage of “Son of Man,”–see the new book, http://www.amazon.com/Parables-Enoch-Paradigm-Jewish-Christian/dp/0567624064

            Also the phrase “son of God” does not equal the phrase, “God the Son.”

    • Kerk

      That doesn’t help at all. Unless you have some criteria to judge by, this approach is shallow. If I feel like it, I can claim that patriotism and communism are religions. Do you really want to go that way, and equate religion with ideology?

      • AdamHazzard

        Patriotism and communism would be excluded under this definition, since the claims they make — rightly or wrongly, I hasten to add — are generally verifiable/falsifiable, at least in principle and allegedly in practice.

        • Kerk

          How do you verify or falsify patriotism? Communism, I suppose can be verified, but in no way falsified.

          But more importantly, I disagree with your assessment those 2 criteria as necessary condition for religion. Theravada Buddhism does not make claims that cannot be verified, neither does Confucianism. And amazingly, Classical Theism itself claims verifiability – the existence of God can and must be known through logical reasoning and empirical investigation.

          • AdamHazzard

            “Patriotism” (in the sense of “love of one’s country”) is neither a religion nor a political ideology.

            The concept of samsara, and Buddhist cosmology in general, assert as truths a great many intrinsically unverifiable claims — they’re a large part of what makes Buddhism “look religious,” though I’ll certainly grant that it’s a highly philosophized tradition. Confucianism is a classic borderline case; by my definition, it looks more like a school of philosophy.

            “Classical Theism” is not itself a religion, of course. Christianity is, and Christianity asserts as true many unverifiable claims.

  • R0c1

    If you think this thing called “religion itself” is such a problem, then I assume you can give a succinct (emphasis on succinct) and clear definition of what it is you mean when you use the term.

    If the term refers to a fuzzy category of things – and I think it does – one will have a hard time doing this. That does not however mean that “religion” is off the hook.

    Certain things in thing-space can have characteristics that make them central members of the “religion” category, e.g. the Churches of Christ. If these things in thing-space have other common characteristics like “being a problem” then it’s reasonable to say that “religion” is “being a problem”.

    In other words, it’s fine to use herustics to lump things together and make general statements about them even if one can’t find a succint definition that passes the scrutiny of Randal Rauser.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      What are the properties the possession of which are sufficient to make something a “central member” of the “religion category”?

      • R0c1

        I’ll let you guess: Are the Churches of Christ a central member or not? Do you need a rigorous definition to figure that out?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Obviously you think they are. What about the British Humanists’ Association? Are they a central member? Why or why not? How about the local chapter of the Justin Beiber fan club? Or the “World Union of Deists”? Or proponents of naturalism or communism? And what is one to think when Francis Fukuyama declares that with western liberal democracy we’ve come to “the end of history”?

          • R0c1

            My answer to each is “probably not”. I’m glad we are getting more concrete instead of more abstract.

            So now, if I were to say “religion is better than Toy Story 2″ you will know I’m (at minimum) referring to the Churches of Christ and probably not referring to Justin Beiber’s fan club.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              But why probably not? What is there about the Churches of Christ that makes it a religion which is not present in any of the other examples I provided?

              • R0c1

                That’s an interesting question, sure. But let’s suppose I’m unable to pin it down. Does this make my category of “includes-Churches-of-Christ and does-not-include-JB-fans” invalid? Does it mean I’m not justified in criticizing “Churches of Christ” indirectly by criticizing the fuzzy super-set in which I think they belong?

                • R0c1

                  By the way, I think push back is needed on this idea of, “the world would be a better place without religion.” I doubt that is true given the way human minds work. If religion did not have a positive net utility for our species, I doubt it would have succeeded across so many generations.

                  My push back is only on your insistence to rigorously define words that people (as best as I can tell) already have a reliable heuristic on what they refer to.

                  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

                    I think the world would be a better place without hard line hellfire threats and fears as voiced by members of so many conflicting religions, denominations and sects. Aside from that, I make no further predictions as to the state of the world with or without religion, or even whether the internet is making people smarter and more communicative or sucking more people into walled ghettos of the mind, paranoid enclaves of paranoid schemers and true believers, and endless flame wars — though I admit to being glad such wars are merely digital and the most that someone can shout at another person is in CAPS, and rude comments can be ignored since the internet is too vast to remain stuck in merely one corner for long with people who are continually rude. (This place is great. No complaints. I’ve continued to visit.)

                    • Kerk

                      I think, the world would be better without the hard line between “Us” and “Them,” which is drawn by pretty much any ideology. Almost no one on this thread seems to get it. Powerful psychological influence is not the now-how of Religion. It’s not rutted in it per se.

                  • Jag_Levak

                    “By the way, I think push back is needed on this idea of, “the world would be a better place without religion.””

                    It would be a very different place. It would probably be better in some respects and worse in other respects, and “better” is mostly in the eye of the beholder. (I remember an essay which noted that Rome was on the verge of developing steam and battery technology shortly before the rise of Christianity, arguing the industrial revolution would have arrived centuries earlier had it remained on that course. But even if that argument is accepted, I think it is far from clear that the world would now be a better place if that earlier industrial revolution had happened.) I also think it should matter a great deal how a religion-free world is to be attained. An imposed program to stamp out religion would probably manifest at least as much evil as it was meant to eradicate.

                    “If religion did not have a positive net utility for our species, I doubt it would have succeeded across so many generations.”

                    There is much about natural selection which does not operate at the level of species selection. You can have individual traits and genes compete for reproductive success within a species. Suppose there are genes, for example, which under some circumstances tend to increase the likelihood of committing rape. Rape may have no utility or reproductive advantage for the species as a whole, but the genes which express in the form of increased propensity to rape could, nonetheless, have sufficient reproductive success to perpetuate themselves.

                    Also, sometimes traits which are beneficial in some respects will come attached to effects which are not so benign. Tribal cohesion probably does have a positive net utility, even though one of the co-artifacts of that has been many centuries of tribal warfare. It would not be safe to conclude the warfare itself is a net positive for the species merely because it has persisted for so long. Religion could likewise be a side-effect of traits which confer advantage in other respects (eg. creativity and imagination, a sense of social hierarchy, pattern recognition filters which are highly tuned to detect conscious behavior, a sense of cause and effect, the ability to visualize from the perspective of another, etc.).

                    But I also think reproductive success should not be the standard by which we evaluate the worth of the things we do. Even if religion had no reproductive utility or advantage whatsoever, I don’t think that should count against it. We now have more enlightened, moral, and reasonable standards by which we can evaluate the things we do.

                    • Kerk

                      I can provide you with two big examples of the top of my head where national religious indoctrination had monstrous benefits for the nation’s survival in competition with other nations: Baptism of Kiev Russia and Islamisation of the Arabian Peninsula.

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  I’d just like to know why you include the COC but not the humanists or deists. I can certainly argue that these groups can function as religious bodies for their constituent members just like the COC can (but not necessarily does) function as a religious body for its members. And as a result, I’d doubt the legitimacy of your judgments.

                  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

                    Randal, Please define your terms.

                    Are you suggesting humanism and deism ARE religions (the latter might be dubbed a form of “natural religion,” but not a “revealed religion” like Christianity).

                    Or are you only asserting that humanism and deism can in certain circumstances and via certain practices, BECOME religions? Perhaps you might even mean that they can BECOME LIKE religions instead of literally BECOMING RELIGIONS.

                    I agree with you that defining words is tricky business, since it depends on taking into account a myriad of individual aspects such as rituals and practices dubbed “religious,” beliefs dubbed “religious,” writings dubbed “religious.”

                    But I don’t see any humanists that believe that have truly composed, THE Humanist Bible, or that people ought to believe such a book with such a title is inspired cover to cover in the same sense of “inspiration” claimed by some religious people for their holy writings. On the other hand Harvard does have a Humanist Chaplaincy, and there are Humanist chaplains in some Scandinavian countries as well, who are on hand to offer an ear or to offer consoling words during times of crisis and enthusiastic and wise words during times of joy and partner-pairing. But that might only mean that people need people and that religion evolved such practices naturally. So humanists have their libraries and coffee house meet ups and discussion groups, and a few meeting halls and even a church or two and some chaplaincies as well as a small group of subscribers to The Humanist magazine, or other freethought journals. But the majority of people with doubts don’t even join such groups or subscribe to such journals. So they can’t be said to have made their non-theism into a religion. I rarely attend such meetings myself. I prefer the wildness of something like Dragon*Con, though I’d probably speak at a freethought or humanist convention if asked.

                    Many religious believers are also pretty blase about church-going, or have agnostic thoughts. So maybe they aren’t “very religious” and there is a spectrum instead of religion being an “either/or” kind of thing. Though the most conservative and most existential (like Kierkegaard) religionists will insist it IS a matter of “either/or,” it’s heaven or hell, a leap of faith or don’t bother a half heated hop of faith at all.

                    The world is filled with fuzzy, and wiggly things, including words themselves, and fuzzy logic, and incompleteness theorums in math and infinite set theory.

                    You asked a good question, “How do we define religion? To what end and in what context? For a census document? A university course in sociology? An apologetics book? All of these will arguably yield different definitions of religion,”

                    BUT YOUR QUESTIONS MIGHT PROVE MUTE IF RALPH IS AGAINST WHAT HE PERCEIVES TO BE THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS OR IRRATIONALITY OF “RELIGION” IN ALL THOSE ASPECTS YOU MENTIONED.

                    .

  • R0c1

    Just consider consciousness. The philosophical quest to link the
    extraordinary advances in understanding the brain with a theory of
    consciousness have been [...] an abject failure

    If “consciousness” is a philosophical confusion that can be reduced/dissolved, then the philosophical quest you talk about is misguided. Yudkowsky argues that consciousness is what information processing feels like from the inside. (He doesn’t just pull this hypothesis out of thin air; he explains the basis for it in several sequences leading up to this claim.)

    Our philosophical intuitions do not rain down on us as manna from heaven; they are generated by algorithms in the human brain. Yet philosophers seem to be spectacularly bad at understanding that their intuitions are generated by cognitive algorithms.

    http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/How_an_algorithm_feels

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Can you please explain what “consciousness is what information processing feels like from the inside” is supposed to mean?

      • R0c1

        I take it to mean that when information is processed as my brain does, it is not the source of my experience, it actually *is* my experience. The “algorithm” that is my experience has things like working memory and the ability to reflect upon itself.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Sorry, I don’t understand what you’re claiming here. What is your explanation for the semantic content of this sentence? And how does that semantic content relate to the brain states that accompanied the enscription of this mental content in the sentence I typed?

          • R0c1

            Huh. I don’t understand what you’re asking. Can you rephrase?

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              When I think a thought, how does the semantic content of the mental thought relate to the pattern of neurons firing in my brain that accompany the thought? Are you saying they are identical? Or are you saying the thought doesn’t really exist? Or are you saying the thought supervenes on (i.e. arises out of) the neurons firing? Or something else?

              • R0c1

                I’m saying they are identical. When you describe the physical process, the reduction is complete. There will be nothing left in the universe to describe; epiphenomenalism is false.

                • Robert Gressis

                  If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that consciousness is simply what the processing of information feels like from the inside. OK, so information processing has a “feel”. But first, “feels” (or “qualia”, if you prefer) seem like very different things from the kinds of things studies by natural scientists. Why should we think they’re identical to the physical properties that natural scientists talk about?

                  Second, if information processing has a feel, does mass, charge, spin, etc.?

                  • R0c1

                    Information processing doesn’t have a feel (as if there is some ontologically basic mental entity that responds to it). Rather, information processing is feel; it’s the same thing.

                    All of this assumes that reductionism is true and epiphenomenalism is false and ontologically basic mental things don’t exist.

                    I’m pretty ignorant on philosophy, but that’s what I think for today.

                    • Rob Gressis

                      So, if feels are just information-processings, what information is it that Mary doesn’t know?

                    • Rob Gressis

                      Never mind. My guess is you’re going to say that she doesn’t know what colored things look like. And if I say that she knows everything to know about color science, you can respond that that still doesn’t tell her what it’s like to see something.

                      So, it’s clear that there are facts, facts about what it’s like to experience things, and your claim is that the experience of seeing something just is identical to particular neural processes. Experiences are what particular neural processes are like from the inside. And what I want to say is that that seems to be a category mistake — that you can say that experiences *just are* particular neural processes.

                      But it’s hard to make this claim, other than to try to point to Leibniz’s Law violations, which you won’t find convincing.

                    • R0c1

                      I would say that knowing color facts would use diff parts of the brain and therefore a diff algorithm is running. The experience she has is not the same as seeing color unless the visual cortex algorithms are running. I’m not familiar with Leibniz’s Law, I’ll have to look that up.

                    • Rob Gressis

                      I was just referring to the indiscernibility of identicals: if X is supposed to be identical to Y, then X and Y must have all the same properties. Consequently, if there’s some property X has (like a position in space, which a neural firing does) that Y doesn’t (it seems odd to say that a feel has a position in space), it follows that X cannot be identical to Y.

                      But I’m guessing you’ll say that, though it may seem odd to us to say that a feel has a certain position in space, it is nevertheless true. (And you might add: sometimes it’s not odd to say that a feel has a certain position in space; e.g., “here is where it hurts”.)

          • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

            You asked, “how does that semantic content relate to the brain states that accompanied the enscription of this mental content in the sentence I typed?”

            It could be a feedback loop that began when each of us began experiencing sensations and learning how to speak a language that connected our sensations with those words, and our brain-minds began our lifelong journey as information processors. And most of the processing is innate, built up over that same time period, our brain-mind system. Prior to speaking there is only the silence of brain-mind processing, even parts of the system interacting with one another, challenging each other. The brain even processes, files, charges certain pathways over others, and is highly active during periods of dreamless sleep. But cognitive science has also opened windows into how the brain-mind functions. See this post at the top edge of this page: http://randalrauser.com/2013/03/randal-talks-with-ralph-the-atheist-part-2-randal-responds-with-fightin-words/#comment-821550671

        • R0c1

          This has some surprising implications, I know. In principal, one could simulate the same information processing elsewhere and, from an outsider’s perspective it would appear to be a copy of me, but from inside that algorithm, it would actually *be* me.

          When I think of these things, the hypothesis *feels* false. It’s just too weird.

  • Robert Gressis

    Hi Randal,

    You write, “If you think this thing called ‘religion itself’ is such a problem, then I assume you can give a succinct (emphasis on succinct) and clear definition of what it is you mean when you use the term.” First, I’m not sure your claim follows. If someone said to me, “since you like games so much, I’m sure you can give a succinct and clear definition of what a game is”; or, “since you dislike hypocrisy so much, I’m sure you can give a succinct and clear definition of what hypocrisy is”; anyway, if someone said that to me, I’d be confused. I’d say, “well, maybe I can, and maybe I can’t; but I have a reasonably good idea of what games and hypocrisy are, and I like games and dislike hypocrisy; is that OK? If it’s not OK, why is it not OK?”

    Second, If Ralph gives a definition that covers a lot of religions (e.g., “a religion is an organized system of belief and action that includes belief in supernatural entities and recommends specific, ritualized actions about how one ought to relate to these activities”) but not all religions (arguably, some versions of Buddhism and Christianity won’t count as religions on this view, since some versions of those religions don’t include belief in supernatural entities), then will you say that the definition is defective? I.e., must Ralph’s definition be neither over- nor underinclusive? If so, he’s not going to be able to provide a definition. But to the best of my knowledge, no one has given such a definition of religion. And if I’m right, then that’s some evidence that no one is able to. So you might be making an impossible demand of Ralph.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Robert, I take your point and I wasn’t intending to offer a general principle. However, Ralph is, among other things, an essayist for news agencies like Huff Post and in that capacity (as here) he makes grandiose and sweeping claims about “religion” which have the potential for a broad social impact. If he cannot provide a plausible working definition for what this thing called religion is that he rails against, then he’s in danger of simply using a bully pulpit to label and marginalize others much like the moral action group in the illustration who label any cultural products they don’t like “obscenity”.

      So challenging Ralph to define religion is, at the very least, an invitation for him to nuance his rhetoric.

      • Rob Gressis

        Well, what do you think of the definition I just gave. If Ralph had given it, would you be more or less OK with it? I take it you’d ask him to define the supernatural?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Sorry but I think I’ll defer an answer in favor of writing an article on the topic. I’ll have it written in a few days.

  • Jag_Levak

    (RR) “I asked you, “can you provide some reasons why you think that God does not exist?” … your opening points 1-4 have nothing at all to do with the question of whether God exists or not

    What you asked for were his reasons for thinking that God does not exist. His points 1-4 may not resolve the question of Gods existence, but that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant to the issue of belief.

    Back when I thought God did exist, that belief was heavily dependent upon my trust in scripture. In my case, the points Ralph cites in 1 – 4 were a factor in knocking some of the props out from under my basis for belief. Yes, the loss of reasons to believe God does exist does not automatically translate into a reason to believe God does not exist, but in my case, as a Christian, I had already concluded that all the other gods of human mythology were fabrications of human imagination, and probably did not exist. The more I found out about the origins of Christianity, the less reason I could see for putting it in a distinct category from the other mythologies.
    Is it possible a made-up story could nonetheless turn out to be true? Yes. But the more fantastic the departure from the operation of known reality a story is, the more I am inclined to conclude it is most likely false. It isn’t an infallible approach to minimizing risk of error, but I haven’t found another approach which outperforms it.

  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

    Randal, Is the topic of CONSCIOUSNESS where you attempt to draw a firm line in the sand? You think even the “mysterian” position involves a load of faith? I don’t think it’s that fallacious a position to take, strictly philosophically speaking. After all, if the brain-mind were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.

    And contrary to C. S. Lewis’ arguments in which he claims that “[Naturalism] leaves no room for the acts of knowing or insight on which the whole value of our thinking depends,” cognitive scientists have clearly demonstrated the validity of positing a level of mental representation. They study “perceptual apparatus, mechanisms of learning, problem solving, classification, memory, and rationality… They conjecture about the various vehicles of knowledge: what is a form, an image, a concept, a word; and how do these ‘modes of representation’ relate to one another… They reflect on language, noting the power and traps entailed in the use of words… Proceeding well beyond armchair speculation, cognitive scientists are fully wedded to the use of empirical methods for testing their theories and hypotheses… Their guiding questions are not just a rehash of the Greek philosophical agenda: new disciplines have arisen; and new questions, like the potential of man-made devices to think, stimulate research. Given the most optimistic scenario for the future of cognitive science, we still cannot reasonably expect an explanation of mind which lays to rest all extant scientific and epistemological problems. Still, I believe that distinct progress has been made on the age-old issues that exercised… Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Darwin.”

    C. S. Lewis might reply to all this, “But the very attempt to understand the brain-mind is absurd.” Especially since he believed that man’s ability to reason was due to “Divine Illumination,” and also that HIS reasons for believing in the supernatural were necessarily so. (Might he have said “Divinely so?”)

    Naturalists don’t deny that the process of consciousness and thinking remains a mystery. But advances have been in the investigation of memory formation, along with advances in brain mapping that allow the study of unique fractures in consciousness that occur during seizures . . . showing that it may be possible to differentiate consciousness into functional components, rather than assuming it is an indivisible quality of mind. We are also learning more about the brain-mind’s experience of emotions, and their importance (emotions have been discovered to play a crucial role in impelling concentration — people with damage to their brains that impairs their emotions no longer “want” do anything, let alone ponder long trains of thought). According to Richard Restak, neuroscience experiments have taught us more in the last decade than in the previous hundreds of years about topics like the brain and time, simultaneity, cause-effect, empathy, memory, and our mental representations of ourselves and others. We’re learning more about the specificity or lack thereof of the brain’s perceptions, the manner in which it draws basic distinctions, as well as the ways a brain can be fooled, or fools itself, and what types of cognitive biases brains share.

    To sum up the naturalists’ position (I hope fairly), it seems to them that “we” don’t move thoughts around in our heads. The perpetual movement of thoughts inside the brain-mind (including sensory input and interaction) system is what constitutes “us.” Another way of putting it is that we don’t have thoughts, neither do thoughts have us, instead we are thinking and consciousness personified. We are the process, the process is us.

    To help me envision thinking as a natural process I sometimes toy with a particular analogy, that of the brain-mind sorting out discrete bits of data into broader patterns in a manner akin to a Pachinko gaming machine, but I only use the analogy in the broadest sense and this is not meant to explain how thoughts are stored in matter but merely to illustrate the way a simple arrangement of balls, pins and gravity leads to different patterns. Here is an image of such a machine: http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2011/01/prior-prejudices-and-argument-from.html

    Metal balls descend from the top of the machine and the balls bounce left or right after striking each pin on the way down. Sometimes a ball will bounce left and then right alternately all the way down to the bottom, winding up directly beneath the place from which it first entered the Pachinko maze. At other times a ball can wind up far from where it first entered, by bouncing right, right, right, or, left, left, left. When many balls are released a pattern emerges at the bottom in which some balls can be piled in a tall vertical stack, with less tall stacks to the right or left and no balls in other places. But eventually all the balls exit the maze in different patterns each time one plays the game. The analogy I’m drawing is with a process of “settling over a complex terrain.” The brain’s structure with its 100 trillion inter-neural connections, is a complex terrain, one that started to form with one’s earliest experiences. In fact the brain of a baby begins with far more neurons than it will require to function later in life, and it soon begins to loose them at a high rate as the baby starts to make sense of the world. Some neurons are used more than others, one’s that make sense of the world via continual feedback from the world. The neurons that are not used to make sense of the world begin to wither away. If this did not happen, then we wouldn’t have trains of thought, we’d have too many junctions for our electro-chemical impulses to keep crossing over in too many directions, and we’d never make sense of anything. It seems that spaces need to develop, separate trackways form, so only with the death of vast numbers of neurons will the most well used tracks appear so the baby begins to make increasing sense out of the world. At least that’s one theory I’ve heard that explains the large numbers of neurons lost by children after birth. And it’s supported by experiments concerning how neurons flourish when they receive small electronic bursts interacting with other neurons, and how they perish when no such interaction is achieved. After that process of “whittling down neurons” one is left with a complex terrain that more closely fits reality, the world. The brain’s electro-chemical impulses might be considered “the balls” bouncing round that complex terrain at the speed of electricity, and settling out into different patterns based on the complexity of the terrain.

    A pertinent quotation before I end comment 1):

    I have a problem with the “C” word (i.e. consciousness), because no-one ever defines what it means. Those who do define it do so using other pieces of undefined terminology, and when you ask for definitions you find that they are circular. We all have a personal experience of something that we have agreed to call “consciousness”, but this gives us only the illusion that we know what we are talking about.

    My own (unoriginal) view is that “consciousness” is an emergent property of a large network of interacting neurons. The network observes itself, because each part of the network interacts with other parts of the network, so the various parts of the network create a “virtual reality” for each other. It is not a big leap to then see how the experience that we call “consciousness” is one and the same as this “virtual reality.” Also, the network is coupled to its external sensors (e.g. eyes, ears, etc), so the network’s “virtual reality” is steered around by external inputs.

    A corollary is that lots of different types of network can have “consciousness.” (Steve)

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