Three Meanings of the Word "Rights" ; Atheists are Confused

Print This Post

596 Responses

  1. J says:

    @Clark

    government is not merely "something we all do together", but potentially a destructive force that can [and frequently does] commit [varying degrees of] evil

    Fixed that for you.

  2. Renee Jones says:

    Funny. The libertarians and conservatives are always telling me that the third category does not exist.

    [-D: Fixed typo]

  3. J says:

    Ah, if only I could edit. That was a (hopefully obvious) bit of snark. Not a large bit, but a bit.

    More accurately, I fixed it for me. I wasn't presupposing any right to claim I can speak for you.

  4. Renee Jones says:

    Egad. I wish I could spell correctly on this tablet!

  5. GP says:

    You covered what I was going to say here near the end of your post – atheists, whether they like it or not, have inherited the cultural baggage of their ancestors, 7000 years of Sumerio-Persian-Judeo-Greco-Confucian-Buddhist-Roman-Christian-Hindu-Muslim morality that is deeply ingrained in their psyche, despite them not knowing or acknowledging where it came from. Other animals have no such morality – we built outs from scratch, and religion was its first iteration.

  6. Anonymous Coward says:

    Okay so because atheists don't believe in magical deities, they can't possibly be able to comprehend abstract concepts such as morality, human rights, and good values? Wow, that is the most foolish thing I've read today.

    Just more evidence that you can't talk to the faithful, they don't know how to use their brains in an objective way. Also more proof that I should update my Popehat link to http://www.popehat.com/author/ken/

  7. BBnet3000 says:

    "assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)"

    Huh? Atheists dont believe that ideas exist?

  8. jb says:

    I can't speak for the modern atheists who are the target of this post, so take this comment with a grain of salt as to its perspective:

    The belief in a basic underlying morality ("Usually killing is wrong, and when it's wrong it's murder," "Usually taking people's stuff without their consent is wrong, and when it's wrong it's theft," etc) does not rely on the existence or pronouncements of God or anyone who is not human. Many atheists and agnostics believe in the existence of this underlying morality and are confused and offended when religious people say things like "Without Jesus/Muhammad/Buddha/Zeus, there is no right or wrong." That, to them, seems backwards, like saying "Without kilograms, there is no gravity." Religious people give a name and divine nature to the innate human tendency to ethics, then reverse the flow of causation.

    Atheists who are fully materialist in the way you describe are (a) not typical of most nonreligious people, (b) wrong for the reasons you outline in this post, and (c) possibly strawmen.

  9. Clark says:

    @Anonymous Coward

    Okay so because atheists don't believe in magical deities, they can't possibly be able to comprehend abstract concepts such as morality, human rights, and good values? Wow, that is the most foolish thing I've read today.

    I absolutely agree – that is the most foolish thing I've read today too.

    Unfortunately, you're the one who said it, not me.

    I did not say that atheists can't comprehend abstract concepts – I said that there is a tension – a fatal one, I suggest – between their simultaneously professing to be

    1) materialists who believe in nothink, Lebowksi, that is not detectable with scientific instruments

    2) moralists who believe in "justice" and "rights"

  10. GP says:

    @jb

    Where does that "underlying morality" come from? It didn't just pop up out of nowhere. It was codified and evolved over millennia in governments, laws, and social structures – and those structures first congealed as religion. Religion is what first united homo sapiens, Our oldest extant buildings (Gobekli Tepe et al.) are religious in nature.

    Could it have happened without religion? Probably, but it didn't.

  11. Clark says:

    @jb

    The belief in a basic underlying morality ("Usually killing is wrong, and when it's wrong it's murder," "Usually taking people's stuff without their consent is wrong, and when it's wrong it's theft," etc) does not rely on the existence or pronouncements of God or anyone who is not human.

    I entirely agree.

    I can posit non-materialist non-theists who believe in invisible things like "justice" but do not believe in other invisible things like "God".

    That's perfectly coherent.

    Religious people give a name and divine nature to the innate human tendency to ethics, then reverse the flow of causation.

    Perhaps so. I am not arguing that morality flows only from a belief in God.

    I am interested in hearing you unpack what you mean by "innate human tendency to ethics". Is that merely a statement of sociology ("humans have norms"), or does it suggest that there is some objective moral reason why barbecuing a live baby just to hear it scream is wrong?

    Atheists who are fully materialist in the way you describe are (a) not typical of most nonreligious people

    You're moving the goalposts a bit (as many modern brights do) to conflate "atheists" with "nonreligious".

    Nonreligious people are much like nonaffiliated voters – each side can claim them for their own, but really they're the low IQ, low education demographic that espouse a variety of conflicting views depending on how the questions are phrased.

    I speak in this post only to modern atheists / Brights.

    (b) wrong for the reasons you outline in this post, and (c) possibly strawmen.

    Strawmen? I can give you a list of four right this second ( the "Four Horsemen") and a list of ten thousand with a few minutes on Google.

  12. Anon says:

    By this I mean that in the pre-Brown v Board of Ed era in Kansas, blacks did not have the right to attend school as equals according to either the social milieu in Kansas or according to the government in Kansas.

    But surely they did have the right according to the constitution of the United States? Brown v. Board did not establish a new law, but merely strike down a set of lower-priority ones (state laws establishing separate schools) as being in conflict with higher-priority ones (the constitution).

    Is it not therefore disingenuous to say "gov acknowledgement: false" when in fact one set of rules said "yes" and another set said "no"?

  13. Will "scifantasy" Frank says:

    “All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable."

    REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

    "Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"

    YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

    "So we can believe the big ones?"

    YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

    "They're not the same at all!"

    YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

    "Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"

    MY POINT EXACTLY.

    –Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

  14. Orphan says:

    Clark -

    Is science detectable with scientific instruments?

    (Just because we can't observe something directly doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or can't be observed. There are tangible differences between societies with different concepts of justice and rights.)

  15. Andrew C says:

    There really isn't any tension between (1) and (2) there. To use a much simpler example, I believe in objects of furniture that are chairs, even though I have no way to scientifically detect chair apart from the component atoms that a chair is made of. And I also believe that there is no way to impart or remove "chairness" from a given configuration of atoms without altering those atoms, even conceptually. That something is a chair is just a pattern that emerges from the atoms. But you wouldn't say that I don't believe in chairs just because I don't think that chairs have any independent ontological basis.

    As to objectivity, well, good people can disagree on exactly where the boundary between a chair and a stool is, but if someone calls a sofa a chair they're just wrong.

  16. Xenocles says:

    Alternatively, rights exist but they are only operative between humans. Nature doesn't seem to give a damn whether it kills us, or how brutal that killing is, so it seems odd to assert a "natural right" to life. It doesn't seem inconsistent to claim that it is wrong to kill another human without an urgent necessity (or perhaps even at all, though I don't subscribe to that limitation).

    In fact, materialism might provide a more rational rationale for such things: if this is the only life we get it becomes all the more important that we not muck it up for each other. A good lawyer could make the case that murder in the framework of a belief system with perfect justice and a paradisaical afterlife is an act of intensely merciful self-sacrifice – you would be sending your victim to Heaven at the cost of your own damnation.

  17. David says:

    @Anonymous Coward

    Just more evidence that you can't talk to the faithful, they don't know how to use their brains in an objective way. Also more proof that I should update my Popehat link to http://www.popehat.com/author/ken/

    While you're doing that, be sure to reflect on the fact that Ken is, or in living memory has been, a Presbyterian deacon. ;)

  18. Anonymous Coward says:

    @David
    So? His posts are about law, especially 1st amendment stuff. That's why I come here. You think I can't stand to read a theists words? I only object when the words are stupid.

  19. Gweskoyen says:

    Bullshit. Many atheists aren't materialists, and many don't believe in rights at all, e.g. the utilitarianists. This is just one of those stupid apologia that generalize something about atheists trying to pretend that Christianity isn't an incoherent ideology only believed out of habit.

  20. David says:

    Just so y'all can keep it straight:
    Ken: "liberal" believer, Protestant, libertarian
    Patrick: former Protestant believer turned agnostic, libertarian
    David: "moderate-to-conservative" believer, libertarian
    Derrick: ?
    Grandy: ?
    Charles: atheist, IIRC
    Clark: anarcho-capitalist Catholic believer, libertarian
    Via Angus: free spirit, barterer

  21. WajNurfEs says:

    "materialists who believe in nothink, Lebowksi, that is not detectable with scientific instruments."

    I think you're misapplying this position. There's a difference between rejecting claims of external, independent phenomena for which no measurable evidence exists, and rejecting abstractions because they're not measurable.

  22. Clark says:

    @Xenocles:

    In fact, materialism might provide a more rational rationale for such things: if this is the only life we get it becomes all the more important that we not muck it up for each other.

    You're just pushing it back one remove.

    Why?

    Even if this is the one life that you get, why should I not kill you? Why should I value your continued existence?

    The only two answers I see are:

    1) you believe in some non-material thing ("justice", "the morality of utilitarianism", "fairness", whatever).

    or

    2) our shared Hellenistic / Christian culture expressing itself through everything from Bach and Mozart to Stephen King to Tom & Kerry cartoons tells us so…but there is merely indoctrination here, and it has no moral weight.

  23. Canadian says:

    >ethical construct is incoherent and lacking in rigor
    This applies more to theism and your argument. It's quite rational to have and advocate morals and ethics in pursuit of shared goals. Why confuse them with a magical sky book written by god or having any mystical properties?

    Rights are simply a way of codifying the moral beliefs.

    Goals differ, morals differ, therefore rights differ.

    Personally, the goal of ensuring everyone follows an imaginary being's tenets is where theism passes from harmless irrationality to harmful idiocy.

    Aside: I'm not against some healthy irrationality. I'm quite fond of my three fickle goods who only randomly answer my prayers!

  24. Clark says:

    @Anonymous Coward

    Just more evidence that you can't talk to the faithful, they don't know how to use their brains in an objective way.

    What is an "objective way" to use one's brain?

    By the way, if you know of one, I propose a test of my rationality / problem-solving skills / reading comprehension / etc. against yours.

  25. Xenocles says:

    @Clark

    I suppose the retort would be why should we give the edicts of God any weight? Does ultimate might make ultimate right?

    We could come up with secular, principled justifications for moral concepts. I hesitate to do so before having my coffee, but you could probably find some good ones out there. At any rate, I think Heinlein did a good takedown of natural rights in Starship Troopers (which I alluded to above).

  26. Lizard says:

    When you say "atheists believe in justice", you seem to be using "belief" to mean "believe that there is actually some sort of external thing called justice that transcends the meat brains of the humans who think about it", and I doubt that's what most atheists mean when they use the world "belief". "Justice" is as "real" as "calculus" or "beauty" or "Middle Earth"… it's a concept we form in our minds. My belief that there are moral/ethical principles that should serve as guides for what we *should* do that transcend other conceptions of such principles is not based on the idea there are free floating particles of justice zooming through the universe. Saying "It was wrong to enslave people, no matter what the law at the time said" is saying "If I apply my values and ethics to past situations, I reach a different conclusion from those who, at the time, applied their values and ethics to them."

    At some level, all of our values, principles, etc., are arbitrary. Why is it acceptable to mock rednecks and not blacks? No real reason that holds up to logical debate, but I share the basic values just the same. Redneck jokes make me laugh; racial jokes make me uncomfortable, unless they're mocking racism and racists. Are these feelings derived from some sort of universal truth, encoded in the fabric of space and time? Of course not.

    The idea of eating cats repulses me on an incredibly deep level. Can I justify this logically? No. It is 100% the result of my cultural conditioning, and that conditioning is not based on careful and rational assessment of things, it's the end result of a long chain of coincidences and random events. So what? It still repulses me, and I still oppose it, and I will react negatively to those who engage in it. The effort needed to reprogram my mind to ignore that conditioning seems, to me, to be far more than is justified by any harm I may do by NOT reprogramming it. If the culture changes so much that I face strong negative effects if I stick to my guns that "eating cats is bad", I will either have to force myself to change, or accept the negative effects.

    Belief in a God who provides "universal truths" is exactly as arbitrary, just far less honest — as history has shown the "universal moral truths" dispensed by God change generation to generation, that the are uncounted thousands of Gods dispensing universal truths, and even given the same God, and the same Holy Book, people will kill and torture each other over what those "universal truths" actually are.

    What is the difference between "I used to think God hated gays, but now that all my friends won't associate with me if I say that, I've reread some Biblical commentary and realized I'd misunderstood God's word. He's always been totally cool with gays, I was just wrong about what he meant." and "I used to think all property was theft, but now that my little underground comic has become a huge multimedia empire and I have to deal with people using the work I've created in ways I disapprove of, exploiting my creativity without my consent, I understand that there is a moral component to ownership."

    We create theories of ethics and morality; we decide on basic principles, inevitably arbitrary to some extent, because even if you can trace the principles to some neurological or survival basis, you still have to decide how much to *value* them, and there's so many to choose from that you can't include them all and give them all equal weight, and then you apply those theories to form conclusions. If you and someone else can manage to agree on a standard of measuring outputs, you can then compare if your theory or theirs actually produces those outputs. Because a lot of what we value, and how we weigh those values, is a consequence of our evolution, further shaped by the needs of the society we live in, we tend to have sufficient similarity in our choices that we can form rough consensus. We're smart enough to recognize our own irrationality, and so we construct systems that account for it — written laws, applied by at least hypothetically impartial courts and governments. At an ultimate extreme, though, we must accept we are basically playing a game where we've agreed on the rules, and that they're not woven into the cosmos: "Roll D20+mods against AC" is not any more natural than "Roll %ile dice under your Firearms skill". Even evolutionary explanations fail to be truly innate: If you can show "Our brains evolved to value compassion", it does not follow that this implies a universal truth of some sort — what if our brains evolved WRONG? What if the universe HATES compassion and thinks we're vile for practicing it? Or, our brains evolved compassion to better achieve some other end, such as reproduction — but what makes reproduction *moral*? We evolved to value reproduction, for tautological reasons, but does that make it *right*?

    To anyone who might ask "But if everything is ultimately just deciding on some made up rules, how can you CARE about anything? How can you be passionate? How can you fight for justice, if you admit your idea of justice is simply the end result of a long series of calculations and equations that began from an ultimately random seed?", I will answer, "Go check out some edition wars on RPG.net, and get back to me." Want a universal truth? Once humans decide on which arbitrary idea they like the best, the arbitrariness of it stops mattering.

  27. GP says:

    @Clark

    "our shared Hellenistic / Christian culture expressing itself through everything from Bach and Mozart to Stephen King to Tom & Kerry cartoons tells us so…but there is merely indoctrination here, and it has no moral weight."

    I don't think that's fair. Isn't it possible to acknowledge that an idea is good and reasonable, even though we disagree with the source of the idea (religion)? I think even the most strident atheist can get behind commandments 5 through 10, for example.

  28. Orphan says:

    Also, Clark – you seem to be confusing -universal- morality with -human- morality.

    See Eliezer Yudkowsky's metaethics sequence – http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Metaethics_sequence

    Of particular interest to you might be this:
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/rn/no_universally_compelling_arguments/

    No, a mind created out of nothing will not arrive at the same morality humans possess. This is not the same as saying that there is no human morality. (Ayn Rand's position was quite similar, although she argued that there -was- a morality necessary to modern human existence.)

  29. SpaceGoat1701 says:

    1) There is no "is-ought distinction"; it's only a fantasy of bored philosophers. Any "ought" that deserves anyone else's attention must rely on what "is."

    Imagine if I said, "Right now, I ought to be able to jump down from the Empire State Building and land safely on the ground." Unless I'm actually atop the Empire State Building and have ready access to a parachute, the is makes the ought lunacy.

    2) You overlook another possibility, one that was important in America's Founding generation: Objective rights derive not from undetectable ether, but from human nature. Human happiness and prosperity depend ultimately on the sanctity of human rights.

  30. Clark says:

    @Gweskoyen

    Bullshit. Many atheists aren't materialists, and many don't believe in rights at all, e.g. the utilitarianists.

    Fair enough. I think I explained six or seven times that this is not a criticism of atheists who disbelieve in rights; it is only a criticism of atheists who do.

    This is just one of those stupid apologia

    Surely a Bright person like yourself can argue this case on the merits with out resorting to name-calling?

    that generalize something about atheists trying to pretend that Christianity isn't an incoherent ideology only believed out of habit.

    Please show me a single sentence in this post where I defended Christianity or said anything what-so-ever about it other than noting the fact of its historical existence.

  31. Andrew C says:

    Oh, I should also point out that I think you should include "The rights that God thinks you have" along with the other ones as something in addition to the rights that you actually have. If you became convinced somehow that God thought that death and pain were good I would hope you would say "that's wrong" rather than just going on to become a serial killer.

  32. David says:

    @Anonymous Coward

    You think I can't stand to read a theists words? I only object when the words are stupid.

    Ah, so your objection isn't to Clark's theism but to what you perceive as the stupidity of his words. Thanks for clarifying. Let's look again at your objection:

    Okay so because atheists don't believe in magical deities, they can't possibly be able to comprehend abstract concepts such as morality, human rights, and good values? Wow, that is the most foolish thing I've read today.

    So you want to (a) exclude "magical deities", but (b) include comprehension of abstracta.

    The point of Clark's post, as I read it, is that members of a certain class of "Brights" claim to adhere to strict materialism (or are best understood as doing so despite their rhetoric), but appeal to ethical abstracta even though these are unavailable within the horizon of strict materialism. Clark infers from this that these "Brights" are proposing an incoherent model.

    Now, there are a few rational ways one might object to this argument. One might argue that these "Brights" appeal insincerely to ethical abstracta, taking them as descriptive rather than normative. One might argue that strict materialism may comprise abstracta (i.e., real entities not spatially extended). One might argue that "Brights" tolerate the cognitive dissonance of radical moral relativism despite the stridency and seeming absolutism of their ethical pronouncements. One might seek to invert the notion that humans are bound by principles to derive the notion that principles are an epiphenomenon of humans. One might do all sorts of things by way of rational progress in rebuttal to Clark's point.

    Or, one might throw a sub-rational hissy fit, emitting non-contributory content such as "Wow, that is the most foolish thing I've read today."

    That's fine, too. But it's slightly embarrassing when the one taking that low road does so in arrogant defense of a presumed high road.

  33. Clark says:

    @Orphan

    Also, Clark – you seem to be confusing -universal- morality with -human- morality.

    See Eliezer Yudkowsky's metaethics sequence –

    Of particular interest to you might be this:

    No, a mind created out of nothing will not arrive at the same morality humans possess. This is not the same as saying that there is no human morality. (Ayn Rand's position was quite similar, although she argued that there -was- a morality necessary to modern human existence.)

    I'm a big fan of Eliezer's (even if Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality takes a turn from rationality into laughable political feminism part way through), and I'm aware of his arguments.

    I'm not confusing them so much as not addressing them; for the purposes of the debate here I did not feel the need to distinguish between "objective morality that humans believe in" and "objective morality that AIs 700 million light years from here believe in".

    I also have not crisply though through whether I think that there can, in fact, be two different objective moralities (one appropriate for us, one for them), or if I think that there is necessarily only one.

    In short: "outside the scope of this document".

  34. zilong555 says:

    I do not believe that being a materialist precludes the reliance upon abstract concepts. Humans are of limited intelligence. We tend to process information using what amount to heuristics, and we do not perceive reality directly. Thus, while one may not believe that there is an absolute, non-arbitrary entity in reality corresponding to their idea of, say, "freedom of speech", it could still be a convenient means of processing and communicating information about certain types of patterns.

    I question Clark's unbacked assertion that all but "extreme outliers" do not believe that all three stated classes of rights exist in a non-arbitrary, objective sense. I also question Clark's unbacked assertion that all but "extreme outliers" believe in "ethical norms that are not merely pragmatic but objective and true".

  35. Somebody says:

    Even if this is the one life that you get, why should I not kill you? Why should I value your continued existence?

    The usual answer is "enlightened self-interest." I'm less likely to be killed on a whim if society in general believes that killing people on a whim is morally wrong, so I have some interest in propping up that view of morality.

  36. camazotz says:

    It is hard to follow this when your initial two assertions about atheism are false. As an atheist, and knowing many other atheists, it's worth pointing out that the crowd in this side of the fence is just as diverse as it is on the other side; so just as I wouldn't use the same process of argumentation to appeal to a Christian or a Muslim, I'd suggest that maybe doing the same for atheism is going to be problematic as well. Despite this, I really don't know of any atheists who are pure materialists….in fact quite the opposite, you can't function as such in any sort of scientific reality, to be honest. Likewise, I am especially not aware of any atheists who somehow assert or believe in absolute and prescriptive rights….quite the opposite, normally. In fact it's typical that you see such processes of thought as par for the course in most forms of religious belief, but in my experience a defining moment for atheism is realization that morality is ultimately defined by all of us, as people, and our construction of the social contract.

  37. Clark says:

    @David:

    The point of Clark's post, as I read it, is that a certain class of "Brights" claim to adhere to strict materialism (or are best understood as doing so despite their claims), but appeal to ethical abstracta even though these are unavailable within the horizon of strict materialism. Clark infers from this that these "Brights" are proposing an incoherent model.

    Rem acu tetigisti.

    Now, there are a few rational ways one might object to this argument…

    Listen up, Anonymous Coward: David is giving you some really good advice on how to debate this issue.

    I think it was Chesterton who said that the worst argument for Christianity is Christians. I'd extend that to note that the worst arguers for atheism are often atheists.

  38. Aelfric says:

    Clark, you make a large category error, I think, when you conflate atheism and materialism–also, to nitpick, I don't think you mean they believe only in the 'visible,' but rather the 'observable' (I believe in wind, for instance). And I am sure there are some who doubt it, but I believe most atheists believe in the concept of 'love.' Your basic point, it seems to me, boils down to the old argument that atheists cannot subscribe to a system of morality. And to some degree, I agree that this is an incoherence. But positing a deity just masks the incoherence, because you are still left with the Euthyphro dilemma; namely, could God have mandated "thou shalt kill?" If not, why not? At any rate, yes, modern atheism is incoherent. But to my mind, no more or less so than any other human thought structure. Thanks.

  39. Clark says:

    @Somebody:

    The usual answer is "enlightened self-interest." I'm less likely to be killed on a whim if society in general believes that killing people on a whim is morally wrong, so I have some interest in propping up that view of morality.

    I think I debunked that argument fairly conclusively over the course of five or six paragraphs in the post above.

    If you have details of how you disagree, please tell me.

  40. Gweskoyen says:

    This article is basically trolling, and because I voiced my displeasure on Twitter, I got blocked by @Popehat. I am somewhat miffed.

  41. jb says:

    GP,
    Given human nature (specifically, the part where we aren't really deterred from bad deeds by other humans), religion was necessary to codify ethical/legal norms ("This is right, not because I say so but because God says so, and if you don't do it you will die, not because I will kill you but because God will").

    The fact that religion was necessary for the development of laws doesn't mean God exists, or that, once the meme of ethics existed, it couldn't be perpetuated by nonbelievers.

    Clark,
    Fair enough on the strawmen thing, and I think that goes to explain your other comments on my line of reasoning. As an atheist/agnostic myself (I choose not to be offended by your calling my category "low IQ"), I thoroughly agree with you in your condemnation of the extreme moralist atheists your post is directed at–however, I also strongly dispute the opposing premise that nonmaterial morality = God.

    "I am interested in hearing you unpack what you mean by "innate human tendency to ethics". Is that merely a statement of sociology ("humans have norms"), or does it suggest that there is some objective moral reason why barbecuing a live baby just to hear it scream is wrong?"

    I don't really have an answer that anyone but me would support. Humans (of all and no religions) generally have agreed, throughout history, on some basic ethical principles: Killing people is wrong, with some exceptions; stealing is wrong, with some exceptions; torture is wrong, with some exceptions; etc. Where that comes from, I don't know. I would say from two places, if I had to guess: 1), empathy–humans can comprehend the golden rule, more or less, and don't like to see it violated, and (2) natural selection–societies that didn't follow those principles either got curbstomped by outraged neighbors or fell victim to internal dissension and then got curbstomped by expansionist neighbors.

    I would also add the provision that acts which both cause suffering and are wholly unnatural are wrong–i.e. causing suffering different in kind than that which would be suffered in nature. I.E. eating meat is morally OK, since cows, pigs, deer, rabbits etc get eaten in nature, but factory farming is not, since the suffering they are subjected to in that regime would never occur in the wild.

    Those basic principles underly why I think it is objectively morally wrong to barbecue a live baby just to hear it scream: It violates the empathy principle, a society that deemed it not morally wrong would not last, and baby-torture is unnatural. Babies die all the time, for various reasons, and some of those reasons are morally OK to ignore–I don't demand that we all dedicate 100% of our time to malaria reduction, that we end war because of collateral damage, or that we engage in geoengineering to eliminate natural disasters. But that gets into the trolley problem, which is taking the discussion (sic) wildly off-track.

  42. Skeptico says:

    Clark:

    Here’s your error:

    they believe in rights, and not merely in a legal or social descriptive way, but in an absolute and prescriptive way.

    Wrong. Rights (the non-material abstract principle type) clearly change over time. Slavery used to be accepted; now it’s not. There are things we do today that may well be considered wrong in the future. Since your entire argument is based on that straw man, the rest of it fails.

  43. Doctor X says:

    Hasty generalizations with a dash of Straw Men constitute both points 1 and 2. The rest fails with the fallacy.

  44. Scott says:

    I think one of my biggest issues is that this post lumps so many people together, I have replies to several points, but I cannot speak for any other atheists. There is no rulebook or set of guidelines that we are forced to follow or think. I can only speak for myself. As a person who is both an atheist and wants to have a consistent and logical worldview, this topic is quite pertinent to me.

    I generally consider myself a materialist, but I do not think that human beings have inherent rights. I agree that the is-ought problem is a very real barrier to these rights, it is one of the reasons I struggle with objective and subjective morality.

    Admittedly, I find this topic difficult to work through, but a premise that I see being promoted today, and which I currently think is "most" right, involves objective morality based on well-being. Dennet has written a book about this and for internet people, Matt Dillahunty has debated about this. Essentially, "good" actions are those that create the least amount of harm. Potentially, if we had the tools, this could be measured. Without those tools, we can only make our best approximations of this. By this standard, one can judge actions both within and outside of our culture and our perspective (or even our time).

    However, there is still the is-ought problem, and unless the other person wants to live in a world were we do the least harm, then they have no internal obligation to work towards this. Regardless, as a person who wants to live in a "civilized" society where all people are treated fairly, it gives me an objective way to measure my actions.

    P.S. I really enjoy this blog and didn't expect my first post to be contrarian.

  45. Clark says:

    @zilong555:

    I do not believe that being a materialist precludes the reliance upon abstract concepts.

    Certainly not. You're arguing that
    Platonic forms may not exist but that an Aristotelian can still use abstract concepts.

    We tend to process information using what amount to heuristics, and we do not perceive reality directly. Thus, while one may not believe that there is an absolute, non-arbitrary entity in reality corresponding to their idea of, say, "freedom of speech", it could still be a convenient means of processing and communicating information about certain types of patterns.

    Wordier than my formulation, but I think we're on the same page, both in the sense that we're talking about the same thing, and in the sense that we agree that it is entirely rational and consistent for a materialist rationalist to use categories in such a pragmatic way.

    I question Clark's unbacked assertion that all but "extreme outliers" do not believe that all three stated classes of rights exist in a non-arbitrary, objective sense.

    I'll admit that I have no hard data; it is merely my sense from reading widely.

  46. MEP says:

    I don't like your generalization of atheists in your second point. I am a naturalist (I do not believe in the supernatural. There is a difference between this and materialism as you see it). I do not believe in absolute rights. Rights are a cultural construct, nothing more.

    Cultural constructs are useful things, valuable things even, but they are not absolute objective reality. From there, the rest of your essay kind of falls apart except when talking about a very specific kind of atheist (one I've never encountered btw).

  47. KWA says:

    Doesn't rule utilitarianism provide a materialistic basis for "rights"? Establishing the right to non-discrimination in public education creates the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That's a testable hypothesis verifiable by objective facts.

    I don't know to what extent modern "Brights" adhere to this methodology, but it's at least consistent.

  48. David says:

    Listen up, Anonymous Coward: David is giving you some really good advice on how to debate this issue.

    I think it was Chesterton who said that the worst argument for Christianity is Christians. I'd extend that to note that the worst arguers for atheism are often atheists.

    Maybe if he'd hang more with theists, he'd learn to be more tough-minded and analytical.

  49. Ben says:

    I agree that the view you describe is incoherent, and that many (most?) modern atheists currently hold the view you describe.

    I think the dilemma you describe is solvable, and more to the point, that I personally have solved it. (Well, other people solved it, and I read their stuff.) I've embraced utilitarianism; the only good thing is people leading good lives. (Defining "good lives" is a hard problem that hasn't yet been solved to my satisfaction, but it involves things like happiness, relationships, and growth. These things aren't external Platonic ideals; they're derived from physical human brains, and if brains were different, then these values would be different.)

    I reject the idea that "moral rights" exist. If something unjust happens, that probably makes someone unhappy, and unhappiness is bad. The injustice isn't bad in itself, though. If you somehow had an injustice that didn't hurt anyone, there would be no problem.

    Of course, ideas like rights can be useful shorthand when thinking about ethics, because it distills a lot of complicated concepts into a form that humans can easily think about. It's like doing math in your head and rounding pi to 3: it will get you a usable answer quickly and reliably, but it's technically false, and you lose precision. To use your example: should I be allowed to own a pistol? We could try to calculate costs (I might use it to rob people; I might shoot someone accidentally) and benefits (I might prevent a crime; I might have fun at the shooting range). That would be ideal, but getting a good answer would take months of work at least, and quite possibly decades. I don't have that kind of time. Thinking about the issue in terms of rights is one of several reasonable shortcuts you might use, even though those rights don't actually exist, and even though it won't give you a perfect answer.

  50. Duncan Byers says:

    Clark –

    You're confusing a testable "thing" ("god" = being/entity/power) with a non-testable concept ("justice" or "morality") that is expressed through action but which, in and of itself, has no testable substance (I know, I know – God shows himself through his works! See my comments on such evidence below). The alleged power that comes through belief – power of prayer, healing, etc. – is also testable. The "rights" of which you speak are only testable to the extent that the "rights" are agreed upon and expressed through the actions or inactions of human beings.

    There is absolutely no tension as you have tried to argue. I can tell you that there are underlying moral values – "justice" and "rights" – because those values manifest themselves in ways that are detectable and measurable. We can discuss what the source may be, but there is absolutely no argument that human beings operate with a (varying) set of morals that they impose on the society around them. There is a general feeling of disgust and moral violation when we hear of atrocities. It is shared generally among most people, to varying degrees. The source is irrelevant for this discussion – the moral structure exists because it manifests itself.

    However, I'm still waiting for the measurable physical manifestation of group prayer. Healing. Walking on water. Dead guy gets up after three days and walks around. God watching over me. God's plan in the slaughter of children in (pick a third world rathole – or U.S. inner cities). Etc. Etc.

    Your argument is, with all respect, a false dichotomy.

  51. Obvious net trolling. Come on, Ken.

    Step 1: create a strawman "group" by identifying a demographic trait and conflating it with an organized group. You have to be fairly subtle, or the trollbait will see it. If it's as obvious as like "Southern Baptists" vs "Women aged 20-29 with a BS degree", people will detect that the former group actually exists cohesively, while the latter is simply a selection from the masses defined by some set of external critieria. So you have to sugarcoat it a little bit, but the initial tease with "American atheists" adds a bit of official-y-ness to it. Good pick.

    Step 2: throw something shiny and controversial in the middle of the group and watch the fun. Pick and choose the easy openings to kick in some verbal swordplay; laugh at net schmucks.

    I must admit, the discussion on your "I don't have a position, but this is interesting" and Clark's "I have a position and here it is, dammit" angles with regards to anti-discrimination law was much more interesting. I was disinclined to agree with Clark at the beginning of that, but I was moved by his points, as well as some commenters. Overall, very interesting discussion to follow.

    By contrast, this thread is just noise. If you select the behavior and action of a specific set of people (such as "this set of people who say they believe the same thing"), then it's a much deeper and more engaging discussion. Otherwise, you're simply putting words in the mouth of "an atheist" and attacking "all atheists" with it. That's why so many comments attempt to qualify the members with "not all atheists think x", an obvious sign of a bad seed.

    1/10, would not troll again.

  52. MEP says:

    "I assert that almost everyone in the modern West, including "Brights" / "new atheists" / Ayn Rand followers / etc. acknowledges these three distinct things and acknowledges them as distinct. And it's that final one, the acknowledgement of non-material abstract principles, that puts the contradiction in modern atheism."

    I've never met a fellow atheist who accepts the third definition of "rights" as anything other than a fairy tale that theists tell themselves. There's your problem. You're ascribing to us something we don't actually believe. Rights only exist as part of a cultural framework (as Rudolf Rocker once put it: The only rights you have are the ones you assert for yourself). So-called "natural rights" are bullshit.

    We take rights for ourselves (for obvious reasons) and we grant rights to others because as social animals it's advantageous for us to do so in order to receive the shared benefits of a complex society. That's it. There's no contradiction there.

  53. Anonymous Coward says:

    @Michael Donnelly

    It's not Ken, it's Clark. Troll posts on popehat are inevitably from Clark.

  54. Clark says:

    @Scott:

    I think one of my biggest issues is that this post lumps so many people together

    How so? I tried to take pains to talk only about materialist atheists who believe in objective morality. How much finer do I need to dice it?

    As a person who is both an atheist and wants to have a consistent and logical worldview, this topic is quite pertinent to me.

    Excellent! I welcome the debate; my goals in life are exactly the same. For the record, I was once an atheist and it was my attempting to resolve this very contradiction that led me to theism.

    I generally consider myself a materialist, but I do not think that human beings have inherent rights.

    Dandy. You are consistent.

    Admittedly, I find this topic difficult to work through

    As did I.

    but a premise that I see being promoted today, and which I currently think is "most" right, involves objective morality based on well-being. Dennet has written a book about this

    Indeed. I found it uncompelling; not his best work.

    Essentially, "good" actions are those that create the least amount of harm.

    This is, at best, utilitarianism. At worst, it pushes the question back a bit.

    What is "harm" ? Damage done to thinking and feeling individuals.

    Why should I care? Because…um…hand waving.

    Potentially, if we had the tools, this could be measured.

    We've gone back to the future, and hopefully Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart mill can figure out a way to get one point twenty one giga units of utility to return us to the present day.

    We're looking under the lamppost, though, if we think that the problem with utilitarianism is finding units of measurement. The actual problem, and the one that can not – in my opinion – be solved is answering the question of why anyone should care about the utility of others.

    I've got a lot of food. You've got none. If I share with you you survive…and I have no desert. If I don't share, I have ice cream.

    Who cares? I really love ice cream.

    P.S. I really enjoy this blog and didn't expect my first post to be contrarian.

    I, for one, would rather have interesting disagreement than boring praise.

  55. Clark says:

    @Anonymous Coward

    It's not Ken, it's Clark. Troll posts on popehat are inevitably from Clark.

    "Troll" apparently means, in Anonymous Coward's lexicon, "things I disagree with but am incapable of arguing coherently against".

    Yes, but that definition, I pride myself on "troll posts".

  56. Docrailgun says:

    Try #3.
    Clark,
    I don't think it's fair to conflate the patronizing militant atheists (who act very much like the militant evangelicals they claim to dislike) and 'modern atheists' any more than it is to say that all men support the "Men's Rights" groups or even to blame militant evangelicals on Christianity.
    Militant atheists don't speak for anyone but themselves, MRAs don't speak for men in general, and evangelicals don't speak for Christians. My opinion is that many evangelical groups aren't Christian at all, they are some sort of Old Testament Abrahamic religion. But, not being a Christian myself for some time, this is just my heathen opinion.
    You will no doubt have any number of people happy to debate you at great length about the poor sheeple' 'god delusion' or whatever.. but I ask that you remember that you're debating that person and not atheists as a whole.

  57. David says:

    For those of you who profess atheism but reject the pure materialism that disallows abstracta, I have a few questions:

    (1) What do you think abstracta are?

    (2) Do you regard them as real (i.e., non-extended things) or as nominal (i.e., a way of talking) or as something else?

    (3) Why do you believe in them and believe that they are not wholly reducible to material explanation?

    Take, for example, the proposition referenced by the English statement "a fresh orange is juicy". The proposition is also referenced by the French statement "une orange fraîche est juteuse", so what's in view here is the proposition, not the particular linguistic symbolic constructs we might use to wrangle it.

    What is the proposition? Is it real apart from its particular linguistic expressions? Whatever you think, why do you think so?

  58. Gregg says:

    I submit there is a fundamental flaw in that your basic premise that atheists are self described materialists…

    I did not say that atheists can't comprehend abstract concepts – I said that there is a tension – a fatal one, I suggest – between their simultaneously professing to be

    1) materialists who believe in nothink, Lebowksi, that is not detectable with scientific instruments

    I believe in the abstract concept of love.

  59. TerryP says:

    First, from one atheist's perspective, the central argument of this essay has some merit, but it should be noted that since god or gods do not exist, theists are just as confused about the is-ought problem, they just don't realize it because they believe in something false as an initial condition.

    So, I am an atheist and I recognize that all morality is subjective. The Islamist who destroys a girls school is behaving as morally to his system of ethics as does the soldier who kills him as he runs. There is no objectively true system of morality but I believe there is an objectively better system of morality.

    Liberal individualism, by which I mean the belief that all individuals own themselves but generally need to work together to fight the twin threats of anarchy and tyranny, produces objectively better outcomes for people in societies where it is the norm.

    The problem is that that system of morality falls apart when it is taken piecemeal. If, as Clark suggested, someone was to look at each potential murder in terms of its pragmatic utility, they wouldn't be following the above ethical system as a whole.

    If instead that person followed that ethical system pragmatically, but continued to follow the ethical system even when it wasn't the pragmatically in his or her interests, then they could be said to be valuing individual liberal rights.

    Now, the problem is that I said I believe that one system is superior. My Islamist opponent believes his system is superior. That means we will have a certain conflict when we meet because neither of us lacks the courage of our convictions. So be it. As the atheist, I recognize that my ethical system is based on subjective reality. As the theist, he believes his ethical system is commanded by God via the Sunna, the Quran, and the Hadith (if he is a Sunni, of course. For Shi'a, Salafi, or other Islamic extremists, other sources of divine guidance apply.) One of us is wrong and the other has a flexible morality… you decide.

  60. Renee Jones says:

    Are you sure your three categories are exhaustive? Where do instincts fit? I think that instinctive beliefs are the kind of thing that people mistakenly place in your third category. Objective, sort of given externally. Given as part if being human. Not absolute, but they seem absolute if you are a human.

  61. Somebody says:

    I think I debunked that argument fairly conclusively over the course of five or six paragraphs in the post above.

    If you have details of how you disagree, please tell me.

    It might be easier for me to provide those details if I were able to locate the five or six paragraphs of which you speak. Sadly, the language of your post is just a bit too flowery and metaphorical for me to make much sense of some of it. You touch on pragmatism here and there, but I don't see anything that specifically refutes the argument that my killing people is bad because doing so observably tends to increase my own personal chances of being killed, or the chances of someone else being killed in a way that decreases my quality of life.

  62. Clark says:

    @MEP

    I've never met a fellow atheist who accepts the third definition of "rights" as anything other than a fairy tale

    Having met any atheists, both when I was one and afterwards, I believe that some atheists announce that they do believe in rights, some announce that they do not, but many act and think as if they do.

    There's your problem. You're ascribing to us something we don't actually believe.

    Again, I stated several times in this post that I was arguing with those atheists who do believe in rights. If you don't, then I have no fight with you.

    So-called "natural rights" are bullshit.

    Well argued.

  63. Clark says:

    @Renee Jones

    Are you sure your three categories are exhaustive?

    Not at all! Please feel free to propose alternative systems of categorization.

    Where do instincts fit?

    I did cover the topic, in the left atheists and their prophet Darwin.

  64. Carl Schultz says:

    It is impossible to cut through the "fact" of gawd and jeebus…. and because. That's basically a believer's starting point. An atheist's starting point is so far from a believer's there can never(well a great amount of the time) a meaningfull conversation. That starting point has tons of baggage as a believer does minus an imaginary being. Get it now. All that wonderful myth is just icing on the cake of the species that can burn millions in indoor ovens or hundreds of thousands with an artificial star or trick other life forms to kill other life forms so kids can walk or save lives by making soap and sewers or tell wonderful stories to each other. And we're back to the beginning. And this is called right?!?! I call it absurd.

  65. Clark says:

    @Docrailgun

    By the way, love the username.

    I don't think it's fair to conflate the patronizing militant atheists (who act very much like the militant evangelicals they claim to dislike) and 'modern atheists' any more than it is to say that all men support the "Men's Rights" groups or even to blame militant evangelicals on Christianity.

    Valid point. I may have used the phrase "modern atheists" in a way that is not consistent with norms.

    In general, my entire post was about those atheists who believe in rights and materialism.

    I am not trying to attack militant a-hole atheists (and, yes, I entirely agree that they are the mirror image of militant a-hole theists); that's a different argument, and one that I find so obvious as to be boring, so I expect that I may never post about it.

    I was fighting here not against rude idiots, but against smart people who have thoughts and manners worthy of engagement with.

    Militant atheists don't speak for
    anyone but themselves, MRAs don't speak for men in general

    We're in agreement; moving on…

    I ask that you remember that you're debating that person and not atheists as a whole.

    I remembered that from the get-go; sorry if it was not clear in how I wrote the post.

  66. LeeC says:

    You appear to deride atheists based on the assumption that all atheists are Materialists in the strictest sense of the term possible.

    Do you also insist that every Christian follows the strictest interpretation of the bible?

    Anyway, the concept of "justice" has nothing to do with God, and everything to do with the social norms at that point in history. At certain times in human culture, selling babies into brothels was morally acceptable. The only reason it's not still common practice is because society has changed, not because the magic man in the sky has changed the rights he's given us.

  67. Neurokeen says:

    I don't find this argument incredibly convincing, although I wouldn't even consider myself a strict materialist. In short, I don't find the ethical problem leveled against a naive materialism as convincing as many of the other ones.

    In a naive sense, there's a strict correctness – materialism and a hard moral realism aren't strictly compatible. I don't see this as going as far as to assert that materialists can't talk about morals as if they might be out there, though, largely because treating something as if it exists isn't the same as saying it actually exists.

    (As an aside, I hate discussions that hinge around "existence" as a predicate, mostly because you get into muddying water and it becomes increasingly difficult to define what NOT having the property of existence entails.)

    The first problem with this argument is the heavy reliance on the is-ought "problem", which I've always found to be fairly weak – a good bit of work has chipped away at how it's often taken to be an overbearing issue when talking about ethics. Introduction of a goal-state is enough to render the problem impotent, and this can be done through either positing an axiomatic system which identifies the goal states, giving ethics a status to the materialist not unlike Euclidean geometry. Those that fit certain family characteristics can properly call themselves moral systems, and those rights exist within the context of those moral systems. Basically, I don't think there's anything incorrect with having an implied reliance on a moral system, and assert it as if the rights from that system are something objectively "out there" even when they might not be so.

    It seems mostly like you're trying to pidgeon-hole anyone who's not a hard moral realist into admitting that there is no such thing as a moral system and that some kind of anarchical ethical relativism is the only outcome for not adopting a hard moral realist stance, leaving only the social and governmental conceptions remaining.

    Why don't we have these same discussions for mathematics? We have different mathematical and geometric systems, but some systems are more useful than others, and so attain privileged status. We don't talk about "mathematical relativists", and the closest this discussion gets in that field is when the issue (rarely) comes up about the metaphysical status of the concepts of number and operation, harkening back all the way to good old Plato.

  68. Clark says:

    @Carl Schultz

    It is impossible to cut through the "fact" of gawd and jeebus…. and because. That's basically a believer's starting point.

    I suggest you look up the principle of charity, or steel manning, as some smart atheists call it, some time.

    My personal starting point on the road to belief was philosophy and a personal inquiry into morals (no relation to the
    Pirsig book which I found stupid).

    And we're back to the beginning. And this is called right?!?! I call it absurd.

    Carl, your form of argument is not doing your fellow atheists proud. You might consider backing off and let the better atheist debaters take over.

  69. David says:

    @Ben

    I think the dilemma you describe is solvable, and more to the point, that I personally have solved it. (Well, other people solved it, and I read their stuff.) I've embraced utilitarianism; the only good thing is people leading good lives.

    "I personally have solved it" is quite some distance from "other people have solved it, and I read their stuff", but I take it that you were being playful here.

    I flirted with Utilitarianism around the time my libertarian sentiments were born (and I've been voting and advocating the libertarian approach since Ken and Patrick were in diapers and Clark was a zygotic dream). This was prior to my conversion to Christianity, and I might've settled on Utilitarianism, but for the fact that I found it indefensibly incoherent and untenable.

    Specifically, universal ethical hedonism requires the concept you mention: the Good. But "the only good thing is people leading good lives" is a tautology reducible to "the good (when it comes to what people do) is when people do the good". Spinning gold from this trivially true straw requires a quantification of "good"; how else to make headway in discerning "the greatest good for the greatest number".

    The insurmountable problem, of course, is that quantification of good is subjective: the serial killer might derive many more utiles of goodness from his violation of social norms than his victims would've enjoyed had they survived unmolested. Or he might not but might think he does.

    Counterexamples claiming otherwise are mere assertions. Neither understanding can be rationally rebutted from a strictly utilitarian standpoint. Rejected, yes, but rebutted only arbitrarily.

    Maybe what offers the greatest good for the greatest number is genocide, eh? Maybe killing the left side of the bell curve plus all the unhealthy. Of course, it's abhorrent to our sensibilities to think so, and rightly so. But it's not hard to contrive a utilitarian defense of that or, say, eugenics.

    Yes, I'm aware that utilitarians regard these objections as common and call them cheap and want to take the discussion to a higher plane. But neither regarding nor calling nor taking is a rational rebuttal. And the objection about the non-quantifiability and inevitable arbitrariness of utilitarian standards arises so often because it's insurmountable and decisive. If that many of your friends tell you you're drunk, it's probably time to find a designated driver.

  70. Clark says:

    @LeeC

    You appear to deride atheists based on the assumption that all atheists are Materialists in the strictest sense of the term possible.

    "Deride" ? Is that was disgreement is?

    I was not deriding anyone; I was arguing that some atheists – those who are materialists and yet believe in rights – are inconsistent.

    Do you also insist that every Christian follows the strictest interpretation of the bible?

    I'm certainly happy to criticize those Christians who are incoherent.

    Anyway, the concept of "justice" has nothing to do with God

    Did you read the post that I wrote, or did you read some other post?

    I never said it did.

  71. Anonymous Coward says:

    @Clark

    No "troll" means to post intentionally inflammatory stories in order to provoke exactly this kind of thread.

    What am I going to do? Argue until you and your buddies admit that there's no God? Or that you don't have any idea what makes atheists tick? That ain't happening and we both know it. I can sure tell you what I think of your story, though.

    You and David want to abstract people/culture ad infinitum and claim that athiests are materialistic… oh, and "confused" right there in the title. Right, not a troll post at all [/sarcasm].

    Atheists are atheists because they don't accept the legends and fables of a particular bronze-age civilization as infallible truth. Simple. as. that. Seriously, it's not friggin philosophy.

  72. D. Cancilla says:

    Atheists don't have to be strict materialists in the sense of not believing any immaterial things exist. Truth, numbers, etc. clearly exist.

    An atheist can conclude that some rights exist because any logically consistent moral philosophy – whatever its grounding – includes those rights. If you have a chance, read my "Ask Yourself To Be Moral" to see what I mean.

  73. Justin Kittredge says:

    *Shrugs*
    Without getting hung up on semantics or definitions, you could just say that even if atheists don't believe in rights outside of them being a human construct or idea, atheists would not have any problem using the debate on rights and laws and views relating to rights as a vehicle to improve quality of life for any and all. Though I may not believe in an afterlife/God or any great meaning to our existence, I do believe Life is precious. You and everyone else only get the one. It may not have meaning, except to it's owner, you and those around you. But the point is, Life is precious, regardless of God, as it is precious specifically to each person living.

    Quality of life also therefore is important. Whether rights exist may not really matter to most atheists, they may look at a "rights" issue and break it down based on perhaps, like me, a view that Life is precious and Quality of Life is also important, and though they may use and not object to terms like "Ethics Justice or Rights," it may be something where the gist is conveyed through language and no one feels the need to debate semantics. For matters of Justice and Rights which do not impact Life or Quality of Life, then atheists would like all people simply hear both arguments on the debate and decide where they come down on the issues. I tried to keep this short, but if it wasn't clear I am an atheist and am really just speaking for myself, and regardless of the venom that may be hurled at me by random people, I don't really believe people have inherent rights any more then ants have an inherent right to own a gun or freely practice religion. Though if ants came to me and argued that their quality of life would improve with such things I might say "Sure go for it, I'm happy for you, enjoy yourselves, don't shoot us lovely humans though – please." Maybe atheists don't like admitting that right and wrong don't exist because it makes for awkward conversations and I imagine it is just bad politics?

  74. Steve Florman says:

    A couple of things:

    Can you go through and correct your typos, missing words, and awkward constructions? I think there are places when you got pretty wrapped up in the argument and mis-typed, and some of them can be a little confusing (example: evolution . . . is the one super-weapon helped the 19th century Puritans finally defeat their ancient enemy). I had a moment trying to figure out "Home economicus," for example.

    Second, can we stop using "Brights" for the modern atheists? Those of us who are religious but not caveman evangelicals, i.e. not Dawkins' straw men, find it offensive. It's even more bogus than calling big-government leftists "progressives." The only purpose of the term, as Dawkins and company initiated it, is to implicitly (and explicitly) ridicule anyone "stupid enough" to believe in the existence of a higher power. Even if I were an agnostic, I would find that inexusably arrogant.

  75. Carl Schultz says:

    Thank you for reading my comment and I apologize for coming on too strong, you're right. My basic point was that any conversation with a believer and non-believers is to contentious (some of the examples I made and some of the tone I've read in the comments) and emotional.

  76. Scott says:

    I concede that you did try to specify who this post was in regards to, however, this was preceded by two statements that lumped all of the current movement together. Namely, with these two phrases "modern atheists have an incoherent world view" and "modern western atheism is incoherent" you have stated that you expect most of the people that fit that category to also fall in line with the specifics you lay out. In the lead up to the points you have lumped everyone in the "movement" together, only to then specify a smaller subset of this group.

    I feel you are pressing the is-ought problem, why should you care about anyone else. The short term answer is that there is no reason. The long term answer is that it benefits society and that societies that share and follow rules do better in the long run. (There are a few studies that demonstrate this, I do not have time to look them up.) On a basic level, if everyone acts that way, then no one wins.

    But again, that does not make it one's obligation to follow rules that benefit society.

  77. Owen says:

    I read all of Clark's posts, inflammatory as they are, purely for the exposure to intelligent argument and wide-ranging concepts. But, as an agnostic atheist, generally my conclusions tend to come down to, "Eh, could be…"

  78. Conster says:

    I wouldn't know about this "modern atheists" group, but I am an atheist, which to me simply means I do not believe in God (or gods), and neither do I believe in an afterlife, and I can definitely tell you that this whole "being an atheist and believing in rights and morals and ethics are inconsistent" argument annoys me. We are taught about all those things as we grow up, just as religious people: the only difference is our source materials differ somewhat (also, just because I don't believe any of those people from the Old and New Testament were actually guided by God doesn't mean I can't think that some of the statements that are ascribed to them sound like good guidelines to live by). We're told "don't do this, because it is wrong and/or you will be punished for doing so" just like religious people, and we accept some of these things, and reject others, just like religious people (many of the rules in Leviticus spring to mind). We are, all in all, human beings, and alive, and both of those things are special and precious.
    It doesn't matter if our morals stem from years of programming by other humans, from advanced instincts, or from brains being weird in general. Arguing that because we're atheists, we shouldn't be believing in any of those things, and should all be self-interested assholes, and believing otherwise basically makes us bad atheists, is not only dumb, but it also distracts from the important differences between atheists and religious people:
    1: I believe that when people die, that's it: no afterlife, just oblivion (a fate so horrible it was pretty much the Egyptian equivalent of Hell). We only 'live on' through the way we've influenced other people's lives. This makes funerals slightly awkward, by the way, since we don't have the "they're in a better place now" belief to comfort us.
    2: This is the other side of #1: everyone gets oblivion. It doesn't matter if you were good or bad: the kind school teacher and Doctors Without Borders employee who helped improve and/or saved thousands of lives await the same fate as the mass-murderer and corrupt politician that ended and/or ruined millions of them. With this in mind, I don't think you should be surprised that there's such a thing as atheists who believe in ethics and rights: you should be surprised there aren't atheist cabals out there that are secretly murdering Wall Street employees by the dozen.
    By the way, if any of you write a book about an atheist cabal that murders people they've deemed to be undeserving of life, I hereby claim royalties. :P

  79. Clark says:

    @Anonymous Coward:

    No "troll" means to post intentionally inflammatory stories

    "Intentionally inflammatory" – i.e. "things that I believe that you don't?" Or do you mean something else?

    in order to provoke exactly this kind of thread.

    "this kind of thread" – i.e. "a good argument with four or five people, amidst a rash of noise from others" ?

    The noise isn't exactly to my liking, but if that's what's required to have the good debate with the others, I'll tolerate it.

    What am I going to do? Argue until you and your buddies admit that there's no God? Or that you don't have any idea what makes atheists tick?

    Having spent much of my life as an atheist, I think I have an idea what makes them tick. Or, at least, what made me tick.

    I can sure tell you what I think of your story, though.

    Yes. You have. Repeatedly. I'd rather hear why flaws you see in it than merely "what you think of it", of course.

    You and David want to abstract people/culture ad infinitum

    Uh…what?

    and claim that athiests are materialistic…

    I hesitate to ask this, because it sounds so condescending, but… have you read much atheist literature? Do you disagree that most, if not all, atheists are materialists?

    Atheists are atheists because they don't accept the legends and fables of a particular bronze-age civilization as infallible truth.

    Have I argued otherwise?

    Seriously, it's not friggin philosophy.

    We agree on that.

    Sadly, I don't think we agree on the implications.

  80. Ryan says:

    This blog post is premised on a strawman argument (or extreme oversimplification) in the first place:

    No, the reason that modern atheists have incoherent views is that they simultaneously

    assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)

    Very few atheists are strict materialists, and this statement betrays what appears to be a misconception of the scientific method and the approach most atheists (in my experience) seem to take. Strict materialism presupposes that forces that are not comprised of matter or energy do not exist, yet we have ample scientific evidence that such forces DO in fact exist based on the interactions of matter and energy. Materialism in its strictest sense is incompatible with the scientific method.

    The other flaw in your premise is believing that the 1st and 3rd definitions of rights are separate entities, when many atheists would happily tell you that the third definition only exists as a result of the first; that is, that the evolution of human behaviour has ingrained some social behaviours and standards in our consciousness so deeply that these things are viewed as implicit rights, yet we know with sufficient analysis that they arise from behaviour (which is a biological construct and also a product of evolution but which evolves much faster than physical traits – anyone with the opportunity to take an evolutionary genetics course should do so, it's well worth it).

    At any rate, I think this post belies a fundamental misconception of atheist belief systems (which are quite variable, depending on the atheist you talk to; unlike structured religions, atheism is arrived at through quite a variety of thought processes and atheists individual beliefs are wildly different) and has constructed what amounts to a strawman argument.

  81. PriceChild says:

    Why should I care? Because…um…hand waving.

    I guess you won't accept "Because it's how I hope others would treat me."?

  82. Ben says:

    @David

    I mostly agree, but one fundamental difference means I have a wildly different conclusion.

    "I personally have solved it" is quite some distance from "other people have solved it, and I read their stuff", but I take it that you were being playful here.

    My meaning was more "the problem has been solved to my satisfaction." Sorry for the ambiguity.

    Spinning gold from this trivially true straw requires a quantification of "good"; how else to make headway in discerning "the greatest good for the greatest number".

    By actually trying? This hasn't yet been solved, but people have made progress over recent years. We've got a better idea of how to think about this than Bentham and Mill did, thanks to the shoulders of giants, and I expect we'll continue to advance.

    the serial killer might derive many more utiles of goodness from his violation of social norms than his victims would've enjoyed had they survived unmolested. Or he might not but might think he does.

    This is the problem of the utility monster, which I don't know how to resolve. I don't think this is urgent because utility monsters don't currently exist. If the hypothetical utilitarian serial killer thinks his needs outweigh his victims' when they actually don't, then he's wrong about a question of fact, and being wrong about questions of fact can be dangerous.

    Maybe what offers the greatest good for the greatest number is genocide, eh? … But it's not hard to contrive a utilitarian defense of that or, say, eugenics.

    If I believed genocide offered the greatest good for the greatest number, I would advocate genocide. I do not believe this is true. Non-coercive eugenics, on the other hand, doesn't seem obviously bad.

    And the objection about the non-quantifiability and inevitable arbitrariness of utilitarian standards arises so often because it's insurmountable and decisive.

    I think your mistake is in conflating "insurmountable" with "not yet surmounted." Other than that, I pretty much agree with you.

  83. David says:

    @Anonymous Coward

    You and David want to abstract people/culture ad infinitum and claim that athiests are materialistic

    Correction: I don't want to claim that atheists are materialistic; I don't think consistent and rigorous materialism is possible.

    That's precisely why I agree with Clark that a strict materialist has no business appealing to natural rights (or to any abstracta, really).

    The problem for the not-so-strict materialist, of course, is accounting for why he believes in some empirically non-confirmable abstract things (e.g., propositions, principles, natural classes) but not others.

    In any event, I recognize that it's hard to follow the thread sometimes, but please try to avoid ascribing to me positions that I not only haven't taken but wouldn't take.

  84. Clark says:

    @Steve Florman

    A couple of things:

    Can you go through and correct your typos, missing words, and awkward constructions?

    No. Doing so provides no utility to me.

    < cymbal! >

    Second, can we stop using "Brights" for the modern atheists? Those of us who are religious but not caveman evangelicals, i.e. not Dawkins' straw men, find it offensive. It's even more bogus than calling big-government leftists "progressives." The only purpose of the term, as Dawkins and company initiated it, is to implicitly (and explicitly) ridicule anyone "stupid enough" to believe in the existence of a higher power. Even if I were an agnostic, I would find that inexusably arrogant.

    I entirely agree with you as to the intent of the coinage.

    I personally think that the best way to combat the arrogant intent of the phrase is to use the term again and again and against, juxtaposed against the "Brights"' self evident foolishness. One horse laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms; all the better when one has both the laugh and the syllogisms.

  85. R. Penner says:

    Rights exist in human culture because successful human cultures deem it necessary to guarantee rights to the individual to provide an emotionally healthy environment for the individual to build the types of successes the human culture values.

    The right to the freedom of the press because only an informed population can provide an informed opinion to its representatives.

    The right to blaspheme because sometimes Zeus has to be told when enough is enough and not all gods are useful.

    The right to be free from surveillance because individuals aren't rational creatures but wild animals with an infernal story-telling engine that tells them they are rational creatures and a finite reservoir of both self-control and intellectual activity. If you force them to overtax self-control to keep up socially acceptable appearances all the time, society loses the potential for their intellectual contributions.

    The right to say stupid and untrue stuff on the Internet because if individuals never are allowed to make mistakes on their own in a place where it will hurt no-one, we might only find out how unreliable they can be when they make mistakes in situations where they hurt people.

    If people were different from who they are, then they would have different rights in successful cultures. The right to assault and murder those that wear the forbidden color. The right to harvest small stones wherever one walks. The right to access to building rooftops. These rights would be so necessary to a cultures success that no-one immersed in that culture could see an alternative — these would become "universal" rights in the minds of their fallacious reasoners.

  86. eigenperson says:

    You know, you have staked out a little patch of turf that one can't stand in with consistency. One cannot be a total materialist — you don't believe in anything that isn't physical — and simultaneously believe in the existence of nonphysical "rights".

    But is there anyone actually standing there?

    Certainly, when you say that "modern Western atheism" stands there, you're inaccurate.

  87. anon says:

    And why do they not shrug off these injustices?

    Because modern atheists – like all human beings – deeply subscribe to the idea of justice in the sense of abstract principles…

    This, then, is the crux of the problem: they self describe as materialists, and yet believe in invisible untestable things.

    Ethics. Justice. Rights.

    Speaking for myself, I subscribe to consequentialism and utilitarianism to go with my atheism. In the broadest and simplest terms, the world is a better place with those concepts (ethics, justice, rights) widely held and adhered to, and that's true regardless of how many or which gods actually exist.

    You describe ethics, justice, and rights as untestable things, but they can be tested, from a utilitarian point of view. I can look and see if situations without one or more of those things produce more or less human suffering, more or less human joy, than situations with those things.

    That's all the testing I need to determine those 3 concepts are very useful concepts indeed (and what does it mean for a concept to be real if not that it's useful), and so I see no contradiction.

  88. zilong555 says:

    For those of you who profess atheism but reject the pure materialism that disallows abstracta, I have a few questions:

    I profess nothing, but I believe that I can answer these questions.

    (1) What do you think abstracta are?

    (2) Do you regard them as real (i.e., non-extended things) or as nominal (i.e., a way of talking) or as something else?

    (3) Why do you believe in them and believe that they are not wholly reducible to material explanation?

    Take, for example, the proposition referenced by the English statement "a fresh orange is juicy". The proposition is also referenced by the French statement "une orange fraîche est juteuse", so what's in view here is the proposition, not the particular linguistic symbolic constructs we might use to wrangle it.

    What is the proposition? Is it real apart from its particular linguistic expressions? Whatever you think, why do you think so?

    The linguistic expression and the abstract concept that one intends to invoke by using it are two separate things. The linguistic expression is only a nominal entity that exists by way of loose consensus among language users. One could, for example, invent a language in which the same words invoke a very different abstract concept in listeners, like "surrender or die in obscurity".

    The loosely defined set of abstract concepts invoked in the minds of listeners by your first phrase is a general pattern of information. The particular associations brought to mind will vary between listeners or between contexts. There is no single, objective concept that corresponds to the expression, but the expression is still useful in invoking related concepts in other people.

    Both language and abstractions are not material things, but patterns that can arise within material things. Those patterns could likely be described and quantified; for example, to mathematically describe the range of patterns invoked in human minds by your phrase. One could define metrics for comparing how similar two expressions of it are to each other, or how similar they are to a single reference pattern. Doing so would, however, be beyond the mental capacities of a human being unassisted by technology.

  89. stillnotking says:

    I'd suggest that any discussion of morality should include some reference to the huge amount of actual, empirical progress on the topic in recent decades. We have a pretty good idea of the evolutionary origins of moral behavior, and "ethereal principles" don't enter into it. Unless you consider game theory and natural selection to be ethereal principles.

    This post might as well be about spontaneous generation or phrenology.

  90. Scott says:

    @Ryan

    Can you provide an example regarding this statement:
    "Strict materialism presupposes that forces that are not comprised of matter or energy do not exist, yet we have ample scientific evidence that such forces DO in fact exist based on the interactions of matter and energy. Materialism in its strictest sense is incompatible with the scientific method."

  91. Clark says:

    @stillnotking

    any discussion of morality should include some reference to the huge amount of actual, empirical progress on the topic in recent decades.

    I know what you're talking about (fMRIs, game theory, etc.) but I suggest that it's false to call all of that "empirical progress in morality". We have, perhaps, advanced in our understanding of sociology and the biological roots of human moral reasoning, but those are no more advances in understanding morality than the advances in the engineering of making spheres is "progress" in geometry.

    We have a pretty good idea of the evolutionary origins of moral behavior

    Personally, I think that there is an evolutionary root cause to much of our appreciation of moral behavior…but I strongly disagree that there's any proof of it. I note that, in fairness, you did not say "proof", you said "understanding". Very well. But models, even models of game theory (which I'm a huge fan of) are not proof; they're just hypothesises.

    This post might as well be about spontaneous generation or phrenology.

    Let's not conflate the two; there's no evidence in favor of spontaneous generation.

    (Not that that stops Darwinists from believing in it).

    [ Now that, my friends, is trolling. Double trolling, actually. Which is not to say that I didn't mean every single word of it. ]

  92. Andyjunction says:

    As an atheist I believe killing is wrong because I don't want to be killed. I possess something called "empathy" which allows me to imagine how others might feel and it informs me that other people also do not want to be killed as a general rule. This is the only life we get and it's a perfectly rational desire to want to live a full life free from the threat of being killed, or robbed or tortured or you name it. It's purely rational self interest which should be perfectly understandable to a libertarian.

  93. Bruce the Cat says:

    My apologies for skipping the comments thread before posting, I have limited time and felt that this post needed a response.

    I agree with Clark to a certain extent, that atheists are by and large inconsistent, but only to the extent that every human in all of existence is inconsistent in one manner or another. I myself am an atheist, and I do not subscribe to the idea that there are any rights outside the ones society (and by extension the government) extends. The rule that I do believe in is that if I do not want something done to me, then I should not support this thing to be done to others that are against it as well.

    I do not wish to be assaulted, hence laws against assault are a good thing. I do not wish to be discriminated against because of my skin color, religion and sexual orientation so I support laws restricting this kind of discrimination. All of these things are here because if I supported them against some then they can be turned against me.

    It is entirely possible to be an atheist and still have a code of ethics or morals that is firmly grounded in the tangible.

  94. David says:

    @Ben
    Thanks for your reply.

    By actually trying? This hasn't yet been solved, but people have made progress over recent years. We've got a better idea of how to think about this than Bentham and Mill did, thanks to the shoulders of giants, and I expect we'll continue to advance.

    The righteous man shall live by faith.

    I considered this, of course, when weighing how heartily to embrace Mill. But I recognized, as you have not yet done but surely will, that it's not a decidable problem. Measuring "progress" toward its solution suffers from the same problem of arbitrariness that plagues proposed solutions themselves. Person P asserts that we've made progress in this regard. How can person Q tell whether that's true, if person R asserts with equal vigor that we have not?

    There's a difference between saying, "Given these first principles and ascriptions of value, we can infer which processes or outcomes are better" and saying "These first principles and valuations are better than those". It's the difference between intra-systemic coherence and inter-systemic demonstrability.

    "Progress" toward quantifying the good is an intrasystemic endeavor, and this entails inevitable conflict among systems inconsistent with one another at first principles and valuations.

    This is the problem of the utility monster, which I don't know how to resolve. I don't think this is urgent because utility monsters don't currently exist. If the hypothetical utilitarian serial killer thinks his needs outweigh his victims' when they actually don't, then he's wrong about a question of fact, and being wrong about questions of fact can be dangerous.

    You assert that "utility monsters don't currently exist" apparently because you think it's possible to tell in a non-intra-systemic way whether "he's wrong about a question of fact" when it comes to quantifying utiles of goodness.

    But what if he's not wrong? How can we tell in a way that's not only consistent with our arbitrary foundation and valuation, but also inter-systemically demonstrable?

    No, Ben. Utility monsters plague utilitarianism, and cannot be dispelled through mere assertion and wishful thinking. And they're as real as the last perpetrator of something you regarded as an atrocity or offense.

    If I believed genocide offered the greatest good for the greatest number, I would advocate genocide.

    QED

    I think your mistake is in conflating "insurmountable" with "not yet surmounted." Other than that, I pretty much agree with you.

    The righteous man shall live by faith.

    But no; I carefully distinguish "not yet surmounted" from "insurmountable"; my assertion is that the objections to Utilitarianism are insurmountable in principle. That's why I visited but declined to dwell.

  95. melK says:

    While I am philosophically lazy (sometimes agnostic, sometimes atheistic, sometimes other), I do believe in immaterial principles… Money, for instance.

    What, you think that piece of paper in your wallet is money? Nope. Well, only conditionally. Like Bitcoin… it's only money if you – and someone else – treat it as such.

  96. CJK Fossman says:

    @Clark

    TL;DR

    I may even agree with you, but I will never know.

  97. stillnotking says:

    I note that, in fairness, you did not say "proof", you said "understanding". Very well. But models, even models of game theory (which I'm a huge fan of) are not proof; they're just hypothesises.

    They're theories, and well-supported ones, based on observations of moral behavior in humans and non-human animals, observations of population genetics, and computer models. I didn't say "proof" because it implies a finality that doesn't exist in science. Science does not say "That's it, we're done!" Science just tries to climb, inch by inch, up the slope of the real.

    I'm not sure why you think these don't count as advances in understanding morality. What would count as an advance, if not the generation of progressively more elegant, descriptive, and predictive theories? Is our time better spent arguing Plato vs. Aristotle?

  98. Lizard says:

    To address the "So why shouldn't I kill you?" question:

    a)Do you actually WANT to kill me? If no, I don't particularly care how you've reached that conclusion, though I'm happy you have. Indeed, you have answered the question. Examine why you don't want to kill me. That's why you shouldn't. Done.

    b)If you do want to kill me, then, presumably, you've reached this by two routes, possibly overlapping.
    b1)Your system of morality, justice, etc, has determined that killing me is morally valid. This may even be in accord with my own system of morality, et al, but I may choose to be hypocritical and seek to defend myself anyway.
    b2)You are insane.

    c)Whether it's b1 or b2 isn't actually very relevant to me, either. I'm going to seek to defend myself. Even if my system of morality concurs with yours and, I agree that, by my own morals, I deserve to die, I'm still going to prefer to do it on my terms rather than yours.

    At the point you've reached in life, I am unlikely to sway you on so deep-rooted an idea as "who am I allowed to kill?".

    So, really, it's a pointless question.

    We live each day surrounded by people whom we HAVE to assume have inculcated enough of our common set of values that they're not going to start murdering, robbing, and pillaging in ways not already generally permitted by those values, such as "war", "taxation", and "eminent domain". The idea that people only hold these values do to a constant logical calculation which can be flipped off as soon as someone says "Well, why not?" and they say, "Oh. Huh. I never thought of it like that. Die!" is not really worth bothering with. It's much akin to Descartes. I accept that there may be nothing in the universe but my own consciousness, but I'm going to live my life as if that were proven false — even though it CANNOT be proven false.

  99. mud man says:

    @jb (derisively) "Without kilograms, there is no gravity."

    Kilograms are a measure of mass. Gravity proceeds from mass, not mass from gravity. So (aside from a quibble about measurement vs. existence) the statement is true.

    Pounds, on the other hand, are a measure of force; when I say this here book weighs one pound, I mean that gravity, acting on the mass of the book, causes a force of one pound to be applied to my desktop. It is backwards to say "without weight there is no gravity."

    This is a good example of confusing two similar but distinct concepts, very similar to what Clark is on about today.

  100. David says:

    @zilong555
    Thank you for trying to answer the questions. Let's zoom in on one factor of your response:

    The loosely defined set of abstract concepts invoked in the minds of listeners by your first phrase is a general pattern of information. The particular associations brought to mind will vary between listeners or between contexts. There is no single, objective concept that corresponds to the expression, but the expression is still useful in invoking related concepts in other people.

    Both language and abstractions are not material things, but patterns that can arise within material things.

    Let's look at a particular abstractum:
    (P & (Q v R)) < => (P & Q) v (P & R)

    This proposition, expressed in a conventional notation, is the principle of logical distribution.

    If this statement "invokes in the minds of listeners" a "pattern of information", but "the particular associations brought to mind will vary between listeners or between contexts", then which listener's mental construct is the one that accounts for the applicability and utility of logical distribution in the natural world? Is it Mary's variation or Michael's? They have different brains, after all. Let me know soon; I have a bridge to build.

    On the other hand, if the denoted proposition "invokes in the minds of listeners" the very same associations irrespective of whatever's distinctive about "listeners or … contexts", then what accounts for that universality?

    You deny the universality: "There is no single, objective concept that corresponds to the expression"; but to do so is to vacate some pretty important abstracta: conceptual referents, logical invariants, etc. And yet here we are, relying on logical inference and the efficacy of our conceptual wranglin', and even on our ethical intuitions.

    Given the distance between our actual behavior (as if abstracta were real, invariant, and objective) and your model (proposing that abstracta are real but variable and subjective), why do you find your answer to the question satisfactory?

  101. naught_for_naught says:

    Egad….

    I fully expect to hear some child start singing about Gary, Indiana every time I hear that exclamation.

  102. KRy says:

    @Clark,

    The actual problem, and the one that can not – in my opinion – be solved is answering the question of why anyone should care about the utility of others.

    Maybe I'm simplistic, but I think the word you're looking for is empathy. The only reason I might care what happens to you is I can imagine myself in your shoes, and I would treat you the same way I would want to be treated (primarily by respecting your wishes about what you want done to yourself). I think this is why some people refer to rights as not inherent but granted by others – the degree I'm willing to give up my own preferences so that you can enjoy yours. I think it's also why commonly held morality shifts over time and culture – for example an increase in recognition that maybe those two guys really can love each other as much as my wife and I do.

  103. Hoare says:

    Thats weird…
    It sounds like you're saying " a true atheist would act like an animal"

    gotta love "believers"

  104. mcinsand says:

    Nonreligious people are much like nonaffiliated voters – each side can claim them for their own, but really they're the low IQ, low education demographic that espouse a variety of conflicting views depending on how the questions are phrased.

    That certainly hit a nervew with me… a distinctly unaffiliated voter. Not that I think IQ tests are totally reliable, but they suggested that I was significantly above 'low IQ.' Also, I look askance at anyone that instantly asserts that education equals intelligence, and I'm saying that with my PhD in-hand. I have seen plenty of PhD's with subpar intelligence, just as how I have met high school dropouts that I would not hesitate to call geniuses. Granted, those dropouts are the exceptions, but it was a pleasure to watch them work through a process solution.

    If I am incorrect in interpreting 'affiliated voter' to mean party-affiliated voter, then please forgive me and feel free to delete. If you meant someone that is too detached to pay attention, then carry on. However, if you did mean party affiliation, then I definitely take exception. I had party affiliation and held it despite being frustrated at the temporal and logical lack of consistency in either party's principles. The day after the first Bush/Kerry debate, though, I called my election board to request an unaffiliated voter card. The debate was the last straw, and I refused to imply the tiniest trace of endorsement for either party by letting one party name or the other appear on my voting card.

    Especially after the last couple of decades, I do think differently of someone that is passionately loyal to a party. Believe me, when I suspect low IQ, it is more with the partisans than the nonpartisan.

    However, that is more of an artifact of the partisan, tribal culture than with the idea of parties themselves. For now, the attitude is that, if you don't accept everything that the party is handing you, then you must be helping that other (evil) party. What Democrats and Republicans desperately need are people that are loyal enough to emphasize what might help us and call BS on what is BS; they both need intelligent people with the loyalty to point out what is broken.

  105. beingmarkh says:

    To begin with, trying to defend the notion that everybody believes in universals "unless you're an extreme outlier" is patently and palpably preposterous. To assume one's particular values are universal is the hallmark of of an arrogant, and usually an imperialistic, cultural matrix. The reason you conflate contemporary Western ethical norms with universal truths (that everyone "secretly" believes in, I guess) is because you are a part of a society that has done and is doing its level best to impose those values through the application of brute force…the same brute force you routinely deride in your posts, I might add.

    The snarky, belittling straw men you create with your ridiculous strikethroughs designed to give the impression that you've forced your imaginary opponents to stammer at their own illogic, to say nothing of the fact that you think anything at all you've written here is new…I mean, if I didn't know any better, I'd have assumed this was just another college freshman fresh out of Philosophy 101 come to tell us all how the world *really* works, and then I'd do what I normally do, which is roll my eyes and count the days until the new fall semester starts so I could go another nine blissful months without having to hear about all the same arguments slightly refined by completion of Philosophy 102.

    I'm not even an atheist, and I'm bewildered that you would expect anyone at all, from either side of the aisle, to take this drivel seriously.

  106. Clark says:

    @CJK Fossman

    @Clark

    TL;DR

    I may even agree with you, but I will never know.

    I always enjoy it when people take time out of their busy days to tell me how short their attention spans are and how little they are interested in ideas.

  107. David says:

    @Andyjunction

    As an atheist I believe killing is wrong because I don't want to be killed. I possess something called "empathy" which allows me to imagine how others might feel and it informs me that other people also do not want to be killed as a general rule. This is the only life we get and it's a perfectly rational desire to want to live a full life free from the threat of being killed, or robbed or tortured or you name it.

    It's admirable that you're empathetic, seeking to conserve the lives of others as well as your own. But why do you infer that "killing is wrong" from the proposition that "you don't want to be killed"?

    Seriously.

    You possess empathy. But consider the poor psychopath who, though predisposed not to feel empathy, can overcome this default setting at the flick of a switch. If his insatiable bloodlust makes sense to him, why does your desire to live make him wrong?

    It's purely rational self interest which should be perfectly understandable to a libertarian.

    No doubt it's self-interest. But you've given no reason to think it rational.

  108. Alenonimo says:

    There is a problem that I found here:

    1. assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)

    Atheists assert that they shouldn't base their lives on the expectative of something that wasn't proven existent. Instead of holding dear on ideas that you like, you seek only reality. Reality is only one but the understanding of what it is changes all the time, bit by bit.

    If something is highly theoretical or unproven to be true, they ignore it. There's no point in walking into a forest, avoiding making noises that can perturb fairies in the chance they exists; or writing a letter to Santa Claus in case it exists. Why take preventive measurements for stuff that nobody managed to show that it's true? It's inconvenient and a waste of time.

    Since nobody can really show that God exists — and oh boy, do I had read all the proofs the believers sent me — it's obvious a better choice to live without it. That's what atheism is about.

    Atheists do believe in pursuit of happiness, human rights, getting rid of suffering, etc. Those are not absolute, written rules. It's common sense. It's just that the morals rulesets from atheists are not written in stone and usually are based in the atheist thinking a lot about what he really believes it's right. Something is good because it's actually good, and not because God said so.

    There's not consensus, of course. But it's usually something based on the Golden Rule: "Don't kick my crap that I don't fuck with your shit". It looks better on religious books but it's the same idea. And it's natural to everybody, since we humans are social beings.

    If you found an atheist that really believes the way like you described — instead of, you know, creating a strawman and stuff — then he's quite the moron. No wonder he's confused about all these meanings of the word "right".

  109. Tarrou says:

    TL: DR.

    Not interesting.

  110. Tyrsius says:

    Clark, this is most certainly a strawman. Even the Four Horsemen that you point do not hold the stance you are representing.

    I, and many atheists like me, do not believe "rights" are actual, absolute things with an existence outside of the mind. In fact, I have rarely heard anyone profess as much.

    Morality, ethics, and "rights" do not exist anymore than my opinion that this article is incoherent does. As with all thought, they are products of the mind. Are "rights" are social constructs, agreed upon for the good of society. Our ethics are beliefs, not tangible things.

    Utilitarianism does not posit absolute the existence of non-physical things. It merely works from an axiom, the utility of happiness and the anti-utility of pain, towards ethical theorems of action that govern our actions. That establish rights by way of serving that utility. This axiom is agreed upon, or not, by its subscribers. Like any mathematical axiom, it merely describes the foundation of a system. It does not make a statement of non-physical existence.

  111. Ankylosaurus says:

    A quick question to help with my understanding. Are there any examples of, well, let's call them "Type 3" rights, that are not enforced by "Type 1" (social) or "Type 2" (legal) forces?

  112. David says:

    @Lizard

    b1)Your system of morality, justice, etc, has determined that killing me is morally valid. This may even be in accord with my own system of morality, et al, but I may choose to be hypocritical and seek to defend myself anyway.
    b2)You are insane.

    Why is insanity your only proposed alternative to having an explanation derived from a system of morality/justice/etc? Why is it either "it makes sense in the killer's system" XOR "the killer is insane"?

    Does your understanding of the world not allow for spontaneity, improvisation, and taking a stab (if you'll pardon the expression) at actions not well understood? If it does, why can't the one who wishes to kill you be sane but disinclined to systematize?

  113. Paul Wright says:

    Your definition of materialism needs work ("visible"?). Know your godless heathen positions might help, as might John Shook's conversation with Luke Muehlhauser. Most atheists are not strict materialists of the Alex Rosenberg sort. I'm not sure where Dennett is on that, but I'd note that, since someone has already mentioned Yudkowsky, he appears to be a Platonist. (The atheist on the Clapham omnibus probably doesn't know what any of these words mean, but then the theist on the same bus probably doesn't either: I agree that popular opinions are probably inconsistent).

    It's also odd that you think that the existence of gods would settle the question of objective rights. If there are gods, this just seems to add another lines to your lists of views on rights ("The god X's opinion: yes") but doesn't seem to make these rights any more "objective".

    @David:

    The problem for the not-so-strict materialist, of course, is accounting for why he believes in some empirically non-confirmable abstract things (e.g., propositions, principles, natural classes) but not others.

    What do you think is the problem that these non-strict materialists (presumably you're referring to the ones who are atheists) have? I can't really see why they couldn't have good reasons for believing in some abstracta and not others. Even theists don't think it reasonable to believe in all possible gods, after all.

  114. Hoare says:

    One day I got the bright idea to just walk up to a random person and punch them in the face. They punched me back. I didn't like it at all. So I decided I would never punch anyone in the face again.

    Then one day this guy came up and punched me in the face for no reason. I asked myelf, "Self… should I punch him back or run?"

    If I run does that make me a Christian because that's what Jesus taught (turn the other cheek)

    Or did Jesus and I just come to the same conclusion using a different data set?

  115. Jim Salter says:

    Clark, you make this way too hard. I can of course speak directly for no atheist/agnostic other than myself, but it's entirely possible to boil the rationale for human rights down to a single given, from which all else can be derived:

    * human happiness, liberty, and security are quantifiable and worthwhile things – for all humans, not just a select few

    Once you accept that as given, everything else falls into place, no God required. This isn't to say that any given atheist might make a mistaken assumption – just as any theist might – but for the most part, you're pretty much good to go. It's a very short step from there to "and therefore, you should not murder, because it is the ultimate removal of liberty and makes people very unhappy"; you shouldn't enslave because it's the PENultimate removal of liberty and makes people very unhappy, and on down the line.

    Where it gets interesting is where you have to balance security vs happiness vs liberty, or where you have to balance the relatively small increase or decrease in one or more for a large group of people vs the relatively large decrease or increase for a smaller group of people. None of which has anything to do with god or the lack thereof; merely with our ongoing struggle to come up with the Grand Unifying Theory of Government, which we – and I mean the capital We here – are clearly a LOOOOOOOONG way from achieving yet.

  116. David says:

    @naught_for_naught Great honk!

  117. Djiezes says:

    If anyone seems to be confused, it'll be the author of this.

    You cannot (should not? ought not?) simply equate atheism with your very narrow view on materialism and argue the point that an atheist cannot have or defend a concept such as justice or human rights.

    You cannot (should not? ought not?) do that and then not mention humanism.
    Secular Humanism can be defined as an ideology that espouses reason, ethics, and justice, while specifically rejecting supernatural and religious ideas as a basis of morality and decision-making.
    And this is exactly the point you are trying to argue … badly.

    There is a reason why most atheists adhere to at least some form of humanism, or "have some kind of humanist worldview". We're not all just killing each other because we don't want to be killed ourselves. We're not the infinticidal maniacs that you are portraying us to be.So why exactly are you trying to argue that point … badly?

  118. Andyjunction says:

    @David

    There is nothing more rational than the desire to survive. Nothing. The fact that sociopaths exist does not change that.

  119. RogerX says:

    I really tried, here, Clark. I identify as Penn-Jillette-styled-Atheist-Libertarian, but I am clearly too stupid to understand what you're talking about. I couldn't grok a coherent, teachable message about ethics and atheism, but I'd love to hear more on that discussion. Between the lines, I kept reading "brights" as "19 year old atheist redditors." I'm not sure that was your intention.

    However I am going to bristle over this quote: "I think that one can be entirely sane and rational and disbelieve in God (although I actually think that agnostics have beliefs that are much more consistent with pure rationality than either theists or atheists, but that's a side note)."

    I spent half my 20s moving from deeply devout Catholicism to Agnosticism before, in my early 30s, someone pointed out to me that Agnosticism/Gnosticism and Atheism/Theism are perpendicular axes. The philosophical acceptance that the nature of a creator is unknowable is certainly a "more rationally pure" position. However is doesn't answer the specific question of your faith – Do you believe in (some form of) god, or do you not believe there is evidence for one?

    Agnostic has been a code word for 'I don't really think there's much of a chance there's a god, but I really don't wnat to be one of those atheist assholes."

  120. David says:

    @beingmarkh You're a good stylist.

  121. Tom says:

    @David

    I'm here responding to your three questions above, and then the line "The problem for the not-so-strict materialist, of course, is accounting for why he believes in some empirically non-confirmable abstract things (e.g., propositions, principles, natural classes) but not others."

    Can you elaborate on why you think the theist is in a better boat here than the atheist who nonetheless believes in certain abstracta in some more robust way than strict materialists? Surely the rub, here, is that the theist ought (at least this is implied by the quoted line) to provide reasons why they believe in some empirically non-confirmable abstract things and not others. And I doubt that the theist is any better able to do so without either circularity, or ad hoc reasoning, or appeal to authority (especially the authority of the God). Not that, in my mind at least, this is any problem. Rationality is but bridled irrationality. Epistemelogical anarchy reigns. But it's almost certainly a conclusion that Clark would be uncomfortable with, and I'd predict that you wouldn't be comfortable with it either.

    @ Clark
    "By the way, if you know of one, I propose a test of my rationality / problem-solving skills / reading comprehension / etc. against yours."
    This way of talking is an extremely good way to make a large number of people unwilling to engage with the content of your thoughts. This is why posters like Anonymous Coward (who is, certainly, a coward) resort to name-calling rather than engagement – your every word drips with contempt for the little people who have not seen your light. Whether you intend for this to be how you appear, or not, it remains how you appear to many people. And while I imagine that you will cavalierly dismiss this criticism, especially appealing to your own rationality as being more valuable than the irrationality of those who refuse to engage intellectually, you are depriving yourself of potential sources of input with your tone. Unless your aim is to "win", rather than to learn, this is not a rational strategy.

  122. David says:

    @Tyrsius
    Well expressed. I see no sign that you've considered the weaknesses of the position you describe, but your clear description is an appropriate and useful correction of Clark's broad brush.

  123. ppnl says:

    Well if we are going to talk about incoherent things we should probable check where talking snakes and magic fruit fall on the list.

    Or a claim that the theory of evolution and the big bang theory are direct from the pits of hell.

    And I don't think a definition of "supernatural" exists that is not incoherent.

    Our moral intuition derives from our culture and our biology. While there is an arbitrary component to some of it other parts are less so. Compare it to building a car. There are many ways to build a car but far more ways not to build it. We would not give it square wheels for example. If we experienced car building as an intuition then we might come to believe that there is one perfect design for a car and all others are imperfect approximations. Platonism.

    Thats what our moral intuition is. Platonism. Moral truth exists in the same way that car designs exist or unwritten books exist. It exists as a network of possibilities and consequences. It is not real in the sense of being a physical object or needing a special platonic space to exist in. It is real in the sense of having consequences. We intuitively experience this possibility space and reify it as an object.

    Mathematicians have the same problem. To be good at it you have to experience it on an intuitive level. That intuition leads to reifying math as an object. Mathematical Platonism.

    So is there something supernatural about math?

  124. David says:

    @Hoare

    One day I got the bright idea to just walk up to a random person and punch them in the face. They punched me back. I didn't like it at all. So I decided I would never punch anyone in the face again.

    Then one day this guy came up and punched me in the face for no reason. I asked myelf, "Self… should I punch him back or run?"

    If I run does that make me a Christian because that's what Jesus taught (turn the other cheek)

    Or did Jesus and I just come to the same conclusion using a different data set?

    Or do I have an appallingly superficial understanding of what Jesus taught about this and why?

  125. pillsy says:

    I am, indeed, an atheist because I don't believe in God (or, for that matter, multple gods), and I don't have much reason to believe that I'm anything but a modern atheist. I don't have much use for Richard Dawkins, and I have less use for Ayn Rand. I certainly can't prove that God does not exist, and though I see no evidence of God's existence, that's not, at root, why I don't believe.

    I do have moral beliefs, and those moral beliefs are not rooted in anything directly testable or observable. I have many beliefs that are not testable, including my beliefs that I'm not a coppertop in The Matrix or the plaything of a being from teh Q Continuum. I tend to think that rejecting some form of the Golden Rule would be roughly as impossible for me as embracing radical skepticism, so I roll with it. I could, at best, pretend to believe otherwise as an intellectual exercise.

    My beliefs may not ultimately be coherent, but I don't see how believing in God would enhance their coherence.

    I also don't think atheism is something that other people should embrace. If belief in God works for you, I think that's a good thing, rather than a bad thing. I think arguments that religious belief are some sort of madness, or sickness, or deficiency are profoundly wrong, no less wrong than arguments that assert that religious belief is an essential part of health, happiness or humanity.

  126. David says:

    @Andyjunction

    @David
    There is nothing more rational than the desire to survive. Nothing.

    Why suppose so?

  127. sorrykb says:

    assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)

    I'm atheist, and I don't assert that, even if I expand the definition of "visible" (as some have suggested). Neither do I assert that there is something beyond that which is visible. I don't believe that there is a God, but I likewise don't assert that there is no God. Simply put, in the absence of evidence of a thing existing I default to not believing.

    So… how to reconcile this with the concept of rights, especially with an idea of "inherent" rights?

    Atheism doesn't offer an answer to the question of where rights come from. (I'd argue that atheism doesn't purport to answer anything, which is fine by me.) Putting in a god or gods of any sort likewise does nothing to answer the question — It just moves it back one step. (Whence God?) The question of Origin is challenging regardless of what we believe or don't believe.

    So how can I, absent some spiritual reference, claim any foundation for morality or ethics or rights?
    anon @ 8:54 AM put it well:

    You describe ethics, justice, and rights as untestable things, but they can be tested, from a utilitarian point of view. I can look and see if situations without one or more of those things produce more or less human suffering, more or less human joy, than situations with those things.

    How do I know that (simplifying things a bit) suffering is bad and joy is good? Because I have experienced both, and I know how I feel, and I have the capacity to consider how others might feel. You could consider this an irrational argument, because it's based in large part on feeling, but that presupposes that emotion and reason are incompatible. Emotions are real, and to deny their role in our existence would be illogical.

    When suffering arises from natural causes, that's one thing, But when suffering is caused by human beings ("afflictive suffering" is how the Dalai Lama describes it in "Ethics for the New Millennium" — and no, I don't just read Buddhist stuff, but this is a good one) and therefore avoidable, then we can take the next step and go from "This is bad" to "This is wrong", and exploring why it's wrong leads us to the concept of "rights".

    And yes, this is a somewhat circular argument, I know. But in this case I think it's sound.

    Alternatively….
    What are the rights standing on? It's rights all the way down.

  128. Ben says:

    @David

    Person P asserts that we’ve made progress in this regard. How can person Q tell whether that’s true, if person R asserts with equal vigor that we have not?

    By looking. Q can check out the progress and see if actually does a better job of addressing the problem. This is what you did when you looked at the progress and decided it wasn't sufficient.

    There’s a difference between saying, “Given these first principles and ascriptions of value, we can infer which processes or outcomes are better” and saying “These first principles and valuations are better than those”. It’s the difference between intra-systemic coherence and inter-systemic demonstrability.
    “Progress” toward quantifying the good is an intrasystemic endeavor, and this entails inevitable conflict among systems inconsistent with one another at first principles and valuations.

    That seems like an argument against morality in general, not against utilitarianism in particular. Yes, of course morality depends on first principles, and you can't derive “ought” from “is.” But given that I'm starting from “happiness good; suffering bad,” I don't understand how ditching utilitarianism is supposed to resolve anything.

    How can we tell not only in a way that’s consistent with our arbitrary foundation and valuation, but also inter-systemically demonstrable?

    Again, this is a good case for moral relativism or nihilism. Both of those are consistent stances, but I don't get the sense that you take either of them. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

    Of course, I only make the decision within the system that I actually use, and I'll bet the same is true of you. As it happens, the way to resolve this within materialist utilitarianism is by looking. If you posit a utility monster, then there has to be some difference in the way it experiences things that makes it more important. Experiences depend on the brain, which we can look at; this is why utilitarians assert that humans matter more than chickens or rocks. If a God existed, it could plausibly be a utility monster.

    The righteous man shall live by faith.

    Can you explain what you mean by this phrase? I'm not sure if there's some Biblical context I'm missing, or if you're trying to draw parallels between my beliefs and a culture you think I find distasteful, or what.

    Side note: I'm glad we're having this discussion, and I've been generally impressed with your conduct. However, there are a few things, like “But I recognized, as you have not yet done but surely will…” that just seem condescending and unhelpful. I'll ask that you pay a bit more attention to tone if you choose to continue this conversation. (And I hope you do; I think this is worthwhile.)

  129. David says:

    @Tom

    @Clark
    "By the way, if you know of one, I propose a test of my rationality / problem-solving skills / reading comprehension / etc. against yours."
    This way of talking is an extremely good way to make a large number of people unwilling to engage with the content of your thoughts.

    Yeah, he tends to veer off into an outsized perception of his own intellect. One gets the impression that he must've spent time as a big fish in a small pond, and that he never matured toward the realization that many people are much smarter than he suspects– perhaps even smarter than he takes himself to be.

    But he's a right friendly chap (unless you're in blue, which makes him hysterical), and we raise the mug with him anyhow.

  130. Andyjunction says:

    David, if you can name any more rational thought than the desire to survive be my guest.

  131. David says:

    @ppnl

    So is there something supernatural about math?

    Of course. In one sense, the natural is a proper subset of the supernatural. In another, the supernatural supervenes on the natural. That's why properly formed theists move toward embracing science but eschewing scientism.

  132. Decline to disclose says:

    I was not deriding anyone; I was arguing that some atheists – those who are materialists and yet believe in rights – are inconsistent

    That's certainly not how I read your article.

    This leads me to the central reason that I think that modern atheists have an incoherent world view.

    No, the reason that modern atheists have incoherent views is that they simultaneously

    assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)
    they believe in rights, and not merely in a legal or social descriptive way, but in an absolute and prescriptive way.

    Both of these quotes come before any reference to any philosphical subgroup, implying that you intend them to refer to all 'modern atheists.' Your subsequent references to "Brights' are introduce in terms of your conceptualisation of rights. This distinction does not limit your prior claim that "modern atheists have an incoherent world view."

    Later in the article you seemingly use the terms "atheist" and "Brights" interchangeably.

    Contrary to your implication, not all atheists follow materialism to such an extreme extent (in fact I know of almost none who do). Most distinguish between things that either physically exist or can directly and materially affect the world, and concepts. Atheists do not reject God as a concept (people can conceive of God, therefore it must exist as a concept); however they reject His existence as a physical or material thing. By your logic, atheists should also reject all mathematics (it relies on axioms that cannot be measured nor proven), but I know of none who do. We accept it as a concept.

    Most atheist philosophies that I am familiar with accept morality as a concept and an oft-idealised social norm. One does not murder because that is how society works. Could a society be conceived where this is not the case? Yes, but that is not the world we live in.

    For what it's worth, I usually identify as atheist, although I am probably closer to agnostic – more people understand (in broad terms) atheism than agnosticism. I do not believe that God cannot possibly exist (His existence is non-falsefiable by definition). That said, I assign a near-zero probability to His existence. I think it's even less unlikely that He cares what happens on earth, much less what I do (that much is easily provable). I capitalise religious terms because that's what my English teacher beat into me… (And because it is best not to annoy/offend people over trivial points).

    [-D: blockquoting fixed]

  133. Tyrsius says:

    @David Um, thanks I guess. Should I have considered the weaknesses of my position in the post, to show you signs that I have? Should I have provided the historical path I took to arrive at those beliefs, so that you also know what other positions I have considered?

    This seems like a strange thing to say. If you think my position has weakness that are relevant to the discussion, why not mention them? Why instead imply that I have failed in some due diligence?

  134. Jabberwock says:

    Clark, unfortunately, you are still confused about materialism, despite many educating comments. It does not say that concepts such as rights or ethics cannot exist – it just says that they must ultimately rely on the physical. This cartoon illustrates this nicely.

    If objective morality exists, it is a product of evolution of a (very) social animal. For example, incest has significant biological disadvantages, therefore most species have developed mechanisms which make siblings unattractive. So evolution makes us abhor it, or feel it that it is just wrong. In that sense it is objective (as it is not a product of a human mind). Nature has equipped most species with an instinct which prevents its members from going on murdering rampages and indiscriminately killing its offspring – why humans would be any different? Yet you do not believe that mice are moral, do you?

    [-David: fixed hyperlink]

  135. Ken White says:

    With respect to my friend and colleague Clark — and without addressing the substance of the post for now (perhaps this weekend whilst I am at my son's soccer tournament) — I think the post struggles with a problem I face ever time I attempt to argue with what I perceive to be the ideology/position of any large and diverse and difficult-to-define group, even one of which I have been a member.

    It might go down a bit easier if Clark posited "there are some people out there, some subgroup of the larger group generally called 'atheists,' who as I understand it believe XYZ. Here's why I have a problem with XYZ."

  136. Jabberwock says:

    Oops… sorry for the botched tagging.

  137. Clark says:

    @David:

    @Tom,

    Yeah, [ Clark ] tends to veer off into an outsized perception of his own intellect. One gets the impression that he must've spent time as a big fish in a small pond

    This is absolutely accurate, both as to cause and as to effect, and it's one of my bigger flaws.

    That said, in this particular case, though, I was responding to @Anonymous Coward specifically, after he had just insulted me thusly:

    Just more evidence that you can't talk to the faithful, they don't know how to use their brains in an objective way.

    If it's a sin to respond to someone saying "I'm smarter" with "prove it", then call me a sinner.

    Of course, I'll immediately request clarification as to whether that's an objective sin or just a socially constructed one.

  138. Ben says:

    @Andyjunction

    I always thought "rational" referred to a process of thought that finds truth given certain evidence. Given that usage, I'd rate statements like "effect follows cause" and "modus ponens is true" as far more rational than "desire to survive." The latter is a conclusion, not a step in a process.

  139. Ken in NJ says:

    @KRy "Maybe I'm simplistic, but I think the word you're looking for is empathy.

    You're trying to have a discussion about empathy with an anarcho-capitalist libertarian; Not so much "simplistic" as "Quixotic"

  140. Munin says:

    Clark, I find your article interesting in light of the fact that our modern conception of universal human rights was driven by enlightenment philosophers who were at most Deist, like Paine (who abhorred the bible and testament as fabulous inventions imposed on the world), or confirmed atheists, like Mills. The reason they drove it is because many of the concepts enshrined in the human rights espoused clashes with traditional natural law which was, at that point, the major basis of what was considered moral. The clash between the values driven by natural law and the human rights and moral frameworks derived from philosophies like utilitarianism is still in evidence in the clash between more traditionally minded (and generally Christian) US "values voters" and people who are more generally on the US liberal end of things who oppose discrimination against gays for example.

    But of course your attack is aimed at "modern western atheists" who you boil down into a single easy strawman. Not to mention that you then frame rights and the framework behind them in a way convenient to you argument; casually dismissing a whole lot of the history and philosophical framework behind them.

    As an aside, in your Jim Crow example you mention that segregation and the laws mandating are not an "injustice" as they were "legal". That kind of glosses over the fact that they were not struck down through legislation but because they were found to be unconstitutional, in conflict with the fundamental law of the land, and hence both unjust in the manner you used "injustice" in your paragraph and illegal.

  141. David says:

    @Andyjunction

    David, if you can name any more rational thought than the desire to survive be my guest.

    So you didn't bother to follow and explore the content to which I linked…. That's unfortunate if you're trying to think critically about your views and mine, etc.

    Here's a candidate: some say it's more rational to choose to die than to choose to avoid death. They say this for reasons analogous to those given by Katherine Mangu-Ward when she explains why she doesn't vote.

    On your understanding, why is voluntary self-termination less rational than voluntary self-perpetuation?

  142. Xenocles says:

    @Clark, and any other theists interested:

    It may have gotten lost in the shuffle upthread but I am still curious as to why you accept that God (or his equivalent in your beliefs) has the authority to grant rights. It seems to me that the main support for that thesis is God has that authority by virtue of his ultimate power. I've heard an alternative offered that he has that authority because he is some combination of Goodness itself, the source of Goodness, or the means of communication between Goodness and us.

    It seems that the problem boils down to an objection that human reasoning relies on axioms; that we can't bootstrap our way through deductive logic. Well, I admit it. But I don't see why that's such a big deal when all you seem to have done is delegated your choice of axioms to someone else, whether that person is actually God or the authors of the books from which you learned about him.

    And again, the evidence suggests very strongly that nature has no particular concern over any of the rights we commonly credit nature with granting us. Nature sends bears to eat us. Nature sends storms to destroy our property. Nature sends insect plagues to eat our food. Nature has enslaved us to our stomachs. Nature even seems determined to utterly destroy the universe as we know it either through the one-way march of entropy or through the prospect of a Big Crush. Nature gave us a limited ability to fight back against these impositions, but the rule of Nature seems to be that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. So why should we believe that rights are anything other than a human institution, established by humans for the regulation of conduct between humans for the benefit of humans?

  143. R. Penner says:

    @Ken White

    Thank you for not calling Clark a deranged pony-lover and throwing him under the bus. But in the words of Wikipedia editors everywhere, with regards to Clark's views about other people I say "citation required."

  144. Shane says:

    @Clark

    Ayn Rand, for example – argue against lying because it is unpragmatic. In her hurricane lamp, resurrected Rand

    Context please, there are two types of lying that I see. The inward focused and outward focused. It is my understanding that Rand believed the inward focused lie was a big no no, because you distance yourself from objective reality, but the outward focused lie was useful in some situations e.g. a robbery.

    The book that you linked is not a book by Rand. So your statement is misleading.

  145. ppnl says:

    @David,

    "There is nothing more rational than the desire to survive. Nothing.

    No this is totally and profoundly wrong. There is nothing rational about our desire to survive and nothing rational about the lengths we will go to survive. It is a condition forced on us by biology. It is no more rational than our desire to have sex or eat excessively sweet or fatty foods or do a line of cocaine. All of these behaviors have an evolutionary origin but that does not make them rational. It only means that those who did not have them didn't reproduce. None of these behaviors are driven by logic or reason and can only be fairly weakly influenced by logic and reason. OTOH they can easily subvert logic and reason to justify themselves.

  146. Clark says:

    @Ken:

    if Clark posited "there are some people out there, some subgroup of the larger group generally called 'atheists,' who as I understand it believe XYZ. Here's why I have a problem with XYZ."

    Indeed, you're absolutely correct; I should have phrased it that way. It's a bit late at this stage in the game, but please read my post as meaning that, even though I may not have been clever enough to say that.

  147. Clark says:

    @Jabberwock:

    Clark, unfortunately, you are still confused about materialism, despite many educating comments. It does not say that concepts such as rights or ethics cannot exist – it just says that they must ultimately rely on the physical.

    Jabberwock, unfortunately you are still confused about my point. My post explicitly called out three different kinds of rights exist, and said that materialists do not have a basis for belief in the third kind (even while they do have a basis for belief in the first two). I also gave multiple different examples of materialists trying (and, in my opinion, failing) to derive ethics from the physical.

    It's not that I don't understand your point. I do. I just think that it has a logical flaw at the heart of it. That was the point of my post.

  148. Lurker says:

    @P. Renner:

    Any statement referring to "many" or "some" people is best interpreted in the context of "is it plausible that such a person exists", as if such a person can exist statistics implies that they almost certainly do exist. (Caveat: This only moves to "they absolutely exist" in the case of infinite population, but the viewpoint is plausible enough that I can't imagine a population of 300 some million would not have some such people)

  149. sorrykb says:

    Nonreligious people are much like nonaffiliated voters – each side can claim them for their own, but really they're the low IQ, low education demographic that espouse a variety of conflicting views depending on how the questions are phrased.

    Well, that's a rather broad brush you're using there.

    I speak in this post only to modern atheists / Brights.

    OK, then. I had to Google "Brights". It seems a bit of an obnoxious and presumptuous name to give their group, but looking at some of the members, I don't think your "low IQ, low education" charge holds up. Richard Dawkins may be an ass, but he's quite well-educated and he's certainly not stupid.

    As far as "organized atheism" goes, I've no particular interest in "converting" people to atheism, nor am I particularly interested in meeting up with a group of people to discuss all the things we don't believe in. But in the sense that some level of organization can help, for example, to defend against teaching of "intelligent design" in public school science classes, or to promote scientifically-informed decision-making about vaccines/GM organisms/climate change/etc, then that's good as far as I'm concerned.

    What do you mean by "modern atheists"?

  150. David says:

    @Ben,
    Thanks for your reasonable tone. I want to address your important side-issue. You wrote:

    I'm glad we're having this discussion, and I've been generally impressed with your conduct. However, there are a few things, like “But I recognized, as you have not yet done but surely will…” that just seem condescending and unhelpful.

    I hesitated over that phrasing because I could see that it might be taken as condescending. "When you can take this pebble, Grasshopper" and so forth. But I didn't mean it by way of comparison, and I decided to go with it because it correctly captures what I believe is the case: that anyone smart and attentive and concerned enough to weigh Utilitarianism (and to grok its multifarious appeal and compelling elegance) will probably, on account of those same factors, come to regard it as an oversimplification not finally susceptible to rational defense. @Tyrsius had it right: it's an axiomatic system. But coherence relative to an arbitrary immanent starting point is too small a payoff, given both the alternatives and the arguments to the contrary.

    I was deeply attracted to Utilitarianism– to its intuitive appeal, to its conceptual elegance, to its whispered promise of quasi-mathematical application. Indeed, I first felt this appeal more superficially back in 1977 or so, when a photograph of zombie Jeremy Bentham in, I think, The Book of Lists sparked my imagination and sent me to the encyclopedias. But I was too young then to give the issues what they deserve, so when I came back around to utilitarianism years later, I was especially interested in thinking them through.

    I couldn't make it click, because the arguments that one would eventually have to supersede that approach seemed to me (and seem to me) stronger than the arguments in favor of the approach itself.

    That's why I worded things in this way. Please take it as a compliment, not as inflammatory.

  151. Shane says:

    @Clark

    By that last I mean that the most Rand could possibly hope to prove is not an ethical principal, but merely the tactical utility of one tool in a tool box. If murder is "wrong" only in the sense that it's usually inefficient, then it's still perfectly moral and legitimate to murder when the incentives align properly…which is far less than Rand claims.

    I am sure Rand is rolling in her grave. A better book to represent Ayn Rands philosophy regarding the idea of rights

  152. grouch says:

    Hope the fire department is nearby. Hate for all those burning strawmen to get out of control.

    See also, sophistry, projection, enlightened self-interest.

  153. Ryan says:

    @Ryan

    Can you provide an example regarding this statement:
    "Strict materialism presupposes that forces that are not comprised of matter or energy do not exist, yet we have ample scientific evidence that such forces DO in fact exist based on the interactions of matter and energy. Materialism in its strictest sense is incompatible with the scientific method."

    I realize it has been quite a number of posts between replies and this may get lost, but politeness demands and answer anyway:

    Gravity.

    Most scientists I know (and that number is not small) reject strict materialism because it does the scientific method a huge disservice.

    That is why I think Ken White's argument above makes an excellent point: Clark has framed this argument in a manner that a number of us call a strawman because he's lumping an extremely large and diverse group of people into a single ideological position they do not hold. Now, if Clark's blog took aim only at atheists who are strict materialistics as a very tiny proportion of all of those who sit on the atheism side of the fence, then he would have received considerably less argument because strict materialism just doesn't make sense if you purport to adhere to the principles of rationalism generally and science specifically, as the majority of atheists do.

  154. Anne says:

    Thank you for the reference to Sewer, Gas, and Electric. Several years ago there was a fair amount of discussion in my house about whether our baby would be named Philo or Joan (dismissed as absurd, the name of the "alternative-environment-adapted Carcharodon carcharias"). It remains a favorite book.

  155. Daniel Taylor says:

    I fail to see how a deity is necessary to justify the basis for morality: do no unnecessary harm.

    There's a lot of squishiness around the word "necessary" that needs to be worked out, but even the religious can't seem to agree on that so accusing atheists of inconsistency is disingenuous at best.

  156. sorrykb says:

    OK, having re-read the comments a bit more thoroughly, I see I was confused by the non-religious/atheist thing, so … the first two paragraphs of my last post take Clark's comments out of context. I apologize.

  157. Clark says:

    @Anne

    Thank you for the reference to Sewer, Gas, and Electric.

    You're welcome!

    It remains a favorite book.

    I wanted it to be a better book than it actually was; it had great concepts and a mediocre execution. Much like _Fool on the Hill_, which I also enjoyed, and which was not burdened with quite as much writerly pretension but felt more free to just let it's written-by-a-19-year-old freak flag fly.

  158. David says:

    @Ben

    Person P asserts that we’ve made progress in this regard. How can person Q tell whether that’s true, if person R asserts with equal vigor that we have not?

    By looking. Q can check out the progress and see if actually does a better job of addressing the problem.

    And how can she measure whether it does? Are you suggesting that all problems are material (as with Norman Borlaug's work on grain), and that all human preferences and values map to just those problems, as if the world were a stunted Maslovian ladder?

    Of course, I only make the decision within the system that I actually use, and I'll bet the same is true of you. As it happens, the way to resolve this within materialist utilitarianism is by looking.

    "Looking" sounds awfully empirical. But what is the measure of good, that looking can be taken without complication as sufficient? And yes, I realize that you can propose some definition of what's good, but why that definition rather than this?

  159. Clark says:

    @sorrykb

    OK, having re-read the comments a bit more thoroughly, I see I was confused by the non-religious/atheist thing, so … the first two paragraphs of my last post take Clark's comments out of context. I apologize.

    Accepted; no harm done.

    To clarify, my thoughts:

    • "Brights": subset of atheists. Smart, but confused about materialism and ethics.
    • agnostics: more rational than atheists.
    • non-religious: not intellectually rejecting religion, just failing to adopt it.
  160. mud man says:

    @ Andyjunction

    David, if you can name any more rational thought than the desire to survive be my guest.

    The desire to be free from pain. Note, BTW, Jesus said "take up your cross …", meaning (I suppose) sometimes you have to stick around and do what you have to do anyway, so I suppose he wasn't "rational". But we knew that already. Or as my martial arts teacher said, "Winning and loosing [a fight to the death] is so superficial."

  161. GC says:

    Atheism is not a belief system. It is simply a lack of belief in a supreme being. The following philsophies are, or can be, atheistic, all can have supernatural components:

    Confucianism, Existentialism, Secular Humanism, Theosophy, Skepticism

    There is no other common thread that must run through these beliefs to be atheistic.

    In order to engage the author in this discussion, one must concede that he has defined atheism correctly. However, the author has created a definition, "modern Athiest", specifically for this article, so that he may define it as he chooses.

    Attacking a strawman: "to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition."

    There is no "modern atheist" any more than there is a "modern Christian", "modern Muslim", "modern Buddhist", or "modern Theosophist". Do atheists like the author suggest exist? Absolutely! But "Materialist" is not a synonym for atheist any more than "Hebrew" is a synonym for Deist. To say that "modern Atheists" are materialists who cannot believe in natural rights is no different than saying "modern Christians" believe dancing to be immoral, drinking to be a sin, and removing that sin requires pennance prescribed by a priest.

    I recommend studying some existentialist thought before attempting to define Atheist as a materialist. I recommend William Barrett's Irrational Man, or perhaps Satre's Being and Nothingness.

    I cannot recommend Pascal as a philosopher, whose wager has been refuted many times, possibly best by WW Rouse Ball in A Short Account of the History of Mathematics. "Pascal made an illegitimate use of the new theory in the seventh chapter of his Pensées. In effect, he puts his argument that, as the value of eternal happiness must be infinite, then, even if the probability of a religious life ensuring eternal happiness be very small, still the expectation (which is measured by the product of the two) must be of sufficient magnitude to make it worth while to be religious. The argument, if worth anything, would apply equally to any religion which promised eternal happiness to those who accepted its doctrines. If any conclusion may be drawn from the statement, it is the undersirability of applying mathematics to questions of morality of which some of the data are necessarily outside the range of an exact science. It is only fair to add that no one had more contempt than Pascal for those who changes their opinions according to the prospect of material benefit, and this isolated passage is at variance with the spirit of his writings."

  162. David says:

    @Daniel Taylor

    There's a lot of squishiness around the word "necessary" that needs to be worked out, but even the religious can't seem to agree on that so accusing atheists of inconsistency is disingenuous at best.

    Here's a good starting point: The Nature of Necessity.

  163. Carl says:

    modern atheists [....] assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible

    This is a juvenile straw man. Atheists don't day that. Theists routinely CLAIM that atheists say it. I assure you that we believe in infrared light, radio waves, gravity, and mathematics.

    What we generally don't believe in is things which are:

    1. Internally inconsistent (meaning that AT LEAST some of it must be false, possibly even the whole thing), and

    2. Externally irrelevant (not meaning that we don't care, but that the hypothesized thing has not effects outside of itself, i.e. there is no way to observe external effects and therefore no way to test for its existence).

    (i.e. they are materialists)

    Interestingly, the definition of materialism to which you linked includes energy, which doesn't jive well with your straw man above. You sound pretty confused yourself.

    It's also ridiculous to try to interchange invisible non-psychical entities with abstract concepts on the grounds that both are not physical things. Total amateur hour on Popehat this morning. The fact is, this confusion is an invention of modern theologians who try to muddy their definition of "God" to avoid taking a coherent position on nagging questions. "We'll just say that God is a concept, and therefore is real one way or another and we don't have to look too deeply at the issue." See Karen Armstrong or Chris Hedges for more detailed versions of this newage nonsense if that's what you are into, but don't try to blame it on atheists.

  164. ppnl says:

    @David

    Of course. In one sense, the natural is a proper subset of the supernatural. In another, the supernatural supervenes on the natural. That's why properly formed theists move toward embracing science but eschewing scientism.

    Yeah… I'm going to have to class this as one reason to avoid calling things supernatural. The class of supernatural grows to the point that you see it everywhere. Is an electron supernatural? After all it can be in two places at once. Maybe the quantum wave function is supernatural. It cannot be observed at all and its absolute phase is not knowable even in principle. And f****** magnets, how do they work?

    I would be interested to know if Clark agrees that math is supernatural.

  165. sorrykb says:

    As for the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism", I'm still not seeing the evidence that they subscribe to the idea of materialism in the sense that you've described it here.

    Are you objecting to them because they speak out — often loudly — against religion or religious influence because they believe it is harmful? That may make them rude or in violation of "Don't be a dick", but you still haven't offered evidence that they're wrong, and in all fairness I'm not sure you're in the best position to assert that someone is in the wrong for advocating their point of view in a way that could be construed as over-the-top and impolite. (If, however, you want to call someone a hypocrite for claiming to advocating rights and humanistic values while at the same time acting horribly towards other people, I'd say that's entirely fair.)

  166. Paul Baxter says:

    Quickies:

    1. Great post overall

    2. I'm a modern Christian who is deeply suspicious of the existence of rights in the number 3 sense. I'd be inclined to believe in God given rights if the scriptures ever spoke of such things, but they do not.

    3. The language of your examples was a bit confusing to me, though I got the overall point of them.

    4. The broader message of your post has been argued quite beautifully by Alastair MacIntyre in his famous book, After Virtue (originally published 1981, current edition 2007). MacIntyre is a past president of the American Philosophical Association and was not in fact a Christian at the time he wrote the book, although he is one now. I urge readers interested in the topic to read it for themselves.

    5. Nice Sewer, Gas and Electric reference!

  167. Ryan says:

    @ Clark:

    non-religious: not intellectually rejecting religion, just failing to adopt it.

    This is technically a subset of atheism, as are agnostics (both fall under 'implicit atheism), although are not conventionally included as 'atheists' because it dilutes the term.

    For example, I refer to myself as 'agnostic,' although you would probably call me non-religious, but most atheists would refer to me as an implicit atheist. They are all pretty much the same thing with different labels.

    I do happen to agree that agnosticism/implicit atheism/non-religiousness is the more rational position between atheism and theism from a scientific rationalist standpoint, however; we do not know and we cannot know, so it is better not to make statements one way or the other.

  168. David says:

    @ppnl

    @David,

    "There is nothing more rational than the desire to survive. Nothing.

    No this is totally and profoundly wrong. There is nothing rational about our desire to survive and nothing rational about the lengths we will go to survive. It is a condition forced on us by biology. It is no more rational than our desire to have sex or eat excessively sweet or fatty foods or do a line of cocaine. All of these behaviors have an evolutionary origin but that does not make them rational. It only means that those who did not have them didn't reproduce. None of these behaviors are driven by logic or reason and can only be fairly weakly influenced by logic and reason. OTOH they can easily subvert logic and reason to justify themselves.

    I didn't say the quote you seem to ascribe to me. Andyjunction asserted that; I disputed his assertion.

  169. sorrykb says:

    GC wrote:

    Atheism is not a belief system. It is simply a lack of belief in a supreme being.

    Which is why I tend to avoid using the indefinite article — I'm atheist, not an atheist. The latter implies that there's some sort of identifiable group with a core set of values or beliefs. The only thing (aside from being human) that I have in common with all other atheist people is absence of belief in a god or gods. That's not much of an organizing principle for starting a club.

  170. ppnl says:

    @mud man,

    There is nothing rational about our desire to avoid pain. Again it is a condition forced on us by biology. In many contexts it is profoundly irrational.

  171. ppnl says:

    @David

    I didn't say the quote you seem to ascribe to me. Andyjunction asserted that; I disputed his assertion.

    Yeah, sorry about that. I hate blog comment software. It makes it hard to have an extended discussion.

  172. David says:

    @Andyjunction

    David, if you can name any more rational thought than the desire to survive be my guest.

    I've already named one. Even though it's shooting fish in a barrel, here's a supplement:

    • The desire to die for one's country
    • The desire to defend one's family from harm
    • The desire to avoid prolonged physical discomfort
    • The desire to escape oppressive mental anguish
    • The desire to determine the time and nature of one's own death
    • The desire to explore beyond frontiers
    • The desire to gain and propagate knowledge about dangerous wildlife
    • The desire to experience the thrill of base jumping in a wingsuit
    • The desire to express a political point
    • The desire to thwart plans that depend on one's survival
    • The desire to prevent oneself from harming others
    • ….

    Do you have some reason for thinking these less rational?

  173. David says:

    @ppnl

    Yeah, sorry about that. I hate blog comment software. It makes it hard to have an extended discussion.

    I hear ya. I believe we'll be moving toward a better solution to that problem at some point.

  174. wanfuforever says:

    I think, what should be said is not so much that atheists are opposed to the belief of the *immaterial* but opposed to the belief in the *fantastic*. Higgs-Boson always existed, but only until now did we discover what was always there. Information and concepts exist, yet both are abstract. But that I am to follow an entity that somehow regularly communicated with us yet now doesn't and somehow I am supposed to believe *just because I am told to* isn't enough evidence. That worked when I was seven and "because I'm the Mommy, that's why". But that no longer holds water as an adult. I do not know of an adult that refutes the effect of evolutionary biology, but that is observable. And certainly philosophy overlaps the function of religion concerning various esoteric and existential questions that plague our minds. Religion, like alchemy and astrology, were attempts to explain the world around us, but we find the lot wrong. Since we are societal creatures, it is a foremost on how we are to treat one another, and through the years that's been evolving, too. Slavery was acceptable at one time, now it is not. We fumble along, and figure things out along the way. That we ditch the fantastic along the way is part of our consciousness evolving and retain the parts that work- morality, ethics, etc. that makes society better for everyone should not be all that remarkable.

  175. Anonamoose says:

    "agnostics: more rational than atheists."

    Not sure how you separate the two Clark. I for instance am both, I will happily admit that I cannot know for sure if a creator entity exists, which makes me agnostic, but my personal belief, based on the available evidence and of course pending new information, is that no a creator entity likely does not exist, this make me an atheist. Can you break down for me where you believe the line exists?

  176. David says:

    @Paul Wright

    What do you think is the problem that these non-strict materialists (presumably you're referring to the ones who are atheists) have? I can't really see why they couldn't have good reasons for believing in some abstracta and not others. Even theists don't think it reasonable to believe in all possible gods, after all.

    Perhaps they can; and I'm inviting them to bring those forth.

    One difference that complicates and maybe kills your analogy (while, I hope, answering your question!) is that some theists assert a revelational epistemology (as in a "religion of the book") and then assert with warrant derived from that source that those other abstracta are fictional. Either scripture or Ockham may lead a theist to dispute the actuality of some proposed gods.

    No such epistemic apparatus is available to theists who lack a revelatory epistemology and likewise, nothing like an appeal to authoritative, transcendent intel is available to non-strict materialists, if the abstracta they're willing to embrace are construed as somehow immanent rather than transcendent.

  177. ppnl says:

    @Ryan

    I do happen to agree that agnosticism/implicit atheism/non-religiousness is the more rational position between atheism and theism from a scientific rationalist standpoint, however; we do not know and we cannot know, so it is better not to make statements one way or the other.

    Well ok but are we also prevented from making statements about Russel's teapot?

    Science does not deal with absolute proofs but rather evidence. The evidence can be strong enough that it would be unreasonable to withhold provisional acceptance. Thus I provisionally hold that the earth is round. That's how strongly the evidence points against a christian god or any other god ever invented. Technically it is agnosticism.

    Beyond that if any human concept of god exists then I want nothing to do with it.

  178. Grenaid says:

    This whole thread has been amazing, and I am absolutely loving it, but it cries so much to be threaded as it is getting fragmented almost beyond comprehension. Any thoughts on moving to a different comment systems for popehat, the better to follow long form conversations?

  179. Clark says:

    @Grenaid

    This whole thread has been amazing, and I am absolutely loving it, but it cries so much to be threaded as it is getting fragmented almost beyond comprehension. Any thoughts on moving to a different comment systems for popehat, the better to follow long form conversations?

    I like the idea.

    I'll bring it up in the authors' forum.

  180. David says:

    @Paul Baxter

    2. I'm a modern Christian who is deeply suspicious of the existence of rights in the number 3 sense. I'd be inclined to believe in God given rights if the scriptures ever spoke of such things, but they do not.

    Rights are interdefinable with duties.

    P has the right to do X if and only if P has no duty to avoid doing X.
    P has the duty to do Y if and only if P has no right to avoid doing Y.

    So the question is whether you believe that the scriptures ever speak of duty. If not, then there you are. If so, then the fact that you discern no scriptural discussion of rights is a defect in your conceptual analysis, not a discovery about scripture.

    Likewise, a proper model of liberty must engage the right/duty concept. Do you find that the scriptures speak of liberty? Can they do so without reference to duties? Therefore, the scriptures address the concept of rights, even if the 19th-century vocabulary isn't available in the classical context.

  181. En Passant says:

    Clark wrote in OP:

    This, then, is the crux of the problem: they self describe as materialists, and yet believe in invisible untestable things.

    I'll take that as canonical gospel for statement of the problem. All the other thousands of words are just too complicated for my poor brane to follow thoroughly this morning.

    So, I'll hazard a slapstick guess: Assume atheists have consistent axioms from which they generate propositions.

    But: First, every consistent axiomatic system can generate an untestable proposition.

    Second, no propositions generated from it can prove the system consistent.

    In those respects, if atheists, theists and agnostics offer propositions based on axioms consistent within their systems, then they share the same problem.

    Because Gödel. Or Hitler. Or something.

    Hey! Look over there! Let's shoot the Peano player!

    I think I need more coffee.

  182. SirWired says:

    I would just like to point out that a group designating themselves "the brights" is 100% guaranteeing that they aren't going to be taken seriously.

  183. Ryan says:

    @ppnl

    You can make whatever statements you wish based on the evidence as you account for it, but realize that your statements are an interpretation of the evidence, not a representation of it. Same goes for the celestial teapot. Making any statement about the non/existence of the teapot is interpretive and veers sharply away from experimental science.

    The point is that the absence of evidence for something does not constitute evidence against it from a rationalist standpoint that strictly follows the experimental design parameters of the scientific method. From that standpoint, implicit atheism / agnosticism are more scientifically-defensible positions than explicit atheism.

    Take the following thought experiment:

    Experimental hypothesis: God or gods exist.
    Null hypothesis: The experimental hypothesis is false.
    Outcome: Insufficient evidence for the experimental hypothesis. Null hypothesis is accepted.

    Corollary-

    Experimental hypothesis: God or gods do not exist.
    Null hypothesis: The experimental hypothesis is false.
    Outcome: Insufficient evidence of the experimental hypothesis. Null hypothesis is accepted.

    Both experiments have valid outcomes (as in the second, absence of evidence cannot be used as evidence of absence). Therefore, we have a paradox; deities cannot be supported or refuted by the scientific method. We can infer that absence of evidence is evidence of absence, but we cannot test that inference. In this scenario, the appropriate thought test actually belongs to Schroedinger's Cat. Without observation, the result is unknown and we cannot make testable, reliable, and valid observations.

    The net result is that implicit atheism or agnosticism does not make inferences. Both theism and explicit atheism do, which make them the less-rational positions.

    Pragmatically, on the other hand, agnostics and explicit atheists are both considerably closer to rationalism than any form of theism, however.

  184. David says:

    @Grenaid

    This whole thread has been amazing, and I am absolutely loving it, but it cries so much to be threaded as it is getting fragmented almost beyond comprehension. Any thoughts on moving to a different comment systems for popehat, the better to follow long form conversations?

    I like the idea.

    I'll bring it up in the authors' forum.

    We have discussed it, and are preparing to do the following in overdue time:
    (a) replace phpbb3 with Discourse
    (b) re-theme the WordPress instance and establish a wider column for the main content
    (c) consider display options for post comments once the column is wide enough to ensure that threading or indenting won't be a step backward in usability.

  185. sorrykb says:

    Clark wrote:

    To clarify, my thoughts:

    "Brights": subset of atheists. Smart, but confused about materialism and ethics.
    agnostics: more rational than atheists.
    non-religious: not intellectually rejecting religion, just failing to adopt it.

    OK, I see where you're coming from, although I don't agree with you on all these points.

    I'll leave the Brights to the Brights — as I said, I can accept the utility of "organized atheism" for certain purposes, but I think there are more effective ways to do it.

    As for agnostics being more rational than atheists. I'm thinking you mean this because we can't KNOW for certain whether a god or gods exist. I agree with you there, but again in the absence of evidence I will default to "I don't believe there is a god", which in my mind is still different from "I believe there is no god." Our disagreement here could just be a disagreement of definition. (However, I'm a bit more confident in believing there is not a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and good, but that's a discussion for another time.)

    Would "non-religious" also include deists (classical or modern)? There have been some pretty serious thinkers in that group.

  186. David says:

    @Ben,
    Here's another way to think about it. Given the "axiom set" of the Java virtual machine and the core Java libraries, I can construct a software model that provides a simplified representation of the actual world and allows the definition, calculation, and projection of values concerning that world.

    This representation and these operations and data may be internally coherent and consistent with the specifications of the JVM and the language, and they may even empower me to assert various conditional claims about the actual world thus modeled. Combined with appropriate hardware, they may even support my indirectly modifying the actual world.

    That does not mean that my program is the truth about the actual world. It just means that I can do clever and useful things with these Lego bricks.

    Make sense?

  187. sorrykb says:

    @David:
    I'm more confused than ever. How did you get the Legos in there?

  188. Daniel Taylor says:

    @David: that looks like a potentially interesting read, but my point was that in matters of what constitutes necessary (or even what constitutes harm) the belief in a deity does not seem to provide any consistent guidance as far as the moral principle goes.

    This applies even to groups that believe in the *same* deity, as one can find plenty of Christian groups that disagree vehemently on what they all consider "obvious" matters of morality.

  189. Jonathan says:

    Well, this was certainly an exciting thread. I wish I hadn't been so late to the party.

    I certainly felt myself enriched from the discussion!

  190. David says:

    @sorrykb

    @David:
    I'm more confused than ever. How did you get the Legos in there?

    By way of the software development analogy. Composition trumps inheritance in most cases, and all that.

    It's meaningless babble to anyone who doesn't program, but I thought I'd put it out there for those who do– a set that may or may not include Ben.

  191. Ebeth says:

    Is it wrong that I got bored and quit reading halfway through? Of what I read, though, I… wasn't impressed? I'm sorry (read legitimate regret/apology, not sarcasm or snarkiness). It seemed well thought out. Good job, Clark!
    Unfortunately, it kind of sounded like a huge load of bollocks based on a skewed understanding (or over-generalization) about modern atheism. But it really was well presented. Truly. If it's foundation wasn't so off kilter I think the entire piece would have been quite remarkable.

  192. Jonathan says:

    I believe I saw someone claim that not all atheists are of Rosenberg's ilk. I think an interesting question is how any atheist can ultimately avoid Rosenberg's conclusions.

  193. David says:

    @Daniel Taylor

    @David: that looks like a potentially interesting read, but my point was that in matters of what constitutes necessary (or even what constitutes harm) the belief in a deity does not seem to provide any consistent guidance as far as the moral principle goes.

    Yep. Theisms differ. The discussion, if pursued, must always come around to the question of which theism (or theisms) and why that one (or those).

    Incidentally, this proliferation not only of alternatives but of contraries is a situation that would be helped, I think, if interested parties grappled with the concepts in that book! :)

  194. David says:

    @Ebeth, are you Canadian?

  195. ppnl says:

    @David,

    We have discussed it, and are preparing to do the following in overdue time:
    (a) replace phpbb3 with Discourse
    (b) re-theme the WordPress instance and establish a wider column for the main content
    (c) consider display options for post comments once the column is wide enough to ensure that threading or indenting won't be a step backward in usability.

    Over at the league of ordinary gentlemen I once suggested that they simply link the blog post to an open thread in some forum software like vbulletin. You could have threaded messages, nested quotes, ignore lists and all the things that make discussions easier. It did not go over well.

    But the fact is blog comment systems are not designed for discussions. They are designed to leave comments.

  196. naught_for_naught says:

    @David

    Great honk!

    Very nice. That is without doubt the Queen Mother of all church-safe exclamations ever uttered in an American musical comedy.

  197. David says:

    @ppnl You're right. And linking to a forum isn't a bad idea. But we'd like to dump phpBB for other reasons, too. So we're patiently awaiting and seeking synergy. (No, not Larry Fast….)

  198. HandOfGod137 says:

    Perhaps it is a cultural thing, or specific to my exact social circle, but my atheist friends all seem to share my view: "rights" are an artefact constructed by people and with no independent existence. And we all seem to share the same view on religion: one cannot utterly exclude the possibility that some god exists, but all empirical evidence makes it appear so overwhelmingly unlikely that it can be effectively dismissed as a possibility. I really don't know what sample of atheists Clark used to draw his conclusions from, but it seems like a series of strawmen constructed entirely to make his argument.

    I am also interested to know what "similar but distinct logical errors" Dawkins, Dennet and Harris are guilty of. The one example cited regarding killing children seems like a misreading of one of the evolutionary arguments for the development of altruism, which then gets attached to a mildly snarky "of course I believe in evolution, sorta" caveat. Is that it?

    My criticism here is not of Clark, but rather his argument. And I'm afraid in my opinion it is a poor argument. I am British, and we have relatively little problem with religion attempting to insert itself into education etc, but I understand it is a much bigger problem in the USA. As a consequence, it sometime appears that American atheists need to argue their case more forcefully, which in turn seems the cause the religious to act more defensively. Of course I entirely defend the right of anyone to hold to any belief system to which they a drawn, but personally I long for the day when we finally abandon the bronze-age creation myths so many still cling to.

  199. John says:

    The argument is foolish, based on a misunderstanding of Atheism and poor logic. To clarify what I mean, you could replace "rights" or "justice" in the argument with "mathematics". It fits into the argument just as easily, being an abstract concept divorced from simple materialism.

    But if you said that "Atheists cannot believe in mathematics", you'd choke on the blatant wrongness of the statement.

  200. Grifter says:

    "If murder is "wrong" only in the sense that it's usually inefficient, then it's still perfectly moral and legitimate to murder when the incentives align properly"

    Could be trivially translated into:

    "If murder is "wrong" only in the sense that it's usually prohibited by god, then it's still perfectly moral and legitimate to murder when you think god's command aligns properly"

    Couldn't it?

    You're appealing, overall, to the fundamental crux of the axioms of any morality.

  201. ppnl says:

    @Ryan,

    You can make whatever statements you wish based on the evidence as you account for it, but realize that your statements are an interpretation of the evidence, not a representation of it.

    No, the whole point of evidence is to sharply limit what you can say. Creationists for example say that they use the same evidence as biologists but reach a different conclusion. They are not interpreting the evidence they are raping it. The evidence for evolution should sharply limit what you can say if you have any intellectual honesty at all.

    As for Russell's teapot there is not any evidence at all. But I don't need evidence to reject it. I need evidence to even consider the possibility. For example billions were spent looking for Higg's boson. It was suspected because it is a result of electroweak symmetry breaking. There is no similar reason to suspect Russell's teapot. The only experimentalists that would even look for it are idiots because the chances that it exists is as small the chance that the earth is not round.

    Like Russell's teapot there is no evidence about the existence of a generic god. But the case for this generic god is even worse because it is so poorly defined that you don't even know what the evidence would look like.

    As for specific gods there is evidence against and it is overwhelming. There was no flood a few thousand years ago, many parts of the bible are forgeries and works of fiction, Thor does not cause thunder, the grand canyon was not carved out by the beak of a giant bird and so on.

  202. CJK Fossman says:

    @Clark

    I always enjoy it when people take time out of their busy days to tell me how short their attention spans are and how little they are interested in ideas.

    I'm pleased you enjoyed my input.

    I believe you misapprehend, however. I stopped reading your essay because of its self-indulgent language.

    For example, by the end of the second paragraph, your essay has inflicted two parenthetical digressions on me. By the end of its second enumerated point, the essay has exposed this, "No, the reason that modern atheists have incoherent views is that they simultaneously … they believe in rights…"

    By that time, the essay had managed to slip in a third parenthetical phrase. At that point you lost me as a reader.

    If you want to be known for having ideas, express them better.

  203. Paul Baxter says:

    @David,

    This topic probably doesn't concern too many here, but I find it interesting. I would certainly agree that there cannot be rights without duties (which brings up its own problems in contemporary rights-based dialogues), but I don't know that I would agree to the converse. In any event, while I have no expertise on the development of the language of "rights" in the Western tradition, I'm pretty sure it mostly post-dates the 1st century. Duties in older societies were personal rather than general, so any concept of right would have been framed as something due to one based on a particular relationship. Kings and subjects, for instance, or husbands and wives, might understand certain obligations to each other. This is a long way from, say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which seems to stand on nothing at all save some sort of ill defined idea of human dignity.

    There's a nice body of literature growing around the social/cultural situation of ancient Israelite/mediterranean culture, of which I especially recommend David DeSilva's Perseverance in Gratitude, a book exploring how the concept of "faith" in the book of Hebrews is embedded in the concepts of patron-client relationships. You'd enjoy it, I'm sure.

  204. ppnl says:

    @HandOfGod137,

    I am British, and we have relatively little problem with religion attempting to insert itself into education etc, but I understand it is a much bigger problem in the USA.

    Isn't there an British law that requires school children to say a prayer each school day?

    Now as I understand it you are far less religious over there yet the intrusion of religion into government is far greater. I think most of it is just an historical relic much like your Queen. But still, try to change it and I think you will be in for a nasty fight.

    America was settled by religious fanatics. The strange thing is the constitutional separation of church and state has preserved some of that fanaticism.

  205. Michael Straight says:

    Paul Baxter mention's that Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue is a well-regarded philosophical treatment of this topic.

    MacIntyre doesn't argue that there can't be a coherent atheistic moral framework (and he talks at length about Nietzsche's philosophy), but he points out that regardless of their actual religious or philosophical beliefs, almost everyone persists in talking about morality as if Right and Wrong are real metaphysical values based on some sort of transcendent religious framework.

    MacIntyre points out that coming up with a non-religious philosophical justification for morality, a secular rationale for how we should evaluate and why we should submit to claims for justice, has been one of the major philosophical projects of the last few hundred years, but that philosophers have pretty much failed to come up with any consensus.

    Our culture continues to persistently talk about justice in terms that are based on our religious heritage and we haven't found any generally compelling alternatives for talking about morality and justice.

  206. Clark says:

    @CJK Fossman

    I always enjoy it when people take time out of their busy days to tell me how short their attention spans are and how little they are interested in ideas.

    I believe you misapprehend, however. I stopped reading your essay because of its self-indulgent language.

    No, I understood you perfectly. You stopped in for a free buffet, found it not to your liking, and took the time to insult one of the proprietors.

    For example,

    Sorry; gave up here. Comment TL;DR.

  207. Elf says:

    As a devout Pagan, I find debates between Christian and Christian atheists* alternate between fascinating and baffling.

    I cannot figure out why so many atheists care what Christians believe. While there's some sense in the argument "because they declare that we are innately immoral, and try to infringe on our rights," they rarely tackle the beliefs from that direction. No, they must attempt to prove the Christians are wrong, not that the Christians have overstepped their legal (and possibly moral) rights.

    And on the flip side, while I've met Christians who believe that true morality only comes from adherence to their religious principles, under further discussion, they will admit to knowing people they consider to be good, moral, ethical etc. folks who don't do so… and then claim that those people "really" follow the important parts of their religion, by some definition of "follow" that doesn't involve consciousness.

    For myself:
    believe in all three types of human rights: Yep; no question.

    whether you prefer the term "Natural Law", "God given rights", or something else, you think that there are ethical norms that are not merely pragmatic but objective and true: Undecided. I'm at a point where the difference between "pragmatic" and "objective" generally does not bother me, regarding rights & ethics.

    therefore government is not merely "something we all do together", but potentially a destructive force that can commit evil: Is this an either/or question? I'm not seeing it. Government is something we all do together, and like any human activity, a potentially destructive force of evil.

    and finally, it is not only meaningful, but almost mandatory – if one is to say anything of interest – to take great care to distinguish between "is" and "ought" when speaking of rights. : This, I can certainly agree with.

    *Christian atheists: those who disbelieve the well-publicized version(s) of Christian deity & related mythos, while simultaneously insisting that the traits "omniscient, omnipotent & omnibenevolent" comprise the only accurate definition of "deity."

    I often wind up very annoyed with outspoken, politically-active atheists; they make me agree with Christians, which leaves a sour taste in my mouth for days.

  208. Clark says:

    @Michael Straight

    MacIntyre doesn't argue that there can't be a coherent atheistic moral framework

    Nor do I, for that matter.

    but he points out that regardless of their actual religious or philosophical beliefs, almost everyone persists in talking about morality as if Right and Wrong are real metaphysical values based on some sort of transcendent religious framework.

    Yes! This!

    MacIntyre points out that coming up with a non-religious philosophical justification for morality, a secular rationale for how we should evaluate and why we should submit to claims for justice, has been one of the major philosophical projects of the last few hundred years, but that philosophers have pretty much failed to come up with any consensus.

    …and THIS too!

    Our culture continues to persistently talk about justice in terms that are based on our religious heritage and we haven't found any generally compelling alternatives for talking about morality and justice.

    And not just for talking about them, either, but for identifying them.

  209. Alex says:

    First off, this has been a fascinating read, so for that I thank you all.

    By reading through these comments the majority of the disagreements lies in the root definition of atheism, or modern atheism, as it was originally put. The spectrum of "atheism" is in many ways just as broad as that of "theism" but there seems to be little consensus as to what constitutes an atheistic mindset, an agnostic one (some above say agnostics are atheists), and a theistic one. This inevitably results in the issue of "strawmen" for some readers.

    The key ways that I have heard "atheists" grouped (and people can fall into a combination of groups), and the ones I have found the most agreement among others with are:

    Atheists who believe strictly in the physical universe (including particle physics, quantum physics, etc.). From the reverse approach they do not believe in anything "spiritual" (souls, spirits, non-corporeal beings, the "Force"), a.k.a the group I think the post was aimed at.

    Those who do believe in the spiritual, but limited to more abstract things like the "Force" or some equivalent. Buddhism is quite similar to this in some ways, and I have found the term a teacher once used "adeistic" to better reflect the lack of belief in deities.

    And the last group I have encountered are those that believe god(s) do/might exist, but think they are a%^^#s and would/do not worship or them.

    Separate from my interpretation of the above is the term agnostic, which seems to mean not being completely sure of the existence/non-existence of god(s) and/or not being sure which (if any) religion in existence is correct. This term also applies to those who believe god(s) exist(s) but think all existing religions are wrong, but have no specific idea themselves. This can work in degrees, and can be used in conjunction with another belief. For example I am a Christian and somewhat agnostic, in that I believe in God but admit that I may have the specifics of what God wants me to do wrong.

    As for the argument made in the original post, I agree that for any abstract idea to have power it must have some "weight" behind it, fact or otherwise. Laws have weight because they are backed by government. Money in its modern form is a concept given value (once by the gold standard, now by society saying it has value), this goes double for digital transactions. It takes some greater authority to create morality as an all encompassing force. No social-contract can be that level of absolute. Thus, the fundamental point of the article, that an absolute, external, morality (whatever the specifics of that may be) can not exist without an absolute, external force. This renders the morality of those who do not believe in such a force internal to that individual, enforced by their own willpower, and are "more guidelines than rules".

    As for evolutionary advantages for morality, google "beware corporate psychopaths" and you will find that people with the condition use their ruthlessness and lack of empathy to great success.

    P.S: I understand they are in the same general category, but how does the way creationists interpret evidence refute or even relate to the point of the post. Although it is a testament to Popehat that it took this long to degrade to that point.

  210. ppnl says:

    @Elf

    I cannot figure out why so many atheists care what Christians believe.

    In my experience very few atheists do. What we care about is any attempt to use the power of the state to force other peoples children to pay homage to their god. Any attempt to prevent teaching real science in schools or force teaching pseudoscience. Any attempt to pass or enforce laws against atheists holding office.

    In passing we will point out the silliness of talking snakes and magic fruit.

  211. CJK Fossman says:

    @ppnl
    The only true evidence for the existence of God is faith. It is not subject to rational thought.

    It is not unique in that respect. Our very existence is not rational.

    Either there will be Grand Reconciliation at the end of time when we will all meet the Maker of Everything, or there will not.

    In the meantime, arguing about it is pointless.

  212. John says:

    Clark (RE the original article):

    As an atheist, I do indeed have a set of internal axioms that can never be proved or disproved. These include (among other things) the idea that other people are sentient, the idea that reality as I perceive it exists, and a variant on the golden rule. I think we'd both agree that the idea of natural rights follows from the golden rule, as a useful way of thinking if nothing else.

    The reason I have these axioms is that without axioms, it's pretty much impossible to answer any meaningful questions about reality or morality in general. This doesn't particularly disturb me – I'm a mathematician, and everything in mathematics comes down to a few well-chosen axioms as well. I don't feel less confident about the validity of calculus just because it requires ZFC to hold.

    The important point is that my axiom set assumes as little as I can manage. Probably the golden rule is the weakest point, sure, but at the very least there are powerful pragmatic arguments in favour of it.

    Meanwhile, your set of axioms contains the existence of an omnipotent, omnipresent, benevolent being. It contains the fact that he created the universe and humanity. It contains the fact that he sends people to eternal paradise or torment after their deaths, based on their adherence to a moral code which has passed through six thousand years of textual corruption. And it contains the fact that he is intentionally hiding proof of his own existence and wishes from everyone, even his own followers.

    I won't argue I'm completely rational, but I think I'm at least more rational than you. See to the plank in your own eye before the sawdust in mine.

  213. James Burkhardt says:

    I posit that there is a mildly objective standard with which to establish morality, ethics, rights, ect.. It is the basis on which all tort law should be considered. (I note that I am a Christian as I say this)

    Establish that the only basic fundamental right is the right to self-determinate, that is free will (an abstract yet well defined concept).

    Given this, law and morality and justice only need intervene when one individual's attempt at self determination interferes with another.

    Murder is morally wrong not because it is inefficient, but because it is an act (the ultimate act) of significant interference in another individual's self determination. Same with theft. Severe lies (the NSA does not abuse its power) are immoral because of the significant reprecussions it has. "White lies" on the other hand, often have no lasting reprecussions, or positive ones. (consider the common "Every will think he died a hero" lie in TV and movies) This leads them to being considered moral and acceptable.

    Now the definition of significant varies, which is why some people can accept laws and situations others consider unjust. Moreover, some do not see the impact their decisions have on others lives, or do not believe that impact is a direct result of their decisions.

    In short, I believe that fundamental rights can be established from a materialist framework.

  214. Yes, Clark, if gross (and wildly inaccurate) over generalizations are what you need to justify your belief in magic, then that's what you have to do to believe in magic. I understand that you are really pissed-off that I (or anyone) would intentionally pass up a chance to believe in your invisible magic sky-pixie. I am every bit as sorry as you could expect me to be. I understand that there is no chance that you will ever be able to acknowledge this simple fact: ethics, morals, personal integrity, basic human rights and complex human rights are all human constructs. They are not bestowed by your invisible magic sky-pixie. They are not magic and they do not require the existence of magic.

  215. Ann says:

    I'm nitpicking, I know, but you used "principal" twice (instead of "principle")–it drives me nuts. :-)

    At least someone's acknowledging that atheists can be moral. I'm not one myself, but I'm weary of the tired assertion that an atheist can't possibly be a good person. In a similar vein, I'm also tired of the assumption that people who are pro-life are Christian, as if only Christians believe that killing babies is wrong.

  216. Alex says:

    @ppnl
    I do agree that forcing religion is foolish on both sides, it only breeds dissent amongst those who are of that religion, as those who were forced impress their views on those who do. It would be like a stereotypical shotgun wedding.

    Oh and just a heads up, your arguments are in no way supported by ending with an insult. In fact, it makes it seem like you do care that Christians believe certain things and want them to change those beliefs.

    @John
    I don't know if the article I read was the same one you did but theism as a supportable or rational theory was part of the argument.
    As a mathematician I am sure you do not write 2+2=5 with a big X through it next to your proofs to support them. As a Christian I freely admit that some parts of that belief system are silly (thus my agnostic leanings), but regardless of the lack of plausibility, or even if God does not exist, religious people do believe God to exist, which directly influences their actions in a way that is absent from atheists.

  217. ThomasS says:

    Through a combination of logic and empathy, humans have the ability to devise and follow behaviors which allow us to to live together, work together, and accomplish amazing things as a species. You can call these behaviors what you will – ethics, morality, respect for natural human rights – but whatever you call them, the ability and responsibility to develop them is an essential part of being human.

    But sometimes the personal sacrifice demanded by a religion is this bit of humanity. Scientologists believe that Disconnection is an important tool. Jews and Muslims believe that certain bits of male children's genitalia are reasonable and necessary to sacrifice. A number of religions revile homosexuals.

    All of these things seem like schoolyard level insider-outsider games meant to differentiate a clique and polarize it against outsiders. All of them can seem immoral to the uninitiated. All of them seem destined to cause the practitioners to give up a bit of their basic empathy and humanity. This loss is the true tragedy of religion.

    (Just one atheist's view.)

  218. HandOfGod137 says:

    @ppnl
    you are right regarding intrusion of religion into British government, and I wish we had statutory separation like you chaps have. Fortunately in practical terms, the church is essentially irrelevant. I have some vague memory of reading somewhere that it is their capacity to be tax-exempt businesses that has led to the prominence of religion in the USA, but I may be mistaken.

    @Elf
    the atheists I am familiar with are mostly secularists: we really couldn't care less what others choose to believe as long as they don't force it down people's throats or try and insert ant-science nonsense into education. There are fewer and fewer gaps for gods to inhabit, so why bother?

    @Michael Straight

    I really don't see this. It seems to me that our culture is mostly about getting past the morality religion has given us. Homophobia, witch-burning and general xenophobia seem like anachronisms we should be abandoning just as fast as we can

  219. HandOfGod137 says:

    Oops, blockquote fail:

    @Michael Straight
    "Our culture continues to persistently talk about justice in terms that are based on our religious heritage and we haven't found any generally compelling alternatives for talking about morality and justice."

    I really don't see this. It seems to me that our culture is mostly about getting past the morality religion has given us. Homophobia, witch-burning and general xenophobia seem like anachronisms we should be abandoning just as fast as we can

  220. Alex says:

    Ah yes, I am now having flash backs to high school government class and the social contract theory. Yes, we do give up parts of our free will for the good of society, if others in that society do the same. It is that which creates the "society" and "government" layers of morality in the article. It is that third layer that is the issue. As the Joker said in one of the recent Batman movies, you never truly know a person until they think they are going to die. Along the same lines is "A person is who they are when they think nobody is watching". If someone thinks they are about to die or that they will not be caught for doing something "wrong", what reason do they have to uphold the social contract?

  221. Alex says:

    @HandOfGod137

    Witch burning is an interesting choice, go to the wikipedia page and you will find superstitious people in Africa and India are still hunting and killing witches.

    Homophobia was viewed by Nazi Germany to be a genetic defect and sent homosexuals to the concentration camps.

    Xenophobia, well the examples of that not caused by religion are too many to count.

    I agree that we should eliminate them, but to say they would exist without religion is foolishness.

  222. Ari Kohen says:

    For what it's worth, I published a book on the non-religious origins of the idea of human rights in 2007. I provide arguments there about disconnecting the contemporary human rights regime from a religious cosmology that might be of interest to you and your readers.

  223. suntzuanime says:

    It's not as though you can violate the is-ought distinction just because there *is* a God. Anyone who thinks there are non-arbitrary rights is confused, atheist or not.

  224. Clark says:

    @Pip R. Lagenta

    Yes, Clark, if gross (and wildly inaccurate) over generalizations are what you need to justify your belief in magic

    I keep thinking that sooner or later entrants into this thread will start reading my repeated
    explanations that

    (a) nothing I'm saying in this thread is a defense of theism
    (b) I'm not talking about all atheists, just those materialists who also believe in non-material ethics

    I understand that you are really pissed-off that I (or anyone) would
    intentionally pass up a chance to believe in your invisible magic
    sky-pixie.

    Many, many, many things make me really pissed off.

    Your choice of religion or non-religion is, oddly, one of the few things that doesn't make the list.

    I understand that there is no chance that you will ever be able to acknowledge this simple fact: ethics, morals, personal integrity, basic human rights and complex human rights are all human constructs.

    You understand that, do you?

    Your profession of faith with inadequate data while defending faithlessness is touching. …and sort of amusing.

    They are not bestowed by your invisible magic sky-pixie.

    Where did I ever say that they are?

    If you ever decide to debate me, instead of your stock strawman, please come back.

  225. Clark says:

    @Alex:

    Homophobia was viewed by Nazi Germany to be a genetic defect

    No. Homophobia is viewed by the progressive 'cathedral' as a defect.

    Homosexuality, on the other hand, was viewed by Nazi Germany as a defect.

    ;-)

  226. Clark says:

    @suntzuanime:

    It's not as though you can violate the is-ought distinction just because there *is* a God. Anyone who thinks there are non-arbitrary rights is confused, atheist or not.

    If you choose to argue that position at some point, instead of merely asserting it, that might be interesting.

  227. Clark says:

    @Alex

    Ah yes, I am now having flash backs to high school government class and the social contract theory. Yes, we do give up parts of our free will for the good of society,

    No. We give up parts of our freedom. Free will either doesn't exist, or exists and is inalienable.

  228. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Alex
    Oh, to be sure you'll get no disagreement from me. Evil and stupidity don't require religion to exist. I suppose my general point is that religion is no paragon of morality and we can do better than 2000 year old books when it comes to being decent to one another.

  229. @joesw0rld says:

    A question I've been asking a lot recently, in the face of these claims of objective principles, is; how would we distinguish an objective ethical principle from an opinion? When somebody says "x is wrong" I hear "I believe x to be wrong" (or even "I believe x to be objectively wrong").

    An appeal to popularity doesn't seem to cut it, because even though morality seems quite convergent there are ample examples of people who disagree (The Bad Guys).

    I suspect out individual ethical principles and morality to be nothing more than opinion. Opinion formed by our upbringing, experience, culture and reason, amongst other things. I don't hold much truck with people like Harris who try and find a factual objective basis for opinion. This seems to be a category error to me.

    So how could we tell an ethical opinion from an objective ethical truth?

  230. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Clark
    "No. We give up parts of our freedom. Free will either doesn't exist, or exists and is inalienable."

    You've lost me a bit there, man. Free will is certainly a problem in a deterministic universe if you don't accept duality (which I don't: conciousness is data processing – there's no magic going on imo. Although there may be physical processes that permit choice that we don't understand yet). But I don't see how you can describe a process as inalienable. We as a society or culture or whatever may say individuals have a right to free will, but I don't see the universe making that decision.

  231. Manatee says:

    @Clark:

    I think one of my biggest issues is that this post lumps so many people together

    How so? I tried to take pains to talk only about materialist atheists who believe in objective morality. How much finer do I need to dice it?

    Part of it is that you bury the lead, so to speak. You start off for several paragraphs talking generally in terms of just atheists. The most specific you get is "western atheists." Eventually, you start getting very specific, and you start making a lot of qualifiers, but not before throwing out a lot of blanket statements about "atheists" in general. If you don't want many people to think you're making more general statements than you mean to, my advice would be to try to define/narrow your terms at the beginning so that everyone is on the page, semantically, before they start reading your arguments. If I wanted to talk about Eastern Orthodox Christians, I would probably make note of that first, rather than waiting until I had made numerous statements about "Christians," especially if those statements would be untrue or contentious if applied generally to Christians, and not limited to the specific subset I'm interested in.

    Now, you might argue it's unfair to expect you to be more specific at the outset, to read your use of the word "atheist" and to read into it numerous connotations and implications and associations that you did not mean to imply. After all, you were referring to western materialist atheist, nothing more. However, your use of the same sort of reasoning implies that you accept it's use:

    and yet almost every modern atheist would choose to describe this not merely in flat factual terms, but in terms of "injustice"

    You then go on expound about how using terms justice and injustice must reflect something about the inner beliefs of this very specific group. You distinguish between justice as a violation of law and justice as a violation of abstract non-material ethical principles incompatible with atheism, but then you leave no room for any other sort of definition. After all, if the atheist meant to condemn the segregation/racism/slavery/whatever legalized "injustice" they were talking about as inefficient, or incompatible with modern law, or incompatible with the modern societal consensus of what rights individuals have, or in violation of an implied social contract between the government and the governed (or the owned, as it may be), or simply abhorrent to that individual atheist's own subjective, arbitrary, individual sense of morality, then that atheist would have said so. The fact that he used a loaded term like "injustice" clearly shows that he's invoking some sort of moral covenant with some sort of non-material theistic moral agent.

    I'm one of those agnostics who, if I had to place a bet, would give slightly better odds on atheism than any organized religion I've seen so far. In terms of the existence of a deity with the moral authority to impose an abstract moral framework on us, I'd put it somewhere between the chances intelligent life exists somewhere out there, and the chances that intelligent life has paid us a visit in the last few hundred years. But with a much greater degree of confidence, I do believe in an abstract theory of morality beyond what is legal, and beyond what society agrees upon.

    When you question the "consistency" of such beliefs with the idea of the non-existence of deities, it presupposes that such a system must necessarily arise, indirectly or directly, from some sort of divine source, or at the very least that they must arise from such sources to be more valid than 1) or 2). I disagree with that assumption, and I think many atheists and agnostics do as well. In that sense, you make the same mistake Richard Dawkins does–in trying so hard to find some sort of scientific or biological basis for morality, some could see him as implicitly surrendering to the notion that morality not based on more than law or social norms have no validity.

    Also, I was desperately searching the internet for "Tom & Kerry cartoons" hoping to find a series about the comedic adventures of Tom Daschle and John Kerry as they seek the Democratic nomination for 2016, until I realized you probably meant Tom & Jerry.

  232. David says:

    @John

    The argument is foolish, based on a misunderstanding of Atheism and poor logic. To clarify what I mean, you could replace "rights" or "justice" in the argument with "mathematics". It fits into the argument just as easily, being an abstract concept divorced from simple materialism.

    But if you said that "Atheists cannot believe in mathematics", you'd choke on the blatant wrongness of the statement.

    Actually, if you're not afraid to chip away at that particular tootsie pop, you'll find a compelling theistic proof at the center.

    Of course particular atheists can believe in and employ mathematics, but it's quite difficult for atheism as a model to account for that fact. What are the objects of their cognition in such instances? If arising from brains, why do mathematical entities and functions seem universally applicable? If independent of their brains, how on earth are they cognizable?

    The problem isn't that atheists use the world; the problem is that atheism is an intellectually inadequate account of the world thus used.

  233. Elf says:

    @ppnl
    Atheists would have an easier time winning recognition of their rights if the ones who were active in courts and the media would avoid bringing up the kooky aspects of Christian beliefs. (The talking snake doesn't bother me nearly as much as the notion of paying for someone else's "sins"… if we're to believe salvation-by-proxy is rational, why doesn't our legal system allow volunteers to attend prison for someone else?)

    I do understand that it's hard to skip around them, especially with so many evangelists active in so many ways. However, bringing them up wins no points with anyone except other atheists of the same stripe… it's great conversation matter for a private list, and useless for public discussion.

    Most of the atheist discussions I see in public aren't "how do we get our rights acknowledged" but "how can we disprove X aspect of Christianity so we can get Y feature?"

  234. Tyrsius says:

    @David

    So you're argument is that things that don't arise from brains can't be understood unless God exists?

  235. HandOfGod137 says:

    @David

    I'm sorry, but I really don't see your point re maths. Mathematics is the language of the fundamental structure of the universe. Why should mathematical entities and functions NOT seem universally applicable? I honestly don't get your argument, but perhaps if you tried reading this you might have a better understanding of current ideas regarding the mathematical basis of, well, everything.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holographic_principle

  236. David says:

    @Tyrsius, I didn't offer an argument.

    I'm merely pointing out that "You're wrong because math" is a poor rebuttal in view of the fact that some theistic proofs in the wild capitalize on this very point.

    In doing so, they may make the stronger assertion you mention: our commerce in abstracta is inexplicable apart from a theistic frame of reference. Or they may make the weaker assertion: some particular aspect of abstracta and our knowledge and use of them makes better sense on theistic premises.

  237. HandOfGod137 says:

    @David

    Sorry man, but I've got no idea what your third paragraph means. Can you restate it in simpler language please?

  238. sorrykb says:

    Elf wrote:

    Atheists would have an easier time winning recognition of their rights if the ones who were active in courts and the media would avoid bringing up the kooky aspects of Christian beliefs. … Most of the atheist discussions I see in public aren't "how do we get our rights acknowledged" but "how can we disprove X aspect of Christianity so we can get Y feature?"

    I get it, but here's the problem: So often when I see this argument, it's accompanied by something to the effect of "Those atheists would have a better chance getting their rights if they didn't insist on expressing their atheism so loudly."

    I don't think mocking people's beliefs is helpful, and it can be cruel and I try not to be cruel. (Snarky — to a degree — is allowable, though.)

    But sometimes I'm not trying to win points or convert people. Sometimes I speak up with "hey – atheist here!" because it would be nice if people would not automatically assume that everyone in the room is a believer.

    Side note on David's comment above: Even among professionals in the field there's debate on whether mathematics is invented or discovered. If you can get past the paywall (hooray for institutional access) or have a copy of the August 2011 Scientific American, check out a theorectical astrophysicist's take on "Why Math Works" at http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v305/n2/full/scientificamerican0811-80.html
    (Of course, the author just has to be difficult and argues that math is both invented and discovered.)

  239. Kevin says:

    @Clark: first, let me say that I think you've been killing it lately with your posts here, to the point that I consider myself a fan, and look forward to reading what you write. But this post is full of fail. Here's why: your thesis is that it is incoherent for an atheist to believe that rights "exist", in an absolute, literal sense. Fine. I actually agree with a lot of what you're saying regarding the highly confused nature of discourse on "rights", which more often than not consists simply of repackaging "ought" as "is". But what the hell does it have to do with atheism?

    Several people now have asked you, in various phrasings, to explain how adding god into the mix makes the discourse on rights any less confused, and you've basically dodged the question with variations on "outside the scope of the document", but it just isn't. By bringing atheism into the question at all, you've implicitly brought theism in along with it.

    When you say "it's incoherent to believe in absolute prescriptive rights, while not believing in god", the overwhelmingly obvious implication being made is that it IS coherent to believe in absolute prescriptive rights, as long as you DO believe in god… i.e. that adding the notion of god into the equation resolves the incoherence. You never say that explicitly, but if that's not what you meant, then why mention atheism at all? How is it even relevant to the question of rights, unless you're trying to implicitly suggest the latter proposition? Yet you refuse to defend, or even explain that proposition.

    I'm basically "rights-agnostic" myself – I acknowledge the apparently-incoherent nature of belief in rights as actually-existing entities, and I don't claim to know how to resolve that incoherence… but I don't see what a/theism has to do with it. If an angel came down from heaven and presented me with irrefutable proof of the existence of god, I would update my belief to theism, but I don't see how that would make me any less confused on the question of rights.

    Can you explain?

  240. pillsy says:

    @Clark:

    If you choose to argue that position at some point, instead of merely asserting it, that might be interesting.

    I don't see how the existence of God implies that you ought to do what God says. Sure, scripture may say so, or the traditions of your religious community, or your own personal faith and the dictates of your conscience–but why should you obey any of those things?

  241. Manatee says:

    @pillsy,

    That's an interesting point. The Judeo-Christian (and to some extent, the Muslim and Zoroastrian traditions) generally assert their god to be a moral exemplar (or at least the other party in some sort of moral government), but there are many religious traditions out there with a deity or deities that are more powerful than man, perhaps even the creator of man, maybe even owed some duty or loyalty by man, but also readily acknowledged by man to be, well, douche bags. The Greeks worshiped their gods, built temples to them, even prayed for their intervention at times, but I don't think anyone ever wore a bracelet asking "What Would Dionysus Do?"

  242. Tyrsius says:

    @David

    So you aren't "offering" any arguments, just saying that other people offer them? You are pointing out how someone is wrong, but not offering up the chance at rebuttal by distancing yourself from your own statements!

    What a waste. If you aren't going to defend the arguments that you use to respond with, why say them? Of what use is it for anyone to learn that some non-specific people have in the past offered arguments to the contrary of ones current position? Why not offer your own actual argument so that a discussion might occur?

    If I can't respond to you because the arguments you use are not your own, than we can't have a discourse.

  243. sorrykb says:

    Manatee wrote:

    I don't think anyone ever wore a bracelet asking "What Would Dionysus Do?"

    It's not a bracelet, but… http://www.zazzle.com/what_would_bacchus_do_mugs-168311786474776319

    Ah, the wonders of the internet age.

  244. Anthea Brainhooke says:

    I have never yet met an atheist who says "if it's not visible then it doesn't exist." Ever. And I am an atheist who knows other atheists.

    Such a position would, indeed, be silly and indefensible. How fortunate that it appears to be vanishingly rare.

  245. Manatee says:

    @sorrykb:

    I love it.

  246. Sami says:

    To address only the side-note, since it's sort of the first thing I've read posted by Clark with which I've really agreed all that much:

    On a purely rational basis, agnosticism is the *only* supportable religious position.

    (Disclaimer: I am now Christian, but was raised non-religiously and was a hard-core agnostic well into my twenties.)

    I find it the height of intellectual arrogance for someone to assert that because they personally have not seen what they consider to be proof of something that doesn't automatically fit within their world view, it cannot exist.

    I personally have never been to or seen proof of the existence of Reykjavik. As an Australian, having experience only of a warm climate and total tectonic stability, Reykjavik makes no sense to me, at all.

    I still accept that it probably exists, though.

  247. sorrykb says:

    Sami wrote:

    I find it the height of intellectual arrogance for someone to assert that because they personally have not seen what they consider to be proof of something that doesn't automatically fit within their world view, it cannot exist.

    I'm atheist, and that's not what I assert.

  248. AlphaCentauri says:

    As pointed out, "atheist" means nothing more than lacking belief in a god. But "god" is not a universally defined term. Every person who consciously rejects belief in a god has to have some idea of what type of deity it is that they find unbelievable. It's not particularly useful for people who don't consider themselves atheist to define atheism to people who do — by definition, atheists are people who don't believe in things they find unbelievable, mainly when that unbelievable belief happens to be the dominant religion in the culture. I believe in God, but I don't believe in a god sitting on a physical throne in a physical place in the sky full of trees, rivers, gold, and jewels. I don't believe in a god who told Joshua and his soldiers to murder infants in Jericho. But a lot of Christians insist that is exactly the type of god they do believe in.

    I have found that in many cases, the arguments of atheists imply they are rejecting a concept of god that a large proportion of theists would also reject. In fact, all people who consider themselves theists could also come up with multiple deities they don't believe exist, either; atheists just haven't found any that they do believe exist.

    It seems people are confusing "theism" and "religion." They are not identical terms. One could argue that many atheists do have a religion: They shares a creation story, a system of ethics, a desire for evangelism, and group rituals (well, their shared rituals consist mostly posting cartoons on their Facebook walls mocking theist religions). And many well-established religions like Buddhism do not believe in any supreme personal god. Others like Unitarian Universalists do not prescribe any particular belief about the existence or nature of god for their members to adhere to.

    It works out best to just tell people what you believe and why, rather than to try to tell your story in terms of what you don't accept about other people's beliefs.

  249. Clark says:

    @Kevin:

    @Clark: first, let me say that I think you've been killing it lately with your posts here, to the point that I consider myself a fan, and look forward to reading what you write. But this post is full of fail. Here's why: your thesis is that it is incoherent for an atheist to believe that rights "exist", in an absolute, literal sense. Fine. I actually agree with a lot of what you're saying regarding the highly confused nature of discourse on "rights", which more often than not consists simply of repackaging "ought" as "is". But what the hell does it have to do with atheism?

    In fact, it was a mistake of me to drag atheism in. It muddied my point, and misled 50% of the commenters to attack what they thought I was saying instead of what I was actually saying.

    My actual thesis is this:

    "materialists claim that the only thing that exists is matter or energy, and yet many of them either explicitly profess to a belief in transphysical ethics, or strongly act as if they do".

    Several people now have asked you, in various phrasings, to explain how adding god into the mix makes the discourse on rights any less confused

    I do not assert that adding God into the mix DOES make things less confused. I merely assert that I believe in objective ethics that are not merely social constructs or statistically emergent properties.

    I assert that one can have this ethical view with out believing in God.

    and you've basically dodged the question with variations on "outside the scope of the document", but it just isn't.

    1) yes it is.
    2) you're asking me to defend a thesis that I do not support.

    When you say "it's incoherent to believe in absolute prescriptive rights, while not believing in god"

    Please show me where I said that. I doubt that I did, because I do not believe it to be true.

    I'm basically "rights-agnostic" myself – I acknowledge the
    apparently-incoherent nature of belief in rights as actually-existing
    entities, and I don't claim to know how to resolve that incoherence…

    I'm familiar with that stance; I occupied it myself for a year or two.

    but I don't see what a/theism has to do with it.

    The relevance of atheism is that many atheists are materialists. I do not address my point to all atheists, merely to all materialists. Again, rhetorically speaking, it was a mistake to drag atheism in.

  250. Xenocles says:

    @HoG-

    "We as a society or culture or whatever may say individuals have a right to free will, but I don't see the universe making that decision."

    Not quite. If free will exists, it could only do so as an integral part of humanity. External forces limit what is possible for that free will to do, or they could impose consequences on choices, but those externals cannot partially limit the capacity to choose things. It's an all or nothing proposition. To wit:

    I have the desire to jump off of a cliff. The gravitational force will respond to that action by pulling me to the ground, where the impact will severely injure me. Knowing this, I choose not to jump off the cliff because I do not want to endure the consequences. I could still choose to do it, but I do not.

    I do not want to pay my taxes. But I know that if I do not the IRS will take money from my future paychecks before I even see them, or if I deny them that ability by quitting my job they will levy debts on me that may culminate in my physical imprisonment. I could still choose to stop paying, but I do not because I do not want to endure the consequences.

    So we have the ability to make certain options unattractive (and nature does a lot of that for us), but if you have free will you can still choose to endure the results of your choice. Your "right" to a free will remains because the only way to force your actual will is to override the neurological apparatus that expresses it physically.

    Alternatively there is no free will and thus nothing to force in the first place.

    There's no decision to be made. It was already made for us – we either have free will or we do not.

  251. Bob says:

    Brilliant spoof of religious thinking.
    I laughed my socks off all the way through.
    Marvelous stuff.

  252. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Clark

    Who are these materialists that "either explicitly profess to a belief in transphysical ethics, or strongly act as if they do"? On the one hand, by definition a materialist cannot believe in non-physical entities, and on the other, if you accept the intersection of the sets "materialist" and "atheist" is almost the same as the union, you're just changing the label (although that latter point fails if there's a large group of non-materialist atheists, which would seem counter-intuitive but possible, I suppose).

    I know anecdote != data, but once again my mates are pretty well all materialists, and once again they pretty well all don't believe in objective ethics. The two positions appear self-evidently contradictory.

    @David

    I hope I didn't appear snarky above: that wasn't my intention. I would like to hear more of your argument regarding mathematics. As it stands I strongly disagree with it, but I didn't get your last post so maybe I'm missing something.

  253. barry says:

    On the planet Simplon, where 'rights' come from the law rather than the other way round, Clark's three meanings of 'rights' are:
    1. Laws most people agree with.
    2. Laws that exist.
    3. Laws that people think should exist.

    Simplons see the law as being about what the law is, and politics as being about what the law ought to be. They are pattern-seeking critters who love nothing more than a good set of rules and a good story.

  254. Xenocles says:

    "First, I want to compliment you on your perspicacity on identifying western atheists as Christian atheists. There's a deep truth there, one that most western atheists themselves don't see."

    Do tell. The only distinction I see is that I rejected Christianity last, but the destination was the same regardless of the path. I can get along with most Christians in terms of ethics, but that's just because they unwittingly borrowed a lot from Stoicism and because most of the rest ranges from good to inoffensive.

  255. eyelessgame says:

    So if I understand you (and it is quite possible that I do not), you are saying that unless one believes in God, it does not matter whether or not humans have rights.

    As a human, I beg to differ.

  256. David says:

    @Tyrsius

    @David
    So you aren't "offering" any arguments, just saying that other people offer them?

    Yes, that's correct: not everything I offer is an argument. In some measure, I'm also describing various facets of the state of the broader discussion outside this comment thread.

    What a waste. If you aren't going to defend the arguments that you use to respond with, why say them?

    I'm a historian by training. Surveying intellectual history, like surveying material culture, seems to me to have value regardless of whether I engage in debate along the way in behalf of my preferences and views.

    Of what use is it for anyone to learn that some non-specific people have in the past offered arguments to the contrary of ones current position?

    So you're not interested in what others think in general? Well, I am. I guess we're different in that respect, and I suppose that's ok.

    Why not offer your own actual argument so that a discussion might occur?

    In my view, delving into an apologetic engagement isn't the only mode of discourse that counts as worthwhile discussion.

    If I can't respond to you because the arguments you use are not your own, than we can't have a discourse.

    I don't think I solicited any sort of debate from you, so that's ok. It would be sad, though, to be constrained to a belief that debate is the only valuable form of discourse.

  257. Bob says:

    Well, my earliers flippancy aside, it would be possible to go through this point by point:

    * The patronising title – Atheists are confused
    (Start out by belittling the opposition)

    * The apophasis – "This isn't to say that I think atheists are bad people etc)
    (say something by saying that you aren't saying it)

    * The representation of a hypothesis as a fact – "it's merely a statement that the ethical construct is incoherent and lacking in rigor."

    * The unsupported assertion – "[they] assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible"
    (Who says this? Name him! It certainly isn't typical of any atheist that I ever met.)

    * The over-generalisation – "they believe in rights, and not merely in a legal or social descriptive way, but in an absolute and prescriptive way. "
    (Portray the entire group as being identical in their beliefs, easier to demonise them that way.)

    * The red herring examples – all of the examples in the next paragraph.
    (The facts may well be correctly presented but as the other two meanings of "right" are irrelevant to the central thesis, presenting an inherent contradiction between them and the third meaning is disingenuous at best.)

    Yes, it would be possible to go through the whole screed this way but what would be the point?
    I doubt it would alter a single person's point of view and anyway I have no actual interest in altering anyone's point of view.

    Suffice it to say that if one person can believe in the abstract concept of God then surely another can believe in the abstract concept of justice without either having to agree with the other. (Unless of course you reject the concept of an unjust God in which case I'd like to see your reasoning.)

  258. Stephen H says:

    So because I am an atheist, I must not hold moral or ethical beliefs? Or I must justify those beliefs? (Arguing from Ayn Rand makes me sick, by the way – there have been worse people, but she defends them).

    The ethical behaviours of modern religions are driven largely by tribe-oriented doctrines developed thousands of years ago. Things like circumcision, which meats not to eat and so forth have been based on knowledge of what is likely to cause harm at that point in human existence. Many of them have been tossed aside, of course, and the modern religion picks and chooses which of its teachings to focus on. It ignores the ability to sell one's child into slavery, and focuses on the bits about homosexuality being an "abomination in the sight of God".

    You suggest that agnostics are most sensible – I would argue that they are least sensible, as they refuse to make a decision.

    Let he who is without inconsistency in belief cast the first stone.

  259. Clark says:

    So if I understand you (and it is quite possible that I do not), you are saying that unless one believes in God, it does not matter whether or not humans have rights.

    No, you don't remotely understand me.

  260. Jon Watte says:

    Your argument is specious because you assume that there are any non-material based rights. I see no place where such rights would sit, and thus all rights are materially based rights.

  261. sorrykb says:

    AlphaCentauri wrote:

    I have found that in many cases, the arguments of atheists imply they are rejecting a concept of god that a large proportion of theists would also reject. In fact, all people who consider themselves theists could also come up with multiple deities they don't believe exist, either;

    Many if not most religions in fact require that their adherents reject any concept of god that differs from their own.

    atheists just haven't found any that they do believe exist.

    So then the burden is on me to come up with infinite possible gods not to believe in? That sounds exhausting as well as impossible, so instead I'm going to stick with: In the absence of evidence of X, I default to not believing in X, and will… govern myself accordingly.

    I'm not trying to be flippant here (well, except for the govern myself bit, but that's because I miss Prenda stories). I was raised Catholic, have two friends who are Christian ministers (oh dear, now I've gone into "some of my best friends are religious" — This reasoning is not going as well as I'd hoped.), and have no interest in "evangelical atheism" (although that's probably because I find the company of people a bit overwhelming, and can't imagine wanting to take the time to preach). But I do want to clarify what my atheism means to me, while allowing that there are as many kinds of atheists as there are fish in the sea. (Probably more, in fact, what with overfishing and all.)

    BTW, what's this atheist creation story you mentioned? I don't believe I've heard it.

  262. jdgalt says:

    The above article represents a failure to understand a very basic concept: moral codes.

    A moral code is nothing more nor less than one person's set of tastes about how people should treat each other. Like all other tastes, they are a matter of choice and are therefore completely arbitrary, whatever books or other sources the person may use to decide his tastes. (But moral codes are, uniquely, an exception to the old saw "There's no accounting for taste" because a person's moral code, or lack of one, determines exactly whether, when, and how far he is trustworthy.)

    "Rights" are simply expressions of part of a moral code. As such, they have no objective existence; someone asked to prove them can only refer back to the moral code of which they are a part. If you don't happen to share the relevant part of that person's taste, of course, he can't expect to convince you.

    "But that's not how rights in the real world work!" Sorry, it is too.

    Religion is nothing more than a con game, the laborious setting-up of a giant sock-puppet named "God", who is then alleged (without proof) to be the author of the founder's own moral code, thus requiring us all to accept it without question. Most people who accept a religion are led to do so before grade-school age, when they have no concept of how completely fallacious the arguments being used are. And even then, anybody who truly wakes up sees right through the game and walks out.

    "What about the mores of society?" There is no such thing as "society" — it's another sock-puppet, exactly like "God" except that it enables people who claim to be above engaging in the "God" con-game to do exactly the same thing the "God" people do. There are variants; people on the left use "the community", "the people", or "the planet" as exactly the same kind of sock-puppets. SSDD.

    Finally, how about government?

    Government is a gang — a bunch of bullies — who hire plenty of PR people and set them to making sure that the "God" and "society" puppets are played only by those pretty closely aligned with the leaders' own agenda. It's the same thing as them, writ large — and used as a cover for robbing, kidnapping, and killing anyone who defies their demands. "Laws", of course, are simply those demands.

    So there is no reason an atheist, or even an anarchist, can't have a moral code and promote "rights" of his own, without any contradiction at all. The only difference is that the atheist isn't trying to con you with sock-puppets. He's simply stating his own tastes, and saying they're as good as yours, no matter what sock-puppets you put on yours.

    I am astounded and disappointed at anybody who needed this explained.

  263. Marconi Darwin says:

    Believing only that the material exists and believing that there are absolute rights are still, just beliefs. The same problem exists even if you believe that more than the material exists. Only when you believe that there is a specific non-material that is the source of the absolute right can you start to rationalize the belief. That is either even more recursively incoherent (viz.. there are absolute rights because there is a source of absolute rights?), OR equally applicable to those who are not atheists and claim 2.

    What is missing is a coherent definition of "an absolute right." One can say that our existence is an absolute right. But it is not inviolable in that someone cannot end it. If you consider that there is no source or origin of an absolute right, then, and only then you have an absolute right. Otherwise, you are assuming an unevidenced source (absolute source, perhaps) for it. The atheists you target can easily vouch for such an absolute right from a different source: reasoning of material entities. Surprisingly, that is where non-atheists get it from too. It is not as if there is evidence of some absolute source granting them.

    Let's say that I assert that an absolute right is my existence. You could come back with "Why shouldn't I end it?" My response would be "Because it is an absolute right." It certainly does not prevent you from violating that right.

    What you seem to be seeking is on what basis does an atheist determine something to be an absolute right. That burden is no different for a non-atheist

  264. AlphaCentauri says:

    @sorrykb: A creation story doesn't have to be a fairy tale. If the majority of atheists believe in a universe that began from something very different and less organized that what exist now and that it will over time be increasingly thoroughly explained in terms of physics and mathematics, without any god creating the matter or energy in the first place, that is still a cosmogony that binds them together as a group. Explaining the world around us is something people expect their religions to do for them, even when the information has little relevance to their daily life.

    I don't expect atheists to "come up with infinite possible gods not to believe in." It's exactly the opposite. You couldn't possibly avoid having heard all about somebody's version of god, and you called bullshit. It's an active intellectual evaluation to determine whether the information is credible. But it does assume you have some idea of what people mean when they say "god." Someone who had grown up in a world full of people who never imagined the existence of a god in the first place would have a different experience as an atheist.

  265. sorrykb says:

    AlphaCentauri wrote:

    You couldn't possibly avoid having heard all about somebody's version of god, and you called bullshit.

    Not at all. This someone is perfectly free to articulate to me their version of god, and present whatever arguments they like (if they wish) why I should believe. If I find the evidence convincing, then I'll believe. If not, I'll continue not to believe. IF I call bullshit at all (I'm far more likely simply to say, "Nope. That's not it."), it's for myself. The Someone is free to continue with their belief, or not.

    But it does assume you have some idea of what people mean when they say "god."

    True, but there are a fairly broad spectrum of gods I don't believe in (although in all honesty the capricious and cruel pantheon of ancient pantheistic religions make more sense to me… or at least make less less sense). And it would be possible to keep expanding the definitions of god(s) so that nothing would mean anything, but I don't think that would be helpful either in a personal or in rhetorical sense.

    Someone who had grown up in a world full of people who never imagined the existence of a god in the first place would have a different experience as an atheist.

    Likely true, but we don't live in that world. It would make for an interesting short story, though.

    P.S. (and not related to AlphaCentauri): Ayn Rand was a profoundly damaged human being with a sociopathic philosophy who was atheist. She was also a terrible writer. That does not demonstrate that other atheists are profoundly damaged horrible writers with atrocious ideas. Well, some of us can't write, and our ideas may not be all rainbows and unicorns, but I'm only minimally damaged, and not Ayn Rand, thank … FSM.

    P.P.S. Atheism does have the drawback of interfering with common expressions in the English language, damn it. errrr.

  266. Clark says:

    Your argument is specious because you assume that there are any non-material based rights

    My argument neither depends on nor specifies that there are non-material based rights.

    Please re-read it.

  267. zilong555 says:

    @David

    This proposition, expressed in a conventional notation, is the principle of logical distribution.

    If this statement "invokes in the minds of listeners" a "pattern of information", but "the particular associations brought to mind will vary between listeners or between contexts", then which listener's mental construct is the one that accounts for the applicability and utility of logical distribution in the natural world? Is it Mary's variation or Michael's?

    It is neither Mary's nor Michael's variation. Rather, it would appear that certain aspects of reality behave in predictable ways that we associate with the principle of logical distribution. Our thinking and our collective societal learning have been conditioned in a reality in which these patterns hold, and so we have developed mental models of them. These conceptualizations allow us to make better predictions about things that we have not yet observed. While M&Ms' conceptualizations of these patterns do not match each other or the actual patterns perfectly, they are close enough to provide utility.

  268. Xenocles says:

    I must apologize for the additional confusion, as my 6:16 PM post was originally put over in the thread that spawned this one, whereupon I assumed it belonged here, but on further reflection it seems that it does in fact belong over where I put it. At least the subject is somewhat related, I guess.

  269. Justin Kittredge says:

    Commenting on the "fact" that agnostics are more rational then atheists. I disagree. In my view God has been disproven any number of times. Theists simply reinvent the story of creation or redefine their god whenever troubling facts arise that disprove part of their story. For instance if I google age of the universe I get 13.77 billion years and a lot of science supporting numbers in that general area. From the Garden of Eden to now is not 13.7 billion years. There was not 13.7 billion years worth of Begetting in that bible. Theists just say, "13.7 billion years is around 7 days in God time, don't ya know." And they are let off the hook.
    Mankind has a tailbone. In every other case of biology you would say that thing had a tail at one point. Not man though, he was made in the image of God as we all know, and as we all know, God just has a tailbone, and when he poofed into existence at the beginning of time in the void before he created everything that has ever existed, that is just how he came, with a tailbone. What?

    Then there is the very inconvenient findings of almost chimp almost man things which do not look like Adam, or Eve and come in that awkward time before man started recording stuff. Enter Ardi –

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1217400/Ardi-skeleton-Ethiopia-closest-thing-missing-link-humans-apes.html

    Obviously this is one of those skeletons that paleontologists bury in the night secretly only to dig it up in the morning, much like they do with "dinosaur bones."
    And as we all know men cannot alter over time as they reproduce over and over again in the same way, that let's say, dogs do. This whole genetics thing is hogwashery. When mankind bred hundreds of very different kinds of dogs into existence in the short time it has been breeding dogs its cause we got a knack for it. Man himself cannot have come from hairy ape like things. Yes, a chihuahua or doberman can be bred from wolves or the wild dogs of long ago, but Man come from chimpy ape-like ancestors? Ha! Its nuts, and if paleontologists would just stop digging up dead things, I can go on believing that God has not been disproven, at least until I reinvent him into a single celled organism that created all life in his image 13.7 billion years ago, or maybe I shall reinvent him into a mudskipper that developed lungs . . . the point is you can't disprove anything as long as I refuse to stop reinventing what I believe! So there, I win!

    had a bit of fun with this. in the hopes we can all laugh together regardless of our belief or lack of belief in mythical creatures. by which I am referring to dinosaurs of course.

  270. princessartemis says:

    @Justin Kittredge, humans do indeed have something colloquially refered to as a tailbone. It appears you are unaware how many tendons and muscles attach to it, otherwise you would not treat it with such dismissal.

  271. A suggestion, Clark, offered as one who genuinely appreciates this post: when you say that "[some group of people] acknowledge/assert/believe [some principle or assumption]", provide links. The statements you made seem obvious to you, and I admit that they square with my own observations, but I think we can clearly see that not everyone agrees. All you had to do was explicitly say you were talking about <a href="http://nAyn Rand and the Objectivists or Marxists, Communists, and other assorted reds, right from the start. Many, many atheists do not assert the principles you outlined above, which is why there's been so much chatter on this post, but many of the vocal atheists DO assert the above principles, which is why this is a subject worth discussing.

  272. Ach, I screwed up the HTML. Could the moderators fix my most recent post, or just delete it?

  273. Clark says:

    @Justin Kittredge

    Theists simply reinvent the story of creation or redefine their god whenever troubling facts arise that disprove part of their story.

    Infuriating, isn't it?

    I personally think that momentum is bunk. First we had the Greek concept of "impetus", then later the Newtonian explanation, then relativity, etc. It's like you just can't pin down these wily physicists; every time you find a flaw in their hypothesis they just come up with a new one.

    Then there is the very inconvenient findings of almost chimp almost man things which do not look like Adam,

    Inconvenient to who?

  274. Trent says:

    What a painful post this is. I couldn't get very far because of all the generalizations and demonizing. You take this atheist label and a few others combine them with a set of beliefs you've ascribed to them and then proceed to tear this strawman down.

    But who are these "western atheists" you are referring to? Is there a single person who believes these things you ascribe (in particular in the manner you've assigned). Or is this "western atheist" a construct you yourself have created? Because for any of what you posted to be anything other than a strawman you must find a single atheist that believes everything you've said an in the manner you've said. Maybe if you identified this atheist, that is if they even exist, they might have the opportunity to argue their views.

    Much of the hostility you've seen in this thread is precisely because you've created this strawman and tried to claim it represents some large number of people (ie western atheists, the implication being that it covers every single atheist in a western country). You will find similar hostility trying to ascribe views and beliefs to other groups of people. Would you write a similar post about Buddists or Mormons?

    Every single atheist almost without exception has a world view that is independent of every single other atheist. Trying to categorize them with a set of beliefs is silly beyond measure. You would do better to stick to speaking of religious groups who at least in principle (though often not in reality) share a common set of world views.

    As an atheist let me explain how I see the world. Morality is derived not from religion or culture but is an ingrained set of "values" that have likely been with us so long that they are nothing more than instincts. These exist because without them society would not function. Empathy plays a big role as well, which is another evolved instinct that allows society to function. What I mean by this is that murder is wrong because if it wasn't society would be in constant turmoil. Humans need groups to survive, we are terribly weak and have almost no natural defenses and we spend more than 8 hours a day unconscious and so on. A single human is a dead human. Society is how we survive (there are dozens of linguistic euphemisms to express this) and morality is the ingrained rules that allow society to function.

    Culture evolved later on top of the instinctual morality. The morality we all understand was ingrained in these cultures and over time other ideas were integrated, some silly, others that allowed the society to function and flourish. These range from hygienic to charitable requirements. Later as religion developed to explain the unknown these were codified into religious requirements.

    Far later as humans moved from hunter/gatherer tribal cultural to agrarian cities a further societal refinement was needed in the form of politics. For society to function when you move to a model where large numbers of people of different clans and tribes are housed in a small area you need to move beyond the simple moral, cultural and religious rules developed previously. Today we call these societal rules politics. There becomes a need to define and recognize limits on this political system. They are fundamental societal rules that allow a large diverse group of humans to coexist peacefully. These poltical rules come in many variates. Reformist Europeans recognized some of these societal rules as "natural" or "god-given" rights needed for a free society to function.

    What you've done in this post is conflate all these separate areas, assign them to a "theology" that may or may not exist and equate them with a group of people. As an atheist I have no problem recognizing morality, cultural or "natural" rights because each is a function that allows society to function. My lack of belief in a deity has no relation whatsoever to any of these ideas. I recognize natural rights because without them you can't have a free society and I recognize a Free society as a more just society because I have empathy.

    This post reads much like those of deists I've read where they claim that religion is the only think keeping them from raping and murdering people. The implicit implication that morality, culture and politics can't exist without religion is not only naive it implies a distinct lack of empathy in the author.

  275. HandOfGod137 says:

    @David

    OK, I'll have a bash at trying to get through it. Apologies if I get some of your meaning wrong.

    Of course particular atheists can believe in and employ mathematics, but it's quite difficult for atheism as a model to account for that fact.

    Are you saying that atheism as a philosophy cannot explain why certain atheists employ mathematics? This makes no sense: atheism is a lack of belief in gods, it says nothing about the ability or otherwise of its practitioners to do maths. I can find no logical path from "don't believe in god" to "cannot comprehend logical structures". Would this mean someone would no longer grasp calculus the instant they lose their religious faith?

    What are the objects of their cognition in such instances? If arising from brains, why do mathematical entities and functions seem universally applicable? If independent of their brains, how on earth are they cognizable?

    The "objects of cognition" are the fundamental concepts all humans (and some animals) develop from interacting with the material world. Geometric shapes; counting numbers; sets. And as all of mathematics can be derived from set theory, it's no surprise we share a universal understanding. Our brains are doing maths: it's how they function. And your second argument about mathematical concepts independent of the brain being fundamentally impossible to understand would seem to apply to all such concepts, like trees and rivers, which in turn would lead us to being unable to understand anything.

    The problem isn't that atheists use the world; the problem is that atheism is an intellectually inadequate account of the world thus used.

    This just seems to be a dig at atheism, with no actual argument.

  276. ppnl says:

    @Elf

    Atheists would have an easier time winning recognition of their rights if the ones who were active in courts and the media would avoid bringing up the kooky aspects of Christian beliefs.

    I have no interest in "winning recognition" for my rights. It is the law of the land and all I require is that the law of the land be followed. And one very important right that is mine is exactly to criticize the "kooky" aspects of religion without asking permission of anyone. I don't barge into churches to preach at Christians. I don't go house to house bothering people. Unlike them. But I don't avoid the subject either.

    The talking snake doesn't bother me nearly as much as the notion of paying for someone else's "sins"…

    I actually like this a lot. I grant that Christians screw up the narrative beyond recognition but it is actually a common theme. For example have you ever watched the movie "Pitch Black"? Remember Riddick's cry of anguish "Not for me!" as Fry is torn from his arms. She died for him. In doing so she made him a better man by washing away his sins in a sense. His last line was:

    "Tell 'em Riddick's dead. He died somewhere on that planet."

    He was reborn. Redemption is a beautiful concept. I grant that Christians reduce it to ugly and stupid.

    Most of the atheist discussions I see in public aren't "how do we get our rights acknowledged" but "how can we disprove X aspect of Christianity so we can get Y feature?"

    There is nothing in Christianity worth of an attempt at disproof and nothing I want from them that is not mine already. I simply point out the nonsense like UFOs, ghosts, The Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. The only difference is Christians have real political power. That just makes pointing out the nonsense all the more important.

  277. Kevin says:

    @Handofgod137

    if there's a large group of non-materialist atheists

    Would Buddhists count?

  278. AlphaCentauri says:

    @Justin Kittredge

    In my view God has been disproven any number of times. Theists simply reinvent the story of creation or redefine their god whenever troubling facts arise that disprove part of their story.

    People want their religions to explain the origin of the universe to them, and religions typically include some common understanding explaining it. God apparently doesn't find it important to make sure their understanding is correct.

    The stratosphere hasn't been disproved just because people used to think it was a dome of water over the earth.

  279. Mark - Lord of the Albino Squirrels says:

    Abstracta is just a name for the things we all do together.

    (Dang. Now I have to put another quarter in my defensively-snarky-oversimplification jar. That thing is getting full.)
    *plink*

  280. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Kevin

    Some sects of Buddhists might technically qualify, but generally I'd say "atheist buddhist" is an oxymoron. I just can't get away from the sense that the posited "materialists that believe in non-materialist morality" is just a strawman argument. And a it all seems a tad disingenuous after the original post has gone on about Dawkins, evolution and God to suddenly say "er, hang on chaps, I actually meant materialists" anyway.

  281. Carl 'SAI' Mitchell says:

    I am an athiest. I am not a materialist. I am a pandeist, I believe that God created the Universe and in so doing became it, or that the Universe created itself and in so doing became God, there's no real difference.
    I think, therefore thought exists. I may be merely a part of something larger (obviously I'm just a part of the universe) but thought does exist. I am conscious, therefore consciousness exists. I cannot say whether the universe thinks or is conscious in any meaningful sense on the large scale. I have a sense of justice, and reasons for it, but I cannot determine if such a sense would apply to the universe on a large scale.
    My sense of justice is derived as follows:
    The existence of thought is the most fundamental thing that can be proven. (Something is thinking right now, therefore thought exists.)
    The freedom of thought is the freedom of the most fundamental observable thing, and is therefore (one of) the most fundamental freedom(s).
    *Rejecting solipsism and taking the existence of other thinking beings as an axiom:
    If you infringe on another's freedom of thought, whether by killing them, by the application of mind-altering drugs against there will, or other means, then you have infringed their most fundamental freedom.
    *I define "evil" as being an infringement of another's fundamental freedoms.

    Therefore, murder is evil.
    * = statement of an axiom or definition. Others can disagree at these points and come to a different self-consistent basis for a moral framework. However, a self-consistent moral framework can be created using either these statements or their negations, or a combination thereof. Thus, morals exist like euclidean geometry exists, and alternate systems of morality can be constructed like non-euclidean geometries can be constructed.

  282. Marzipan says:

    In reading through the comments thus far, I've taken away a profound appreciation for the notion that "rights" and "morality" come from axiomatic systems. The degree to which any two people share those axiomatic systems is likely the degree to which they could agree to the correctness or morality of an action.

    However, the comments have demonstrated abundantly that the form of an argument may contribute to the signal-to-noise ratio in the discussion of that argument. Clark, you stated that the signal-to-noise ratio in this discussion has been low. Much of the noise arises because people continue understanding the title and first couple of paragraphs of your essay as referring to a broader set of atheists than you intended. If we could agree to the premises that "a high signal-to-noise ratio in a discussion is desirable" and "rewording the awkwardly phrased couple of paragraphs would increase the signal-to-noise ratio of the discussion," would the conclusion that "rewording the awkwardly phrased couple of paragraphs" be valid? Especially when such wording has already been provided by a fellow author? At least, at the point when most discussion were occurring and your utility might be most increased?

    David, I suspect that you would have a better formed argument than the one I put forth. Though I have found some of the philosophical jargon difficult to follow, I recognize that it's a consequence of phrasing your meaning as precisely as possible. I also now understand in a way I didn't before how jargon may also impede a layperson's ability to participate in an exchange if it were laid out in simpler terms. For instance, I've revised my own words several times in this comment to make them more easily read by a wide audience. I suspect I'm still too complex and long-winded to achieve that goal.

    Critique aside, I really have learned a lot from this thread. The comments here repay the reading in spades.

  283. Justin Kittredge says:

    @Clark -but in the nicest way
    Oh man I thought it was inconvenient to you. Should we be able to trace back our lineage to some lunged fish flopping around on land and should we find that mankind evolved in the same slow torturous way every other living thing evolved, I don't know, to me that screams of not being special in this universe. Other then being the dominant animals of earth. Does God only exist in the knowledge gaps of "how do you go from the building blocks of life to actual life itself," and "how did the universe start." Such small sad places for God to call home. He used to occupy the Heavens and talk out of burning bushes. Too many planes and not enough bushes I guess. Respectively.

  284. Paul Wright says:

    David wrote:

    The problem for the not-so-strict materialist, of course, is accounting for why he believes in some empirically non-confirmable abstract things (e.g., propositions, principles, natural classes) but not others.

    I wrote:

    What do you think is the problem that these non-strict materialists (presumably you're referring to the ones who are atheists) have? I can't really see why they couldn't have good reasons for believing in some abstracta and not others. Even theists don't think it reasonable to believe in all possible gods, after all.

    David wrote:

    Perhaps they can; and I'm inviting them to bring those forth.

    Eh? You're the one claiming there's a problem. What do you think it is? The burden of proof is with you.

  285. Paul Wright says:

    @Jonathan writes:

    I think an interesting question is how any atheist can ultimately avoid Rosenberg's conclusions.

    An atheist can avoid Rosenberg's conclusions by not being an eliminative materialist (if bend the term slightly to not just apply to consciousness but to a eliminating a whole load of other things).

    Typically, theist apologetics ignore any distinction between varieties of naturalistic worldview (see the Shook interview I linked to earlier) and go with something like "if atheism is true, we're nothing but matter in motion, chemical fizzes like soda spilled on the ground". They then make an argument which uses the fallacy of composition to "show" that properties which matter and energy don't have can't be real on atheism (by which they mean some kind of materialism). This is all bunk, but pretty popular bunk. Is that what you've been exposed to, by any chance?

  286. MR DUCKS says:

    Congratulations! This has gotta be Clark's most commented post so far.

    As for my thoughts… Everytime I read Clark's posts, I see boxes. I see him trying to stuff things in a box. I see him in a box. Am I the only one who sees his writings in this way? I'm thinking if someone could help free him out of that box he'll be able to move around a little more freely and maybe see things a little differently.

    But then I realize what if he sees me as that person in a box and maybe he's trying to free me…

    Nah. I don't think so.

  287. ppnl says:

    @Clark

    Infuriating, isn't it?

    I personally think that momentum is bunk. First we had the Greek concept of "impetus", then later the Newtonian explanation, then relativity, etc. It's like you just can't pin down these wily physicists; every time you find a flaw in their hypothesis they just come up with a new one.

    Yeah, the problem is the empirical sciences do not claim to be infallible. The Pope does. Religions in general do claim absolute knowledge. Now I personally like when religions change to fit reality. But those pesky little claims of infallibility make change hard. That means theists are doomed to always be moral laggards.

    But I'm still wondering what you think of my claim that you are practicing a form of Platonism.

  288. MosesZD says:

    Sigh. You should stay away from philosophy and just keep doing your 'pick on bottom-feeding lawyers' routine.

    Atheism means you don't believe in a god or gods. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    a (negation) theism (the belief in god/gods.) Simple really. And here is exactly where you fail (and fail hard):

    assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)

    Morality is not visible. Justice is not visible. Atheists, by-and-large, believe and support those constructs. And they live by them as well as, in the US at least, atheists are the least criminally-inclined segment of the society.

    Now, if you want to get into the God-exists argument, that's a different kettle of fish. Feel free to support your extraordinary claim.

  289. Clark says:

    is the empirical sciences do not claim to be infallible.

    Really? So phrases like "the science is settled" and "there is scientific consensus" are never used as rhetorical tools to silence dissent?

    The Pope does

    No he doesn't. The Church claims that the Pope may occasionally speak infallibly about matters of doctrine. Various popes have done this a grand total of seven times.

  290. Clark says:

    @Justin Kittredge:

    Oh man I thought it was inconvenient to you. Should we be able to trace back our lineage to some lunged fish flopping around on land and should we find that mankind evolved in the same slow torturous way every other living thing evolved, I don't know, to me that screams of not being special in this universe.

    I've got multiple siblings, yet I believe I'm special to my parents.

    Nothing you've said contradicts any bit of theology I'm aware of.

    Does God only exist in the knowledge gaps of "how do you go from the building blocks of life to actual life itself," and "how did the universe start." Such small sad places for God to call home.

    This is a typical atheist confusion, that thinks that theists care about God as an explanation for the physical universe and thus "should" feel diminished when naturalistic explanations grow and succeed. It fails to note that science largely sprang from Catholicism; learning God's tools and mechanisms is part of Catholicism.

    I suggest that God exists in the knowledge gaps, as you call them, of "do people have any worth at all?", "is life good?", and "how should we treat each other?".

    These don't look like small and sad places to me; they look like everything that is important in life.

  291. Spindizzy says:

    Clark, these ideas are things come from human thought.
    Human thought is a material process.
    QED your argument is bunk.

  292. HandOfGod137 says:

    Really? So phrases like "the science is settled" and "there is scientific consensus" are never used as rhetorical tools to silence dissent?

    You seem to be referring to phrases used when AGW denialists try and suggest the science behind climate change is in some way flawed. Although I'd agree the language is a little strong, the intent isn't to stifle dissent, it's rather a response to the FUD deployed by the denialists. Science encourages dissent: that's how Noble prizes are won. And no theory is accepted if the data doesn't support it.

  293. HandOfGod137 says:

    This is a typical atheist confusion, that thinks that theists care about God as an explanation for the physical universe and thus "should" feel diminished when naturalistic explanations grow and succeed.

    I honestly don't think the majority of atheists care what theists think as long as society and education are based upon empirical reality. If your belief brings you joy, well hurrah.

  294. Black Betty says:

    Wow.

    This may be one of the most interesting posts that I have ever read. I think I may be the only real agnostic here. And as such, perhaps I should explain MY POSITION.

    I would like to believe that there is an omniscient knowledge. I would like to believe that there is a greater mathematical blueprint for the universe, and that it is inside all of us and in everything we see and can't see. I would like to believe that we are not alone. I would like to believe that there is something, anything beyond our existence in this world.

    But I just don't know.

    What I do know is there a ocean of knowledge that none of us have and will never have. And the arrogance that any of us could deign to do more than question or take a leap of faith…is laughable. There are only a few things we can truly be certain of. FAITH really is all we have on either side of this argument.

  295. Clark says:

    @Spindizzy:

    Clark, these ideas are things come from human thought.
    Human thought is a material process.
    QED your argument is bunk.

    This is perhaps the best example I've ever seen of begging the question in the wild.

  296. Clark says:

    the empirical sciences do not claim to be infallible.

    Really? So phrases like "the science is settled" and "there is scientific consensus" are never used as rhetorical tools to silence dissent?

    You seem to be referring to phrases used when AGW denialists try and suggest the science behind climate change is in some way flawed.

    I'm not saying the science is flawed. I'm criticizing your point that theism claims to be infallible but science does not.

    the language is a little strong

    It's not "a little strong" ; it's a claim to infallibility, and thus perfectly torpedoes the point you were trying to argue.

  297. Clark says:

    @Black Betty

    This may be one of the most interesting posts that I have ever read.

    Thank you!

    I think I may be the only real agnostic here. And as such, perhaps I should explain MY POSITION.

    I was one for years (my path was atheist -> agnostic -> believer in metaphysically real moral code -> deist -> Catholic ).

    I would like to believe that there is an omniscient knowledge. I would like to believe that there is a greater mathematical blueprint for the universe, and that it is inside all of us and in everything we see and can't see. I would like to believe that we are not alone. I would like to believe that there is something, anything beyond our existence in this world.

    But I just don't know.

    A crisply rational point of view; I commend you for not claiming to know more than is provable (as I, a theist, and many atheists all do).

    What I do know is there a ocean of knowledge that none of us have and will never have. And the arrogance that any of us could deign to do more than question or take a leap of faith…is laughable. There are only a few things we can truly be certain of. FAITH really is all we have on either side of this argument.

    Indeed.

    I admit that and am comfortable with the fact that I've necessarilly left strict rationality behind to be a theist. I only wish that most people who call themselves atheists would admit the same.

  298. David says:

    @zilong555

    This proposition, expressed in a conventional notation, is the principle of logical distribution.

    If this statement "invokes in the minds of listeners" a "pattern of information", but "the particular associations brought to mind will vary between listeners or between contexts", then which listener's mental construct is the one that accounts for the applicability and utility of logical distribution in the natural world? Is it Mary's variation or Michael's?

    It is neither Mary's nor Michael's variation. Rather, it would appear that certain aspects of reality behave in predictable ways that we associate with the principle of logical distribution.

    Please describe one empirical test that could result in Martin's learning the principle of logical distribution from that test alone. In providing your response, if you choose to do so, please name the thing measured, name the means of measuring, and explain how the inference follows from whatever those measurements confirm. Please take care that distribution is not tacitly assumed in the explanation.

    Our thinking and our collective societal learning have been conditioned in a reality in which these patterns hold, and so we have developed mental models of them.

    Where is logical distribution evident in that reality? And while we're dabbling in pure analytics, where can I make some empirical observations of De Morgan's theorems?

    These conceptualizations allow us to make better predictions about things that we have not yet observed. While M&Ms' conceptualizations of these patterns do not match each other or the actual patterns perfectly, they are close enough to provide utility.

    With respect, you're providing a lovely explanation of synthetic inferences, but you're providing no connection at all between empirical observation and analytic truths. Reflecting on my first comment in this reply will clarify why.

  299. barry says:

    The idea of 'God-given rights' sounds like civil religion. A sacred document mentions 'unalienable rights endowed by the creator', which endows these rights on its citizens, and there they are, now always having had existed, with people encouraged to believe that the laws came out of those rights.

    Rights don't get much of a mention in the Bible, but there's plenty about laws. There're some rights in the more recent translations; the English Standard Version etc, but none in the King James Version. You could easily suspect 'rights' was a back-formation. (If God really did give rights, it's the kind of thing he would have mentioned.)

    My point is that the concept of 'rights' came after the concept of 'laws'. Rights are the more recent invention. I think they're a good
    invention even if not everyone agrees on what they should be yet, but give credit where it's due; PEOPLE MADE THEM UP !

  300. HandOfGod137 says:

    I'm not saying the science is flawed. I'm criticizing your point that theism claims to be infallible but science does not.

    I didn't make that point. If you read my comment you'll note I at no point argue "theism claims to be infallible". And you have completely misinterpreted my point regarding AGW denialism: the rhetoric used is not trying to silence dissent, it is attempting to fight back against the discredited arguments and misrepresentations used against climate science. It's a strongly argued point, but the case is that the scientific consensus supports AGW. There is no such thing as proof in science, but more weight is given to theories supported by multiple lines of evidence

    If I was being uncharitable I would think you are arguing against an idea of what you think I have written, not the actual comments I have made.

  301. Black Betty says:

    @Clark

    "I admit that and am comfortable with the fact that I've necessarily left strict rationality behind to be a theist. I only wish that most people who call themselves atheists would admit the same."

    I would like to be able to do what you've done. In either direction. To take that leap of faith. Still, all I have are questions. And in truth, I've pretty much stopped asking them. Of course, whenever I see a new planet identified or system discovered…I wonder. I just wonder.

    We can't be rational all the time. No matter how hard we try.

  302. HandOfGod137 says:

    Well, we seem to be disappearing down a Sokal-shaped rabbit hole now. If this is just going to become the obfuscation of poor argument by tarting it up as The Hunting Of The Wild Rule Of Inference, then yeah, sophisticated theology(tm) has saved the day. If believing in some deity makes your lives more pleasurable, then good on yer. Not really my thing, to be honest.

  303. Justin Kittredge says:

    I don't take offense but that is not what I was saying. I posted at around 8:28 a.m. on the 23rd in which I asserted I do believe people have worth, their lives have worth, and that people should treat each other well. I don't mind if you missed it, there were many comments made. My belief of this however for me personally has nothing to do with God, I do not see him there, nor do I personally need him there. Nor do I see the question of do lives have worth as some unknowable thing or gap. Lives are precious, because by my belief, you only get the one. Their lives are precious to each individual person living and to those around them. Therefore quality of life is also important. Though rights do not exist in the absolute, debates on them can be used as a vehicle to affect quality of life.

    As far as my latest comment at 2:42 am -24th it was meant in answer to "inconvenient to who?" which you asked me about my comment on why finding missing link type remains would be inconvenient. I thought it would be obviously inconvenient to theists because most religions are not based on man having evolved over a long period of time from more basic life forms. Perhaps it may lead to man being traced all the way back to a fish or single celled organisms. Thus what I was saying is, if you are fine with evolution being the mechanism by which God created man, then was God only then present for the origin of life 3.6-3.8 billion years ago and NOT for the more talked about Garden of Eden and 7 days of creation? Because you can't have a Garden of Eden where woman is made from the rib of Adam but before that time have women or missing-link-women running all over evolving into Adam. Or male and female fish evolving into ape-women and men then suddenly there is just Adam yanking out one of his ribs making women. You have to choose. You could just discard the entirety of the Bible. But after theists just discard everything which can be used against them, they are not left with much. Thus my point of God just hiding in the little gaps in science. Because we can prove he is not living in the clouds, we can prove there is no hell inside the earth, we might be able to prove the bible was just written by a bunch of people who never heard the word of God and just made it all up on the spot.

    We might prove there was no great flood or garden of eden. But apparently that is not enough. Perhaps we can one day create life from inanimate matter. Perhaps we can one day prove that the universe has always existed in one form or another and there was never at any time a void. The matter of the universe may have simply existed in one ever-changing form, without any singular point of creation. This would contradict the very definition of God as either a creator or a supreme being. I rambled on a little so I would not have to come back and express myself again, and I do realize theology was not the main topic of this article but rather it was about rights/atheism/inconsistencies but at the time I thought there was a little room to comment on how you viewed agnosticism as more rational then atheism. I feel like it was not worth it now, I do not like the feeling that I am hijacking a topic. Sorry about length.

  304. princessartemis says:

    @Justin Kittredge, No, we don't have to "choose". I don't at least. Mainly because I recognize metaphor when I read it, even in my holy books. In my view, the more I learn about science, the greater my faith in God, the more sure I am of His magnificence. He doesn't hide in any gaps. The heavens proclaim Him to me. Obviously they do not to you, but I chalk that up to your lack of faith. I see Him there, you do not; so it goes. Evolution of Homo sapiens is inconvenient to people who read Genesis literally. I guarantee you, not every theist does. Were you under the impression that all theists did?

  305. Justin Kittredge says:

    No, not really. But I guess that leaves literally nothing to talk about, as far as I am concerned, if no one will stand up for the stories and origins of your religion or stand up for any portion where God could be said to have touched the physical.

  306. ppnl says:

    @Clark

    Yes, the Pope is reluctant to throw his weight around. They did learn from that whole Galileo thing. I greatly admire that. And no, scientific consensus is nothing like theists claim of absolute knowledge. And my point remains, religions find it hard to change and generally lag in both scientific and moral understanding.

    And yet again you have not commented on my suggestion that you are being Platonist. I don't mean it as a criticism even if I don't count myself as a Platonist. I even think you have a point about atheist being fast and loose with their materialism. In this very discussion I have criticized the claim that a desire to live is rational. It is in fact one of the defining irrationalities of being human.

  307. Rich Rostrom says:

    It is, pretty much, only Abrahamic-religious cultures which define Right and Wrong as "what God said".

    The idea of gods handing down laws would have been risible to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Zeus prohibiting adultery? That would be an obvious joke.

    There is no divine legislation in Buddhism, nor in Shintoism, nor in Taoism, nor AFAIK in Hinduism.

    Communism denied the existence of any god or gods, but Communism had concepts of right and wrong. Arguably, Communism was not about what was right or wrong, but how best to achieve what was right (universal freedom and prosperity) and abolish what was wrong (tyranny and poverty). Marx didn't try to reason out his moral principles, he assumed them.

    All of these societies had moral codes, and embodied them in laws. Whence the morality? From the same almost undefinable source as modern atheists.

  308. Mark says:

    @Clark:
    "You're just pushing it back one remove.

    Why?

    Even if this is the one life that you get, why should I not kill you? Why should I value your continued existence?"

    Because you [I assume] value YOURS. Because you value your life, you agree not to kill other people in exchange for them agreeing not to kill you. This agreement can be explicit and formalized (through government criminal codes) or implicit through common understanding. To enforce this contract, punishments are given to those who break it. These punishments can be official from government, or unofficial through shunning.

    Take the Ten Commandments, or at least the ones that don't focus on God: Don't lie, Don't steal, Don't kill

    Why should we not lie? Because we don't want to be lied to. (this also covers adultery, which is a form of lying to your partner)
    Why should we not steal? Because we do not want to be stolen from.
    Why should be not kill? Because we do not want to be killed.

    THAT is what justice is. That is all it is. It is not some fancy abstract concept handed down by God, it is the recognition that because we don't want other people to do certain things to us, it is only right and fair that we do not do them to others.

    Take all of your examples: border checks, prison rape, racial discrimination, genital mutilation; why do atheists consider them injustices? Because we do not want to live in a world where these things are possible. Because we do not want these things to happen to us, we recognize that they should not be happening to other people. Because we can empathize with the pain that these things cause people for no good reason. Because we know that it is only because of luck that it is happening to other people, and not us.

    It is not magical or mystical. Justice is a very real thing that is based purely on our human psychology as social animals. And that psychology is very subjective. If our psychology were different, if we were less social (or more social), if our reproduction was as a hive like ants rather than as individuals, anything that altered our psychology or our emotions could alter our concept of justice. However, we are stuck with the psychology that we have, and that is what justice is based off of.

  309. Merissa says:

    I'm an atheist. My morals come from my sense of compassion and empathy. That's why I don't go around telling religious people that they're confused, even though the idea of a higher power seems not only laughably stupid, but scientifically incoherent, to me.

  310. Merissa says:

    (Also, I find it worrisome that you need justification from outside yourself to behave morally. Aren't you a libertarian? I thought you people were really into self-determination.)

  311. Robert White says:

    Premise Fault: Conflating "intangible" with "deliberate".

    It is scientifically proved that baby humans and babies of many other species have an in-born sense of "fair". They know when they have been ripped off or are getting the dirty or short end of a stick.

    There is a very tangible root to empathy via the "mirror neuron" system(s) in the human brain.

    So there are "intangibles" like fairness and a sense of its absence wired into the human brain.

    None of that requires, or even suggests that there is a god.

    So processing the very fundamental idea that subjecting someone to misery is "wrong" and perhaps even "torturous", it is easy — nay _fundamental_ — and leads inevitably to the idea that rights can exist as a social construct without there being some sky papa to dictate them.

    Confusing a right, per se, with a dictate from on high is just plain poor reasoning.

    Now _I_ don't generally use "right" undecorated with an origin — q.v. "legal right" — and particularly I don't ever use "natural right" as I don't actually think rights exists beyond the social convention.

    In short, if there were a god of any import beyond utter impotence, and that god "granted you rights" those rights would be _enforced_ by that god. They would actually be inviolate. They would be like gravity. Inescapable. If a god gave you a right then no man could violate that right.

    If god granted a right to life, then murder would be impossible.

    If god granted any rights then no man could abrogate them and crime would be impossible.

    Every petty injustice disproves any version of god granted rights regardless of any questions of gods existing at all.

    Any argument based on the absurd concept that rights flow from an omnipotent being are obviously junct. That omnipotence is glaring for its absence in that grant and the lack of any means of appeal.

    Either god _can't_ act, or he _won't_ act, or he doesn't care to act, or there is no god that _could_ act.

    It's perfectly rational to believe in rights and know that when we humans decide that they should be inalienable that its for simple and reasonable reasons. Neurological reasons. Social reasons. Just simple, earthy reasons.

    Trying to mince the words that describe what _should_ be, as opposed to what actually is, and then creating from whole cloth an argument to ignorance — e.g. well we don't know what could be there so "god" okay? — is itself unreasonable.

    That _you_ think rights come from anything other than social contract doesn't mean that others do.

    Atheists believe you must be humane to be human, and that humanity has, as predicate, a boundary layer that should not be passed. We use the word "rights" because that's the word everybody uses. What alternate word would yo suggest for that lowest level of what should be done.

    Cherry picking abstruse definitions only demonstrates how weak your premise is. If it fails common reading and takes you all those words to say "so either god or no rights", then it fails common context.

    You are making shit up and going awfully far to say "either god or no rights" but it's not that hard to say. It's also obvious tripe once we take back all the obfuscation.

    The _core_ difference between an atheist and a believer, the thing that makes us fear believers, is the simple fact that _we_ don't need an all-powerful daddy threatening us to make us "be good". We think that those who _do_ need the All Threatening Over Being to exist and to threaten them in order for them not to go about killing and stealing and whatnot is the scariest damn thing there is.

    This whole argument is a re-hash of "why be good if there is no god?", and its a scary psychopathic thing. That you believe that if the god concept was erased from your brain by some trauma that you would feel ad lib to go do vile deeds… well that's just about the least comforting idea I have ever heard. Why would _anybody_ trust someone with that mindset. It's "if dad weren't watching I would eat your young" creepy.

    Everyone who thinks you need a overseer to cause them to stay their hand should be kept away from weapons or positions of authority.

  312. Robert White says:

    Scratch a libertarian and you will find it bleeds dogma.

  313. princessartemis says:

    @Robert White, Your brush is very, very broad. Good to know, though, I suppose, should I ever have occasion to meet you.

  314. wolfefan says:

    The idea of "God of the gaps" was originally a criticism of the Christian fundamentalist rejection of science and evolution. I like what Bonhoeffer said – "…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know."[

  315. Clark says:

    @Merissa:

    I'm an atheist. My morals come from my sense of compassion and empathy. That's why I don't go around telling religious people that they're confused, even though the idea of a higher power seems not only laughably stupid, but scientifically incoherent, to me.

    I don't tell atheists that they're confused because they source their morals from a different place; that's a matter of differing axioms and there's no contradiction there nor reason to declare one right and the other wrong.

    I tell those atheists who hold contradictory, inconsistent beliefs that they're confused.

    Also, I find it worrisome that you need justification from outside yourself to behave morally.

    You're putting words in my mouth; I didn't say that.

    By the way, points for use of the word "worrisome"; you're hitting all the stereotypical buttons in the C-league wing of the theist/ atheist debate: "I think you're dangerous because your morals come from outside you" / "I think YOU're dangerous because your morals come from your own whims."

    Please. Let's try to disagree about something more interesting.

    Aren't you a libertarian? I thought you people were really into self-determination.

    Presumably I should ignore the existence of gravity, then, because it originates outside my own mind?

  316. Clark says:

    @Robert White

    Scratch a libertarian and you will find it bleeds dogma.

    "It"?

    Classy.

  317. David Schwartz says:

    If you are a hard materialist, then you believe the brain is a material device that is not capable of any magic. That makes it an objective, scientific instrument. If it detects rights, then they exist, because something that does not exist cannot be detected by a scientific instrument.

    This can be made rigorous, but I don't know how to do it without spending several pages. The point is that you are analyzing a materialist from a non-materialist view. Of course that will make it seem inconsistent. But if you analyze if from the materialist perspective of those who hold it, it is fully consistent.

    Imagine we were back two hundred years when we had no idea what color actually was. We couldn't even detect it with scientific instruments. That wouldn't mean that hard materialists would be inconsistent if they used color to judge the ripeness of fruits or believed that colors were real. Brains detect rights just as they detect colors. If you're a materialist, that means rights are material, and hence real.

  318. Noah Callaway says:

    Wow. I'm late to this party. Why do these interesting discussions always explode during the work-week, where I don't have time to read or comment?

    My initial reaction to this post was similar to many of the other atheists commenting here: "Wow is it unfair to conflate all western atheists with materialists". That's been rehashed several times at this point, so I'll just start from Clark's intent of "materialists that believe in rights are confused".

    I don't really disagree with Clark on this point, but it's pretty tangential to me; I haven't really met anyone that preaches such a strict form of materialism. For the discourses I've had, those were never serious thoughts being raised; I was pretty quick to dismiss strict materialism for, pretty much, the points that Clark raises.

    Anyway, in an attempt to wedge my way into this interesting discussion, I'm going to play David's game:

    (1) What do you think abstracta are?

    Abstractra are ideas and concepts self-contained within an individual's brain (or nervous-system; whatever you consider the "computation" part of the human to be) that are used to simplify the reasoning process. Currently abstractra can only be shared indirectly through lossy formats such as language, though it's possible that future technology could improve this to allow perfect sharing of abstract concepts.

    (2) Do you regard them as real (i.e., non-extended things) or as nominal (i.e., a way of talking) or as something else?

    They are real to the person using them, in that they are useful ideas that simplify the thinking process. They are as "real" as a Linked List is real in a computer's memory. Physically, they are just a very specific configuration of the state of a lot of neurons (biologically it may be more complex than this; I recognize we don't well-understand the exact physical processes by which we generate thoughts, but I think you might take my general point).

    (3) Why do you believe in them and believe that they are not wholly reducible to material explanation?

    I believe in abstractions because I use them on a daily basis to simplify my thought processes. Insofar as they are reducible to a material explanation, they can only be reduced to our understanding of the mechanical processes of the brain. To me, understanding the exact mechanics by which ideas are formed and that process still doesn't fully capture the full concept of an abstract idea.

    For those of you who profess atheism but reject the pure materialism that disallows abstracta

    I'm not sure why this question is specifically targeted at atheists, rather than everyone that rejects materialism. In terms of these questions, I don't really see a difference in atheists versus theists. As an atheist, I see myself as having considered and rejected one specific abstract concept. Theists have considered and accepted this same abstract concept. What I'm trying to say is, I'm also curious as to the answers to these questions from theists who reject pure materialism (which is, presumably, a large set of theists).

    Thanks for letting me play!

  319. Noah Callaway says:

    @David Schwartz

    If you are a hard materialist, then you believe the brain is a material device that is not capable of any magic. That makes it an objective, scientific instrument. If it detects rights, then they exist, because something that does not exist cannot be detected by a scientific instrument.

    I'm not sure I find this line of reasoning compelling. 1) The brain is an objective scientific instrument. 2) Something that does not exist cannot be detected by a scientific instrument.

    Why is it not valid, then, to conclude that there are both rights and a God. Many humans claim to believe in God, in the same way that many believe in morality (I'm not saying these are mutually exclusive, by any means). Thus, "If it detects God, then He must exist, because something that does not exist cannot be detected by a scientific instrument".

    What error did I make in this reasoning? Why is it that strict materialists according to the definitions proposed not believe in God?

  320. Noah Callaway says:

    @David

    (a) replace phpbb3 with Discourse

    Yes! That's awesome! I've been dying to try Discourse in a forum that I actually participate in. I can't wait for this!

  321. David Schwartz says:

    "Why is it not valid, then, to conclude that there are both rights and a God."

    Because it doesn't follow that what you are detecting is necessarily what you think it is. Humans are capable of error when they attempt to explain what in the physical world accounts for their perceptions.

    But it would certainly be error to dismiss the claims of perceiving god out of hand without trying to make some effort to explain the perceptions and figure out what explains them. If they have perceptions, they necessarily perceived something, not nothing.

  322. David Schwartz says:

    (And, of course, such atheists believe they do understand what accounts for people's perceptions, and beliefs, in God. They're not a mystery.)

  323. Merissa says:

    Yes, the idea that you (or anyone else) needs a deity to be moral is disturbing to me. This does not represent any inclination on my part to oppress, repress, or subjugate you. It just means I'm not sure I'd want to run into you after you've experienced a crisis of faith or head injury.

    Gravity is an ineffable force of the universe that can be proven, repeatedly, in controlled experiments (I'm putting aside all that subjectivity of reality/dream within a dream stuff for the moment). I do not wish to tread on your beliefs, but, well…God ain't.

  324. Clark says:

    @Merissa

    Yes, the idea that you (or anyone else) needs a deity to be moral is disturbing to me.

    You persist in arguing against someone, but it's not me.

    I've never said (nor do I believe) that a deity is required to define my moral code. In fact, I came at it in exactly the other direction: I believed in an absolute moral code before I believed in a deity.

    Your resistance to hearing what I'm saying is sort of frustrating; I feel like there's an abstract metaphysical archetype that you're arguing with (if you'll acknowledge the existence of a non-concrete Form).

    This does not represent any inclination on my part to oppress, repress, or subjugate you.

    a) nor the reverse

    b) there you go with that archetype again. Instead of having Stereotypical Atheist Debate #12c, please read exactly what I'm actually saying.

    It just means I'm not sure I'd want to run into you after you've experienced a crisis of faith or head injury.

    And the fact that your moral beliefs come purely from your sentiments and do not have a metaphysical existence of their own somehow makes your behavior after a head injury or a crisis of morality somehow more stable than mine?

    Gravity is an ineffable force of the universe that can be proven,
    repeatedly, in controlled experiments (I'm putting aside all that
    subjectivity of reality/dream within a dream stuff for the moment). I
    do not wish to tread on your beliefs, but, well…God ain't.

    Nowhere in this thread, not once in over 300 comments, have I or – the best of my knowledge – anyone else, argued that morality comes either from God or only from God.

    If you ever tire of Stereotypical Atheist Debate #12c and want to have an actual debate about what I wrote, please feel free to come back.

  325. Maria says:

    Clark, you have interesting thought processes. I generally disagree with your conclusions but enjoy reading the discussion that you generate. that's it, unfortunately I don't have the time to really participate in the exchange, but thought I'd show my support for the discomfort your posts cause.

  326. Dan Gillson says:

    David has posed some worthwhile questions for non-materialist atheists. I'll respond to them in order.

    1. Abstracta are the resultants of spontaneity and receptivity in understanding, i.e., the mind's effect on the world, and the world's effect on the mind.

    2. Insofar as they are coextensive with reality, Abstracta are real, but in a virtual, or derivative, sense.

    3. I believe in abstracta because they aren't merely an auxiliary, as-if way of organizing phenomena. Put otherwise, I'm not an irrealist when it comes to abstracta. (You may think that that doesn't square with no. 2 above, but I assure you, it does!)

  327. Clark says:

    @Maria:

    Clark, you have interesting thought processes. I generally disagree with your conclusions but enjoy reading the discussion that you generate. that's it, unfortunately I don't have the time to really participate in the exchange, but thought I'd show my support for the discomfort your posts cause.

    Thank you, Maria, I appreciate it!

  328. 300baud says:

    I always find it unfortunate when somebody confuses, "I don't understand X" with "some of *those* people don't understand X" with "all of *those* people don't understand X".

    If you don't understand how a particular sort of atheist (and I gather you mean modern western atheists who are scientifically inclined when you say "atheist") reconciles having a moral sense with the rest of their views, you could try just asking. But by starting from a position of "I understand those fools better than they do themselves" you're basically discouraging any real dialog.

    It's not anybody's job to argue you out of your misconceptions. Especially when, in this case, it seems like it's a misconception you really want to have because it makes you feel better about yourself.

  329. AlphaCentauri says:

    @Robert White:
    Not sure this will display correctly:
    to use italics, <em>remove spaces</em>
    to use italics, <em>remove spaces</em>

  330. AlphaCentauri says:

    Guess not.

  331. darius404 says:

    For italics, it's [Less-than symbol]i[greater-than symbol], and to end it is the same, except a "/" (without quote marks) goes before the greater-than symbol.

  332. darius404 says:

    Sorry, the "/" goes between the less-than symbol and the "i".

  333. darius404 says:

    Here's a good tutorial: http://www.tizag.com/htmlT/htmlitalic.php

    Bolding works the same way as italics, except with a "b" instead of an "i". And strikethrough is "s".

  334. darius404 says:

    Popehat doesn't seem to allow strikethrough, though.

  335. Zack says:

    @Darius Strikethrough is "strike" (in the ""tags, of course.).

  336. ppnl says:

    @Clark,

    And again I have to point out that you have not commented on my suggestion that you are being Platonist about moral truth. I really do think this is the way to forward the discussion. There is a long history of conflict between mathematical Platonist and the formalist school. I think this a close analog of the dispute between theistic moral Platonism and formalistic atheistic morality.

    As I said I think you do have a point that many atheist play fast and loose with materialism. I am not a Platonist but the arguments against it are far more subtle than many materialists acknowledge. And worse in the end they aren't decisive.

    I also think the question spills over into the strong AI debate. A computer is virtually a shrine to the formalist view and the claim that a computer program can be conscious is the ultimate formalist position.

    So are you a realist about mathematical truth the way you are about moral truth? Are you a realist about beauty? Why or why not?

  337. barry says:

    I knew I was missing something, so I replaced 'rights' with 'socks' so I could reread it more objectively, and I think I get it now.

    The problem is not that atheists can't wear god-given socks, but it's somehow illogical for them to think of their socks as anything more than just socks.

  338. barry says:

    &lt strike &gt test &lt /strike &gt = test

  339. Robert White says:

    @Clark

    Typo when I changed the object of the sentence. Saw it just as I pressed post. No edit feature… no chance to fix.

  340. Robert White says:

    @princessartemis … one needs all sizes of brush and a foundation is best put to canvas with the widest brush possible.

    By my points were quite concise. They only felt wide to you because they covered your universals so directly.

    My snark was a different issue altogether. 8-)

  341. joshuaism says:

    This is some weak sauce, Clark. The realist understands that none of the rights you speak of exist. Rights are a polite fiction that have been created so that we can all negotiate our shared reality. For rights to exist, someone has to observe those rights, and as everyone knows our observations are faulty. Everyone has failed to observe events and phenomena around them. Everyone has seen or heard something that isn't there. Different people will see the same event and understand it differently because how we experience reality is entirely subjective.

    Imagine two people in a woods and they both hear a tree fall. One hears a boom, the other hears a ドン (don). Who is correct? Well obviously both are, their observations are subjective.

    So are these observations real? Well only in that they are real to the person who experiences them, but they are not necessarily real to the other observer. For both observers to communicate their observations they need to come to a common understanding of what they experienced. In order for them to communicate their observations, they needed a common word to explain what they heard, they need a concept that encompasses both concepts of what a boom and a ドン are, they need a superclass known as sound.

    So where did the boom and ドン come from? They emerged from the observer, ex nihilo. Where did the sound come from? The real phenomena surrounding the event of a falling tree. But where did the concept of sound come from? Well, ex nihilo nihil fit, it emerged out of the common understanding of what was commonly observed. The concept of sound didn't emerge from a platonic ideal or some metaphysical realm, it emerged from the commonly negotiated understanding of the real world. If the observers had no ears, there would have been no boom nor ドン out of which the concept of sound would have emanated from.

    Now imagine one observer, tasting two different beers. Let's assume that our taster tries both and perceives that he likes one over the other. He will have made a value judgement that one beer is better. Extrapolating from this experience, our single observer may think of qualities that would make a perfect beer. So does this perfect beer exist? Should we assume that this perfect beer already exists as a platonic ideal, some abstract object that perfectly embodied the qualities of a perfect beer? Should we assume that all beers are lesser emanations of this ideal beer? Or does it make make more sense that this perfect beer exists only in the observer's mind based off of his prior experiences with various beers?

    Let's say our observer sets out to make this perfect beer and succeeds. Does this mean he summoned the perfect beer out of the metaphysical plane to fill the beer shaped hole in his heart? Or does it make more sense that he created this beer, ex nihilo, out of his subjective experiences and desires using material processes strictly delineated by our physical world?

    Here we see that the act of observing can have effects on the real world. The quest for a perfect beer, a beer that was created ex nihilo out of one observer's perceptions and imagination, has led to its existence in the material world. Things that are perceived as real, are real in their consequences.

    When our observer passes on, does his perfect beer continue to exist? Well, the beer, now being an object that exists in the material world still remains. But is it still "perfect"? No, since the concept of perfect is a value judgement, a personal opinion about what a perfect beer should taste like, we should assume that the "perfect beer", disappears with him. Ex nihilo nihil fit.

    This is how it is with your so called rights. We can imagine a set of rights accepted by society, and a set of rights accepted by the government, as well as a perfect set of rights. But in reality, these rights do not exist. In many ways these rights are even less real than the concept of sound (for starters, societies aren't actually monolithic entities with objective understandings but are in reality conglomerations of individuals with subjective understandings so as far as a set of rights accepted by society goes, it cannot exist explicitly, same for governments and rights), but they are useful for the members of a society to negotiate their shared reality. The rights recognized by society and the rights recognized by government aren't real, although they are real in their consequences. Having observed the rights that society accepts, and the rights that the government accepts, we have imagined a better set of rights that encompass these rights and more.

    Of course, all of us can imagine a better, more perfect world ordered according to our concept of a perfect set of rights, but since they will all emerge from our subjective experiences, none will be entirely the same. Since most of us share a common culture, species, genus, etc. our different imaginings will invariably overlap, but it is not a set of "non-material abstract rights" from which all other rights derive from. And the lesser rights and our various concepts of a perfect set of rights do not emanate from the "non-material abstract rights", it is the abstract rights and the set of perfect rights that emanate from the lesser forms.

    My point is simply this:

    I don't believe in any of the three types of rights as materially true and neither should you.

    One should not infer that because there is a number of imagined "sets of perfect rights" that often overlap, that there ought to be a "non-material abstract set of rights" from which they all originate from.

    Government is merely a meaningful shared delusion that we all participate in and just because it often does evil doesn't mean it is inherently evil. (Actually, while I believe this, none of my arguments really address this point, but since Clark brought this up in his conclusion, seemingly out of nowhere, I should probably do the same…)

    Oh, and Clark is the one that is confused about the is-ought relationship (i.e. there ought to be a straw man atheist somewhere that believes in this so I will say that there is such a straw man atheist out there).

  342. princessartemis says:

    @Robert White, I suppose it is very concise to suggest without qualification that believers are not capable of the same human empathy atheists are. That's unfortunate, though if you fear me because you think I am not as human as you are (or perhaps not as fully realized? Stunted in some manner? A savage of some kind huddling in the darkness, barely controlled by threats from Above?), that is your business.

    It is disappointing though, as previously I hadn't any reason to think you would hold such views of your fellows.

  343. barry says:

    @joshuaism, There's room for you in 'outliers corner'

  344. Anthea Brainhooke says:

    Papal infallibility applies only to matters of doctrine.

    It does not somehow mean that if the Pope declares that the sky is green, Catholics must believe the sky to be green despite all evidence to the contrary.

  345. darius404 says:

    @princessartemis

    In all fairness, he might have been thrown off by your visage, which does engender confidence in your possessing human empathy or humanity. Avian empathy/avianity(?), maybe, though your achieving human text is quite an accomplishment. It is perhaps his suspicion that you have an undeveloped orbital medial frontal cortex and paracingulate cortex (relative to a primate) that makes him wary of your ability to understand human experiences.

  346. darius404 says:

    *does NOT engender confidence

  347. princessartemis says:

    @darius404, I do hunt and peck to type.

    You just made my night :D

  348. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Clark
    I'd decided earlier to stop commenting in this thread as there seemed little point in contributing towards a conversation that seemed orientated to celebrating the nonsensical, but it turns out it's like a broken filling: you have to give it one last prod with you tongue, even if it will achieve nothing apart from pain. And people are wrong on the internet: one must try and fight back.

    Ignoring all the "atheists can't do mathematics" sophistry, I suppose I just have one question I keep coming back to. How do you go from being an atheist to being a theist? And not just a theist, but a Catholic (with a whole specified theology and creation story). I'm genuinely trying not to mock, but I really don't understand how one can go from a logically consistent position supported by all the available evidence to one that's, er, not. Is this why you try and find logical inconsistencies within atheism? I mean, we're not that bothered by whatever belief system you choose to lead your life by, and I'm not going to go through it with a fine-tooth comb looking for silly bits, so why do atheists (or materialists) justify the treatment?

    Finally, just about every atheist who has commented here has repudiated your argument. You yourself have actually stated you really meant another group. Shouldn't you amend the original post?

  349. riesling says:

    The real basis for rights is this:

    Sentient beings would universally prefer to live in a "perfect society" because this would both maximize their personal happiness and be feasible.

    A feasible "perfect society" is defined by a consistent set of efficient rules which optimally result in the provision of all basic mechanisms necessary for each of its members to pursue their own happiness.

    "Rights" are members of the set of efficient rules of a feasible "perfect society" which define areas of personal freedom.

    Certain sentient beings may present difficult situations in that their needs are difficult to satisfy in a way that is both efficient and consistent with the rights of other members of the same society. However, these difficult problems can still be solved.

    Consider the US Supreme Court decision Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, in which virtual child pornography is determined to be protected by the First Amendment. Thus, a person who finds happiness by thinking about sex with children can legally be satisfied by constructing computer video programs which provide support for that thought process while also ensuring that no other member of society is harmed. The very same approach can be used to meet the needs of persons who find happiness by thinking about stealing personal property (see the "Grand Theft Auto" video game), killing (see the entire universe of "first person shooter" video games), etc.

    The rights contained in the First Amendment are rules that can be productively used to construct a feasible "perfect society", and that is why people can and do "believe in" these rules without regard to what their personal thoughts may be on the topic of religion.

  350. piperTom says:

    I love this analogy: "[some atheists] building castles of air on a foundation of sand." I should think a castle of air is so light that sand would be quite firm enough to hold it up.

    Clark: [Atheists] believe in rights, and not merely in a legal or social descriptive way, but in an absolute and prescriptive way.

    Is that a direct quote from our bible? Oh, wait, we don't have one. Perhaps it's a pronouncement from our pope? Oh, wait, we don't have one. Maybe Clark did an significant survey of the world's atheists -and- got a broad concordance… citation needed, not to mention the contradictory evidence from the comments here.

    I am one of those who "self describe as materialists, and yet…" and yet, in everyday conversation (as well as, "everyday" considerations of proper action) I use the concepts of Ethics, Justice, and Rights. In philosophical debate (both for myself and with others) I recognize that these things are abbreviations. They are guides or shortcuts for deep questions. They arise from considerations on how humans can form a cooperative society. These benefits of which are so abundant as to need no elaboration, but are still based on my selfish interest in my own situation and for my progeny.

    No invisible sky Rights needed, thanks.

  351. Bradley Gawthrop says:

    Sam Harris might argue that the is/ought distinction is bogus and that actual empirically right answers exist to questions of ethics and morality, if you accept as a starting position that human flourishing is better than human suffering. In that sense, Rights in this sense are simply known good answers to those questions. As a comparison, no matter the Social or Government acknowledgment of relativity, it remains demonstrably true. No matter the social or government acknowledgement of certain rights, they remain demonstrably correct answers to the questions of how to build a society that maximizes human flourishing. If you haven't read Harris's "The Moral Landscape" I think you would find it answers your objections.

  352. Jarrakul says:

    I'm a modern atheist, and I want to say that I sort of agree with you. Sort of. But I have two points of disagreement, which are really quite important. First, I don't agree that religions solve the problem any better. Your third category, your inherent human rights, must be given by god in the religious point of view, or else the religious argument is precisely the same as the atheistic argument. This is problematic, because that makes these "inherent" right fundamentally the same as the first two types. They aren't inherent properties of humans at all, they're just what an omnipotent being decided we should adhere to. There are no inherent rights, in this framework, merely appeals to an ever-higher authority. By this framework, nothing God ever did could possible be wrong, not because God is good, but because God gets to decide what good is. There is no good and evil beyond what the guy in power says. That seems… problematic, to my mind. Rather like certain dictatorships I could name. If you'd accept this as morality, then frankly, I'm scared of you.

    The second point I want to make is that atheism is not without some consistent moral frameworks of its own. These must be bottom-up (stemming from fundamental human traits), rather than top-down (stemming from a higher authority), because in the atheistic view there is no top. The first such framework is one you note as particularly offensive. This is the appeal to evolution. I agree in its offensiveness, but there's nothing inherently inconsistent about it, provided that you're committed to doing whatever is evolutionary advantageous, no matter how much it hurts other people. The second, and more appealing, is the appeal to pleasure. If you've studied your philosophy, you know this as utilitarian ethics. It states that the pleasure and pain of everyone in the world can be weighed against one another, and that the moral right is that which shifts the balance most towards the pleasure side. This is fundamentally true, if difficult in practice, because we do, as humans, experience the emotions of pleasure and pain, and we're able to compare them to one another (precise comparisons are extremely challenging, but that's a practical concern, not a theoretical one). The morality arises from realizing that no individual human is inherently better than any other (because what basis is there to make that judgment?), and therefore that no individual human's pleasure or pain counts for more than any other. This produces consistent moral behavior without the need for a higher authority, or for any arbitrary value judgments beyond those inherent in our existing physiology. Indeed, the only thing arbitrary about it is the choice between he appeal to pleasure and the appeal to evolution, and even then it'd be easy to argue that realistic humility naturally leads to the appeal to pleasure.

  353. different Jess says:

    "…laughable political feminism…"?

    What, because Hermione et al. had a club that was just for girls? Single-gender associations are a staple of juvenile literature, for entirely pedestrian reasons. Although HPMOR takes its characters' motivations seriously (which is a quality of competent fiction), it never seriously entertains a notion that e.g. Dumbledore or Voldemort or whoever somehow embody a power structure that victimizes women. HPMOR is far more concerned about the tyranny of death than about that of the phallus. Yudkowsky's Harry Potter values Hermione's friendship, but that hardly makes him a feminist icon.

    I suppose it's possible that there is an imminently defensible explanation of how HPMOR is in any way whatsoever politically feminist, and further how if it were that that would be a valid critique whatsoever, but I doubt I'll see it here.

  354. HandOfGod137 says:

    piperTom wrote:

    I am one of those who "self describe as materialists, and yet…" and yet, in everyday conversation (as well as,
    "everyday" considerations of proper action) I use the concepts of Ethics, Justice, and Rights. In philosophical debate (both for myself and with others) I recognize that these things are abbreviations.

    The more I study Clark's post, the more I disagree with it. In my experience, atheists and materialists are exactly as you describe: we use labels for concepts like "justice" and "rights" without ever thinking these things exist in any sense beyond as constructs created by people. The definition of materialist is pretty well "the observable universe of matter and energy is all that is the case", which doesn't leave a lot of room for any Platonic ideal of "Justice".

    I'd say the situation in reality is the exact opposite of what Clark claims: it's the religious who see mankind as being in some way special, with "rights" and other privileges imposed and supported by some big beard in the sky. I said this above, but I'm wondering why religion feels obliged to keep poking the faithless with a stick like this post appears to want to. Neither me or my friends stand outside churches shouting "no physical evidence, losers!", so why the "lol, you got "rights" wrong" thing? I feel sure if the anti-evolutionists didn't keep trying to get their nonsense into schools, we wouldn't give two figs for what faith believes.

  355. barry says:

    @Jarrakul

    …This is the appeal to evolution. I agree in its offensiveness, but there's nothing inherently inconsistent about it, provided that you're committed to doing whatever is evolutionary advantageous, no matter how much it hurts other people

    One of Richard Dawkins's first claims to fame was "The Selfish Gene" in the 1970's which puts the gene rather than the individual as the unit of selection, to account for the evolution of altruism in individuals. It says it is in the 'selfish' interest of individual genes for the species to survive rather than for the individual to survive. Self-sacrifice of individuals for the benefit of the group is not uncommon in nature.

    It is not surprising that you would see morality based on evolution as 'offensive' if you see evolution as necessarily hurting other people to gain evolutionary advantage. Evolution is not the kind of process you have to be committed to, it happens anyway.

  356. princessartemis says:

    @Jerrakul, Appeals to pleasure can work, though in my anecdotal experience, people (I do not secify athiest, theist, or undecieded) who follow such a framework tend to try to quantify quality of life, to look to other's suffering, and assume that those other's suffering outweighs their pleasure in life. In doing so, they use this to justify denying these sorts of people a chance to exist at all in order to minimize human suffering. Whence comes some disturbing strains of eugenic thought. In that way, it is no better than an appeal to evolution, which should have no issue with eugenics at all as a matter of fittest survival.

    Take a look up thread; you'll find someone here in the comments that has already mentioned some support for eugenics under the auspices of the greater human good.

    I am not in the least bit claiming that a more rigid, absolute morality would be immune from horrid immoral twisting. We need only look to history to see that is not the case. I am wondering where the safeguards are in a subjective utilitarian morality against such things? Obviously, I take it as read that eugenics is not a moral stance.

  357. Chris says:

    Atheism doesn't require absolute materialism; it requires non-theism. In a similar vein, one could be an atheist by demanding empirical evidence for empirical claims, rational evidence for rational claims, and then leave the proof of assertions of God to the asserters.

    This is a strawman argument.

  358. barry says:

    @HandOfGod137 Ha ha! You were going to stop (and so was I). But nobody has even started on the rights of plants yet.

  359. sorrykb says:

    Clark wrote:

    Really? So phrases like "the science is settled" and "there is scientific consensus" are never used as rhetorical tools to silence dissent?….
    I'm not saying the science is flawed. I'm criticizing your point that theism claims to be infallible but science does not.

    Science is not infallible — It doesn't claim to know everything, but that doesn't mean that we know nothing. I don't buy into the post-modernist bullshit that there is so such thing as objective facts.

    Certain facts are known. The earth is getting warmer and human activity is contributing to this. Sea levels are rising.
    What is not yet known is exactly how much sea levels will rise, because of the complex interplay of factors including melting ice sheets, glacial slippage, thermal expansion, and thawing permafrost.

    Or, to take another example, evolution is a fact. The theory of evolution describes to the best of our knowledge based on evidence, observation, and experimentation how evolution works and has worked over time.

    And no, "the science is settled" is not used as a rhetorical tool to silence dissent. Denialists are free continue to live in their proud ignorance, should they wish to do so. But I'm under no obligation to accommodate their delicate sensibilities and refrain from pointing out what is happening. And I'm free to tell them that yes, in fact, there is scientific consensus.

  360. HandOfGod137 says:

    @sorrykb
    My favourite response to the "science claims it knows everything" is from Dara Ó Briain: "Science knows it doesn't know everything; otherwise, it'd stop".

    I made exactly the point you are: theories gain value by weight of evidence, so it's not shutting down the debate to say 97% of practitioners in the field think the AGW paradigm is right. It just means you need to have a really strong alternative theory and/or evidence to demonstrate they are wrong. Which worked fine for Einstein, for example. And the specific phrases quoted are not typically used in debates with scientists: they're more for when you discuss the subject with someone who gets his/her "science" from Anthony Watts and/or the voices in their head. There's no point debating the fine points of positive feedback mechanisms with someone who has already made up their mind that it's a conspiracy between Gore and the communists and has just used the phrase "hide the decline". Life is too short.

  361. Xenocles says:

    "It just means you need to have a really strong alternative theory and/or evidence to demonstrate they are wrong."

    No, all you need is the evidence. If I can show your theory does not accurately predict a result that is sufficient to show it is wrong; I do not need to offer an alternative explanation.

    If the hypothesis is "all swans are white" and we watch a black bird hatch from an egg we know to be a swan's egg, we know the hypothesis is wrong even if we don't know what happened.

  362. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Xenocles
    True. I expressed that badly. Feynman said it well:

    "It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong."

  363. Nate says:

    "Really? So phrases like "the science is settled" and "there is scientific consensus" are never used as rhetorical tools to silence dissent?….
    I'm not saying the science is flawed. I'm criticizing your point that theism claims to be infallible but science does not."

    A few things about this statement:
    1. "There is a scientific consensus" seems like a perfectly reasonable statement to me, not one to quash dissent. If the dissenter is reasonably invested in the discussion he/she will either know this to be true/not true or look it up and establish why he/she disagrees backed up with data and sources. Scientific consensus has been wrong before; it simply takes a talented and ingenious person to prove it wrong again. If this person's science is good he/she can change the world's thinking. The danger is affecting thinking with bad science.

    2. Science does not claim to be infallible. Some people claim science is infallible, however the nature of science refutes this claim. Science never claims Truth; at best it claims hasn't been proven wrong in all and every test that has been done (i.e. gravity.)

  364. HandOfGod137 says:

    Oh let the joy be unconstrained; Theodore Beale (AKA Vox Day) has used Clark's original argument to derive a justification for racism. For which, I hasten to add, one cannot blame Clark: Beale could justify race war on finding he's run out of toilet paper.

    I'm not going to provide a link because the stupid could infect the tubes, and then where would we be?

  365. Xenocles says:

    Feynman said a lot of good things.

  366. Bruce says:

    I don't get it.

    It is a long essay on why a certain subset of a category of people are confused on where they derive their concepts of rights from. OK. I would think everyone has this problem as rights are only what 'we' say they are and the list is constantly evolving. I am not aware of any right as we consider them now that has always existed in its' current form and we get new ones every so often. The right to broadband is a term I am hearing more often; In 100 years (or less) it might be codified as such. The human right to liberty is apparently self evident but I don't think you would have to go too far back in time to find a lot of people arguing against it.

    Do you have a benchmark group on who is not confused on this point?

  367. barry says:

    @princessartermis

    it is no better than an appeal to evolution, which should have no issue with eugenics at all as a matter of fittest survival.

    I think the opposite, evolution and eugenics are pointing in opposite directions. 'Pure-breeding' is inbreeding and not generally good for the health of the species. Animals have evolved to go out of their way to mate as far from their patch of the gene pool as practical. The future of dogs is with the mutts. Pedigree dogs develop all sorts of health problems.

    'Survival of the fittest' is an odd kind of tautological phrase that gets misused a lot for various ends, or unintentionally. In the original Darwin/Spencer sense 'fitness' means 'those that survive'. ('Natural selection' is a better expression for the process.)

  368. barry says:

    @princessartemis, sorry, got your name wrong (spelling is not a strong point)

  369. princessartemis says:

    @barry, My experience with people who tend towards eugenics is that they wish to prevent the existence of people who actually are less likely to survive without help. Such as the extraordinary high rate of diagnosed Downs pregnancies that are aborted these days, in order to prevent the suffering of the parents and the aborted child involved. Or the frequent arguments about aborting any fetus with a birth defect. These things frequently do affect survival in the long term. So it strikes me as the sort of eugenics that would make sense in strict evolutionary terms. It still tends to eliminate a potentially worthwile expression of humanity, when one is not measuring worth in what a human can do about perpetuating the species or in a subjective measure of balanced pleasure vs. pain.

    I should have perhaps been more specific that I did not intend to invoke a very involved sort of eugenics, which would be like pure-breeding and thus a poor idea from an evolutionary stand point. I hadn't heard that original version of the phrase. (No worries about my SN, it's a bit of a keyboard full. I go by PA often as not.)

  370. JR says:

    Still have a bit to go on reading all the comments, but I can't get this image out of my head.

    A group of old men (theism) in the park complaining that children (non-theism) these days have no respect for their elders and the wisdom they have acquired over the many years. And that they need to stop horsing around with their newfangled i-pods and camera phones.

    At the same time, the group of children complain that they shouldn't have to follow rules made by a bunch of old people and that they aren't relevant in today's world.

  371. barry says:

    @PA, aha, I wasn't considering that kind of eugenics at all. I was remembering photographs I had seen of whole families being awarded prizes in eugenics shows, which I think were run in parallel with livestock shows, and judged in much the same way.. which you weren't considering at all.

    The ability to test babies before they are born makes that eugenics much more morally complicated with a very wide range of situations. An early abortion for a serious terminal condition at one end doesn't sound too bad, and a case of 'wrong gender' at the other sounds just plain wrong. Different people are going to draw the line at different places. But I think that should be called something else, 'eugenics' will always make me think of cattle shows and nazis.

  372. Robert White says:

    @princessartemis: please learn to read. I never suggested that beleivers were not capable of the same physical and emotional processes as atheists. _You_ pulled that inference out of your own head.

    I stated outright that evidence suggest that the idea of "fairness" was inherent to the human brain's wiring. So too empathy. And that this ingrained function is both detectable scientifically and common between man and many animals.

    I then stated outright that the atheists have no cause to imagine that a Sky Friend™ is, or needs must be, responsible for any form of dictatorial control over "morals" since we have all this wiring.

    I then stated outright that the idea that the theist believes that they themselves would have no compunction against amoral behaviour if Sky Friend™ were deleted from their world and world view was terrifying to the rationalist because _it_ states outright that the speaker believes they would so act.

    The person making the argument that "without god there would be no morals" is saying "If I were not under constant threat of eternal punishment I would be amoral." Any person hearing that should be very afraid that they are listening to a person lacking those in-built systems and so a person who is innately ready and capable of atrocity.

    Translation of the no-god-no-morals argument "if something wasn't holding a gun on me, I would totally be ready to stab anyone I wanted." This is the argument of a psychopath.

    That is not a statement that "all theists" are anything. It's a very particular observation that people who admit they are only moral because of a threat of wrath are not actually moral, they are just subjugated and pretending to be moral by that overseers will.

    It is possible that some who are _not_ inherently psychopathic are making the same argument by wrote. But those are people who are following a psychopath by wrote, and in many ways those people are more dangerous than the psychopath who would act independently.

    So there are three clear groupings:

    (1) people who believe that morals and fairness and so things like "rights" are functions of biology, such at the mirror neuron system.

    (1a) people who are type-1 because they see the evolutionary advantages that many species enjoy by being "fair" and see the evolutionary pitfalls of amoral anarchy.

    (1b) people who are type-1 because "god did it".

    (2) those who believe that all humans would be lawless and amoral if it weren't for the threat of god — whom we can only assume feel this way because they feel ready to be amoral themselves.

    (3) people who believe that all humans would be lawless and amoral if it weren't for the treat of god — who got this idea because they are following persons from category two.

    Categories Two and Three are where the nutjobs come from. And for every terrible leader, every hitler and kahn and kohmeni (spelling?) drawn from type-2, there is an army of type-3(s) that carried out their bidding. And once that army is together the immediate authority effect can gather up the type-1s almost at will (see the millgrim experiments).

    So indeed, anybody who argues that "without god there are or can be no rights or morals" should be feared.

  373. Robert White says:

    BTW: the observation that non-human animals have in-wired senses of fairness and empathy; combined with the various religious assertions that animals don't know god as such; kind of disproves that fairness and empathy — and so rights and morals — are not divine by fiat.

    Religions vary by sect and cult but most christians don't think jesus died for my dog's sins nor that my dog will go to heaven as a full soul. So one must assume that my dog's sense of fairness and empathy is not because of free will and its interaction with divine law.

    And yet we can find the mirror neuron system in dogs, so it's the same mechanism as in man.

    Reason just _doesn't_ support the notion of the divine since it proves the distinctions in dogma do not actually exist in observable natural world.

  374. Robert White says:

    Typo Correction: "kind of _proves_ that fairness and empathy — and so rights and morals — are not divine by fiat"

  375. Robert White says:

    In my three types argument I completely left out those who consider the idea and origin of morals to be beneath argument.

    When these peoples rise to atrocity, they are often atheists and anarchists who set out to remake the word as their plaything. These are the stalins of the world who are without morals and without the need to consider morals. They use pure authority to rule, as opposed to divine mandate or whatever.

    I left the unclassified out of the classifications because they weren't material to the question at hand. Kind of how I didn't mention entropy or sea kelp. 9-)

    The general question(s) of why do people become broken and how do broken people author the destruction of others is rather large and off topic for this thread of discussion.

  376. Anony Mouse says:

    @Xenocles

    It may have gotten lost in the shuffle upthread but I am still curious as to why you accept that God (or his equivalent in your beliefs) has the authority to grant rights.

    I'll bite. Of course, I'm a Deist, so you may not find my answer especially enlightening or interesting:

    He made the banana bread so He gets to decide if there's walnuts inside. Or, perhaps to formulate it in a way keeping with my belief-system's philosophical roots: He made the watch, He gets to decide if it has a date window.

    It's rather like asking Volition what gives them the authority to put a purple dildo-club in their game. Their status as creator confers that authority. It's one of the advantages of being a creator.

  377. David Schwartz says:

    @Anony Mouse: By that logic, parents should have unlimited authority over their children. They created them, after all.

  378. Illy says:

    Ok, haven't read the massive pile of text, and I'm starting to suspect that Clark is just trolling us, but here's why morals:

    There are a number of things that you don't want to happen to you, it doesn't much matter what the list is, you have one.
    You find a number of other people who also don't want those things to happen to them.
    You all agree that you won't do any of those things to each other, and that you'll punish anyone who does.
    You bring more people into your group of "we won't do this list to each other".
    Pass a few generations indoctrinating your children into this, and you have morals and countries hard-wired into everyone.

    Or there are 11 words from Jesus who said it more succinctly:
    "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you."

  379. rxc says:

    I am not going to disagree with your premise that the “ethical construct [of morality in atheists, I presume] is incoherent and lacking in rigor”. As an agnostic, I do not attempt to speak for atheists, or even for other agnostics. I have an ethical construct of life that you would probably consider incoherent, but I think that all ethical constructs have this problem, because life itself is messy and incoherent and lacking in rigor. Life continually generates all sorts of situations that call our ethical constructs into question. Questions arise that we have not thought about before, and we are always generating exceptions that we all consider to be “special cases” that don’t impact the general principles.

    I accept that these cases will always arise, and I try to deal with them in what I consider to be the fairest possible way. Sometimes I don’t like what I have to do or even think about an unpleasant situation. But I don’t automatically condemn people who have been forced to deal with those situations in unpopular or unfashionable ways. I try to understand why the situation arose, and why some people responded the way they did. It is a variation on the saying “Hard cases make hard law”.

    I am currently reading “The Guns of August”, and its focus on the intensive planning that took place before that war started, and how that planning constrained the decisionmakers, is a good example of how we cannot allow ourselves to be constrained inside a rigid pre-defined system of behavior. The real world will always deviate from the model that we set up, because we cannot anticipate all possible situations that may arise. It is more important to have a more flexible model that is continually reassessed and revised, than to die defending a position that is indefensible. Too many people have died because they were sure that their “ethical constructs” were not only correct, but the only ones that were correct. It is good to try to be consistent in your ethics, but insisting on consistency is silly.

    The most recent comment from Illy comes closest to my principles, but I would phrase it differently. "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you".

  380. princessartemis says:

    @Robert White, This is what you said:

    "The _core_ difference between an atheist and a believer, the thing that makes us fear believers, is the simple fact that _we_ don't need an all-powerful daddy threatening us to make us "be good". We think that those who _do_ need the All Threatening Over Being to exist and to threaten them in order for them not to go about killing and stealing and whatnot is the scariest damn thing there is."

    This is not a statement that allows for your Types 1a and 1b, because you have made it clear in it that you are delineating the very heart of what makes A different than B. You say that difference is why A fears B. There's *no room* in there for anyone with the characteristics of B but not the psychopathy because the psychopathy is what *makes* B.

    If you do not intend to say that believers are not capable of human empathy in the same way atheists are, do not stress that the *core* difference between these binaries is believers' need for threats in order not to behave like psychopaths. If what you really mean is few, some, most, many, a whole lot of, believers have such a morality, then say so; you'll find ready agreement. You are easily eloquent enough to accomplish this without getting paint all over the floor and the easel and without getting into premature detail whilst laying down your foundation strokes.

    For the record, I think your alternate definition of atheist vs. believer might be better suited to a different sort of situation, where the question of deity isn't the focus, but rather how some people feel toward any sort of authority. There are a good few traditions which fall under the "believer" umbrella for which there is no implicit threat of any kind.

  381. HandOfGod137 says:

    Tit for tat is a highly effective strategy in game theory for the iterated prisoner's dilemma; in biology it's given the name reciprocal altruism, but it all really boils down to eye-for-an-eye, and it's quite easy to see how such a system can develop naturally and eventually get formalised as a system of morality. No need for impractical igneous-based writing materials (up a mountain? This god got a thing about papyrus?). It's ironic that William of Ockham was a man of the church.

  382. HandOfGod137 says:

    @princessartemis

    I don't read Robert White as saying "believers are not capable of human empathy". He actually seems to be saying that some subset of believers imply that the only thing keeping them moral is fear of the lake of fire, which is pretty scary. I'd be much happier getting stuck in a lift (elevator?) with someone who adhered to standards of decent behaviour because they think it's the right way to behave, rather than because they are just scared of the consequences if they don't. Nowhere in what he's posted do I get the idea he's claiming that all of christendom would run amok if we could show them there's nothing to worry about vis. eternity of torment

  383. Nick Gotts says:

    Your two initial premises are false, so your subsequent argument is worthless.

    You claim that atheists:
    1) assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)

    Er, no. Materialism is the belief that there are no entities without a material basis but with causal powers – no gods, ghosts, fairies, souls, etc. I most certainly believe in numbers (including infinite numbers), facts, hypotheses, experiences, ideas, institutions, logical rules of inference… but all of these either lack causal powers, or have a material basis.

    2) believe in rights, and not merely in a legal or social descriptive way, but in an absolute and prescriptive way.

    Some do, some don't, if what you mean by believing in rights in an "absolute and prescriptive way" is believing in an objective morality. I don't. However, you are eliding a basic distinction, made somewhere in The Open Society and Its enemies by Karl Popper, between absoluteness of status and absoluteness of origin. There are some rights – such as the right of people not to be tortured – that I will strive to establish as not to be violated under any circumstances – that is, I will strive to establish their absolute status. But I do not believe it is an objective fact that people have this right. I consider ethical judgements to be similar in logical and epistemic status to esthetic ones (such as whether George Eliot is a better novelist than Dan Brown): they are not objective facts, but they can be rationally criticized and defended, unlike, say, a preference for chocolate over strawberry ice-cream. In the case of ethical judgements, we can criticize them first on the basis of logical inconsistency, and second on the basis of the consequences of adopting them. Hypothesizing a god who lays down ethical rules, of course, gets us nowhere: unless we are mere power-worshippers, we still have to judge for ourselves whether those rules should be followed.

  384. Anony Mouse says:

    Also, today I learned that a lot of people are really, really terrible when it comes to basic reading comprehension.

  385. Anony Mouse says:

    @David Schwartz

    By that logic, parents should have unlimited authority over their children. They created them, after all.

    I suppose. Except for two little problems:

    1) Various laws and such restricting parental authority (eg: don't kill your kids)
    2) God, but nature of creating reality and thus also baking in natural rights (to keep with my banana bread analogy) has superceded parental authority. Think federal law trumping state law trumping municipal code.

  386. Anony Mouse says:

    @Nate:

    "There is a scientific consensus" seems like a perfectly reasonable statement to me, not one to quash dissent.

    I seem to remember a (likely apocryphal) anecdote about Einstein and 100 German scientists…

  387. Walt says:

    Apologies if this has been covered. I ran out of time to read the entire thread.

    I started out wanting to dispute the argument, but came to appreciate the correctness of it.

    If I understand properly, a completely materialistic philosophy (one that is defined by that which can be observed?) can't serve as a source of morality because morality is a construct, not a naturally occurring phenomenon.

    A religion can be a source of moral principles because, in the most fundamental sense, that's what religions do.

    In particular it is wrong for atheists of the completely materialistic stripe to claim authority to originate moral principles because their own philosophy doesn't support such an undertaking. (In practice they are free to adopt other people's morals as long as they don't claim them as their own ideas.)

    But that does leave us with the problem of having several religions claiming to have the correct interpretation of things, and not all in agreement with each other.

    I wanted to go into some clever arguments about the unprovability of certain aspects of mathematics and the fundamental weirdness of having a fiat currency system but I'm already out of my depth. I'll leave it that the author has proven to my satisfaction that science isn't philosophy or religion and should not attempt to be such.

    Walt

  388. ppnl says:

    @rxc

    I have an ethical construct of life that you would probably consider incoherent, but I think that all ethical constructs have this problem, because life itself is messy and incoherent and lacking in rigor.

    Yeah, this. And we don't have a formal moral code so much as we feel the pain and stress of our moral choices. Christians see this as Clark's "god shaped hole in our heart". That experience is what leads to moral realism.

  389. Daniel Taylor says:

    As this discussion continues, I'd just like to point out that since theists and atheists don't behave in any observably different way the point is thoroughly moot.

    In fact, some of the "atheists" I know happen to serve as clergy in standard religions. Yes, you can be a priest and an atheist at the same time "it gives the people comfort and I don't know for sure that there is no god, so I'll continue to serve and behave as if there is one and this is the right way to worship Him".

    Myself, I believe in people. People do things in ways I can observe, gods don't. Therefore, whether or not gods actually exist is irrelevant.

  390. David says:

    Your two initial premises are false, so your subsequent argument is worthless.

    You claim that atheists:
    1) assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)

    Doesn't matter who said this in particular, since several drive-by commenters have done so.

    The thing to recognize is that @Clark never claimed that atheists insist on materialism. He merely said that for any strict materialist (a category into which some atheists might be classified) there's a problem in affirming rights.

    If you're in this thread boldly arguing that not all atheists are materialists or arguing that atheists sure by golly do embrace rights, have ethics, help old riveters across the street, etc., then you're entirely missing the gist of the original post and relevant subsequent discussions.

    This happens because, among other reasons, some defenders of ideology x (whatever it may be) prefer to mount prefabricated rebuttals to the stock objections to x with which they're familiar or comfortable rather than actually to explore ideas based on a careful reading of what has actually been written and thereby asserted.

    If you're a visitor, drive by or dwelling, then you're welcome. But try not to be that guy. Otherwise, your irrelevant attempted contribution may crowd out the valuable, pertinent content of those who bother to grok and engage the actual points under discussion.

  391. TerryP says:

    Kinda late to come back to this, but I also wanted to dispute the whole agnostics being more rational than atheists claim. Withholding judgement is just as irrational if the evidence for a thing to exist never materializes. Withholding judgment on psychics, horoscopes, and efficient government agencies is just as irrational as believing they exist.

    Being an agnostic is tantamount to saying, "We have sampled a portion of the moons surface and found it to be rock, but there could be cheese UNDER that rock."

    I am not an agnostic. I don't say "I don't know" but I am still rational in that I haven't taken as evidence something which is not proven to exist. the rational default position is "off" for belief and I am currently not a believer. If I die and I turn out to have an immortal soul that gets to burn in hell, I probably wouldn't embrace God anyways because I don't think I could worship a lord with an oublette. But, at least I would then no longer be an atheist.

  392. HandOfGod137 says:

    @David
    That just seems like another straw man argument. Clark states:

    This, then, is the crux of the problem: they self describe as materialists, and yet believe in invisible untestable things.

    To which most self-identified atheists/materialists have responded "actually, no: "rights" are not things in that sense, they are rules created by man. And just like I can play chess without having to be able to point and say "look, there goes the rules of chess, off to feed at the waterhole", I can state that our society has defined certain rights that I think are worth adhering to without requiring they be actual material objects" (I paraphrase, slightly).

    There's no "prefabricated rebuttals": I just find the argument that because I don't believe in fairies, I can't understand abstract concepts a little ridiculous.

  393. different Jess says:

    Now that a gaggle of internet atheists have been trolled into paring down Clark's original gigantic claims into whatever thin shadow thereof passes a prima facie laugh test, can the title "Atheists are Confused" which perfectly summarized those overlarge claims be similarly narrowed?

  394. Clark says:

    @HandOfGod137

    To which most self-identified atheists/materialists have responded "actually, no: "rights" are not things in that sense, they are rules created by man.

    A charitable debater doesn't call his debate partners liars, so I won't, but on the other hand, I find it really, really, really hard to swallow this repeated assertion, and I'd be misleading people about my own beliefs I didn't say that I find suspect that it's being asserted in a debate where I've laid out the fact that the alternative is a belief in the reality of metaphysical things.

    If rights are merely rules created by man, why should any western atheist be upset about Middle Eastern female genital mutilation, or historical black slavery in the US, or anything else? These aren't "wrongs"; they're just violations of human made rules.

    …wait, not!

    They're not even violations of human made rules, because Middle Eastern female genital mutilation is in accordance with local cultural rules, and historical black slavery in the US was not only in accordance with local cultural rules but in accordance with local legal rules as well.

    So not only should one who truly does not believe in the reality of metaphysical truths not dislike these two things, but he or she should actively support them. Rules were being followed!

    How wonderful that the "rules created by man" were being followed in 1850s Mississippi!

    How wonderful that the "rules created by man" were are followed in Afghanistan!

  395. Daniel Taylor says:

    @Clark:
    Funny how whether or not somebody supports slavery is completely not determined by whether or not they are religious, though.

    The Bible gives rules for slavery, thus supporting it, yet many religious people consider slavery to be morally repugnant. Likewise there are atheists who both support and oppose slavery.

    Therefore, the argument that atheism is somehow inferior to religious determination of moral rules falls flat on its face with minimal inspection.

    The fact is that *people* are inconsistent in determining and applying moral rules, no matter what they believe, and that there is a mix of selfishness and altruism in all of those decisions.

  396. Clark says:

    @Daniel Taylor:

    Funny how whether or not somebody supports slavery is completely not determined by whether or not they are religious, though.

    The Bible gives rules for slavery, thus supporting it, yet many religious people consider slavery to be morally repugnant. Likewise there are atheists who both support and oppose slavery.

    This is all true, and yet has absolutely zero bearing on what I said.
    @Daniel Taylor

    The fact is that *people* are inconsistent in determining and applying moral rules, no matter what they believe, and that there is a mix of selfishness and altruism in all of those decisions.

    We are 100% agreed on this. Recall that my thesis is that many atheists are incoherent and confused.

    The fact that this is also true of many theists (which I certainly concede) does not argue that I'm wrong.

  397. Clark says:

    For the 7,000th time (slight exaggeration; probably not more than the 30th time):

    I have not once in this thread said that God is the only source of morality, that theists behave better than atheists, or that the alternative to amorality is theism.

    I have only argued that the only alternative to ad-hoc culturally dependent morality is a morality with some metaphysical existence. "Metaphysical" is not the same thing as "theistic", but it is pretty close to the antonym of "materialist".

    Further attempts to apply the inappropriate template of Stereotypical Atheist Internet Debate #12c will be ignored.

  398. HandOfGod137 says:

    A charitable debater doesn't call his debate partners liars, so I won't, but on the other hand, I find it really, really, really hard to swallow this repeated assertion, and I'd be misleading people about my own beliefs I didn't say that I find suspect that it's being asserted in a debate where I've laid out the fact that the alternative is a belief in the reality of metaphysical things.

    Well, thanks for only implying I'm a liar. But on your last point, just because you assert something doesn't make it a fact. That has rather been the point of all the comments disagreeing with you, hasn't it?

    So not only should one who truly does not believe in the reality of metaphysical truths not dislike these two things, but he or she should actively support them. Rules were being followed!

    Now this doesn't even make sense. I can feel empathy without recourse to some Platonic ideal of "wrong". Rules don't have any inherent value of correctness, but we can see ourselves in the position of people suffering under "evil" rules and conclude we'd really rather it stopped. And there are pretty good evolutionary reasons why such behaviour developed (see reciprocal altruism above). And if you're going to start claiming I should support female genital mutilation, you're teetering on the verge of a Poe

  399. Clark says:

    @HandOfGod137

    Well, thanks for only implying I'm a liar.

    I don't find it hard to believe that you are truthful; what I find
    hard to believe is that in the entire rest of my life most of the
    atheists I've met have believed in metaphysical morality, but in this
    debate which starts out by pointing out the contradiction between
    materialism and metaphysical morality first I've run into a
    huge percentage of atheists who now do not believe in objective
    morality.

    This is entirely consistent with

    1) the effectiveness of the social strategy of precommitment, whereby people lock themselves into positions

    2) many atheists never having thought about the fairly philosopical topic of whether their morality is metaphysical or not.

    I believe that if the argument had been presented in a different order my results would have been different.

    This is not a slur, so much as a recognition that very few people have rigorously worked out ethics and beliefs.

    But on your last point, just because you assert something doesn't make it a fact. That has rather been the point of all the comments disagreeing with you, hasn't it?

    No, not at all.

    I pointed out that there is an iron triangle:

    • materialism
    • metaphysical morality
    • consistency

    and that one may choose only two.

    The vast majority of atheist commenters have chosen the first and the third.

    That bolsters my point; it does not disagree with it.

  400. ppnl says:

    @Clark

    If rights are merely rules created by man, why should any western atheist be upset about Middle Eastern female genital mutilation, or historical black slavery in the US, or anything else?

    The fact that rights are rules created by man does not mean that there are not consequences to those rules or that I cannot have strong preferences about such rules.

    A car is just a device engineered by man but a car with square wheels is still a bad idea. That does not imply that there is a perfect car that exists in a platonic realm of absolutes and perfect forms.

    I hate rap music and don't really consider it music. That does not mean musical beauty is something that exists objectively.

    The taste of butter beans makes me physically ill. That does not mean that the good taste of food is an objective reality that all should agree on.

    And again, are you also a mathematical Platonist?

  401. ppnl says:

    @Clark,

    1) the effectiveness of the social strategy of precommitment, whereby people lock themselves into positions

    Coming from a christian this is… well lets just leave it there.

    2) many atheists never having thought about the fairly philosopical topic of whether their morality is metaphysical or not.

    There is a long and detailed history of the debate between Platonism and formalists. We could start with Whitehead and Russell and go to Godel and then see how Turing looks at it totally differently and connects to the strong AI position. Until you at least acknowledge that we are talking about a form of Platonism and the long history of that debate you have no right to make this claim.

  402. barry says:

    Much of the confusion seems to be coming from people not thinking what they should think.

  403. Clark says:

    @ppnl

    @Clark,

    1) the effectiveness of the social strategy of precommitment, whereby people lock themselves into positions

    Coming from a christian this is… well lets just leave it there.

    Please don't leave it there.. I loathe the passive agressive phrasing you concluded with (to be fair, it's not unique to you; it's the kind of phrase that passes for biting incisively commentary these days).

    Make your argument or don't, but don't try to be cute.

    2) many atheists never having thought about the fairly philosopical topic of whether their morality is metaphysical or not.

    There is a long and detailed history of the debate between Platonism and formalists. We could start with Whitehead and Russell and go to Godel and then see how Turing looks at it totally differently and connects to the strong AI position. Until you at least acknowledge that we are talking about a form of Platonism and the long history of that debate you have no right to make this claim.

    I am familiar with Whitehead, Russel, Godel et al. Most atheists (like most theists) are not.

    Until you at least acknowledge that we are talking about a form of Platonism

    Has that not been obvious to everyone here this entire time?

    I first introduced the topic into this thread three days ago.

    and the long history of that debate you have no right to make this claim.

    Why do you think that "long history of debate" is incompatible with the claim I'm making?

  404. barry says:

    @Clark re your iron triangle.

    and that one may choose only two.

    But I can do long division and think people make laws up. ie I don't think you have to choose two.

    Even if you've proved materialism and metaphysical morality are mutually exclusive (who knows?), you still have to prove that's the universal set (Writing everyone else off as 'extreme outliers' for not just accepting it is, is just trolling).

  405. Nate says:

    @Anony Mouse: I think I found what you were talking about; a book was published called "A Hundred Authors Against Einstein" with various criticisms of his work. I haven't read it, just googled to find it, but criticizing one's science is a staple in science, so I think the book is not quashing dissent. (I think Einstein would definitely fall under the second part of my thought where he defends his dissent against the consensus.) I do think I see your larger point though, and I think my view comes from being a graduate student in science where I frequently see things quoted as "scientific consensus" but also see the "scientific consensus" frequently rebutted whereas someone who is not constantly exposed to the process might find that phrase to be more absolute.

  406. Nate says:

    I also apparently like run on sentences. Apologies all around.

  407. barry says:

    [I'll repost that]
    @Clark re your iron triangle.

    and that one may choose only two.

    But I can do long division and think people make laws up. ie I don't think you have to choose two.

    Even if you've proved materialism and metaphysical morality are mutually exclusive (who knows?), you still have to prove that's the universal set (Writing everyone else off as 'extreme outliers' for not just accepting it is, is just trolling).

  408. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Clark

    Please don't leave it there.. I loathe the passive agressive phrasing you concluded with (to be fair, it's not unique to you; it's the kind of phrase that passes for biting incisively commentary these days).

    A charitable debater doesn't call his debate partners liars, so I won't,

    Er…
    Ok, cheap shot, but really.

    I am familiar with Whitehead, Russel, Godel et al. Most atheists (like most theists) are not.

    Can you support that assertion? There's a lot of "all atheists are X" going on without much evidence being provided.

    And finally if we exclude all anecdotal evidence (i.e. "most of the
    atheists I've met have believed in metaphysical morality") all we are left with is the evidence in this thread. Which seems to be most atheist/materialists reject metaphysical morality. Do you have any actual evidence that points the other way?

  409. ppnl says:

    @Clark,

    Please don't leave it there..

    Religion is almost always reflexively conservative. And I mean that in a cultural sense rather than a narrow political sense. I would say religion only survives because of the effectiveness of the social strategy of precommitment.

    Why do you think that "long history of debate" is incompatible with the claim I'm making?

    It is incompatible with the claim that atheists have not thought about it. Well ok you did just say "many" atheists but in the blog post you said "all but extreme outliers". I could say many Christians don't know much about Jesus. Crap, the funniest conversation I ever had with a christian was with a catholic dude who tried to tell the joke about Moses being more powerful than Jesus. He screwed it up because he couldn't remember if it was Moses or Jesus that walked on water.

    As I said before you do have a point that there are atheist who are a bit loose with their materialism.

    Ok you did at least acknowledge Platonism. This stupid blog software makes it hard to not miss stuff. But you still seem to be avoiding actually talking about it.

    For example in my next to last message:

    The fact that rights are rules created by man does not mean that there are not consequences to those rules or that I cannot have strong preferences about such rules.

    A car is just a device engineered by man but a car with square wheels is still a bad idea. That does not imply that there is a perfect car that exists in a platonic realm of absolutes and perfect forms.

    I hate rap music and don't really consider it music. That does not mean musical beauty is something that exists objectively.

    The taste of butter beans makes me physically ill. That does not mean that the good taste of food is an objective reality that all should agree on.

    And again, are you also a mathematical Platonist?

    You ignore any attempt to actually discuss it. Platonism actually has a very bad reputation among philosophers. And these are the people who have thought about it the most.

    We experience our moral choices emotionally kind of like the way we experience music. That is what makes it seem like a real thing out there. The sound is real but the beauty is a construct of biology and culture.

  410. Derrick says:

    I am very late to this party, but…

    Clark, you make a number of blanket statements about atheists that are unsupportable, and one of the biggies is your premise:

    No, the reason that modern atheists have incoherent views is that they simultaneously

    assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)

    they believe in rights, and not merely in a legal or social descriptive way, but in an absolute and prescriptive way.

    Atheists believe in freedom and that is intangible, as are efficacy, justice, and mercy. You conflate the disbelief in a diety with the rejection of all things conceptual in nature.

    Your argument is flawed.

  411. princessartemis says:

    @princessartemis

    I don't read Robert White as saying "believers are not capable of human empathy". He actually seems to be saying that some subset of believers imply that the only thing keeping them moral is fear of the lake of fire, which is pretty scary. I'd be much happier getting stuck in a lift (elevator?) with someone who adhered to standards of decent behaviour because they think it's the right way to behave, rather than because they are just scared of the consequences if they don't. Nowhere in what he's posted do I get the idea he's claiming that all of christendom would run amok if we could show them there's nothing to worry about vis. eternity of torment

    @HandOfGod137, I don't read him that way either, at least re: your first point, it was a less strong reading. Anyhow, I took issue with his initial commentary, not his follow up that introduced subsets where before there existed no room for them. I don't take any issue with the fact that some subset of believers make it sound like they are on the thinnest of leashes and that implies some frightening things about them.

  412. Clark says:

    Derrick

    Atheists believe in freedom and that is intangible, as are efficacy, justice, and mercy.

    Yep. And to the degree that self-professed materialists think that these things have a real nature, they are contradicting themselves.

    You conflate the disbelief in a diety with the rejection of all things conceptual in nature.

    The majority of atheists that I've met, and the majority that commented on this thread, asserted that they do reject concepts as having any sort of Platonic existence.

    Scroll up and look for yourself.

  413. HandOfGod137 says:

    Is one to take it David has inadvertently pasted the output from an Excel spreadsheet into the comment field? Is this a fungible error? Does his income for tax year 2013-14 currently read "you're all a bunch of bastards"?

  414. HandOfGod137 says:

    The majority of atheists that I've met, and the majority that commented on this thread, asserted that they do reject concepts as having any sort of Platonic existence.

    Yes, rejected as having Platonic existence, but not rejected as systems of rules and values. You seem to be continually insisting that to have any regard to a concept, you must accept it has metaphysical existence or fall into contradiction. To which I say (and have been saying) no: it is perfectly possible to consider the universe to be purely matter and energy and give value to concepts that exist purely within the human mind.

  415. David says:

    @HandOfGod137 Just noting one of several plausible explanations for why this comment thread is going round and round as if drawn into an infinite vortex….

  416. barry says:

    @David,

    But try not to be that guy

    I generally think irrelevance to the discussion is OK as long as it's somehow relevant to the original post (or vice versa). The valuable and pertinent is where you find it, and with comments it's tangents all the way down anyway.

  417. HandOfGod137 says:

    @David
    Well, yeah, you've got a point there.

    I know this has all gone on a bit, but (from my perspective) a certain amount of that is to do with the unexpected attack from people you generally think are alright. I think the general position of most atheists to the religious is, unless they are actively trying something like getting young-earth creationism into science lessons, let them lead their lives in peace. There are obvious exceptions to this, but I think most of us consider attacking the faithful without provocation as simply not cricket.

    In this context, it's not surprising an "all atheists are logical failtards" post was going to generate a bit of comment. Especially when it appears a lot of us read the central argument and thought "er, actually no, we aren't". But I can see us reaching a 1000 comments of us going "oh no we aren't" and Clark going "oh yes you are", so perhaps this is the time to withdraw gracefully and with honour intact.

    I'm still right, mind…

  418. Lago says:

    @Clark: "How so? I tried to take pains to talk only about materialist atheists who believe in objective morality. How much finer do I need to dice it?"

    I found your problem.

    atheist here, and I'll tell you there's no such thing as an atheist who believes in objective morality. sure, people might argue for it, but it's as fallacious as the belief in god. it doesn't hold up in reality. we construct our own morality as a society. the only sense it can be 'objective' in is that we make objective rules on it.

  419. TPRJones says:

    I am an atheist. In some ways I am unique, but in many others I am very typical. And I am finding it difficult to count the number of ways that I strongly disagree with this particular post.

    1) I do not "assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible", merely that to believe without evidence in that which cannot be seen is extremely irrational and ultimately a useless endevour historically shown to be much more likely to lead to harm than good for oneself and others. I would say that I feel there are actions that are right and wrong and moral or immoral, however I would not assert that these are not necessarily universals. I am willing to – to a certain extent – judge others based on these ideals but only so far as it is pragmatic to do so. For exampling I think it's wrong to kill people without cause and will judge someone for doing so, although ultimately it's more important to remove them from society to stop the killing than it is to punish them as part of some examination of morality regarding their actions.

    2) I do not "believe in rights, and not merely in a legal or social descriptive way, but in an absolute and prescriptive way". Of course there are abstract concepts that society and/or government label as "rights", but those are frequently arbitrary and ridiculous. But regardless of the pretty language of our constitution there are no natural and inalienable rights. There are only the rights that one can take for oneself and ones people and hold, historically by force but in modern times force is sometimes less necessary. I will say that it seems obvious that there are some rights that society in general is much better off for the citizenry having, and I will lean as far libertarian as just about anyone else you can find on this point. But ultimately there is no such thing as rights that cannot be taken away by someone with bigger and pointier sticks than you who are willing to use them on you.

    I could go on with the rest of the post, but I think that's sufficient for now since that's total disagreement with the basis for most of the rest of your reasoning. Although I am curious enough to ask: how many atheists do you actually know well? I don't mean run-of-the-mill atheists – I wouldn't expect a coherent philosophy out of the average atheist on the street any more than I would expect the average Christian to write the Summa Theologica – but atheists that have put real contemplation into their thoughts. I'm guessing not many.

  420. TPRJones says:

    "…however I would not assert that these are not necessarily universals…"

    er, sorry, strike that second not. Too many nots in there. Basically denying the concept of objective morality here beyond that which seems to be a pragmatic adoption of rules to best serve society. As one does.

  421. Lago says:

    I would also like to point out that anyone who believes in god and believes in objective morality also merely believes in the same sort of objective rules. It's purportedly set by god rather than by ourselves, but the whole concept of objective morality vs subjective morality is irrelevant when talking to an atheist. As far as I'm concerned, somebody at some point wrote down the rules you follow. From that perspective, those rules come from just as subjective of a place as anybody else's.

  422. Daniel Taylor says:

    We are 100% agreed on this. Recall that my thesis is that many atheists are incoherent and confused.

    The fact that this is also true of many theists (which I certainly concede) does not argue that I'm wrong.

    But what it does mean is that the point is irrelevant.
    Theism, agnosticism, atheism, and even anti-theism is a spectrum of beliefs and actions that exists orthogonal to morality.

    In fact, the degree to which a person's beliefs in deities is disconnected from the moral stands they take seems to me to be a convincing argument that those moral positions are intrinsic to humanity, and are not influenced by any deity on an individual basis (though one could argue that a creator deity imbued humanity as a whole with those traits).

  423. ppnl says:

    @Clark

    You conflate the disbelief in a diety with the rejection of all things conceptual in nature.

    The majority of atheists that I've met, and the majority that commented on this thread, asserted that they do reject concepts as having any sort of Platonic existence.

    Again you are avoiding any actual discussion. I Accept the existence of beautiful music without the need to assert some Platonic essence of beauty. I assert the existence of a well designed car without the need to assert the platonic essence of car-ness. Why can't I accept the existence of a set of moral and ethical principles that I find beautiful and useful for the things I value in society without asserting some Platonic essence of good and evil?

    Again, with music the sound is real but the beauty is a biological and social construct.

    At this point it really does seem as if you are just trolling.

  424. Sam says:

    I was under the impression time travel wasn't possible, but it seems I've somehow slipped into a 17th century salon debating the merits of Spinozism.

  425. Clark says:

    @ppnl

    You conflate the disbelief in a diety with the rejection of all things conceptual in nature.

    Not once have I done this. If you claim otherwise, please show me where. Further, I have noted multiple times in the comments that I have simultaneously been an atheist and a believer in an objective morality.

    In short, you are flat out factually wrong that I conflate these two things.

    I do note the correlation of modern atheists with materialists, and I note that materialists disbelieve in the objective existence of non material things.

    Again you are avoiding any actual discussion.

    As far as I can tell, my failing to say that an Aristotelian conception of forms is just as good, nay, indistinguishable, from a Platonic conception of forms is "avoiding any actual discussion".

    (a) I do not agree with you.
    (b) we've reached differing axioms, so I'm not sure how I should further discuss this. "You're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong!!!" ? That's the technique that many commenters above have used (often putting an intellectual edge on the argument by throwing the word "bullshit" in). I don't choose to use that technique. You already know my axioms, I already know yours. What's left to say? Shall I accuse you of not engaging in actual debate because you have not yet started agreeing with me?

    I Accept the existence of beautiful music without the need to assert some Platonic essence of beauty. I assert the existence of a well designed car without the need to assert the platonic essence of car-ness. Why can't I accept the existence of a set of moral and ethical principles that I find beautiful and useful for the things I value in society without asserting some Platonic essence of good and evil?

    You absolutely can. I've never said you can't. I just find it (a) sad, (b) dubious. With regard to dubious, what I mean is that no one ever goes to war over a fight about which car is better designed or about what music is better (I'm putting the keen philosophers of the East Coast / West Coast rap war aside for a moment). The fact that most people will go to extreme lengths to argue their moral code, defend people they see as innocent victims of others mistaken moral codes, etc. make me think the assertion that materialists believe in moral codes the same way they believe in well designed and efficient autos is silly.

    At this point it really does seem as if you are just trolling.

    Your definition of "trolling" is what – not agreeing with you?

  426. Clark says:

    @Sam

    I was under the impression time travel wasn't possible, but it seems I've somehow slipped into a 17th century salon debating the merits of Spinozism.

    You don't come here for the hunting.

  427. Lago says:

    Clark: "As far as I can tell, my failing to say that an Aristotelian conception of forms is just as good, nay, indistinguishable, from a Platonic conception of forms is "avoiding any actual discussion"."

    exactly.

    How is one person who follows a moral code they grow up with and has ingrained in them by society any more or less dubious than somebody who has their moral code taught to them by a book? You say your moral code is platonic. Sure. Now WHY is it better?

    You really don't have to agree that they're on the same ground. The reason he says you're avoiding any discussion is that you're not really explaining your point of view, you're just throwing out your prejudice.

  428. Lago says:

    god i keep doing this from the wrong email -.-

  429. Clark says:

    @Lago

    How is one person who follows a moral code they grow up with and has ingrained in them by society any more or less dubious than somebody who has their moral code taught to them by a book?

    A fair question.

    The amusing thing (and I actually am amused here) is that you're so deeply embedded in your utilitarian / pragmatic world view that it doesn't occur to you that others might try to decide the debate between utilitarianism and Platonic Forms on anything other than utilitarianism / pragmatism.

    For all I know they are equally effective.

    I'm not arguing that the materialist morals are less useful. In fact, I said that way up in the initial post.

    All I'm arguing is that there's a logical flaw if a materialist believes in immaterial morals.

    Also, I'm not arguing that morals "taught from a book" are superior. I believe that there are preexisting objective morals, just like there is preexisting objective gravity. If a book teaches correctly about gravity, great. If a book teaches correctly about morals, great. In neither case does reality flow from the book.

    You say your moral code is platonic. Sure. Now WHY is it better?

    I never said it was.

  430. barry says:

    but it seems I've somehow slipped into a 17th century salon debating the merits of Spinozism.

    Maybe even earlier. There is a suspected logical flaw in: "If you believe there are angels on the head of a pin, you must also believe they are dancing"

  431. AlphaCentauri says:

    I am reminded of Clark's comment here:
    http://www.popehat.com/2013/04/30/chris-broussard-is-a-dinosaur-snarling-at-the-oncoming-asteroid/#comment-1038875

    and wondering if perhaps the atheists willing to have deep, heart-felt conversations with him are not a random cross section of the atheist population.

  432. ppnl says:

    @Clark,

    I say you avoid discussion because I still don't know the parameters of your Platonism. Are you a mathematical Platonist? Maybe not since people usually don't kill over math. I still don't know if you think beauty is a Platonist concept that exists objectively. Maybe it isn't "dubious" to reject the realism of beauty because people don't die for it? That's very strange.

    People kill and die for many things. Money, even if they claim no moral right to it. Loyalty to friends and family. Love. Honor.

    But look, people have passions. Our moral instincts drives some powerful passions. Those passions can drive us to kill. And yes I would risk death to defend my moral principles. I have passions just like a Muslim who would die to defend his right to force women to wear a tent and mutilate their genitals. If anything the depth of his passions are greater than mine. That makes his morals passionately held, not real or right or even wrong in an absolute sense. His moral code is one aspect of his biological and cultural heritage.

    Wolves have a moral sense. They have a pack discipline that they will kill and die for. Biologically it is a mechanism to control sexual tension in the pack and allow cooperation. It is a part of their biological heritage. They show every sign of being very passionate about their disagreements. I doubt they need to believe in god to be passionate.

  433. RStormy says:

    You know, having read most of the comments I'm getting the impression that folks are not actually reading the article, are insulted by the title, or are somehow unable to comprehend that it's an invitation for an intellectual debate.

    The argument that Clark is wrong because materialists could not believe in math is disingenuous in that mathematics is a provable discipline with objects in the material world. Have three apples take away two and how many are left? (Why are mathematicians so obsessed with fruit?) Even calculus can be measured. If you have a shape that looks like this what's the area? If you built a shape that looked like that and then measured the surface area you could test and prove the hypothesis.

    The argument that Clark is wrong because I'm an atheist and I don't think that way isn't valid because there are in fact atheists that are materialists and do think this way. Or at least they proclaim to – which is more to the point really. Clark's argument was not that to posit that all atheists think that way, merely that there is a subset claim to. Their existence is proven by their comments in this thread.

    What I see as central to Clark's argument is that materialists proclaim that nothing non-material is real and then go on to exclaim their beliefs about truth, justice and love. I think Will "scifantasy" Frank's nearly untouched literary allusion best describes the issue at hand here. If justice exists, show me one molecule, one atom of it and I will believe it. This is a precise if extreme example of the axiom to which materialists proclaim to adhere to. Then the allusion goes on to describe the problem that this thinking causes: if justice/love/truth etc do not exist literally then they are social constructs only. If they are only social constructs they do not literally exist and are therefore immaterial. So if the concepts are immaterial, a materialist could not believe in their existence. Having established that a materialist cannot believe these things, it is hypocritical to then even comment on the (in)justice of a particular situation.

    This is not to say a materialist cannot have feelings or empathy. Feelings and empathy are measurable brain activity after all. But wait, I hear, you said love cannot exist! So I did, and it cannot. Attraction is measurable brain activity. The concept of love is a literary abstract (try to define it in absolute terms if you don't quite understand what I'm getting at) and is therefore immaterial.

    Thanks for the excellent brain food, Clark. It was a fun exercise in critical thinking.

  434. riesling says:

    @Clark, your "evil rules" angle fails miserably as I previously explained:
    (emphasis now added, to maximize visibility of "evil rule" blockage)
    ——
    The real basis for rights is this:

    Sentient beings would universally prefer to live in a "perfect society" because this would both maximize their personal happiness and be feasible.

    A feasible "perfect society" is defined by a consistent set of efficient rules which optimally result in the provision of all basic mechanisms necessary for each of its members to pursue their own happiness.

    "Rights" are members of the set of efficient rules of a feasible "perfect society" which define areas of personal freedom.

    Certain sentient beings may present difficult situations in that their needs are difficult to satisfy in a way that is both efficient and consistent with the rights of other members of the same society. However, these difficult problems can still be solved.

    Consider the US Supreme Court decision Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, in which virtual child pornography is determined to be protected by the First Amendment. Thus, a person who finds happiness by thinking about sex with children can legally be satisfied by constructing computer video programs which provide support for that thought process while also ensuring that no other member of society is harmed. The very same approach can be used to meet the needs of persons who find happiness by thinking about stealing personal property (see the "Grand Theft Auto" video game), killing (see the entire universe of "first person shooter" video games), etc.

    The rights contained in the First Amendment are rules that can be productively used to construct a feasible "perfect society", and that is why people can and do "believe in" these rules without regard to what their personal thoughts may be on the topic of religion.

  435. barry says:

    .. not a random cross section of the atheist population

    I'm just easily amused. And when someone on the internet is wrong, I can't help myself.
    But it is probably a terrible sample of atheists and agnostics. My guess is that its mostly Americans who get indoctrinated into a belief that 'rights' are sacred in that almost religious way from an early age. Otherwise morality is a different kind of fish altogether.

    That goes back to Clark's "then you're living in the wrong country" comment when HandOfGod137 said there was no such thing as god-given rights. And there was no stopping the train-crash after that.

  436. HandOfGod137 says:

    Well, I said I was out, but one last tilt at the demons of SIWOTI:

    and wondering if perhaps the atheists willing to have deep, heart-felt conversations with him are not a random cross section of the atheist population.

    Well, it's like Clark says "there's a logical flaw if a materialist believes in immaterial morals", and the massed ranks of atheists/materialists all say "well yeah, but we don't actually believe in immaterial morals in the sense you are going on about", and then Clark says "there's a logical flaw if a materialist believes in immaterial morals" and so on and so forth until proton decay at time-like infinity. I suspect we're all just vainly hoping he'll accept we do actually have some idea of what we believe at some point. It's all looking rather sub-optimal on the comprehension front at the moment, though.

    I dunno, there just seems some kind of disconnect. Regardless of how many times it is said in this thread that objective morality/rights are considered a nonsense by most atheists/materialists, Clark just comes back with the opinion that this view is "sad", "dubious" and "silly" (but offers no actual evidence to support his objections) and seems to conclude we can't possibly believe that.

    Oh, and lest we forget, the argument from personal incredulity:

    The fact that most people will go to extreme lengths to argue their moral code, defend people they see as innocent victims of others mistaken moral codes, etc. make me think the assertion that materialists believe in moral codes the same way they believe in well designed and efficient autos is silly.

    If the person you are arguing with doesn't listen to any of your points, or if they do, simply won't believe them, you have to start suspecting their position is a dogmatic one not amenable to change by reason or evidence.

  437. Lago says:

    Clark: "A fair question.

    The amusing thing (and I actually am amused here) is that you're so deeply embedded in your utilitarian / pragmatic world view that it doesn't occur to you that others might try to decide the debate between utilitarianism and Platonic Forms on anything other than utilitarianism / pragmatism.

    For all I know they are equally effective.

    I'm not arguing that the materialist morals are less useful. In fact, I said that way up in the initial post.

    All I'm arguing is that there's a logical flaw if a materialist believes in immaterial morals.

    Also, I'm not arguing that morals "taught from a book" are superior. I believe that there are preexisting objective morals, just like there is preexisting objective gravity. If a book teaches correctly about gravity, great. If a book teaches correctly about morals, great. In neither case does reality flow from the book."

    And this argument still doesn't really make sense.. Like if there was no god, it would be illogical for us to have morality?

  438. TPRJones says:

    "Clark's argument was not that to posit that all atheists think that way, merely that there is a subset claim to."

    Oh, well if we will also stipulate that they are not in the majority and not what one would characterize as a "typical" atheist, then I will withdraw all disagreements.

  439. HandOfGod137 says:

    @RStormy

    The argument that Clark is wrong because materialists could not believe in math is disingenuous in that mathematics is a provable discipline with objects in the material world. Have three apples take away two and how many are left? (Why are mathematicians so obsessed with fruit?) Even calculus can be measured. If you have a shape that looks like this what's the area? If you built a shape that looked like that and then measured the surface area you could test and prove the hypothesis.

    Man, you've got that exactly 100% wrong. The argument was atheists can't do mathematics because they can't do abstract concepts. And it was David's argument. Ironically, you criticise other commenter's reading comprehension.

  440. sorrykb says:

    Clark wrote:

    my path was atheist -> agnostic -> believer in metaphysically real moral code -> deist -> Catholic

    Given your path described above, I'm wondering if you are basing your statements about "modern atheists" and their "incoherent" worldview on your own memory of your one-time worldview that you have now rejected. This is not an unreasonable thing to do, as we all tend to draw from our own experience, but you might be reaching a bit in projecting your ideas onto other people. (No one is more committed than the convert.)

  441. sorrykb says:

    Also, can you define (or at least explain in context) what you mean by "modern atheist" as opposed to, say, classical atheist?

  442. Clark says:

    @Lago

    And this argument still doesn't really make sense.. Like if there was no god, it would be illogical for us to have morality?

    Lago,

    The problem here is that you think you're look at some variant of Internet Atheist Fight #12c and you're not.

    I am making no such claims.

    My thesis is this, and this alone:

    Most atheists

    • are, or act as if they are, materialists
    • are, or act as if they are, believers in morality as something other than a convenient social phenomena (e.g. they feel a true sense of outrage when someone is being opressed, even if that opression takes place with the full willingness of the government and society)
    • are therefore intellectually inconsistent
  443. David says:

    @HandOfGod137

    The argument was atheists can't do mathematics because they can't do abstract concepts. And it was David's argument. Ironically, you criticise other commenter's reading comprehension.

    I never made any argument that atheists "can't do mathematics", nor did I argue that "they can't do abstract concepts". I take it as intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that all atheists do both. I merely suggested that in doing so, they were exposing an inadequacy of atheism as an explanatory model; in general, our explanatory models fall short of our actual performance.

    So I guess it looks like there's plenty of irony to go around when it comes to reading comprehension.

  444. Clark says:

    @sorrykb

    Also, can you define (or at least explain in context) what you mean by "modern atheist" as opposed to, say, classical atheist?

    A rough approximation: post-1990s, Dawkins-reading, internet-forum-posting types who uses phrases like "God botherers".

  445. sorrykb says:

    A rough approximation: post-1990s, Dawkins-reading, internet-forum-posting types who uses phrases like "God botherers".

    Well, all of those apply to me except for the "God botherers" thing, which just wouldn't sound the same with a California accent. (But neither Valley Girl nor "hella", I must clarify.)

    How would you describe a "classical atheist", in contrast?

  446. Clark says:

    How would you describe a "classical atheist", in contrast?

    I do not have a complete taxonomy of atheists nor do I claim to. I merely have one term for the Dawkins-kiddies.

  447. Clark says:

    @sorrykb

    my path was atheist -> agnostic -> believer in metaphysically real moral code -> deist -> Catholic

    Given your path described above, I'm wondering if you are basing
    your statements about "modern atheists" and their "incoherent"
    worldview on your own memory of your one-time worldview that you
    have now rejected. This is not an unreasonable thing to do, as we
    all tend to draw from our own experience, but you might be
    reaching a bit in projecting your ideas onto other people. (No one
    is more committed than the convert.)

    I'm open to the idea (I do not assert that my memory is perfect, or that I have inhuman powers of logic and realistic self-assessment), but I truly don't think so.

    I'm basing it off of lots of online debates I've had over the years.

  448. sorrykb says:

    are, or act as if they are, believers in morality as something other than a convenient social phenomena (e.g. they feel a true sense of outrage when someone is being opressed, even if that opression takes place with the full willingness of the government and society)

    OK, count me among those who feel a sense of outrage at oppression.

    Someone early on in the thread brought up the idea of a sense of right and wrong in relation to suffering and joy, which are both (while not entirely quantifiable) quite real and familiar (to one degree or another) to almost all human beings (and other animals as well). I don't see a disconnect or a muddled worldview in atheists or theists or anyone being outraged when someone causes another to suffer, or feeling joy and wonder at seeing something beautiful. (Which is another popular misconception about atheists — People seem to think that atheists can't have a sense of wonder at the universe. Which is why I think some people when asked about their beliefs, say that they're non-religious but "spiritual" people. They don't want to come across as joyless.)

    If people — atheist or otherwise — are only outraged when certain groups or certain individuals suffer, then there might be a problem with their reasoning. (Or not, depending on their ideology, I suppose.)

    Now, if you want to call me a muddled hypocrite for thinking as I do and still eating meat…. please feel free to do so. You're probably right. (Hey, you know what would make this thread even better? An argument about vegetarianism!! Welcome, my friends, to the thread that never ends.)

  449. sorrykb says:

    Clark wrote:

    I'm open to the idea (I do not assert that my memory is perfect, or that I have inhuman powers of logic and realistic self-assessment), but I truly don't think so.

    I'm basing it off of lots of online debates I've had over the years.

    OK, fair enough. In light of this, I'd like to revise my earlier statement. No one is more committed than the convert internet debater. :-)

  450. Lago says:

    @Clark: I understand what your assertion is. But you're losing people, here:

    "are, or act as if they are, believers in morality as something other than a convenient social phenomena (e.g. they feel a true sense of outrage when someone is being opressed, even if that opression takes place with the full willingness of the government and society)"

    So what you're saying here is me, being a materialist, acknowledging that morality is likely a convenient social phenomena and nothing else, feels less than a true sense of outrage when someone is being oppressed? based on what? Or are you saying that if I DO feel a true sense of outrage, that I'm just not making some kind of connection?

    or here:

    "You absolutely can. I've never said you can't. I just find it (a) sad, (b) dubious. With regard to dubious, what I mean is that no one ever goes to war over a fight about which car is better designed or about what music is better (I'm putting the keen philosophers of the East Coast / West Coast rap war aside for a moment). The fact that most people will go to extreme lengths to argue their moral code, defend people they see as innocent victims of others mistaken moral codes, etc. make me think the assertion that materialists believe in moral codes the same way they believe in well designed and efficient autos is silly."

    It's sad and dubious that I think my (and ultimately your) morality is subjective?

    I think I understand what you're trying to say, but you are making deeply flawed assumptions along the way. No it's not the discussion you're looking for, but it's fundamental to your thesis, and it's wrong.

  451. barry says:

    What I'm seeing is:
    Atheists outraged at some government or other 'legal' injustice or oppression who act (or think) like a materialist are intellectually inconsistent, and most are.

    An obvious question is; Why should materialists not be allowed the right to be outraged at injustice?

    To define someone elses rules for them is generally pretty offensive. Telling a materialist "you can't be a materialist unless you think X" is at the very least going to confuse them if they don't think X. They might either think "That's not what materialists think" or "I'm not that kind of materialist"

    It would be like a buddhist insisting to a christian "Christians can walk on water". They could either respond with "That's not what christians are" or "I'm not that kind of christian".

    But in my most helpful non-metaphysical spirit, I can offer a solution; Divide all materialists into two groups,
    1.Clarkian_materialists.
    2.Non_Clarkian_materialists.

    The Clarkian_materialists conform to the thoughts and ideas that Clarke thinks a materialist should have (as inconsistent as they are), and Non_Clarkian_materialists don't.

    Then everyone wins (with maybe a prize for anyone who can find an actual Clarkian_materialist).

  452. HandOfGod137 says:

    @David

    I never made any argument that atheists "can't do mathematics", nor did I argue that "they can't do abstract concepts". I take it as intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that all atheists do both. I merely suggested that in doing so, they were exposing an inadequacy of atheism as an explanatory model; in general, our explanatory models fall short of our actual performance.

    Of course particular atheists can believe in and employ mathematics, but it's quite difficult for atheism as a model to account for that fact. What are the objects of their cognition in such instances? If arising from brains, why do mathematical entities and functions seem universally applicable? If independent of their brains, how on earth are they cognizable?

    So in the second quoted section you're not arguing that without abstract concepts, mathematics doesn't seem possible, so if atheists/materialists truly reject "abstracta" as having any form of metaphysical existence, you don't see how they can do maths, so atheism/materialism falls into inevitable contradiction?
    I admit I simplified/mocked your argument a bit when I responded to RStormy, but the crux of it seems to be "if atheists are really atheists, they shouldn't be able to do maths". If you look up thread you'll note I actually asked you a few times to clarify what you meant when you originally stated this: perhaps if you'd responded any errors on my part could have been cleared up a while ago?

  453. Anony Mouse says:

    @Nate

    I think I found what you were talking about; a book was published called "A Hundred Authors Against Einstein" with various criticisms of his work

    The important part of the anecdote was Einstein's response: "It only takes one." Or, if you prefer, look into the history of plate tectonics.

    In other words, "the science is settled" is a terrible reply, no matter how frustrated one might be with one's opponent.

  454. HandOfGod137 says:

    In other words, "the science is settled" is a terrible reply, no matter how frustrated one might be with one's opponent.

    Unless it's essentially shorthand for "we understand the physics of CO2's interaction with radiation, we have actual numbers for the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere, and we have other actual numbers for increased global temperatures, all of which is a pretty close match to the models we have running on a number of supercomputers. So unless you have actual data which invalidates any of that, we have nothing to discuss".

    I have only ever seen phrases like "the science is settled" used when arguing against denialists, and I'd agree it's pretty poor form. But when the other option is to explain the actual science for the nth time to some astroturfer who's pasting directly from WTFUWT, and who won't pay the slightest bit of attention to what you say, it's an understandable response. I dare say if someone argued "there's no gravity, it's the baby Jesus pulling us down with his love!!11!" it would be quite tempting to reply "oh look, it's gravity, everyone knows this", but gravity is just a theory (I say "just", when theory is about as close to proven as science can get, mind).

    tl;dr "the science is settled" makes a perfectly acceptable response when the other options are either a lengthy stream of Anglo-Saxon invective or a redundant discussion of the actual science. And you'll never see it in actual science fora (unless some paid-for stealth derp manages to invade)

  455. barry says:

    @HandOfGod137

    so if atheists/materialists truly reject "abstracta" as having any form of metaphysical existence, you don't see how they can do maths, so atheism/materialism falls into inevitable contradiction?

    I think that was originally asking about how atheists who 'reject the pure materialism that disallows abstracta' can believe in the reality of
    the mathematics they do rather than about the ability to do it. But yep (although it was all questions rather than statements), it seemed to be attempting to point to the same place; that 'pure' (Clarkian) materialism is self contradictory.

    The fresh juicy orange might have been a misdirection so we would quickly forget the questions and check the refrigerator. I don't even know if numbers count as 'abstracta' in this game, let alone some of the wonky functions we do to them.

  456. Clark says:

    @barry

    Atheists outraged at some government or other 'legal' injustice or oppression who act (or think) like a materialist are intellectually inconsistent, and most are.

    An obvious question is; Why should materialists not be allowed the right to be outraged at injustice?

    A good question.

    I get back to the three kinds of justice talked about above:

    • keeping social norms
    • keeping government norms
    • true metaphysical justice

    It seems that we've added one to this

    • derived game-theoretic norms of tit-for-tat game play / rule utilitarianism

    I understand outrage over a violation of a true metaphysical justice. I don't understand it over any of the others.

    So a young girl has her genitals mutilated in the Middle East. You're telling you that you're outraged…because it's bad game play according to Schelling, or something?

    Can you explain why you care?

    Lots of people are making bad moves at Carcassonne, Taluva, and Settlers of Cattaan right this second, and I don't care at all.

  457. TerryP says:

    @Clark

    I understand outrage over a violation of a true metaphysical justice. I don't understand it over any of the others.

    To clarify, do you mean that you think outrage is limited to violation of true justice and not violation of norms? For that to be true, true justice would be have to be unchanging. "True justice" could not change over time because any change would make it less ideal. If it changes in relation to the people, it is not ideal but rather just a norm that adapts to the people. (This argument does mean I am not a part of the category you were originally discussing in the article above, but these comments seem to expand to suggest you find outrage against nonuniversal norms to be unfounded. I disagree.)

    Take for example, the practice of forcing a woman to marry her rapist. That happens in the Arab and Central Asia world on a regular basis today, but it seems to be advocated (and has been long interpreted to be advocated) in the Bible.

    Do you find that practice outrage inducing? I personally do, but that's because I was inculcated in a Liberal Western civilization that has changed its norms over the last few centuries. If you do find it outrageous, from where do you draw that sense of outrage? Do you draw it from the concepts of justice in the Bible or Catholic cannon?

  458. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Clark

    So a young girl has her genitals mutilated in the Middle East. You're telling you that you're outraged…because it's bad game play according to Schelling, or something?

    No, as sentient beings we have a theory of mind, and game-theoretic tit for tat gives good evolutionary grounds for us developing a sense of empathy (the latter is a bit of a just-so story, true, but there are plenty of studies showing cooperation is a good general strategy for survival, and once you have creatures that just don't respond by instinct, you have to have a mechanism to motivate it).

    As humans, we place ourselves in the position of the person and feel a hard-wired sympathy for her pain. As our society sees no benefit for the practice that outweighs this innate empathy, we call it "wrong". There's no need for any objective morality there: why do you find this so hard to accept?

  459. TPRJones says:

    "So a young girl has her genitals mutilated in the Middle East. You're telling you that you're outraged…because it's bad game play according to Schelling, or something?

    Can you explain why you care?"

    All because one uses what is essentially game theory geared to maximize happiness and minimize suffering as a generalized basis for a moral code doesn't mean one can't also be an empathic human being with a heart. We are not robots. If you prick us, do we not bleed and curse and become bewildered and annoyed with you?

  460. TerryP says:

    To be fair, I don't use game theory explanations for why I have my moral beliefs. I use as first principle the concept that people own themselves. I am outraged by the genital mutilation because her self-ownership was violated.

  461. Justin Kittredge says:

    "An Individual's own personal sense of Justice" needs to be added to your short list. I don't quite understand how you can leave it out. Anyway, for me Justice can be defined as the balancing of actions and responses. For an Individual's sense of Justice what guides the responses are the individuals own thoughts on the matter, as influenced by his life. It is odd you should leave it out because much is derived from trying to imperfectly reach a consensus from the individuals, the Social norms and laws in a democracy at least -Should- reflect a consensus of the individuals.

    If when I said "actions and responses" it was not clear, often "crime and punishment" is used here but I find it imperfect because Justice is not only about crimes, and crimes are defined by governments. Thus I chose actions and responses. Also as this whole determination/process is going on in my head, I recognize it as just that. Thoughts and ideas. My own brain balancing things out. Clark when you imagine these metaphysical rights or metaphysical justice is there not some big part of you that recognizes that it is just your own sense of justice rattling around in your head, but for some reason you are wishing it was more then that. That there IS more then that.

    I mean I understand why you might WANT there to be metaphysical rights or justice. It would be so much neater. So much more orderly. On the other hand, having justice as a determination process carried out by a world of imperfect and wildly different people is rather . . . messy. But to make light of what you value, – Justice that is (we all value it, I am trying to be funny), for a second, Just think of it as the ever-changing determination process of what is sexy. Messy right?

  462. Sam says:

    You don't come here for the hunting.

    This is true. I was bad enough at philosophy in grad school, I'm well out of my depth here, though I do enjoy the back and forth. Far more edifying than most comment sections.

  463. TPRJones says:

    To expand on my response above, though, there is no objective morality. The universe does not have a basic moral code. There is no right and wrong, there is only what each of us decide is right and wrong – hopefully as guided by our humanity and natural empathy, but failing that at a minimum as guided by practicality and a desire to get along with our fellow humans with a minimum of fuss. I'd of course prefer if everyone agreed with my moral code, but I don't expect it and have no intention of preaching it to anyone.

    So what gives me the right to apply my chosen morals to the mutilator mentioned above and do what I can to stop him? Nothing, because there are no rights, either. There are only actions, and ideally we each choose those actions based on our chosen moral code. There are no inherently right or wrong actions from an objective standpoint because there is no objective right and wrong, but that doesn't mean actions don't have consequences once revealed to other humans and their myriad personal moral codes and own choices to respond to those actions.

    I'm not talking here about what should be, just what is. We are each of us our own moral authority whether we accept it and pick up that mantel or cede that decision to an external authority. We are each of us responsible for our own actions whether we choose to take that responsibility or attempt to lay blame on external forces. Collectives like governments and corporations have no morals and do not take actions, only people acting in the name of those collectives do. And if some girl in the Middle East is mutilated by some asshole because of his twisted moral code, I for one find that opposes my own moral code strongly enough to make me decide to take what little action I can to do something about it. Not enough to go there and take care of it myself, but enough to speak out about it and try to convince the collective that takes a portion of my income as taxes to assign someone to do something about it.

    Now, as to the shoulds. Should we be guided by external moral authority? I don't think so, because historically that authority is often ceded to individuals who will twist it for their own greed and power. Maybe not right away – some religions do actually mean well from time to time – but inevitably someone comes along with enough influence and evil to corrupt any religion for their own benefit. On the whole I would rather each person come to their own conclusions about right and wrong, but then I'm an optimist and think most people will make moral decisions likely to be what I would consider good ones so long as they aren't corrupted by the few evil ones out there. Should we have "rights"? Yes, a government should be restricted in it's actions against the citizenry in order to maximize what I consider good, and traditionally this is done by codified "rights" so that's as good a way as any. Although in the long run I have my doubts about the practicality of that approach it's the best way we've currently got. Hopefully we'll eventually come up with something better.

  464. JR says:

    Is outrage ever a rational response? Is any response based in emotion rational? Our brains may perform a logical and measurable reaction when producing emotions but that does not mean the results are rational or understood (even by the person experiencing it). This would appear to be so regardless of the source and subject, be it holy writ and sin or social compact and violations.

    Judging the rationale of a person's ethical construct by the irrational response to violations of said construct probably won't ever produce a coherent result.

  465. Clark says:

    @Sam:

    You don't come here for the hunting.

    This is true.

    That's OK; neither do I. ;-)

  466. Ken in NJ says:

    @Ken in NJ: You're trying to have a discussion about empathy with an anarcho-capitalist libertarian; Not so much "simplistic" as "Quixotic"

    @ThomasS: "Through a combination of logic and empathy, humans have the ability to devise and follow behaviors which allow us to to live together…"

    @Trent: "Morality is derived not from religion or culture but is an ingrained set of "values" that have likely been with us so long that they are nothing more than instincts. These exist because without them society would not function. Empathy plays a big role as well, which is another evolved instinct that allows society to function."

    Merissa: "My morals come from my sense of compassion and empathy."

    HandofGod137: "I can feel empathy without recourse to some Platonic ideal of "wrong". Rules don't have any inherent value of correctness, but we can see ourselves in the position of people suffering under "evil" rules and conclude we'd really rather it stopped."

    @Clark: I get back to the three kinds of justice talked about above:

    keeping social norms
    keeping government norms
    true metaphysical justice

    It seems that we've added one to this

    derived game-theoretic norms of tit-for-tat game play / rule utilitarianism

    I understand outrage over a violation of a true metaphysical justice. I don't understand it over any of the others

    Indeed

  467. Justin Kittredge says:

    Usually when someone means fairness or equity or morals or is speaking of fair behavior they say "to be just" or to "act just" or "justly" so when "Justice" was used in a post I thought of crime and punishment first. I want to point out I know this is not all that Justice is, I suppose I am used to conversations were when someone says justice they mean crime and punishment and when they mean behavior they say to act just. So I made a mistake in defining only one aspect of the word and in thinking only the one aspect was being discussed.

  468. HandOfGod137 says:

    And to be clear, game theory is only the distal explanation for morality. Different populations of proto-humans doubtless explored big chunks of the fitness landscape, and cooperative strategies can be shown to be of high fitness, so we've inherited the basic drive. But we've taken that strategy and made more of it.

    I see it like love: I know that emotion simply exists to strengthen pair-bonding to ensure mating success, but it still leads to personal experience of enormous value and some of our greatest cultural monuments. Just because something comes from biology and not some elevated Platonic realm doesn't mean it can't be great (all human culture can probably be traced to an auto-catalytic chemical reaction near an oceanic vent 4 billion years ago, for example. And I find that awe-inspiring).

  469. Nate says:

    @ Anony Mouse:
    "In other words, "the science is settled" is a terrible reply".

    Oh I agree completely. Not only is it a terrible reply but patently false. That is why I specifically only mentioned the part about scientific consensus.

  470. Nate says:

    @Anony Mouse:

    "It only takes one."

    Again I did say Einstein fell into the second part of my thought in which I said a dissenter with reasonably vested interested would either know that what was specified was not scientific consensus or would be able to determine that the scientific consensus was wrong. Also in my previously reply I did say that scientific consensus is regularly proven wrong or modified. I mentioned that because I know these things I find the term "scientific consensus" less absolute than someone who doesn't realize how scientific thought works therefore using this term is less threatening to me.

  471. barry says:

    @Clark

    I get back to the three kinds of justice talked about above:

    In my first post on this topic I mapped those three onto an alternate system of laws; 1. laws that most people agreed with. 2.laws that exist. 3.laws that people think should exist. What you ascribed to metaphysics, I called politics (laws that should exist). It's not particularly rigorous, but just says that an alternate frameworks can cover the same ground, and that metaphysics may not be necessary.

    You're telling [me] that you're outraged…because it's bad game play..?

    Outrage and anger are emotions, and I have no idea how they're hooked up to thinking. Between knowing something is wrong, and being angry about it, there is a shadow (Elliot?). But the emotional system evolved in animals long before the thinking system. You can tell when a dog is angry at you, and there's probably not much metaphysical thought going on there beyond "I'm going to rip your leg off". But who knows? Maybe not a lot of dog-thinking is necessary to calculate and sense the injustice of territorial infringement.

    Can you explain why you care?

    Good Question. Nope.

    Lots of people are making bad moves at Carcassonne [..] and I don't care at all.

    You can't deny that many people do get very emotional over all sorts of games that they aren't even playing, and people have been killed after football games. There's all sorts of injustices there; the injustice of having an idiot on your team, the injustice of the umpire being blind, and just the bare cosmic injustice of losing. (I don't care either). And some people even get outraged at violations of government rules, though personally I don't care if an immigrant has a visa or not.

    There's a lot to be confused about, but why I think you are wrong in your insistence on a metaphysical explanation for a sense of justice, is mostly that it is not necessary. Telling atheists they need metaphysics is a lot like telling them they need a god. And the results will be similar.

  472. CJColucci says:

    I understand outrage over a violation of a true metaphysical justice. I don't understand it over any of the others.

    I suppose we have to take you at your word on this. What puzzles me is why you would want to admit to such a thing.

  473. Clark says:

    @CJColucci

    I suppose we have to take you at your word on this. What puzzles me is why you would want to admit to such a thing.

    Because I hope to learn.

    I'm puzzled that you're puzzled by that.

  474. Clark says:

    @barry:

    Telling atheists they need metaphysics is a lot like telling them they need a god. And the results will be similar.

    You're falling into Internet Atheist Debate #12c.

    I don't tell them that they need metaphysics. Not once.

    I just tell some of them that they've already got metaphysics.

  475. princessartemis says:

    @Clark, Re: "Because I hope to learn."

    I'm not a strict materialist, so I can't explain from the point of view of someone who does not believe there is a true justice in existence, but perhaps I can try to explain why oppressions and what not get people's empathetic responses riled up into outrage.

    They place themselves into the shoes of the oppressed and imagine what it would feel like to be them. Their sense of empathy screams to them that they would hate being treated in such and such a fashion, that to be treated themselves in this fashion would outrage them. So they are outraged on the behalf of the oppressed. The greater the feeling of, "I'd hate to be treated that way!" the greater the outrage. A whole lot of people would be utterly horrified and in agony to have their own genitals mutilated, so they are profoundly outraged that it happens to anyone else. Most people would just get annoyed if they made a bad move in a game, so they are not upset when others do it.

    This isn't a rational process. Other than the thinking required to get oneself into an imagined position of being in another's place, it's a very emotional process. So it shouldn't be surprising that this process frequently fails to be tempered by any rationality, and for that reason sometimes the outraged fail to realize they may be outraged on behalf of someone who is not only perfectly fine in their situation but prefers it.

  476. Bean says:

    If rights are a product of suffering and empathy, and empathy and suffering are real, measurable, tangible products of our evolution (they are) then what is it about rights that are so intangible? They are ideas that frame how we can act to prevent suffering and they have a measurable impact on the way ethical governments do things. Already these supposedly intangible "rights" have more impact on reality and people's lives than a non-existent god.
    Also, why conflate the idea of someone who fails to believe in a deity with someone who strictly believes in material things? Such a stretch from the outset. Atheists are not necessarily materialists. I don't even think Dawkins falls into the category of strict materialism. Strawman.

  477. Sam says:

    First, self-identification: Southern Baptist -> Backslidden Southern Baptist -> Protestant Agnostic

    Second, re: types of atheists. While I understand some of the backlash, I think Clark's identification of a class of hyper-materialist atheist does exist and Richard Dawkins is a convenient poster boy. I think it would require an entirely new post, but there's a corollary here to Soviet-era dialectical materialism as well. Point being, you may not agree with atheists of the Dawkins variety and may feel that using them as an example disparages the good name of atheists everywhere, but they are around and are disproportionately noisy.

    My own issue, and part of what I think Clark is after here, is I don't view these people as materialistic atheists so much as atheistic materialists. It is Dawkins view that religion has no material value, not the non-existence of God, which leads him to assert that some religious memes are harmful (THINK OF THE CHILDREN). It was the rigors of dialectic discourse (and an unhinged megalomaniac), that led to purges of 'inconsistent' scientific theories and their proponents (unless it was physics because, duh, bombs).

    The point of all that rambling is this: if we question the morality and consistency of historical Christianity (or any other religion for that matter) in order to undermine a self-serving narrative, why is it not right and proper to question the philosophical underpinnings all aspects of Atheistic belief, particularly when there are clear historical examples of socially prescriptive Atheists?

  478. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Sam
    I would actually have no problem with self-identifying as a hyper-materialist atheist: I don't categorically deny the possibility of deities and the supernatural, but I think the weight of evidence suggests a very low probability indeed can be assigned to their existence, which is pretty much Dawkins' position. So use me as an example by all means.

    What you seem to be missing is a lot of the "noise" you say we are producing is not being made in a vacuum. Education seems to be under constant attack from some of the more fundamentalist religious sects: there are attempts to introduce young-earth creationism and remove the teaching of evolution going on both there in the USA and here in England, and frankly that is harmful. The implied Poe/Lysenko is a totally irrelevant argument (and generally considered an Internet debate loss state) as we're not talking about science that doesn't follow party/ideological guidelines; we're talking about replacing peer-reviewed evidence-supported science with religious dogma that runs counter to all the evidence. If adults choose to believe that stuff, fair enough, but kids should be taught the truth as far as we know it.

    Finally, sure, why not. Question the underpinnings. The thing is, nearly every atheist/materialist who has commented in this thread has denied believing in objective rights/morality, so continually asserting that some atheists may have a deep philosophical inconsistency in their philosophy may be technically true, but that group appears, on current evidence, to be the empty set. So by all means keep on telling us about these hypothetical atheists we should be ashamed of: as soon as we find one, we can point and laugh.

  479. Sam says:

    I mentioned that because I know these things I find the term "scientific consensus" less absolute than someone who doesn't realize how scientific thought works therefore using this term is less threatening to me.

    If your not familiar with it, I think you'd enjoy Thomas Kuhn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions

  480. Clark says:

    If your not familiar with it, I think you'd enjoy Thomas Kuhn

    I, for one, endorse this book.

  481. Sam says:

    @HandOfGod137

    I am not advocating for the inclusion of biblical studies in science courses nor denigrating those who, rightly in my opinion, oppose such measures. I could be wrong, but it was my understanding that Dawkins felt the very existence of religious thought was a dangerous 'meme'; I gather he does not truck with the field of memetics that has grown up around that, but I think representing him as merely opposed Creationism is disingenuous.

    I am unfamiliar with the internet debate culture surrounding Lysenkoism, but I am quite familiar with his theories, their relevance to dialectical materialism and the significant differences it represent from contemporary genetics. I agree that it has little bearing on a debate about education standards, but I think it has great bearing on a debate about the philosophical foundation of 'rights' within a materialistic worldview.

    we're talking about replacing peer-reviewed evidence-supported science with religious dogma that runs counter to all the evidence.

    Replace 'religious' with 'party' and that is precisely what happened in the Lysenko case. Those 'party/ideological' guidelines were appeals to state sponsored atheism and materialism. How is that not relevant?

  482. Sam says:

    @Clark:

    If you like Kuhn, one of my graduate advisors collaborate on an update to Kuhn's work applying new understanding of cognitive processes. Less accessible than Kuhn, but then I gather accessibility is not an issue for the Popehat crew.

    http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Cognitive_Structure_of_Scientific_Re.html?id=1bXcFE0qzrwC

  483. Nate says:

    @Sam and Clark: Thank you for the reading suggestion! That looks incredibly interesting. I think it will be great reading while trying to write my thesis (and in general). :)

  484. ppnl says:

    @Clark,

    Because I hope to learn.

    You seem to have a singular inability to do so.

    Do wolves have metaphysical morals because they will fight and die for the pack?

  485. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Sam

    Replace 'religious' with 'party' and that is precisely what happened in the Lysenko case. Those 'party/ideological' guidelines were appeals to state sponsored atheism and materialism. How is that not relevant?

    Surely in the context as you describe it, Dawkins would be acting counter to Lysenko? We're not talking about imposing any one dogma, we're just saying science education should be based on science supported by the evidence. I may have missed your original point here.

    Re the danger of religious thought. It is not my understanding that Dawkins considers the existence of religion per se to be dangerous, but when religion leads to behaviour that runs counter to reality (Jehovah's witnesses refusing blood transfusions for their children, kids being taught the world is 6000 years old, young men strapping explosives to their bodies on the promise of a place in paradise) then it becomes something that should be spoken out against. He's quite good friends with a number of Anglican vicars by all accounts.

  486. Graham says:

    I stopped reading when you demonstrated that you don't know what "agnostic" means. Atheism and theism are opposites. Atheism and agnosticism and not mutually exclusive. In fact, most atheists argue for agnostic atheism.

    Atheism is about belief. Agnosticism is about knowledge.

    Essentially, atheism is the lack of a belief in the existence of any gods (as gods are traditionally described…not the "god is love" BS that is meaningless and increasingly popular). So, unless you answer the question "Do you believe in the existence of any gods?" with "yes," then you are an atheist. Even if you say "I am not sure." If you are not sure, then you don't believe, which makes you, by definition an atheist.

    Full review here: http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Atheist_vs._agnostic

  487. riesling says:

    @Clark – "a young girl has her genitals mutilated in the Middle East"

    That's an "evil rule" and I have already (repeatedly, in fact) schooled you regarding evil rules. Why are you still perplexed? At some point, we'll just have to regard you as unfixable and permanently damaged, unable to perceive the truth even when your nose is vigorously rubbed in it…

  488. barry says:

    @princessartemis

    This isn't a rational process. Other than the thinking required to get oneself into an imagined position of being in another's place, it's a very emotional process.

    I don't know a lot about Marvin Minsky (another one for the reading list), but I like his idea that "the mind is what the brain does", which allows for a pretty fuzzy line between what is thinking and what is not, even what is conscious and what is not, let alone rational or not.

    Our emotions respond to what we think, and our thoughts respond to our emotions. So I imagine there are all sorts of elaborate feedback loops between thinking and feeling operating and evolving in an attempt to keep the species sane. (From personal observation, it could be going better.)

  489. barry says:

    @Clark

    You're falling into Internet Atheist Debate #12c.

    Ecclesiastes 1:9

    I don't tell them that they need metaphysics. Not once

    I didn't actually say you did either. Matthew 7:4

    I just tell some of them that they've already got metaphysics.

    That's a more interesting point. (but I still need to think if that counts as a confusion or a contradiction)

  490. TPRJones says:

    "I just tell some of them that they've already got metaphysics."

    Whereas I say that no one has metaphysics because there is no such thing. We each just have our own thoughts and decisions or – if we've ceded that responsibility to an external authority – that which was dictated to us by another.

    It sounds like we've just pushed "belief in God" back a level to "belief in metaphysics", which is usually not a productive sort of argument.

  491. While, as an atheist, I agree that things like justice, ethics, and rights are often invisible and untestable, there is certainly no supernatural source for them. It is we, in the societies and the governments we create, who decide what is good and just. And when we fail in those endeavors, as we so often do, it is not god's will, but our own. The responsibility for the negative consequences of those failures lies solely with us.

  492. RKN says:

    Do wolves have metaphysical morals because they will fight and die for the pack?

    I've followed your back 'n forth with Clark and I'm not sure how this challenges his point, namely, that people will go so far as to fight for their moral beliefs, but will not fight, for instance, over disagreements around the beauty of music or the design of cars. The simplest explanation for why a wolf fights is to protect itself or the pack. I don't think a wolf ever fights to protect nonfamilials from being harmed or killed out of any sense of moral outrage. But humans do.

  493. sorrykb says:

    RKN wrote:

    people will go so far as to fight for their moral beliefs, but will not fight, for instance, over disagreements around the beauty of music

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_music_riot

    People will fight over anything.

  494. David Schwartz says:

    "Your profession of faith with inadequate data while defending faithlessness is touching. …and sort of amusing."

    Even before we had any clue what colors were physically, the rational supposition would be that we sense some real, physical aspect of objects and light. The extraordinary claim would be that almost everyone agrees that lips and apples are about the same color but that water and trees are not without there being an objective, physical basis for that agreement.

    Yes, we don't really have a good theory of rights. But we sense them and we can use them. That's no an excuse for not working on understanding them better, but it's a sufficient justification to accept as a working hypothesis that we sense some physical property.

  495. Castaigne says:

    @Clark: The English language muddies many discussions of "rights" because it uses one term to cover three very distinct meanings. The three meanings are:
    1) the "rights" that society acknowledges a person has
    2) the "rights" that government acknowledges a person has
    3) the "rights" that a person actually has according to non-material abstract principles

    Even though I am a Catholic, I only recognize #2 as existing. God does not provide rights. God provides kill-or-be-killed, law of the jungle – ie, free will.

    Secondly, I know no atheist – and that includes a whole slew of them over at RationalWiki – who recognizes #3. At all. Even secular humanism, as practiced by atheists, define rights on purely pragmatic terms that are best observed and understood with the scientific method.

    …and yet almost every modern atheist would choose to describe this not merely in flat factual terms, but in terms of "injustice".

    Assumption not supported by evidence. In actually asking that question in the past to modern atheists (yes, that specific example), their answer has always been "I see it as injustice according to my personal viewpoint on the subject." IE, a subjective answer. I have never seen that answered in "flat factual terms", or more succinctly objectively. See cultural relativity and moral relativity.

    Because modern atheists – like all human beings – deeply subscribe to the idea of justice in the sense of abstract principles, the violation of which cries out to Heaven uh is evil wait I mean is ethically wrong err "is inefficient".

    Crap. You don't know what you're talking about here and you've entered into Not Even Wrong territory. You're embarassing yourself as a Catholic. The Jesuits dismissed your argument as deficient over a century ago.

  496. Trent says:

    I don't find it hard to believe that you are truthful; what I find hard to believe is that in the entire rest of my life most of the atheists I've met have believed in metaphysical morality, but in this debate which starts out by pointing out the contradiction between materialism and metaphysical morality first I've run into a huge percentage of atheists who now do not believe in objective morality.

    Clark,

    You have made this appeal to authority several times in this thread. So why don't you enlighten all us outlier Atheists and tell us how many this statistically relevant sample of atheists is.

    Exactly how many atheists have you known personally and intimately enough to have fixed their beliefs and world views into exactly the box you have used as the basis for your post? You should keep in mind that this count should only include individuals that believe exactly they way you have described in the detail you have described. Including someone that in passing said they were a materialist but you know nothing else about their world view would not fit into the box you have described in such detail and would be a dishonest count.

    So how many atheists fit into this exact box that you have known personally in meat space? Based on your repeated assertions and claims of authority I would hope that this number is at least statistically significant and not something silly like a half dozen people you had a discussion with in college.

  497. ppnl says:

    @RKN

    I don't think a wolf ever fights to protect nonfamilials from being harmed or killed out of any sense of moral outrage. But humans do.

    Actually you are dead wrong but on the other hand you do have the start of an interesting point. Yet on the gripping hand when you properly understand that point it really shows the origin of morality.

    It is true that pack instincts are driven by kin selection but while a wolf pack is usually an extended family unit it can contain unrelated members. The pack instinct can't actually detect kinship. It does not need to because a pack member is much more likely to be kin. That's good enough for selection to work.

    For example I have six dogs. One is a English bull terrier/Collie mix. One is a poodle pointer. One is a Jack Russell terrier. One is a miniature poodle. One looks to have been crossed with a rat on a bad hair day, I don't know. One is a German shepherd mix.

    They are about as unrelated as you can get. Yet they are a pack.

    Humans are also social animals that started as small bands of hunter gatherers. We also had some kind of pack instinct. As bands got bigger and settled into agriculture that pack instinct was adapted to make us loyal to a larger group most of whom were not very closely related. Still they were closer than a random stranger and success of the individual depended a great deal on the success of the tribe. That's good enough for kin selection.

    Nations are just extended tribes and its stability depends on those old social animal instincts. Culture is just the flags of pack identity. Our morality is driven by that culture and our biology. We feel it past our bones and right down to our DNA.

    Does that mean it is irrational to prefer one moral system over another since they are just meaningless flags? Well in an absolute sense yes because the desire to survive at all isn't really rational but evolution pretty much built that in to us. But beyond that moral choices have consequences. A poorly designed moral system will get you killed just like a poorly designed car.

    For example a society that mutilates female genitals and forces them to wear tents is probably not connected to reality well enough to remain stable in a changing technological world. It can get you killed.

    Increasingly religion itself is becoming a danger in that it is disconnecting us from reality. If you doubt me look at the religious world around you. Denial of the two centerpieces of science – evolution and the big bang. Prosperity ministries and other snake oil salesmen. Racial and sexual intolerance.

    Now I don't mean that these things are an argument against the existence of god. The fact is they aren't. In fact in my mother's theology these are expected. But it does make religion dangerous.

    In the end even if there is a god I'd rather face him as an atheist than as a christian.

  498. Jeff Dworkin says:

    I am smitten. As an agnostic, one time philosophy major and engineer I salute you and this clearly thought out and wonderfully written piece. It condenses all the arguments I have had with people on both sides of the spectrum about how hard these problems are and the glib trueisms that each side favors become as tired as Henny Youngman's ancient one-liners.

  499. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Trent

    You have made this appeal to authority several times in this thread. So why don't you enlighten all us outlier Atheists and tell us how many this statistically relevant sample of atheists is.

    This request has been made a number of times. So far crickets and rolling tumbleweed. I know we are all guests here and the proprietors don't dance at our bidding, but given that this argument is the crux of the piece and the only thing that elevates it above straw man, one would have thought some sort of response would be in order. I'm sort of drawing my own conclusions at this point.

  500. barry says:

    I still need to think if that counts as a confusion or a contradiction

    I checked through my house. There's lots of stuff I have but don't need. It might add to the confusion, but it's not a contradiction because of all the other stuff I have that I don't need.

    And a materialist brain can have metaphysical ideas (and not need them). I don't see any real contradiction with that either.

  501. HandOfGod137 says:

    @David Schwartz

    Yes, we don't really have a good theory of rights. But we sense them and we can use them. That's no an excuse for not working on understanding them better, but it's a sufficient justification to accept as a working hypothesis that we sense some physical property.

    You could apply this same argument to numbers, so are you suggesting there is some physical "2" out there somewhere? Abstract concepts are, er, abstract. The only physical existence they could be argued to possess are as patterns of charge and chemicals in the human brain, otherwise we end up accepting the physical existence of schadenfreude, and who is going to feed it and clean its cage?

  502. JR says:

    @HandOfGod137
    I'd be OK with anthropomorphic personifications, but only if they resembled those in Terry Pratchett's DiscWorld.

  503. Clark says:

    @Trent

    I don't find it hard to believe that you are truthful; what I find hard to believe is that in the entire rest of my life most of the atheists I've met have believed in metaphysical morality, but in this debate which starts out by pointing out the contradiction between materialism and metaphysical morality first I've run into a huge percentage of atheists who now do not believe in objective morality.

    Clark,

    You have made this appeal to authority several times in this thread. So why don't you enlighten all us outlier Atheists and tell us how many this statistically relevant sample of atheists is.

    Exactly how many atheists have you known personally and intimately enough to have fixed their beliefs and world views into exactly the box you have used as the basis for your post?

    I'd estimate that it's around two dozen over the last twenty years.

    So how many atheists fit into this exact box that you have known personally in meat space?

    Meat space?

    Why is that relevant?

    I haven't met half of my best friends in meat space. (Actually, wait – I did meet a friend of twenty years for lunch last week, so the ratio has just changed a bit).

  504. Clark says:

    @Castaigne:

    …and yet almost every modern atheist would choose to describe this not merely in flat factual terms, but in terms of "injustice".

    Assumption not supported by evidence.

    It's supported by the evidence I have of having debated a large number of people. It may not match the evidence you have.

    In actually asking that question in the past to modern atheists (yes, that specific example), their answer has always been "I see it as injustice according to my personal viewpoint on the subject." IE, a subjective answer. I have never seen that answered in "flat factual terms", or more succinctly objectively. See cultural relativity and moral relativity.

    I am unable to reproduce your results in my lab.

    Crap. You don't know what you're talking about here and you've entered into Not Even Wrong territory. You're embarassing yourself as a Catholic. The Jesuits dismissed your argument as deficient over a century ago.

    The Jesuits talked to the same people online that I did and they dismissed my "argument" that the people I've met have said X?

    Or did they dismiss some other argument I'm making?

    If so, which one?

  505. Clark says:

    @Trent:

    I don't find it hard to believe that you are truthful; what I find hard to believe is that in the entire rest of my life most of the atheists I've met have believed in metaphysical morality, but in this debate which starts out by pointing out the contradiction between materialism and metaphysical morality first I've run into a huge percentage of atheists who now do not believe in objective morality.

    Clark,

    You have made this appeal to authority several times in this thread.

    Trent,

    That's not an appeal to authority.

    I'm saying "Most of the apples I've seen have been red, therefore most apples are red".

    An appeal to authority is "Farmer John, who's been farming apples for 30 years, says apples are red. Therefore apples are red."

    The former is called evidence gathering. The latter is an appeal to authority.

  506. Clark says:

    @TPRJones

    It sounds like we've just pushed "belief in God" back a level to "belief in metaphysics", which is usually not a productive sort of argument.

    It's not "pushed back", because (a) some people who do not believe in God do believe in the metaphysical existence of things such as morals, (b) neither the topic nor the motivation is justifying God.

    We may or may not have a deep disagreement – i.e. perhaps my response is much ado about nothing because you did not intend to suggest anything by the phrase "pushed back" other than "chose an equivalently unprovable topic to debate"…in which case, we would be in agreement.

  507. Clark says:

    @barry:

    Telling atheists they need metaphysics is a lot like telling them they need a god. And the results will be similar.

    I don't tell them that they need metaphysics. Not once.

    I didn't actually say you did either.

    Your strongly implied it.

    What's the alternative interpretation of your comment? You were just giving me advice, suggesting that X leads to Y – in the same way you might say "mounting the wrong sized tired on a car will result in problems" – and your advice to me that saying thing X to group Y just happened to be in the middle of a thread about thing X and group Y?

    I don't tell them that they need metaphysics. Not once

    I didn't actually say you did either. Matthew 7:4

    If you want to play that game, well, then, I never said you said that.

    Pretty silly, no?

    I just tell some of them that they've already got metaphysics.

    That's a more interesting point.

    Thanks. That's what I've been trying to argue all along. Clearly my presentation could be clearer.

  508. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Clark

    So, over 20 years you've met 24 atheists who believe in objective morality. Out of how many atheists you've met in that period in total? From what parts of the world? What sort of demographic breakdown? And what methodology did you use to determine their belief? I'm hoping you haven't counted someone saying "oh, that's wrong" to
    the taste of New Coke as a positive result.

    This is all still very anecdotal, frankly. As opposed to the actual evidence of the atheists who have posted in this thread. If I were the sort of person to harp on about intemperate internet comments, I'd be calling the fire service to help put out the fire in my Irony Meter after you implied I was a liar. But I'm not, so I won't even mention it.

  509. R R Clark says:

    This argument is rather ridiculous in the internet age.

    I've never met you, Clark, and yet I believe you exist. That particular bit of faith has no bearing on whether I am a theist or atheist and certainly should never be confused with Faith.

    An atheist is not necessarily amoral, because theism is distinct from morality, even if mores can be influenced by theology. Neither is a theist necessarily moral and, indeed, some of the worst examples we have of humanity have been religious leaders.

    There is nothing esoteric about the "intangible concepts" that underpin American society: liberty, justice, equity, and charity are all things that, while intangible, a typical American will engage with in the course of their week.

    The idea that theism is about turning causation about is an interesting one, considering that the Sumerian faith actually centers on the gift of mores (justice) and memes (farming) to the people. You might be familiar with the Sumerian faith as the root of Abrahamic religion's family tree. But the iconography that is attached to that faith would seem ludicrous (and probably disgusting) to modern theists, which isn't so terribly different from the way atheists feel about theism.

    Everybody needs myth and magic on some psychological level — for much the same reason we need to dream — but a lot of people recognize that they shouldn't allow it to run their lives. Atheists have simply taken the additional step of saying they don't even need to pay lipservice to it.

    I am, for what it's worth, a Norse pagan.

  510. TPRJones says:

    @Clark:

    "perhaps my response is much ado about nothing because you did not intend to suggest anything by the phrase "pushed back" other than "chose an equivalently unprovable topic to debate"…in which case, we would be in agreement."

    Then we are in agreement.

    I will note that I have been an active member of several atheist organizations over the years, and a founding member of two of them. I have known hundreds of self-proclaimed atheists and been a part of detailed discussions about this sort of topic with many of them. I have known dozens of them well enough that I would probably be able to detail their specific world view if I needed to.

    I have never before met an atheist in all that time that would argue in favor of the metaphysical existence of things such as morals as an independent objectively real concept. Every single one of them has had a personal approach to morality that specific eschewed the idea you have put forth. So forgive me if I prefer my own experience of apples being red over yours, because from my point of view that color you've pointed at in describing apples looks very orange to me.

  511. Sam says:

    @HandofGod137

    It was not my intent to make this a referendum on Dawkins. Here's what I was referencing re: memes from a 2006 article in Wired:

    "How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents?" Dawkins asks. "It's one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?"

    Dawkins is the inventor of the concept of the meme, that is, a cultural replicator that spreads from brain to brain, like a virus. Dawkins is also a believer in democracy. He understands perfectly well that there are practical constraints on controlling the spread of bad memes. If the solution to the spread of wrong ideas and contagious superstitions is a totalitarian commissariat that would silence believers, then the cure is worse than the disease. But such constraints are no excuse for the weak-minded pretense that religious viruses are trivial, much less benign. Bad ideas foisted on children are moral wrongs. We should think harder about how to stop them.

  512. barry says:

    @Clark

    Your strongly implied it.

    I know. And after I clicked "Submit Comment" I had to check back again that I hadn't actually said it.

    But you also implied that metaphysics was required to remove the inconsistency between materialism and sense of justice, even if you only actually said materialists were inconsistent in not acknowledging the metaphysical explanation of their sense of justice. It's like when my car broke down and the mechanic told me "your fuel pump is broken", and I heard "you need a new fuel pump".

    That's a bit hair-splitty too. I'm not checking back, you're probably right, and I wouldn't like to check back to count how many times you've told various other people "I didn't say that" either.

  513. Texan99 says:

    Thank you, Clark. You're describing the exact reasoning process that led me to a belief in objective morality and truth, and from there to Christianity.

  514. Daniel Taylor says:

    There is no question that a sense of justice is intrinsic to people (in fact, it seems to be something we share with many of our distant cousins), but that does not make it a property of the universe, it makes it a property of people.

    It is sufficient that it be a property of people for it to be relevant to people. No external driver is needed for it to be valid.

  515. Andrew says:

    Interesting discussion. I can't believe that I made it all the way to the bottom. For the record, I thought that Clark defined his target clearly enough and that most commenters have ended up providing evidence to support his conclusions, apart from the fact that a smaller number than expected have tried to claim absolute rights. I chalk this up to the fact that people generally understand that they can't be materialists and believe in absolute rights once they are faced with a rigorous discussion (even though they make moral statements as though they do).

    The one interesting approach was the one that said that we have an inbuilt set of rights, and that this is the basis for imposing our views on others. The weakness in this seems to be that there are people who do not appear to acknowledge the same ones as everyone else, and the insoluble question then arises as to whether they or their opponents are right.

    To those who use the concept of empathy as a basis, I certain applaud your approach, but have to wonder whether empathy has any moral right in an of itself. Sociopaths might disagree.

    Incidentally, which might support those making the previous point, there was some interesting research recently that showed that sociopaths could demonstrate empathy under conditions where they were caused to consider themselves in someone else's position:

    http://www.opposingviews.com/i/health/mental-health/study-psychopaths-can-turn-empathy-and-switch

  516. Clark says:

    @Daniel Taylor

    There is no question that a sense of justice is intrinsic to people (in fact, it seems to be something we share with many of our distant cousins), but that does not make it a property of the universe

    I absolutely agree with this statement.

    It is sufficient that it be a property of people for it to be relevant to people. No external driver is needed for it to be valid.

    Indeed. But if someone says "I want this instinctive thing called 'justice', the same way I want a thing called 'hot young poontang when I'm away from my wife on a business trip' (another evolved-in desire), that takes away the moral weight that we ascribe to the concept.

    If you want justice why should I care?

    If you answer is merely that it's good game play for me to care (or to put on a convincing simulacrum of caring), then I accept that…but if you want to put it on the table that it's all just special pleading and social status jockeying, then I'll care less about your cries for justice, because you've just told me that it's a game.

  517. Clark says:

    @Texan99

    Thank you, Clark. You're describing the exact reasoning process that led me to a belief in objective morality and truth, and from there to Christianity.

    Given that your thought process mirrors my own, you're clearly a man of eduction, erudition, and other virtues. ;-)

  518. Clark says:

    @barry

    But you also implied that metaphysics was required to remove the inconsistency between materialism and sense of justice,

    I didn't mean to imply that; I'm quite aware of the evolutionary justifications re kin-group selection, reciprocal altruism, etc., and thus I understand perfectly the materialist argument for why people can have a sense of justice.

    That being said, once one realizes that the sense of justice is – perhaps – just a sense of justice, there are two responses that seem consistent and logical to me:

    1) conclude that there is a metaphysical existence to justice and choose to obey it at all times (or, rather, try to; we're all flawed)

    2) decide that rule utilitarianism is for suckers; persue the path that brings you the greatest hedonic returns. Note that our own evolved in personal utility functions include the welfare of others, so I do not think that a rational materialist would or should immediately begin a rape spree even in a world of disarmed victims and zero police; the hurt done to others would impact our monkey natures, and thus it wouldn't be much fun.

    …but there are ways to maximimize our own returns even with out turning into rapists; one can establish meta-preferences, detune one's appreciation for charity, etc.

    I note that I believe that many people do, in fact, choose path 2; leftists (who, I suggest, are more likely to be materialists than rightists) are famously less generous in their giving.

  519. Daniel Taylor says:

    @Clark
    "Indeed. But if someone says "I want this instinctive thing called 'justice', the same way I want a thing called 'hot young poontang when I'm away from my wife on a business trip' (another evolved-in desire), that takes away the moral weight that we ascribe to the concept.

    If you want justice why should I care?

    If you answer is merely that it's good game play for me to care (or to put on a convincing simulacrum of caring), then I accept that…but if you want to put it on the table that it's all just special pleading and social status jockeying, then I'll care less about your cries for justice, because you've just told me that it's a game."

    Do you even read your own blog?

    That is exactly how people we refer to as "assholes" act. Like morality is a game.

    We have this trait called empathy, however. We can feel what others are feeling.
    That makes us want to ensure that others aren't treated unfairly, because it makes us feel bad when we see it happening and we expect that it will make them feel bad.

    This is just how we are put together, and it works pretty well, I think. No external driver needed.

    I won't make any claims as to whether we are this way because of evolution or divine providence, but either way it mostly works.

  520. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Clark

    If you answer is merely that it's good game play for me to care (or to put on a convincing simulacrum of caring), then I accept that…but if you want to put it on the table that it's all just special pleading and social status jockeying, then I'll care less about your cries for justice, because you've just told me that it's a game.

    But aren't we making a bit too much of the fact it's called "game theory" here? Or to put it differently, if we called it "utterly essential strategy to ensure survival of the species", would the cry for justice be more deserving of attention? Just because von Neumann's work was originally based upon two person zero-sum game play doesn't mean the basic principles, modified and built on by 3 billion years of evolution and interpreted by sentient creatures with a theory of mind and sense of empathy can lead to a sense of outrage and a desire for justice? I know you're just a big pile of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen arranged in a certain way: should I not give a crap about your life? It's just chemistry, after all.

  521. HandOfGod137 says:

    leftists (who, I suggest, are more likely to be materialists than rightists) are famously less generous in their giving.

    Correlation is not causation, but nice one getting a little dig in there. And once again a blanket assertion beats actual data when making an argument, so of course the left is more atheist. On the other hand atheists are famously more intelligent than believers: you think that could be a factor? I have no actual evidence to support intelligence = Scrooge-like behaviour, but we could just run with it.

  522. TPRJones says:

    "That being said, once one realizes that the sense of justice is – perhaps – just a sense of justice, there are two responses that seem consistent and logical to me:"

    This seems to me to be very limited thinking on your part. I can think of many other responses that seem relatively consistent and logical beyond 1) "yay, magic" and 2) "be a douche". If you honestly can only see those two as the only likely logical responses then I think we've identified the fundamental difference behind this thread of conversation that will make it unresolvable.

    How about:

    3) I feel good when I help others, I like feeling good, therefore I will help others as much as possible (yes this is sort of a subset of your #2, but without the douche factor)

    4) My own existence and happiness is not fundamentally more important than that of other people, so I will treat others well because they are just as important as I am,

    5) The future of humanity and how my distant offspring are treated is important to me, and I will work now to create a society that better fits my own idea of justice so as to increase the odds of their having a good life,

    6) I like making assholes miserable, so I will find some people that do things I consider unjust and torture them as best I can and in the process make the world a more just place (bringing back the douche factor from #2, but in a wholly different way)

    There are undoubtedly more (I would say as many as there are individuals contemplating their own definition of justice and relation to the concept, which since it has no objective reality of its own and must be defined by each of us as individuals), but you get the idea. The basis of all of this is grounded in biological impulses that are similar in all humans, but as with all things biological it is not identical among individuals and thus leads to many different detailed variations and IMO better explains those variations than does the theory of "a metaphysical existence to justice".

    Lastly, atheists are not less charitable than religious individuals as a general rule, at least in my experience. Just as an anecdotal example, on Kiva the Atheist team has given $308,925 while the Christian team has only given $251,550. Not conclusive, of course, but in line with my own personal experience.

    [Note that I don't consider tithing to the church to be charitable giving since such a large part of it goes towards running the church itself, but I would give credit to that portion that the church then spends on charitable activities (discounting missionary work if the primary objective is spreading the word rather than feeding and clothing the needy). Atheists don't have that same sort of overhead to their charity dollars.]

  523. RKN says:

    Actually you are dead wrong but on the other hand you do have the start of an interesting point. Yet on the gripping hand when you properly understand that point it really shows the origin of morality.

    Dead wrong about what exactly, that wolves don't fight to protect non-familials, or that humans do, or both?

    I can't unpack the 2nd sentence.

    It is true that pack instincts are driven by kin selection but while a wolf pack is usually an extended family unit it can contain unrelated members.

    Packs composed of unrelated con-specifics is evidently very unusual in natural packs. Captive packs not so much, which unfortunately have been the basis of considerable research into pack dynamics, and thus prone to false positive conjectures.

    See: Mech, L. David. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203.

    Humans are also social animals that started as small bands of hunter gatherers. We also had some kind of pack instinct. As bands got bigger and settled into agriculture that pack instinct was adapted to make us loyal to a larger group most of whom were not very closely related. Still they were closer than a random stranger and success of the individual depended a great deal on the success of the tribe. That's good enough for kin selection.

    Hamilton's rule (genes increase in frequency iff rB .gt. C) doesn't work so well for humans. Very many humans have been known to sacrifice their clear opportunity to have any children (or more children), and raise them to be successful replicators themselves, in favor of coming to the aid of complete and total strangers. Here, r & B go to zero, thus the product can never be greater than the cost, C. Examples abound.

    Does that mean it is irrational to prefer one moral system over another since they are just meaningless flags? Well in an absolute sense yes because the desire to survive at all isn't really rational but evolution pretty much built that in to us.

    That seems oddly circular. I thought the neo-Darwinian view has it that rationality is a feature that accords with reproductive success, thus a phenotype under positive selection, and thus completely consistent with the desire to survive?

    But beyond that moral choices have consequences. A poorly designed moral system will get you killed just like a poorly designed car.

    For example a society that mutilates female genitals and forces them to wear tents is probably not connected to reality well enough to remain stable in a changing technological world. It can get you killed.

    Hate to be such a contrarian, but that depends greatly on what your definition of "stable" is. Googling around I easily discovered that female genital mutilation (FGM) has a history in middle eastern societies (and others) dating back to before Christ. Technology has been changing the entire time, more rapidly in modern times, sure, but still changing.

    But all this is beside the point. People's moral outrage isn't triggered by an act like FGM being "anti-reality". The challenge Clark posed to you, as I understood it, was that there are (at least) two separate classes of metaphysical belief: one that would cause an adherent to go to war to defend, and another that doesn't even come close that (e.g., disagreements over good car design). You came back and said, "Wolves fight, so do wolves have morals?" The answer is of course wolves are amoral, but that did nothing to answer the challenge.

    One last thing…

    Increasingly religion itself is becoming a danger in that it is disconnecting us from reality. If you doubt me look at the religious world around you. Denial of the two centerpieces of science – evolution and the big bang. Prosperity ministries and other snake oil salesmen. Racial and sexual intolerance.

    I strongly disagree with the opinion that religion is a major problem "disconnecting us from reality." And for the record, I am agnostic. It hasn't disconnected me from reality, assuming I understand what you mean by that. Plus I don't share your concern over denials of evolution or the big bang. So what? Whether or not people believe in evolution has nothing important to do with how they live their lives. It's like the bumper sticker says (apparently snark directed at creationists), "Okay, I evolved, you didn't." Every time I see that I think, That's exactly right, what difference does it make? (Excepting the widely held view that it's generally pro-life to believe in things that are probably true).

  524. HandOfGod137 says:

    @RKN

    Whether or not people believe in evolution has nothing important to do with how they live their lives.

    Until it comes to things like remembering that viruses and bacteria evolve, hence MRSA and the need to continually update vaccines against things like flu. I suppose if you exclude the risk of wiping out a substantial portion of the global population with a plague, evolution is utterly irrelevant. Oh, and a Texas church has just been linked to an outbreak of measles (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23846028), because the pastor denied the science of immunisation (he's since changed his mind), so it's not just evolution, it's the danger of general science denial.

    Rejecting science is pretty well synonymous with disconnecting us from reality, as science is the study of how the world really works. And it may not be much of a problem while we have the nice support infrastructure western society gives us, but when seas levels rise, extreme weather events become more common, novel diseases appear, energy sources run out and arable land becomes scarce, we better have a good grip on the science we'll need to get out of it. If we think climate change is due to Thor (insert Deity of choice) losing his temper, frankly we're buggered.

  525. RKN says:

    Until it comes to things like remembering that viruses and bacteria evolve, hence MRSA and the need to continually update vaccines against things like flu.

    How drugs work (or not) to combat bacteria and viruses has little to nothing to do with the theories of how the critters may have got here in the first place.

    I don't think my mother believes in the theory of evolution (ToE) or natural selection, but when her doctor prescribes her an antibiotic for an infection she usually takes it, and it usually works! And still she goes to church, loves her husband, her children, and looks forward to each and every day.

    The vast majority of people couldn't explain how a battery works either, doesn't prevent them from enjoying their iPod.

    I suppose if you exclude the risk of wiping out a substantial portion of the global population with a plague, evolution is utterly irrelevant.

    Believing in the ToE is going to help us stop the next plague is it?

    I said belief in the ToE has nothing important to do with how people lead their lives, not that the ToE itself is entirely irrelevant.

    (And allow me to amend my original stmt with an exception: academics who teach the ToE in biology curricula).

  526. HandOfGod137 says:

    @RKN

    You're missing my point. The bacteria and viruses are evolving right now: that's one of the reasons you are instructed to complete a course of antibiotics, it lessens the chance of individuals with partial resistance to that drug surviving, which in turn lessens the chance of total resistance evolving. You're basically arguing that as long as someone understands what's going on, it doesn't matter if you're totally ignorant of the mechanisms involved, because that someone will come along and save the day. So it does affect how we lead our lives, but you're fine with passing the responsibility for organising that on to someone else?

    And yes, believing in the ToE will help us, if not stop, at least reduce the death toll of the next plague. You clearly don't realize just how fundamental evolution is in the biological sciences. You just have to look at how the genome of the HIV virus changes during the course of a single infection, and how knowledge of that change feeds into the treatment (and why mortality rates have come down so much in the West) to see the significance. MRSA is a huge problem in hospitals, and I'd imagine if you are unfortunate enough to get infected, it will have a big impact on how you lead your life.

  527. TPRJones says:

    I can attest that MRSA is a pain in the ass.

    In my case, literally so.

  528. RKN says:

    You're missing my point.

    It's a growth area for me. ;-)

    The bacteria and viruses are evolving right now: that's one of the reasons you are instructed to complete a course of antibiotics, it lessens the chance of individuals with partial resistance to that drug surviving, which in turn lessens the chance of total resistance evolving.

    I've got some technical objections to this (got a PhD in pharmacology, fwiw), but I won't belabor it.

    You're basically arguing that as long as someone understands what's going on, it doesn't matter if you're totally ignorant of the mechanisms involved, because that someone will come along and save the day.

    Short answer: Yes!

    By way of comparison, consider your auto mechanic (assuming you're not one yourself). Most people don't know what's "going on" when their car breaks, they rely on specialists to diagnose and fix the problem. Likewise with bacterial infections. Patients, most of them, don't know anything about the nature of bacteria, how they infect humans, or the course of their pathogenesis once they do. They only know they're sick ("broken"). They rely on doctors (specialists) to diagnose their particular infection, who in turn rely on the FDA and clinical trials for which drug(s) to prescribe (more specialization), that in turn rely on academic and industrial labs to work out the details of the underlying molecular biology (even more specialization).

    And you're hear to say that unless everyone up and down that chain, including the patient, believes in the ToE, none of this is possible?

    So it does affect how we lead our lives, but you're fine with passing the responsibility for organising that on to someone else?

    A car that won't start will "affect my life", yes, but only briefly. I'm blissfully ignorant of how the mechanic diagnoses and fixes it. You?

    And yes, believing in the ToE will help us, if not stop, at least reduce the death toll of the next plague. You clearly don't realize just how fundamental evolution is in the biological sciences.

    How, specifically, will believing in the ToE help us? Who is us?

    Look, this isn't about how useful a theory may or may not be to biologists. My claim is that a belief or disbelief in the ToE is unimportant to how the vast majority of people live their lives.

    You just have to look at how the genome of the HIV virus changes during the course of a single infection, and how knowledge of that change feeds into the treatment (and why mortality rates have come down so much in the West) to see the significance.

    You know the gain-of-function mutation rate in HIV how? Are you a researcher in this area? HIV is not my area of specialty, but I know something about it, and if memory serves me correctly there are only a small number of targets in HIV that account for most of the useful drugs out there.

    MRSA is a huge problem in hospitals, and I'd imagine if you are unfortunate enough to get infected, it will have a big impact on how you lead your life.

    Only temporarily I hope. But that would would be the case for anybody, whether they believe in the ToE or not, wouldn't it?.

  529. TPRJones says:

    "My claim is that a belief or disbelief in the ToE is unimportant to how the vast majority of people live their lives."

    Generally true, but there are exceptions when someone so opposed to science is able to convince their followers that medicine is evil and end up killing some of them off as well as increasing the general spread of disease in the process. And the hubbub around ToE is usually at the center of such things.

  530. Castaigne says:

    @Clark: It's supported by the evidence I have of having debated a large number of people. It may not match the evidence you have.

    Debate is not evidence. What you have are anecdotes, not evidence. If you were honest, you'd admit that. I'll pay attention to your assumption when you back it by a survey that has been done in accordance with standard scientific method and statistical methodology, resulting a +/- 5% result.

    I am unable to reproduce your results in my lab.

    You don't need to, since there are peer-reviewed articles on the subject. Go. Read. Learn. No, I don't need to tell you where to look – you are supposedly an educated man, which means you know how to do objective research.

    The Jesuits talked to the same people online that I did and they dismissed my "argument" that the people I've met have said X?

    Or did they dismiss some other argument I'm making?

    If so, which one?

    Not paying attention here, boy. Your argument: "Because modern atheists – like all human beings – deeply subscribe to the idea of justice in the sense of abstract principles, the violation of which cries out to Heaven uh is evil wait I mean is ethically wrong err "is inefficient"."

    The formal name for this fallacy is "Argument From Morality". It requires several assumptions to be assumed as absolutely true:
    - that atheists, by and large, get their ideas of justice from a sense of abstract principles
    - that these abstract principles are universal in nature
    - it requires that the proponent must demonstrate the essentiality of an objective morality, and thus demonstrate the existence of an objective morality.

    It is easily refuted. An obvious rebuttal would be 'we must have an objective morality to tell right from wrong'. An ostensibly reasonable statement, but sadly it holds no basis in reality. Arguing this line has one major shortcoming. That is, it does not explain why we must distinguish right from wrong, there is no mechanism of essentiality outlined definitively requiring humans to be able to discern right from wrong. Of course, here the theist will object 'that this proves atheists are amoral', but again this holds no basis in reality. Just because something is not essential, does not mean we still don't subscribe to it. In the case of murder, for example, an objective morality dictates that such an act is forbidden. However, humans have long come to know that such an act is reprehensible for purely secular reasons. So to recap, the theist must prove that an objective morality is essential, and then proves the existence of an objective morality, and thus proves the existence of a objective morality generating entity, and finally link their version of God as the sole objective morality generating entity.

    Instead, the existence of these supposedly "abstract principles of justice" can be more easily explained by tracing the atheist's development through Kohlberg's stages of moral development, which only require the assumption that humans are inherently communicative, capable of reason, and possess a desire to understand others and the world around them – easier conditions to satisfy under Occam's Razor.

    Oh, and this: I'd estimate that it's around two dozen over the last twenty years.

    You think two fucking dozen is a valid statistical population to base your Law of What Atheists Believe on? Tell me, Clark, when did you begin smoking crack? Or did you never take a basic statistics class?

    I'm saying "Most of the apples I've seen have been red, therefore most apples are red".

    You're right. It's not an appeal to authority. It's worse, an argumentum ex culo, specifically, an argument by assertion, combined with the spotlight fallacy.

    And we both know what the Church says about speaking untruths.

  531. HandOfGod137 says:

    @RKN

    I suppose, reluctantly, I'm going to have to concede that we probably can live perfectly well without understanding our technology or world, as long as we know someone who does understand when things go wrong. Not how I'd want to live my life, but maybe that's just me.

    I do think, however, that children should be given at least a basic understanding of actual science as part of their education. It may not affect their day to day interaction with their DVD player, and they may choose to reject it in favour of some religion's explanation of the world, but at least then they'll have the choice of reality or fantasy. And the next Feynman might not end up thinking man rode T Rex like horses round the garden of eden, which is a goal I think it is worth working for.

  532. ppnl says:

    RKN

    I really don't have time right now but just a few points.

    1) You missed the point of the pack instincts. Yes wolf packs are usually related but the instinct works even with unrelated individual. For example my pack of dogs. The instinct cannot do a DNA test for relatedness.

    2) As humans joined larger and larger groups the social instincts were exapted for tribes and even nations of mostly unrelated people.

    3) It is true that people can and do live good and productive lives without understanding or believing in evolution. It gets ugly however when that disbelief becomes a sign of tribal identity as it has in the conservative movement. We should remember Sagan's warning about accepting the products of science while rejecting its methods. That could get us all killed.

  533. Paul Wright says:

    Clark writes:

    If you want justice why should I care?

    Per Yudkowsky (an atheist who believes there are moral absolutes): Because caring about justice is part of what we mean by the moral "should". Whether you will in fact care is another question (answered by whatever forms your attitude to morality). There are conceivable minds (and existing minds, in the case of sociopaths, I suppose) which don't care, but notice that adding gods into the mix doesn't provide practical help with this, because those minds might not care what gods think either.

    As I said to Massimo Pigliucci (see "LessWrong on morality and logic", which I haven't linked as links seem to put comments into moderation), "Yudkowsky's claim is not a causal history claim, it's ontological: he says that morality is made of logic, not stuff (but requires stuff which implements the logic for it to have any effect). Any justification for morality is in terms of some other logic we find compelling, hence it's logic "all the way down". Causally, we find it compelling because of evolution and culture and whatnot, but we don't find arguments that say "do X because it will give you more children" compelling, generally: we'd be worried that X might be morally wrong. We value the particular things that these causal factors have in fact made us value, not whatever those casual factors were trying to make us value (anthropomorphising the blind forces of evolution there, but you get the point, I hope)."

    This means that I think that atheist appeals to evolution as a moral justifier are confused: evolution might be a (partial) answer to "why do I care about X?" but not "why should I care about X?". Theists who think that gods are required for moral absolutes to exist seem equally confused, since gods seem either redundant for that purpose, or liable to command things which are wrong (yes, this is the Euthyphro dilemma again).

  534. HandOfGod137 says:

    @Paul Wright

    This means that I think that atheist appeals to evolution as a moral justifier are confused: evolution might be a (partial) answer to "why do I care about X?" but not "why should I care about X?"

    I don't we are appealing to evolution as a moral justifier, we are simply addressing the "why do I care about X?" question, proposing it stems from originally from biology rather than some metaphysical Platonic realm. The original argument from Clark was (paraphrased) "some subset of the population of atheists/materialists have a logical inconsistency in their belief system because they believe in absolute rights", and most of the negative comments have been addressing the "believe in absolute rights" bit, because we don't accept we (or a significant fraction of atheists/materialists) do.

    Actually, I find your argument on how our current moral sense has developed to be quite compelling. I don't think it removes evolution as the original cause of morality, however.

  535. babaganusz says:

    many thanks to everyone who keeps/kept this thread kicking. at least the past day or two has been devoid of the 'whoa-nice-shootin'-there-Tex' not-actually-counter-arguments littering the first # responses. (or has the lawn required manicuring?)

    started taking notes, and three days later find myself lacking immediately-available time to bash out my ideal point-by-point contribution (perhaps a generous term, given my tendencies – it's likely to mostly be advice tailored for the authors of various misapprehensions – most of whom appear to have already flounced and some of whom just might not care for any advice, let alone mine).

    so for now, a mere gesture of appreciation for those who give enough of a fuck to hash this out, and apologies to anyone tempted to skip due to the potentially excessive use of the first person. (from those with other excuses, i welcome – even crave – 'pro-tips'!)

    while i already found discussions such as this (these?) worth combing through, it was while reading Lizard's first comment* that i was reminded of The Internet Comment Thread that rocked my dozy brain three years ago, more or less initiating my now-ingrained desire to do such combing-through and rekindling my curiosity about… well, just about everything (to paraphrase in particular Bryson's pop.history of science and Eco's definition of semiotics).

    http://web.archive.org/web/20110515033951/http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/04/believe-it-or-not

    the article itself wasn't novel or particularly inspiring, other than that it reminded me to [re-]read some Nietzsche. (it had been forwarded by an excellent friend, a(n) [at this stage i should qualify him as 'solidly confirmed'] atheist who simply suggested checking out one of the earliest zingers in the comments. i'm not sure if he was familiar with Dennett at this point, but he was quite enamored by the coining of 'deepity'.)

    but The Thread, which was already a few weeks in when i began reading it, lasted a good four months and trickled on for a few more before its home site archived the article, minus Thread. (ALL HAIL THE WAYBACK MACHINE.) the endurance (and the aforementioned brain-rocking) was almost entirely due to the nigh-indefatigable efforts of 'Ye Olde Statistician', an individual i have come to hold in such high esteem that (even after tracking down his LJ and getting a more obvious picture of his personal interests) i'm reluctant to proffer any definitive statement about him. what grabbed me at first was the fact that those arguing against his points mostly behaved as though they knew a damn thing about his personal beliefs (which he never professed); as more and more of them found their idiosyncratic ways to bow out (perhaps the least fatuous of which was along the lines of "well, Kant trumps all theology forever and ever, so neener"), i was struck by his seemingly inexhaustible erudition. (giveaway: David, from whom i have not read nearly enough (are you/is he published?), reminds me of Y.O.S., particularly when touching my medievalist nerve.)

    in a sense, all this fellow was doing was (a) giving lucid explanations of why position X (and Z and Q…) retains internal logical consistency and (b) pointing out where model Y (and B and G) falls short when applied absolutely. yet people seemed to think he was actively taking a stand with his apologetics. (or perhaps his rhetoric is so seamless that i was unwittingly converted to, say, Thomism, and still don't realize it… which might not be hard to cinch, since i can't really read Latin (yet!).)

    the reason Lizard stood out during a read of this thread here is that his perspective indicated he'd be one of the relative few to achieve a fruitful exchange with [as an exemplar, if you will] YOS. (also, one of the main reasons i Follow Popehat is that Teh Intellect and Teh Edumacationz tend to be as strong here as i was [somewhat] surprised to find they were at firstthings.)

    one more riff for the time being: given that sci-fi buffs frequent this joint, what do any of you have to say about the works of Michael F. Flynn? i've been on an extensive nonfiction jag, and would like to narrow down which of his novels to start with.

    those who have returned to this page because Great Debates energize them (and/or especially those who, like 'the old me', are inclined to shrug them off with a "well, this is over my head" copout) are hereby enjoined to check out The Thread (y'know – when you have 'a moment'. don't think "1174 comments? eh, not so huge" until you see how long most of them are. it might even be extra, if indirect, incentive for Our Ladies Of Popehat to switch to a nested/threaded format!).
    those who return more because they have a Clark-shaped hole in the chip on their shoulder, or simply for the amusement of the back-and-forth – well, chances are they're ignoring this comment by now, so the recommendation (which is really for anybody who isn't incorrigibly smug about their adherence to One Of The Only Two Sides There Are [sic]) is Not Even Amiss.

    *i will go back for a second pass, but i've been increasingly wondering why said comment (unlike Lizard's second, which overreached, as noted by David, iirc) was not addressed directly – Clark seems to have had fun (or at least a bit of exercise) picking out pretty much all of the other opportunities to amend, and/or affirm his agreement on, and/or call out others' confusion/misreading of, key points. fwiw, i'm not ~demanding thoroughness~ so much as expressing mild bewilderment/disappointment/suspicion that what seemed fairly on-point and cogent did not even merit a quick quip in response to a single line. though i've not taken the opportunity to trawl the backblog to discover whether Clark and Lizard have ~history~ which might shed english on said perceived oversight… ((i love how 'oversight' has two sorta-clashing meanings.))

  536. babaganusz says:

    …are hereby enjoined to…

    IANAL!

  537. RKN says:

    @ppnl

    I understood your point. My point was that since wolf packs containing unrelated conspecifics are evidently so rare in nature, I'd be cautiously skeptical if I were you of any conjectures made around related "evidence". And of course kin recognition is pretty well established in other critters, a number of bird species to name one.

    Kin recognition isn't based on a "DNA test", of course, but I would think that evo-biologists would have every reason to expect that a suitable proxy for detecting one's kin — the olfactory signature of this spot of urine, the sonic signature of that one's call, etc. etc. — should have been positively selected for a very long time ago, and fixed in every species down the chain. Because without some mechanism for kin recognition you don't get kin selection; the theory would be lacking evidence and largely baseless.

    And I'm mighty skeptical kin selection applies to humans given, as I said before, the abundance of evidence in our species that contradicts it.

    I can't say I disagree with your #2, but if it was intended as a summary of the basis for the origin of human moral judgement, I personally find it severely lacking explanatory power.

  538. HandOfGod137 says:

    @babaganusz

    I've ploughed through as much Ye Old Statistician as I can bear, and frankly all I'm getting is a writer who's over-pleased with the cleverness of his own prose. Tarting up excruciatingly prolix arguments with endless references to various philosophers might serve to wear down the opposition, but I wish he'd get to the bleedin' point.

    For those of us less than bothered by what part of Aquinas was misinterpreted by Hitchins, thus leading to the Christian deity being more likely than Zeus, is there a tl;dr version somewhere?

  539. ppnl says:

    RKN

    To the extent that animals can recognize kinship they use it to avoid breeding with close kin. Inbreeding has a very bad effect on any family line. For example cheetahs have very low fertility because of a population bottleneck some thousands of years ago.

    And you miss my point about my dog pack. They are not related and yet pack instincts hold. Wolf packs have also been formed from unrelated members. We know unrelated individuals can form a stable pack. In fact all new wolf packs are unrelated. In prosperous times individual wolves can break away from the pack and survive alone. Two or more of them can found their own pack.

    When people talk about animal instinctive behavior they usually think of it in mechanical terms. But when a human falls in love, experiences moral outrage or feels joy and sense of community at helping a neighbor then they know what an instinct feels like from the inside. We have the habit of attributing it to something bigger than ourselves.

    Maybe wolves do as well. Who knows why they howl.

  540. RKN says:

    @TPRJ, ppnl, HOG137

    Just a parting point about the whole "anti-science" thing…

    I see this quite frequently in other forums where I've argued this, that a disbelief in a particular scientific theory, say the ToE, is somehow taken as evidence that such a person is skeptical of the whole edifice of science — "They're on the wrong side of science!" That happens sometimes of course, but it's not universally true and shouldn't be assumed.

    Another thing that annoys me is people like that bozo Bill Maher, and there are others, who claim to be on the right side of science (!). Yet I doubt many of these people could clearly and accurately summarize the theory they claim they believe in, and list the theory's strengths and weaknesses. Point being that many so-called "advocates for science" often display similar levels of intellectual bankruptcy as those they so loudly criticize. And when their advocacy for science metastasizes to forced mandate, shouldn't we be just as concerned about that as we are when the snakes come out in church?

  541. ppnl says:

    Paul Wright,

    This means that I think that atheist appeals to evolution as a moral justifier are confused:…

    Keeeriiiist no man! Evolution works by killing babies by the millions. The lucky ones die by having their hearts and livers ripped out and fed to the young of something bigger and meaner than themselves. The unlucky ones die slowly from starvation or disease or neglect because their parents got chomped.

    Is does not mean ought. Evolution explains what is. To most atheist the ought, the justification, does not exist out there at all. Justification is a construct of our brain driven by biology and culture.

    Many think this is cold and uncaring and instinctively reject it with every fiber of their being. I understand. I sympathize. But I am not the one being incoherent or illogical. The universe really does not care so if caring matters to you then find someone and give them a hug.

  542. RKN says:

    In fact all new wolf packs are unrelated.

    Not true. Considerable inbreeding has been observed among wolf packs, evidently with less detriment to the population than previously thought.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/12/061221074654.htm

    I didn't miss the point about your dog pack, I just found it irrelevant to the overall point we'd been discussing. I have for years spent gobs of time in the Alaska mountains running my dogs (2) in the company of very familiar but unrelated dogs (often .ge. 3). Sometimes they "pack" and get along, sometimes they don't. I don't think you can conclude anything important about their instincts one way or the other toward kin/non-kin.

  543. ppnl says:

    RKN,

    Evolution has become a tribal signal so most people who are anti-evolution share other anti-science tribal signals. While there are some who reject evolution for non culture war reasons that does not make those reasons good. Evolution is as close to a fact as science ever gets.

    I agree about that bozo Bill Maher. He is a danger. But his species of bozo does not have either the political power or fanaticism of say Paul Broun:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBy3MbP4WDo

    Now that could change. Both Hillary and Obama payed lip service to the antivax movement and that is a Maher shtick. But it must be said that neither the commitment to nor the power of the anti-vax movement is in any way comparable to the anti-evolution movement.

  544. Daniel Taylor says:

    @ppnl
    I think you have a point there. As bad as MMPI is, I think we are looking at Perceiving vs. Judging.

    Some people feel a need that there be a greater reason for things that they find important, and most of the time there isn't such a reason. There needs to be a judge of what is right and what is wrong.

    There is no master judge. Even if there is a god, he doesn't muck about in human affairs in any observable way. There is no clear signal as to "right" and "wrong" from a higher plane. Even if there is an absolute morality out there, we have no way to know for certain what it is.

    We really are just making up as we go along, and for some reason it's important to us to always be doing better.

    I don't see why that can't be good enough. To everything I've seen it's always been like this, and people are still here getting on each other's nerves.

  545. HandOfGod137 says:

    @RKN

    I see this quite frequently in other forums where I've argued this, that a disbelief in a particular scientific theory, say the ToE, is somehow taken as evidence that such a person is skeptical of the whole edifice of science — "They're on the wrong side of science!" That happens sometimes of course, but it's not universally true and shouldn't be assumed.

    I know what you mean and I would try not to make that assumption myself. That being said, there seems to be a couple of packages of disbelief that are commonly found: ToE, Abiogenesis and Cosmology for the religious, AGW for the conservative (and all of the above for the large population in the intersection of the two groups). I think as long as science doesn't come into conflict with strongly held religious views (or a metric craptonne of ideologically and commercially driven FUD in the case of AGW), most people are quite happy to accept it. It works, after all.

  546. ppnl says:

    RKN,

    How do you think new wolf packs form? Do you think wolf packs live forever? It is true that canines are somewhat less damaged by inbreeding than most species. But they can't get away with it forever.

    Of course almost all wolf packs will be mostly related. If two wolves form a new pack in one year they will have six pups and the pack is mostly related. A few years later the parents are dead and they are all related.

    I think denying that human morality evolved from our social instincts is tantamount to denying that our eyes evolved from light sensitive spots or that our hands evolved from fish fins. In fact our behavior evolved much more recently and I think the connection is more clear.

  547. RKN says:

    Of course almost all wolf packs will be mostly related.

    Which directly contradicts what you said earlier today:

    In fact all new wolf packs are unrelated.

    Which one did you want to retract?

  548. Daniel Taylor says:

    No contradiction.

    All new wolf packs will contain unrelated members. If they didn't they wouldn't be new.

    Established wolf packs will be composed primarily of related members, for obvious reasons and because wolf packs rarely take in new adult wolves.

  549. RKN says:

    All new wolf packs will contain unrelated members. If they didn't they wouldn't be new.

    Not true. Some new wolf packs have been established by brother and sister (who both left the same pack) interbreeding.

  550. babaganusz says:

    HandOfGod137,

    maybe i'll have a different experience next time i revisit the thread i mentioned, but at the time it seemed like y.o.s. repeatedly clarified positions (or what was consistent about them) while almost everyone 'opposing him' (until a rawlsian showed up) reductionized (if i may) or insisted on one dubious dichotomy or other.
    there was no endpoint to me. as a long, rambling response/companion to the article (which was, to paraphrase its author, a weary/disappointed shrug towards 'shallow atheism' (as opposed to Nietzsche's 'reached-the-hard-way' position)), yos's participation served mostly to indicate that various 'arguments for atheism' were perhaps less conclusive (or "gotcha!", or unassailable) than their proponents (at least as demonstrated in counter-comments) like to think. presumably he could be seen to 'hijack the terms' inasmuch as codification/resumption of logic, debate, or of course theology, between (say) constantine and luther, was presided over by the RCC… and synthesizing Aristotle – i.e. significantly enhancing the potential intelligence of future church scholars – seems to me a fair justification for hanging a lot on comprehending Aquinas… where was i? :P

    i'm afraid i don't have sympathetic leanings for most "tl;dr" sentiment. perhaps some empathy for those who value their time more than i value mine… but i'm generally a horrible choice for boiling down someone else's screeds (or even my own)… apologies for that much.

  551. TPRJones says:

    "And when their advocacy for science metastasizes to forced mandate, shouldn't we be just as concerned about that as we are when the snakes come out in church?"

    I can't agree with that "just as concerned" part there. On the one hand I do agree that it is very unfortunate that some people are unwilling to take the time and effort to learn what it is they are actually for or against before blindly following some leader. But at least those who have hitched their ignorance wagon to science are signing up to a system that changes it's topical stances based on evidence instead of one based on an ancient dusty book that will never change. They can get stuck with old information on one or two topics due to their ignorance, but in general they're odds of adapting to reality are a bit improved. So I'm concerned, but no, not "just as concerned".

  552. HandOfGod137 says:

    @babaganusz

    Oh, I wasn't asking you to provide a digest of his arguments personally, just if one existed out there somewhere, so no worries.

    Blog comment battles generally tend to have both sides deploy "gotcha" arguments, but that's just the nature of the medium I think. I don't think I can ever recall anyone having a Father Ted "actually, it's all nonsense, isn't it." moment: I suspect the intended target is actually the silent lurker, who both sides hope will be inspired to go read more in a less combative environment. Lengthy, dense posts can seem a little out of place in that context.

  553. ppnl says:

    RKN

    Of course almost all wolf packs will be mostly related.

    Which directly contradicts what you said earlier today:

    In fact all new wolf packs are unrelated.

    Which one did you want to retract?

    Jazus man there is no contradiction there. Most wolf packs aren't new. Lone wolves can wander hundreds of miles before forming a pack. Yes they can tolerate more inbreeding but eventually they must outbreed or they will die. That is a function of new wolf packs.

    From wiki:

    "In the animal kingdom, lone wolves are typically older wolves driven from the pack, perhaps by the breeding male, or young adults in search of new territory. Many young wolves between the ages of 1 and 4 years leave their family to search for a pack of their own (this has the effect of preventing inbreeding), as in typical wolf packs there is only one breeding pair. "

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lone_wolf_%28trait%29

    I think there was a case where a Finland wolf crossed over to Sweden and revitalized the Swedish wolves who were suffering from inbreeding. It must happen or they will die.

    Most packs are going to be related. New packs are not. New packs are rare because unclaimed territories are rare and forming a new pack is dangerous.

    Even in humans when there are other signs of unrelatedness the "morality" of the group can fail. For example nice church going white people lynching a black man. Look up the Rosewood massacre. That is the dark side of our social animal instincts. Those people felt morally justified in doing what they did. It is an instinct not a direction from god and failure to recognize that can be bad. You end up killing in the name of god. Despite what some atheists say this isn't the fault of religion. It is the fault of the social animal origins of our morality.

  554. RKN says:

    Jazus man there is no contradiction there. Most wolf packs aren't new. Lone wolves can wander hundreds of miles before forming a pack. Yes they can tolerate more inbreeding but eventually they must outbreed or they will die. That is a function of new wolf packs.

    Did you even bother to read either of the two references I provided you?

  555. ppnl says:

    RKN,

    The very title of the article you linked was "Wolves Are Suffering Less From Inbreeding Than Expected". They still suffer. This is also seen in some dog breeds that are extremely inbred. I once saw a puppy farm where dachshund were being bred. The horrors were ghastly. Even animals that appear healthy can develop hip dysplasia, cancer, hearing loss, blindness and many other disorders as they mature. Yes dogs are less susceptible to inbreeding than most animals. They still must outbreed or they will go extinct.

    But even if we assume wolves never outbreed by some magic my point remains. They have social instincts that regulate their behavior. So do we. Both derive from kin selection. They cooperate. So do we. They kill alien interlopers. We massacre entire black townships and call it moral.

    But we are different because ours comes from god. Or is intelligently designed. Or is somehow metaphysical. Or something.

  556. I am an Atheist says:

    Unfortunately you've really wasted a lot of time constructing a coherent and well-worded post because the entire basis for your argument is two initial statements that are completely false.

    Firstly, not every atheist is the same and shares the same belief systems. All atheists most certainly do NOT assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (materialism.) The only thing that can be said about atheists as a collective is that they reject the idea of deism. All Atheists will assert that there is no God. Besides this, there is absolutely no other single, defining idea that links all Atheists. Most Atheists do prescribe to the scientific method, however science also does not assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible. There is an idea that everything can, eventually, be quantified and measured, but the entire basis of science is that 'we don't know everything and we need to study and discover what else there is, to better understand our world.'

    Secondly, not all Human Beings believe in rights, this extends to Atheists. Most Atheists do believe in rights, in a legal or social descriptive way, but NOT in an absolute and prescriptive way. I am an Atheist. I have a set of morals that are entirely dependent on a given situation. For example, I believe it is wrong and abhorrent to kill another human and that people should not kill each other. If my family was threatened and the only way to stop the threat was to kill someone, then I would absolutely do it.
    Rights, morals and ethics are a completely human construction and are completely subjective for each individual. I guarantee that every single Human on this planet that is able to understand the concept of morality, will have a different set of ethics, moral values and belief in rights. Even people who adhere to a religious doctrine will interpret the rules differently.

    It is a mistake to treat Atheists as a single group, Atheism is not a belief system, political movement, system of ethics, a club for cool people, organisation, social movement or even a set of ideas. Atheism is only one thing. It is a statement, and the statement is this: There is no God.

  557. babaganusz says:

    @HandOfGod137

    i did notice the first "somewhere", but yeah, i haven't followed him around quite that much (if such a 'condensed version' even exists, which if anywhere i imagine would be buried somewhere in his livejournal…).
    perhaps a better way to phrase my observations about the wall-o'-text i linked is that he could have been [even indirectly] improving upon the arguments of his opponents, or providing an opportunity for them to improve them – of course, many already came to the picnic with an attitude of antagonism rather than exchange, indignant that the article's author seemed to be requiring elaborate excuses for an individual's atheism – which he might have been; i was more focused on YOS's breadth/rigor).

    I suspect the intended target is actually the silent lurker, who both sides hope will be inspired to go read more in a less combative environment.

    between the decline of my local BBS haunts and the last couple-few years, this described me to a tee. one instance of their hopes fulfilled! (though i did chime in there at one point merely to gush about how inspired i was, yadda yadda…)

    Lengthy, dense posts can seem a little out of place in that context.

    probably makes me some sort of outlier, then. not a surprise what with the time i used to spend virtually craving anomie.

    thanks for this volley (even if it's mostly just me dithering and flailing).

  558. princessartemis says:

    @babaganusz, You're not alone in appreciating the lengthier, denser posts from the standpoint of lurking about the fringes of such discussions. I can see why YOS came across as impressively grounded in what they were talking about. Speaking as a person who usually observes from the sidelines, I find the most compelling debates to be the ones that are actual discussions rather than combative attempts at scoring imaginary points. Might be worth considering for those who have "convince the silent masses" rather than "dialogue" as their discussion goal.

  559. I am more moral than Jehovah.

    I oppose genocide.
    I oppose the slaughter of infants.
    I oppose rape.
    I oppose killing others for the crime of not being part of the 'chosen culture'.
    I oppose slavery.
    I oppose human sacrifice.
    I oppose killing those of other faiths.
    I oppose stoning people for adultery.
    I oppose forcing a victim to marry their rapist.
    I oppose abandoning the sick to their deaths.
    I oppose giving one's daughters to be gang raped.
    I oppose slaughtering a thousand for the crime of one.
    I oppose killing a child for the crime of it's parents.

    I am more moral than the god of the bible.

    I am an atheist.

    I do the moral thing not because of any hope of eternal salvation or because some mythical abusive father figure will punish me if I don't. I do the moral thing because it is the right thing to do.

    I am more moral than god.

  560. princessartemis says:

    @Withinthismind, it's easy to be more moral than a straw-god. I can see by your list that you have no first-hand knowledge of what you are talking about. You got your knowledge from someone else; it beggars my belief that someone with first-hand knowledge could make some of the mistakes you've made. Seek it for yourself, rather.

  561. TPRJones says:

    @princessartemis, while I would agree that Withinthismind's comment is more than a bit melodramatic in tone, you can't deny that it's an accurate list of some of the crimes Yewah is guilty of in the old testament. I don't care how nice his Son was in the new testament, that doesn't excuse his Father of glorifying that sort of evil for so long.

    Well, you could deny it I guess but only if you 1) are lying or 2) haven't really read the old testament. If you haven't, you should. It's pretty disgusting.

  562. princessartemis says:

    TPRJones, that's the thing though. It's not an accurate list. (Yewah? That's new to me, but I know who you're talking about.) Some of it is at least passingly accurate, but there is also some staggering inaccuracy, some so utterly wrong, that leads me to the conclusion that the list was compiled by someone insufficiently knowledgable to make it.

    If you're going to make accusations, at least get them right.

  563. TPRJones says:

    Sorry, but I am 100% confident in my statements. I have read the entirety of the source material multiple times and it is very clear on all those points. Oh, some of them are demonstrated through allegory but it is obvious that the tale is being told as an example of rightful action instead of a condemnation.

    Feel free to deny it all you want, but any religion that includes the old testament as a core "word of god" sort of document is worshiping a deity that is a petty asshole that has no value at all for the lives of those not groveling at his feet.

  564. It is a fully accurate list, as I was raised Christian. The number one reason I became an atheist is that I read the bible for myself.

    Would you like the list with the accompanying scriptures?

    I oppose genocide.

    Deuteronomy 2:34 And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain:

    I oppose the slaughter of infants.

    Deuteronomy 3:6 And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city.

    Exodus 12:12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.

    I oppose rape.

    Numbers 31:15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
    31:16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
    31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
    31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

    I oppose killing others for the crime of not being part of the 'chosen culture'.

    Deuteronomy 20:16 But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
    20:17 But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee:

    I oppose slavery.

    Exodus 21:20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
    21:21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

    I oppose human sacrifice.

    Genesis 22:2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

    I oppose killing those of other faiths.

    Deuteronomy 13:6 If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;
    13:7 Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;
    13:8 Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
    13:9 But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
    13:10 And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

    I oppose stoning people for adultery.

    Deuteronomy 22:23 If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her;
    22:24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you.

    Leviticus 20:10 And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

    I oppose forcing a victim to marry their rapist.

    Deuteronomy 22:28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;
    22:29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

    I oppose abandoning the sick to their deaths.

    Numbers 5:2 Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead:
    5:3 Both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them; that they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell.

    I oppose giving one's daughters to be gang raped.

    Genesis 19:8 Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.

    I oppose slaughtering a thousand for the crime of one.

    Numbers 16:32 And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods.
    16:33 They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.

    I oppose killing a child for the crime of it's parents.

    2 Samuel 12:14 Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.

    Also – I oppose killing people for the crime of loving a member of their own gender

    Leviticus 20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

    I oppose killing someone for the crime of saying aloud that they do not follow the same religion you do

    Leviticus 24:16 And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.

    I oppose killing someone for working on the weekends

    Exodus 31:14 Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people

    I oppose killing children for the crime of backtalking

    Exodus 21:17 And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.

    I oppose killing women for the crime of not being virgins when married

    Deuteronomy 22:20 But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel:
    22:21 Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you

    I oppose killing someone for being non-Christian

    Deuteronomy He that sacrificeth unto any god save unto the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed.

    I am more moral than god.

    This notion that 'morality stems from god' is patently absurd to anyone who has ever read the bible (or the Koran, or the Rig-Vedas, or any collection of mythology) for themselves. Mankind has never succeeded in inventing a good that was their moral or ethical superior. How can morality have its source in something that violates so many of what we consider to be morals? How can they be 'god given rights' when clearly, god doesn't give jack shit about our 'rights'? Remember, when our 'god given rights' were 'given', they applied only to wealthy white landowners. Claiming that atheists therefore don't understand 'rights' just shows a lack of understanding of history, religion, and atheism.

  565. And might I just add how incredibly amusing I find this notion of a 'straw god'? All gods are made of 'straw'.

    'God' is whatever you personally want it to be, which is why lots of folks like to ignore massive chunks of the bible they profess to be the 'inerrant word of god'. It's it always just amazing how 'god' seems to hate the same people you hate, support the same sports teams you do, etc…. And when god 'talks to you', isn't it amazing how he sounds just like your own thoughts and the sign he gives you is always interpreted to be whatever you want it to be?

    The whole concept of 'god' is incoherent and lacking in vigor.

    What is 'god'? If god could act upon the world, then god would be an observable force – something our host has mischaracterized as 'visible'. If god can't act upon the world, then how can he be 'god'?

    Isn't it amazing how, after thousands of years, no actual miracles have occurred? No actual case of the 'hand of god at work' has ever been shown?

  566. princessartemis says:

    You both do realize that much of the Old Testament is history, and that all within that occurred was not therefore something that is a "rightful action"? Withinthismind, I suspect I know where you went to get your verses; I am uncertain, but some of the mistakes I see seem to have a common source. I suggest you read for context, if you'd like, though you do seem pretty convinced that you've got the right of it. Some of those accusations may still hold up in context; I'm not saying they won't. Others do not. You do not appear to know that.

    TPRJones, if you have read the OT multiple times, and yet still come away with the impression that the history of Sodom and Gomorrah is 100% saying it's not only awesome but an act in accordance with God to give your daughter away to be gang raped, the only thing I can offer to say to you is that I am certain that you might benefit from re-reading it more fairly. You may find that while your impression is not changed much, you at least know the right 'crimes' to accuse God of.

    I never once said that the whole of the list was inaccurate, but that there was some inaccuracy. There still is. As I said, if you're going to make accusations, get them right. The OT isn't a disjointed laundry list. Most of it is a history, some of it are laws, and they are connected to one another. Look up the rules for indentured servitude in the OT before you jump to the conclusion that it's straight out condoning slavery, for instance. Turn your mind around and consider the fact that the rapist is being forced to marry the victim, not the other way around, and cannot divorce her for any reason; he must support her with his work and his wealth and his land for the rest of his life, and if he cheats on her with someone he'd rather marry, he's going to be punished. Keep in mind the social situation of the time was not the same as it is today. I'm not sure that the woman actually has to take him as her husband if she would rather remain unmarried. Probably have to check the Talmud for that. Consider that it is not talking about loving the same gender but of sex in terms of staking a claim; it would involve some research though, Talmud and looking into Judaism.

    There's more you could do, if you'd really like to make your accusations stick.

  567. wolfefan says:

    @princessartemis –

    Perhaps Derek Flood's article gets at some of what you are trying to say. link

  568. Princess, I suggest you actually read the entire bible for yourself before bringing the tired old apologetics argument of 'but context'.

    They all hold up in context. I notice you haven't bothered to attempt to counter any of the examples I provided. Perhaps it's because you know the 'but context' argument won't actually hold water when you look at the context.

    But please, let's go ahead and play.

    In what 'context' is killing someone for working on a weekend day acceptable? Remember, this was god's direct command. So please, enlighten us. What 'context' makes killing someone for working on a weekend 'moral'?

    Let's look at the attempt you made – Lot offered his virgin daughters to be gang raped. And apparently, god was impressed enough by this act that he named Lot the only righteous individual in the whole town, and promptly slaughtered everyone else (children included), even Lot's wife for no reason other than looking back. And you find… what… defensible about this? What 'context' do you feel is being missed here?

    You are claiming I'm 'inaccurate', but providing no examples of inaccuracy. And you are, in effect, bearing false witness (a violation of your own god-entity's commandments) by claiming that I've plagiarized my list.

    Honestly, the best proof there is no Christian god is the things Christians do/say in his name. If there really was an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient entity out there, do you really think he'd be okay with the shit folks like Fred Phelps, Jeffrey Falmer, and for that matter, the Republican party, do in 'his name'?

    It's clear those who call themselves devote Christians don't believe in god by how often they violate the rules he set out in the bible. So why, exactly, is anyone surprised that atheists don't believe?

    The original post 'bore false witness' by making several incredibly untrue and obtuse claims regarding atheists. If the person arguing for the existence of god doesn't believe strongly enough to bother to obey the commandments, why exactly do they expect their arguments to be the slightest bit compelling?

  569. — I'm not sure that the woman actually has to take him as her husband if she would rather remain unmarried. Probably have to check the Talmud for that. —

    Please, do so. Point me to the exact passage with any of this shit – such as the father giving his daughter to be anyone's wife, taking of a wife from the 'spoils of war', the woman marrying her rapist, the daughter being sold as a 'handmaiden', any of that, where the woman has to give her consent before it happens.

    Exact scripture, please.

    Do keep in mind that we are familiar with history and know for a fact that no, for most of history, the consent of the woman was irrelevant. In fact, raping your wife only became a crime a couple decades ago, and putting that into law was opposed by – to no one's surprise – many religious leaders.

  570. ppnl says:

    @Withinthismind

    I do the moral thing not because of any hope of eternal salvation or because some mythical abusive father figure will punish me if I don't. I do the moral thing because it is the right thing to do.

    Well yeah but you are in danger of making Clark's point for him. He didn't say that atheists were not moral or even that they were not more moral than christians. He said that they were inconsistent because they simultaneously were materialists while treating morals as a metaphysical thing. As I have said he has a narrow point. A simple reading of your words implies this very thing.

    How do you know what is right so that you can be moral? Is "right" a thing out there independent of your existence? If it is then Clark's point is you are a believer in the metaphysical. If it isn't then saying "I do the moral thing because it is the right thing to do." is a circular sentence that goes nowhere.

  571. —How do you know what is right so that you can be moral?—

    The same way I know what water is hot and what water is cold – simple observation.

    The 'right' thing to do is the thing that is best for society as a whole – meaning, society including all its members, not just particular races/classes/genders – in the long term.

    You don't need anything 'metaphysical' to believe that.

    In its most basic phrase (one Christians love to lie and say they invented) it comes out to 'do unto others as you would have done unto you' or 'treat people as you like to be treated' or my favorite versions – 'treat people 20% better than you would like to be treated to correct for subjective error' and 'treat people as they indicate they would like to be treated'.

    It's pure selfishness in many ways. I want a nice, polite world in which the environment is taken care of and nobody goes hungry or is mistreated – because I don't want to go hungry, be mistreated, or breathe nasty air and drink polluted water. It is in my own self interest to ensure everyone's 'rights' are recognized because that way, MY rights will be recognized.

    Is there a right independent of my own existence? Absolutely. Even if I randomly vanished off the face of the planet, it would still be 'wrong' to shit on the sidewalk because the human race as a whole still needs to exist and it does so a lot better and healthier if nobody is shitting on the sidewalk.

    As for the 'inconsistency', what Clark did was set up a few strawmen and shadowbox at them.

  572. princessartemis says:

    Withinthismind, my point never was to make a thorough apologetic to you, it was to point out that your list had inaccuracies and put a spin on a couple things. (For instance, I'm heading up there yet still am the child of my father and mother; have you considered that the commands to honor parents are directed to adults rather than actual young children?) I am uninterested in convincing you of anything else, really, and not so interested in convincing you of that that I'm going to spend a whole lot of time doing it. I know there's a bunch of bad stuff in the Bible, never said there wasn't. If you think the take-away from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is "sacrificing a daughter to the mob is A-OK", I really am at a loss on what to say in response, though.

    As for the Talmud, I'm not sure if there are verses in it. I've got very little exposure to it. I was suggesting it as something you could check, not something I would check; that was my poor wording. It may be worth looking into for you since you seem to be taking a keen interest in rejecting Jewish law. Worth looking into so you understand what you're rejecting–it's been said by some people whose law it actually is that the Torah is like Cliff Notes without the Talmud. If you're already familiar, disregard.

  573. Mark - Lord of the Albino Squirrels says:

    @Withthisinmind and/or TPRJones.

    It seems strange to quote the Bible as the word of God (and request "Exact scripture, please." for rebuttals) to support the position that the God you believe does not exist is less moral than you.

    The word of nothing proves that I am morally superior to nothing.
    (just had a nostalgia flashback to my teen, goth years. sorry.)

    How does it prove your case to cite evidence (The Bible) you believe is false in support of it? On the other hand, how would evidence you believe to be false undermine your case?

    Ah, but Christians believe that evidence! Therefore, their God is immoral yes?
    Well, no.

    Some people – Christian or otherwise – may believe:
    1) The Bible is the literal and complete word of God
    2) we humans understand it fully and correctly
    3) that word (and thus the nature of God) does not change and may not be added to. ever.
    4) that word reflected the true nature of God perfectly at the time it was written (i.e. God was not lying, being metaphorical, messing about, drunk, etc. when the word was handed down)

    Just because I do not know anybody who believes those four things does not mean they do not exist, so I will assume that they do for the sake of argument. In that case, then you have a point – you are more moral than the hypothetical God those hypothetical people believe in based on biblical evidence. Therefore, *if* that specific (and rather hamstrung) God exists and is the only god that exists, you are more moral than God.

    Congratulations?

  574. —It seems strange to quote the Bible as the word of God (and request "Exact scripture, please." for rebuttals) to support the position that the God you believe does not exist is less moral than you. –

    Why is it stranger to do this than it is to cite a passage from Twilight to demonstrate Edward is a creep?

    —How does it prove your case to cite evidence—

    What definition of the word 'evidence' do you feel applies to the bible? It is no more 'evidence' of god than well, Twilight, is evidence of vampires.

    –Withinthismind, my point never was to make a thorough apologetic to you, it was to point out that your list had inaccuracies and put a spin on a couple things. (For instance, I'm heading up there yet still am the child of my father and mother; have you considered that the commands to honor parents are directed to adults rather than actual young children?)—

    Sure. Have you considered that women who have just had their mothers, brothers, fathers, and often elder sisters butchered, including ones that were just infants, might not have been thrilled at having to bed the ones that did it?

    Have you considered that telling someone he has to kill the son he loves to show that he is in fact, subservient to you, and then saying 'ha, no, changed my mind' is kind of a sick joke for a 'loving' deity to play? And kind of an assed-up thing for a father to go along with?

    The only problem with my list is how incomplete it was. I could spend week going over how many shitty, disgusting, immoral things are in the bible. And probably a couple weeks more addressing how many flat out absurdities and contradictions there are.

    —If you think the take-away from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is "sacrificing a daughter to the mob is A-OK", I really am at a loss on what to say in response, though.—

    Would you prefer the take-away be 'having butt-sex means you deserve to have yourself and your entire family, including the children, slaughtered?' Because its not like that is any more 'moral'.

    But considering what it actually is – a tale similar to those told about native americans 'eating babies' and that kind of shit as a 'justification' for slaughtering them, something that shows up a lot when the victors write the 'history' – I'm going to take it in that 'context' (wow, there is that word again, context – you really should take the bible 'in context' one of these days) and assume that the stories of just how wicked the place was are just as full of shit as every other piece of wartime propaganda out there if we give the event any sort of benefit of the doubt of being a record of actual events.

    —Worth looking into so you understand what you're rejecting—

    I understand the Talmud just fine. It's quite possibly even more misogynistic than the Koran and the bible. It certainly doesn't make any more sense.

  575. Mark - Lord of the Albino Squirrels says:

    @Withinthismind (sorry about earlier transposition)

    "Why is it stranger to do this than it is to cite a passage from Twilight to demonstrate Edward is a creep?"

    Two reasons:
    First, because in the case of Edward you would be supported by evidence provided by the all powerful, omniscient deity of Edward's universe – Stephanie Meyer. With the Bible you are supported by evidence described by yourself as false provided by parables, unreliable eyewitness accounts, poems, metaphor, iffy translations, and limited, fallible authors – all from centuries in the past and possibly incomplete.

    It is perfectly normal to support a stance with evidence believed to be true and certain. It is strange to support a stance with evidence presented as false and unreliable. Or perhaps you are here to denounce the false lies spread by Meyer and testify the sparkly sparkly truth about Edward?

    Second:
    It is strange to support the case that you have an actual true moral system – in response to the original post – by comparing your actual morals to the morals of entities that your faith and experience tell you are fictitious. If I accept that your moral system is equal to Edward's or – as you say – to God's, then I must assume your morality has a fictional existence from your own statements.

    Edward's morality – which is quite literally based on nothing – is not comparable to your own – which you claim has an actual basis in reality. I find the idea that actual morality is comparable to fiction incoherent – which is why I thought it was a strange counter-argument to make against the OP. That incoherency stands regardless of what your faith tells you is fiction: Edward, God, both, or neither.

    "What definition of the word 'evidence' do you feel applies to the bible?"

    Me personally? I see the Bible as a book. It provides most excellent evidence for what its authors believed to be true at the time of writing. Even in that limited sense, the data is hard to parse due to passage of time, conceptual changes, political stances of authors, translation errors, etc. Insofar as I believe God exists (iffy but maybe – agnostic here) I see the Bible as rather poor evidence of that existence.

    As for others besides myself? Nope. Not gonna even try. If reading through this thread has shown me nothing else, it has shown me that attempting to speak for someone besides myself is a dicey proposition.

    Do you believe in Physics – the scientific properties of matter in motion etc. or Biology? Personally, I do. That said, I think a Physics or Biology textbook from the 19th century is pretty poor evidence on the existence and true nature of Physics and Biology. Said textbooks from the 1st century would be even poorer evidence. Phlogiston? Ether? Haemonculi? Those ideas are fun, but highly doubtful. Even then, a modern Physics textbook does not provide nearly as much evidence for the existence of Physics as a well thrown and observed rock does.

    I suppose you could throw and observe the book too, but I think you get my meaning.

    "It is no more 'evidence' of god than well, Twilight, is evidence of vampires."

    I can't agree with you there. If I assume God is real, the Bible is (for me) fairly poor evidence of that assumption. Ancient, poorly translated, misplaced at times, possibly incomplete it is (at best) only as reliable as most eyewitness accounts are today. If I assume vampires are real, however, Meyers book does not provide even that much evidence. Why? Because anybody who asserts that vampires sparkle is obviously insane and should not be trusted for any reason.

    I may be an agnostic, but that does mean I cannot see the sparkly vampire for the gross and malignant heresy that it is.

  576. ppnl says:

    I may be an agnostic, but that does mean I cannot see the sparkly vampire for the gross and malignant heresy that it is.

    Most of the bible is as obviously a work of fiction as any vampire story. Either the bible or vampires becomes a "malignant heresy" only when people choose to believe it.

    Other parts of the bible are active forgeries written long after they were purported to be written and served a political purpose in the time they were actually written. Also many parts of the bible were burned for political purposes. That is far worse than fiction.

  577. Mark - Lord of the Albino Squirrels says:

    "Either the bible or vampires becomes a "malignant heresy" only when people choose to believe it."

    You are of course entitled to your belief system. It could easily be correct. That said, a vampire obviously becomes heretical only when it sparkles.

    Your orthodoxy may vary.

  578. ppnl says:

    —How do you know what is right so that you can be moral?—

    The same way I know what water is hot and what water is cold – simple observation.

    Yeah, the problem is water is a thing that exists out there. That is why you can feel it. If we hold to the analogy then morality is a thing that exists out there. But I'm not really disagreeing. I'm only pointing out how your words can be seen.

    The 'right' thing to do is the thing that is best for society as a whole – meaning, society including all its members, not just particular races/classes/genders – in the long term.

    But balancing all the competing interests of society and all its members is a vastly complex problem. And you have claimed to just know by observation. I'm just saying its more complex than that. What you "feel" is mostly a construct of biology and culture. That does not make it wrong but you should be suspicious of it.

    As for the 'inconsistency', what Clark did was set up a few strawmen and shadowbox at them.

    If Clark had concluded with "…therefore atheists are wrong." then it would have been a straw man. But he only concluded that some atheists were incoherent. While his argument was pretty much crap his conclusion was surly true. But my reaction is Meh – so what? Some priests rape children. Any group of people is going to contain some wrong elements.

    I do think Clark is wrong about most atheist believing in objective "oughts". They are always pragmatic and goal dependent. Because we share biology and culture we are going to share goals and so share visions of ought. Because of the way we experience our biology and culture we reify those visions of oughts as a thing out there. That is just the Platonist instinct that affects many domains.

    Also I think it goes without saying that the incoherence of the atheist movement is dwarfed by the profound incoherence and illogic of the religious world.

  579. —But he only concluded that some atheists were incoherent. While his argument was pretty much crap his conclusion was surly true.—

    His argument was the equivalent of –

    Dogs oink
    Pigs are pink
    Therefore dogs are pink

    It was an untruth, followed by an incomplete, to draw an erroneous conclusion.

  580. R R Clark says:

    @ppnl

    Clark, uh, opened with "So atheists are wrong…" and proceeded into the "and here's why" without much ado.

    Please don't dissemble. For yourself or on behalf of Clark.

  581. jackn says:

    …based on 2,000 years of fused Hellenism and Christianity that has structured our malleable human minds ….

    Of course, there was a lot more time than 2000 years behind the evolution of culture and species. but i imagine you are unable to acknowledge time existing before the current era.

  582. Zak N. says:

    @Clark:

    Okay, I'm way late to the party and haven't had time to read all the comments so the point I want to make may have already been covered. I'm an atheist and view myself as a materialist. I deny the existence of anything either not physical or a collection of physical objects. In essence, I am the audience you attempted to address.

    Your argument can be summed up in a single assertion about what I believe:

    you think that there are ethical norms that are not merely pragmatic but objective and true

    I intensely disagree with this statement. I do not believe in objective and true ethical norms. I view ethical norms as moving goalposts that are part pragmatic and part historical accident. I claim ethical norms as operational principles whose utility can be debated on pragmatic and materialistic grounds. I reject and ignore all arguments surrounding ethical principles that aren't couched in pragmatic and materialistic terms.

    I consider ethical norms to be compelling to the degree that their pragmatic utility can be demonstrated. So a concept like the right to speech is strongly compelling because of the utility of the marketplace of ideas in increasing human lifespan (medicine, washing hands) and making life more enjoyable via debates such as this. However, ethical principles demanding I dress a certain way or be killed (e.g. the burqa in some places) are not compelling because I don't see a clear benefit and I don't want to be killed. Some of my wants are accidents of biology and culture over which I have little or no control.

    I need to define here what I mean by objective truth. One of the few objective truths I believe in is 'The entropy of the universe is always increasing'. It's true because it makes a claim about the world that has never been wrong. It is objective in the sense that it remains true even if everybody disagrees with it: shattered cups still won't spontaneously repair themselves and you won't run a car off of water. When I consider objective truth, that is my ideal.

    When I say things like "slavery is wrong" or "I have a right to speak", I don't mean that in an objective sense. Those statements are only true if the observer considers them true. If I want the right to speak, I need to convince other people to concede that right.

    Since I don't consider 'good' to be an objectively measurable truth, but defined by the situation, I completely avoid the contradiction you proposed. In essence, you built and burned a straw man.

    There is a diversion here about the difference between advocacy and philosophy. Since I view all rights and ethical principles as negotiated, if I have a principle that I am particularly interested in it behooves me to argue in language more forceful than I can philosophically support.

    This happens in the atheism advocacy push. It is relatively trivial to demonstrate that specific gods are not consistent with physical laws, have never been observed in a controlled context, and that all modern claims to miracles have mundane explanations (so it is safe in a Bayesian sense to conclude that all historic claims to miracles are identical in nature). As such I can safely deny the existence of all specifically claimed gods such as Jesus or Thor (Whom I link together because THOR AND JESUS is a particularly funny oath).

    However, when I do that the typical thinking believer dances back to the deist god: the non-acting, clock-maker intelligence. I cannot disprove that god. While I can demonstrate that it isn't relevant to consider that god from a physical standpoint, I must technically remain agnostic to that god.

    Doing so muddles a simple message: there is no god. For the purpose of advocacy and clarity of message I simply call myself an atheist. Concepts like justice and rights are similar in that I can't prove them and there is no objective standard for them, but to advocate my position effectively I often must speak as if there is.

  583. kjs3 says:

    What a depressing reminder that communities that I otherwise frequent and find enlightening still feature prominently those for whom vicious sophistry and rapid "change the definition of the argument when it's going against you" is a stand-in for insight.

  584. Fse says:

    True or false: American women had the right to vote in 1812.

    Ask ten random atheists, or even ten random people, and the overwhelming response will likely be "false". Likewise "Soviets had the right to free speech in 1950" or "German Jews had the same rights as every other German in 1941."

    There are good arguments for why everyone SHOULD have basic rights, without appealing to the supernatural. But the real outliers are those who believe that basic rights were there, invisibly, all along. It's a funny viewpoint that requires some magical thinking. No wonder it's so often rejected.

  585. Bobby says:

    Actually Clark,
    The problem is atheists are actually Deists or Agnostics or as in my case Agnostic Deists.
    I used to think I was an atheist too until about age 25-26 then agnostic until about age 36-42 and a deist as of about six months ago, but with extremely agnostic views as to the nature of the deus. Lysander Spooner had it right in his famous essay Natural Law.

  586. TPRJones says:

    Seriously, you think there are no real atheists?

    That's both ignorant and arrogant to an amazing degree.

  587. TPRJones says:

    That may have been a bit brusque. I shall expand a bit.

    I have always leaned towards atheism. I was forced to attend church throughout my childhood, but I never believed any of it in the slightest. I clearly remember my shock at age eight when I realized that my mother and her family actually believed that insane stuff, until then I thought pretending to believe was some sort of odd game adults played that I didn't understand yet. Although it would be fair to say I was still a bit agnostic at the time towards deism, but that changed by the time I graduated high school. I am 100% an unhesitant atheist.

    There was a brief time in college where I became a Zealous Agnostic ("No, I don't know, and neither do you or anyone else because there is no way to know anything" … I had been reading too much ancient Greek philosophy at the time, I'm afraid), but I outgrew that quickly.

    I will admit that it is theoretically possible I could be wrong and could be shown proof of the existence of some god, but only because I am always open to new reliable and verifiable information. But I rank that possibility as being about as likely as finding proof that the moon really is made of green cheese, or that it is regularly orbited by hyper-actively vaulting bovines.

  1. August 23, 2013

    […] a breathtakingly stupid post on Popehat with the following central […]

  2. August 25, 2013

    […] Clark is onto something on that score, don't you think? […]

  3. September 8, 2013

    […] at Popehat, Clark argues that "modern atheists have an incoherent world view." After a great deal […]

  4. September 29, 2013

    […] argued that he'd got materialism wrong. Someone asked how any atheist can avoid the conclusions of Alex Rosenberg. I slightly facetiously […]