The last nail in God’s coffin? Part 3

Last post I looked at one way the evidence for Christianity, or theism as Lennox prefers to label it, is obviously insufficient for the majority of people. I’ll continue on the topic of evidence, but this time tint it with faith. Lennox will return to faith in greater detail later in the book, so I’ll leave the real examination of it until when we get to there.

Lennox keeps on insisting that faith and evidence are intertwined. He claims that when Dawkins’ says that all religious faith is blind faith that:

It takes no great research effort to ascertain that no serious biblical scholar or thinker would support Dawkins’ definition of faith. Francis Collins [Christian] says of Dawkins definition of faith that it ‘certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers in history, nor most of those in my personal acquaintance… Alister McGrath [Christian] points out in his recent highly accessible assessment of Dawkins’ position that Dawkins has signally failed to engage with any serious Christian thinkers, whatsoever. (17)

My favorite answer to this is PZ Myers’ The Courtier’s Reply. In The God Delusion Dawkins lays out quite clearly why theism has failed to achieve enough evidence to be taken seriously as a viewpoint. As he believes theism has failed to acheive that, then there is little point in him engaging in the multifarious (and often conflicting views) that theists hold. Unravelling interpretations of Genesis 1 could be a lifetime work that need never even touch on the observable natural evidence.

So let’s take a brief and admittedly unfair look at the beliefs of the above quoted Francis Collins. To make a much fairer assessment of Collins you should check out his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In brief, Collins is a moderate who encourages a middle ground and a dialogue between science and religion, which are admirable goals in themselves. But in doing so he ascribes to sweeping statements of faith that go well beyond any evidence. Here are some quotes from the BioLogus Foundation founded by Collins:

We believe that God typically sustains the world using faithful, consistent processes that humans describe as “natural laws.”

We believe that God created humans in biological continuity with all life on earth, but also as spiritual beings.”

There is no observable evidence at all that God sustains the world or that that God created humans as spiritual beings, and so the “believe” used in “we believe” is exactly the blind faith that Dawkins describes. When Lennox says that “Collins’ point is important for it shows that the New atheists, in rejecting all faith as blind faith, are seriously undermining their own credibility” (17), I instead think that Lennox, in refusing to acknowledge that religious faith is opinion writ as evidence, is seriously undermining his own position.

83 thoughts on “The last nail in God’s coffin? Part 3

  1. Marco

    Those “we believe”s are working assumptions that should only be rejected with compelling evidence to the contrary – a bit like uniformity of the universe and continuity of time etc. Lennox goes into great detail in comparing these kinds of “we believes”. They are not important to Science because they do not say anything about science in themselves. They are important in interpreting “evidence” of the scriptures. In the same way that we can’t keep on challenging scientific theories based on the fact that uniformity isn’t proven – we cannot carte blanche challenge theology because these “we believe”s cant be proven.

    Reply
    1. winstoninabox Post author

      Those “we believe”s are working assumptions that should only be rejected with compelling evidence to the contrary – a bit like uniformity of the universe and continuity of time etc. Lennox goes into great detail in comparing these kinds of “we believes”. They are not important to Science because they do not say anything about science in themselves. They are important in interpreting “evidence” of the scriptures. In the same way that we can’t keep on challenging scientific theories based on the fact that uniformity isn’t proven – we cannot carte blanche challenge theology because these “we believe”s cant be proven.

      No, working assumptions “should not only be rejected with compelling evidence to the contrary”. A working assumption at some point needs evidence, else we end up in Flying Spaghetti Monster territory. That we are ‘spiritual beings’ is based on what evidence? Scientology claims we’ve got ancient and undetectable aliens living inside us. It can be read about that in their literature, so does that make it right? No. Can’t get any contrary evidence because they are undetectable? Must be right then.

      I don’t think so.

      Reply
  2. Marco

    I don’t know where you get the impression that the working assumptions of “science” have “evidence” any more than these “i believe”s have evidence in and of themselves. They are called assumptions because without them being true we cannot prove anything. What direct evidence do we have of the uniformity of the Universe? We just have the faith that the Universe exists that way, and wherever our maths doesn’t work out – it is because of something else we don’t understand, rather than evidence that it isn’t uniform.

    You’ll be eating your own words when they find flying spaghetti monsters inside comets. I don’t think we should prejudice either the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory, nor the ancient and undetectable aliens living inside us until predictions that those “theories” make turn out to be false. If specifics of the theory cannot be tested (once I mention where we should look for these flying monsters – the theory becomes in a way testable, since we may be looking inside comets within our lifetime) that aspect cannot be called a science. If you have no followers of a theory – it cannot be called a religion.Working assumptions by their very definition do not have evidence – I have no problem if people believe in things that sound rediculous without proof. The flying spaghetti reference has no resonance with me. I would happily give people that honestly believe it the same latitude as those that believe in God.

    The Soviet Union pushed atheism onto their citizens in a harmful way – I don’t think the “lack of God” makes ideologies any less problematic from a selfish meme point of view.

    Reply
  3. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    An assumption is by definition something that has no evidence. A working assumption should not be *contradicted* by evidence: that is all.

    The evidence that we are spiritual beings is the same experiential (i.e., ‘experimental’) evidence that we have for anything else. Just as many of us look at our hands and have chemical responses in our brains which we interpret to mean that they have ‘veins’ in them, many of us look at aspects of the universe and have chemical responses in our brains which we interpret to mean that the universe contains a ‘spiritual’ component.

    Reply
  4. winstoninabox Post author

    @Chris
    Assumptions, working or otherwise, obviously go through a vetting process, which may or may not be unconscious, before even being uttered. If they didn’t then our working assumptions would include all possible assumptions, even contradictory ones! 

    Your example of veins is not compatible with spiritual being. Vein is a concrete noun, and is easily definable. No one would argue that something exists in our hands, and we can apply a name for it. But the application of ‘spiritual’ to ‘being’ says that there is some quality about the being that we are trying to define beyond its mere existence. A ‘tall being’ a ‘heavy being’ and a ‘spiritual being’ all require something to measure the feature being described. Height and weight are readily definable, and while we might have opinions based on experience about ‘how high is tall?’ or ‘how weighty is heavy?’ we all agree that these two features of the being are observable and measurable. ‘How spiritual is this being?’ is a question that also requires an agreed upon measure for definition, otherwise there is confusion as to what we’re talking about. Once that conversation begins evidence will come into play in making the definition.

    Reply
  5. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    Let’s try that again. If you remember the liner notes from Sting’s second solo album, winstoninabox, you’ll remember an anecdote about a drunk accosting Sting with the words “How beautiful is the moon? How beautiful is the moon?” (To which the answer he gave was of course from Shakespeare “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”)

    Beauty is non-quantifiable. The evidence that beauty exists is human experience of beauty; the evidence that a ‘spiritual dimension’ exists is human experience of the numinous.

    You asked the question: “That we are ‘spiritual beings’ is based on what evidence?” *That* is the evidence. You can deny that evidence as non-quantifiable and non-admissable: but you will not be able to attack religion successfully if you do so, because that is the foundation it rests on.

    Reply
    1. winstoninabox Post author

      @ Chris
      Yes, let’s try again. I’ve snipped your reply to focus on the key parts.

      “Beauty is non-quantifiable. The evidence that beauty exists is human experience of beauty; the evidence that a ‘spiritual dimension’ exists is human experience of the numinous.

      You asked the question: “That we are ‘spiritual beings’ is based on what evidence?” *That* is the evidence. You can deny that evidence as non-quantifiable and non-admissable: but you will not be able to attack religion successfully if you do so, because that is the foundation it rests on.”

      Yes, beauty is quantifiable. But unlike the physical properties of a thing which are independent of our perception of it, beauty is quantifiable only because of our perception of beauty. Were the human race to die tomorrow in the zombie apocalypse, beauty too would die with it.

      If you’re saying that ‘the spiritual’ exists only as our perception or it, then I’ve no problem. But if you’re saying that ‘the spiritual’ exists independent of our perception of it, then I have to ask, “By what evidence did you come to that?”

      Reply
  6. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    1. Now you’re talking! The argument about whether ‘beauty’ exists only as our perception of it is much more interesting than a second-rate theist response to a third-rate atheist tract (IMHO). I am reluctant to accept your premise that beauty would die if humanity were to die tomorrow in the zombie apocalypse (and not solely based on the well-known beauty of oozing brain tissue in zombie aesthetics) because to me it is the most exposed outlier of a number of things that are often considered to be only human creations. I must defend beauty as something that exists whether or not there are sentients around to appreciate it, in the same way as I must believe that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ would be a true command for hypothetical humans in a universe where humans did not exist, because I know that the next target of this trend of thought is “2+2=4”: for mathematical truth has also been denigrated as something that only exists in sentient minds.

    But that’s not important right now…

    2. The statement of Collins’ that we are ‘spiritual beings’ can be interpreted in any number of ways; I am always encouraged by my contrarian enthusiasm to defend the indefensible, but I would urge you to accept the following ‘weak’ version:

    ‘Humans are spiritual beings’ is a true statement about human psychology that has to be taken into account whether or not ‘spirituality’ only exists as our perception of it.

    3. Quoth our esteemed host: “But if you’re saying that ‘the spiritual’ exists independent of our perception of it, then I have to ask, “By what evidence did you come to that?””

    I have no evidence that anything exists independent of my perception of it, except that the universe appears to be a much more logical, self-consistent, and satisfactory place if I make this assumption. The nugget of my point is, I guess, that I have no grounds for arbitrarily rejecting spiritual experience as a valid part of this reality that exists independent of myself: it is just like any other sort of experience.

    Reply
    1. winstoninabox Post author

      1. Now you’re talking! The argument about whether ‘beauty’ exists only as our perception of it is much more interesting than a second-rate theist response to a third-rate atheist tract (IMHO). I am reluctant to accept your premise that beauty would die if humanity were to die tomorrow in the zombie apocalypse (and not solely based on the well-known beauty of oozing brain tissue in zombie aesthetics) because to me it is the most exposed outlier of a number of things that are often considered to be only human creations. I must defend beauty as something that exists whether or not there are sentients around to appreciate it, in the same way as I must believe that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ would be a true command for hypothetical humans in a universe where humans did not exist, because I know that the next target of this trend of thought is “2+2=4”: for mathematical truth has also been denigrated as something that only exists in sentient minds.

      Feel free to defend them, but I believe that beauty and ‘Thou shalt not kill’ are human concepts that would not exist if we were to disappear. That we can share an experience that we collectively call ‘beauty’, or collectively believe that ‘to kill is wrong’ is not proof of their existence. Especially since our concept of what these are may change from individual to individual over time or situation, with the only remaining characteristic of them being that we can still agree to collectively call them what we called them before the change.

      Even if there are other creatures on Earth that have these concepts, I doubt (but have no evidence, so this is my opinion) that these creatures don’t, nor ever could have, the same concept that we do of beauty or killing.

      Mathematical truths are more difficult… I remember a few years ago a discussion on the TORG boards about whether math belongs in the Tech or Social Axiom. Fascinating stuff for a discussion about an RPG. They are concepts, but we can collectively agree exactly on their meanings. And even if the concept changes over time, the agreement remains. IIRC the result of the discussion was that the concept of Math is Social, the use of Math is Tech. Math as Tech was treated as a Tool, but a Tool of the mind. IIRC, that is.

      2. The statement of Collins’ that we are ‘spiritual beings’ can be interpreted in any number of ways; I am always encouraged by my contrarian enthusiasm to defend the indefensible, but I would urge you to accept the following ‘weak’ version:

      ‘Humans are spiritual beings’ is a true statement about human psychology that has to be taken into account whether or not ‘spirituality’ only exists as our perception of it.

      [To quote ‘The Princess Bride’] As you wish…

      3. Quoth our esteemed host: “But if you’re saying that ‘the spiritual’ exists independent of our perception of it, then I have to ask, “By what evidence did you come to that?””

      I have no evidence that anything exists independent of my perception of it, except that the universe appears to be a much more logical, self-consistent, and satisfactory place if I make this assumption. The nugget of my point is, I guess, that I have no grounds for arbitrarily rejecting spiritual experience as a valid part of this reality that exists independent of myself: it is just like any other sort of experience.

      The problem I see is that I can make the same claim from the opposite point of view. Which leaves us at agree to disagree.

      Reply
  7. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    You are free to reject beauty, good, and mathematical truth, of course, but for me it is a psychological impossibility: I would descend into a black nihilistic despair with strong elements of sociopathic Super-Villainy that would not make life pleasant for any of my fellow Earthlings.

    So you are saying that you have no grounds for arbitrarily *accepting* spiritual experience as a valid part of this reality? And are happy to lump it in with aesthetics and ethics as unimportant epiphenomena of no interest to hardboiled rationalist sentients? Dif-tor heh smusma!

    Reply
    1. winstoninabox Post author

      Chris:
      You are free to reject beauty, good, and mathematical truth, of course, but for me it is a psychological impossibility: I would descend into a black nihilistic despair with strong elements of sociopathic Super-Villainy that would not make life pleasant for any of my fellow Earthlings.

      winstoninabox:
      Don’t tell me brother that. His belief is that without god to guide their decisions atheists are sociopaths that want to eat their own children and steal the purses from little old ladies as they walk down the street.

      Chris:
      So you are saying that you have no grounds for arbitrarily *accepting* spiritual experience as a valid part of this reality? And are happy to lump it in with aesthetics and ethics as unimportant epiphenomena of no interest to hardboiled rationalist sentients? Dif-tor heh smusma!

      winstoninabox:
      Yes. See the above. My brother is right. Bwahahahahaha!

      Reply
  8. Nathanael Small

    Some rules I’ve recently come across that I’m resolving to follow (and would appreciate you doing the same)
    Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not hold.
    Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.
    Represent your opponents’ position in its strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.
    Seek to persuade, not antagonize–but watch your motives!
    Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing theology–because only God sees the heart.
    It is number one that I am most interested in:
    Attribute to antagonist no opinion that he does not own, though it be a necessary consequence. In other words, even if you believe that Mr A’s belief X could lead others who hold belief X to hold belief Y, do not accuse Mr A of holding belief Y if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent but this is not the same as insisting that he holds belief Y when he does not….A similar move happens when we imply or argue that if Mr A quotes a particular author favourably at any point then Mr A must hold all the views held by the author. If through guilt by association we hint or insist that he must hold other beliefs of that particular author then we are both alienating and misrepresenting our opponent.

    Reply
  9. Nathanael

    Chris:
    So you are saying that you have no grounds for arbitrarily *accepting* spiritual experience as a valid part of this reality? And are happy to lump it in with aesthetics and ethics as unimportant epiphenomena of no interest to hardboiled rationalist sentients? Dif-tor heh smusma!

    winstoninabox:
    Yes.

    Nathanael:
    So are you or aren’t you happy to lump spiritual experience in with ethics?
    I find your humour often impossible to discern in written form.
    If yes, then if there are no grounds for accepting ethics how do we have any agreed framework for what is right and wrong, good and evil (pick your opposing moral concepts) and not descend into complete sociopaths that want to eat their own children and steal the purses from little old ladies as they walk down the street?

    Reply
    1. winstoninabox Post author

      Nathanael:
      So are you or aren’t you happy to lump spiritual experience in with ethics?

      winstoninabox:
      Spiritual experience would be with ethics. Ethics, like spirituality would be gone if disappeared.

      Nathanael:
      If yes, then if there are no grounds for accepting ethics how do we have any agreed framework for what is right and wrong, good and evil (pick your opposing moral concepts) and not descend into complete sociopaths that want to eat their own children and steal the purses from little old ladies as they walk down the street?

      winstoninabox:
      What do you mean by ‘no grounds for accepting ethics’? I don’t understand how the acceptance of ethics has anything to do with it existing beyond our perception of it.

      Reply
  10. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    “I don’t understand how the acceptance of ethics has anything to do with it existing beyond our perception of it.”

    My scientific, contrarian temperament leads me to reject all human constructions as bogus. So only speaking for myself, it is a psychological necessity for me to believe that ethics exist beyond our human perception of them. You might be the same, Nathanael. I am aware that this is not a universal necessity: I am out on the far end of the bell curve, and most people are more willing to conform to the unexamined practices and beliefs of their peer group.

    (Hey, as an exercise try replacing ‘ethics’ with ‘God’ in the statement quoted above and consider how you would respond to a theist who made such a statement, winstoninabox! Since from where I stand the two statements are logically congruent.)

    Reply
  11. winstoninabox Post author

    Chris: “So only speaking for myself, it is a psychological necessity for me to believe that ethics exist beyond our human perception of them.”

    Which seems to say that you agree with me, but prefer to see it your way 😉

    Chris: “I am aware that this is not a universal necessity: I am out on the far end of the bell curve, and most people are more willing to conform to the unexamined practices and beliefs of their peer group.”

    Or, most people can’t observe ethics beyond the collective agreement of their peer group and so say that these ethics which we speak of aren’t real in the sense that they exist beyond this collective agreement. I don’t see that this is a problem and feel no need to sink into a deep funk because we’ve identified one more collective agreement that we hold to.

    Reply
  12. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    I’m confused… I don’t hold to collective agreements, so I’m saying I *have* to believe in ethics existing outside of our perception of them. Thus I am *psychologically incapable* of agreeing with you. 😉

    So: If you are happy to act as though ethics are ‘true’ because of a collective agreement you adhere to without evidence, why should it bother you that people act as if a God existed because of a collective agreement they adhere to without evidence?

    Reply
    1. winstoninabox Post author

      You don’t hold to collective agreements? Really? You think that way because you grew up agreeing to them every day of your life. Now that you’re an adult you see your perceptions as fully formed and so can say ‘look how individual I am’, but you forget that the journey to there was via language that you never made, by relationships that you had no choice in and experiences that are yours alone, but that others can relate to because they’ve had similar experiences. Two people who have never met can both laugh at Cleese’s walk in ‘The Germans’ in “Fawlty Towers” and cry when Tinkerbell dies. Yet someone else may watch in disbelief at those same occurrences. If the chemicals in our brains were a little different then those experiences wouldn’t exist at all, and we wouldn’t even be having these conversations.

      I’m not bothered by people believing in a god. I disagree with them and I can question their lack of evidence for the belief. I can even see that ‘you can’t prove me wrong so I may be right’ may be right. But bothered, no. Though I do hope that theist explanations for nature aren’t taught as science.I think that would be bad science.

      Lennox himself admits that most science is not like cosmology – it is more about debating the experimental evidence. Lennox is surfing on the edge of scientific knowledge in looking for admittance for theist explanations. He’s not doing ‘God of the Gaps’ but ‘God of the Fringes’.

      Reply
  13. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    Nuh-uh. Shared experiences are not collective agreements.

    I use language and obey road rules of my own free will because I see the usefulness of them. For instance, I have just blocked some silly tweep for being proscriptive about using the construction ‘v. off of n.’

    I obey rules that I see as stupid which are laid down by society under grudging duress and to the minimum I can get away with, solely because of the threat of punishment if I disobey. I obey rules that I see as non-stupid because *I* consider they are useful. I consider *all* rules made by sentient beings a mere tissue of pus and nonsense compared to the transcendental true rules of ethics.

    Reply
    1. winstoninabox Post author

      My point is that you didn’t get these agreements of your own free will. You weren’t born with the language(s) you use. Same with the family and friends that formed you before you could understand that family and friends could be chosen. That you now can choose them yourself, and the road rules too, is the end of a process that you had little control over.
      And we all have these experiences. We can agree on the meaning of this language that we are using right now. But if all the English speakers in the world were to disappear, so would English. It is our collective experience of it that keeps it alive. As with humour too. Why do we both laugh at the same things even in TV show even though we have lived different lives. We can agree on the collective meaning of humour. If we all die out, it is sadly the day humour as we know it dies too.

      Reply
      1. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        My point is simply that if I thought ethics were merely a shared agreement like language or NSW traffic regulations I would preject them as something arbitrarily imposed on me.

        This is in response to your query ot Nathanael: “What do you mean by ‘no grounds for accepting ethics’? I don’t understand how the acceptance of ethics has anything to do with it existing beyond our perception of it.”

        Reply
      2. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        Of course, the real problem is not the danger that Nathanael and I will start running amuck and eating pork or buying health insurance.

        The problem is what happens when one set of ‘collective agreements’ run into a different set of ‘collective agreements’. For example, our modern Western ‘collective agreement’ is that homosexuals are tickety-boo. The ‘collective agreement’ of Ahmadinejad et al. is that homosexuals should be hanged by the neck until dead. What are your grounds for saying that we are right and they are wrong, if ethics are just a matter of collective agreement? Hmm? That’s the problem. If there is nothing existing to ethics beyond our perception of them, you are just being a big bully when you tell Ahmadinejad that he can’t use the ethics that suit him best.

        Imagine where we would be today if, when Whitlam commanded the sacrifice of the firstborn to Nyarlathotep, Governor-General Kerr had said: “Okay, those ethics work for you, go for it”. No; he said: “You can’t do that. It’s wrong.” (Or maybe it was Faith who said that, when she swapped bodies with Buffy. I get the Dismissal and the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer confused because I picked them up at the same time on the radio in my head.)

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          The problem is what happens when one set of ‘collective agreements’ run into a different set of ‘collective agreements’.

          We don’t even need to go to different collectives. Schisms are evidence that people can agree on so much collectively, and yet still have great divisions.

          Reply
  14. Marco

    Fringes and Gaps? absolutely. One thing I “learned” from reading the book is that through lazy use of Ockham’s razor in evolutionary science – evolution of the gaps and of the fringes (say abiogenesis) is at least as bad. I agreed with him on this point while disagreeing vehemently that God is a better explanation (it is even simpler, and thus an even worse scientific use of Ockham’s razor). Virtually all scientists would disagree with me – at least until they discover I was right about the comets.
    I have included an alternative to Ockham’s razor in my marconomics principles – Marcomony instead of parsimony.

    Reply
  15. Nathanael

    I’m interested in what a shared definition of God of the Gaps actually is, given Lennox explicitly states he’s against a lazy God of the Gaps thinking on page 34.

    Reply
    1. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

      Wikipedia has it down pat: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_of_the_gaps

      Lennox can say explicitly that he is against this, but “by their fruit you shall know them” and his Chapters 7-9 are pure ‘God of the Gaps’ thinking. He highlights gaps in scientific knowledge with lots and lots of quotes and he *does not bother* to consider the many *scientific* hypotheses floating around to address these gaps, instead, he takes the gaps as evidence for the existence of God.

      Reply
      1. Marco

        To me, Lennox highlighted how lazy scientists are in addressing the gaps. I almost got the feeling that it was like – if scientists can arbitrarily say that random mutations and natural selection *have* filled the gap, it excuses theists from saying God *has* filled the gap. Hypotheses to address these gaps are few and far between, while “just so” evolutionary explanations abound. God of the Gaps is still alive and well and so is evolution of the gaps. Repeatable experiments and even numerical simulations can address these, but I get the feeling theists and scientists alike would rather just state that they have resolved the gap to their satisfaction and move on.

        Reply
  16. winstoninabox Post author

    But you see the problem, right? It’s not that divisions exist, it is how anyone can ever legitimately say “We are right and you are wrong” without some *unviersal* ethics.

    I see what you’re saying. I understand why you believe it a problem.
    I don’t see it as a problem.
    Until we ascend to being a hive-mind (or the Borg win) we will be human, I find that a fascinating and paradoxical existence. Obviously legitimacy matters to you. And it seems to be a concern about the legitimacy to wield power. But is that a concern that others will take the power illegitimately, or that you yourself are unwilling to wield it because of a lack of legitimacy?
    A said in “Jaws” the greatest horror movie ever made sharks eat, swim and make baby sharks. It isn’t concerned about legitimacy of action. It’s brain isn’t wired that way. I’m sure I had a point about mentioning “Jaws”… off to work.

    Reply
    1. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

      winstoninabox: Obviously legitimacy matters to you. And it seems to be a concern about the legitimacy to wield power. But is that a concern that others will take the power illegitimately, or that you yourself are unwilling to wield it because of a lack of legitimacy?

      More the latter, I suppose. I don’t want *anyone* to wield power illegitimately. I don’t understand how anyone can see why I believe this is a problem and not see it as a problem… but then, I don’t understand people at all after 42 years of interacting with them 24/7!

      Reply
      1. Marco

        I don’t understand how anyone can see why I believe this is a problem and not see it as a problem…

        I gather that is because Winston doesn’t mind having a contradictory aspect to his worldview, even though contradictions is what scientists use as ways to prove things *Not true*. To square the circle, he doesn’t think that contradictions are used by scientists to prove things not true, despite evidence to the contrary. He described it as a “fascinating and paradoxical existence”.

        I call it *Bollocks*. It is a lazy person’s world view.

        Reply
      2. winstoninabox Post author

        To answer both Chris and Nathanael,
        Having ethics as something that exists beyond our perception of it doesn’t solve the problem of legitimacy. You don’t get to choose which ethics make it into this set and which don’t. It must contain all the views of ethics that people could collectively have, even the one’s you may vehemently oppose.
        So, as usual in these cases the goal posts have been shifted and the argument becomes about how you chose your ethics from this set. Nathanael wants to choose them based on his interpretation of the words of his god. Fine, that works for him, but to then call my method of selecting ethics a lazy person’s view? Really?
        When you join a religion you subscribe to a whole suit of ethical choices that you can’t possibly know all of, but have already been decided for you simply by joining the religion. And it doesn’t matter what experiences life teaches you, or what science learns about the natural world, or what other ethics present to you, your choices can’t change beyond a certain point because they’ve all been decided for you. By a god, no less so you really don’t won’t to get it wrong or question it too much.
        Somehow I can’t really be offended at being called ethically lazy by someone who’s wilfully abdicated the limits of their ethics to a supernatural being.

        Reply
      3. Marco

        Somehow I can’t really be offended at being called ethically lazy by someone who’s wilfully abdicated the limits of their ethics to a supernatural being.

        I think it was just me using the lazy terminology, and I haven’t abdicated to a supernatural being. The point is that one can avoid being a moral relativist, have a consistent ethical worldview without one, but it leaves the question open – if not God, then who is the universal arbiter?

        Reply
      4. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        It must contain all the views of ethics that people could collectively have, even the ones you may vehemently oppose.

        It *cannot* contain all the views of ethics that people could collectively have, because this would make it a mass of contradictions. In the same way, mathematics cannot contain all the views that people could collectively have of mathematics, because a lot of those people are clueless and bad at maths. Recognising the universality of ethics is not a magic 8-ball solution conferring legitimacy on some particular set of rules we pull out of a hat, just a first step on the road.

        Here is a fill-in-the-blank question for you:

        Ahmadinejad: Woohoo, time to hang some poofters by the neck until dead!

        winstoninabox: Don’t do that.

        Ahmadinejad: Why?

        winstoninabox: {Your reply goes here}

        😉

        Reply
      1. Marco

        Plausible replies:
        (1) – Killing is wrong. (moral absolute)
        (2) Because if you do that, the US is more likely to send bombs/postcards/drones, and you don’t want that. (pragmatism)
        (3) Can’t you let them off with a warning? (Negotiated compromise)

        Reply
      2. winstoninabox Post author

        Chris:
        You’re not really concerned with what the action is, but the legitimacy of the action. The two are not the same and legitimacy trumps the action itself. Whether it’s cutting your neighbours rose buds off in spite or stretching his neck because of his abominable sexual practices, if one has ethical legitimacy they are the same – legitimate.

        Nathanael:
        I said you’d abdicated the limits of your limits of your ethics to a supernatural being. For example, you believe being gay is a sin. If tomorrow science were to discover the gay gene, or protein, or whatever, this couldn’t change your position. That position has been decreed by your subscription to those ethics, so even if gays were found to be born that way, they still being gay is still a sin. An extreme example, but my point is that subscribing to those ethics has frozen your ethical stance to 2000 years ago.
        And another point is that choosing a supernatural being as a source for ethics means you never have to consider the arguments for or against something. You just need to hear the proposition to know whether you support it or not. The validity of the arguments supporting the proposition have zero merit if the proposition itself contains points you’ve already had ethically decided for you. So if someone were to even try and tell you about the gay gene you can safely cut them off and say it doesn’t matter what has been found, my mind is already decided on this issue.

        Reply
      3. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        Whoa, whoa, whoa. Just going into bat here for Nathanael. No Christian, anywhere, has ever said being gay is a sin. Homosexual *acts* are sinful, just like almost all imaginable heterosexual acts are sinful. The existence or not of a ‘gay gene’ is totally irrelevant, just as the discovery of a gene that gave a small fraction of the population an irrational hatred of roses would be irrelevant.

        Reply
      4. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        You’re not really concerned with what the action is, but the legitimacy of the action. The two are not the same and legitimacy trumps the action itself. Whether it’s cutting your neighbours rose buds off in spite or stretching his neck because of his abominable sexual practices, if one has ethical legitimacy they are the same – legitimate.

        I can’t extract any meaningful content from this paragraph. Are you telling Ahmadinejad ‘go for it’?

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          A troll?!? Are you kidding!!! I’ve got 81 replies to this post. Eighty-one! For my little blog that’s been going a few weeks I’m ecstatic (OK, it’s the same 4 people going around and around and around. The same 4 people from 5 1/2 years ago on WW, but… eighty-one!!!).

          One other reason I wanted to do this blog was to practice writing again. I had been rarely writing anything beyond lesson plans (as if) and pre-school level English. That I’m having the chance to write out complicated ideas in a manner such that others can understand them is fantastic. And when I do get that clear explanation out there and you’ll agree with me and be happy to have learned something new and be kicking yourself for not having thought of it 😉

          Reply
  17. Nathanael

    Chris – self citation is fine, but perhaps just cut & paste the key point/s you wish you make.
    You writing’s so erudite my brain that rejected Mr.VJ’s poor attempts to teach me chemistry in Year 11 is hurting worse than a Monty Python Gumby’s.

    Reply
  18. Nathanael

    Ethics is never a problem in the world of theory.
    It becomes a problem when another individual’s or collective ethics schism with your view in a way that directly threatens your existence.
    That’s when things get gnarly.

    Reply
    1. Marco

      What I want to know is how Australia justifies pushing its own ethics onto our Asian neighbours. Primarily in how (in) humanely Indonesia treat their cattle, and whether Japan can hunt whales.

      Ethical legitimacy would seem to be an issue for whether the laws of the country in question have been broken, not at all an issue where a claim that Humane values are an international issue. Why do we feel that we can, and must, say “don’t do that”

      Reply
      1. winstoninabox Post author

        From the Japanese perspective? It comes up here less than you’d think. Pretty much only when someone from Sea Shepard gets filmed jumping on a whaling ship. I haven’t heard it talked about in at least a year. The people I’ve talked to wonder what the problems is – why it’s OK to eat cows but not whales.

        Reply
  19. winstoninabox Post author

    And I’ll happily amend the wording to homosexual acts.
    The gay gene stands though. My point is that homosexual acts being sinful will never change irrespective of any new information, or any new thinking. It is frozen in a decision made 2000 years ago. In this hypothetical case being gay is proven to be biologically determined, but that doesn’t alter the Christian’s position. If you don’t like the example then throw it out. It’s just meant to be representative of the particular kind of ethics that I wouldn’t like to subscribe to.

    Scientist: We’ve discovered something new about that situation that you think is ethically wrong (or right).
    Christian: There’s no need to inform me of this new information. My choice in this matter is decided already and will never change unless the scripture on which it is based is given a new interpretation.

    Reply
  20. winstoninabox Post author

    I can’t extract any meaningful content from this paragraph. Are you telling Ahmadinejad ‘go for it’?

    I’m saying that my action is irrelevant. The question is irrelevant. Only the legitimacy for the action, whatever that action may be, is relevant. And we’ve no agreement on how to decide that legitimacy.
    Ahmadinejad may state that his ethics, which are taken from the words of his god, give a big OK to this lynching. I’m guessing that you’d still think his actions are wrong despite validation from a higher power.

    Reply
    1. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

      Okay. So, we have no agreement on how to decide the legitimacy of an action. That’s obvious for present values of ‘we’. How do you, personally, decide the legitimacy of an action? Given that you wouldn’t like to subscribe to the particular kind of ethics where legitimacy is conferred with reference to an omniscient and omnibenevolent being existing outside the universe, what would you say to Mr Ahmadinejad?

      Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          You’ve lost me.
          That my lynch-happy friend and I both have a set of ethics is no different us both having a common language that we communicated with.
          Should we all die out, those ethics disappear from the universe just as our language would.

          Reply
      1. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        And I am just apocalyptically bad at explaining myself, it would appear. 😦
        *Why* should this ‘do unto others’ meme be binding on someone who does not agree with it? You are assuming that you and your homophobic-pal-who’s-not-fun-to-be-with(TM) have some common ethics. But you don’t; you know you don’t. (BTW: you don’t have a common language, either; you had a translator, Mr Smokes-too-Much)

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          We may also have a common sense of humor. We may also both laugh at the same thing even though we have never met before and never seen this agreed-upon funny thing before. But that doesn’t mean humor exists separate to us. And ethics too.

          I’m afraid that the point is lost on me…

          Reply
      2. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        You don’t have a common sense of humour. The parameters of this hypothetical are that you will laugh at *none* of the same jokes. The point is that your ethics “as determined by collective agreement” are not the same. How, then, are you justified in telling him ‘do unto others’ as if he should care?

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          “collective agreement” doesn’t mean that all people have the same ethics. It means, as in the case of language, that we are born into ethics that we didn’t make and have little power to change and we agree to use these collection of ethics. We may use them selectively, just as we selectively use words and idioms of our language, we may never encounter some ethics just as we never learn some words, but that’s about all the power we have over the ethics themselves.

          Is this the reason for my confusion?

          Reply
      3. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        I give up. You are saying, if I understand you correctly, that ‘we’ are born into culturally-determined ethics which we are powerless to change and that ‘we’ have no grounds whatsoever for challenging the ethics of another culture. Stuff that for a lark.

        Reply
      4. Marco

        Stuff that for a lark.

        If that means you don’t like that, fair enough. If that means you’ve evidence to the contrary, what is it?

        From what I can tell if there was a quiz “are you a moral relativist?” Winston would score very high. That is not to say that that Winston is a moral relativist – I perceive that there are situations such as in the “do unto others” rule, that Winston would act as if the ethical law was *Universal* and would be willing to be bound by it regardless of negative personal consequences, and would argue for that ethical law regardless of the ethical background of the person he was arguing against. The ethical instinct would be almost as strong as an addiction, but perceived to be a “good” habit. The “good” being an absolute imperative, but only in a human/humanity context.

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          BTW. I miss the daily posts.

          It is hard to do now that work has started again. Friday and Saturday night after work I started drinking. Not the best for commenting…
          Tonight I’m off to “The Hobbit, so I’ll see how it goes. Maybe something short.

          Reply
      5. Nathanael Small

        Bro, are you claiming we are powerless to change the ethics within ourselves, within the culture, or both?

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          Culture. I’d hoped that the language analogue had made it clearer.
          And I didn’t say ‘powerless’. I said ‘little power to’. It is an important difference to say no power compared to some small power.

          Reply
      6. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        If that means you don’t like that, fair enough. If that means you’ve evidence to the contrary, what is it?

        There is no evidence either way.

        Pragmatically, a culture that adhered to your philosophy (as summarised by me, so maybe not your philosophy exactly) would soon be annihilated by cultures with more robust philosophies. And an individual that consciously adhered to ‘your’ philosophy would suffer all the psychological disadvantages of a deterministic religious philosophy like Calvinism or Mutahzilite Islam without any compensating advantages that I can see. It is not a fruitful philosophy for improving the ethics of a culture (however ‘improving’ is defined) nor for facilitating intercultural interactions. It is sterile and useless.

        Which may of course just be another way of saying ‘I don’t like that’ 😉

        Yrs Pragmatically…

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          Which may of course just be another way of saying ‘I don’t like that’ 😉

          That’s probably the case. It’s very hard to imagine how something could work different to how we think it must work. I wonder if people only believe that there are immutable ethics because in our societies we live in a kind of middle ground – neither a utopian nor despotic regime – so we are afforded the luxury of believing that there are actions we would or wouldn’t take because they are right or wrong.

          Reply
      7. Nathanael

        Wow.
        Lazy, sterile, useless, pragmatic moral relativism.
        The hits just keep on coming.
        Bro I’m still getting my head around how to track blog comments and conversations.
        I’m now getting a weekly summary to see if I’ve missed anything.
        This is the closest I’ve come to actually understanding your claims and the resultant world view.
        If you need to go to weekly posting that’s fine.
        Your last post you played the ball better than anything to date, which was really helpful.
        What would be great is if when any of us ask a question or make a statement about what we perceive you to be saying to clarify ASAP as it fills in the gaps faster.
        While Marco may miss the daily posts I’m much more a fan of quality than quantity.

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          Wow.
          Lazy, sterile, useless, pragmatic moral relativism.
          The hits just keep on coming.

          Who is hitting? Who is being hit? What? Where?
          Lazy? Really, I thought it was the other way around, as I (tried) to explain the other day. New information or discoveries come but it doesn’t matter to one who has had their ethics already decided by someone else 2000 years ago. Those people don’t even need to know the information or discoveries. That sounds pretty lazy to me.

          I’m now getting a weekly summary to see if I’ve missed anything.
          This is the closest I’ve come to actually understanding your claims and the resultant world view.

          Please remember the posts are about why GU isn’t a good book. It’s in the comments where we’re straying off into what-ifs and who-think-this territory.

          Your last post you played the ball better than anything to date, which was really helpful.

          Really? I thought it was obvious filler so that I could get something out before going to the movies…

          Reply
      8. Marco

        I think the secular humanist and new atheist philosophies need to be careful of how they steer away from Moral Relativism. They don’t have the luxury as individuals like me or Winston to have an inconsistent moral philosophy. An inconsistent philosophy will be caught out by contradiction. ie. in a lie. If they rely, as they appear to claim, that all the most basic of ethics are common across all cultures, and thus inborn, they can be easily proved wrong. Any young child can be brought up to be a violent Nihilist – just see how they do it in sub Saharan African conflicts. Thus, without any evidentiary justification, human values have to be given a sense of importance by these newish philosophies, without any reference to how humanity instilled those in people when individually, they could be more successful without adhering to them.

        Reply
        1. winstoninabox Post author

          If they rely, as they appear to claim, that all the most basic of ethics are common across all cultures, and thus inborn, they can be easily proved wrong.

          Just because something is common across all culture doesn’t mean it is ‘inborn’. Do children who have been raised separate from society have a sense of ethics, or do they learn ethics from the society to which they are eventually rehabilitated into? I don’t know, but I’d pretty much think the latter. Except Tarzan, but then he was of genius level IQ and pretty much taught himself the ethics of the Empire from a book…

          Reply
      9. Marco

        . Do children who have been raised separate from society have a sense of ethics, or do they learn ethics from the society to which they are eventually rehabilitated into?

        The evidence from African child soldier conditioning seems to indicate that they are essentially unrehabitable. The problem of a large population of unrehabitable nihilists that know how to use guns is virtually unsolvable without massacres of eachother or suicides.

        Reply
  21. Marco

    Do unto others is an ethical meme common to virtually all religions and ethical codes (as is the belief in God). One can follow it or not (as you can believe in God or not). It is hard to teach to someone Autistic as they do not have empathy in the way neurotypicals do. It is not necessarily an inborn ethic – it is learned, for most people, not from evidence, but an a priori directive or imperative from their parents or whomever. One can get real personal advantage in life by selectively ignoring it when there is no possible downside.

    Reply

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