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

Friday, January 28, 2011

Myers and Asma debate Asma's views

For those not following the earlier thread, here are the links, both at Pharyngula:

Myers

and Asma (with a brief reply by Myers and a long Pharyngula-style thread).

It's an interesting discussion, and I think good points are made on both sides.

PZ is a friend and a great ally, but I don't entirely go along with him on this one, to the extent that I understand his viewpoint, because I don't share his (apparent?) view that the truth is always what most or ultimately matters. There may well be situations where other values can come in conflict with truth and may, in the particular circumstances, be more important. If that is denying a foundation of the Gnu Atheism, so be it (I doubt that it is, though: to the extent that there is such a thing as a "New Atheist" movement, it's probably quite diverse and has no party line on a topic such as this).

I'm interested in scrutinising the truth claims of religion primarily because I think these particular truth claims are important to me. If some religion or other can give me the sorts of things that religions typically claim to - eternal bliss, or whatever - it's worth checking how much credibility these claims really have. All the more so if they are likely to be false and buying into them can be a good way of ruining your one and only life. Furthermore, devoting some time to these questions is a service to others.

Secondly, however, I've come to believe that widespread social acceptance of the authority of various religions does a lot of harm. I think there is some urgency in challenging that authority in a forthright, high-profile way, not just in our own thoughts or in private conversations or obscure journals. So I'm an ally with any Gnu Atheist in that regard. But I don't necessarily think that all religions are equally harmful in all contexts, and given my particular motivation I do think it's worthwhile making distinctions and setting priorities ... and in discussing publicly and frankly which distinctions and priorities are important. Despite its sensationalist title (and remember, these are usually chosen by sub-editors and should not have too much influence on how we read what follows), I thought that Asma's original piece was mainly about doing that. Whether or not we actually agree with its content - something I hope to return to, since the thread over on the other post has some cogent criticisms of Asma - I think it makes a contribution to an important discussion about priorities, etc. Even if people make mistakes in the process of this discussion, their contributions may be of value.

Stepping back somewhat, yes, I'm interested in truth. But that alone would not have motivated me to be a forthright public critic of religion. What actually motivated me to become such a thing also motivates me to make distinctions, set priorities, wonder whether I'm making and setting the right ones, want to talk to others about it, and so on.

Stepping back even further, truths about the world are, by and large, very useful to us in achieving our goals, whatever they are. On this, I'm with PZ. In most cases, we can't know in advance which truths will prove useful, so it's kind of difficult pursuing some truths and not others (though there actually are some that I consider better not pursued - usually truths about ourselves as individuals that could tie us in knots if we worried about them and became too self-conscious).

I'm fairly ruthless in my own pursuit of the truth - it has taken me to philosophical positions that even many atheists find unpalatable - but truth is not the only value and nor do I assume that it must prevail in all circumstances. Perhaps PZ also thinks this, but some passages in his post suggests not and that we don't have the same motivation here. If so, that's cool with me. I'm happy if people have social goals that are similar to mine without sharing the totality of my underlying values and motivations.

14 comments:

stevec said...

"There may well be situations where other values can come in conflict with truth and may, in the particular circumstances, be more important. If that is denying a foundation of the Gnu Atheism, so be it "

Uh, allowing that admitting beliefs (believing things) on the basis that they are not true but due to "more important" reasons amounts to dishonesty. Perhaps well intentioned dishonesty, but still dishonesty.

Yeah, you're gone into crazyland on this one. Pure unadulterated crazyland. Truth trumps all when it comes to admitting beliefs into your brain.

stevec said...

Here's what I don't understand. If truth is not the most important thing when it comes to admitting beliefs into one's brain, then the word beliefs is broken, because to believe something is to think that that something is true. If you think something isn't true, then you don't believe it. Truth, pretty much, by definition, has to be the most important thing, when it comes to admitting beliefs into your brain.

Or, are you condescending enough to think that the truth is for you, but falsehoods are good enough for other people?

stevec said...

"I'm fairly ruthless in my own pursuit of the truth - it has taken me to philosophical positions that even many atheists find unpalatable - but truth is not the only value and nor do I assume that it must prevail in all circumstances. "

Ok, I know you for example, argue that free will (as it is commonly conceived at least) does not exist (a position I subscribe to as well.) But this statement you've just made is very weird. So, can you describe a statement in which you would accept a proposition which you thought to be false, as being true, not because it was true, but because of some overriding circumstances?

I mean, what you're saying just seems non-sensical. But maybe you mean to say something other than what you're actually saying, because I am finding it hard to compute that you mean what you seem to be saying. I don't think I'm misunderstanding you, I think you're mis-speaking.

Notagod said...

One of the problems with christianity is the lack of importance that they place on honesty. It is common for christians to imply but not specifically state a goal or method, surely wanting the implied meaning to be understood while at the same time not trapping themselves into defending the implied position. An example would be representing rifle sights to mark something they disapprove of.

While I would concede that the truth may not always be desirable, it needs to be the standard otherwise the tool of choice for a "good" person becomes manipulation. In some special circumstance the truth may be too convoluted to be expedient but any substitute should be construed as wanting.

Just as Russell Blackford has trouble expressing when it is OK to avoid the truth, I have trouble expressing why untruths are undesirable. If untruths and manipulation seem to be the best available choices then it is likely that something is lacking.

Russell Blackford said...

Ordinary honesty is completely compatible with not being interested in finding out certain truths. For example, most parents do not spend time asking themselves, "Which of my children do I love more?" I don't believe they should. They should just get on with loving their children.

stevec, your comments about "crazyland" etc in your early comments don't impress me at all, and nor does your general tone. One of the unpalatable truths that I think we should be prepared to face up to as a matter of intellectual honesty is that even the value of truth may have certain limits.

When I see someone write in this way, I dismiss it as a mixture of dogma and mere insult - probably arising from ignorance. There is actually a great deal to be said on both sides about the value of truth, and there's a huge body of relevant literature from social psychology about low-level and basically benign kinds of self-delusion that we all engage in all the time. When someone writes the way you do here, in your first two comments especially, I have to assume that they are either unfamiliar with the body of literature relevant to the discussion or unwilling to think seriously about its implications.

None of this is directed at protecting religion. As I said, I think the claims made by religion should be subjected to scrutiny and challenge.

Russell Blackford said...

stevec, you ask me: "So, can you describe a statement in which you would accept a proposition which you thought to be false, as being true, not because it was true, but because of some overriding circumstances?"

But that is a strange thing to ask. I never said for one minute that there is some statement that I think to be false but accept as being true. And I don't think I misspoke. I simply never said what you are attributing to me here.

I did say there can be circumstances where, for example, compassion is a more important value than truth. There are many such situations.

Russell Blackford said...

On moral scepticism, I am sceptical as to whether people actually know what they mean when they say "Xing is morally wrong". I am sceptical about the claim that moral judgments are ever objectively binding in the sense often discussed on this blog; in fact, I'm convinced that they're not. I am suspicious that people are (always or often) implicitly claiming that their judgments are objectively binding when they make certain kinds of moral judgments (such as "Xing is morally wrong") and that their judgments are, to that extent, false.

The moral scepticism I'm talking about is pretty much the same kind of moral scepticism that JL Mackie talks about. The only live question in my mind is what people really mean by first-order thin moral claims, or what those claims really mean. On one reading all such claims are literally false. On another, that isn't quite right; it's more that this sort of language is full of confusion. It's a question of exactly what moral semantics you want to combine with the denial that these claims are objectively binding. But whatever, exactly, the truth is on moral semantics, the claim that these first-order thin judgments are not objectively binding is, itself, going to be unpalatable for most people.

Marshall said...

@notagod: Not all of us are Palinophiles. Let's get that straight, shall we???

meanwhile, PZ:
And the whole point of what I wrote is that "it makes me feel good" is inadequate support for a complex set of beliefs about the world—"it's true" is also essential.

Clearly stated. I think (judging by what I've seen in comments here and elsewhere) that this is indeed a central tenant of the "News" (...why seh "Gnus"? Are they "not Unix"?), and it would be the only possible justification for flat-out in-your-face Atheism, it seems to me. I don't see that your more philosophical Atheist goes there, probably because such understands how slippery that little word "true" really is. Which PZ points to and drives right over.

Just the other day many were arguing that the way to an objective natural morality is through "the greatest happiness, or good, or satisfaction for the greatest number", although we have trouble with a metric. But many comments are published like "I would rather face reality and be miserable than lean on such a crutch". Apparently PZ would rather animists be miserable than let them keep their traditional crutches. He says he hopes that if they are miserable enough they will rise against their chains. This offends my intuitive morality, at least.

Truths about the world are very useful, and so are attitudes. Asma's reply linked above is maybe wordy, but right on... people need tools to "manage their emotional lives". Emotional lives are non-rational, and respond to non-rational stimuli. If you rationally perform these non-rational actions, knowing what you are doing, there wouldn't seem to be a problem even for realists. As any adult who enjoys X-Men stories should be able to understand.


Russell:
I've come to believe that widespread social acceptance of the authority of various religions does a lot of harm.

Yes indeed, not least to the practice of religion. Religion should belong more to the social workers and less to the politicians, which is what Jesus said: give Ceasar what is Ceasar's; pay the tribute tax. Later on Constantine wanted a uniformitarian religion for a uniformitarian empire, and he found some stiff necks like Athenasius to ram through his program. But the Nicean Creed doesn't have anything to do with "Love God; Love your Neighbor." It's time we unburied ourselves from that crap.

Jeremiah said...

I wonder if there is a distinction to be made here between individual acts of choosing some other value (like compassion) over truth and institutionalized ones. I could agree that there are situations where it might be better to value compassion over truth but I think it might be harder to find examples where institutionalized false beliefs were better than truthful ones due to some other benefit. I can't think of any right off the top of my head.

I think this distinction might also be relevant from the following perspective. If you are an individual making a choice then you are weighing the situation and making a decision that some other value like compassion is more important in this situation than truth. Okay, that is fine, you are making a choice but you still know the truth. However when a false belief is institutionalized I think you run the risk (exactly like in religions/ideologies) where people adopt the false belief not because they have thought about it and weighed the consequences and understand that it is false, but because they are involved with the institution for unrelated reasons of community or because they just grew up in that environment. They have a false belief that they are not choosing when to exercise and when not to, but using because they actually think it is true.

Jeremiah said...

@Marshall
"I would rather face reality and be miserable than lean on such a crutch"

In regards to that issue, obviously there are situations, say alcoholism, where it is possible to emotionally comfort yourself and rationalize away your problem rather than admit it and deal with it. Being emotional animals it would make the person feel good to not admit they have a problem but would it ultimately be what is best? We can probably agree that it wouldn't. Now that is just one example but the thing I would like to point out is that in order to compare and evaluate whether a truth or an emotional crutch is more valuable in any given situation we have to first know what the truth actually is. Otherwise it would be like being the reviewer of two movies but then only watching one of them and declaring it the best.

"He says he hopes that if they are miserable enough they will rise against their chains. This offends my intuitive morality, at least."

Isn't this the essence of overcoming any bad habit or addiction though? The perhaps unpalatable truths and their consequences that you recognize bother you more than the loss of your emotional crutch would and thereby spurs you toward positive change?

Russell Blackford said...

@Jeremiah, yeah sure. I can probably agree with most/all of that. I certainly agree that institutionalised false belief systems have all sorts of dangers.

But all that still makes the value to be placed on truth somewhat contextual. PZ may well agree with that, too, as I said in the post. But I do think it's worth teasing this out - and asking how far we value the truth for its own sake over all other values in all possible contexts or whether, to some extent, we value truth instrumentally (as I think we do) and sometimes value other things that can conflict with commitment to the truth.

I'm not sure that I have any argument with PZ on this, and he's not required to go into the same issues that I would have. After all, it's his blog! On the other hand, I think it's worth getting into some issues over here that he doesn't get into.

Notagod said...

@Marshall - I hope you have a nice day as well.

So its just the one sentence you object to? Because that was just an example, you know, an illustration. Surely, you can think of other examples as well? I could go on, of course, but I will opt for compassion instead.

Also, nothing I wrote stated or suggested that you or your "we" were palinophiles. Let's get that straight, shall we??? ;)

Marshall said...

@Jeremiah:
examples where institutionalized false beliefs were better than truthful ones due to some other benefit

How about "All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"? ... the very foundation of secular society (taking "Creator" as poetic license) ... wheares clearly Loughner is not "equal" to Gifford, by any other metric.

Speaking of Alcoholism, the AA 12 Steps: "1. Admitted we were powerless.... 2. Came to believe that a Power greather than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God..." And in general the large body of results that religious conversion can give symptomatic relief from drug addiction and promote pro-social character change.

How about medical pain relief? Would you recommend embracing the true sensation that your body is "really" producing? The illusion of being pain-free can actually assist physical healing.


I am all in favor of people abandoning their crutches, but I find it morally repugnant to assert that all crutches are bad on their face, and lame people should limp along however they can.

...and I hope this doesn't sound snotty... but if PZ wasted his time at his beloved sister's memorial being angry at a complete stranger for some well-intentioned if silly words, delivered presumably at the request of somebody present, that's sad, and he could use some new tools for emotional control. I say this as someone who struggles with petty, spiteful, unfair anger about stupid stuff. I don't want to be angry.

Russell Blackford said...

The last example is certainly a case where truth is not the overriding value. There are many such cases. In fact, they're ubiquitous. But there are also many cases where it really is the overriding value, or as close to this as any value can ever be. E.g. in the practice of science.

We mustn't lose sight of that.