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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Danger: Teleologist at work! Robert Wright's The Evolution of God

The Evolution of God is a fascinating account of the development of god-concepts over time, from pre-agricultural societies to the spread of Christianity and the rise of Islam. Before I go any further - into some serious criticisms - I should say that I enjoyed the book very much. It is written in vivid, page-turning prose that is cunningly woven into a fascinating narrative; I had no trouble reading 300 of its large-format pages in one day, even though I was quite busy with other things that day, and I was never slowed down by the density of the information and argument that it presents. No doubt about it - Wright can write. Better still, the scholarship is serious and impressive. As H. Allen Orr acknowledges in his review in The New York Review of Books, the discussion is "surpisingly erudite." He goes on:

The Evolution of God is full of footnotes and the literature cited in them is consistently the literature one would hope for: heavy on scholarly studies and light on popular treatments. In a climate in which discussions of religion, and especially of the intersection of religion and science, often seem superficial or rushed, Wright is to be commended for his close study. He is also to be commended for his refreshingly dispassionate tone. All this combines to provide an absorbing (and rant-free) tour of Western religion.

I second this: as a history of religion up to a certain historical point, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, helpfully structured, rich in information, and highly readable. If it pretended to be no more than that, I could stop here and simply recommend it highly.

However, there's a problem, or perhaps two or more problems. The author is not content to offer a (mostly) rant-free religious history from animism to Islam. He attempts to develop a theory as to how religion evolves, apparently he thinks inevitably, over time. More ambitiously still, he repeatedly suggests (though in a somewhat tentative, having-a-bet-each-way manner) that the narrative of religion's cultural evolution may be evidence for something divine behind it all.

As to the theory of history, I am not sure I ever totally grasped this. However, it is clear enough that ancient polytheistic civilizations were able to operate with different cities or city-states mutually recognising each other's gods. Polytheists do not necessarily limit the number of genuine gods at work in the world, and they are typically prepared to accept the reality of gods worshipped in other places. Often, gods with different origins come to be identified with each other - same divinity, different name - and sometimes entire pantheons are cobbled together from gods with disparate origins.

Polytheists' intrinsic tolerance of alien gods, and polytheism's strong historical tendency towards syncretism, become even more pronounced when multi-ethnic empires arise, such as the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. What this seems to reveal, however, is merely that polytheism has certain internal resources that make for a kind of religious tolerance, and that this was called upon historically by the economic integration of early states, through trade, and by the needs of large empires. It might be argued that civilizational integration and large-scale empire building more or less forced ancient religion to be relatively tolerant, and I have no doubt that there's some force in this. At the same time, it was the built-in logic of polytheism itself that made this possible in the first place. No deeper law or regularity seems to be responsible for that fact.

The next historical stage, after the formation of empires characterised by syncretism, is the development of monotheistic religions with universal aspirations and multi-ethnic appeal. This development contrasts with the idea, in early monolatrous and monotheistic systems, that the true god is the god for one people only. Again, however, monotheism seems to have its own internal logic: if there is only one true god, and if human beings from many racial or ethnic backgrounds are accepted as genuinely human (difficult to deny in a large multi-ethnic empire), it makes sense to extend access to the "true" god. It may not always work out in that way, since there are isolationist sects and cults even in modern times, and we cannot be sure what the tape of history would show if we replayed it. But still, it is at least not crazy to expect that some monotheistic cults would adopt universal pretensions, and that these might do well in the context of a multi-ethnic empire or a local "world" (such as that of the Mediterranean basin) intricately connected by trade and other contacts.

These are, however, rather modest, tentative, and local conclusions. Yes, socio-political circumstances may affect what kinds of religions do well, and the resources of some kinds of religion may be more advantageous than others in a particular socio-political setting. That seems hard to deny. In antiquity, this perhaps encouraged polytheistic syncretism and prodded monotheisms towards universalist pretensions. But even assuming that all this is correct, I see no reason to go further and postulate a more abstract law, such as that religion inevitably arises then evolves through a series of transactions that are mutually beneficial for those involved (such as the citizens of different states with different gods). That might sometimes happen, but sometimes it might not, and there certainly seems to be no reason to postulate a law that religions inevitably become more "moral" over time (in the sense of more willing to expand the circle of human beings who are regarded as moral equals).

It may even be that this expansion of the moral circle happens frequently as trade, improved travel and transport, empire-building, and so on produce a degree of cosmopolitanism. However, even that doesn't seem to be anything like a law of logic or nature - it certainly did not prevent massacres, slavery, dispossession, and exercises in racial and cultural supremacy when European nations came into close contact with the very different peoples of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, Oceania, and the Americas. Since the early centuries of Islam, where Wright stops, there has been plenty of religious intolerance. Even if a monotheism offers its god to everyone, it may be less tolerant of rival religions than the syncretic polytheism of antiquity ... in which case things can go backwards as religions arise and develop. How, exactly, all this pans out in one situation or another may well depend on a blend of factors, perhaps including the degree of difference in military power between peoples that meet and interact. Perhaps, too, one factor is the perceived foreignness to each other of the peoples involved.

In all, I am totally unpersuaded that any kind of deep, abstract law applies to the development of religions. It is possible that attitudes and manners tend to be softened when (some) people gain a certain amount of leisure, and are free from the everyday struggle just to survive. Perhaps, too, as Hume thought, we do develop better understandings over time of what social arrangments are beneficial, so morality becomes less harsh. Those, however, are different points; they may suggest the possibility of (limited?) moral progress, but they do not entail a logic or principle that drives the evolution of religion.

I am even less attracted to the thesis that the history of religion is evidence for some kind of divinity acting in time to lead humankind (or, I suppose, other intelligent creatures in the universe) to higher and higher levels of morality. If there are familiar social conditions that historically encouraged syncretism and/or universalist monotheisms, the explanation as to why that is so appears to be a material one all the way down. We can suggest why monotheists might (in some or many cases) want to claim that worship of their god is available to everyone, and why polytheism seems to have tolerant and syncretic tendencies. But there seems to be no deep mystery in any of this that needs a further - supernatural or otherwise extraordinary - explanation. Therefore, these facts do not stand as evidence for the existence of any sort of teleology or quasi-teleology, much less the existence of God, a god, or even a "god" (something that is godlike in a sense that needs to be specified, but not necessarily a being with intellect and personality).

And yet, Wright frequently pauses in his narrative to explore the possibility that the historical development of religion points beyond itself - to something that could meaningfully be considered purposive or divine. Alas, it is never entirely clear what might count for the purpose. The orthodox Abrahamic deity would, presumably, but Wright hints that this unidentified "something" might be no more than an unexpected scientific principle or natural phenomenon.

In particular, he retells the well-known story of William Paley's attempt to prove the existence of God by referring to the functional intricacy of living things. Rather than drawing the moral that the appearance of design was an illusion - faux design produced by millions of years of evolution - Wright claims, surprise!, that there is a sense in which Paley was correct. It turns out, so Wright intimates, that there really is a "designer" of sorts, but that Paley misidentified it. Natural selection, a process unknown at the time, can produce the observed functional intricacy; therefore, natural selection was the unknown designer whose existence Paley insisted upon and sought to prove. We might think, along with most mainstream biologists, that evolution just is; but Wright wants to hold it out as a teleological process.

The suggestion here is that the "divine" or "purposive" "designer" that allegedly produces moral evolution in religions is not a personal god ... but just something unknown to us, something of great significance that stands in relation to us, who are ignorant of it, much as natural selection stood to Paley's contemporaries. What awaits our discovery, if so, may not be a divine revelation in the usual sense. It is not - or not necessarily - an onstage appearance from a supernatural person. Rather, it could be some dramatic breakthrough in intellectual understanding, analogous to what Darwin achieved in the nineteenth century.

This thought is confirmed in the final endnote to Chapter Eight, where Wright discusses the notion of purposiveness. He defines this so broadly as to include the functional adaptedness of lifeforms, the operation of natural selection itself, or the operation of some sort of larger scale natural selection (such as a cosmos-level process that might favour the origination of whole universes containing life and intelligence).

Unfortunately, the deep pattern of moral evolution that Wright seeks to explain, that he sees as pointing beyond itself, does not even seem to exist. There is no phenomenon crying out for a deeper explanation that involves purpose or design or divinity. Any tendency towards expansion of the moral circle can be explained in terms of more down-to-earth phenomena, such as the readily-understandable tendency for polytheists to tolerate each other's gods and rituals under certain circumstances. And even if something more did remain to be explained, it is simply confusing to use traditional religious language, suggesting that the explanation just might be the Abrahamic God - you never know.

Why make a big deal of this while at the same time acknowledging that the unknown "something" might be purely material and impersonal? This kind of hedging, as if someone is looking over the author's shoulder, is the most frustrating aspect of what could be a very good book with all the wild metaphysics and quasi-theological speculation ripped out of it.

Despite all that, I recommend The Evolution of God for its scholarly synthesis of much that we know about religions' historical development, up to the early days of Islam. But be prepared: all the metaphysical huffing and riffing should be taken with a lot, as it were, of salt. Order in an entire pillar.

45 comments:

Leon said...

Excellent review. One irony is that Wright's personal affect is usually quite dry and measured.

Tony Smith said...

Russell, I'm uninterested in the primary content of the book so it won't get into my reading queue, but I do think it is worth exploring your claim about the lack of any abstract law that might apply to the development of religions.

Juxtaposing that claim with your correct admiration of evolutionary theory should be enough of a clue. In the world of memetics, religions are nothing more or less than memeplexes and the parallels between what we can say about the evolution of say mammals and the evolution of religions are very strong.

Both are highly contingent on specific histories. Neither is predictive in any meaningful way. Both are powerful tools for organising our dealings with what we find in the world. Each make sense of their respective histories. And we were no more guaranteed that humans would make it to centre stage, however briefly, than that one "true" religion might do likewise.

Don't forget that the theory of evolution by natural selection in practice long preceded knowledge of genetics, let alone the specific chemistry. Likewise today we are still in the early stages of learning how memes are formed in the brain, although we have no end of information on how they are communicated.

So I can only guess without reading the book that your "Teleologist" headline might be a jump too far.

NewEnglandBob said...

Excellent review. It seems like Wright is a scared child, trying to cover all bases just in case there is some kind of god. Too bad he had to mess up a scholarly book with his illogical nonsense.

This book will be low on my list of books to read, unlikely to pop to the top of the list.

James Sweet said...

Hmmm.. natural selection as "god"? Wow, that proves what we suspected all along: God's an asshole :D

Ophelia Benson said...

"Why make a big deal of this while at the same time acknowledging that the unknown "something" might be purely material and impersonal?"

Just what I always wonder. Why all the heavy breathing about "Maybe Something" when the issue is God The Person? Why is Karen Armstrong so invested in claiming that 'God' is an amorphous something beyond the limit of human thought? Why is Terry Eagleton so invested in his version? Beats me.

Greywizard said...

Russell, I like your review, but since there are other books that no doubt deal with the cultural history of religions - Ninian Smart's The Religious Experience of Mankind comes to mind, or even Keith Ward's God: A Guide for the Perplexed, why would you recommend Wright's book in particular, since he seems to have gone off on all sorts of tangents instead of sticking to what he knows? There are all sorts of introductory books dealing with religion and its varieties, but most of them don't try to do the impossible, and tell us how things evolved, which requires more than chutzpah, and not a little prevarication.

tomh said...

one of the Anonymouses wrote:
the only rational stance where judgement on somehting that can't be proven either (God's existence)way is that of the agnostic.

Since very few things in this world can be proven, you must be agnostic on just about every question that comes along. And you do realize, don't you, that just because something can't be proven, doesn't mean that both sides of the issue have an equal chance of being correct. Reading your post, though, I guess you don't realize that.

kynefski said...

Excellent review, both in commending Wright's serious research (those who have indicated that they will not read the book are urged to reconsider) and in expressing justified confusion with Wright's account of moral trajectory.

Unfortunately, the deep pattern of moral evolution that Wright seeks to explain, that he sees as pointing beyond itself, does not even seem to exist.

Well said.

babrock said...

Another fine article from Mr. Blackford. Thanx

I think t last two books I have read were Robert Wright's "The Moral Animale" and "Non-Zero", both of which I enjoyed immensly, so I was surprised and disapointed when this came out.

As I read someplace, it was entitled quite badly to begin w. If it had been named The Evolution of Belief in God", then it would not have started out w such baggage. Your artical explains why he did title it so.

I am as bewildered by his conclusions as you are, I think. One way to state Darwin's theory is simply "Patterns that maintain and reproduce more succesfully than their competitors will tend to become more plentyful than these competitors". Why would anyone think this implies any anything let alone a conciose interactive entity.

Things that grow and get bigger will tend to be larger than things that donot. As a polygon gets more and more sides it more and more resembles a circle. Tops of things that are tall and upright tend to be further from t center of t Earth. This list is endless. These things are inevitable, and not at all evidence of any higher being.

386sx said...

So how emotionally damaged do you have to be to assume that existence is inherently meaningless and pointless, lacking in purpose or reason for existing?

Sounds to me like Anonymous is projecting.

Otherwise Anonymous would have stated it like this: So how emotionally damaged do you have to be to not be a theist?

But no, Anonymous instead decides to state it in a way that tells us what Anonymous's world would be like if Anonymous weren't a theist.

Well, what a sad and hopeless existence it would be for Anonymous.

Anonymous, it's okay. You can't help it if there is no God. It's not your fault. Live life and be happy with your pretend friends, but don't project your hopelessness onto others! Because you are only pretending what others think. There is a lot of pretending in Anonymous's world. Well, if it makes Anonymous happy, than that's okay I guess.

Stuart said...

I find the athiesm to be hugely positive. In the words of Joss Whedon

"If nothing we do really matters, then the only thing that matters is what we do. Morality comes from an absence of any grand plan, not from the presence of any grand plan."

But I feel that debating Anonymous is about as productive as watching an Adam Sandler film.

Zing.

Anonymous said...

The problem I have with the whole theory is it has one freaking huge hole in it: The Hindus.

If moral development came hand in hand with monotheism, then how does Wright explain the fact that Hindus, who are polytheists, aren't any more morally backward than anybody else?

I would much rather live in polytheist India, than monotheist Saudi Arabia for example.

Further it comes out with a strong undertone of colonialism mixed with triumphalism, who is to say that monotheism is actually a step forward?

samm said...

Without objective standards of morality there can be no morality, "subjective standards" is an oxymoron.

Really, so tell me, how does one judge an aesthetic standard? After all that's a standard, say best sponge cake or prettiest girl, and it's subjective. So, you're flat out wrong with your claim that subject standards is an oxymoron. And declaring morality objective doesn't make it so. All meaning is given to us by us. It's not ex-nihilio, it's based on evolution, both biological and cultural. I know that's hard for you to understand, but that's because your fear nihilism so much, you project it onto everybody else. All your arguments from authority don't prove your case, they just make you look sad.

Anonymous said...

So why exactly do you believe (pun intended) that it is more likely that God does not exist?

Because thus far the trend in supernatural explanations for things has been that those explanations have been proven wrong. Further the holy book that describes the said deity is about as reliable a guide to history as Twilight is a guide to Forks.

Without God the universe is but a meaningless accident.

And how does God give the universe any sort of a meaning that we couldn't assign to it ourselves? God existing does not in fact give the universe any more meaning than us existing.

Further, the basic assumption you are putting forward is that you reject the idea that the universe has no meaning because you find that idea unappealing, yet the idea of outright worshipping an eternal tyrant perfectly willing to torture people for all eternity because they don't sooth its ego is somehow preferable.

A universe without meaning may seem cold to you, but it leaves us free to make what meaning of our lives as we decide.

Finally, Hans Kung is a Catholic Priest, not an atheist. Why not try reading an atheist philosopher about atheist philosophy - as opposed to simply buying into a Catholic priest's straw man version?

Greywizard said...

Anonymous is at it again. Can't you find a book to write or something? To the rest. Ignore him. He'll go away.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't often ban people, though it's happened more than once in the past. I did ban someone the other day when I got fed up with his contributions.

Note, though, that it's difficult quickly sorting out commenters who appear as "Anonymous". It does look to me as if one of the "Anonymous" commenters above is the same person who has been repeatedly warned/banned in the past. This person should, indeed, use his own blog for his/her extensive writings ... or write his/her own book. My blog is not this person's soapbox but a place for on-topic discussion that doesn't happen to annoy me or my friends. I always reserve the right to get rid of people who become sufficiently annoying. It's sometimes suggested to me by friends that I'm actually too soft about this, and that's probably true, but my patience is not infinite.

So ... I am likely to get fed up and randomly delete posts that seem to be by this person without further notice.

Please, other people: It would be a good idea to establish some sort of identity, rather leaving me to sort out which "Anonymous" is which and accidentally delete the wrong comments. I realise that the different "Anonymous"'s have different styles, blah, blah, but I do have a life away from this blog, and I am not infinitely careful. I can and do make mistakes. At the moment, I'm allowing people to post as "Anonymous", since some of the material is useful, but I really do discourage it.

Anonymous said...

"Because thus far the trend in supernatural explanations for things has been that those explanations have been proven wrong."

That's only a problem if you take the bible literally like a fundy - or an atheist.

Religion deals with teleos, it answers "why" questions. It makes a mistake when it tries to answer "how" questions.

Science deals with "mechanism", it answers "how" questions. It makes a mistake whenit claims ther is no "why" to existence just because it is incapable of perceiving it.

"And how does God give the universe any sort of a meaning that we couldn't assign to it ourselves?"

Accidents by definition are meaningless. A universe deliberately created for a reason would have meaning. I'm not sure how I can make this any clearer.

As for purely personal meaning I'll repeat this again: "In an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless."

And again, "you indulge in solipsism where your "meaning" has no existence except between your ears. Tell me, if you have Walter Mitty fantasies of power and glory are you in fact powerful and glorious?"

"you reject the idea that the universe has no meaning because you find that idea unappealing,"

Nihilism lack of appeal is irrelevant and besides the point. The point I am making is that atheism = nihilism.

" yet the idea of outright worshipping an eternal tyrant perfectly willing to torture people for all eternity because they don't sooth its ego is somehow preferable"

Why do you think God is a tyrant? He has set you completely free to chose as you will. A tyrant would take away your free will and make you be good.

He tortures nobody. Those who reject him are free to do so. As CS Lewis pointed out, the gates of hell are locked from the inside. They exist not to keep the damned in but to keep God out.

"A universe without meaning may seem cold to you, but it leaves us free to make what meaning of our lives as we decide."

You can do that now. As for making your own meaning, please respond to my Walter Mitty question.

"Finally, Hans Kung is a Catholic Priest"

Ad hominem much? Kindly address his arguments on their own merits.

Ann said...

I've been listening to this as an audiobook, and though I'm by no means finished (still stuck somewhere in the Old Testament) I think you've hit the nail on the head. Wright's book is fascinating, and the wealth of research into the conditions that influenced the creation of Abrahamic religion is fantastic. But I cannot understand his inability to see the facts behind what he himself has written. How can you believe in a god that you can trace the development of? See where he went from one of a pantheon to one for a people to one and only? When you can see people's belief change the god, not the other way around. Man up Mr. Wright! You can do it! Take that step!

NewEnglandBob said...

I never read the sophomoric nonsense posts from Anonymous.

Russell, you have every right to delete his rants. If it were my blog, I would just delete every post from people who cowardly log in that way.

Harvey said...

I fail to see why anyone cannot comprehend that civilizations evolve in much the same manner as biological entities. Survival of the fittest/characteristics that favor survival long enough to reproduce describes the successful development of cultures, as well as species. Every culture we know of has seen fit to "create" God(s). If there were no human groupings (i.e. families, clans, tribes, states, etc.) there would be no need for any Deity, nor for that matter, morality, since this latter deals entirely with people's interpersonal relationships rather than with any individual's relationship with his/her deity of choice. It seems quite obvious to me that there may be an inherent "need" for people to "find God(s)", but I fail to see how this translates into evidence for actual existance of one. If one cannot abide the fact that the only "meaning" in human life is (as is true for all living creatures) to survive long enough to procreate and perhaps enough longer to nurture our offspring until they can do so in turn, then a deity or creator can certainly serve to provide added "meaning' to existance, but by no means everyone "needs" to create one.

tomh said...

one of the Anonymouses wrote:
The 6 days of creation in Genesis is merely a metaphor, ... It's not meant to be taken literally

I see this assertion made quite often and I always wonder...how do you know this? Especially since, according to you, "the only rational stance where judgement on somehting that can't be proven either (God's existence)way is that of the agnostic."

You don't sound very agnostic on this question, so I ask, how do you know that Genesis is "merely a metaphor"? You must be able to prove it, or else you would be agnostic on it. Please enlighten me.

Ann said...

Anonymous, (and c'mon, the rest of us are using our names) one problem with 'not taking it literally' becomes deciding which parts are literal and which parts aren't. If we accept that Genesis didn't happen, why should we assume that God sent plauges against Egypt> Or maybe that was an allegory too...so why should I assume that Jesus ascended to Heaven? Or maybe that didn't happen either... It either hangs together or it doesn't. There's no way to make a clear delineation between what is meant to be allegory and what is meant to be literal truth.

Now, on your comment that people's understanding of God would develop along with the civilization...I'm not sure why that would be true. I thought that part of the point of the Bible, and the rest of Christianity is to tell us what is and is not moral. The 10 Commandments and all that. God is telling us what is and isn't good to do. However as you go through the Bible chronologically, those things change... i.e. wiping out the Canaanites vs. turning the other cheek. If God does not change, and he always considered certain things right or wrong, why would those not be included in the bible? Why would a God that has no problem telling us 'Thou shalt not kill' have a problem telling 'Thou shall not have a slave?' insead Leviticus states:

"However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)"

A God that exists, and has enough of a vested interest in humanity to tell us what to do would...well...tell us what to do. If God sets our morality, he doesn't need for our understanding of morality to catch up. However if the opposite is true, that we as a society use our contemporary morality to create the religion we believe in, it all makes sense.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, that does it. I was being lenient and letting posts stand. But when someone deliberately defies me I'm not happy.

This is my like living room. What I say goes.

tomh said...

This is my like living room.

Well, you look like an hospitable fellow, where are the refreshments?

Anonymous said...

Russell Blackford

Okay, I am just going to respond to the one point Anon makes because I think theists think it is a valid one.

"Finally, Hans Kung is a Catholic Priest"

Ad hominem much? Kindly address his arguments on their own merits.


Okay, you want me to do that

First of all, he commits the logical fallacy of the slippery slope - if we accept atheism, then it is just a hop, skip and a jump from nihilism.

Russell Blackford said...

Plenty of refreshments to go round. By the way, John Wilkins puts it well over at his blog where he says something like "This is my living room; don't spit on the carpet." I like that.

I'm open to disagreement with my views in the same way I'd be at a dinner party, but you are all my guests. If some folks really don't like the place or the company, then they can stay home. There's plenty of scope for people to create their own blogs.

Bruce Gorton said...

Russell

I am just going to respond to the arguments that come before that post, because I take it you deleted the ones that you found objectionable.

That's only a problem if you take the bible literally like a fundy - or an atheist.

If you are metaphysically masturbating to your metaphors, what are they metaphors for exactly?

Religion deals with teleos, it answers "why" questions. It makes a mistake when it tries to answer "how" questions.

Rubbish. Religious creation myths describe "how" the universe was supposed to have been made, or at least what did it. Your basic contention is God did it, which is a definite who, and a what, which plays into how.

Further, your religion does not actually say why the universe was created, only that your God wants certain things of us.

Accidents by definition are meaningless.

Why?

A universe deliberately created for a reason would have meaning.

Again, why? And further if we cannot divine this God's reason, how could we even say he has one?

I'm not sure how I can make this any clearer.

You can't, because to put it politely, its bollocks.

"In an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless."

Nice assertion, care to back any of that up? In the world we live in there are guidelines, which we can take from other people, further we can create our own guidelines as we go.

And again, "you indulge in solipsism where your "meaning" has no existence except between your ears. Tell me, if you have Walter Mitty fantasies of power and glory are you in fact powerful and glorious?"

Your assumption is because reality has no meaning, it has no reality. As the two concepts are seperated by meaning being an abstract one I fail to see anything in your claims of solipism on my part.

"Finally, Hans Kung is a Catholic Priest"

Ad hominem much? Kindly address his arguments on their own merits.


First of all, it is an example of the argument from adverse consequences fallacy in action - his argument is that if we accept atheism, that leads to nihilism.

Second, it isn't actually true. A simple look at history demonstrates this as atheist philosophers have been around a lot longer than Nihilism has.

Third, and this is an important one, Hans Kung's basic argument simply is that nihilism is bad, but he fails to establish that nihilism is wrong.

Something doesn't have to make you feel good to be true, or tell me, do your fantasies of being glorious and powerful make you glorious and powerful? That is part of why the argument from adverse consequences you are trying to pull fails.

Now, why you should rather read an atheist philosopher on atheist philosophy is because at least that way you have an atheist telling what he beleives rather than relying on someone whose stated beliefs are hostile to atheists shoving words into the atheist's mouth.

Xempyreum said...

EVOLUTION OF A NEW POWER ECCLESIASTIC???


The religious ecclesiastics want power and they want everyone to conform to their tyranny of the MONOGAMY meme... so like good little religious phaggots the SHEEPLE will stick to just one corn hole...

And I thought my jokes were bad!


HOW ABOUT A MAGIC TRICK???


You people all believe the same thing. You all believe your weenies come from heaven!

They wave their sanctified prick over your little winky and you will feel all better.

Evolution is only possible with HETEROSEXUAL relationships.

To say otherwise make you the same as them, but you are only as good as they allow you to be.

So, like a good little religious faggot, you'll conform and stick to just one corn hole.

And, again, I thought my jokes were bad.

If I were to tell the press that millions of Americans would be blown up by an Iranian nutcase, or that your Congress has stolen the entire contents of your savings with "health care reform" or bailouts, nobody panics, because it's all part of the plan...

But, if I tell the press a few homosexuals are upset over their little wee wees in California, why, everyone just loses their minds!

Introduce a little chaos into the situation: WHY NOT POLYGAMY?

I'm an agent of chaos.

And you know what they say about chaos: It's the only thing that is fair.

Oh, and the purple SEIU suit, it's not cheap, you ought to know, you paid for it...

Scott Brown won this election, so little Obama here won't be able to pimp his grandma for a nickel...

A guy like me... Look, I know why the bar associations have little gay group therapy sessions in secret ...


HOBBES TOLD ME SO...


'The teaching that matrimony is a sacrament giveth to the clergy the judging of the lawfulness of marriages; and thereby, of what children are legitimate; and consequently, of the right of succession to hereditary kingdoms.

The denial of marriage to priests serveth to assure this power of the Pope over kings. For if a king be a priest, he cannot marry and transmit his kingdom to his posterity; if he be not a priest, then the Pope pretendeth this authority ecclesiastical over him, and over his people.

From auricular confession they obtain, for the assurance of their power, better intelligence of the designs of princes and great persons in the civil state than these can have of the designs of the state ecclesiastical...

But as the inventions of men are woven, so also are they ravelled out; the way is the same, but the order is inverted. The Presbyters, made it to be thought the people were thereby obliged to follow their doctrine, and, when they refused, refused to keep them company (that was then called excommunication), not as being infidels, but as being disobedient: and this was the first knot upon their liberty...

When the fairies are displeased with anybody, they are said to send their elves to pinch them. The ecclesiastics, when they are displeased with any civil state, make also their elves, that is, superstitious, enchanted subjects, to pinch their princes, by preaching sedition; or one prince, enchanted with promises, to pinch another.'

WHY NOT POLYGAMY?

Luke said...

Ophelia,

Do you recognize that's my problem with Coyne and Blackford arguing that "supernaturalism" is within the realm of science? What we end up doing is a lot of "what if" thinking that is not based in anything that is what we know reality to be, we have departed scientific realism. The "what ifs" that Coyne and Blackford provide do not offer useful scientifically based counter-factuals.

You, Ophelia, hold arguments such as, well so what it's all a ploy anyway that believers believe in a 'God the person', yet push them outside of nature (in fact either defined as "nature" or a creator of nature). As I say, as right as you are (as I keep repeating, Blackford says "dogmatically", it is not science's doing to define "god" outside of nature or existence, it has only creating positions untenable by the understanding of nature, science deals with natural phenomena only), it doesn't matter when a rationalist scientist arguing against a position (in both cases, NOMA) suddenly positively asserts that "supernatural phenomena are within the realm of science", simply because of others claims. What science is doing has to do with nature, the claims are that of something outside acting within, do you not see this at all? And why, since I admire you so much, keep defending their irrational position (I'm not talking about this review, which seems ok, I gave up on the book, made me sick personally).

Luke said...

Ophelia,

Let me pose an old question to you.

Lets say an intelligent being from another planet began to interact in human affairs. The had the ability to go "unseen" in any material way, but create predictable, measurable actions on earth. We soon discover that what they're doing transcends anything we know, the actions appear "miraculous". They not only knew more then we though possible, but could dictate course.

How would we detect them not as a god? In other words, how can we know relative from absolute omniscience?

The reason I ask, is because if we want useful "what ifs" besides simply pointing out definitional problems (such as defining something outside of existence doesn't tell us if that something exist), then we have to know what we are talking about relative to what we know of nature. To simply say, what if a 900 foot Jesus was verified in NY city is childish talk, don't you see that? It's absolutely meaningless in any real way, as much of religious garble is. For the sake of opposition of an argument, we don't create equally untenable positions.

Bruce Gorton said...

Luke

Do you recognize that's my problem with Coyne and Blackford arguing that "supernaturalism" is within the realm of science?

That you think by putting things in a little box and saying "That's supernatural, you can't properly question whether its real you naughty scientist" you can get away with claiming whatever the hell you like?

And then you think you can make lots of excuses when your claims don't pan out after scientists finally come up with a way to test them?

You know the excuses "But its all a metaphor!" or "God is the latest oxymoron I ejaculated onto a page and those meany scientists just don't get it, waah, waah, whine, whinge."

Seriously, that is all it winds down to.

Bruce Gorton said...

"The had the ability to go "unseen" in any material way, but create predictable, measurable actions on earth. "

Then they wouldn't be going "unseen" in any measurable way.

The predictable, measurable actions on earth would class as indicators they were there. Further it would be evidence of them existing. That is far more than any god of myth has ever actually offered.

Now onto your real question: How we would distinguish a geniune God from a fake? That comes down to good old Captain Kirk "What would God want with a spaceship?"

In other words the second the aliens demanded worship or obedience we would know we were dealing with interstellar con-artists, not the real thing.

After all, if they were the real thing they wouldn't need us.

Now if they didn't demand worship then we could breath safely in the fact that even if they are gods, they don't actually give a stuff about getting worshipped - leaving the point moot.

Luke said...

Unseen in a material way is what I said. It's not hard to understand, the material substance I'm talking about his from the "being". You are talking the material of what is affected, like human action etc.

"Now onto your real question: How we would distinguish a geniune God from a fake?"

No, that's not the question, essentially. I'm not proposing a god in any way, as you probably know. The essential part given my scenario, which is old hat, is how can you decipher from relative to absolute omniscience?

To your first reply, you are again misunderstanding the very basics. It's not a question of scientifically testing claims of the supernatural. I say you can, and proper skepticism says you should test such things. I am talking about what science is doing.

Why is that so hard to understand? We simply have no scientifically valid reasons for saying something like "supernatural phenomena are within the realm of science", no matter how many "what ifs" you create that have no basis in reality, they are not useful counterfactuals at all. A verified 900 foot Jesus may be fun, but it's meaningless in any real sense. It may convince someone of a god, but then see my second post. What would convince Jerry Coyne or Russell Blackford of the existence of God does not take away their duty to verify their claim.

Luke said...

To be provocative, I want to add something. The dismissive type attitude just displayed strikes me as unnecessary since an opportunity for discussion is probably missed.

If I react in way which I think is really needed here I will get called on being uncivil, because frankly I think Blackford's argument that was adopted by Coyne is nearly poisonous and has done great damage to basic understandings of what science, scientist, actually do. And Coyne should know better, but he was reacting against an argument, a good recipe to use hyperbole, but he has defended it to absurd degree's, it is an embarrassment.

Luke said...

Let me pose another question.

How is saying "supernatural phenomena are within the realm of science" compatible with science?

tomh said...

Luke said:
Unseen in a material way is what I said.

As opposed to what? Seen in a nonmaterial way? What are you even talking about? Same with your "supernatural phenomena". Supernatural is just a word that can encompass anything the imagination can conjure up. It has no relationship to the word phenomena, which are observable occurences. The phrase supernatural phenomena is an obvious oxymoron.

Luke said...

tomh,

No, what I said was:

"They had the ability to go "unseen" in any material way.." Material in this sense I'm referring to materialism, matter etc. Seen in action answers your other part.

The material way in which Bruce refereed is the material we actually do "see", the caused actions of what we recognize as material.

I state "supernatural phenomena" because that is the phrasing Jerry Coyne has used, and returns in the idea of supposed definitional problems of defining something out of existence not telling us if that "thing" actually exist.

tomh said...

Luke said:
Material in this sense I'm referring to materialism, matter etc. Seen in action answers your other part.

You border on the incomprehensible.

How is saying "supernatural phenomena are within the realm of science" compatible with science?

More accurately, one might say, investigation of claims of supernatural phenomena falls within the realm of science.

NewEnglandBob said...

Luke keeps saying the same nonsense over and over in long and short posts and he is still completely wrong.

"How is saying "supernatural phenomena are within the realm of science" compatible with science?"

Very simple. If someone claims supernatural phenomena then science can study those claims and devise experiments to test the validity of those claims. If the claimant then whines that there is nothing detectable then the claim is bogus.

Luke, you are the one throwing out "what-ifs", particularly that foolishness of "how can we know relative from absolute omniscience". It is equivalent to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and equally as irrelevant.

Luke said...

If you say so, NEB, you're always right. Thanks you, again, for setting me straight.

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Russell Blackford said...

wtf luke? Up to your old tricks, eh?

Luke said...

"wtf luke? Up to your old tricks, eh?"

WFT are you talking about? I've been trying for three years for Ophelia to give a straight answer. It's important.

I saw an opportunity to address it again, ok, call me a troll, I just don't care.

Your position and it's adoption by Coyne has been pernicious and awful part of discussions over such discourse.

Look at the replies to me, Russell. One, by NEB, even repeats what I said about testing claims, almost word for word.

"supernatural phenomena" are not part of science, easy as that. We are testing claims to the "supernatural", now go back and read my post starting at the first addressed to Ophelia.

The only thing I can say for your part, Russell, is that you seemed to show at least a lose grip on understanding someone like Massimo Pigliucci's argument (if you read the comments there, we share agreement but fall away on his "scientism" argument, and you'll also notice I've done what I've done at the Intersection, which is defend Coyne tooth and nail for a wonderful review, Seeing and Believing, his efforts, his book etc. etc. However, a mistake has been made which has created a terrible situation which reverberates through comment threads on this site, Coyne's and Richard's. It is only because I actually give a shit that I keep at this, not to show anyone wrong or me right, in fact, you know damn well I've corrected errors in my own argument on this.

Seriously, WTF is wrong with you? Clearly Coyne has danced around (his last reply to his "supernatural phenomena" nonsense was to support the idea of what would convince him - and by extension, others - that god "probably" exist if a 900 foot Jesus was confirmed by James Randi - now come on, WTF!), you simply have "apologized" and Ophelia is simply arguing the "ploy" about religious idiocy of "pushing" god outside of existence (though three years ago we even got into the historical context).

Now, since you and Coyne seem to stand the way you do is that cloud, I would really like Ophelia (someone I deeply respect, honestly - she like Richard and Coyne are intellectual hero's of mine - though she gets extra credit which I won't get into here) to address *clearly* the issue, that's all.

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