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Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape': Specific Reflections.

October 4, 2013 3 comments

What about reflections more specific to Harris’ theory, that is the so-called “is/ought” problem:

The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how we ought to behave (morality). (p. 10)

Harris states the problem as an issue between ‘facts’ and ‘values’, that philosophers and scientists such as Hume, G.E Moore, Jerry Fodor and Karl Popper have “fallen into the trap” (p. 10) of creating a firewall between facts and values, by thinking there is a problem here.  Scientists often study the “is” Harris states, that is they study “human happiness, positive emotions, and moral reasoning, they rarely draw conclusions about how human beings ought to think or behave in light of their findings. (p. 10) Moreover Harris states that it is generally considered “intellectually disreputable, even vaguely authoritarian” (pp. 10-11) for scientists to suggest that their work has implications for the moral life of others. Harris considers this kind of thinking to be a “faith in the intrinsic limits of reason” (p. 11) Harris believes that the divide between facts and values is illusory in at least three senses:

  1. whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures – which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value – must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large;

  2. the very idea  of “objective” knowledge (i.e. knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon the principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony etc.);

  3. beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears that we have a common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains. (Harris, 2010, p. 11)

To Harris, defining goodness in terms of well-being reduces the gulf between facts and values, in that well-being will be tied to the experience of conscious creatures,  and thus part of natural laws and discoverable by science. (p. 13)

What can we say here? Nielsen 2001 might be able to help us again,  in his discussion on the meaning of life in his book ‘Naturalism & Religion’, Nielsen states:

… we want an answer that is more than just an explanation or description of how people behave or how events are arranged or how the world is constituted. We are asking for is a justification of our existence. We are asking for why life is as it is, and not even the most complete explanation and/or description of how things are ordered can answer these quite different question.  The person who demands that some general description of man and his place in nature should entail a statement that man ought to live and die in a certain way is asking for something that can no more be the case than it can be the case that ice can gossip. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 109)

Nielsen continues, pace Harris, that no statement of fact about how we in fact do live can, by itself, be sufficient to answer the question of meaning and in Harris’ case, morality.  “No statement of what ought to be the case can be deduced from a statement of what is the case.” (p. 109) It is important to note that when we say cannot get an “is” deduced from a ought”, we are saying that we logically cannot.  In defending his moral view, that of “wide reflective equilibrium” (which will be discussed in an upcoming post on his book) Nielsen does agree with Harris insofar as there is “no moral difference without a factual difference”, when we critique Harris, it is not so much that his moral theory relies on facts, as much as it reduces all morality to facts, and facts only. There seems to be no reason why we need to restrict ourselves to a seemingly fallacious mode of thought, that, even if not fallacious, ignores “the plausible fit between our various moral judgements and actual beliefs, including for us our reflective beliefs about the (for us now) best established “substantiative and methodological elements of empirical science.” (Nielsen, quoting Railton, 2001, p. 220)  We can, and according to Craig and Moreland 2006 should use philosophy as a second-order discipline, that is a discipline that discusses primary schools of thought (such as, say, the facts of science, and other schools), to draw out the logical and otherwise philosophical implications of the facts we find in our world. Simply reducing values to facts in such a scientistic way by Harris, seems to miss a whole gamut of reflective experience that could influence the so-called moral landscape.

References

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL,  Intervarsity Press.

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape': Abstract Reflections.

September 26, 2013 Leave a comment

In this series now we have looked at Sam Harris’ moral landscape very briefly (see here), and looked at some other terms, clarifications and confusions (on our part and others, see here). Today, I plan to offer some simple reflections, there has been great critical engagement with his theory by far better thinkers than me in other places (see Shook here, Benson here and Carrier here). Today I’ll start with some more abstract thoughts on Harris’ theory and philosophical assumptions, specializing to some more specific problems with his theory in another post.

Harris only attempts a definition and defence of physicalism at a very shallow level, and without critical engagement:

A dualist who believes in the existence of immaterial souls, might say that the entire field of neuroscience is beholden to the philosophy of physicalism (the view that mental events should be understood as physical events), and he would be right. the assumption that the mind is the product of the brain is integral  to almost everything neuroscientists do. Is physicalism a matter of “philosophy” or “neuroscience”? The answer may depend on where one is standing on the university campus. Even if we grant that only philosophers tend to think about “physicalism” per se, it remains a fact that any argument or experiment that put this philosophical assumption in doubt would be a landmark finding for neuroscience – likely the most important in history.  (Harris, 2010, pp. 179-180)

It is unclear how to specifically engage and indeed understand what Harris’ base assumptions are here, it seems he follows some kind of physicalism, but of which branch or brand?  It is clear it contains reductionism, and as Nielson 2001 states it is hard to imagine how we could have a reductionistic physicalism that relies on the sciences as it’s base without it being just another metaphysical (and dogmatic) system, a material one that replaces a theistic one, what Nielsen calls a “scientific mythology”, that is most importantly, not continuous with science, hence internally inconsistent. (pp. 57, 61) The problem is his reductionism and scientism is linked or perhaps even grounded in his physicalism, with that in mind, what are we supposed to make of his defence of reductionism and scientism?

There is no denying, however, that the effort to reduce all human values to biology can produce howlers. (Harris, 2010, p. 48)

Not much there.

From here Harris addresses why a scientific morality need not be a simple evolutionary account, that it would include “the totality of scientific facts that govern the range of conscious experiences that are possible for us.” (Harris, 2010, p. 49) And, he does address his scientism too:

Charges of “scientism” cannot be long in coming. No doubt, there are still some people who will reject any description of human nature that was not first communicated in iambic pentameter. (Harris, 2010, p. 46)

But does one really need to be with him, or someone who gets their morality from scripture? Given that there are a plethora of secular moral theories which do not rely purely on the sciences for their dictums, it would seem not (Mackie, 1977, Martin 2002 for examples). And that goes to the problem with Harris’ assumptions, if not his theory, he assumes there is no atheistic, even naturalistic position that would disagree with him. Not only has he avoided giving his theistic, idealistic opponents a fair treatment, but he has not given his naturalistic ones one either.

None of this engages with what are serious concerns about the grounding of his theory in coherency. One might argue his is a pragmatic case to make, that the functionality of neuroscience to explain brain mechanisms and resulting behaviour is supported by both practice, theory and indeed praxis. But, and although it would seem the stronger case to make, with a great philosophical and naturalistic tradition (in Quine, Dewey, Hook, Pierce etc), Harris ignores a pragmatic approach to his naturalistic moral theory, instead seeking at a shallow level to defend the strongest and some might argue, incoherent form of physicalism, that is linked to scientism and reductionism. What about intersubjectivity, and the social aspect of humans? Nielsen argues that we are not just biological machinelike beings, explainable only by the hard or natural sciences, rather a holistic explanation of morality needs to include a macroscopic view that includes descriptions of us as “irreducibly social beings and the human animal as a self-reflecting animal.” (p. 57) We want to include in our worldview explanations that cater to all of reality; are anthropologists studying reality? Are cultural theorists? Are political scientists? Are economists? These are not hard sciences, if they are sciences at all, but it is hard to believe these people aren’t studying reality, and that their investigations have nothing to say about morality. Harris, by definitional fiat, is ruling out that these people will have anything to say; this is dogmatic physicalism of the kind even atheists can, and indeed should reject, at least insofar as Nielsen (an atheist philosopher) would argue.

Obviously these thoughts are not conclusive, and to many, not even on point. Of course they aren’t meant to be decisive, and I am a fallibalist after all, I of course could be way off.

References

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Mackie, J., L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right And Wrong. Strand, London. Penguin Books.

Martin, M. (2002). Atheism, Morality And Meaning.  Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape': Subjectivity V Objectivity.

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment

After looking at some basic terms, very briefly (see here), I want to turn now to something which may seem peripheral, and maybe it is, but is of interest to me nonetheless. What am I speaking about? Relativistic v objectivist morality, and some misunderstandings about it, and where Harris might land on either issue.

Moral Relativism

As stated in the last post, Harris’ thesis is about setting up a moral system that is objective, and based on truth – that is – not relativistic, subjective, and thus not simply relying on the whims, or preference of any given person or culture on any given day.

Moral relativism, however tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework – but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice relativism most always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward as simply one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. (Harris, 2010, p. 45)

Harris goes further than this, he states that the motivations for relativism lie in the intellectual reparations for Western colonialism ethnocentrism and racism (p. 45), this being the only “charitable” thing he can say about it.

Later on in his book, the last page in fact, Harris in recognizing some of what anthropologists and cultural theorists might say about the state of relativism, states that it is not subjectivity that is the problem for a moral theory, at least as far as the scientists who study the brain are concerned. No, it is the belief (among those scientists) that there is no intellectual justification for “speaking about right and wrong or good and evil, across cultures.” (p. 190)

Much of this of course might be considered a caricature of what relativists, of any breed- be they anthropologist, atheistic philosopher, Post Modernist (theistic? After all a divine intelligence is a mind is it not? Would a moral law given from such an intelligence be considered simply divine relativism?) or otherwise – might say. He does not engage much with relativistic challenges to his theory, instead choosing to make common sense points, rather than referencing. This is a book written at the popular level however, you may choose to give it wriggle room for that, or not.

The challenge of subjectivity, and what it means to knowledge of all types is a serious one, that many philosophers have struggled with (see here, here, here, here, here). Heidegger, Patocka, Husserl, Foucault and Post Modern thinkers working in that tradition such as Heise are all concerned with how the phenomological, subjective experience is taken into account with theories of objectivity, as Patocka states, theories that situate us in the third person, or as Foucault might say, theories that ignore power relations. It would have been nice to see stronger engagement with this philosophical challenge.

Objective/ Subjective

To further draw out what Harris might mean though let’s turn to what he means when he uses the terms ‘objective’ and subjective’, and indeed ‘absolute’. Harris thinks that many people are confused about what scientific objectivity might mean:

As philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective”. The first sense relates to how we know (i.e., epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e., ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively”, we generally mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counterarguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, and so on. This to make a claim about how we are thinking. In this sense, there is no impediment to our studying the subjective (I.e. first-person) facts “objectively. (Harris, 2010, p. 29)

From this Harris uses the analogy of his tinnitus to show that although this is a subjective experience, he is being “objective” in the sense that is he is not lying about his tinnitus, this is not preference or bias. He states his experience can be confirmed by an otologist, which suggests his tinnitus has a third-person (objective) cause that can be discovered. Moreover Harris states that much of the sciences of the mind are predicated on being able to “correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.” (p. 30)  From here Harris states that many people think that just because moral facts relate to experience and are thus “ontologically subjective” all talk of morality must be subjective in the epistemological sense, that is biased, or merely personal. Harris doesn’t think this is so. He doesn’t deny that there is a subjective realm of experience in regards to his talk of objective moral truths, or objective causes of human well-being. He is not saying moral truth exists independently of the experience of conscious creature either, or that some actions are intrinsically wrong. What he means to say is:

I am simply saying that, given that there are facts – real facts – to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. (Harris, 2010, p. 30)

Finally, Harris makes the distinction, that is not always obviously delivered in say, debates on morality between atheists and theists, that there is a distinction in moral talk between ‘objective’, that is in either the epistemological or ontological senses discussed above and ‘absolute’, in which a moral truth is so and has no exceptions (see Moreland & Craig, 2003 for an equivocation between absolute and objective). We can speak of morals Harris thinks in objective terms, without speaking about them in absolute ones.

Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions. If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie – and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned. But the existence of moral truth – that is, the connection between how we think and behave and our well-being – does not require that we define morality in terms of unvarying moral precepts. (Harris, 2010, p. 8)

Reference

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL,  Intervarsity Press.

Notes On Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape': Primer.

September 6, 2013 2 comments

I’ve read this book a long time ago, since then my perspective has changed, and after some interactions with friends on Facebook in which it was brought up again, I decided to give it another read. I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about it, if I had any major criticisms, but I know I do want to catalogue some notes, some account of what it is Harris is saying in his book, for my notes, and to refer to later on.

It might be best to start with Harris’ main thesis, which he states:

I will argue, however, that questions about values – about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose – are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture – just as facts about physical and mental health do. (Harris, 2010, pp. 1-2

To Harris human well-being depends on “events in the world and on states of the human brain.” (p. 2), and although he doesn’t anticipate a complete understanding of all the complexities and nuances of moral problems, he does propose that his theory will force people to deal with moral reasoning constrained to the (scientific) facts. Morality and values will become a discussion about facts of the brain, about how thoughts and intentions arise, and what those mental states will mean in terms of behavior; terms like “good” and “evil” will be exhausted by the science governing the analysis of these states.  As the man himself states: “I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” (p.4)  Harris makes his motivations clear, in that at least in part he is looking to solve the problem of relativism, that is specifically moral relativism from the secular left and the “scriptural literalism” of the conservative right, he wants an objective morality that is not based on supernaturalism.

The Moral Landscape

Throughout the book Harris discusses several terms, which we might now like to turn to and define, for the sake of clarity, firstly, the Moral Landscape:

Throughout this book I shall make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape” – a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving – different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government etc. – will translate into movements across this landscape, and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. (Harris, 2010, p. 7)

Harris anticipates that some may find this term vague, but he argues there are analogies we can use, that of food, in that there is no one food that is right to eat, yet there is an objective difference between food and poison.

Peaks and Valleys

Although we covered this briefly above, let’s draw out some more detail on these terms:

Even if there is a thousand ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive – and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of well-being and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood.  (Harris, 2010, p. 41

Harris’ theory is aiming, in consequentialist fashion (a topic for another blog) to map out a formula to provide a way to find the most amount of happiness for the most number of people, and although he admits there will be “practical impediments” to finding that route there will be moral equivalencies on such, and in turn many peaks on his moral landscape. That is a point that needs special attention, Harris seemingly respects that different cultures and people might have different ways to reach a moral peak, to feel fulfilled in life, but the unifying factor is the moral theory he is proposing; you feeling you have different values, may also be a way to a peak on the moral landscape (it would of course need to be evaluated). The grounding of a science of morality in conscious states, with “the worst possible misery for everyone at its depths and differing degrees of well-being at all other points – seems like the only legitimate context in which to conceive of values and moral norms.” (p. 41)

Well-being

Another term we might like to look at is that of “well-being” a term that Harris admits is difficult to define, but through analogy Harris explores how we might use it: that is, in reference to physical health. To Harris physical health is a term that is indispensable, yet is constantly open to revision (think of what might have been considered healthy in the dark ages, compared to now) similarly so too is well-being. Although there might be ‘valleys’ and ‘peaks’ on the moral landscape, we must define that which is good as integral to well-being. It might be reasonable to ask from here why this is so, and what specifically composes this ‘good’ Harris speaks of. Harris thinks, that when we ask, for example if pleasure is good (or should be maximized), we are really asking if it is conducive to some deeper form of well-being, and although some may question whether it makes sense to maximize pleasure in any given sense, it makes no sense to ask if maximizing well-being is thus. This admits that there are answers to the question of well-being, even if we aren’t sure what they are, but most importantly, it ties “notions of goodness to the experience of sentient beings.” (p. 12)

Harris anticipates and respects the objection that some may not accept that values or morality have anything to do with well-being, or rather that some may possess some skewed form of well-being that is hostile to the well-being of others, he states this objection is at the heart of many peoples doubts about moral truth. To this objection Harris states that consensus, that is in moral or scientific discourse does not hold that every opinion is valid, that for some reason people who do not accept our moral goals make the act of looking for such incapable. To further draw this point out Harris looks at Biblical Creationists in science, now, they may claim to be using science, but as Harris states “real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term.” (p. 34) Similarly those concerned with moral discourse whose moral principles cause tremendous suffering, nothing predisposes us to simply saying these people have distorted values. Going further Harris asks if people would attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death?” (p. 36) Harris thinks that although someone is allowed to raise such an objection as this, it doesn’t mean we need to take it seriously. Harris admits we all possess intuitive moral reasoning, but much of this is wrong, and only genuine moral experts will posses a “deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being.” (p. 36)

Reference

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.

Categories: Atheism, Ethics, Philosophy, Science

Articles.

February 11, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s been a while between articles posts, let’s get straight into it:

Philosophy Bites – Links to the First 176 Episodes -Edmonds and Warburton.

LCA 2013: distributed democracy, speaking stacks, links -Sky Croeser.

Anti-Muslim hysteria in Australia -Russell Glasser.

We get email: Believers and their security blankets -Martin Wagner.

The Argument from “It Just Makes Sense to Me”

Atheist Arrested for Blasphemy, and How You Can Help

Mail bin: arguing with the FAQ

Good luck in Somalia- Ophelia Benson.

Egyptian atheist facing blasphemy sentence - Jacob Fortin.

Repairs under way -Ophelia Benson.

A fabulous “Manly Meal”-Ophelia Benson.

WL Craig on Morality and Meaning (Series Index) -John Danaher.

My Favourite Posts of 2012 -John Danaher.

Sexual Objectification: An Atheist Perspective -Richard Carrier.

Prototypical Sexist Atheist on Exhibit- Richard Carrier.

Atheism+ : The Name for What’s Happening-Richard Carrier.

Waldron on pornography -Russell Blackford.

Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage- Greta Christina.

My Letter to the Boy Scouts- Greta Christina.

Same-Sex Marriage Opponents Increasingly Desperate and Stupid – Greta Christina.

String of atheism signs vandalized, no real action taken by officials – Jacob Fortin.

Catholic Priest blames women for bringing violence on themselves – Jacob Fortin.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews harass sexually abused girl – Jacob Fortin.

Bill O’Reilly calls David Silverman a Fascist – Jacob Fortin.

Top 10 anti-Christian acts of 2012 -J.T Eberhard.

Most insulting fundraiser ever. – J.T Eberhard.

Don’t Say Gay legislator: being gay is like shooting heroin. -J.T Eberhard.

74 years of female slave labor in the 20th century, courtesy of the Catholic Church. – J.T Eberhard.

How often god’s moral decrees bear no resemblance to justice. -J.T Eberhard.

Gay friends? Me dear? How very dare you! You’re mistaking me for Muhammad - Barry Duke.

Investigation launched over nurse who allegedly told a family to put their trust in Allah – Barry Duke.

Only fools and Christians: ‘Born-again’ Tennessee man quits job over 666 tax code – Barry Duke.

Catholic meddling appears to have delayed Boy Scouts of America’s decision on gay inclusion – Barry Duke.

Danish police on the hunt for a gunman who tried to kill Islam critic Lars Hedegaard - Barry Duke.

Brazilian pastor is behind bars after telling his flock that his penis contained ‘holy milk’ - Barry Duke.

Another devastating week for the RC Church as more of its criminality is exposed - Barry Duke.

Craig’s Argument for God from Intentionality – Philosotroll.

Witch Hunts in Papua New Guinea – Leo Igwe.

Randal Rauser on William Lane Craig’s defense of the Canaanite genocide -Chris Hallquist.

More Powerpoint Slides from a Christian Pastor’s Anti-Gay Sermon – Hermant Mehta.

Woman Brutally Murdered in Papua New Guinea After Being Accused of Sorcery – Hermant Mehta.

Christians in Indiana Unite to Create a Prom That Gay Students Can’t Attend – Hermant Mehta.

Virginia Senate Approves Bill Allowing College Groups to Discriminate Based On Religious Beliefs -Hermant Mehta.

Who Still Thinks the Church Has Any Moral Credibility? -Hermant Mehta.

Christian Pastor: I’d Rather Experience Chinese Water Torture Than Listen to a Woman Argue With Me – Hermant Mehta.

Shells and switches -Deacon Duncan.

God and the PlayStation 3 -Deacon Duncan.

The Gypsy Curse -Deacon Duncan.

Religions will never be satisfied — they will always up the ante until they are in charge -Eric MacDonald.

John Haught On The New Atheists.

January 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Read any apologetics piece and you’re likely to get several claims: atheists adhere to a strict scientism, atheism is nihilistic, atheism leads to relativism, atheists can be moral, but have no basis for that morality (See Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism, Craig, On Guard, Moreland, The God Question etc for examples).

Haught doesn’t let the team down in his critique of the New Athiests (here after “NA”).  It takes Haught all of one page into his book to charge the NA (when he says NA he primarily means Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, he considers his book to be a refutation of all other NA, by extension, p. IX) with scientism (he gives a much more comprehensive definition on p. XIII- XIV):

The belief system that Dennett and the other new atheists subscribe to is known as “scientific naturalism” ["scientism"]. Its central dogma is that only nature, including humans and our creations, is real: that God does not exist; and that science alone can give us complete and reliable knowledge of reality. (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. X, 2008)

Of course, a real scholar would provide lengthy references for us to look up the dogmatic language used by the NA. But, of course, not a single source, or note is provided. Much is the way this entire book goes. Which is ironic given how much Haught goes on about what a high theologian he is, and how far above the NA his writing is. One wonders (for a referenced source of what the NA actually have to say on this issue, please see here).

Haught continues on his scientism strawman argument for about 20 pages until we come to what he perceives are the fundamental issues and consequences of atheism:

Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end; before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage for that? (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. 22, 2008)

But it doesn’t end for Haught there, he continues stating that in the absence of a God you are the creator of the values you live by (relativism), but this is obviously a burden, according to Haught, that one would surely want to escape. That escape is the Nietzschean “Madman’s sensation of straying through”infinite nothingness.” (p. 22) It does, according to Haught, require an “unprecedented courage” to wipe away the transcendent world of a God, in the end Haught asks if we are willing to risk madness, and if not, you are not really an atheist. (p. 22)

As always, this type of rhetoric is clear projection: the world would seem this bleak to Haught, it seems his God is a crutch that gets him through the night. And though I’m reluctant to label him with so shallow a belief, it seems obvious that’s how he feels, when we see a world without God, through his eyes. If he was so well read, he would see many positive, atheist books extolling the virtues of a naturalized philosophy (see  Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God, Murray’s The Atheist’s Primer, Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, John Shook’s The God Debates,  not to mention the NA literature itself etc for examples)? Instead Haught wishes to focus on the writings of 3 existentialist, nihilistic philosophers (Sartre, Nietzsche and Camus) as the basis for how atheism should really be?

This is obviously nonsensical – leaving aside that atheism isn’t a movement, a worldview, a belief system, a religion, a dogma etc, no matter how hard Haught works, or wishes it to be so – you can be an atheist and a nihilist, you can be an atheist and a humanist, you can be an atheist and a moral relativist, you can be an atheist and believe in objective morals, or even, absolute morals. There is no contradiction in these, and atheism; these are all intellectual additions to a foundational atheism, worldviews which (can) include atheism.

In Haught’s discussion of morality I feel like he wants to give some kind of divine command theory as his justification for morals, but he never really delves deep enough into the issue to make any grand declarations of such, even though he eludes to it:

[On the NA] But where logical rigor would require that they also acknowledge that there is no timeless heaven to determine (emphasis mine) what is good and what is not… (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. 24-5, 2008)

And again, on the next page he states that if there is no eternal grounding for values, then all we are left with is “arbitrary, conventional, historically limited, human concoctions”.  (p. 26)  Moreover he charges the NA with holding this supposed moral relativism as “absolutely binding” (p. 26). He states the NA demonstrate an absoluteness in their values of intolerance toward faith, and that to make moral proclamations you must assume that there exists a “mode of being, a realm of rightness that does not owe itself completely to human intervention, Darwinian selection, or social construction.” (p. 26) To Haught, if absolute morals exist, God exists, similarly the reverse is also true, if God does not exist, absolute morals do not and “one should not issue moral judgements as if they do.” (p. 26)

This is all very nice rhetoric, but I hope it is obvious to the reader, that Haught has offered no justification to substantiate his series of claims – no references, no formal argument of any kind, logical or evidential. His book reads like a sermon. But do we need to listen to a word of it? He does not cite where the NA make such proclamations (he quotes them without citation), and assuming they made such proclamations, Haught is merely assuming that without God, there can be no talk of morals. Why must this be so? Can reason, and evidence not suggest to us what normative moral choices we must make? And would this not be exactly what we would expect to see in a naturalized philosophy? A discussion of morals that deals with the world, as it is? What better way to make moral exhortations, than by looking at the evidence, and dealing rationally with the consequences, through philosophy, and evidence. How poor and low must we be, to rely on Bronze Age tomes to pronounce how to act, and what to think? Haught’s version of morals amounts to divine command – what God says goes – too bad for homosexuals, women, atheists etc, I guess.

Haught does not agree that reason is enough to get us to a place of moral prescription, as it is based on our reasoning, which is fallible (p. 73):

… as Harris conjectures, we can fall back on reason alone to explain what our obligations are and why we should heed them. Yet, even apart from the historical naiveté of such a proposal, this rationale simply leads us back to a more fundamental question: why should we trust our reasoning abilities either? If the human mind evolved by Darwinian selection in the same way as every other trait we possess, we still have to be able to justify our trust in its cognitional capacity – its ability to put us in touch with truth – in some way other than biology alone. (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. 73-4, 2008)

Haught continues stating that a naturalistic worldview cannot justify the above presupposition.  (p. 74) But this view seems to assume that each individual is disconnected from a recorded history, from other minds, from scientific evidence, from logical argument, from societal changes and pressures. Haught may be right, that if I were a lone person, stranded on an island I might have no way to confirm my moral choices (what moral choices I could make in that situation of course). But has Haught represented, accurately, the situation we find ourselves in? I would think not. We have all of those avenues mentioned above, to self correct the misgivings and short comings we have in our cognitive faculties.

There is also another assumption present in Haught’s view – that we (a) must be, or (b) can be absolutely right about all moral choices all the time. But, again, why think this is so? We are fallible creatures, our historical context, in both religious and secular settings, demonstrates that we have had ebbs and flows of moral development, which seems to suggest we are still heading toward a better moral perspective.

Conclusion

I don’t think Haught has made his case for the same old tired apologetics used against atheism. No source is given to demonstrate the NA’s views on scientism, only Haught’s (constant) assertion that they subscribe to that view. I hope I’ve demonstrated (via the link provided) that not only is this a baseless assertion, it is demonstrably false. If I have succeeded in demonstrating that point, we see much of Haught’s book is a strawman attempt, I leave it for you to decide what you make of such an author who relies on such tactics.

Similarly Haught never shows us why a nihilistic view of atheism would be bad, even we agree it might be, but the fact that he’s citing philosophers who are such, suggests that such a view can be rationally justified. What Haught relies on is an emotional response – we view nihilism as negative, as relative, as amoral, so we would not want to be like that – hence atheism is bad.

Similarly with his charge of relativism and atheism having no basis for morals. It should be obvious to any reader of this blog by now, what atheism is: a lack of belief in a god or gods. Under this definition atheism has no responsibility to find a moral system, that is the job of a naturalized philosophy, or a materialistic philosophy, or a feminist philosophy etc. Adding to that, I think it can be demonstrated, at least as superficially as I have done in this post, that a naturalized philosophy provides a more coherent moral basis, one that is suited to the world, than the one based on the dictator in the sky.

Reference

Haught, J.F., (2008). God and the New Atheism. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox Press. Pp. IX, X,  XIII, XIV, 22, 24-5, 73-4, 75.

Respect.

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

In discussing my atheism with regular people, in particular, regular Christians – regular meaning in this instance either (a) not apologists, or (b) not radical fundamentalists – I’ve found, and this is probably going to sound self-evident, that respect goes a long way to making people who might ordinarily a priori reject you as a person, come to understand, and hopefully accept you as an atheist.

There are Christians in my life, and on the internet, who know how vocal I am about my atheism, who read my blog, and with whom I have interesting, and more importantly, respectful conversations. That is the bond that ties our conversations to a calm and reasoned anchor: respect. Without going into too much detail I have another group of Christians in my personal life who are, well, less than open to accepting me as a fellow human being – I’ve received hate mail, threats, condescension, disapproval and basically all loss of human decency.

Why? Because I don’t believe in their God.

I understand I’m not engaging with what the Bible might say about atheists (Psalms), or what it says about atheists fraternizing with Christians (Paul), which may redefine this issue somewhat. Under Christianity’s morals it may be perfectly humane to attack a person simply for being different. After all, these Christians may view me, an atheist, as worse than a murderer, more foul than, or at least equal to, any evil here on earth.

Replace ‘atheist’ with ‘black’, or ‘woman’ and you see the problem with that mentality.

The point is: however strong these Christians feel about their beliefs, at the end of the day, they are ideological principles, there is however one thing the Christian and I do have in common, that we know, obviously and evidently – we are both of us, humans. We both deserve respect, ethical treatment and the right to live our lives free of molestation.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s perfectly fine for apologists to critique atheism, naturalism, materialism, to poke holes in them, and to find contradictions etc – it’s how we all become better versions of those. I respect what they do, value it. It’s even fine to have heated, public discussions, as long as both parties continue to respect each other as people. But ad hominem, personal attacks, disrespecting or devaluing a person and threats simply because someone holds different views, is not an enlightened way to be, and is not worthy of the brains we posses – Christian, or atheist alike.

Bringing it back to atheists: in day-to-day life, I don’t think religion is something we necessarily want to condescend on – which isn’t to say parody, satire etc don’t have their place, I would say they do. But when you’re dealing with regular people in regular settings, is the best tactic to belittle and condescend? Or are understanding, respect, tolerance, and most importantly a code of basic human decency, recognizing we’re all part of the same world, and deserve the same ethical treatment, the way to go? Do we really want to be like the aforementioned fundies, persecuting and being intolerant of people, who simply by the fact of their beliefs, are different from us?

We may debate the meaning of religious belief, or the harm it can produce etc, but most importantly, we are all humans, tied together in the realm of cause and effect, meaning: what you do to me, affects me, and visa versa. Getting along in this world is primary and paramount. With that in mind, shouldn’t religious disagreements come secondary to measures of decency?

Epistemology -Philosophy and Exercise Pt. 2.

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

For part 1 see here.

Disclaimer- for those small number of actual philosophers who read this, you should know this and it’s sister, are introductory blogs to those who have no experience with logic, critical thinking and fallacies – hence it’s obvious parochial nature.

Now we turn to Venuto’s eight reasons we are susceptible to weight-loss myths.

Reason #1 – Social Proof, Conformity, and appeal to masses.

In this section Venuto discusses a logical fallacy known as the argumentum ad populum otherwise known as the appeal to popularity. Ventuo states that:

Usually you assume a behaviour is appropriate if a lot of other people are doing it. This is known as social proof. Psychologists tell us this phenomenon also applies to beliefs. We believe what we do because it’s what most other people believe. (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 25, 2009)

Now we may remember from our last blog that this relates to epistemology as our beliefs are a subset of what we know – moreover it might be appropriate to label knowledge as ‘justified true belief‘ – as in what has been substantianted. The reason we call this a logical fallacy is that truth does not rely upon the popularity of the proposition, it relies upon it’s substantiation. It is one of the most common fallacies as philosopher Keith Parsons states in his book Rational Episodes:

Humans are social creatures, we are strongly motivated to want to belong and not to be left out ostracized… In short, nobody likes to be the wierdo. There is, then, enormous pressure to act like other people act and think the way other people think. Manipulators well understand this aspect of human nature and use it against us. They gives us arguments that, either subtly or not so subtly, try to get us to accept or reject some belief, opinion, or idea because, well, you don’t want to be a weirdo, do you? (Parsons, Rational Episodes, p. 223, 2010)

Parsons continues suggesting that the popularity of any doctrine is simply irrelevant to the question of whether it is true or not, or even whether there are good reasons to accept it – as stated above.  We accept a doctrine as true because it is reasonable, rational, well-grounded and depends on the arguments and evidence that can be offered to support it. Anyone who tries to convince you of anything via an argument from popularity is not doing so on the basis of rationality, but are merely trying to trick you. (p. 223)

Reason #2 – Appeal to authority and loyalty to gurus

The next logical fallacy we are discussing is another popular one, it is known as the ad verecundium or as Parsons’ calls it “the illicit appeal to authority“. (Parsons, Rational Episodes, p. 223, 2010) Venuto, p. 27, explains that it seems only natural to rely upon the information disseminated by “experts”, whose opinions are based on credentials, reputation and experience. We see this all the time, particularly among personal trainers – they latch on to a philosophy that a strength coach they like promotes and then uncritically push that same philosophy – I know, because I’ve done it too. The problem is, experts don’t count, facts do.

The problem as Parsons, 2010,  p. 224 says with trusting an authority is when the “authority” isn’t one – merely someone pretending to be one – or someone presented to you as one, by someone who wants you to believe in him or her and buy what he or she is endorsing. The example Parsons uses is of Michael Jordan selling you a brand name product or some other celebrity doing the same – what makes Jordan an expert? Of course he isn’t one – hence his word is useless.

Parsons also points out that it is not simply advertising that attempts to sell us of false information:

Much more serious is the fact that there are many organizations that present themselves as bodies of experts who are serving the public interest by offering objective, impartial, scientific information that bears on important issues. (Parsons, Rational Episodes, p. 224, 2010)

The example he uses is of the “National Canter for Global Climate Research” which purports to promote rational science on the state of the global warming research – instead it promotes motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, faulty research etc.  The important point – is how do we know this institute is bunk? We investigate – we research. When looking for experts we want good books written by popular authors – when we listen to an expert like Lawrence M. Krauss in matters of physics, his word isn’t the end of the discussion, we can take his information to other experts in the field of physics to confirm or disconfirm his ideas. As Venuto states:

All information must be analyzed critically and never accepted blindly. If the advice comes from people you respect and admire, then listen, but still verify. (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 26-7, 2009)

Reason #3 – Anecdotal evidence and testimonials

We see this type of tactic used to promote supplements, and amazing fat loss claims all the time, but as Venuto, p.27,  states anecdotes don’t prove anything in the factual sense – which amount to little more than heresay.

Philosopher and ex-physicist Victor J. Stenger – in his book The New Atheism - supports Venuto’s contention when he states that when deciphering testimonial claims we need to base our acceptance of them proportionate to the nature of the claim presented:

If an airline pilot flying over Yellowstone National Park reports seeing a forest fire, we have no reason to doubt her. But if she reports seeing a flying saucer whose pilot waved a green tentacle at her, I would demand more evidence. (Stenger, The New Atheism, p. 60, 2009)

Venuto states that anecdotal evidence can only lend credence to established scientific evidence – but are generally not to be accepted at face value.

Reason #4 – The news said so

This one falls to the same errors as the argument from authority.

Reason #5 – Confusing correlation with causation

We have actually discussed the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc here (see “myth #7″).

Reason #6 – Confirmation bias

This is a common one, it is part of our fundamental reasoning that our unconscious mind deletes and distorts information based on past prejudices and preferences, says Venuto. Another way of looking at confirmation bias is how John Allen Paulos describes it in his book Irreligion:

…  a so-called psychological tendency to seek confirmation rather than disconfirmation of any hypothesis we’ve adopted, however tentatively. People notice more readily and search more diligently for whatever might confirm their beliefs, and they don’t notice as readily and certainly don’t look as hard for what disconfirms them. (Paulos, Irreligion, p. 108, 2008)

Venuto says we do this because it’s comforting, it feels good to be right, and embarrassing to be wrong . The problem being of course, that if we continue to only stay within our comfort zone, accepting truths taught to us, and accepted uncritically it can lead to “close-mindedness, poor decisions, discrimination and justification for odd behaviours.” (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 30, 2009)

Reason #7 – Habitual thinking and appeal to tradition

Humans are by nature, habitual creatures, Venuto states that this power of habit can hold us back from changing things up, as trainers for example. When we find systems that work – for me it’s HIIT and MRT and for others it’s distance cardio and high carb diets – we tend to stay with them. The problem with this, a particularly in the world of training is what’s known as “the law of diminishing returns” – the longer we stick to a single protocol – the less reward we receive from doing it.

The lesson is: if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. If you want different results, do something different. Or as the humorous Demotivators calendar says: “Tradition… Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.” (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 32, 2009)

Reason #8 – Wishful thinking

This one is important – Venuto states that:

It is tempting to form our beliefs according to what we wish were true rather than on evidence or logic. It’s more reassuring to believe that excess fat is not your fault and that a slow metabolism is to blame. (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 32, 2009)

Rather than basing what we believe to be true on what feels good, we should base it on evidence, as Venuto states above. This comes back to what Martin was explaining in the previous blog – about believing for epistemic – or justified reasons, versus believing for beneficial reasons. I’ll add only to simply state – when investigating any claim what makes us feel good or what we wish to true has little bearing on reality – and if we are to operate in this world with both eyes open, we should base our perceptions on the evidence, not on how we would like the world to be.

Conclusion

This ends my very basic look at some epistemological pitfalls we all fall into, myself included – being aware of these traps, simply helps you to be aware of your environment – of the tricks brought to bear against you – but it doesn’t immunize you. That you must do on your own – investigate every claim you can, don’t accept anything based on dogma, tradition, authority (including my own – challenge me, it’s healthy to do so), search out the truth of claims yourself – this of course doesn’t mean push yourself to some relativistic wasteland where you are the only one with any kind of truth – but, rather, make sure you don’t accept uncritically, and form for bad reasons the things you think are reliable.

References

Parson K. (2010). Rational Episodes. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. Pp. 223, 224.

Paulos J. A. (2008). Irreligion. New York, New York. Douglas & McIntyre Inc. P. 108.

Stenger V. J. (2009). The New Atheism. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 60.

Venuto T. (2009). The Bodyfat Solution. London, England. ThePenguin Group. Pp. 25, 26, 27, 30, 32.

The unbearable wrongness of Stephens -c’mon ABC.

October 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Hot off his recent debate with Russell Blackford and others, Stephens isn’t smarting at all from his loss but has come out swinging over at the ABC website’s religion an ethics blog (in which he runs), in a piece entitled “The unbearable lightness of atheism“.

And a swing is exactly what it looks like.

Posting, as he notes, his thrust from the IQ2 debate, one is left to wonder just why he would post his losing argument to begin with, and why I am wasting the virtual ink to respond to it, when Blackford and co. did a far better job than I could.

I enjoy blogging, simple as that.

It is always amusing to note the language used by theists when discussing “The Gnu Atheism”, you’ll notice it generally takes the tone they claim said atheists do, ironic it is, and more than a little sad.

Stephens immediately goes for what I imagine most theists consider to be atheism’s job and weak point: morality. Of course anyone who’d spent 5 seconds researching atheism would realise atheism doesn’t have to explain anything, but hey, let us not let the facts get in the way of a good yarn.

It’s the same old yarn really, society in decline, morals run rampant, relativism, post-modernism. The problem is, as with most of the ABC’s opinion pieces, is there is very little room to elaborate and explain ideas, what we end up with is a mixed bag of assertions, which then yield to greater assertions:

It seems that we have reached a point in our national life where we are utterly incapable of reaching any kind of minimal moral consensus on fundamental questions.

What are the threats that we face in common? Where are those sources of corruption, perversion, addiction and even servitude that we ought to protect ourselves and others from? What virtues ought we to have and instil in others in order to make a robust civil society? What are our obligations to others – those living (including those who come to us from without our borders), dying and not yet born? What constitutes a good life? What ends do politics and the economy serve?

Such questions were once the subject of ferocious political and public debate; and, for better or worse, the Left and the Right believed there were answers, and that they had them. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

Hmm, that’s bleak, but I wonder, as Stephens does, who is to blame? Atheism?

There are few things today more fashionable, more suited to our modern conceit, than atheism. In fact, far from being radical or heroically contrarian, the current version of atheism strikes me as the ultimate conformism.

This is especially apparent in the case of the slipshod, grotesquely sensationalist “New Atheism” – invariably renounced by principled, literate atheists like James Wood, Thomas Nagel, John Gray, Philip Pullman and the late Bernard Williams – which poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not claiming that atheism is necessarily the cause of our modern predicament, much less that it is the root of all evil. To make such a claim would be to accord this variety of atheistic chic with too much importance, too much weight. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

I have to wonder, if the worst thing Stephens can say is that atheism is no longer “heroically contrarian” then we could, as atheists, say that “The Gnu Atheists” and the secular foundations (secular student alliance, ACLU, Freedom from religion foundation etc) have done their job, insofar as they have given atheists a voice and protected the rights of unbelievers – we no longer need to be heroic or contrarian. To which I say, thankyou!

I find it nevernedingly ironic that he claims “The Gnu Atheism”: ” poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.” when one could make the argument, and I am – that is the very thing Stephens is doing in his article.

It’s relieving that Stephens wishes to elaborate that atheism isn’t the cause of the worlds problems, but it does beg the question – why would he spend his first 12 paragraphs talking about a decline in society, then without preamble jump to atheism, simply to say that it’s not the cause of the moral decline? What, he just wants to rant about it anyway? If there is no hidden agenda here, then Stephens is simply really bad at coordinating a narrative.

But don’t think I’m strawmanning Stephens, he continues:

In a way, I think where atheism fits in our cultural moment it is more incidental than that. Our real problem today is the impoverishment of the modern mind, our inability to think properly about such elevated things as the Good, Beauty, Truth, Law, Love, Life, Death, Humanity, the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself, without such ideas being debased by an incurious and all-pervasive nihilism. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

So it is, it’s not atheism that’s the problem, but nihilism (then we still ask – why is he discussing atheism at all?). Of course anyone who has read any apologetics would know this is what many apologists charge atheism with, claiming something to the effect of: this is where atheism leads us.  Even if this isn’t Stephens’ point, one has to wonder about his perception of the world. Are things so bleak to Stephens? Or are these simply the problems that accompany a theistic worldview, phrases like “the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself” seem to be problems for the religiously minded individual, would these problems plague a persons worldview who bases such on the evidence?

Perhaps – we could always make the world better, but to assert that the modern mind is unable to properly think on these subjects seems asinine –  and not to mention self refuting since if this was true Stephen’s own dialogue here would be unacceptable – particularly when it’s done with the backdrop of atheism flowing in the background. If one is to tie together the narrative Stephens seems to have so much trouble doing – one may assume, after all, it is the atheists fault – for the supposed inability of the modern mind to think properly on ideals which are largely well solved in the secular life? This is circular.

Stephens continues:

And here we confront a desperate contradiction at the heart of so much atheistic hyperbole (accurately identified by Bernard Williams and others). The New Atheists rely heavily on the thesis that religion is the enemy of progress and human flourishing, and that once the last vestiges of religion are done away with, humanity will be far better off. But they also claim that all religion is “man-made,” and self-evidently so. This begs the question: if religion is indeed this all-pervasive source of corruption and prejudice and moral retardation, where do they believe that religion itself comes from, if not the human imagination? (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

Stephens is, of course, building to his point, which will come to in a moment – for now we see a category error – to say that “The Gnu Atheists” are calling religion the problem and that religion comes from man, and therefore what does this mean – misses a few steps in reasoning. Let us leave aside the fact that no quotations are given, and focus on the argument – Stephens seems to assume that “The Gnu Atheists” think it is “man” who is the problem, but rather it is religion as an epistemological tool man uses that is the problem. “Man” (sorry for the masculine pronoun ladies) may have his faults, but that means religion is all the more dangerous – what “The Gnu Atheists” are saying, if we are to accept, rather generously, Stephens quoting of them – is that we need a more robust epistemological tool – one that draws conclusions from the evidence, not the other way around, one that allows investigation into it’s ideals (re: no dogma), one that takes the world as it is presented to us – things of this nature. Religion comes from the failure of “man” to understand and explain the intricacies of his world, from tradition and habit. But as we see, this is in decline.

Now we come to his point:

And so, it would seem that we are left with an unavoidable choice: either these atheists are really misotheists, God-haters, who rage against the very idea of God, the Good, Truth and Law, and so desperately try to will God out of existence; or their oft-professed faith in the inherent human capacity for progress is without justification; or the history of religion reflects the extraordinary human capacity to pursue the Good, as well as its equally pronounced tendency for Evil, idolatry and nihilism. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

The atheists, or rather “The Gnu Atheists” it seems after all – are a not the cause, but rather a symptom of our faulty society, their rejection of what Stephens calls “the Good, Truth and Law”, and their “desperate” push to “will” God out is but part of our world of sin (you just know he wants to say it)?  It is painfully sad to watch Stephens flounder around attempting listlessly to assign some kind of blame to a world he sees is out of control – of course it has to be those damn dirty atheists – after all, no all-powerful, all-knowing being could possibly be responsible for any of the supposed lack of “Good”, “Truth” and “Law” in the world – no, no , that would be ridiculous.

As far as “The Gnu Atheist’s” supposed faith in the inherent human capacity for progress which is apparently without justification (which again, asserted without evidence), we can simply say that all us over here in the sunny atheist camp are loving life, we’re living in a society with the least amount of violence and crime, some might say we are living in the best this world has ever been. Homosexuals, women and minorities are slowly coming to get their rights – despite what Stephens’ religion might have to say about it, sure the world has plenty to work on, no-one’s claiming perfection,  and we’re by no means done. Stephens continues:

It is apparent, is it not, that the current batch of chic atheists are but a symptom of a more general cultural decline, the steady impoverishment of what Hilaire Belloc perfectly described as “the Modern Mind,” which ceaselessly explains away its own moral deficiencies by projecting them onto God and banishing him into the wilderness.

It is just as apparent why such an atheism – with its cartoon versions of history, its theological illiteracy, it fetishisation of science, its hostility to the humanities and aesthetics, its flattened-out brand of morality as mere “well-being,” its cheap gags and mode of incessant piss-taking cynicism – should appeal so powerfully to a culture that has grown accustomed to the vulgarities and trivia enshrined in the modern media. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

It is here, that all I have been saying comes to fruition, I mean, come on ladies and gentlemen I implore  you – do atheists really have to take this baseless, crap, asserted without evidence? I don’t even have the energy to address this ad hominem nonsense except to quote Stephens from earlier, when discussing the “The Gnu Atheism”:

“which poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.” (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

It’s ironic to see how high and mighty the pious are when judging those damn dirty atheists and how much people like Stephens fail to see their own hypocrisy. The above could easily be said of the meandering drivel Stephens has posted here, so in the end, he seems to be no better than the atheists he means to place the entire burden of modern civilization on.

Reference

Stephens S. (2011). The unbearable lightness of atheism. Retrieved October 5th, 2011, from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/09/13/3316962.htm

Some thoughts on (my) swearing…

August 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Recently I had an awkward slip of the tongue at work that has prompted me to post some of my thoughts regarding swearing and the connotations thereof.

Allow me to relay the initial exchange:

I was at work and another PT was training his (homosexual) client behind me. As I walked past, the PT mentioned to me, in a manner that included me in the conversation, that his client wanted to move to Melbourne, knowing my dislike for some of the pretentious troglodytes I witnessed in Melbourne (a complete generalisation of course, full of the short comings of such dispersion), I, in an off the cuff manner, said Melbourne was full of “cocksmokers“.

Now, the issue, for me at least, is: what is the problem here? To my mind I’d used the word “cock” when it is generally considered in polite discussion, not to do so. I don’t particularly agree with this (though I’m open to having my mind changed), as I don’t think words have any more power than we give them, that we can choose to be offended, or not. I do, however, observe traditions that make social interaction amenable, and concede I may be in the minority on this position, and generally do not intentionally go around offending people.

What hadn’t occurred to me of course (and was mentioned to me later by the PT), and maybe this is clear to you the reader; is that a homosexual might be offended by the term “cocksmoker“, and not the masculine noun or offensive language, which is what I had assumed would be the case (as I was unaware that people associate the term with homosexuals).

This prompted me to ask the question: “is the term cocksmoker offensive to gay men (people)?” I reasoned it wasn’t, that if we wanted to pragmatically look at it, that term would apply largely and more appropriately to women (which doesn’t make it better per se, but it removes the automatic assumption that it’s a strict homosexual slur). I (am now)  aware, the term can have sexual orientation preference, as well as being a term of derision and a term used to describe the application of fellatio (here we see many definitions with less than half being of homosexual reference).

This PT’s reasoning is also based on the fairly large assumption that I, used this word in its homophobic sense, which I don’t think can be simply given. Did I mean to say that the people who live in Melbourne literally engage in homosexual fellatio regardless of sex, age, ethnicity and preference? Of course not, I meant it as a term of derision at Melbourne, using harsh (and admittedly inappropriate) text to convey the strength of my feelings for the place.

Of course to that someone might ask “what is wrong with fellatio and the people who give it?” Even though I don’t mean it literally (and based on the above definitions, I was using it in the 3(2) sense), the term does or did have a literal meaning and that is what I’m (at least passively) referring to when I use it,  I then,  perpetuate a meme that has a basis in gender, or sexual specific ridicule.

It seems there are 2 issues here:

(a) Do we use the strict definition of language all the time (does it matter in this instance? Is the very ambiguity of the word reason enough not to use it?)?

There has been some debate here lately about the use of feminine nouns and I’m torn on this issue, I personally like to swear, I like to accentuate my language, I understand it’s a sign of being uneducated, that it offends, but sometimes that’s the point (someone once said “you don’t have the right not to be offended“).  But it largely depends on context and intentionality.

(b) Does intentionality matter?

If I intend to use a disparaging remark that has many meanings (as many do in our language) is it implicitly offensive (think not just of swear words here)? Or does my intention, whether it be homophobic, sexist, racist or merely expressive even matter? Where is the line in free speech, are we merely making social commentary here (and Benson above)? Or do we police people’s language?

In my mind, I wasn’t using language to define a person, I think there’s a difference there.  Above Benson differentiates between racial terms like “nigger” and sexist terms like “bitch“, but are those terms strictly off-limits in all cases? And if they aren’t, what does that mean for their usage?  How about when using them ironically? When certain cultural classes use them (think African-Americans and homosexuals using the afore terms, if some use them, why can’t others? Is there an arbitrary distinction here)? Again does it depend on context? If it doesn’t, are we living in a world gone PC mad?

I am aware that to use words, with masculine description (or feminine) or derogatory slurs (which could have and were interpreted as bigoted) have meanings that different people automatically assume as offensive. Despite my rules on language I understand the need to respect that not everyone has these views (and that my views aren’t well-formed). That using a term like “cocksmoker“, seems to have an intrinsic application to the denigration of women, homosexuals as well as being offensive to the ear, it matters little what I meant when I said it.

The end result is, when are rude words allowed, when are they offensive? Are they offensive at all times across all boundaries? Perhaps the delineation could be in regards to insult? But that leaves aside issues of people simply being offended by racist, sexist or bigoted terms. We also have to ask, do you have a right not to be offended? These are issues of free speech, and they can possibly be regulated by the law, but that feels relativistic to me, what is wrong should be wrong, regardless whether it is lawful or not (otherwise how would any laws change?).

I leave it for you to decide.

Categories: Ethics
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