December 15, 2006

Silence calls to silence...

James Wood writes critically, sympathetically, and brilliantly on contemporary atheist polemics.

Posted by Dr. Frank at December 15, 2006 02:31 AM | TrackBack

Whatever. You like this, I like this:

You're gonna hate it.

Posted by: josh at December 15, 2006 03:51 PM

Georges Rey's reputation certainly precedes him, but you're right, Josh: I find that article to be rather unimpressive, though I have no doubt that human understanding is indeed rife with self-deception.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 15, 2006 04:51 PM

He was awesome in Videodrome! And Debbie Harry, too -- hubba hubba!

Posted by: JamesWoodNo1Fan at December 15, 2006 07:43 PM

post script: I have to admit, Josh, I found it difficult to believe the notes at that link were actually written by a professor of philosophy, so I went looking around. They were, in fact, as it turns out; but here's the subsequent "real" essay, in which he tries harder:

Belief in God is not reasonable; most people are reasonable; hence, most people who believe in God do not believe in God. You could just as easily say: materialism is not reasonable; most materialists are reasonable; hence, most materialists are not materialists. You could plug in anything. Exploring the psychology of individuals who appear to fit the description of the syllogism's paradoxical conclusion is hardly an argument for the validity of the major premise, so it's difficult to see what is accomplished by doing it. (Not to mention the fact that the minor premise is, in my experience, highly dubious as well!) Anyhow substituting psychology for metaphysics doesn't actually make the metaphysics disappear.

Of course, it is a common observation that advocates of scientism nevertheless hold ideas and use language that presuppose or rest upon a transcendent order of being to which they are blind or which they evade. I suppose this essay is an attempt to turn the tables, but it leaves the question it claims to address more or less untouched.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 16, 2006 07:03 PM

Well, let me defend myself a little bit. I don't mean to say that I found that particular essay enlightening, but I find the idea of "meta-atheism" at least to be an interesting one. My own familiarity with that comes from reading a philosopher named Will Wilkinson, who you might actually enjoy.

In the end, though, I don't really feel that it's a necessary hypothesis. It implies that people can't simulatneously believe different things without self-deception. It also implies that peoples behavior can reveal some kind of underlying belief. In my own humble oppinion, our brains don't operate in a way that procludes simultaneous contradictory beliefs, and behavior is often just a bunch of evolutionary rules of thumb. The brain to me is a bunch of processes that evolved seperately and give the illusion of a single mind. But then, I often try to extrapolate to much based on my two books I've read on a subject (in this case neuroscience).

I did kind of like the question about why nobody prays for the guy with the wooden leg.

I really just posted that becuase I thought that you'd find that annoying in the same way that I find the Wood article annoying.

Posted by: josh at December 16, 2006 11:02 PM

Here is another excellent review of the same book -- and one evincing similar disappointment in it.

Posted by: Lexington Green at December 17, 2006 04:46 AM

Hey Lex, did you mean to put a link in there? I'd like to see it..

Josh: sorry you found James Wood so annoying. I didn't find Professor Rey's notes and essay annoying - just a bit pointless and rather puzzling considering his credentials. Imagine submitting such a paper as an undergraduate, beginning from the premise that your own views on a topic are so blindingly obvious that they merit no explication, and jumping straight on to speculation on the mechanism by which those who disagree with you come by their mental deficiency.

Like you, I think "meta-atheism" is a kind of interesting way of describing a pretty familiar psychological situation.

I do read Will Wilkinson's blog on occasion.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 17, 2006 06:10 PM

Ha! Speaking of Wilkinson, I just checked his blog and was led to this earlier post of his, which I got quite a kick out of:

"In a fit of Beckerite rational choice reasoning, I decided that theists ought to have higher rates of death by accident. If I believe that heaven is infinite bliss, then I should be quite eager to join my maker. Suicide is a disqualification for paradise, but dying in a car accident isn’t. So, one should expect that theists who believe in perpetual Miami would take more risks than those who do not so believe, and that thus, death-by-accident ought to be higher among believer than non-believers.

My guess is that there is no difference in rates of death-by-accident among believers and non-believers. If my guess is correct, then there’s another reason to believe that many people don’t really believe in God, even though they think they do. Or, at least, there’s a reason for rational choice economists to believe meta-atheism."

Most amusing. Theists, being irrational, ought to behave irrationally when driving; yet in fact, one suspects, they do not; ergo, they cannot be theists! I think he's just being cute, but still... In what universe is that kind of argument supposed to be persuasive?

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 17, 2006 06:55 PM

I agree with you that it's not particularly persuasive. Although, the idea is that it would be rational for believers in an afterlife to at least place different values on the saftey vs. speed trade-off, for instance. So you would expect, on the whole to find a larger number of accidents among people that believe that they are going to the good afterlife. I don't know, maybe you do.

I really doubt that self-preservation instict, which is clearly a product of strong natural selection, has much to do with ones view of the universe, nor can it be controlled by rational, conscious thought, save maybe some kind of pavlovian training to make you start salivating at the sight of oncoming tractor-traliers.

So, its only persuasive in the sense that you can say, "they say they're theists, but they don't act like it, sometimes." Or maybe you could say that the aspects of a persons brain that they are not as conscious of do not believe in god.

Posted by: josh at December 18, 2006 11:22 AM

I'm not fully versed in the context of the 'most people don't believe in god proof' but
it seems reasonable enough to me, phrased like this:

1. reasonable people don't believe in magic.
2. most people are reasonable
3. therefore, most people do not believe in magic.

... and it seems both intuitively and empirically correct in that
most christians (the reasonable ones) probably don't literally believe in God, at least the water-into-wine
and santa claus/easter bunny voodoo parts, anyway. If there were vampire/chupacabra aspects to materialism, they probably wouldn't buy that either.

Posted by: PropLogicNo1Fan at December 18, 2006 09:15 PM

Yes, PropLogicNo1Fan, but it only makes sense if you assume the validity of the major premise a priori. Maybe such things are indeed so obvious that they need not be argued, but it is quite a strange logic wherein a proposition is considered proven because it has been falsified.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 19, 2006 08:05 AM

Well, #2 seems to be the one where an assumption
is being made -- #1 seems to be a product of
"not believing in magic" being definitionally embedded in reasonable-ness.
Supernatural acts essentially defy reason -- if
a physical mechanism could be found behind them,
they would cease to be magic. So magic and reasonableness,
they are clearly not best pals, and Christianity without magic is like KISS without make-up -- less embarrassing, but not as cool. (Actually I don't know if less embarassing applies to cosmetics-free KISS)

I'm not sure how this weird proven because it's falsified aspect comes about --
this doesn't seem to have meta-goedel-incompleteness-weirdness. You can totally disprove premise 2 by showing that 3 is false.

Posted by: PropLogicNo1Fan at December 19, 2006 06:51 PM

I was referring to the reckless driving version. I make an assumption about how a class of people ought to behave; I adduce evidence that they do not actually behave in this way; and I conclude from this that the assumption is perfectly valid, but that the fault lies with those who have failed to bear it out. Then I take this conclusion and regard the whole shebang as evidence supporting the more general hypothesis it was constructed to test.

Belief in magic may or may not be unreasonable, but even if we regard it as self-evidently so, examples of magicians behaving reasonably wouldn't necessarily bear on the genuineness of their belief; nor would it necessarily be proof that the belief is false. There are evolutionary biologists who are Christians, Jews, etc., but even those who regard the practice of religion as self-evidently unreasonable don't typically say that this fact undermines the validity of natural selection.

Anyhow, it's perfectly possible to be a "reasonable person" despite holding beliefs that may be mistaken. And belief in the immortality of the soul doesn't necessarily mean you'd be eager to die an agonizing death in a car wreck. For every thing, there is a season...

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 19, 2006 07:21 PM

Analogies aside though, the real problem with invoking "perpetual Miami" strategies among believers in an afterlife is that the people in question don't tend to think like that at all when it comes to such issues (at least, I believe they do not.) As a satirical thought experiment meant to demonstrate the absurdity of this belief when taken to logical extremes, it succeeds as well as any of them. That sort of thing relies on caricature, and I'm fine with that. But I don't see how you get from there to drawing conclusions about the psychology of actual people, very few of whom, I'd wager, habitually apply "rational choice economics" reasoning when it comes to spiritual matters. Should they? I don't know, but they don't. So what are you gonna do? At any rate, I'm not convinced that belief in Heaven and a disinclination to die before one's time are anywhere near as contradictory as they're cracked up to be.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 19, 2006 11:57 PM

The 'Perpetual Miami' argument is certainly smarmy, and there are details glossed over to maximize
cheekiness, but I can't say that I find this strategy to be invalid.
If, for example, I found out my next door neighbor Rapturists who
believe the end time is say, end of this month, were
investing heavily in 20-year treasury bills, I'd say there was a good
basis to call shenanigans.
The rational Christian response to the idea of Heaven seems to be to
move it away from physically suspect descriptions (like say "endless Miami"), and into post-modern ethereal abstractions, outside of the
purview of reasonable-ness -- the same is happening to 7-day creation myths, Moses sea-splitting, and Jesus with literal X-men powers --
these are now explained away as parables and symbols -- as a modern Christian you are not asked to believe in Heaven, but rather the idea of Heaven, the same way Virginia is told "Yes, there is a Santa Claus (but he doesn't have a secret base in the north pole with super-powered pets like Superman does.)"

Posted by: MiamiNo1Fan at December 20, 2006 01:54 AM

The thing about "rational choice economics", though, is that you shouldn't have to choose to apply it. It is a hypothesis that attempts to predict human behavior. It actually does a pretty good jobin general in that people really do seem to respond to price changes. It really wouldn't surprise me one bit if religious people, at least those who believe in the perpetual Miami theory (and come on, Doc, you know they exist) actually do get in more car accidents. Few people would argue that devout Muslims aren't more likely to commit suicide bombings, and not many more would argue that those delicious virgins waiting on the other side don't have something to do with it.

An asside; doesn't one have to wonder why these women died virgins in the first place? It sounds like you might be getting 40 not very good catches.

Posted by: josh at December 20, 2006 02:21 PM

Yes, of course, Josh. I can't criticize the logic of saying "among those who believe in 'perpetual Miami' we would expect to find more car accidents." Maybe it's true, maybe it's not, but if it's not (as in Wilkinson's schmema) "they must be lying about their beliefs" is a pretty screwy thing to conclude. I agree that rational choice economics can be a great predictor of human behavior. But when it's not, it's really, really not. You know, when it comes to things like faith, hope, love. In the case of the last, I'd say it's definitely a case of an economy of "irrational choice" as a rule, even for a lot of otherwise very rational people. ("Rational" is a tricky word to use, though, because as the Miami Logic guy says these are matters that are meant to be "beyond rationality." The word "rational" does double duty as "sensible" in the sense of "not totally insane" - and occasions much disingenuousness in such arguments, I believe.)

People do believe all sorts of crazy stuff (I sure don't get the 72 Virgins thing) but crusading atheist polemics do tend to focus on the beliefs that are easiest to ridicule. I'm sure they do this because they enjoy it, and God love 'em (so to speak) but I can't see how they expect it to persuade anyone not already on their team. To make jokes about a man in a long white beard and gremlins and teapots and gumdrops falling from the sky and so forth and to imagine that your gag has dispensed with real philosophical problems, or even addressed them - now that's "irrational." It is legitimate to use such analogies to make this or that point; much less so to argue as though the analogies are actual descriptions of reality, which I believe happens, intentionally or mistakenly, quite often in such polemics.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 20, 2006 05:00 PM

I don't think it's a prerequisite for reasonableness is that you behave rationally all the time -- only that
outside (and sometimes even inside) of extenuating circumstances, you can evaluate a situation rationally, and believe what you will accordingly.
love: "that girl, she's totally wrong for you" -- I know, he said sheepishly.
hope: "those red sox, they'll never win a series" -- I know, he said sheepishly (later ecstatic with joy at having his unreasonable beliefs rewarded)
faith: "natural selection, not divine Adam & Eve shake n' bake is why you are here" -- I guess, he said with no great enthusiasm.
It's not that the appeal to one's rational judgment is
invalid or unpersuasive -- it's just that those are all really prickish things to say.
How can you say Santa doesn't exist w/o sounding like a prick? Now try Jesus.
BTW, you may have heard about poker guru David Sklansky (who is incidentally a prick) has challenged Christians to an SAT math-off on sort of the same principles --
that reasonable (Sklansky subs in "smart") individuals don't actually believe in Christianity (at least two of its tenets [one of which excludes Catholics and other denominations]). (He uses a polygraph to filter out those unsure of their beliefs.) I can't really fault his reasoning, but I would love to see him destroyed by some math whiz bible-thumper, just cause he's such a prick. here's the link:

Posted by: LinusVanPeltNo1Fan at December 20, 2006 11:39 PM

Wow, No1fan, that is something else. I'd never heard of Sklansky before now, but I read some of the posts at that link and he does seem like a complete jerk, so of course it would be immensely satisfying if he were to lose to a Ken Jennings type. It's a funny old world...

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 21, 2006 02:53 AM

this is one of those posts which skyrocket over my head.
that said,i think i can second mr linus there. Being reasonable is not a prerequisite for belief. Crazy me,I tend to think they can both coexist without a hint of denial or fooling ones self. That's a great definition of hope,which I tend to think is a form of faith.

You might be the most cynical reasonable person,but once you get enough prayers answered(if you bother to sincerely try)you can still believe sincerely in a higher power.

somethings can't be explained yada yada...

and on that note such is my reason for wishing you all a Merry Christmas!

Posted by: just me at December 22, 2006 01:27 AM

Thanks very much for the link. I found it very compelling, as a nonbeliever who probably could not stomach Dawkins or Harris.

Posted by: Jonas at December 27, 2006 08:33 AM