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August 17, 2009

Comments

James S

Bloody hell. That was quick.

carbon based lifeform

I can't believe the NHS spends between £50 million and £450 million a year on homeopathy and "alternative" medicine.

David

Carbon,

See the pdf below for sources of the estimates (and the bizarre lack of certainty regarding the exact amount):

http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/sense_about_science_PUBL.pdf

SG

He blows it when he gets on to Iraq. He pulls figures out the air and acts surprised we know more about our casualties than we do about Iraqi casualties. He doesn't say how many of those Iraqis were killed by jihadis -it's just ammunition to blame Bush and Blair. Then he says it's the "greatest foreign policy blunder in American history" and toppling Saddam has "strengthened Al Qaeda". Bullshit.

florida

'“Faith” is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.'

Not so. Scientists don't like faith, and so they feel compelled to ridicule it in spheres far afield from their own. A scientist trying to explain faith is a lot like a preacher trying to explain E=MC2

Faith: believing in something that we accept from the start cannot be proven.

That this simple definition defies understanding by such a learned intellect as Sokal is disheartening.

David

Florida,

“That this simple definition defies understanding by such a learned intellect…”

I don’t think it does defy Sokal’s understanding. In the video (and in the pdf linked above) Sokal notes the various definitions of “faith” and how readily theologians slip between them, generally to obfuscate and protect their social standing.

I get the impression you think “believing in something that we accept from the start cannot be proven” is a good thing, at least in terms of religious conviction. (Or, perhaps more likely, certain brands of religious conviction.) But what if the “something” entails, say, the subordination of women or the punishment of gay people? How does one argue against that “something” and what, for some, it entails?

florida

David,

I was particularly struck by this condemnation: "'Faith' is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. “Faith” is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence."

He seems surprised by this - as if it proves there's no God or that "faith" has no foundation.

Let me put it this way: If you ask me if I believe in God, I would say yes. If you asked me to prove his existence, I would tell you that I have an ability to believe in something that I cannot prove and that I call that ability "faith." And that some people don't have that ability.

That's not "trotting out" faith ... it is the central tenet of my belief system. I start from the position that I don't have to be able to prove God's existence in order to believe in the existence of God.

Organized religion, by the way, in my view, is merely the wielding of power over our fellow man by non-political means. "Religion" is an unwanted by-product of a belief in God in my view, run by men and thus inherently full of sin. Subordination of women and gay-bashing are merely the visible symptoms of that inherent sin.

TimT

“Faith” is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. “Faith” is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.

Yes, I tend to agree with Florida, Sokal's argument here is questionable.

It's not just a question of God or religion; faith is applicable to other areas as well. You can hardly prove that men have souls, or consciousness, or free will, or that morality exists; you cannot develop a formula for artistic beauty. These are all things that people effectively take on 'faith', and they frequently demonstrate that they do so by their everyday actions, even if, in many cases, they may deny that such things exist. (Example: the latte socialist who claims to believe in revolution but, in their actual life, starts a business and begins to profit from free-market capitalism.)

People can make poor arguments about verifiable physical phenomena and justify their claims by saying it is a matter of 'faith'; and in these cases I think Sokal's criticism is justified. But his argument needs clarification.

David

Florida & Tim,

“Organized religion, by the way, in my view, is merely the wielding of power over our fellow man by non-political means. ‘Religion’ is an unwanted by-product of a belief in God.”

An interesting way of putting it. I suppose it’s one thing, epistemologically, to believe that there is, or could be, some benign first cause and ultimate source of meaning. It’s another thing entirely to insist that this supposed cause and meaning has much to do with the alleged sayings of quasi-fictional messiahs or homicidal prophets, and has been expressed via these individuals as an extensive list of preferences regarding social proprieties and dietary matters.

If a person holds the first view – let’s call it a feeling of the numinous - it raises the obvious question, i.e. “how do you know this?” But epistemology aside, I have no real grumble with it. It’s none of my business. However, if a person maintains a conviction of that kind and also insists that certain foodstuffs should be avoided, or that certain people are unclean, or that unbelievers must be dealt with harshly or whatever, then criticism becomes harder to avoid.

I tend to see this as a matter of territory. A person’s personal metaphysics doesn’t concern me, on the whole. How a person conceives the numinous, real or imagined, is none of my business. However, when those metaphysics are imposed in the public realm - when they become political - it tends to become an issue.

florida

David,

I agree with you that when men use religion as the pretext for their desire to subjugate their fellow man (by forcing them to eat certain things, or wear suicide vests), this is a political act.

Absent religion or God, however, such men would find a different pretext for doing the same things, and many have. Dealing with those kind of people should be possible irrespective of the pretext they find for their activities.

One needn't condemn the concept of "faith" ... the concept of believing in the unprovable ... in order to achieve those goals.

By the way ... this is the first time I've commented on your blog. I have been lurking here for years and find your blog one of the most interesting things on the internet. It constantly challenges me to new heights of intellectual curiousity. Thanks for all the work you put into it.

Pete

// “Faith” is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. //

As a person of faith, I find it a better definition than the one Dawkins and the fundatheists give, which is "belief in the absence of, or despite, evidence".

Sokal also writes:
//Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife. But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but they ultimately boil down to one: because our holy scriptures say so. But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are free from error? Because the scriptures themselves say so. //

The believers don't 'know' their claims are true, otherwise it would be knowledge and not faith. Faith is more akin to trust or hope. If it is something you know, then where is the room for faith? As someone else has pointed out, we take plenty of things on faith; just faith in the resurrection is a bit more far fetched.

As for the holy scripture thing, Sokal seems to be talking more about fundaliteralist christians than catholics, even though he then goes on to quote the pope. Catholics don't believe things 'because scripture says so'. For them it is the Church that defines scripture, not the other way round.

I've been following your blog for some time now, David, and have immensely enjoyed your fiskings of the feminists. I am intrigued at you highlighting theologians now, not least because I enjoy reading theology. I wonder, have you read much of Ratzinger's stuff? I ask because Ratzinger claims to be very hot on 'reason', and I have found him to be a very lucid and thoughful, as well as critical of the kind of theological fuzziness that you would criticise. I'd be interested in knowing whether or not you think he is just a postmodern bamboozla! Hah!

David

Florida,

I’m glad some “long-time lurkers” are joining a discussion. I tend to see these posts as starting points, not full stops.

“Dealing with those kinds of people should be possible irrespective of the pretext they find for their activities. One needn’t condemn the concept of ‘faith’... the concept of believing in the unprovable... in order to achieve those goals.”

Well, it’s not always easy to disentangle religious belief from politics (or coercion). Some forms of religious belief are inherently and overtly political (and coercive) in nature. You could of course argue that people inclined to certain behaviour will also be inclined to find a pretext for such urges, a license if you will. But religious belief can provide such a license and can be intensely resistant to discussion and correction. It’s difficult to reason someone out of a conviction they didn’t arrive at by reason. If a person can fall back on “faith” (however they define it) as some final and absolute justification for appalling behaviour, it’s hard to see how one might challenge it successfully. What tools would one use? If a person has been raised to regard, say, Muhammad as an exemplary figure and yardstick of morality, criticism of that figure, however reasoned and factual, may be felt as a *personal* attack, and reacted against as such. The emotional attachment makes even a civil discussion rather difficult and unlikely to be productive. (Several attempts archived here show this problem quite dramatically.)

Pete,

“…have you read much of Ratzinger’s stuff?”

I haven’t read enough to have much of an opinion.

“Faith is more akin to trust or hope.”

Yet I’ve encountered people whose faith seemed much more definite and more brittle, and who defended it quite vehemently precisely because of how brittle it was. In those instances, “trust” and “hope” don’t seem quite the right words.

“For them it is the Church that defines scripture, not the other way round.”

But doesn’t that leave the problem of a person deferring to “the Church” (or its representative) rather than evidence or argument? And doesn’t that take us back to the problem outlined above?

“…we take plenty of things on faith; just faith in the resurrection is a bit more far fetched.”

In that sense, I take plenty of things on faith. When I cross the road I assume my head won’t inexplicably expand to the size of a barrel, much to my embarrassment and public consternation. It hasn’t happened yet, but I can’t prove it won’t.

HungryPete

// Yet I’ve encountered people whose faith seemed much more definite and more brittle, and who defended it quite vehemently precisely because of how brittle it was. In those instances, “trust” and “hope” don’t seem quite the right words. //

Yup, I've met those folks too, but I suspect that you realise that is beside the point. It is like pointing at people who make bad use of logic as evidence that reason itself is flawed. If one critiques christian, and specifically catholic, faith then one must consider how catholics themselves define the term, no matter how badly certain individuals embody it. Once you step outside of catholicism or orthodoxy, however, all bets are off, as no other christian bodies refer to anything more authoritative than their own personal interpretations of scripture.

//Pete: “For them it is the Church that defines scripture, not the other way round.”

David: But doesn’t that leave the problem of a person deferring to “the Church” (or its representative) rather than evidence or argument? And doesn’t that take us back to the problem outlined above? //

In practice, the church is wide open to argument. As a rebellious atheist teen with new age leanings I was never shut out of discussion by the church, and I found priests and layfolk alike really enjoyed engaging in debate. The best atheist arguments are to be found within the Church, because they've been conducting that debate for the last two millennia. And because they really believe all this crazy God and Jesus stuff, they don't just knock down strawmen but try to build the best case they can against their faith before attempting to refute it.

Deferring to the church isn't quite the same as deferring to scripture. Scripture is just text, and can be interpreted in whatever way one wishes, which is why christendom is in such a mess following the protestant schisms. Putting faith in the church is putting faith in a commmunity of people and, ultimately, the God they proclaim. Whatever further problems this might raise, it still knocks down Sokal's facile claim that we only believe what we do because 'scripture said so'.

// In that sense, I take plenty of things on faith. When I cross the road I assume my head won’t inexplicably expand to the size of a barrel, much to my embarrassment and public consternation. It hasn’t happened yet, but I can’t prove it won’t. //

But we also take much more profound things on faith, such as free will, the axioms of maths and logic, the assumption that the world is ordered and makes sense, and so on. Talking about your head expanding makes my point sound silly, but all these other things are quite reasonably taken on faith.

David

Pete,

It seems to me the word “faith” is being used in various, rather different ways, as if they were somehow interchangeable. The axioms of logic that inform, say, geometry and computing aren’t matters of faith in anything like the same sense as a belief in an afterlife, or a belief that Jesus was a real person and in touch with some higher power. The axioms implicit within the operations of my computer are tested and verified trillions of times a day. Insofar as a thing can be said to be true, they are. In contrast, the belief that Jesus was a paranormal being who defied the laws of physics and death itself has never been verified. And, I suspect, never will be.

“Yup, I’ve met those folks too, but I suspect that you realise that is beside the point.”

Well, it’s only beside the point if those aren’t the people you’re talking about. I suspect this is the nub of the disagreement. You can say that Sokal makes his claim much too broad, and I think he does. But as I said earlier, my own concern is limited to people who not only presume to know the alleged preferences of some hypothetical deity but also a right to act as that deity’s Member of Parliament or local enforcer.

“The best atheist arguments are to be found within the Church, because they’ve been conducting that debate for the last two millennia.”

I somehow doubt that believers make the best critics of belief, epistemologically, at least not without being pressed by those who don’t believe. There doesn’t seem to be much motive to do so, emotionally or psychologically. If there is and they do, that hasn’t been my experience.

Is a person who “really believes all this crazy God and Jesus stuff” likely to investigate pre-Christian mythology and thus discover how derivative many key Bible stories are, and what that implies about their (rather mortal) inspiration? Is someone who “really believes” likely to ponder the similarities between Attis, Mithras, Ishtar and Christianity’s purported messiah? What if a person learns that the pre-Christian deity Dionysus was said to have been born of a virgin mother, in a stable, and travelled with an entourage performing miracles, among them turning water into wine, later to be tried, executed and promptly resurrected? Don’t such similarities have implications that would be resisted by someone heavily invested in Jesus as a real person who lived, breathed and allegedly did these things?

Now, so far as I can see, the above doesn’t necessarily have repercussions for a person’s feelings of the numinous, or for an ill-defined belief that the universe has some kind of agreeable cause or purpose. It does, however, have pretty obvious implications for those who imagine that the existence of a benign creator hinges on, and bears some historical relation to, the stories in the Bible. They are it seems just stories, and not entirely original.

TDK

"I somehow doubt that believers make the best critics of belief, epistemologically, at least not without being pressed by those who don’t believe. There doesn’t seem to be much motive to do so, emotionally or psychologically. If there is and they do, that hasn’t been my experience."

Philosophy is at least as old as the ancient Greeks and has since the beginning indulged in debates concerning the existence of God. Until the modern era the vast majority of said philosophers were deists of one kind or another (or at least purported to be). It seems to me that every argument made by Dawkins, Hitchens et al has been pre-emptively answered by one or other of those philosophers. That's not to say they are right or even compelling but Pete does have a point.

In the past the church was often the only place where there was any opportunity for enquiry and inevitably some of the clever made it their home. We live in a era where it is too easy to believe the medieval church was concerned only about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin - nonsense of course - but it remains a modern conceit to laugh at the stupidity of witch burners and imagine ourselves above such hysteria. We would never get carried away by recovered memories of Satanic activities and persecute people today! (cf. Orkney or Cleveland etc)

You might be right about the motivation of "being pressed" but that would be hard to prove.

David

TDK,

I wasn’t doubting the historical role of the monastery or temple as an intellectual environment. But there’s a difference between open-ended epistemological pondering (in which some kind of deity may be entertained as an idea) and trying to rationalise a religious position one has already chosen and identified with (and in which a deity is essential). If a person has already committed to a religion and feels strongly identified with it, there may be a tendency to beg the question, consciously or otherwise.

A while ago, there was a Radio 4 series in which representatives of the major religions – including Rowan Williams and Tariq Ramadan - were quizzed at length on their beliefs. These people were presented as “leading thinkers” of their respective faiths – wise, learned and steeped in technical theology. Yet the level of evasion, flummery and non sequitur was extraordinary. In terms of epistemology it was rhetorical flatulence. In my experience, this kind of woolliness and question-begging is pretty much standard practice.

GreedyPete

David

// Is a person who “really believes all this crazy God and Jesus stuff” likely to investigate pre-Christian mythology ...//

Yes, why wouldn't they? It's all good education. Christian kids know the greek myths, i liked to read Mircea Eliade, Robert Graves and stuff like that at uni. Scholarly interest in mythology is hardly absent from christendom.

//...and thus discover how derivative many key Bible are, and what that implies about their (rather mortal) inspiration? //

Says you, but you are the one starting with a pre-conceived notion here. If you had embarked on an investigation of pre-christian mythology, you would not have trotted out this pop-theology canard:

// Is someone who “really believes” likely to ponder the similarities between Attis, Mithras, Ishtar and Christianity’s purported messiah? What if a person learns that the pre-Christian deity Dionysus was said to have been born of a virgin mother, in a stable, and travelled with an entourage performing miracles, among them turning water into wine, later to be tried, executed and promptly resurrected? Don’t such similarities have implications that would be resisted by someone heavily invested in Jesus as a real person who lived, breathed and allegedly did these things? //

This is one of those items of pseudoknowledge which 'everybody knows' because they have heard it repeated so often. The source of this misinformation is a lady called Acharya S. She is the sort of 'academic' that you deride on your excellent blog, and is prone to making bold but dubious statements about, for example, Dionysos' virgin birth. If someone does learn of such a thing, then they have had a very bad education, because that is simply not how the story of Dionysos goes. I am confident that what you have stated is nonsense, not because i have an invincible faith, but because it is demonstrable nonsense, should you take the time to research the stories of those gods.

Of course, Christianity *was* derived from a pre-christian faith. The Christian bible contains documents which predate the founding of the church by 2000 years or more. There is no shame in admitting christianity was built upon much older religious ideas. However, you ought to get the history right if you are going to assert such-and-such a tradition fed into christianity. If you look at the earliest of christian texts, they are concerned not with adopting customs of dionysiac or attis worship, but with the practices of the jewish people i.e. those who historically and intermittently rejected all of the pagan gods to follow the jealous God.

//Now, so far as I can see, the above doesn’t necessarily have repercussions for a person’s feelings of the numinous,or for an ill-defined belief that the universe has some kind of agreeable cause or purpose. It does, however, have pretty obvious implications for those who imagine that the existence of a benign creator hinges on, and bears some historical relation to, the stories in the Bible. They are it seems just stories, and not entirely original. //

Not original? It's one of the oldest books in the world, how much more original can it get?! You are proper looking down your nose at christians here, and i think you underestimate christendom's rich intellectual heritage. We know where our books and ideas come from, and can tell Dan Brown-esque conspiracy theory when we hear it.

David

Pete,

“Yes, why wouldn’t they?”

Generally speaking, people aren’t too keen to assimilate information that jars with or invalidates a position they hold quite dearly. And religious subscription, especially literalist forms, tends to be held quite dearly, and defended accordingly. There are of course examples of people seeking out possible refutation in good faith, but I wouldn’t say it’s a popular activity, whether in terms of politics or religion.

“Dionysos’ virgin birth… You are proper looking down your nose at Christians here.”

Well, there are umpteen versions of the Dionysus story, with different mothers, and I recall at least two of them involve divine impregnation. We are, after all, talking about a rather lurid myth. And despite your dismissal of the point being made as snobbery or a “pre-conceived notion” and “pop-theology canard,” the point remains: Many of the key Bible stories that are taken by some as pivotal to their belief are derived from and/or influenced by much earlier, non-Christian tales. (Ditto, Noah and the flood, etc.) How does a literally-minded believer resolve the problem of the similarities and pre-Christian influence, whether Babylonian, Jewish, Egyptian or whatever? Many of these stories seem to be composites of earlier yarns and thus unlikely to be inspired purely by the events they purport to describe. Given the difficulty, an inclination not to ponder seems an obvious course of action. Or inaction, if you like. I wouldn’t have thought this suggestion was particularly controversial.

I feel I should stress this really isn’t about snobbery. Obviously, stories can have moral or inspirational value regardless of their veracity or historical context, and there are plenty of people who regard themselves as Christian without being convinced by (or familiar with) the stories in question, even those involving Christianity’s messiah. Clearly, it’s possible to identify with a religion without subscribing to its theological nuts and bolts (and the problems that arise). There are endless degrees of religious affiliation and some adherents are rather vague about what it is they actually do believe. For some, belonging to a church is a kind of focus or reference point for something much less defined.

Again, this isn’t a matter of sneering. I’m trying to highlight a distinction, one that seems important. If a person thinks the universe may have some ultimate, agreeable, reason to exist, that’s not necessarily something to dismiss out of hand, philosophically speaking. (There are epistemic questions, of course, but the proposition isn’t asinine so far as I can see.) But if a person insists that Jesus or Muhammad was imparted with detailed knowledge on the subject from a deity with views on all manner of social proprieties, then credulity is strained. You see the difference I’m getting at?

Earlier in the thread (17th, 23:19), Florida suggested, “Religion is an unwanted by-product of a belief in God.” Whether the paraphernalia and structure of religion is “unwanted” is no doubt a matter of opinion, but it does point to the distinction I’ve been trying to highlight. As I said earlier, it’s one thing, epistemologically, to believe that there is, or could be, some benign first cause and ultimate source of meaning. It’s another thing entirely to insist that this supposed cause and meaning has much to do with the alleged sayings of quasi-fictional messiahs or homicidal prophets, and has been expressed via these individuals as an extensive list of preferences regarding social conduct and dietary matters. If a person maintains that the Bible or Qur’an is a reliable account of actual paranormal events, I’m not likely to take them terribly seriously. If, on the other hand, a person claims some sense of a numinous aspect to reality – one not readily expressible in rational or quantitative terms – then, whether or not I grasp what is allegedly being perceived, I can’t dismiss the claim in quite the same way.

TimT

You must remember that there are a lot of biblical stories and passages that were clearly not written with literal interpretation in mind. (Whole books of poetry and songs, proverbs, tales thrown in just for entertainment - it strikes me as being relatively pointless, for instance, trying to extract a deep theological meaning from the tale of Ehud-the-left-handed and Eglon the Moabite tyrant: just a standard fat joke about a tyrant so corpulent that a sword gets stuck in him).

Mind you, because the Bible has been such a durable book, the intent of much of the writing has been reinterpreted according to the biases of the age: so many medieval minds regarded the Song of Solomon - a set of erotic/marriage songs - as an allegory about God's love for the Church.

Nowadays I would say that those folks most apt to misinterpret the Bible are fundamentalist Christians and atheists. Fundamentalist Christians because of their focus on literalism; atheists, eager to find contradictions in passages that may never have been meant to be taken literally at all (the first two chapters of Genesis, for instance.)

At the very least insistence on literal interpretations of the Bible robs us of an incomparably rich literary tradition.

Sam Hart

Christianity and Judaism have a long history of rationality within their frame of reference. In defence of the Protestants, anyone can call themselves Protestant.

As for messiahs and prophets, perhaps we should judge them on what they said?

David

Tim,

“At the very least insistence on literal interpretations of the Bible robs us of an incomparably rich literary tradition.”

Well, exactly. And as I said, stories can have moral or inspirational value regardless of their veracity or historical context. (There’s a scene in the film “X-Men” in which a character takes upon himself the wounds of a fallen colleague. The heroic sentiment is quite Biblical, and intentionally so.) But in terms of theology it seems to me that the more one embellishes the basic metaphysical proposition with messiahs, proscriptions and political intrigue, the less persuasive it becomes. Or at least the more likely it is that the premise will be brought into disrepute by the baggage piled on top of it. I suppose it’s an irony of theology. The more elaborate they are, the less convincing they tend to be, at least from an epistemological point of view. As they become more elaborate, the number of claims accumulates. In response one has to ask, “How do you know this?”

FatPete

//Again, this isn’t a matter of sneering. I’m trying to highlight a distinction, one that seems important. If a person thinks the universe may have some ultimate, agreeable, reason to exist, that’s not necessarily something to dismiss out of hand, philosophically speaking. (There are epistemic questions, of course, but the proposition isn’t asinine so far as I can see.) But if a person insists that Jesus or Muhammad was imparted with detailed knowledge on the subject from a deity with views on all manner of social proprieties, then credulity is strained. You see the difference I’m getting at? //

Of course. I realise that you are arguing in good faith, but can you see why someone might bristle when you insist they are willfully blind to critiques of their beliefs? Especially when it is you who is bringing discredited arguments to the debate? And all this because you've heard a woolly druid on Radio 4, who is not a particularly good representative of the faith?

On the subject of the flood and Noah, you are on firmer ground there than when you try and pass off the 'scholarship' of Acharya S as serious study of ancient myth. It is no great secret that Genesis is in many ways a riff on ancient Babylonian myths. Again, no threat to Christianity or Judaism there, that is an acknowledged part of the book's heritage. What gets my goat is when people make blatantly inaccurate statements about things that, with a little effort, can be verified. It isn't my religious sensibilities that you are offending here, but basic standards of academic rigour.

Sorry to keep on hammering the point, but saying that there are several versions of the dionysos myth doesn't excuse the bold and unsupportable statement that the new testament authors based the gospels on that pagan deity. I would hope that you are man enough to admit when you are wrong. I promise I won't bang on about that point any further, unless you can actually come up with a credible source for these assertions, in which case I will admit I am wrong and renounce my faith.

//Well, exactly. And as I said, stories can have moral or inspirational value regardless of their veracity or historical context. //

True, but sometimes it is impossible to understand a text without knowing the context. And this also ignores the fact that key parts of the bible purport to be eye-witness accounts. You might not believe the account of the crucifixion and resurrection, but it is fully intended by the authors to be taken literally, so should be either accepted or rejected as actual history, but not contorted into being a generic mythic story that it was never intended to be.

//But in terms of theology it seems to me that the more one embellishes the basic metaphysical proposition with messiahs, proscriptions and political intrigue, the less persuasive it becomes.//

It might not be easy to believe, but then there are lots of counterintuitive things which are nonetheless true.

David

Pete,

“…but can you see why someone might bristle when you insist they are wilfully blind to critiques of their beliefs?”

I didn’t quite put it like that though, did I? Nor did I say that Christians or believers generally are uniquely flawed in that regard. I did mention politics too. It seems to me the disinclination to risk dearly held beliefs is just a human characteristic, to which all of us are subject to some degree. (I’m assuming you’re not about to defend the brittle tetchiness that’s often found among Biblical literalists, which is the actual example I had in mind.) And there’s still the problem of conflating very different kinds of belief. My confidence regarding the relationships of the angles of a triangle is scarcely comparable with a belief that Jesus is the saviour of mankind and rose from the dead. And my assumption that the electrons in my phone won’t suddenly behave in a fundamentally different, hitherto unknown way is in no sense equivalent to a belief in an afterlife courtesy of Allah. It’s like comparing apples with bees.

“…saying that there are several versions of the dionysos myth doesn’t excuse the bold and unsupportable statement that the New Testament authors based the gospels on that pagan deity.”

I didn’t say there was a deliberate intention to mislead or fabricate, if that’s what you’re getting at, and I’ve only just unearthed who this “Acharya S” person is. I had no idea she existed until you mentioned her. But looking over pre-Christian mythology, it’s hard not to register the themes and symbology that occur throughout, not least the various messiah stories, resurrections, floods, etc. It doesn’t require a reading of “Acharya S” - or a taste for Dan Brown conspiracies - to note the recurrence of such themes and their likely influence. (See, for instance, The Messiah Myth by Thomas L Thompson [no relation], Jonathan Cape, 2006.) How earlier myths with obvious similarities become part of another tradition or folklore is unknown to me. Presumably, they’re part of the cultural soup, as it were, and restated and embellished over time, much as our own cultures have archetypes that repeat and resonate with modern audiences. I think you rather misread my intention and jumped a little too soon.

“…no threat to Christianity or Judaism there.”

Again, I didn’t frame it in those terms. That’s not how I see this. I don’t regard this as a metaphysical football match with teams to defend.

“…key parts of the Bible purport to be eye-witness accounts. You might not believe the account of the crucifixion and resurrection, but it is fully intended by the authors to be taken literally, so should be either accepted or rejected as actual history.”

Are you saying you accept those passages as reliable accounts of actual paranormal events?

dw

"My confidence regarding the relationships of the angles of a triangle is scarcely comparable with a belief that Jesus is the saviour of mankind and rose from the dead. And my assumption that the electrons in my phone won't suddenly behave in a fundamentally different, hitherto unknown way is in no sense equivalent to a belief in an afterlife courtesy of Allah. It's like comparing apples with bees."

LOL

David

dw,

Well, you see the point? Countless mathematical and physical axioms are tested and verified daily. This conversation is possible because of just how reliable those formulations are. To suggest some parity between a “belief” in those axioms and a belief that someone in antiquity rose from the dead as the saviour of humanity is, well, bizarre. It’s also worth pointing out that most of us don’t have any obvious emotional preferences for how the laws of physics happen to be. The particulars of electromagnetism or quantum chromodynamics aren’t emotionally, um, charged. Religion very much is.

BeerBelliedPete

I agree with most of what you've said here...
//I didn’t quite put it like that though, did I? Nor did I say that Christians or believers generally are uniquely flawed in that regard. I did mention politics too. It seems to me the disinclination to risk dearly held beliefs is just a human characteristic, to which all of us are subject to some degree. (I’m assuming you’re not about to defend the brittle tetchiness that’s often found among Biblical literalists, which is the actual example I had in mind.) And there’s still the problem of conflating very different kinds of belief. My confidence regarding the relationships of the angles of a triangle is scarcely comparable with a belief that Jesus is the saviour of mankind and rose from the dead. And my assumption that the electrons in my phone won’t suddenly behave in a fundamentally different, hitherto unknown way is in no sense equivalent to a belief in an afterlife courtesy of Allah. It’s like comparing apples with bees. //


Also, I realise you weren't accusing the New Testament authors of lying. You did seem to impugn the integrity of christian scholars, and it was to this i perhaps overreacted to.

From what little i can glean online about Thomas L Thompson, he is another of the Dan Brown school of theology. This is the blurb on googlebooks:

//Since the eighteenth century, scholars and historians studying the texts of the Bible have attempted to distill historical facts and biography from the mythology and miracles described there. That trend continues into the present day, as scholars such as those of the "Jesus Seminar" dissect the Gospels and other early Christian writings to separate the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith." But with The Messiah Myth, noted Biblical scholar Thomas L. Thompson argues that the quest for the historical Jesus is beside the point, since the Jesus of the Gospels never existed.Like King David before him, says Thompson, the Jesus of the Bible is an amalgamation of themes from Near Eastern mythology and traditions of kingship and divinity. The theme of a messiah-a divinely appointed king who restores the world to perfection-is typical of Egyptian and Babylonian royal ideology dating back to the Bronze Age. In Thompson's view, the contemporary audience for whom the Old and New Testament were written would naturally have interpreted David and Jesus not as historical figures, but as metaphors embodying long-established messianic traditions. Challenging widely held assumptions about the sources of the Bible and the quest for the historical Jesus, The Messiah Myth is sure to spark interest and heated debate.//

The fact he is linked with the Jesus Seminar does not inspire confidence. They trot out a new 'Real Jesus of History' every week, and usually The Lord's message just happens to coincide with the preferred politics of the author bringing us these exciting revelations. For a serious treatment of the 'jesus of faith/history' question you should check out Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth. I think you could respect Ratzinger's approach, David.

As for the gospel eye witness accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection, yes, i do accept them as reliable and valid testimony. I do not expect all others to agree with me on the point, but disagreement should be based on a proper understanding of the text, not some half baked theory about dionysos.

I take your point about faith in pythagoras' theorem being different to christian faith, but then nothing is going to be quite the same as christian faith. However, what about faith in your own free will? Or faith in the love of your close friends and family? Faith that murder is wrong? Faith that all men are created equal and deserving of dignity and respect? These are all conclusions we cannot come to by reason alone, though i would argue reason does point to them in so far as it can. A small leap of faith is still required. Of course, Christianity is a bigger leap still, though not incompatible with reason!

David

Pete,

“Christianity is a bigger leap still, though not incompatible with reason!”

I don’t recall suggesting it was.

“As for the gospel eye witness accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection, yes, i do accept them as reliable and valid testimony. I do not expect all others to agree with me on the point, but disagreement should be based on a proper understanding of the text, not some half baked theory about dionysos.”

So far as I remember, Thomas Thompson makes no reference to “Archarya S” or lurid Brownian conspiracies. It’s really not that kind of book. It’s actually rather dry. The subject isn’t one I find terribly interesting and I’m not familiar with his other work, but taken as part of a broader picture the general approach seems valid and hardly half-baked. You don’t have to endorse Thompson’s every utterance or any particular overarching theory to register how certain themes repeat through the mythologies of the Near- and Far East, and what that may imply. Nor do you have to accept his ideas as anything like the full picture. But his approach, and that of other “Biblical minimalists,” seems less problematic than a belief in virgin births, miracles or post-mortem animation.

As I said, I don’t usually concern myself with other people’s private religious views. It’s none of my business. (Forums such as this are a little odd, in that people may share with strangers more than they usually would, so I’m not quite sure what the proprieties are.) But it seems to me that a belief in Bible stories as reliable accounts of actual paranormal events – i.e. impossible things happening - is a position that is – to use your own words - “bold and unsupportable,” at least by any conventional epistemic standard.

Let me put it this way. If I told you I’d just heard Person A say that Person B had just walked on water, raised the dead, then recovered from death himself, what would you most likely assume? That I was mistaken / lying / unhinged? Or that Person A was mistaken / lying / unhinged? Or would you assume that Person B did in fact exist exactly as described and did in fact walk on water, raise the dead and then rise from death himself? Which would be the more plausible explanation? And if you assume one of the first two explanations (or something along those lines), why would you assume something very different if you were reading about me saying the same thing to someone else, twenty centuries ago? Why would a different standard of scepticism apply?

Again, it’s one thing to regard the Bible as not entirely credible as an historical account of impossible events, not least because of… well, the impossible events. It’s another thing entirely to disprove the existence of a benign creator or some ultimate source of meaning. I can do the first one fairly comfortably. The second one looks much trickier and beyond my abilities.

lurker24

Great thread.

James S

"why would you assume something very different if you were reading about me saying the same thing to someone else, twenty centuries ago?"

The laws of physics have obviously changed since then. :)

TDK

"Countless mathematical and physical axioms are tested and verified daily."

I see what you're getting at but the above is nonsense. The definition of axiom is "a proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident".

Dozens of mathematicians have sought to prove the axioms of their subject recognising that the whole of mathematics is built logically upon those assumptions. The experience of Gödel suggests that it cannot be done. In contrast, no other science approaches the rigour of mathematics. We are left with the fact that truth must be contingent. That certainly doesn't mean that we must endorse the subjectivity of post modernism.

In particular it doesn't mean that the Bible can be treated equally to science. Received truth cannot match the scientific method because the latter never asserts that the matter is settled (environmentalists excepted). Science only asserts that the current explanation is better than any that came before. Any scientific theory is open to being refuted and replaced. Even the Theory of Natural Selection. In contrast the Bible can only be interpreted differently - there is no possibility of change.

On that, I find it interesting that the evidence shows that all the holy books - Bible, Koran, Torah - were subject to change in the early days. It suggests that stories were added or subtracted according how compelling they were. Sections of the Gospels were written many years after the events. Of course this became progressively more difficult and ultimately a final version was fixed by the authorities of the time. This suggests that early Christian religion had scope to evolve by editing. After Nicea (perhaps Ephesus?) the only option was changing the interpretation.

David

TDK,

Yes, I take your point, it wasn’t the best wording. And “used” would be better than “verified”. Though I used the term in its broader sense – as an established and generally accepted rule – which is the sense I took the original statement to be using. In other words, our understanding of electrons is incomplete but our understanding of their behaviour is sufficiently reliable for my phone to work. And my assumption that those electrons won’t suddenly behave in a fundamentally different, hitherto unknown way isn’t analogous to a belief in resurrection.

JustPete

I don't see a problem with Thompson's assertion that other near eastern mythologies influenced the hebrews, but claiming David or Jesus never existed is as credible as the claim Caesar, Plato or Napoleon never existed. None of us can know for sure these people actually walked the earth, but their effect on history would be hard to explain were they merely storybook characters. Likewise, it is difficult to explain the phenomenon of early christianity in the absense of Jesus of the apostles. Thomas Thompson also holds that his metaphorical and fictional Jesus 'embodies the messiah myth'. I would be interested to know whether Thompson grapples with the fact that Jesus in many ways confounded the old ways of thinking about the Messiah; traditional judaism never expected a messiah whose triumph would be to hang on the torture apparatus of the heathen empire. If the gospel is being presented as merely another iteration of near eastern myth, then somebody is missing the point!

As for thinking the gospel authors may be mistaken, lying or unhinged, at least you are now taking on the texts in the correct terms and taking seriously the authors' intent i.e. to insist the resurrection really happened.

As for why I believe this particular tall tale, there are a number of reasons. One is related to the smaller faith statements I mentioned in my last post; the implications of the resurrection, when combined with Christ's life and message, and the history of the jewish people, provides a coherent explanation to the existence of the universe, of sin and evil, or ethics, mortality, human nature and much, much more. Another reason I take these stories seriously is the conduct of the earliest followers of Christ. They may have been mistaken or deluded, but I doubt they embraced martyrdom for something they knew to be a lie. Likewise, Christ himself could have gotten off the hook simply by modifying his claim to teach with the authority of YHWH, which understandably got many devout jews of the time riled. Martyrdom doesn't prove the claims, of course, but it does prove the seriousness of those who make them!

Quick response to James S: that is something I have heard protestants argue, but the real church reports miracles right up to the present day.

James S

The real church?

David

Pete,

“…but claiming David or Jesus never existed is as credible as the claim Caesar, Plato or Napoleon never existed.”

I suspect historians would draw some serious distinctions between Napoleon and Jesus as actual historical figures. In a hierarchy of plausibility, I’d guess Jesus the Messiah and Miracle Worker would be nearer to, say, Romulus of Rome, who is also said to have had great impact and supernatural origins. For all his achievements, Napoleon didn’t manage to publicly defy mortality or make rain fall upwards, and such things have bearing on how credible a character is. One can’t just disregard the alleged doing of impossible things as incidental to any estimation of plausibility. Rising from the dead isn’t just one of those things that happen, like so-and-so winning a battle or building an aqueduct.

“Likewise, it is difficult to explain the phenomenon of early Christianity in the absence of Jesus of the apostles.”

But it isn’t hard to imagine a non-supernatural figure causing quite a fuss, politically and sociologically. Especially if that figure was *alleged* to be of revolutionary – nay, cosmic – importance and to possess paranormal talents. The rumour and expectation would do quite a lot of the work.

“…[that the laws of physics have changed] is something I have heard Protestants argue, but the real church reports miracles right up to the present day.”

It seems to me the claims of miracles aren’t exactly helping on the credibility front. Maybe it’s worth trying to imagine how one might react if something along the same lines as Jesus’ alleged miracles were reported today. Obviously, the scenario would have to omit any modern method of verification – no CCTV, phone cameras, etc – just some limited word of mouth. Just how credible would such a story be? A person today claiming to have seen statues weeping milk or the word “Allah” manifest in a tortilla would be regarded as foolish and/or bonkers - by believers, agnostics and atheists alike. If that person also claimed to have seen the dead rise from their graves, that would harm his credibility further. And I wonder why a different standard should be projected onto events alleged to have happened twenty centuries ago.

UnjustPete

James, i mean the catholic and orthodox traditions, who are the direct
inheritors of the apostles' great commission.

David, the existence of Jesus is widely accepted by most serious
historians and bible scholars, which includes non-believers. It is
one thing to doubt the miracles attributed to Jesus, but quite another
to suggest the man himself did not exist. Lets compare him to King
Oswald of Northumbria, or Saint Columba of Iona. Both men had
miracles attributed to them, in the writings of Bede and Adomnan
respectively. The Life of Columba even has the saint chasing off the
Loch Ness Monster, the first recorded instance of that legendary
beast! Now, even the most staunch of christians would find these tales
hard to swallow, but nobody can seriously doubt Oswald and Columba
existed, because their influence on British history was massive. The
ministry of Jesus was of even more significance in world history.
Denying the resurrection is a reasonable position, but to deny Jesus
lived at all leaves unexplained the early christian movement. The
founding of this movement has had concrete historical effects which
far outstrip the winning of a battle or building of an aquaduct.

As for credibility of miracles, that strikes me as something of an
oxymoron, for if they were credible they would not be miraculous! The
prophet Chesterton points out that if the milkmaid testifies to having
witnessed a murder, a man can hang on such testimony. But should she
testify to having seen a ghost, she will be derided as simple and
superstitious, and her testimony dismissed out of hand. The thing is,
you are operating under the assumption that the supernatural does not
exist, therefore any testimony involving the supernatural is a priori
false. There is no way I can penetrate such an invincible faith :)

I notice you haven't yet responded to my suggestion that such things
as belief in free will, morality, the dignity of man require a leap of
faith. I regard free will as the best rational argument for the
existence of a supernatural realm, that is, a realm that is neither
purely mechanistic & determinative like the realm of newtonian physics
or chemistry, nor entirely random like the realm of quantum physics.
If the supernatural realm is where independent will exists, this
supports the christian contention that God has a will and personality
and is not some abstract entity such as 'the numinous' you cite above.

David

Pete,

“It is one thing to doubt the miracles attributed to Jesus, but quite another to suggest the man himself did not exist.”

Agreed, and my own view isn’t the same as, say, Thomas Thompson’s. I mentioned him because it was relevant to my point about the paranormal aspects of Biblical stories being part of a continuum. You’ll notice I’ve referred to the figure of Jesus as quasi-fictional. It seems possible (though uncertain) that there was an actual figure called Jesus, or someone later known as such, most likely one of many prophets of the time, and who may have said such-and-such and caused a stir, posthumously inspiring a major religion. This person’s biography may even roughly match the one generally understood, excluding any paranormal embellishments.

But if this much is so, it doesn’t follow that this individual was in any way supernatural or even particularly insightful, let alone the tool of an ultimate, omniscient being. Nor does it validate the edifice built in that figure’s name, or the various claims made by it. If some indisputable physical corroboration of this person’s existence were discovered tomorrow, I don’t see how that would make the supernatural claims any more persuasive - one thing doesn’t follow from the other. Being *thought* to be a miracle worker may be more than enough for historical purposes. Given the right circumstances, decidedly mortal figures can cause quite a fuss, and rumour and expectation can be powerful forces – certainly enough to ignite a religion. (Think Muhammad or more recently L Ron Hubbard.) The fact that this can happen isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“The thing is, you are operating under the assumption that the supernatural does not exist, therefore any testimony involving the supernatural is a priori false. There is no way I can penetrate such an invincible faith :)”

Heh. Well, given the outlandishness of the claims and the objections that necessarily arise, it would take more than testimony. Anecdotes are cheap. And this is a problem, isn’t it? So far as I can recall, there’s nothing in the Biblical accounts to persuade a person who’s not already inclined to favour the kind of claims being made. (Or young enough not to raise the usual objections.) If you want me to accept that people can, for instance, rise from the dead, I need something more credible than an ancient second-hand account relayed via umpteen intermediaries. If a person is already disposed towards the idea that this can happen, or indeed ought to happen, that may be enough. For me, it just ain’t. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable, or an “invincible” position. It’s just a basic threshold.

You see, I fear we’re getting perilously close to a circular argument. Sort of: “I believe the Bible is a credible account of miraculous events that prove Jesus’ divinity (and therefore God’s existence) because I already believe in miracles, which God makes possible.”

BucktoothPete

Hi David

I haven't made any such circular argument, I am just arguing that one should allow for the possibility that the supernatural exists. This does not mean an uncritical acceptance of every such claim.

I can accept your position that you do not believe Christ was resurrected. I recognise that there is a leap of faith required I cannot reasonably expect you to make. All I can do is to encourage you to look at the texts and take them on their own terms. For reading the gospels, this requires an understanding of the political and religious situation in Jerusalem at the time, else the point of Christ's death can go right over one's head. I'm not sure if looking at mesopotamian myths with Thomas L Thompson will help one understand the disagreement Jesus had with the Sanhedrin; knowing a bit of theology will, but nobody wants to listen to the theologians cos they're tainted by belief and can't even be trusted to tell us the truth about their own documents!

So I accept you denial of the Resurrection, but reject your reasoning, because you haven't really gone down this rabbit hole yet.

David

Pete,

“I am just arguing that one should allow for the possibility that the supernatural exists. This does not mean an uncritical acceptance of every such claim… All I can do is to encourage you to look at the texts and take them on their own terms.”

But taking those texts on their own terms – i.e. as honest accounts of real paranormal events and thus validating an elaborate theology - requires a level of indulgence and credulity that wouldn’t be extended to other quasi-historical sources or any modern equivalent. (Would you do the same for the Qur’an and Sunnah? If not, why not?) I suppose the stories could be read uncritically, thereby inspiring feelings of drama, poignancy, wonderment, etc, but that’s what any good fiction does. (Some history works in much the same way.) I suppose that’s a kind of magic, loosely speaking, but that’s not what you’re getting at, is it?

“I accept you[r] denial of the Resurrection, but reject your reasoning, because you haven’t really gone down this rabbit hole yet.”

I read the texts quite some time ago and wasn’t at all persuaded of any supernatural or theological claims. I saw no Wonderland; I found only a rabbit hole. If you like theological rabbit holes it can be quite interesting, but I guess that’s not what you’re getting at either. Again, from where I stand, it all rather begs the question, in that the appeal is to an unverifiable supposition at odds with what is known about reality and that only persuades if one already tacitly accepts its conclusion or something very similar. It’s not just a matter of entertaining the possibility of supernatural events. There’s a bundling together of some very large assumptions.

For instance, even if a person could demonstrate some hitherto unknown miraculous ability – say, restoring life to a dead person with a gesture or incantation – in and of itself that still wouldn’t prove the existence of God or validate any particular theology, regardless of what the miracle worker might say or the political context in which it happened. Presumably even miracle workers are capable of error, presumption, opportunism and deceit. The working of miracles (if it can be done) and the existence of a deity are different issues and we should be wary of bundling assumptions – or trusting the first person to come along and reanimate the deceased. (I’m pretty sure there are several science fiction stories dealing with precisely this scenario.)

Incidentally, though I doubt we’re likely to reach agreement on the issue at hand, I have been enjoying the discussion.

BigPete

Hi David

It should be clear from what I've written above that I am not arguing for an uncritical acceptance of any and all supernatural claims. If I were to investigate the Qur'an or Sunnah then yes, I would take the time to research Islamic theology, history and any other contextualising material that would help understand those texts and where they came from. That would include listening to what Islamic scholars tell me about how the text has been preserved and used down the centuries, what the authors intended, and what they believe the texts mean.

//For instance, even if a person could demonstrate some hitherto unknown miraculous ability – say, restoring life to a dead person with a gesture or incantation – in and of itself that still wouldn’t prove the existence of God or validate any particular theology, regardless of what the miracle worker might say or the political context in which it happened.//

You seem to be demanding 'proof' of miracles/the resurrection and God, despite the fact that the discussion you kicked off was about 'faith'. For that level of certainty you should be discussing mathematics or science, and even then you're looking at systems that work by disproving, not proving, theories. I cannot offer you the proof you demand, though that isn't to say you are wrong to be sceptical in its absence. I'm quite aware of how wacky my beliefs are! I much prefer intelligent scepticism to a credulity which twists itself in knots to preserve a simplistic belief in, say, the six day creation. The best I can possibly do is not to prove Christianity to you, only to make a case that it is not explicitly contrary to reason, and provides an explanation of the observed universe that is at least as good as the alternatives. If you don't believe there is a Wonderland down the rabbit hole of Christian theology, then I would refer you to Chesterton's 'Orthodoxy' and 'The Everlasting Man'. They will prove nothing to you, but will at least illuminate the actual beliefs of the church, and why something as strange as the resurrection should be such a key sticking point for that worldview.

I also am immensely enjoying this discussion; you are an intelligent and gracious host, and I thank you for your patience in allowing me to monopolise this thread! Usually conversations like this last right up until someone chimes in with the usual thought-stopping polemic about the crusades or the inquisition! You said earlier that you've got more religious discussions in the archive - I'd be interested in seeing how these panned out. Can you provide links?

David

Pete,

“Usually conversations like this last right up until someone chimes in with the usual thought-stopping polemic about the crusades or the inquisition!”

Well, that’s sort of what I meant earlier about not thinking in terms of metaphysical football teams. I’m not trying to alter your beliefs. I don’t think it’s any of my business. And I’d like to think this is a place where people can differ and still be civil, even friendly. I rarely agree with an occasional visitor named Dr Dawg – our politics are very different – but I enjoy our exchanges quite a lot and I hope he feels welcome here. I tend to picture this place as a slightly disreputable bar. I want people to feel at home and free to tell me when (and why) I’m wrong.

“You said earlier that you’ve got more religious discussions in the archive – I’d be interested in seeing how these panned out.”

In one of my very early posts I mentioned that it’s difficult to challenge appalling behaviour sanctioned by Islamic theology, or at least by several schools of such, without addressing the particulars of the theology in question. A reader, Suhail Shafi, took exception to this (fairly unremarkable) observation and things went downhill from there. We entered the realm of denial, umbrage and – worse - CAPS LOCK…

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/06/empty_gestures.html

What struck me at the time was how closely the exchange followed a familiar pattern – one I’d noticed elsewhere on other boards. Once you’ve seen a few exchanges of that kind it gets a little eerie watching them unfold. I don’t have time to root out others at the moment but feel free to poke about.

Pete

Hi David

Thanks for the link. That Suhail character is a proper nutter.

I earlier assumed you have faith in certain things, and said...

"what about faith in your own free will? Or faith in the love of your close friends and family? Faith that murder is wrong? Faith that all men are created equal and deserving of dignity and respect? These are all conclusions we cannot come to by reason alone,"

In the Suhail thread, you talk to him (her?) about standards of equality for women and basic human rights. Do you agree that these are articles of faith, and are not arrived at by reason alone? That insistence on such things as human rights are in part emotional, irrational, and perhaps rooted in something sublime and ineffable?

David

Pete,

“That Suhail character is a proper nutter.”

There are quite a few about. I realise internet forums can attract a self-selecting group, but still, there’s something to be learned from exchanges of that kind. Years ago over at OpenDemocracy, I had a couple of very long discussions that were much, much worse. One was with an Alabama minister who quickly became quite heated, then overtly vicious. The meaner and louder he got, the harder it must’ve been for him to ignore the dissonance between his professions of numinous insight and the bitterness being mouthed. At one point I think I asked him if he was the devil in disguise. Ah, happy days.

“…what about faith in your own free will? Or faith in the love of your close friends and family? Faith that murder is wrong? …Do you agree that these are articles of faith, and are not arrived at by reason alone? That insistence on such things as human rights are in part emotional, irrational, and perhaps rooted in something sublime and ineffable?”

Well, I’ve seen arguments for basic rights that are fairly pragmatic. One might, for instance, argue for Afghan girls being educated on economic grounds, or in terms of geopolitical self-interest. As to whether such arguments were inspired by something sublime and ineffable in any given instance, you’d have to ask the people concerned. I’d guess that a sense of reciprocation and fairness (however conceived) is in part an evolutionary feature. There are studies of capuchin monkeys, for instance, that suggest simple parallels with own moral proprieties regarding equitable treatment. See Brosnan and de Waal, “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay,” Nature #428, March 2004:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v425/n6955/abs/nature01963.html

Obviously, this isn’t to say that our thinking and moral assumptions are entirely rational or explicit. They certainly aren’t. But again I think we’re comparing very different kinds of faith. A “faith” that murder is wrong, for instance, might be seriously qualified by context. It’s easy to imagine extreme scenarios in which murder could be the remaining option and a moral imperative. So “faith” wouldn’t have the same connotations, since one’s “faith” in doing the right thing (or least bad thing) might entail murder in order to save innocent lives, or one’s own.

My general preference for being civil rather than needlessly aggressive and my feelings towards my Other Half (pbuh) are different kinds of things to a belief in messiahs, prophets, deities, etc. One half of a couple can to some extent – quite a large extent – gauge how reciprocal their feelings are. I could, I think, guess my Other Half’s behaviour in certain circumstances, thus confirming my “faith” in fairly practical ways. But I know of no way to fathom God’s mind, and no way to estimate whether such a being exists (or has a “mind” to fathom).

Pete

Hi David

The pragmatic arguments for human rights aren't convincing, because it can be just as pragmatic to override concern for human rights in the name of economics, political stability, the state, the revolution, the cause and so on. In the case of female education in Afghanistan, would it be OK to deny them education should the economic or geopolitical situation change?

As for the thirst for justice being evolutionary, there are plenty of other, far more unsavoury, human traits which have also been passed to us through natural selection. Saying something is a product of evolution might explain why we hold such sentiments as respect for human rights, but isn't itself a good argument in their favour.

I understand faith in a religion is different to a faith that murder is wrong, but they are similar in that neither one is based on empirical observations. And a religious believer generally can justify their belief that murder is wrong with reference to their belief system and the will of God. So the question remains, how do you justify belief in human rights, and do you accept it is essentially an article of faith?

David

Pete,

“The pragmatic arguments for human rights aren’t convincing, because it can be just as pragmatic to override concern for human rights in the name of economics, political stability, the state, the revolution, the cause and so on.”

I suppose that depends on the particulars of the argument. Though, yes, pragmatic arguments are generally weighed against other pragmatic arguments.

“Saying something is a product of evolution might explain why we hold such sentiments as respect for human rights, but isn’t itself a good argument in their favour.”

I wasn’t suggesting it as an argument as such; merely an observation. I just thought the monkey study was interesting.

“I understand faith in a religion is different to a faith that murder is wrong, but they are similar in that neither one is based on empirical observations.”

Well, I suppose the aversion to murder – especially casual or arbitrary murder – is based in large part on the fact people generally don’t wish to be murdered or continually concerned with the distinct possibility. And the reciprocal expectation, once codified, is fairly pragmatic. It frees up so much time. Again, as to whether these things are “rooted in something sublime and ineffable,” I really couldn’t say. Regardless of how you or I might explain our respective feelings on the matter, I wouldn’t be comfortable extrapolating to some sweeping sociological (or theological) explanation.

“And a religious believer generally can justify their belief that murder is wrong with reference to their belief system and the will of God.”

And of course the reverse is also true. But I’ve yet to hear a believer explain in meaningful terms how they know what the “will of God” is. Exactly how can a person know this? The claim seems extraordinary, presumptuous, or egomaniacal. Any claim along those lines is epistemologically bizarre, even if I agree with the particular moral sentiment.

“So the question remains, how do you justify belief in human rights, and do you accept it is essentially an article of faith?”

I never said I “believe” in human rights and I don’t think of it in terms of “faith”. Again, the wording is tendentious. (Though I have met people who do “believe” in human rights in a quasi-religious way.) For me, the concept seems primarily a practical issue – insofar as it tends to reduce human misery. It also appeals to my sense of reciprocation and how I’d prefer to be treated. And I suppose the less miserable people are, the more likely I am to be treated in a way I find congenial. Perhaps one could argue that a preference for less human misery rather than more is itself “rooted in something sublime and ineffable,” and perhaps it is. But I don’t see that preference in and of itself as analogous to an elaborate belief in deities, miracles and afterlives. Nor, in itself, does it validate any particular theological premise. Again, it’s apples and bees.

Pete

Hello David! Just very quickly:
I guess I am one of those people who believe in human rights in a quasi-religious way, altho' i'd say there's no quasi about it; maintaining the intregrity of the human body seems an obvious holy duty!

I don't agree the aim of human rights is to reduce human misery. One could devise a scenario whereby killing one human being would decrease the misery amongst the other human beings around them. Ethics based on a 'happiness per capita' criteria i cannot agree with, because no matter how happy or miserable we make one another, we all deserve the right to life. I hope you agree.

David

Pete,

“Ethics based on ‘happiness per capita’ criteria I cannot agree with, because no matter how happy or miserable we make one another, we all deserve the right to life. I hope you agree.”

“Happiness per capita” isn’t quite what I had in mind. It’s one thing to prefer a reduction of human misery, at least abstractedly; it’s something else (and somewhat counterproductive) to micromanage human affairs according to some satisfaction calculus. And I’m not sure how one might establish an unassailable, unconditional right to life, which is what I assume you mean. I’m not inclined to go around killing people – even those who really, really irritate me – but I’m pretty sure there are extreme and hypothetical situations in which all bets would be off.

anonymous

It's a real shame this thread has stopped.

Pete

Thanks for those who've chimed in to say they've enjoyed the thread!
The conversation hasn't stopped, i've just needed a bit of a breather whot with things goin' on in the real world!

David,

You are unsure of how to establish an unassailable, unconditional right to life. I say, in that case, you have nothing to say to the barbarians who beat their wives.

Surely we establish unassailable rights through law! Law is based on the concept of justice, and this is based on an assumed objective moral order. Again, this is something we all take on faith, even whilst insisting that morality is subjective and relative.

What you seem to be saying is you want to condemn wife beaters and critique their theology, but without doing the groundwork to establish your own moral position on solid foundations. When pushed, you admit your tough moral stance against the taliban's treatment of women will crumple under pragmatic concerns.

David

Pete,

“You are unsure of how to establish an unassailable, unconditional right to life. I say, in that case, you have nothing to say to the barbarians who beat their wives… When pushed, you admit your tough moral stance against the Taliban’s treatment of women will crumple under pragmatic concerns.”

Um, no; not at all. What I’m getting at – and perhaps not expressing terribly well – is that an unassailable and unconditional right to life would presumably run into problems in extreme situations – say, self-defence, where the only options might be to kill or be killed. In such a situation I wouldn’t be likely to respect my assailant’s right to life. And much the same applies if I were a soldier and faced with a choice between the life of a jihadist and his intended victims. It’s something I touched on in the passage quoted below:

“Imagine you and your partner wake abruptly in the middle of the night. You hear a stranger moving about in the hallway outside your bedroom. Your newborn child is sleeping quietly, for once, in the room across the hall. There’s now an intruder between you and your child and his motives are unclear but certainly not benign. He’s obviously used force to break into your home at a time when you’re most vulnerable. It’s an act of premeditated violation and he may well use force again. Has he made these efforts in order to steal your property or to do you mortal harm? And, if interrupted, will the former involve the latter? What if your child wakes and starts crying?

Is it “reasonable” to assume that the intruder is merely a thief who doesn’t mind terrorising those whose homes he violates and whose property he steals, but isn’t prepared to do actual violence to his victims, even when cornered? And on what is that assumption based? Given the situation, and the fact your heart is pounding, do you really have the time and means to fathom the intruder’s motives and take them into account before acting – and acting without “excess”? Or do you use whatever force possible to disable the intruder before he can even think about harming you or your child? And what if the intruder is bigger and stronger than you? What if he’s armed with a knife or a gun? Are you going to wait to find out, dutifully bearing in mind the likelihood of subsequent legal disputation?

Wouldn’t it be wise to disable him as quickly as possible, by whatever means, rather than risk being at his mercy, along with the rest of your family? Doesn’t that most likely involve using as much force as can be mustered - say, with a decisive blow to the head using one of these - even if that risks the intruder’s death or serious, permanent injury? Is that “excessive or disproportionate” - or is it a basic moral imperative?”

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2008/07/being-reasonabl.html

So far as I can see, this has no bearing on my readiness to berate wife-beaters or other barbarians. I think it’s another one of those apples and bees things.

Pete

Hi David

Thanks for the clarification, I see now what you're getting at.

The situation you describe is, I believe, catered for in law, where there is a distinction between harm caused in self defence, and assault. The former is legitimate, that is, authorised in law, because it upholds the law. Assault is entirely different in that it is a breach of the law. I think it is possible, even necessary, to allow for the sort of situation you describe without throwing out a robust belief in the sanctity of life. Indeed, in the case of an intruder, fighting them off is clearly in line with the principle of respect for life.

If we are in the business of challenging the barbarians who stone adultresses, one does rather have to accept that it may be necessary to secure their adherence to the rule of law (and respect for human rights) through the use of force.

If one is going to justify the use of force in promoting one's beliefs then it is important such force is applied according to a strict and objective moral order. I guess my worry based on what what you have written earlier regarding 'pragmatic considerations' might cause you to abandon a robust defense of human rights. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, do you think there is an objective moral order, and if so isn't that taken on faith?

David

Pete,

“At the risk of sounding like a broken record, do you think there is an objective moral order, and if so isn’t that taken on faith?”

I’m not sure what you mean by an “objective moral order.” I don’t think of it in quite those terms. (If a thing is objective – i.e. demonstrable and inarguable - why would it have to be “taken on faith”?) While there are common moral concerns throughout human history – punishment of wrongdoing, etc – there have been numerous conflicting imperatives and definitions of wrongdoing, depending on when and where one happened to be. What was deemed the “objective moral order” three centuries ago might be somewhat at odds with modern sensibilities. (I scarcely need to point out that slavery and human sacrifice have at times been licensed by what was regarded as an “objective moral order” and claims to know the preferences of various hypothetical deities.)

One might find something revolting and obscene in a direct and vivid way without reference to some cosmic standard of measurement. And one needn’t appeal to a cosmic standard of measurement to argue that a modern sensibility is preferable to one in which slavery or human sacrifice is part of the moral currency.

Pete

Hi David

Sorry for such a brief response, but am very busy right now.

Are you saying that slavery was moral during the era of the slave triangle? Were the abolitionists morally wrong to oppose slavery, right up until the law changed at which point they became morally correct? See, I believe it was always morally wrong, no matter if it was recognised as such at the time.

Pete

Just to pick up on your other point; Something which is objectively true is not necessarily demonstrable or inarguable. If I am right about the existence of God, then His existence is an objective fact. It does not become subjective just because I can't prove it, or because there is room for others to disagree with me. And the same holds true for his non-existence if I am wrong.

David

Pete,

“Were the abolitionists morally wrong to oppose slavery, right up until the law changed at which point they became morally correct?”

That’s not what I’m saying. I’m merely pointing out that appealing to some “objective moral order” – generally God’s moral order, as variously conceived – has been done throughout history and with conflicting assumptions. Obviously, many of those appeals aren’t terribly convincing to later generations, with very good reasons. But those reasons can be arrived at, and defended, without involving God or what one thinks His preferences might be.

Pete

I'm happy to leave God out of the picture seeing as you don't believe in Him, therefore won't be convinced by reference to him. However, it is possible to conceive of an objective moral order without conflating it with God.

To take the sort of stance you want to take does require reference to such an objective moral standard, else what one is left with is the enforcement of personal preference. There is no reason why your preference for respecting others should take precedence over the barbarian preference for beating women.

David

Pete,

Sorry for the delay; was running errands.

“To take the sort of stance you want to take does require reference to such an objective moral standard, else what one is left with is the enforcement of personal preference. There is no reason why your preference for respecting others should take precedence over the barbarian preference for beating women.”

But is it an all-or-nothing situation? Conceding an epistemological point – that our knowledge is conditional (and that morality may be modified by subsequent knowledge and future possibilities) - doesn’t imply that all things are somehow equal or that no judgement can be made as to whether one view is better than another. A superior morality isn’t necessarily based on absolutes, or on intimate familiarity with the preferences of hypothetical deities.

For one thing, there’s the issue of empathy. I wouldn’t wish to be a slave or treated shabbily. Nor do I particularly enjoy treating others shabbily or as slaves. That’s just how I am, at least on a good day. I assume other people have broadly similar preferences… and hence reciprocation is possible - and positive feedback. Inferior moral systems generally involve a much greater degree of coercion and disregard for the individual. Now my knowledge of how other people think may be conditional and (to say the least) incomplete, but a workable judgement is still possible and can lead to mutual benefit.

You may choose to extend this with reference to absolutes or the alleged preferences of some hypothetical deity who happens to think much as you do; but I don’t see that as necessary. If such a belief helps you treat people well, especially in adversity, then good for you. But I find my own agnostic outlook works adequately and with fewer epistemological issues.

Update:

I don’t want to pursue this too far – we’ve already roamed from the ostensible topic – but it seems to me individuality and reciprocation are the keys to determining which morality is superior to another - in mortal terms, if not cosmic ones. As I said, inferior moral systems tend to disregard the individual and his territory, whether physical or psychological, and they also tend to rely heavily on fear, infantilism and coercion. In short, they tend to be tribal. The individual is grossly subservient to the state or collective. (I doubt anyone here would have much trouble determining why, say, the North Korean social model is indecent and disabling.)

Now one might say, “Okay, but personal preference aside, what’s so great about individualism and reciprocation?” In which case, I’d argue that societies and moral systems that favour individualism (or at least make it possible) tend to be more successful, more prosperous, more inventive, artistically and intellectually richer, etc. I don’t know if those things qualify as an “objective moral order” but they work for me. And I suspect I’m not alone in that.

Pete

david

Like I said above, "an assumed objective moral order.... is something we all take on faith, even whilst insisting that morality is subjective and relative."

I hear your denial of an objective standard or of absolutes, yet I also hear you talking about 'superior' or 'inferior' moralities. I genuinely do not see how you can have one without the other. I don't take issue with your agnostic outlook, but the same epistemological issues are still there only you aren't acknowledging them.

I don't think we've strayed, I'm still testing some assertions.

David

Pete,

I’m not sure what you mean by this:

“However, it is possible to conceive of an objective moral order without conflating it with God.”

Given what had gone before, I assumed you meant some “objective moral order” external to human preference or estimation, i.e. something absolute. Hence the God business and the epistemic problems that entails. (If a person claims to know that God exists and what He prefers, how do they know this? How do they know they know it? And so forth.) So, what “objective moral order” do you have in mind, if not something involving a deity?

“I genuinely do not see how you can have one without the other.”

Well, there’s a difference between objectively better and absolute. The criteria I suggested – prosperity, autonomy, intellectual richness, etc - are measurable and demonstrable, and so objective in a practical, everyday sense. Though I suppose some might still dispute whether they constitute an “objective moral order,” insofar as they operate in mortal terms and with a basic presumption that, broadly speaking, human misery is best reduced rather than, say, exacerbated. (I’m assuming we don’t have to ponder metaphysics in which the perpetuation of human suffering is actually desirable.) And if the factors mentioned above are acceptable as an objective standard, it’s also worth noting that people who are free to move tend to relocate their families to societies like our own. I’m not aware of any mass rush to relocate to North Korea, for instance.

“I don’t take issue with your agnostic outlook, but the same epistemological issues are still there only you aren’t acknowledging them.”

Which epistemological issues? I don’t claim to know the alleged preferences of a hypothetical deity. Compared to those who do, my estimation of why this thing is better than that seems fairly straightforward… and positively modest.

Pete

Hi David

"what “objective moral order” do you have in mind, if not something involving a deity"

You tell me! You're the one who wants me to accept your moral precepts *as if* they have an objective basis, but without the confidence to claim as much. It seems that you think doing so leads inevitably to the acceptance of 'a hypothetical deity', or God, as we like to call Him. Perhaps it does, but I'm not convinced all ethicists with a belief in objective truth are theists. I suspect a peek at the philosophy books would bear this out. Perhaps some of your well-read and highly intelligent readership could confirm or deny this.

David

Pete,

“You tell me! You’re the one who wants me to accept your moral precepts *as if* they have an objective basis, but without the confidence to claim as much.”

I think we’re talking at cross purposes. You asked how one might argue a preference for one moral system over another without reference to some “objective moral order” - a term that still remains somewhat loaded and ambiguous. I’ve given some criteria one might use, at least as a starting point. Either you accept the criteria as objective, measurable and legitimate or you don’t, but it isn’t simply a matter of arbitrarily asserting personal preferences.

Whether the criteria I listed are objective in some cosmic sense – i.e. “rooted in something sublime and ineffable” - which is what I took you to imply - is another matter. As I said earlier, perhaps they are. It’s certainly true that moral systems tend to include unanalysed inclinations or preferences that aren’t adequately rendered in rational and quantifiable terms. That’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it? If you pursue pretty much any line of thought, sooner or later you arrive at uncertainty. (You could, I suppose, make some larger point about uncertainty, but I don’t see how that would bolster religious belief. Though I can see how it might lead to agnosticism or a profound scepticism.)

“It seems that you think doing so leads inevitably to the acceptance of ‘a hypothetical deity’, or God, as we like to call Him.”

Well, I don’t know that it leads inevitably to such things, though it often does. I’m just not sure how one might evaluate moral issues in terms of the “sublime and ineffable.” If you do that, you’re welcome to explain how.

Pete

The term 'objective moral order' is certainly loaded, that's why I chose it. The term asserts the existence of truth, and that truth has a bearing on the field of morality (i.e. we can say objective/true things about human nature).

I don't think we're talking at cross purposes, I don't think I have made my point clearly enough: I acknowledge happiness vs misery might plausibly be measured by objective means. That is not the issue.

The issue is that you assert that reciprocity, or 'do unto others', is the better way to behave. One's own short-term and long-term interests can often be furthered by ignoring this awkward commandment, so a rational assessment of pros and cons alone does not account for why we try to treat eachother well. (If it did, we would not admire sacrafice for the sake of doing the right thing nearly so much as we do). Equally, empiricism cannot support this commandment over the commandment to kill the infidel or stone adulteresses. Behind ANY discussion of morality is the assertion that it is good to be good. I call this ineffable because it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to put into words why we ought to be good. It is something we feel or intuit rather than rationally account for. The leap involved in affirming goodness is irrational (i mean beyond reason rather than against it). You seem to be unaware that you are making such a leap!

David

Pete,

“Behind ANY discussion of morality is the assertion that it is good to be good. I call this ineffable because it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to put into words why we ought to be good. It is something we feel or intuit rather than rationally account for.”

Ah, that is clearer and I don’t think we disagree on the existence of non-reasoned aspects of morality. (The provenance of such things is perhaps another matter.) Certainly, there can be a drama and poignancy to morality that isn’t readily explicable in rational terms. Though, in fairness, I don’t recall suggesting otherwise.

I suspect that insofar as people try to fathom their moral assumptions at all, they often rationalise those assumptions after-the-fact, or opportunistically, or in ways that aren’t entirely consistent. I’ve suggested some rational criteria one *might* use and some practical advantages of behaving in a certain way, but that doesn’t mean I assume people think like that as a matter of course. As I said, “It’s certainly true that moral systems tend to include unanalysed inclinations or preferences that aren’t adequately rendered in rational and quantifiable terms.”

That said, it seems to me that a preference for reciprocity, autonomy, curiosity, intellectual richness, trust, etc isn’t without some fairly obvious practical advantages, both for oneself and the wider society. (For instance, courtesy is both a social lubricant and a useful personal discipline – one that encourages clarity in emotionally stressful situations. In that sense, one might even think of courtesy as a basically selfish activity that happens to have social benefits.) And cultures that favour such things, or make them possible, tend to flourish more than those that don’t. Whether or not these advantages are explicitly understood or used as moral arguments, they may be grasped instinctively and acted upon (at least some of the time).

Pete

Hi David

We've possibly done this topic to death, but I'm glad I made my point clear!

On the point of reciprocity and altruism being basically selfish, this doesn't explain the acts of such figures as Maximillian Kolbe, who put himself forward for execution in order for a fellow death camp inmate to be spared. That kind of moral steadfastness is much more profound than a purely practical self-interest!

David

Pete,

“On the point of reciprocity and altruism being basically selfish, this doesn’t explain the acts of such figures as Maximillian Kolbe, who put himself forward for execution in order for a fellow death camp inmate to be spared. That kind of moral steadfastness is much more profound than a purely practical self-interest!”

I wasn’t suggesting pragmatism or self-interest as a sole or comprehensive explanation. I wasn’t arguing that all moral behaviour can be configured in self-serving or practical terms. I’m not making that kind of claim. There will always be self-sacrificial examples that are striking and/or symbolic. But one can, I think, argue that a great deal of moral behaviour – certainly a lot of the more prosaic aspects, civility, trust, reciprocation, etc – persist because, more often than not, they work. They often bring advantages, at least in the broader term. (One might suppose that early in human history tribes that cooperated internally had tactical advantages over tribes that didn’t organise in this way.) Again, I’m not trying to offer a comprehensive explanation; I’m just noting the existence of some practical benefits.

“We’ve possibly done this topic to death…”

Yes, possibly, at least for now. It was fun, though.

www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=627669736

David:

Check out my book on "The Scientific Worldview. (www.scientificworldview.com)" It seems that we are on the same page.
Glenn

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