A Thing or Two #1

Disclaimer: The following, and all posts hereafter with this title will be populated with my philosophical ponderings. Enter at your own peril.

Preface: Mesognostic

Why?

Of course, here I refer to the “why?” of why write this series. There will be bigger versions of “why” to come, but there are less relevant here.

There is a form of thinking I call “conspiracy theory fallacy.” I’m sure this term has been applied to other ideas, but I use it here in a specific form. I think it is a way of thinking that epitomizes what is usually wrong with so-called “conspiracy theories.” In essence it is the fallacy of applying different standards of truth to different views.

Take for example the belief that the moon landing was a hoax. A moon landing denialist will apply very strident standards to the claim that the moon landing was real. “Yes, we have pictures, but isn’t this lighting odd?” “Yes, we have witnesses, but you must concede the possibility that they’re all liars.” These are both, at least in the sense of pure logic, viable viewpoints. The problem is the next stop, when the denialist will posit something along the lines of “ipso facto, there is an ongoing massive government cover-up.”

The fallacy is not just the simple bad logic. It’s the uneven application of standards. A mountain of detailed evidence is piled against the moon landing. Then, once the denialist feels he’s put a little wobble in the claim that we’ve been to the moon, he unleashes a floodgate of unsubstantiated speculation. He requires impossibly perfect explanations from the lunar scientists, but insists on weak or non-existent explanations for his own views.

In essence, if he finds a gap, he can fill it in with whatever crap he likes.

The problem is that this form of reasoning is not restricted to crackpots. In fact, forms of it exists among many respected authors – even authors I respect.

For example, in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan targets the fast food industry with impressively detailed statistics on animal welfare, food quality, longterm health effects, and the like. Having created this gap (in this case, perhaps a legitimate one), he begins to argue for alternative approaches. The argument for these approaches tends to be based on literary quotes, anecdotes, and the claims of people who are already on his side. We see again the fallacy of the conspiracy theorist. Strong evidence brought to bear on the enemy, weak evidence brought to bear on the friend. Statistics for the enemy. Anecdotes for the friend.

We see similar claims from those who argue for Atheism, such as Sam Harris. Harris claims science can deliver ethics. Perhaps by now you’ll see my stance on this view. We see he effectively dismantles the idea that faith and scripture can exclusively deliver ethics (not a difficult task), but then in this gap he inserts the notion that science can.

This may seem like a nitpick, and of course authors are allowed to speculate. But, I think it is a trap that can lead even intelligent minds in a dangerous direction. I listened to Harris doing a Science Friday interview recently, in which he described his theory. Here’s a transcript of what was, to me, the crucial part:

Dr. HARRIS: We could measure it ["human well-being"]. We could scan the brains of everyone involved. But there’s no reason to do that. We know Ira, think of what it takes to doubt that we can know this from the point of view of science.

It’s as though you’re saying we have 150 years of neuroscience and sociology and psychology behind us, we’ve made very impressive gains in our treatment of women, but just maybe – maybe forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating them or killing them when they try to get out, is as good as anything we’ve come up with.

It’s just not a it’s not a position that can be honestly adopted. And we know enough to know, we know enough about human well-being at this moment to know that this is not a good practice – good as defined by all the correlates of human happiness.

FLATOW: Well, but the whole point of science.

Prof. PINKER: But Sam, we don’t have to…

FLATOW: Wait, let me just jump in for a second. But the whole point of science is to create an experiment to prove what you think is true.

Prof. PINKER: Well, no, that’s actually not the…

FLATOW: I mean, isn’t it…?

Dr. HARRIS: Steven’s point about secular reason being a larger footprint is very important to take on board because science is where we science generally, reason generally, is where we are committed to relying on honest observation and clear reasoning.

It’s not that every single question is experimentally tractable next month. And there are some – there are many scientific truths, an infinite number of scientific truths that we will never be able to test because we can’t get the data in hand. You know, how many birds are in flight over the surface of the Earth at this moment? We have no idea, and it just changed. And yet that’s a very simple question about the nature of reality, which we know has an answer.

***

Can any reasonable person call the above a scientific viewpoint? Harris has created a gap in the origin of ethics, and what does he fill it with? The claim that we can know the truth of ethics, even though we can’t know it and can’t test it.

He’s debunked one view (fair enough) and replaced it with one whose foundation he admits is currently non-existent, and may never prove to be true. I think this is another example of the conspiracy theory fallacy – just because you find a gap, that doesn’t mean you can fill it with whatever you like.

I can think of many other examples, but I suspect you can readily think of your own as well.

Now, what is the point of all this? Well, I’m about to start on what promises to be a very long and wildly self-indulgent series of articles here, and I wanted to explain the impetus. In essence, I think many thinkers lack the humility to question their own views, and I’d like to put forth a world view that is as reasonable and logical as possible.

I’ll be calling it “Mesognosticism” so as to disclaim atheism, agnosticism, or theism. It do this mostly out of ego, but also because I believe the term threads the needle between humility and actuality. “Meso-” is from the Greek “mesos” which means “in the middle.” You know it from Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia, and mesocosm. “-Gnostic” is from the late Greek “gnostikos,” meaning “knowing, able to discern.” (Thanks, Online Etymology Dictionary!) So, if I say I am Mesognostic, I mean I know a thing or two. I can’t disprove any form of deity, but I can very well disprove the deity of, say, Buddha.

I plan to start with some basics like induction (previewed in an earlier post) and work my way up to more human-centered topics. More than anything, I’m looking at this as a way to have fun, learn a lot, convince some people of my views, and have something to laugh at in 20 years.

Wish me luck!

Zach

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43 Responses to A Thing or Two #1

  1. Kaz says:

    Really, really looking forward to this.

  2. Brian-sama says:

    I admire your desire to find an intellectually honest position here. You certainly seem to have approached the issue with integrity, intelligence, and sincerity, just as we would expect of a true Mesognostic.

    I want to jump in here and say that I have been known to refer to myself as a “strong atheist.” Generally speaking, this is the position that says not only “I don’t believe in a god,” but more concretely, “Gods do not exist.” This position is often cited as requiring just as much faith as a typical pro-theistic position, in that it makes a claim of certainty. Most atheists seem to decry this position; even Dawkins doesn’t go so far as to label himself a “strong atheist.”

    The way I see it, though, I can take part of your Mesognostic idea and apply it to all deities that have been and are currently posited by mankind. You name ‘em, and we can debunk ‘em. I take things a step further than that, however, by extrapolating the absence of any of these deities to mean that no deities exist at all.

    Here, theists like to use the classic argument that no one person possesses all of the knowledge in the universe, so that a god (though usually with a capital “G,” meaning the Christians’ personal deity) could potentially exist outside of my knowledge base. Fine. It’s possible. And we’ve all heard the arguments about invisible pink unicorns, celestial teapots, etc., all of which could potentially exist as well.

    Claiming that “no gods exist” despite my own severely limited lack of knowledge about the entire universe appears to fall into your “conspiracy theory fallacy,” but there’s one key difference. Unlike the conspiracy theorist, I can recognize and submit to convincing evidence when I see it. I am not so committed to the idea that there are no gods that I would willingly deny mountains of evidence, should they exist. Strong atheism can still be an intellectually honest stance, so long as one is willing to admit when one is wrong.

    Likewise, despite the fact that science is Dr. Harris’s livelihood, I really doubt that he would remain committed to the idea that science can prove and provide morality if mountains of evidence (scientific evidence, mind you!) should show otherwise. Granted, I’ve yet to read his new book (though it is on my shelf, patiently waiting), but he seems like a pretty sensible guy who is willing to seek truth.

    It isn’t wrong or dishonest for us to substitute our own ideas, substantiated or not, when we think we have crumbled those ideas that already exist. What is wrong, however, is for us to adhere to our own ideas blindly, and refuse to seek or acknowledge the truth if and when it reveals itself.

    I look forward to your future posts, Zach. I love your work and the wit and humor you bring to it. You’re really one of my favorite guys on the web right now, and I’m impressed that you can spark this sort of discourse.

    Keep it up!

    • Frank says:

      There is a single problem I would like to, respectfully, point out to your argument. That is, with science you are not required to disprove a belief, but rather prove it. You cannot say you are following reason or logic and then claim that because your position doesn’t have proof against it, you believe it.

      • Necandum says:

        I in turn I would like to humbly posit that the statements “I don’t believe in gods” and “Gods do not exist” are for all purposes identical. After all, isn’t the “I beleive” inherent in every indicative statement spoken by a human being? Besides, how precisely would the different phrasings effect one’s world view or actions? I would posit that the key difference between reasonable and “faith-like” atheism to be something the above poster already ascribes to themselves: the ability to be swayed by evidence.

        So more relevantly, as no evidence has been presented for any gods, I think it is perfectly reasonable to adopt the null hypothesis that no gods exist, as long as one shall be willing to re-evaluate.

        Or more concretely, isn’t it evidence enough that no sign of any gods has ever been found, that no coherent mechanisms have ever been proposed and the concept itself is mostly gibberish?

        • Robert says:

          It’s a cliche of logic, but “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

          The strength of science is its ability to posit a question, and refine the answer until the truth is discovered (keeping in mind that “truth” here is an ideal concept which may never be actually reached). The weakness of science is that it cannot investigate the supernatural and is generally inadequate to investigate any question that doesn’t begin with “how” (ie. it can answer “how did that rock get here” but not “why is there a rock”).

          Deities exist within the realm of the supernatural. Thus, science cannot investigate them: by their very nature, they cannot be expected to respond predictably, but at their own whim. It is, in principle, impossible to prove the existence of a supernatural being: it would have to perform some feat which is impossible under the laws of physics. Unfortunately, we don’t know the laws of physics perfectly, so it is always possible that “supernatural” would here mean “sufficiently advanced technology”. Any “physically impossible” action one can think of could, in principle, be physically possible if our understanding of some law of physics or other were wrong.

          There is no experimental difference between the hypothesis “there exist no supernatural entities” and “there exist one or more supernatural entities, but they choose not to interact with Earth” or even “there exist one or more supernatural entities, and they enjoy toying with humans by enforcing wrong laws of physics”. In any case, science has no choice but to accept only verifiable, repeatable results, and to move forward from there in attempting to determine the way the universe works. Occam’s razor suggests that the first hypothesis is preferable, but doesn’t prove it correct (the “solar system” atomic model is simpler than the quantum-mechanical model, but the latter appears to be more correct than the former).

          Logic, the foundation of science, cannot weigh in on the existence of a deity, on either side of the question. All that logic and science can say is “there is no verifiable evidence of the existence of supernatural agents”. Absence of evidence, again, is not evidence of absence; Occam’s razor is a guide, not a law.

          Until fairly recently, there was no sign that planets orbited other stars, much less that Earth-like planets may be a fairly common occurrence. Until somewhat recently, no coherent mechanism for the creation of planets had ever been proposed. Until our modern era, talking about a hand-held device which could communicate through the aether with a repository which holds the vast majority of humanity’s knowledge would have been gibberish, yet I have an iPhone in my pocket.

          Science and logic, the method and the tool, cannot speak to the existence of deities, merely their apparent absence in our history and present.

          • JRM says:

            Absence of evidence is not conclusive evidence of absence.

            Absence of evidence is absolutely evidence of absence. Whether it’s garage-dwelling dragons. deities, or teapots in space, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

            I’ve been on the other side of the issue – people looking for a correlation on one particular issue hadn’t found it, and I later did (and without the database skills they possessed.) But their failure to find a correlation was absolutely evidence – it made it less likely that the correlation existed. The fact that it did in this case is an anecdote, not a disproof.

            –JRM

          • Necandum says:

            I’ll go through point by point:

            It’s a cliche of logic, but “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

            Actually, if you’ve been looking for two-thousand years for what is predicted to be a fairly obvious phenomenon, then yes, yes it is. I think you’re applying a double standard here.
            After all, do you believe that we cannot rule whether Kvothe the Bloodless* is an actual entity?

            There is also the evidence that all notions and purported evidence of gods to date have been manufactured by humans. Which lends credence to the belief that he is a fictional entity rather than a real one.

            The weakness of science is that it cannot investigate the supernatural.

            If something interacts with reality, it can be investigated. If it doesn’t, then as far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t exist.

            There is no experimental difference between the hypothesis “there exist no supernatural entities” and “there exist one or more supernatural entities, but they choose not to interact with Earth” or even “there exist one or more supernatural entities, and they enjoy toying with humans by enforcing wrong laws of physics”.

            True for the first two. But in either case, OUR reality has no deities in it. What you’re effectively asking is: ‘what if there’s a god in ANOTHER reality, eh?’.

            The third, on the other hand, is perfectly amendable to study. One can begin by observing the anomalies and go from there.

            It is, in principle, impossible to prove the existence of a supernatural being: it would have to perform some feat which is impossible under the laws of physics.

            You got that right. Though it’s more because supernatural beings, by their very definition (super – above and natura – nature), are not part of nature and therefore cannot be observed by mere humans.

            Logic, the foundation of science, cannot weigh in on the existence of a deity, on either side of the question.

            Why yes, yes it can. The current state of the evidence dictates that a high probability is assigned to the statements “gods do not exist” and “unicorns do not exist”. High enough, such that it is perfectly reasonable to assume for all intents and purposes, the statement are ‘true’; for nothing can ever be known for certain, but these propositions come close.

            In general, I think you’re making the mistake of forgetting about the Null Hypothesis. Basically, nothing exists until proven otherwise. Obviously, your standard of evidence changes depending on the object, but it’s still a very useful rule of thumb.

            *Kvothe the Bloodless. Awesome fantasy.

          • Robert says:

            Thousands of years ago, humans had no evidence that any planets existed anywhere in the Universe, save for Earth itself. We now believe that exo-planets are fairly common, and have some evidence that Earth-like planets may be common, too.

            The distribution of planets across the Universe didn’t change, simply our knowledge of it.

            Hundreds of years ago, humans had no concept that messages could be transmitted at (nearly) the speed of light across copper wires, or even filaments of glass. Now, both are quite ubiquitous.

            The laws of physics didn’t change, simply our knowledge of them.

            On both points, science wasn’t able to say “no” (ie. “no, there aren’t any other planets” or “no, one can’t send messages across a wire”), just “I don’t know”.

            Similarly, we have no evidence of a deity. Science can’t say “no, there are no deities”, just “I don’t know whether or not they exist”. Admittedly, there are differences between the first two cases and the third. One critical difference is that Occam’s razor would prefer that deities not exist, that any individual or group who appears able to ignore or bypass the Laws of Physics (and, thus, could claim deity-hood) simply understands some rule or loophole that humanity hasn’t discovered yet.Occam’s preference does not result in a Law of Nature, just a good place to start looking for problems (ie. assume that the simplest explanation is correct until you come across something that it gets wrong).

            “There are no deities”, “there are deities”, and “there may be deities, but they don’t appear to be active here and now” all have the same level of scientifically valid evidence. Occam prefers the “no deities” hypothesis, but doesn’t prove it.

            All of that said, the key reason science can’t speak to the existence of deities (and something I regret not having stated in my previous post) is that they aren’t falsifiable. It isn’t possible to create an experiment which demonstrates a difference between the three hypotheses above (the “no”, “yes”, and “maybe” hypotheses) because a deity, by definition, isn’t bound by the very laws which science seeks to find! A deity can choose to allow the results of any given experiment to be whatever it wants, and could do so as often and as precisely as it chooses; science wouldn’t be able to tell. (Yes, this assumes a truly omnipotent deity.)

            This isn’t a failing of science or of logic; it’s simply a limitation of the tool. We wouldn’t fault a hammer for not being able to write computer code: the tool is wholly unsuited to the task it’s being asked to perform!

            However – and this is an important “however” – science does suggest that we /act/ as if there isn’t a deity. It doesn’t tell us whether one exists, but suggests we don’t count on one. Similarly, science doesn’t guarantee that the sun will rise in the morning, it simply suggests that that’s the more likely option (as opposed to, say, the Earth spontaneously becoming tidally locked to the sun).

            I feel that I should mention that I’m an agnostic at this point. I don’t believe in any particular deity, but accept the possibility that one or more may exist. Similarly, I believe that the sun will rise in the morning, but accept the possibility that some heretofore unknown event will cause it to go nova while I sleep.

            We can rule on Kvothe the Bloodless: we know when he was invented, and by whom. It is even theoretically possible to rule on at least some deities from at least some of Earth’s pantheons (eg. if Earth dies before Ragnarök happens, that’s pretty strong evidence that the Norse had it wrong). The concept of “deity”, though, can’t be proven nor can it be dis-proven.

            By way of analogy, I can neither prove nor dis-prove whether there is now, somewhere on Earth, another person who shares my DNA. It’s staggeringly unlikely, I freely admit. However, there are only so many base pairs on a strand of human DNA, and only so many ways in which those pairs can be ordered to get a human. While it won’t change the way I live my life, I must currently accept the possibility that my genetic doppelgänger exists.

            tl;dr: As I understand science, it can’t rule on the existence of deities, but it can suggest that they aren’t important to consider when planning one’s life; the distinction is subtle but, I think, important. Also, you may have a 100% organic, free-range clone running around somewhere.

          • Necandum says:

            Well, the difference between the concept of planets/oribtals/galaxies a few hundred years back and the concept of gods now, is that the former wasn’t even though of. It wasn’t so much an “I don’t know” so much as a “what you talking ’bout willis?”. That may be an exaggeration, but you get my point.

            Whereas now, seeing as how gravity can be detected to quite a few decimal points, the make-up neutrons deduced and the distance to galaxies far, far way measured, a phenomenon as distinct as that of an all-powerful being should be rather easy to detect…

            And I will repeat for emphasis:

            If a deity does not effect the natural world, then it CANNOT be meaningfully said to exist. Whereas, if it does have an effect, it CAN be detected, unless the effect is so small as too again be meaningless and so very, very unlikely.

            My basic position is this: the probability, to a high degree, is that deities do not exist. Therefore, we should accept it as a provisional truth.

            For even if we’re talking about just a vague, deity like being, the probability still lies on the side of non-existence.

            As for your example with DNA, I would (in all seriousness) bet you the remainder of my life that your DNA is currently unique in the entire universe (barring multiple realities or some other weird stuff). Sure, it’s possible it isn’t unique. But possible is a very different beast from probably.

          • Robert says:

            I think that we agree on one important principle: the probability of any particular deity existing – or any deity existing at all – is vanishingly small, based on all of the scientifically valid evidence humanity has so far collected.

            I think we agree on a second important principle: humanity should accept, provisionally, the more likely explanation of a given set of observations; in this case, we should provisionally accept the lack of deities affecting the known universe.

            It seems that we may disagree on a few minor points, though, the most important of which is whether science can prove the non-existence of deities – whether science can prove that they don’t exist. It is my position that science cannot prove a negative; it can’t prove that they don’t exist, no matter how long it seeks to do so. Truly, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so please forgive me if I’m mis-reading what you’ve written; it seems that your position is that science has proven that deities do not “meaningfully” exist.

            I agree that science and logic can be 99.99999…9% sure that deities don’t exist, but they can’t prove that last 0.000…01% (note: neither decimal is repeating, there are just a lot of 9s or 0s). It’s just that last 0.000…01% of certainty that science can’t ever prove away.

          • Necandum says:

            Quite. Never can and never will.

            Nevertheless, considering the messy world we live in, I consider such probability as proof. Not certain proof by any means but a certain as it needs be. So no, you weren’t putting words in my mouth, we just have different standard for ‘proof’ and ‘truth’.

            I must admit I’m coming to dislike these sort of disagreements…so many words for what is ultimately rather minor. Bloody rounding.

      • Brian-sama says:

        Frank,

        I’m quite aware of how science works, but thank you for your respectful reply. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable or illogical to hold a position in the absence of evidence for all other positions. After all, it is absolutely impossible for me to prove, once and for all, that no gods exist, yet I can pretty comfortably say so given the lack of evidence for anything presented so far.

        Again, though, this position is different from the “Conspiracy Theorist Fallacy” in that I would never blindly adhere to it in the face of evidence that goes against it.

      • Sigma says:

        Science requires neither that you prove nor disprove you beliefs. Mathematics and logic do, and they are not particular about whether you are proving or disproving, since the basic difference between proof and lack of disproof is particularly obvious there. But I digress.

        Science asks you to test, and tests are (should be) oriented towards falsification, because falsification is stronger than confirmation. In classic logic, you can disprove p -> q by observing ¬q, but you can’t prove it by observing q. Science, as noted above, is not logic, but a similar principle applies. If your hypothesis predicts things falling up and things fall down, that’s pretty strong evidence that your theory is wrong. But even if your theory predicts things falling down, another theory might as well, so you can’t claim it as absolute confirmation. Indeed, the strongest evidence for a theory being true is an observation only that theory predicts (or assigns high probability to), and that confirmation is still at risk of a better theory coming along.

        So, Science does ask you to disprove, to the extent that term has any meaning in the context. It does not, however, give you permission to believe something because it hasn’t been disproved.

  3. Fred says:

    Very interesting, I can relate to this a lot.

    Buddha is not a deity, though, are you trolling?

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  5. superoxen says:

    I haven’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but I did read In Defense of Food. He actually made the following points in the book, without a sense of irony.

    - In the late 70s, scientists/politicians decided to tell Americans to eliminate as much fat as possible from their diet. Although they didn’t have direct data to show this would lead to a healthier population, the surmised “what’s the worst that could happen?” Pollan then argues that this guideline is responsible for the diabetes epidemic of today. Fair enough…

    -Then at the end of the book, he gives his recommendations on how to eat. One of this guidelines is to eat very little meat, vegetarian if possible. He acknowledges that there is no direct data that this would benefit the population, but remarks “what’s the worst that could happen?” I found this double standard SO frustrating!

    • Necandum says:

      Dam. I think it just makes it all the more frustrating that arguing with the book doesn’t get you very far….

  6. Mike says:

    ” I can very well disprove the deity of, say, Buddha.”

    Okay, disprove it.

  7. Sigma says:

    On a more general note: How does what you call the conspiracy theory fallacy differ from confirmation bias?

  8. Michael says:

    I think there’s a little bit of slippage in your definition, and it’s important. In the initial example, you talk about arguing over whether the moon landing was real or fake. Those are the only two choices (barring certain phantasmagorical scenarios, like where they faked it by using doctored photos of astronauts walking on Mars), and so — as you point out — your decision can’t just be based on the strength of one side or the other. If I punch holes in the evidence that the landing was real, but it’s still tons stronger than the evidence that the landing was fake, then your tentative conclusion should still be that it was real.

    In the case of American dietary norms, there are many options, some of which haven’t even been discovered. So when Michael Pollan presents strong evidence that the current way of doing things is very bad, that by itself can provide an argument for looking for something new. You’re absolutely right that it doesn’t prove that his proposed solution is a good one, but it doesn’t mean that he’s inflating the badness of what we have currently. It’s very different from finding a few quibbles with the evidence for the moon landing and thus declaring that no reasonable person could continue to believe in it.

  9. Lucas says:

    “I’d like to put forth a world view that is as reasonable and logical as possible.”

    Isn’t that what the worldview of skepticism is or is supposed to be?

    • dizzi90 says:

      Not to nitpick, but it’s specifically scientific skepticism. Philosophical skepticism is kinda different from that. I do agree with you though. This is what all skeptic’s should strive for.

  10. Nick says:

    “There will be bigger versions of “why” to come, but there are less relevant here.”

    they’re

    ;)

  11. Neil says:

    As far as I can tell, you are quite well read, especially int he sciences, for which I commend you. Also, I admire your efforts to maintain a rational and well thought-out argument on the topics you propose above. However, I wonder how well acquainted you are with philosophy concerning God, the Divine, the supernatural, etc, especially with respect to his existence and nature.
    Whenever I read things written on these topics written by people coming from a background in science/popular literature on these topics, I always feel like it is either a poor rehash of a previous philosophers argument, or made in ignorance of the relevant philosophical understanding. I always thought it was odd that the scientific community has been given the role as defenders of reason in debates that more properly reside in the realms of philosophy and theology. Philosophy and theology are disciplines who have dealt with these questions far longer than science has existed as the discipline we know today, and it seems natural to interrogate those who have spent much time on the problem, rather than those who concern themselves with tangentially related minutia.
    I don’t know that this is the case with you, and please disregard this if it isn’t, but I know more than one person close to me, including myself, who tried to deal with these questions in the world of modern popular literature on the topic and became frustrated there, then found it far more productive, and comforting, to study the traditional experts.

  12. Zoe says:

    Oh thank God.

    I’ve been hoping for a better quality of atheist for a long time – I’m an Anglican myself, and I’m consistenly disappointed in the quality of current atheist commentary. Most of it revolves around debunking the existence of a sandal-wearing sky fairy and scoffing about Mosiac law (your ‘thou shalt not lie with man as thou dost with woman’ and so on). This would be reasonable if any significant proportion if Christians believed in either, but we don’t – the sky-fairy is a silly proposition, and in the scriptures, the coming of Jesus fulfilled the OT prophecies – which effectively voids Mosaic law (to demonstrate: if Mosaic law was still in play for Christians, we’d be eating kosher. That’s Mosaic law.)

    I hope mesotheism catches on as a term, it’s excellent – well done.

    Seeing as you started it, I have a theory about religion…

    Religion is a technology. It’s a technology for accessing God.

    Technologies are human made. Religions are self-evidently human made – they are made in cultures, using language. It does not follow that God is human-made, no more than the invention of the hammer invented the existence of levers and inertia (slightly different because levers/inertia can be proved to exist).

    I would argue that all technology is morally neutral. It has to be neutral because technology is not sentient – how could something non-sentient have moral agency? Moral agency enters play when a sentient human uses the technology – using the hammer to build an orphanage (good), nail a chair (neutral), or bash someone’s head in (bad). The hammer has nothing to do with it, it’s just a tool.

    If that is so, its not surprising that the technology of religion is used for both good and bad, even evil – it’s not the religion at fault, the religion has no agency, only the adherents have agency. Religion itself is, in my opinion (and to be clear, I am a practicing Christian) morally neutral.

    It does not follow, however, that God is morally neutral. If God is, then God is good – pretty much every theology ever agrees on that (I don’t know of one that doesn’t.)

    There’s a problem with saying ‘good’, though – it’s a word. A human word. And languages are, again, a limited human technology. And if God is, then God is not human and can not be described using human technologies, either language or religion.

    We can’t get to God, because we’re human. We can only get close. Religion is a tool for doing that. An imperfect, often badly used tool, but it’s the best we’ve got.

    Well, that’s my two cents – Looking forward to your next post!

    • Necandum says:

      I would just like to ask, how does religion get you closer to God?

    • Eoin Brennan says:

      I like some of your points.

      I don’t even think its a bad view to have on the existance of God (and to be clear, I’m not a beleiver), but I think theres leap in there where you state “It does not follow, however, that God is morally neutral. If God is, then God is good – pretty much every theology ever agrees on that (I don’t know of one that doesn’t.)”

      Why doesn’t it follow? In your above analogy God is the laws of inertia. Why would It have any moral substance? If religion is the technology to allow the ‘spirit’ to ‘touch’ god. Why does that imply anything about god? If god is just a sense of peace, why isn’t he morally nuetral.

      What is the technology of religion for?

      • Zoe says:

        Eoin-

        As annoying as it is, at this point we fall back on a tautology – If God is, then God is good. Reason being, is God was anything *other* than good, then God would not be God. I know – very annoying.

        Establishing a definitional criteria for God is a bitch, because we speak in language (which is human) and God (if God is, then God is not human) must by definition be bigger than language. God must be bigger even than the concept of ‘bigger’.

        At the level of theology, this is called the ontological argument. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontological_argument).

        This argument basically revolves around statements that start ‘if God is…’ and continue from there.

        Short version – it is not possible to achieve a positive definition of God. It is only possible to achieve negative definitions, i.e. what God is not (e.g. If God is, God is not a rabbit, or a sandal-wearing sky-fairy, or the flying spaghetti monster, or genetically male (no genes for God because they’re physical/chemical), or describable in language, and so on). We cannot ascribe full and proper attributes to God, because the attributes we can describe (good, merciful, etc) will always be constrained by language.

        The ontological argument holds God as the best thing that could possibly be. On this basis God must be good/better-than-good, because good is (watch out – another tautology) better than bad. Anything that can be described as less-than-perfectly-good cannot be God, because being perfectly good (or better-than-good) is a prerequisite for being God.

        A useful point to note is that pretty much every lasting religion has some ultimate deity involved somewhere, but people don’t necessarily worship/pray to it – any entity so far removed from human life as to be capital-P perfect is so incomprehensible, so inaccessible, so divorced from human life, as to be pretty much useless for the day-to-day. Christianity gets around this problem with a combination of Jesus (both human and God, both in-time and not-in-time, both language/culture bound and not-language/culture bound) and, especially for Catholics, saints and angels – human & non-human bridges between human and God. My personal favourite solution to the too-far-away-God problem is Brahman in Hinduism. God as Brahman can barely even be called an entity, Brahman is more a state – a transcendent, overwhelming real – of which the rest of the Gods, and the rest of real, are manifestations. How could a person meaningfully pray to Brahman, when it is so impossible to know what Brahman is? Easier, and more useful, to pray to the lesser Gods, in the safe knowledge that Brahman Is. Brahman is not likely to the intervene on your behalf, however, but with the lesser Gods you might have a shot. Christianity provides a less well formed variation on this through the saints.

        The technology of religion is for trying to get to God. Not being able to achieve what you’re trying to do – not being able to get to God – is part and parcel of the package. That’s what it’s for – doing the best you can, not getting to any final goal, and being forever grateful for that.

        It’s not the best, because if God is, the best is God. But it’s the best we get as humans, and that’s not bad.

  13. JRM says:

    Good luck!

    It seems to me that the failure to draw conclusions about deities is roughly the same issue as failing to draw conclusions about the race of invisible Unicorns on the planet they call Moltron.

    If you define “deity” in some all-good, all-powerful sense, that seems disprovable. If you don’t, the definitional haziness gets problematic. I view the chance that we’re in some Matrix-like situation as vanishingly tiny, but still greater than most classic religions give.

    Anyway, I look forward to the series. I recognize that you’re trying to change some people’s minds – I’d further suggest that another advantage might be changing yours, or at least clarifiying your thoughts on these issues.

    –JRM

  14. Jamie says:

    So basically we need to bridge everything from the base position of not knowing. I have always considered this the fundamental premise of scientific thought, and have always found both Atheists and Agnostics (to a lesser extent) violate this on a consistent basis. Not to mention scientists in general.

    I find the notion that philosophers and theologies as the true defenders of rational thought erroneous. There is not one discipline that should defend ‘rational’ or logic but rather all arguments should be able to stand on their own when viewed from any perspective. A well established knowledge pool, such as the fields of philosophy and theology, does offer some insight into well trodden ground and does help make some connections. The problem that I run into when I study the philosophies and religions of the world is the reason the ones that thrive do so through violence, and not through the merit of their message. This bloody past generally means the interesting advancements were culled rather than cultivated as these advanced ideas usually discourage a small group’s authority over the masses. (<– The few bad apples who manipulate wonderful and well meaning people.)

    I agree that religions and philosophies are technology, but more specifically qualitative models for the nature of how and why things are the way they are. In order to make their understanding more tractable we simplify, thus creating error. This introduces the trap of not wanting to start over when you discover a founding assumption is incorrect. After all, we want the answers now, not when our figures are confirmed and the reviewers send back their comments.

    Many times I have come across work that presents considerable insight, but is often dismissed because too many bring up points either not disputed (but emotionally charged) or points not related to the argument and are shoved in sideways. I think this is a common technique in political debates and marital disputes. As an aspiring advocate in several fields I encourage you to stick with it because your ideas are positive and forward.

  15. Caiti Voltaire says:

    You know, I have to wonder – why is it important that a god, or goddess, or both, or multiples, exist? To me it seems an inconsequential consideration. If believing in the existance or for that matter the absence of god helps enrich your life, then I can’t say I fully understand what people think they’re accomplishing by undermining either side. My own beliefs are rather pagan, and yet I am under no delusions that there really is a god called Thor or something. The bottom line is that the underlying ethics is something I can believe in and ascribe to.

    I feel its important to mention that irregardless of the existance or absence of god, it should be noted that there is ethics and morality to the “Good Book” as they call it, that shouldn’t be lost simply because that gets confirmed or denied.

    • Robert says:

      It’s an issue of magical thinking: if God exists, then “God said it, therefore it must be true” is a valid argument, and the arguer can (in fact, must) stop there.

      Most of humanity agrees that theft is morally wrong. If we want to investigate why that is (perhaps to help develop a theory of morality that can help us choose how to act in wholly new situations), the best we can do is:
      1: Why is theft wrong?
      2: Because God said so.
      1: … but, why did God say so?
      2: Because He did.
      1: But, what about these places where what appears to be theft is happening, but it’s okay? There’s a, b, and c.
      2: God carved out exceptions.
      1: …

      There’s a full stop, past which no investigation is possible.

      If we remove God from the conversation, it could go more like this:
      1: Why is theft wrong?
      2: Because it deprives someone of property they worked to attain.
      1: So?
      2: Well, if we allowed anyone to take the property of another, chaos would ensue, which would be a Bad Thing.
      1: But we allow the deprivation of property that individuals have worked to attain in some other situations: a, b, and c.
      2: Yes, but in situation a, …

      1: I see.

      In the first conversation, 1 can’t get past a conversational roadblock. In the second conversation, 1 can get a rich understanding of the nuance of morality within the society in which the conversation is taking place.

      The “Good Book” has some very good rules, but it also has some very bad ones, and some that no longer have any reason to be followed. The “don’t kill people” rule is a good one. “Don’t mix cotton and wool in the same garment” is not particularly helpful in living what most people on Earth think of as a good life. “Don’t eat pork” no longer needs to be followed (but, in the bronze age, avoiding pork was good for long-term survival).

      Without direct, reliable access to the deity from which one’s morality flows, one is stuck either guessing at what the right course of action is, or relying upon someone’s interpretation of the written record of the oral traditions of bronze age shepherds, poets, scholars, and kings.

      Since we don’t appear to have direct, reliable access to any deities, we don’t lose anything by removing them from the equation, and we gain the ability to get past a full stop in the conversation.

  16. Russell says:

    I think you may be arguing against a strawman in regards to Sam Harris. His position is fairly nuanced so it’s easy to argue against something he’s not actually saying. Have you read The Moral Landscape? I could certainly be wrong here, but I don’t think he actually argues that “we can know the truth of ethics” in the way you’re implying.

    Either way, great food for thought, and keep the great comics & blog posts coming!

    • dizzi90 says:

      Sam Harris says that there is no reason one couldn’t know it in principle, but it may be too difficult to have the capacity to do all the measurements needed to actually do the experiment. As far as I understood the book.

  17. Robert says:

    I really look forward to reading this series; I enjoy reading the exploration of rational world-views.

    I am reminded of some time I spent reading at http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Sequences – a lot of good stuff, but it petered out a bit at the end (as I read it, there was a whole lot of very good foundational material which ultimately was used to construct cultural relativism and promote it as the correct moral theory). One concept I first recall reading about there strikes me as good reading when setting out on this kind of exploration: Inferential Distance, “gap between the background knowledge and epistemology of a person trying to explain an idea, and the background knowledge and epistemology of the person trying to understand it”. I hope that ours is small enough that I can follow everything. (link: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Inferential_distance )

    And, an unrelated question: what markup is used in comments?

  18. Jonathan says:

    Zach,

    You seem like a nice guy, and I like your comic, but you need a bit of a reality check, because I don’t think you grasp how deep and rigorous a field Philosophy actually is. It’s as if I, having years ago taken four undergraduate semesters of Physics and having since read some books, thought that I could poke a hole in Superstring Theory or Special Relativity. It’s laughable and a bit offensive.

    Yes, wrestle with these questions. DO post your thoughts and objections online (I very much look forward to reading them). But keep in mind:
    A) There are philosophers who are GENIUSES of the caliber of Einstein or Feynman.
    B) Most aren’t geniuses, but are still very, very smart. And they’ve spent their working lives—decades—on these problems.
    C) Philosophy has its own peer review system. Plus, articles/books are sent to other philosophers for feedback BEFORE publishing. So they’ve “questioned their own views” plenty.
    D) There have been many, many more of these smart people consulting with each other than there have been of you.

    I am, of course, drawing a distinction between pop-philosophy and serious philosophy. Just like I’ve seen you draw between pop-science and serious science. By all means, demolish pop-philosophy books/NPR interviewees. But know the difference. If you go after, say, Quine or Kripke, you’re probably going to be wrong (I disagree with them, and it’s taken me years and tens-of-thousands of dollars in tuition to nail down why). And you’ll need to tackle those kinds of works if you really want to address questions like ‘The Problem of Induction’.

    If you’re interested, I can recommend some serious book/article titles.

    —————

    On a less strident note (I am sorry for the above outburst, but you insulted my intended profession) here is Mitchell and Webb’s “Moon Landing Conspiracy Sketch:”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6MOnehCOUw

    • Jamie says:

      Hey Jon,

      I just wanted to point out that Zack appears to be trying to point out flaws in both popular and more developed philosophies and belief systems. If rigorous philosophers have developed defensible stances then they would be included, or at least their methodology should be. I don’t think he is trying to attack anyone. I am not a fan of philosophy in that it tends to ask questions that don’t apply to reality, but that may very well be a misconception on my part.

      Part of my defence of Zack is based on my previous post being one that may have fuelled your indignation. I would be interested in some serious books/ articles myself.

      If you failed to read my earlier post then I would suggest you get thicker skin as EVER profession under the sun, moon and soil is attacked, laughed at mocked. Further, Zack’s position is focused mainly against ‘scientific’ discourse that is not based in rigorous logic, but only going half way. As with all professions only the simplistic and sexy are consumed by the public with a few exceptions. So I would suggest if you disagree with anyone’s opinion then please present evidence and pleas. I know I have multiple misconceptions and I hunger to learn more.

      Tangent: Once anyone gets into grad school (assuming you are not there already) you will also see this faulty reasoning in literature (MCMC simulations are my bane). As you see this is a problem that is easy to fall into.

      • Jonathan says:

        Hi Jaime,

        I was reacting to what I’d interpreted as hubris. Yes, coining ‘Mesognosticism’ is a bit grandiose, but more so it was that I was picking up an attitude of: “Philosophical quandary dating back thousands of years? Solved. And I did it in an hour. What’s for lunch?”

        (This was somewhat of an uncharitable interpretation; Zach, I apologize. Please don’t take the below criticism of your Problem of Induction post as an attack, because I quite liked that post. Even though I disagree with it).

        No philosopher’s work is untouchable. My point was that it takes a lot of thinking just to understand the playing field and rules of the game, forget about having a chance at ‘winning’ against, say, Kant.

        For example, the stuff about logic in Zach’s post about the Problem of Induction is flawed. In disproving any logic, we “use” that logic (i.e., perform derivations) only insofar as it reveals that logic’s ‘behavior’. This behavior is compared against a set of independent properties; the logic is disproved if it does not have those properties. That comparison is not a logical process, but a cognitive one; we must stipulate that we have the mental abilities for diagnosing a logic’s behavior and for comparing that behavior to properties. Furthermore, the properties are independent—that is, are defined outside of the logic—and so, if the logic fails, the properties are unaffected. In other words, “disproving logic” does not undermine the method for disproving logic.

        To clarify, here is a concrete example: one necessary property for all logics—a ‘necessary property’ is a property that we’ve defined as essential to our concept of ‘logic’—is ‘soundness’. ‘Soundness’ is: if the rules of a logic lets you prove that a conclusion must follow from a set of premises, then that conclusion ‘really does’ follow from those premises. For example, suppose a logic tells us that, for any ‘A’ and ‘B’, ‘B’ always follows from the premises ‘A’ and ‘A ## B’. (‘##’ is a relational symbol that I’m making up). If, however, we find that ‘Bob is short’ follows from ‘Bob is a basketball player’ and ‘Bob is a basketball player ## Bob is tall’, then the logic is unsound.

        Note that (1) recognizing the logic’s behavior and (2) comparing that behavior to the property of soundness are not dependent on that logic. We can see that the logic is unsound without undermining our ability to judge the soundness of logics.

        I could go on about the rest of the post, but I’ve already written a lot. And besides, that’s not the point. The point is that there was some requisite knowledge that he did not have—how logics are disproven—and that this led him down the wrong path. In order to adequately tackle a question like the Problem of Induction, there’s a lot of background that he’d need first.

        Let me clarify: I REALLY LIKE Zach’s post on Induction, even though I think he is wrong. I like it when people are interested in these issues, and that post is the sort of step that can lead to his wanting to obtain the necessary background information.

        What annoys me is when somebody—who ‘hasn’t done the homework’, so to speak—thinks they’ve ‘solved’ a problem and acts like an ass about it, which is how I’d interpreted the “Mesognostic” post.

        ——————–

        Jamie, I wasn’t reacting to your earlier post. I don’t care what anyone thinks of philosophers or philosophy (well, OK, I do, but not in the way you think).

        FWIW, you’re wrong about philosophers not being “true defenders of rational thought.” Formal Logic is the study of rational thought, and formal logic is the purview of logicians, who are a breed of philosopher. Sure, other disciplines USE rational thought, but that’s like saying that physicists aren’t ‘true defenders of physics’ because throwing a football uses physics (subconsciously accounting for gravity, wind-resistance, etc.)

        Also, Philosophy can be abstract, but it also can deal with the concrete. Ethics and Political philosophy, for examples, shape our lives every day: How strong is my moral obligation to help people living on the other side of the world? Is abortion immoral? Euthanasia? Which is more important, order or freedom? (That last one is essentially the difference between Democrats and Republicans).

        ——————–

        Here are some book/article titles:

        Ethics:

        “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” by Peter Singer
        http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm

        “Beneficence, Duty, and Distance” by Richard Miller
        http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/rarneson/Courses/RichardMillerBenifenceDutyandDistance.pdf
        ——————–

        Philosophy of Science/Epistemology:

        “Epistemology Naturalized” by W. V. Quine
        http://books.google.com/books?id=_DlpHg3C0bsC&lpg=RA6-PT20&ots=k909x8oZvx&dq=grounding%20natural%20science%20in%20logic&pg=RA6-PT18#v=onepage&q&f=false

        “What is ‘Naturalized Epistemology’?” by Jaegwon Kim
        http://books.google.com/books?id=_DlpHg3C0bsC&lpg=RA6-PT20&ots=k909x8oZvx&dq=grounding%20natural%20science%20in%20logic&pg=RA6-PT27#v=onepage&q&f=false

        “Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science” by Ian Hacking
        http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0521282462

        • Jamie says:

          Jon,

          I too question all of our ability to convince ourselves that we have the answers (God knows I’m guilty). I guess my assertion that philosophers and theologians are not the absolute defenders of logic etc. more relies on my definition of those titles being separate from logicians. I don’t believe that one necessarily needs to be a formal philosopher in order to be a logician, but does need to have the required background. Further I would like to clarify in that I was assuming more of a use of logic rather than a proof/ disproof situation.

          It could also be my understanding of ‘logic’ as a concept is confused with another concept, but I see logic as a tool and not as an idea or philosophy in and of itself. I view logic as the way we relate our experiences and make judgements about our environment. Perhaps this goes by another name that still smells of Rose. Methods are never disproven, just deemed ‘not useful’. Of course you know far more about this area than I do and if you would like to redirect me it would be welcome.

          As someone who works in a field dealing with animal subjects I know all too well how ones work can be greatly misrepresented.

          Thank you Jon for replying, I learned a good deal.

  19. kitukwfyer says:

    Zach,

    I don’t generally get stuck-in to discussions like this, but I’m curious.

    You mention different standards of truth, but in discussions/arguments like these, I’ve found that that’s one of the first things that gets confused. What is truth in mesognosticism? I assume that you have a working definition already codified to some greater or lesser extent. You mention something you want to avoid is applying different standards to different views… So, what standard do you advocate/use/believe in? Is it absolute, or just a matter of highest probability…?

    Second, I’ve noticed in the comments the use of words like “good” and “bad.” Do you have specific definitions for these? As I said, I try to avoid these discussion because they so often become vitriolic, but it seems like without some sort of absolute moral authority, which you don’t assume or deny, these words don’t have absolute meaning, in which case, it may be best to define those absolutely when you use them, or just use more explicit/accurate terminology.

    I didn’t strike me as that important when I first read your post, but having read through the majority of the comments, posted by people who all seem to have different definitions, I’m not totally sure.

    I’m an absolutist myself. I believe that there’s absolute good and absolute evil. At some point, there aren’t any misunderstandings, it’s just evil… and I figure if I want to keep believing that, I need a source. What I decided that source to be, and why, was my decision. It’s simple, and many would argue simplistic, but then I don’t try to justify it (partially because I doubt the internet cares :p). I firmly believe in live and let live…which apparently extends to proselytize and let proselytize…! I don’t question the reasons/logic of others, unless I think they’ve seriously misunderstood mine, to mutual detriment.

    Obviously, lots and lots of people don’t think like I do. I hear endless talk about shades of grey. So, I think it’s necessary if you’re going to publicize, and attempt to convince people, of your views where they touch on truth, you should probably lay out, as simply as you can what you believe truth is. Ditto for good and bad. There’s a lot of room for interpretation and misunderstanding otherwise.

    Other than that, I appreciate your efforts. It would be a wonderful world if everyone just accepted the limitations of their arguments/theories/blah…

    Whatever else you do, keep going! It’s interesting reading, and it’s been a long time since I sat down and thought about stuff like this as opposed to argued/ listened to people vent.

  20. Great post! I just stumbled upon it today.

    I think you’re spot-on about Harris’ failure to provide a sufficient “testing” of human ethics. He may be right that science cannot test the truth value of certain hypotheses, but just because science cannot test the truth value of hypotheses doesn’t make it applicable to those untestable categories. The inability to test the number of birds in the air and human well-being simply means science cannot say much about these topics, namely because science intrinsically presupposes that you can test some data and that some hypothesis may be falsifiable.

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