Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Atheist Forum Conversations 6

Here are excerpts from some of my conversations on a forum called Happy Atheist. It's really hard to edit a forum conversation to include all the relevant discussion without also including a lot of off topic banter. So there may be a line or two in reference to something not included. But I think I got the just of it here.



From Thread: Will there be more or less?… in the Philosophy section of HappyAthiest

-toink33-

"Believe or you will be in hell for all eternity."

Without this type of statement will there be more or less God followers?

In my case, it is some similar statement that was used to recruit me.
But when I was alone, I asked myself. why?
What have I done to deserve such punishment?
What if I was born in a Muslim nation?
How just is that?
If I am to believe in God, there has to be a better reason.
I never found one.

When I was a young boy the statement scares me, but not anymore

-Court-

toink33 wrote:

"Believe or you will be in hell for all eternity."

Without this type of statement will there be more or less God followers?



Probably less. Many people buy into the Pascal's wager sort of argument, from fear, and without it, Christian myths lose their edge.

toink33 wrote:


What if I was born in a Muslim nation?
How just is that?



This was literally my first theological dilemma, when I was about ten years old. We were learning about missionaries or some such in Sunday school and I asked the teacher what about our religion would make natives convert. I mean, what is so much better about our religion that they would abandon centuries of their own religious traditions? It simply doesn't seem fair, because if a missionary from some other religion came and preached to a typical American Christian, the Christian wouldn't even consider converting. So why should we expect the victims of Christian proselytizing to convert to Christianity? It simply doesn't make sense.
This question was reintroduced to me my senior year of high school when we read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (such a good book, btw, I highly recommend it), and I still haven't heard a good explanation from anyone. I've heard from make-shit-up-as-you-go Christians that these people won't go to hell, but they're clearly contradicting their own Bible when they say that, so I can't accept that explanation.

-Me (Scrybe)-

Court wrote:

I've heard from make-shit-up-as-you-go Christians that these people won't go to hell, but they're clearly contradicting their own Bible when they say that, so I can't accept that explanation.


I'm probably someone you would consider a "Make-shit-up-as-you-go Christian". But… isn't everybody making up shit as they go? No one can even prove they exist. None of us can prove our viewpoint is correct. There are far too many questionable leaps, assumptions, value judgments, etc.

Anyway, the thing I wanted to point out is your assumption that "our" Bible is the authority in every Christian's life. That is one view, held by many Christians. But another, equally valid view is that "the" Bible is a collection of writings by many who were inspired by God. People we respect, and find it reasonable to take their advice. So I'd encourage you to re-evaluate your definition of a Christian who does not view the Bible as THE WORD OF GOD, as being a Make-shit-up-as-you-go Christian.

Another point I could bring up is that the word translated in most Bibles as 'eternal' is better translated as age-lasting. You are all correct that an eternal torment for not being a Christian is not at all in line with a loving, merciful God.

-SteveS-


Hello Scrybe, I've got a question about what you've written here. You say that

Scrybe wrote:

another, equally valid view is that "the" Bible is a collection of writings by many who were inspired by God.


but you've pointed out,

Scrybe wrote:

None of us can prove our viewpoint is correct. There are far too many questionable leaps, assumptions, value judgments, etc.


So, how do we know that your above viewpoint is valid?

It seems to me we have to draw a "reasonable" line in the sand somewhere in order to have a meaningful discussion.

So many people have claimed to be "inspired by God". How do we know that anybody was, especially when most of us freely admit to believing that many who made the claim were lying? And if it's an internal judgment call, then we're right back to arguing competing viewpoints. So it seems to me that we have to use some sort of "external rubric" for judging these claims, and at the very least subject them to some sort of probability.

On another note, I too agree with the following:

Scrybe wrote:

You are all correct that an eternal torment for not being a Christian is not at all in line with a loving, merciful God.


It has always seemed to me that people don't want their god(s) to be entirely merciful. They want him/her/them/it to punish evil people. So it seems odd that they insist on describing their god(s) with such adjectives as "merciful" and "benevolent".

-Me (Scrybe)-

SteveS wrote:

Scrybe wrote:

None of us can prove our viewpoint is correct. There are far too many questionable leaps, assumptions, value judgments, etc.


So, how do we know that your above viewpoint is valid?



Well of course you can't. Fortunately it's not my job to convince you! Laughing

SteveS wrote:


It seems to me we have to draw a "reasonable" line in the sand somewhere in order to have a meaningful discussion.



This is true. But I find it helpful to remind myself and others of our intellectual and philosophical limitations. When we are both mindful that we are both guessing about everything it helps to keep us humble, humorous, and easy-going. Without of the pretense of "I'M RIGHT AND YOU'RE WRONG!" we can have a much more enjoyable discussion. Now we can progress to the stage of "I think I'm right because…"

SteveS wrote:


So many people have claimed to be "inspired by God". How do we know that anybody was, especially when most of us freely admit to believing that many who made the claim were lying?



With the framework laid sufficiently, I can say with 100% certainty that we don't know if anyone was "inspired by God". Laughing

I believe that there is revelation, but the reason why will require a little preface…
I'm sure this is a drastically underdeveloped idea, (one of the reasons I'm here is to better develop, or demolish some underdeveloped ideas.) but it seems to me that the primary difference between atheists and theists is how we approach ultimate questions. That these questions exist is a psychologically inescapable fact. How we explain their origin and answer them is the great dividing line. It seems to me –and I could be totally wrong about this- that atheists decide that the questions are invalid, or ultimately meaningless. Whereas the theist sees them as pertinent and requiring investigation. That is the whole business of religion, right? So the root issue seems to be the discerning of an epistemological telos. In other words: Are these questions meaningful and worth investigating? Since this divergence of thought occurs so close to the root of the way a person interprets reality it is very challenging to hold an organized discussion together with people who see this differently. That is why I think debates about how valid "the" Bible is, or whether I.D. should be taught in schools are pointless wastes of time. They are putting the horse a couple miles before the cart.

So with that long-winded preamble, I'll attempt answer your straightforward and very legitimate question. How do we know anyone was "inspired by God"? I'll use the preceding arguments to justify changing the question – if you don't mind – to "Why do you think anyone has been inspired by God?" The answer is that I have made a judgment call concerning the ultimate questions, and consider them legitimate, meaningful and worthy of inquiry. The immediate problem you run into at that point is the epistemological dilemma that you can not trust anything or anyone, including yourself, to be completely accurate about anything. I realize I've gone a few steps past our divergent paths, but you'll need to follow me for a bit if you want to understand my answer.

So far I've gone from step 1: declare the ultimate questions worthy of investigation, to step 2: realize I can't use normal methods of information gathering to answer these questions. Now step 3 is, as far as I know, the only option available: revelation. Being finite beings with fallible senses, the only way we could possibly find answers to these questions is to have them fed to us by an infinite, infallible being or beings. That is the only kind of information source that could actually know the answers. (unless you disagree with step 2. … But I'm assuming you disagree with step 1, so I guess it doesn't matter. Smile)

The next part of the question is: Why believe any particular revelation over any other one? (enter F.S.M.) Well, to put it simply, I work with what I have. I have reasoning skills. I have access to an amazing array of historical, philosophical, and religious literature. I have five senses (seven if you count heat sensitivity and motion/balance) that, with a relative amount of certainty, I can claim to be working well. I live in a culture that is diverse and relatively sophisticated. These are all tools that help me investigate the most likely source of revelation.

SteveS wrote:


And if it's an internal judgment call, then we're right back to arguing competing viewpoints.



Well that is just inescapable!

SteveS wrote:

So it seems to me that we have to use some sort of "external rubric" for judging these claims, and at the very least subject them to some sort of probability.



Yes, I agree. With the understanding that the "external rubric" is as fallible as our viewpoints are limited by time, space, and intellectual frailties. After all, any rubric we have is a construct based on our interpretations of reality, and every person has a different lens through which they see. That being said, I assume we are on the same page when it comes to certain fundamentals of logic such as the law of non-contradiction. But I think our differences will be axiomatic rather than epistemological.

SteveS wrote:


It has always seemed to me that people don't want their god(s) to be entirely merciful. They want him/her/them/it to punish evil people.



Yeah… Sadly, that seems to be the human condition. If there is an all-powerful being it is natural to project your interpretation of justice on it. I think that is why as our society discards it's gods we find new things to project our revenge fantasies onto: movies, games and government institutions. We recognize the inherent injustice in the world and would like to think everyone gets their just deserts. (Usually seeing themselves as meriting only glory! LaughingP )

I know atheists see this psychological need as a reason to believe the whole story is simply man-made. But I would argue that need fulfillment is not a consistent explanation for a host of things. We don't have food because we need it. We need food and there happens to be food. We need air and there happens to be air. Food and air do not exist as a projection of our desires.

SteveS wrote:

So it seems odd that they insist on describing their god(s) with such adjectives as "merciful" and "benevolent".



Indeed. I prefer consistency.

-SteveS-

Thanks, Scrybe, for your thoughtful reply. I'm been reading over it and pondering it for a while. I'd like to add/answer a few things, and explore some of this a little further (it's a good conversation, IMHO).

I actually think we may disagree on epistemological grounds. I'm just not wired the right way to be a "hard core" philosopher that distrusts everything to such a large extent. Usually, this is because I have a problem with things that are "possible" but that don't give me any good reason for consideration. Argh, I'm having trouble explaining this. Actually, here's an example, take this statement

Scrybe wrote:

No one can even prove they exist.


I may be misinterpreting this, but I think that if you asked me to prove that you exist, I believe that I could reasonably do so. I could have many people see you visually, and hear you talk. I could put a scale under you and measure your weight. I could shine a light in your direction, and note that a shadow is produced behind you. I could bounce sonar waves off of you from multiple different angles and notice that they all return from the same location. I could attempt to pass my hand through your person and feel that it stops. Perhaps I could smell you. I could aim a FLIR camera at you and note that it registers heat at your (alleged) location. I'm sure you get the idea, but I could do all sorts of things like this, and I'd be left with a convergence of independent data that all suggest there is a person standing where you are. I would certainly accept this as very reasonable proof that you exist. Now, maybe we're all plugged into the matrix and you're one of the "agents", and therefore don't really exist like I think you do, as a flesh and blood organism standing somewhere. Possible? Of course. But what reason would I have for this suspicion? Just because I thought it up?

I understand your statement about our limitations --- it's just that after a certain level I have trouble finding meaning in them. What test could I perform that would either prove or disprove, or even suggest a probability, that we are or are not in the matrix? It seems to me none. So why should I worry about it?

Anyway, I'm not going to re-quote your middle paragraphs (from your preface down to steps 1, 2, and 3), but please consider this next piece of my message in reference to these (which I enjoyed reading, BTW).

I might be dealing with another misunderstanding (on my part). If what you presume I find meaningless is the extent to which we can trust our knowledge, then I guess you're correct, and I find too much distrust to be meaningless. If, on the other hand, what you mean by "ultimate questions being worthy of investigation" is more a purpose of existence thing, then I would disagree (although I'm not sure all atheists would, I guess I really don't know). What I'm getting at here is that if there is a purpose to our existence, I would very much like to know, and would like to know what it is. It's just that I view our current human understanding to be completely unable to even began to answer this question.

So, it's very possible, depending on my understanding of this, that I agree completely with your step 1. Step 2 I'm not so sure about. I guess I don't see why we would need to use alternate techniques to discern these questions? I mean, if some supernatural deities exist, they have to interact with our physical existence to affect it, right? So why couldn't our scientific examination of our existence be able to "find" them? In one of my Carl Sagan books (I think his Gifford lectures), he says basically that as little as we know about the universe, he believes we know even less about god. I guess this fits my thinking fairly well. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I don't think we have any knowledge of any gods. Personally, I very strongly suspect everything that we have that claims to be "divinely inspired" is really just fiction written by people. Eh, I guess I sort of disagreed with both steps 2 and 3 in this blurb Wink

Oh, one quick thing,

Scrybe wrote:

I'll use the preceding arguments to justify changing the question – if you don't mind – to "Why do you think anyone has been inspired by God?"


No objection whatsoever. This is, of course, what I'm really asking.

About the "external rubric" thing, you point out that everyone has a different lens through which they interpret reality. I guess that's what I was hoping to avoid, using the common parts of our different lenses, if you will. Measure things using elements that we can all agree are reasonably valid. For example, we would never suggest someone stand on a train track and watch an approaching locomotive without fear, since it's possible that our eyes are deceiving us, so the train might not be real. On the other hand, if you and I are in the same room, and I claim to have seen a ghost that you did not see, but I never see it again and neither does anyone else, then we might suspect that in this case my eyes did, perhaps, deceive me. Or, ghosts are real and it's just unlucky, there's no way a single eyewitness to a single transient event can possibly convince anyone, because in this case there's just too much room for error to be reasonably compelling.

Please pardon my example laced blue-collar philosophy, I'm an engineer by living, and I can actually feel my lack of eloquence attempting to discuss philosophical topics.

Phew, just two more things I wanted to hit,

Scrybe wrote:

We recognize the inherent injustice in the world and would like to think everyone gets their just deserts. (Usually seeing themselves as meriting only glory! :P )


This reminds me of those wonderful statistics where like, what, 80% of people think they are "above average" drivers. Haha.

Scrybe wrote:

But I would argue that need fulfillment is not a consistent explanation for a host of things. We don't have food because we need it. We need food and there happens to be food. We need air and there happens to be air. Food and air do not exist as a projection of our desires.


I, of course, would argue that we need food and air as a result of our physical nature, which we arrived at through evolution. The fact that we can breath the air that exists on our planet, and eat the other stuff on our planet as food, is a direct consequence of our evolutionary process modifying us for survival in accordance with our environment. Desire is a consequence.

I think I would agree with most atheists that need fulfillment can affect what people do and do not accept as evidence for things, and that the high desirability of surviving your own death and living eternally in unmatched bliss tends to make people less than objective when accepting religious stories as fact. Primarily, I would say we feel that way because the actual evidence for truth in these tails (edited, oops, I meant "tales", haha) is very weak, and yet such a large number of people accept them.

-Me (Scrybe)-

Thank you so much for the conversation! I appreciate your candor and listening skills. I hope that I am repaying you with the same.

SteveS wrote:


I actually think we may disagree on epistemological grounds. I'm just not wired the right way to be a "hard core" philosopher that distrusts everything to such a large extent.



I might be sounding a bit more hifalutin than I actually am. I only emphasize these limitations when speaking of philosophical or metaphysical issues. I agree with you that there is a threshold at which the probability makes an idea so minuscule that it's not worth consideration. When looking into getting my breaks fixed I don't waste time pondering whether there are breaks, or physical reality, or whether or not I deserve to use breaks. I just get the darned things fixed.
But when speaking of ultimate issues, I find it important to keep a proper perspective, which requires acknowledging that our very best ideas are still only guesses. Something that I find lacking in most philosophy and theology.

SteveS wrote:

Scrybe wrote:

No one can even prove they exist.


I may be misinterpreting this, but I think that if you asked me to prove that you exist, I believe that I could reasonably do so.



Actually, I meant that YOU can not prove that YOU exist, and I can not prove that I exist. But it works that way as well. And you are correct: you could reasonably prove that I exist. And that is what I mean about our agreement on epistemological grounds. I approve of your standards and you approve of mine. We have both implicitly agreed that we do indeed exist and our physical reality is perceived in a very similar way by both of us. We implicitly agree that there is a law of non-contradiction. These are necessary prerequisites to a meaningful communication, and I gladly accept them. I only feel it necessary to keep it in the backs of our minds that those are, in fact, judgment calls we have made and we could be wrong about any of them. But utility demands that we dispense with them.

SteveS wrote:


I understand your statement about our limitations --- it's just that after a certain level I have trouble finding meaning in them.



I agree with your assessment. I only bring them up to keep us in context, not as a tool for argumentation.

SteveS wrote:



If, on the other hand, what you mean by "ultimate questions being worthy of investigation" is more a purpose of existence thing, then I would disagree.




When I refer to Ultimate Questions, I'm talking about the sort that don't fit in a scientific box. They are fundamentally philosophical. Why are we here? (Or… Is there a reason we exist, and if so, Who or what gives us that purpose?) How ought we treat each other? What happens after we die. (If anything.) Why is there injustice in the world? What is beauty and why do we respond to it? Etc.

Clearly, many of these questions are pertinent to atheists. But when it comes to anything regarding a telos, or purpose, you are instantly trespassing on religious ground. Something most atheists I've conversed with find very distasteful.

SteveS wrote:


What I'm getting at here is that if there is a purpose to our existence, I would very much like to know, and would like to know what it is. It's just that I view our current human understanding to be completely unable to even began to answer this question.



As do I. Hence, the only viable solution: revelation. It's quite possible that revelation does not exist. It's quite possible that if there is a purpose, then, as you say, we could not even begin to grasp it. To me, that is a hopeless view of life. I choose to hope.

If such hope is seen as childish or stupid, than it's easy to see how a different interpretation of reality would occur.

SteveS wrote:


...if some supernatural deities exist, they have to interact with our physical existence to affect it, right? So why couldn't our scientific examination of our existence be able to "find" them?



You are working under a couple of assumptions there. First, that a deity would want to be found and proven scientifically. Second, that if they did want that, they would want it to occur at this time in history or earlier. Third, that we have not "found" them already and simply misinterpreted the data. (Remember that scientific data collection, interpretation, and integration are all driven by philosophical principals, opening them to a vast array of corrupting influences.) And forth, that historical accounts do not count as a "scientific examination".

SteveS wrote:


In one of my Carl Sagan books (I think his Gifford lectures), he says basically that as little as we know about the universe, he believes we know even less about god.



See what I mean about philosophical outlooks influencing science? He could be right. He could just as easily be wrong. I personally believe, philosophically, there is no way a finite being could scratch the surface of understanding and infinite being. So in that sense, I agree with Sagan. But that leads me to one of my biggest puzzlements about atheism. I completely agree with agnostics: We can not KNOW what religion – if any – is correct. What I can't fathom is how one can assert what Sagan does: that we know SO little about the universe, and yet go on to say that they are SURE that there is no God. How can you possibly be that sure? It sounds as ridiculous to me as the TV preacher who says he's SURE that JEE-ZUS is going to rapture him leaving everyone else in hell. How can you claim to KNOW for certain? Especially with the whole field of quantum physics that keeps showing us more scientifically minded folk how little we really understand the reality we inhabit.

SteveS wrote:


I guess this fits my thinking fairly well. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I don't think we have any knowledge of any gods. Personally, I very strongly suspect everything that we have that claims to be "divinely inspired" is really just fiction written by people.



Most of it certainly seems that way to me as well. One of the things that makes Christianity stand out to me (besides an acknowledged bias towards it as one raised in the belief system.) as a truth-claim is how it gets a lot of the typical religion process backwards.

SteveS wrote:


About the "external rubric" thing, you point out that everyone has a different lens through which they interpret reality. I guess that's what I was hoping to avoid, using the common parts of our different lenses, if you will.



Yes, we have many parts that overlap. But many that don't. Though, that doesn't have to be a problem if we are civil and generous with each other.

SteveS wrote:


Measure things using elements that we can all agree are reasonably valid.



Agreed. Though it can be difficult to describe my position without reference to some elements that we do not agree on, such as revelation, faith, and purpose.

SteveS wrote:


there's no way a single eyewitness to a single transient event can possibly convince anyone, because in this case there's just too much room for error to be reasonably compelling.



While it may be true that you could not convince certain people of these types of things, there are clearly some people who will believe anything. And most people fall somewhere in between. For example, you may convince someone who has had a similar experience. In the case of religious claims there is that mysterious element of revelation. Ideally, one does not adhere to a particular faith because the arguments for it were strong enough. (Though I think that should be a part of it.) But one adheres to a particular faith because one feels that they have been communicated with through its forms and rituals.

In that case, a single person could be a witness to a single transient event, and convince another person, not because they proved it, but because the other person had some kind of revelation confirming the report.

SteveS wrote:


Please pardon my example laced blue-collar philosophy, I'm an engineer by living, and I can actually feel my lack of eloquence attempting to discuss philosophical topics.



Most philosophy I've read could use a lot more "example laced blue-collar" influence! I'm certainly no genius. I appreciate every example I can get. I'm not educated in this field at all, so I'm sure I'm missing all sorts of nuance and other important aspects. But hey, I work with what I got!

SteveS wrote:


I, of course, would argue that we need food and air as a result of our physical nature, which we arrived at through evolution. The fact that we can breath the air that exists on our planet, and eat the other stuff on our planet as food, is a direct consequence of our evolutionary process modifying us for survival in accordance with our environment. Desire is a consequence.



Ok, you got me there. I agree that we desire those things because our bodies need them. Whether through design or evolution the concept doesn't change.

SteveS wrote:


the high desirability of surviving your own death and living eternally in unmatched bliss tends to make people less than objective when accepting religious stories as fact.



Agreed.

SteveS wrote:


Primarily, I would say we feel that way because the actual evidence for truth in these tales is very weak, and yet such a large number of people accept them.



Yes, that is one way to interpret the data. Or the universality of the idea could be attributed to an inborn knowledge that tells us this. And there is only one test to determine which option it is.

-SteveS-

Thanks Scrybe for taking the time to go through this. I enjoyed the response, and I think we're getting very close to an end disagreement. In fact, let me take a stab at it right here,

Scrybe wrote:

In the case of religious claims there is that mysterious element of revelation. Ideally, one does not adhere to a particular faith because the arguments for it were strong enough. (Though I think that should be a part of it.) But one adheres to a particular faith because one feels that they have been communicated with through its forms and rituals.

In that case, a single person could be a witness to a single transient event, and convince another person, not because they proved it, but because the other person had some kind of revelation confirming the report.


This is my problem with revelation. There is no way that I can be sure that I have received any revelation, and we can't agree on revelation unless we've both received it. In short, I just can't find a reasonable way for me to accept that revelation is real. It would appear that we are going to be stuck on this one, as a true disagreement.

The only other thing I wanted to add was a further clarification on this paragraph,

Scrybe wrote:

But that leads me to one of my biggest puzzlements about atheism. I completely agree with agnostics: We can not KNOW what religion – if any – is correct. What I can't fathom is how one can assert what Sagan does: that we know SO little about the universe, and yet go on to say that they are SURE that there is no God. How can you possibly be that sure?


I think most atheists would say we are not sure that the existence of gods is impossible. What we would say is that we currently have insufficient reasonable cause to believe that there are any gods. Basically, examining the evidence that is put forward for the existence of a god, we find that it does not stand up to critical analysis. So, I don't go out on a limb and say "there could never be any gods in the universe!", more what I say is "without any compelling reason to believe gods are real, why would I do so?". I think that's all Carl Sagan is saying, is that the evidence that has been put forth for god(s) so far is weak, so what do we really know about god(s)? And without any knowledge, why have a belief? It's possible that we are going to disagree on the evidence for god, possibly for the reason above. If you believe that revelation is legitimate, then you're going to believe that revelation provides a legitimate reason for holding a god belief. I, on the other hand, have issues with revelation Wink

So, to apply this in some context,

Scrybe wrote:

there is no way a finite being could scratch the surface of understanding and infinite being


I am a finite being, as near as I can tell. If I can't even scratch the surface of understanding an infinite being, than how can I possibly claim to understand the existence of an infinite being? If I can't understand it's existence, then why would I feel that it does, in fact, exist at all? I'm not saying this in an "I'm right your wrong" sort of way, but I'm trying to convey why I hold my opinion. Hopefully this makes some amount of sense.

-Scrybe (Me)-

SteveS wrote:

Scrybe wrote:

there is no way a finite being could scratch the surface of understanding and infinite being



I am a finite being, as near as I can tell. If I can't even scratch the surface of understanding an infinite being, than how can I possibly claim to understand the existence of an infinite being?



I don't think anyone can claim to understand God. I think it is reasonable to claim that you have been communicated to by God. Naturally, and communion requires a condensation on His part. And most, if not all, of our understanding of Him is metaphorical in nature.

SteveS wrote:


If I can't understand it's existence, then why would I feel that it does, in fact, exist at all? I'm not saying this in an "I'm right your wrong" sort of way, but I'm trying to convey why I hold my opinion. Hopefully this makes some amount of sense.



Yes, It makes perfect sense. As far as I can tell, communion with God requires two elements. First, He must choose to communicate to you. This decision was made before you were created, so you don't have any say in the matter. Second, you must desire to orient your worldview in such a way as to interpret reality as a broader, deeper system than the mere mechanics of natural law. Obviously if I don't want to believe in fish, and I choose to never go near water, it will be easier to disbelieve the existence of fish. This analogy is clearly flawed since "seeing" God is a different sort of activity than seeing a physical entity, but I think you get my point.


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